THE SHADOW IN A LIFE

“ Life is a glorious thing,” said the girl.

Sylvester Lanyon looked at her half in amusement, half in wistfulness.
There was no doubt whatever of her sincerity. Therein lay the pathetic.
To reply that the shadow of death and suffering clouded life’s glory was
too obvious a rejoinder. So he smiled and said,–

“Well?”

“We ought to conquer it, make it our own, and live it to the full.”

“If it is to be conquered by us weak wretches, it can’t be such a
glorious thing,” he remarked.

“But who said we were weak wretches?” she retorted. “You’re not one,
and I’m not one!” She laughed, flushing a little. “No, I’m not,” she
repeated.

If Sylvester Lanyon had been endowed with the power of graceful words,
here was a chance for a pretty compliment. It was challenged by the
girl’s self-conscious glance and by the splendid vitality of her youth;
for Ella Defries usually carried the air of a conqueror with a certain
sweet insolence. Some such idea passed vaguely through his mind, but,
unable to express it, he said, shifting his ground lamely,–

“You see I’m getting elderly.”

“Nonsense!” she said. “You’re only five and thirty. My own age to a
day.”

“I don’t quite follow,” said he.

“A woman is always ten years older than a man. You ought to know that.”

“And that proves?”

“That you ought to go into the world and win fame and mix with the
brilliant men and women in London who can appreciate you.”

“I don’t want to mix with more brilliant men and women than those who
are under this _roof of Woodlands_,” said Sylvester.

Ella flushed again, but this time she drooped her eyes and bent her head
over her sewing for some time abandoned. A smile played round her lips.

“Your Aunt Agatha, for instance.”

“No, dear soul. The other two.”

He rose and filled his pipe from a tobacco jar on the mantel-piece.
The room, furnished with the solid mahogany and leather of a bygone
generation, was his father’s particular den, where, however, of all
rooms in the house, he was least likely to find the privacy for which it
was set apart. Ella, during her periodical visits to Ayresford, calmly
monopolised it; Sylvester strolled in naturally from his widowed house
over the way; Miss Agatha Lanyon, although she pretended to cough at
the smoke, would leave her knitting promiscuously about on chairs
and tables, while the little grandchild Dorothy spilled the ink with
impunity over the Turkey carpet.

There was a silence while Sylvester lit his pipe and settled down again
in the leathern armchair by the fire.

“I want no better company than the dear old man’s, and yours,” said he.

“My conversation is not fit for an intellectual man,” said Ella, with a
humility that contrasted with her conquering attitude of a few moments
before.

“You are a very clever girl,” said Sylvester.

She shook her head with a little air of scorn and threw her sewing on
the table.

“Oh, no. It pleases my vanity to think so. But what do I know in
comparison with you? What can I do? You go to a bedside and hold the
keys of life and death in your hand. To you, all the hidden forces and
mysteries of nature are every-day commonplaces. Professor Steinthal of
Vienna, whom I met the other day at Lady Milmo’s, told me that, if you
chose, you could become the greatest bacteriologist in Europe.”

“Did he say that?” asked Sylvester, eagerly.

“Yes, and that is why you ought to go away and live in London and fulfil
your life gloriously.”

A look of amusement came into his grave eyes, and lit for a moment the
sombreness of a face prematurely careworn.

“I _am_ going to London,” he said. “I sold the practice this morning.”

Ella rose from her chair impetuously. “Why didn’t you tell me at once,
instead of letting me say all these silly things? It is just like a
man.”

“You took my apathy so much for granted,” he said, laughing.

“I suppose I am a weak wretch, after all,” said Ella.

Sylvester put down his pipe and stood by her side.

“It is really all your doing, Ella. This is not the first time you have
pointed out my way to me. And it won’t be the last, will it?”

There was a note of pathetic appeal in his tone that made her heart beat
a little faster. Of all the phases of his manhood that her instinctive
feminine alertness had caused him to present to her, this one moved her
the most strongly. An unwonted shy tenderness came into her eyes.

“It is for you to settle that,” she said.

He looked at her for a moment as if about to speak, but some inward
conflict seemed to check the words. A man’s memories and dead loves rise
up sometimes and stare at him in sad reproach.

“I wish I had the gift of speech,” he said.

“What do you want to say?” she asked gently.

He smiled whimsically. “If I could tell you that, I should have the
gift.”

“You’ll let me see something of you in London, won’t you?”

“Why, of course! Whom else should I want to see? Frodsham’s practice is
a large one–I am buying a share, you know. A specialist generally has
his hands full. I shall have neither the time nor the desire to go
about butterflying. Besides, it is only a few people that like me. I’m
generally looked upon as a ‘stick.’”

His head had been turned aside; and while there had been no danger of
his glance, Ella had scanned his face as a girl does that of a
man who is already something more to her than friend or brother. It
was thin and intellectual, somewhat careworn, with deep vertical lines
between the brows. The hair was black and wavy, thinning a little over
the temples; the features well cut and sensitive; the eyes, deeply
sunken, possessing keenness, but little brilliance; a moustache,
standing well away at each end from the cheeks, accentuated their sharp
contours. Yet in spite of the intellectual delicacy of the face, the
tanned, rough skin, corresponding with the well-knit wiriness of his
frame, gave assurance of strong physical health.

The last epithet in his remarks, so at variance with the character she
was idealising from her scrutiny, moved her ready indignation.

“I should like to have, a quarter of an hour with the fool that said
so!” she exclaimed.

“You are loyal to your friends,” said Sylvester.

They discussed the point. Ella let loose the fine scorn of five and
twenty for the shallow society that could not appreciate a man of his
calibre. Her championship was sweet for him to hear. For some time
past he had been gradually growing conscious of the force that this
sympathetic intelligence and this warm nature were bringing into his
life. Unwittingly he had revealed the fact to Ella. As woman, and
especially the fresh girl, is responsive, and gives bit by bit of
herself, as it is craved, Ella, when she looked into her heart, found
much that had been yielded. The situation therefore was sweet and
delicate.

“My going will be a blow to my father,” he said after a while. “I hardly
like to tell him.”

“He wouldn’t stand in your way,” said Ella. “He’s not like that. We have
talked it over scores of times. He is as anxious as I am for you to take
your proper place in the world.”

“Dear old fellow,” said Sylvester, his face brightening. “He would cut
off both his feet for me, gladly. But he would feel the pain all the
same.”

“Yes, who wouldn’t love him?” said Ella.

“I wish I had a father.”

“We’ll go shares in him,” said Sylvester.

“His heart is big enough.”

And again the girl coloured and felt very happy, as if the puzzle of her
life were being explained to her.

“And Dorothy?”

“That’s where the difficulty comes in. Would London be good for her?”

“Why not leave her here?”

Ella looked at him sharply and saw, as she had expected, the alarm on
his face.

“You don’t know what she is to me,” he said.

“It would cheer Uncle Matthew when you ‘re gone. He is devoted to her.”

He was silent awhile. The thought of parting from the child, the living
memory of his dead wife; was a pang whose intensity he could not express
even to Ella. She was seven. For four years he had brought her up alone
in his own house, under the care of an old family servant who had taught
her to read, and say her prayers, and use her knife and fork in a way
befitting her station. The rest of her tiny education Sylvester himself
had seen to. She was his constant companion, abroad and at home.

He could talk to her as it was in his power to–talk to no one else,
almost persuading himself that her innocent clear eyes saw into the
depths of his heart. To leave her behind was a prospect filled with
unspeakable dismay.

“It’s a weary world,” he said, by way of generalisation.

“It isn’t!” cried Ella. “It’s a glorious world, full of love and heroism
and beauty. I won’t have my dear world abused! It is sweet to be alive
in it, to use all one’s faculties, to go about among men and women, to
hear the rain, to smell the hay–”

“And get hay fever and then come to me–the misanthrope–to cure you.
Paganism generally ends that way.”

“I should call your being able to cure me a very beautiful thing too,”
she exclaimed conclusively. “Isn’t your knowledge of healing a glorious
thing?”

“Oh, don’t tell me about the child gathering pebbles by the sea-shore.”
It was modesty on Newton’s part, but mock modesty on that of the people
who quote him now. “Children can pick up a tremendous lot of pebbles in
two hundred years!”

The door opened and Matthew Lanyon stood on the threshold, with an
amused smile on his grave face. For the girl had been speaking with
animation, and the fresh colour in her cheeks and the happiness in her
eyes made her goodly to look upon.

“Syl annihilated as usual?” he asked, coming forward.

“I hope so. He won’t be converted, Uncle Matthew. What do you think of
the world? Isn’t it a beautiful world?”

“Since it holds you, my dear, how could it be otherwise?”

She laughed and looked at Sylvester with some coquetry. Here was a
lesson in compliment by which he might profit. Sylvester thrust forward
an armchair for his father.

“Tired?”

“Of course not. What has a healthy man got to do with being tired? No,
my dear Ella, please don’t. You know I disapprove of cushions. They are
for the young and delicate.”

“Where shall we haye tea?” asked Ella. “Here, or in the drawing-room?
Aunt Agatha is in her district.”

“Oh, here, then, by all means. We can have it comfortably.”

Ella rang the bell and cleared an occasional table of a litter of pipes,
cigar-boxes, and papers. Matthew Lanyon lay back in his chair with the
air of a man who had earned his home comforts, and stretched out his
feet to the fire. Then he put his invariable question,–

“How’s Dorothy?”

Sylvester replied, gave the usual bulletin as to her health, recounted
the small incidents in the child’s day. She had driven with him on his
rounds that morning; during one of the waits had urgently requested
Peck, the coachman, to die forthwith–straight and stiff–so that she
might have the pleasure of seeing how her father brought him to life
again. Her mind had been much exercised by a picture in the Family Bible
of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and had identified her parent with
the chief actor in the scene.

Tea arrived during the narration. Matthew listened with amused interest,
for his son and his son’s child were the dearest things earth held for
him. His wife had died many years ago, when Sylvester was just emerging
from boyhood and the great glory had gone out of his heaven. But his
love for Sylvester had deepened, and of late years the sad parallelism
of their widowed lives had drawn the two men very near together. In many
ways they were singularly alike, the mere facial resemblance
stamping them at the first glance as father and son; both were grave,
intellectual-looking men, of the same clean, wiry make, with an air
of reserve and good breeding that commanded respect. But the older man
possessed that peculiar grace of manner, called nowadays of the old
school, which the brusquer habits of more modern times have forbidden to
flourish. Both faces bore the marks of suffering; but the passage of the
years had chastened that of the father, who looked more frankly at the
world than the son and out of kindlier grey eyes. He was a little over
sixty, his hair whitening fast; still he held himself erect, and scoffed
satirically at old age.

“The prime of life, my dear sir,” he would say, “the heyday of
existence! Up to sixty a man gathers his experience and tears his
fingers dreadfully. After sixty he can sit down quietly and enjoy it and
let his fingers heal.”

There was a pause in the talk, and the three sat, as they often did,
content to be together, looking into the fire and thinking their own
thoughts. Perhaps the girl’s were the happiest. The room had darkened,
and the firelight played on their faces gathered round the hearth.
Suddenly Sylvester spoke.

“I was talking to Ella about my plans, father, before you came in.”

“A very sensible person to talk to,” said Matthew.

“I’ve burned my ships. I have sold the practice and am going to join
Frodsham in London.”

“I’m very glad indeed to hear it,” said the old man; “you should have
done it years ago.”

His voice was suave and even, but the keen eye of the physician detected
a trembling of the fingers resting on the broad leathern arm of the
chair.

“I don’t at all like to leave you,” said Sylvester, feeling guilty.
Matthew waved away the reluctance.

“Nonsense, my boy. I’m not a cripple that requires to be taken care of.
Grown up men can’t be for ever hanging on to–I was going to say, to
each other’s apron strings. London is your place. Perhaps after a time,
when I am dead and gone,–a man must die some day, you know,–you’ll
like to come back to the old house and devote yourself entirely to
research and be independent of two guinea fees and that kind of thing.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it, Ella?”

The girl’s heart throbbed at the share implied, but a tenderer feeling
quieted it at once.

“It would be impossible without you, Uncle Matthew,” she said.

He rose with a laugh. “None of us are indispensable, not even the most
futile. I’m going to dress. You’ll dine here, of course, Syl? And, Ella,
tell them to get up some of the ‘84’ Pommery to drink good luck to Syl.”

He walked out of the room with the brisk air of a man thoroughly pleased
with life; but outside, in the passage, his face grew sad, and he
mounted the stairs to his dressing-room very slowly, holding on to the
balusters.

The younger folks remained for a while longer in the library. Sylvester
bent forward and broke a great lump of coal with the poker.

“I’m not fit to black his boots, you know, My companionship means much
more to him than Dorothy’s does to me, and he gives it up without a
murmur.”

“And that settles the Dorothy question?” asked Ella, in the direct
manner that sometimes embarrassed him.

“Of course it settles it,” he cried warmly. “What a selfish beast you
must have thought me!”

“If you didn’t love others so warmly, I shouldn’t–”

She came to a dead stop because his eyes were full upon her.

“Well?”

“I shouldn’t care for you so much.”

“Do you care very much for me?” he asked rather wistfully, and came to
where she was standing with one foot on the fender.

“You know I would do anything in the world you asked,” she answered in a
low voice.

“Some day I may claim your promise.”

“You know I always keep my promises,” she said.

The dressing bell clanged loudly through the house. Sylvester hurriedly
departed so as to dress in time for dinner. But Ella lingered by the
fire, the girl in her wondering whether she had said too much, and
the woman in her filled with a delicious pity for the strong-brained,
deep-natured man who seemed dumbly to be holding out his hands for her
love. She gave it generously and gratefully. Compared with him, all
other men seemed of small account, and in her aunt Lady Milmo’s house,
where most of her life was spent, she had seen all the sorts and
conditions of males that a well-to-do collector of minor celebrities can
gather around her in London. But to her direct mind the truest men of
her acquaintance were Matthew Lanyon, her former guardian, whose title
of uncle was purely one of courtesy, and Sylvester, with whom the old
quasi-cousinly relations were being transmuted into sweeter ties.

Father and son sat together in the dining-room, smoking their
after-dinner cigars, and speaking very little, as their custom was when
together. With its snow-white table-cloth set off by the glass and cut
flowers and the rich purple of the old port in the decanter; with its
picture-hung walls, its massive mahogany sideboard gleaming with silver,
amid which displayed itself opulently a huge salver presented to Matthew
Lanyon, Esquire, by his fellow-townsmen on the completion of his third
year of mayoralty; with its great red-shaded lamp suspended over the
table, and its dark marble fireplace,–the room had an air of warmth and
generous comfort that spoke of a long continuance of worldly ease. In
his younger days Matthew Lanyon had roved about the world, picking up
much knowledge of men in new lands where life was rude, and a little
money wherewith to start a career when he returned to civilisation. His
return was speedier than either himself or his friends had anticipated.
The latter beheld him married to a sweet flower-like girl whom he had
met not long before in Australia; but more than this they did not learn.
He was not given to offering information as to his doings, and there
was that suggestion of haughtiness behind his frank young smile which
forbade questioning. He was there; his wife was there. The friends must
accept both on their merits. He had served his articles as a solicitor
before leaving England. He turned to his profession for maintenance and
bought a share in a cousin’s practice in Ayresford. He was to have made
his fortune, gone away again with his young wife into the wide world,
and seen all the wonders that it held. But as in the case of many other
young dreams, it seemed otherwise to the gods. Wealth had come quickly,
and he had added gradually to his little home until it had become a
great house, and his cousin had died, and his wife had died, and in
Ayresford he had lived all the time, married and widowed, and now the
longing for change had gone, and in Ayresford he hoped that he himself
would die, in the home endeared to him by so many memories, in the bed
consecrated by the pale sweet shadow of her who even now seemed to lie
by his side.

Wealth had come, yet much of it had gone; how, no man knew but himself
and one other; he had toiled hard to win it, was toiling hard at sixty
to win it back. And how strenuously he toiled, again no man knew; least
of all his son.

The desultory talk had drooped. Suddenly Matthew Lanyon plunged his hand
in the breast pocket of his dress-coat and drew out an old-fashioned
miniature, which, after regarding it for a few moments, he handed to
Sylvester.

“I’ve been rummaging about to-day and found this. Perhaps you’d like to
have it.”

“My mother!” said Sylvester.

It was a portrait, on ivory, of a singularly sweet face, possessing the
tender, unearthly purity of one of Lorenzo di Credi’s Madonnas,
executed when the original was very young, a few months, in fact, before
Sylvester was born.

“A very good likeness,” said Matthew.

“I shall be glad to keep it,” replied the son, putting it into his
pocket.

“I thought you would,” assented the elder.

“It will be a companion to my miniature of Constance,” said Sylvester.

And then silence came again; for memories crowded into the minds of each
that they knew not how to speak of. Yet each knew that the other was
thinking of his dead wife and wished that he could burst the strange
bonds of reserve that held him and speak out that which was in his
heart.

“It’s a devil of a muddle, isn’t it?” said Matthew at last.

“What?”

“The cosmos. And the more one tries to establish order, the worse
confounded becomes the confusion. The high gods seem to have given it up
as a bad job.”

“That reminds me,” said Sylvester, with a laugh. “I found Billings to-day
having a glorious drunk on champagne. For a man earning twenty-five
shillings a week, with a large family to support and a wife half dying
of pneumonia, I thought it rather strong.”

Matthew rose from his chair, his brows bent and his eyes kindling with
sudden anger.

“The damned hound! What did you do with him?”

“I took him outside so as not to disturb his wife and then I kicked him
until he was sober,” replied Sylvester, grimly. “I wonder who could have
sent the champagne.”

“Some silly fool,” said Matthew, nursing his wrath.

“Yet nearer to heaven than most of us,” said Sylvester, knocking the ash
off his cigar.

“Rubbish!” said Matthew. “Besides, silly fools don’t go to heaven.
There’s no place for ’em.”

“I don’t think Billings will rob his wife again,” remarked Sylvester.

“Well, you can send him up to me in the morning.”

“I think he’d sooner have another kicking,” laughed Sylvester.

A picture rose before him of the reprobate cringing before his father,
wriggling at each sentence as at a whip lash, and going away with two
more bottles of wine that would burn his dirty hands like hot bricks.
He laughed, but Matthew thrust both hands in his pockets and stood with
feet apart on the hearth-rug.

“Did you ever hear of such a mean skunk?”

“You will never fathom the depth of human meanness, father, if you live
to be a hundred.”

“I thank you for the compliment, Syl,” replied the old man, drily, “but
I happen to think otherwise. May you never live to know it as I do.”

“Mr. Usher, sir,” said the servant, suddenly throwing open the door.

Matthew started, and glanced instinctively at his son. Sylvester, who
had been struck by an unusual note of emotion in his father’s voice,
was looking at him curiously. So their eyes met in a mutual sensitive
glance, and Matthew flushed slightly beneath his tanned and care-lined
skin.

“Confound Usher!” muttered Sylvester, irritably.

An elderly man of about Matthew’s age appeared, white-bearded,
gold-spectacled, wearing a tightly buttoned frock-coat. He was of heavy
build and had loose lips and dull watery eyes, the lids faintly rimmed
with blood-red. He came forward into the room with extended hand.

“My dear friend, how are you this evening?” he said with a curious
deliberation, as if he had duly sucked each word before he spat it
out. “And, Sylvester, my dear lad, how are you? I have been very unwell
to-day, and the weather has increased my sufferings. You notice that
there is a wheezing in my bronchial tubes. Yet I thought I must come to
see you this evening in spite of the weather. I said to Olivia, ‘It is a
duty, and I must fulfil it.’”

“Pray sit down, Usher,” said Matthew, politely. “Let me pass you the
port.”

“A little port wine would be very good for me. I cannot afford port
wine, Matthew, like you, or I should drink it habitually. I should think
this was very expensive.”

He smacked his loose lips and held the glass up to the light.

“It is a sound wine,” said Matthew.

“If you would not put too high a price on it,” said the other, in his
monotonous voice, “perhaps I might buy some from you. What would you
charge?”

“In the market it would fetch about a hundred and eighty shillings a
dozen,” said Sylvester, savagely.

But his father raised a hand in courteous deprecation.

“I am not a wine-merchant, Usher, and am not in the habit of retailing
my cellar. But if you’d accept a dozen, I should be very pleased to
send it round to you.”

“I will accept it with great pleasure,” said Usher, blandly. “It would
hurt your feelings if I refused your generosity. Have you ever remarked
how generous your father is, Sylvester?”

The young man moved impatiently in his chair. He could never understand
the almost lifelong intimacy that existed between his father and this
old man, Usher, whom he held in cordial detestation. So he said nothing,
while the guest took a fresh sip of wine, and rolled it appreciatively
over his tongue.

“Your father and I were young men together in Australia, Sylvester,” he
remarked. “Youth is a glorious time, and its friendships last. I never
forget my old friends.”

“The sentiment does you credit, Usher,” said Matthew.

The servant entered with the London evening paper just sent from the
railway bookstall. Usher held out a large soft hand for it, and the
servant retired.

“I want to see what has happened in the Trevelyan divorce case,” he
said, unfolding the paper. “I have followed it closely.”

A _cause celebre_ was setting England whispering and sniggering, and
there were many like Usher who scanned the columns of the newsr papers
that evening in pleased anticipation. But Sylvester expressed his
distaste.

“How can you read it? The air is reeking sufficiently with the nastiness
already.”

“I am interested,” replied Usher. “I think nothing human alien to me.
_Nil humani_, as we used to say at school. I remember my classics.
I have a very good memory. Here it is. The jury found Mrs. Trevelyan
guilty of adultery with the co-respondent. Damages £5000 and costs.
The judge pronounced a decree _nisi_; the husband to have custody of the
children. I pity the poor woman.”

“I don’t,” said Sylvester, shortly. “Such women are better dead.”

“No doubt you are right,” returned Usher. “The sacred principles of
morality ought to be upheld at any cost. I have always upheld morality.
What do you think, Matthew?” The old man looked steadily at his finger
nails and replied in a dispassionate voice,–

“One never knows what lies behind.” Sylvester rose and shrugged his
shoulders.

“Wantonness and baseness lie behind. I have no patience with misplaced
sympathy in such cases. Here is this woman you are reading about,–she
betrayed her husband, deserted her children. She deserves no pity.”

Usher waggled his head indulgently.

“I am a Christian man,” he said, “and I have a tender heart. I have
always had a tender heart, Matthew.”

Sylvester laughed and threw the end of his cigar into the fire. He was
half ashamed of having been betrayed into a display of deep feeling
before one whom he considered a shallow egotist.

“Well, I haven’t,” he said. “I’m going up to the drawing-room. Perhaps
you’ll join me.”

He nodded to his father and left the room. Matthew edged his
chair further from the fire, and wiped his lips and brow with his
handkerchief.

“You are getting too warm,” said Usher.

“The room is hot. When you have finished your wine, we may as well
follow Sylvester.”

Usher poured out another glass.

“I am very comfortable,” he said. “I always am here. You must be proud
to have a son with such sentiments as Sylvester.”

Matthew rose abruptly from his seat, clenched his hands by his side, and
bit a quivering lip. Evidently he was mastering something.

“Drink your wine and come upstairs,” he said.

The other looked at him askance and hesitated. Then yielding, as it
were, to compulsion, he gulped down the contents of his glass and rose
with watery eyes.

“It was a sin to do that,” he said with a sigh. “You always were an
unreasonable fellow, Matthew. I only said I was glad that Sylvester
held such opinions. Most young men nowadays are shockingly lax in their
principles.” Matthew did not reply, but with cold, imperturbable face
opened the door for him to pass out. Usher hung back.

“I must speak to you about my son Roderick. Business before pleasure. It
has been my constant rule in life.”

“What has Roderick been doing now?” asked Matthew, closing the door
again.

“He is bringing my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave again,” replied
Usher. “My son and your son–what a difference, Matthew! ’Tis sharper
than–”

“Rubbish! What’s the matter, man?”

“A serpents tooth, to have a thankless child. I dislike being
interrupted. Matthew, Roderick has gone to the Jews. The bills have
fallen due. They won’t renew, and if they are not paid, they’ll put him
in prison. I cannot have my son in prison.”

“Get him out, then,” replied Matthew. “I can’t do more for him than
I do. I promised, years ago, that what Sylvester had, Roderick should
have, and, by Heaven! I’ve kept my promise. I can’t do more. You can’t
draw blood from a stone.”

“As if any one ever wanted to. Proverbs are foolish. I never make use of
proverbs. I think you must take up those bills.”

“And if I don’t?”

Usher shrugged his shoulders and, sitting down again, refilled his
glass and held it up to the light. Matthew stood on the hearth-rug, his
hands behind him, and regarded him impassively.

“I gave you Roderick’s quarterly allowance only a short while ago. What
has he done with it?”

“I do not know,” said Usher, impressively, turning his dull venerable
face towards him. “He has nearly ruined me already.”

“Have you brought his letters with you?”

“I burned his letters. It is imprudent to keep compromising letters. But
I have made out a statement of affairs.”

Usher took from his pocket a double sheet of foolscap, smoothed it out
and examined it deliberately, then handed it to Matthew. The latter
glanced through the statement. His lips quivered for a moment.

“This is practically fraud,” he said. “A magistrate might commit on it,
a jury find a verdict of guilty, and then–”

“His dear mother’s memory,” said Usher, wagging his head solemnly.

Matthew involuntarily clenched the paper tight in his hand.

“Damn you!” he said. Then he repeated it. “Damn you!”

But Usher stretched out a deprecating hand and spoke in tones of gentle
reproach.

“You must be calm, my dear friend. I am always calm. I have never said
a word in all my life that I have had cause to regret. Not even this
morning, when Olivia with great carelessness destroyed a new book-plate.
And it was a very valuable book-plate. It belonged to Hugh, the first
Earl of Lawford, of Edward III.’s creation.”

“Are you aware that your own son is in danger of penal servitude?” asked
Matthew, sharply.

“Why, of course. Is not that my reason for coming to you? I put the
matter into your hands, as lawyer and friend and second father to my
erring boy, and I am content. Yes, I am content, for I have trust in
you. Shall we go up now and join the ladies?” Matthew bit the end off
another cigar and lighted it. Then, as if his guest had made the most
natural and relevant proposal in the world, he said with a courtesy not
devoid of grimness,–“My sister is not feeling very well this evening,
and the young folks might be happier alone together, so perhaps we’ll
not go upstairs. And as this affair of Roderick’s will give me some
thinking, you’ll excuse me if I leave you shortly.”

“You are right,” replied Usher, rising ponderously. “The night air is
not good for me. I suffer much from my bronchial tubes. I must have some
one fitter than Olivia to nurse me. Servants are never grateful for
the bounties one heaps on them. If only Miss Defries would look upon
Roderick as favourably as she does upon Sylvester, how happily things
could be arranged.”

There was not a spark of cunning or rearward thought in his dim,
unspeculative eyes. Yet Matthew felt a sudden pang of suspicion at his
last words, and scanned his face intently. Was it the first hint of
some scheme long maturing in his dull yet tenacious brain, or the mere
surface fancy of the egotist? He could not tell, although he flattered
himself that he knew the man’s soul as a priest his breviary,–every
line and phrase, every thumb-mark and dog’s ear.

“I think the less said about Roderick for some time, the better,”
he remarked, ringing the bell. Then before the servant came, he said
suddenly,–

“But, by Heaven! this is the last time. Understand that. Once more, and
I break down the whole structure though it kill me–carry the war into
your quarters and tell Roderick all.”

Usher’s face was shadowed by a faint smile.

“My dear friend, Roderick has known all his life. I could never leave my
son in ignorance. I gave him the best training.”

The servant appeared. Usher extended his hand, which the other touched
mechanically, and in another moment was gone, leaving Matthew staring
incredulously, conscious of utter dismay.

“Is he lying?” he asked himself, a short while later, as he paced the
library, whither he had betaken himself with the moneylending document.
“Can the boy be such a blackguard? He must be lying.” But how base the
lie was in reality, even he could not surmise.

The boy was a man of forty now, yet Matthew had watched and paid for
every step upward and downward in his career. He remembered him a
handsome and wayward child, a wild lad, a young man brilliant in
promise, yet unstable as water, excelling in naught. He had seen him
by turns poet, painter, journalist, social reformer, musical critic,
dramatist, always obtaining successes of estimation, always floating
iridescent and futile as froth on the waves of literary and artistic
London. What Roderick was doing now, he did not know. For some time
past he had heard little of him. Now he had come to light again somewhat
luridly. A foolish friend had backed bills under false representations.
The Jews were pressing, the friend recalcitrant. It was a criminal
matter. If he were guilty of this, why not of that knowledge of which
his father boasted so cynically? Matthew’s face grew worn and hard. He
unlocked a safe, drew therefrom a small padlocked ledger, and sitting
down at his desk began to pore over its contents. Roderick must be saved
this time at any cost, for his mother’s sake, as Usher had remarked. At
the reminiscence Matthew reiterated his execration.

After long, anxious thought, he made a rough calculation on a scrap of
paper, and leaning back in his chair regarded it until something dim,
like tears, came across his vision.

“My poor Syl,” he said, “I have to rob you–for your own happiness.”

And at that moment, just outside the door stood Sylvester and Ella
bidding each other good-night. The full glow of the hall lamp shone down
upon her radiant young face, as he held both her hands in his, and made
a glinting aureole of her hair. Suddenly he laughed awkwardly and kissed
her; with a half-mirthful, half-reproachful “Oh, you shouldn’t!” she
snatched away her hands and ran up the stairs. He stood and watched the
last gleam of her skirts disappear and then entered his father’s room.

Matthew closed his ledger and looked up with one of his rare smiles.

“Going, Syl?”

“Yes. I ‘ve been sent for, as usual. It’s all very well for me to work
at this ungodly hour. I’m a medical man, and I’m young. But I don’t like
to see you at it. You ‘re overdoing it, father.”

“Nonsense!” replied Matthew, cheerily; “I’m as strong as a horse and
younger than you are. Besides, I was only amusing myself, like the king
in his counting-house, counting out my money.”

He rubbed his eyes, yawned, and stretched himself contentedly in his
chair.

“Usher kept me a long time,” he continued, “telling me one of his
interminable yarns–_a dormir debout_, as the French say.”

“I can’t think how you stand him,” said Sylvester.

“Oh, you can stand a devil of a lot if you try,” said the old man,
laughing. “Have some whisky before you go?”

But Syl pleaded urgency, went out for hat and coat, and returned ready
for departure. His father accompanied him to the front door.

“By the way, Syl,” he said, “do you really think so hardly of the woman
who sins, or was it only that Usher made you contradictious?”

“I think a woman must be pure and chaste. If she falls, she falls for
ever. Why do you ask?”

“I only wanted to know if you were genuine.”

“It is the most sacred of my convictions,” said Sylvester, gravely.

The two men shook hands, and the door closed behind Sylvester. The
father listened to his quick footsteps crunching the gravel until the
sound died away. Then he turned and sighed.

“My poor lad, God help you,” he said.

Sylvester walked home from his case, along the undulating high-road
patched with moonlight and shadow, swinging his stick. The night was
crisp with a touch of frost, and the air smelt sweet. Now and then a
workingman regaining his home after town convivialities, passed him by
with a salute to which he replied with a cheerier good-night than usual.
One he stopped, and discoursed with him at length on family ailments,
much to the man’s surprise; for Sylvester was renowned far and wide for
his shy silence as well as for his skill. Once he began to whistle an
air, wofully out of tune, and then broke into a short laugh.

Yes, Ella was right. It was good to be alive, to feel heart and brain
and body on the alert, responsive to outer things. But whence had come
the change? It was years since he had felt so young and conscious of
power. Was it the touch of a girl’s fresh cheek against his lips? He
did not know. The feelings that had prompted the act were too new, too
undefined, for immediate analysis. The spell of the benumbing heartache
that had held him nerveless for four long years seemed to be broken, and
he was a man again.

He looked upward at the stars in the simple fancy that the dear dead
wife, the Constance he had worshipped so passionately, was gazing down
upon him with happy consent in her pure eyes. The love he had given
her was immortal, and she knew it. It was no disloyalty to love another
sweet woman on earth and to put his own broken life and his motherless
child into her keeping…. Yet after a few moments he lowered his gaze
for a while and walked on, his heart filled with the old love.

He was one of those reserved natures, capable of intense feeling, yet
incapable of outward expression, who make for themselves few friends and
are often condemned to loneliness of soul. Born with greater cravings
for sympathy than most men, they have less power to demand it. This is
too busy a world for us to stop to wonder whether a man wants what he
does not ask for; too many are clamouring loudly for what we cannot
give. So the unfortunates are passed by unheeded, each working out in
his heart his little tragedy of unfulfilled longings. But when a finer
spirit comes and divines their needs, then their hearts leap towards it
and cling to it with a great unexpressed passion of gratitude. Such had
been the beginning of Sylvesters love for his wife; such that of his
dawning love for Ella. Each in her way had comprehended his solitude;
unasked in words, but spiritually besought, each had filled it with her
influence. He needed the peculiar sympathy that a woman alone can give,
her companionship, her practical intellect, to complement his theoretic
mind. His nature cried dumbly for a whole-hearted, expansive creature
to give objectivity to life. Left to himself, he sank into routine; he
lacked the power of bringing colour and harmony into his world. This
the woman he loved could do. Once, for a few short years, a woman had
changed his universe. Then she had died, and the blackness of night
had encompassed him. He had suffered silently, as a strong man suffers,
rarely mentioning her name, but eating out his heart in desolation; and
then Ella had come. He had known her from early childhood, but had last
seen her as the schoolgirl of no account.

Now she had sprung into his horizon, a young and splendid woman of
amazing opposites, who compelled attention; and she was the only woman
other than Constance who, during all his life, had sought to know him
and to act towards him tenderwise. Nevertheless, he could not say as yet
that he loved her, in the sweet and common way of love. The old and new
hung equipoised on a delicate balance. The vague sense of this, perhaps,
was one element in the rare exaltation of his mood.

Another element, no doubt, was the final resolve he had taken that
morning, to go to London, whither his ambitions summoned him. He was a
specialist of some note in zymotic diseases. His researches had met with
a recognition not confined to England. He had felt keenly that he was
giving up to the small circle of a country practice what was meant for
the general needs of mankind. London was the only place for study and
work; for the quick amassing, too, of the small fortune that would free
him from the necessity of earning daily bread and would allow him to
realise his dreams of a great bacteriological laboratory, where he could
devote himself exclusively to independent research.

It was at the urgent entreaty of Constance that he had bought, just
before his marriage, the practice at Ayresford. A year’s life there had
made him regret London. A little later he had spoken of returning. She
had thrown her arms about him and implored him by all his love for her
to stay. She had a horror of London; why, she could not tell. It was
unreasonable, but the fact remained. London would kill her,–its gloom,
its hardness, its cruelty. It had been the same story whenever he had
broached the subject. And then, Dorothy. The child was delicate, would
pine away in the reek and fogs of the town. All her woman’s armoury of
passionate weapons had been employed. And he had yielded, out of his
great love. Her death had set him free. But it had taken him four years
to realise his freedom. The mere thought had been anguish. Now he could
gaze upon the past with calmness and the future with hope. As he walked
along, he began to picture the vigorous life before him. He passed
from wide conception to trivial details,–the fittings of his library,
domestic economies. A room for Dorothy–he pulled himself up short. He
had arranged to part with her. The prospect brought a pang. His father’s
comfort in the child, however, was a consolation. He thought of him
tenderly,–the dear old man, the most generous and unselfish being who
had ever blessed the earth. He was a man of deep reverences; his father,
his dead mother, and his dead wife were enshrined in his Holy of Holies.
Dorothy, then, should remain at Ayresford. Perhaps the separation would
not be for long. There was a means of shortening it whose readiness was
a great temptation. The vision rose before him of the child’s dark curls
nestling against a girl’s soft shoulder. Often had he seen the reality
of late, and it had disturbed his depths. Was it not his duty to give
the little one so sweet and strong a mother? Again he consulted the
stars.

He had reached a set of workmen’s cottages in process of erection, on
either side of the road, which marked the beginning of the town. The
moonlight beat hard upon them, showing up vividly their windowless and
doorless skeletons and the piles of bricks, mortar, and lime-covered
boards at their thresholds. He had passed the first block and was
about to traverse a cross-road that led to the railway station, when a
dog-cart containing two men and some luggage turned out of it sharply on
to the highway. Before he could realise the fact, the vehicle suddenly
lurched, the horse plunged, and in a moment the occupants were thrown
heavily on to the road. Sylvester could see at once the cause of
the mishap. A pail of mortar left by the roadside, either through
carelessness or urchin mischief, had caught the wheel. He ran forward.
One of the men, the driver, rose, and shaking himself went to the
horse’s head, which was turned round in calm inquiry. The other man lay
still.

“Hurt?” cried Sylvester.

“No, doctor,” replied the driver, who belonged to the George Hotel of
Ayresford. “The gentleman may be.”

He left the pacific animal, and bent with Sylvester over the prostrate
form.

It was that of a handsome, full-blooded man in the prime of life. He had
fair hair and a great moustache. His face gleamed very white beneath
the moon, and his eyes were glassy. The driver supported his head,
while Sylvester straightened the inert body, which had remained huddled
together after the fall, wrapped in a disordered Inverness cape.
Apparently no bones were broken. Sylvester felt his pulse, which was
just perceptible. Then suddenly he viewed the man’s face full, and
started back in amazed distress.

“Good heavens! it’s Frank Leroux!”

“That’s the gentleman’s name, sir,” said the driver.

“How do you know?”

“He telegraphed from London for a bed to-night, saying that he was to be
met by the last train, which I just did, sir.”

“But he’s my oldest friend,” exclaimed Sylvester. “Leave him to me and
see if the trap is all right. Bring the cushions for his head.”

He pursued his investigations. Leroux was alive. A trickle of blood
damped his hair. After a while Sylvester drew an anxious breath.

It was a severe concussion; how grave he could not for the moment
estimate. To drive him in the narrow two-wheeled cart was out of the
question. He hailed the driver, who had righted the vehicle.

“Get a ambulance as quick as you can from the Infirm. That’s nearest.”

The man touched his hat, and mounting drove off at a forced speed.
Sylvester remained by Leroux, and having done all that was momentarily
possible, was at last able to reflect upon the entire unexpectedness
of his presence. They were old friends, had been at school and at Guy’s
together. Leroux, who was somewhat of a waif in the world, had spent
many holidays here in Ayresford, at Woodlands. And even after he
had thrown over medicine for painting, they had maintained the old
relations. Sylvester had reckoned upon him being best man at his
wedding; and when for some whimsical reason, which Sylvester could never
discover but attributed to the artistic temperament, he declined and
went off to Norway, the bridegroom elect knew no one intimately enough
to appoint in his stead save Roderick Usher, against whom he had a
constitutional antipathy. Although he had seen little of him during his
married life, owing to his confinement in the country, and had heard
little of him of late years, save that he was abroad, Sylvester still
entertained for him the warmest affection. How, therefore, was he
to explain this sudden unannounced appearance in Ayresford? It was
preposterous that Frank Leroux should put up at the George Hotel; as
preposterous as if he himself, in earlier days, had driven there instead
of to Woodlands. The act was a sort of treason against friendship, and
Sylvester felt absurdly hurt. He wished that Leroux would straightway
recover consciousness and health so that he could rate him soundly for
his unfriendliness. But there the man, with all the mystery of motive
locked in the dull brain, lay helpless and inert, amid the builder’s
refuse from the fantastic shells of houses hard by. It was an ironical
way for friends to meet after an absence and a silence of years.

Some stragglers from the station came up, passengers by the train, one
or two porters, and the postman with the bag of local mails, and offered
assistance. Sylvester declined, explaining briefly. Not daring to
proffer suggestions as to the patient’s treatment, they cursed in honest
terms the offending pail and the worthless hands that had moved it,
and loitered around. Dramatic incidents of a public kind are rare
in Ayresford, and each man determined to make the most of this one,
conscious, perhaps, of a lurking regret that he had not seen the
accident.

Soon the dog-cart returned, bringing the ambulance and a couple of
bearers from the Infirmary. Leroux was lifted on to the stretcher and
covered with a blanket. The bearers started, the muffled form between
them giving a ghastly suggestion of death in life; Sylvester walked by
the side, the stragglers followed, and the trap brought up the rear.

“To my house,” said Sylvester.

The melancholy procession went on its way through the outskirts of
the little town. The cottages gave place to villas, then came houses
standing on their own grounds. Opposite the front gates of Woodlands was
the doctor’s house. Sylvester dismissed his followers at the gate and,
taking Leroux’s portmanteau from the trap, opened the door for the
bearers and their burden, and directed their way upstairs. The old
housekeeper, roused by the tramping, met them on the landing.

“It’s a man hurt,” explained Sylvester. “Frank Leroux. We’ll put him in
my room.”

A short while afterwards, the unconscious man was settled in Sylvester’s
bed, a fire lighted, and Sylvester was left alone. Able to make a more
minute diagnosis, he grew very grave and prepared for an all-night
sitting.

*****

In the morning Leroux was still unconscious.

Sylvester sent or a trained nurse, and as soon as she arrived and had
received her instructions, he went over to Woodlands. The family were
at breakfast. Miss Lanyon, a faded elderly woman, her lean shoulders
enveloped in a black shawl, paused in the act of pouring out tea,
tea-pot in hand.

“Oh, Sylvester, what a dreadful thing! We have just heard. How is he?”

He briefly described the accident and hinted at the result, which might
be fatal. Everything depended upon treatment and nursing. He had been up
all night.

“How tired you must be!” said Ella.

A world of tenderness underlay the commonplace words. Sylvester looked
at her gratefully. She was deliciously fresh and sweet in her simple
morning dress, and again Sylvester felt how gracious a thing was
life,–especially after his night’s battle with death. They talked of
Leroux. All were deeply shocked by the news, for he had been a universal
favourite. In the days past Ella had been accused of a schoolgirl
flirtation with him. Miss Lanyon used to save up especial household
goodies for his consumption during the holidays. Matthew, always fond
of youth, had loved the boy’s frank nature, and in his generous way had
seldom let him leave the house without a five-pound note, or a watch, or
a silver-mounted walking-stick in his possession. And now the prodigal
had returned in this dismaying and tragic fashion.

“What I can’t understand,” said Sylvester, “is why he did not announce
his coming,–why he should suddenly turn up at that ungodly hour. There
are plenty of day trains.”

He appealed unconsciously to his father, who made no reply. But a
little later, when Miss Lanyon and Ella had left the room, Matthew said,
suddenly breaking a short silence,–

“I was expecting him.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Sylvester, involuntarily.

“He was in some trouble apparently, and asked to see me alone this
morning on business.”

“I wonder what it could have been?”

“I wonder,” said the old man, drily.

Sylvester flushed, as if at a rebuke. Knowing his father, he was aware
of indiscretion. Matthew had always maintained the most impenetrable
reserve as regards his business affairs; the son had been trained
from childhood to look upon them as sacrosanct, and to question was an
indecency.

“I beg your pardon, father,” he said deferentially.

“I mentioned the fact, for obvious reasons,” said Matthew.

“Quite so,” said Sylvester, and then hesitating and finally blurting it
out, as if he were ashamed of it, he added,–

“I know you are a father confessor to every poor devil in trouble.”

The old man looked at his son and his kind eyes grew a little moist.
Any tribute of faith and love from Sylvester touched him deeply. But he
laughed and said characteristically,–

“There are some people who’ll tell you anything, if you ‘re only
soft-headed enough to listen to them.” Then he nodded towards the
window, and waved his hand,–

“There is one, anyhow, who doesn’t want a confessor.”

It was Ella, standing in the clear March sunshine of the garden, looking
in through the French window, and holding up a bunch of fresh-gathered
violets. With a word of adieu to his father, Sylvester went out and
joined her. She pinned the flowers in his buttonhole and for ten
pleasant minutes they walked along the trim-kept paths.

“You were not angry with me last night?” he asked.

She murmured very meekly,–“If I were, I should not be here with you
now.”

“I never thought I should–ever do such a thing again,” he said
awkwardly. “I couldn’t help it. It has made a different man of me.”

She drew herself up quite proudly and looked him straight in the eyes.
They were brave, clear eyes, and so were the man’s that met them.

“Are you in earnest?” she asked.

“Am I the man not to be in earnest?” he answered.

The doctor’s page, running across the strip of lawn to them, broke the
spell with the time-honoured morning announcement,–

“There is some one in the surgery, sir.”

Sylvester dismissed the urchin and looked at his watch. It was some
minutes past his consultation hour.

“We will have a long talk this evening,” he said, bidding her farewell.

Share