A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 13.

The next day I had just dismissed the last of my visiting patients, and was about to enter my carriage and commence my round, when I received a twisted note containing but these words:—

Call on me today, as soon as you can.

M. Poyntz.

A few minutes afterwards I was in Mrs. Poyntz’s drawing-room.

“Well, Allen Fenwick” said she, “I do not serve friends by halves. No thanks! I but adhere to a principle I have laid down for myself. I spent last evening with the Ashleighs. Lilian is certainly much altered — very weak, I fear very ill, and I believe very unskillfully treated by Dr. Jones. I felt that it was my duty to insist on a change of physician; but there was something else to consider before deciding who that physician should be. I was bound, as your confidante, to consult your own scruples of honour. Of course I could not say point-blank to Mrs. Ashleigh, ‘Dr. Fenwick admires your daughter, would you object to him as a son-in-law?’ Of course I could not touch at all on the secret with which you intrusted me; but I have not the less arrived at a conclusion, in agreement with my previous belief, that not being a woman of the world, Annie Ashleigh has none of the ambition which women of the world would conceive for a daughter who has a good fortune and considerable beauty; that her predominant anxiety is for her child’s happiness, and her predominant fear is that her child will die. She would never oppose any attachment which Lilian might form; and if that attachment were for one who had preserved her daughter’s life, I believe her own heart would gratefully go with her daughter’s. So far, then, as honour is concerned, all scruples vanish.”

I sprang from my seat, radiant with joy. Mrs. Poyntz dryly continued: “You value yourself on your common-sense, and to that I address a few words of counsel which may not be welcome to your romance. I said that I did not think you and Lilian would suit each other in the long run; reflection confirms me in that supposition. Do not look at me so incredulously and so sadly. Listen, and take heed. Ask yourself what, as a man whose days are devoted to a laborious profession, whose ambition is entwined with its success, whose mind must be absorbed in its pursuits — ask yourself what kind of a wife you would have sought to win; had not this sudden fancy for a charming face rushed over your better reason, and obliterated all previous plans and resolutions. Surely some one with whom your heart would have been quite at rest; by whom your thoughts would have been undistracted from the channels into which your calling should concentrate their flow; in short, a serene companion in the quiet holiday of a trustful home! Is it not so?”

“You interpret my own thoughts when they have turned towards marriage. But what is there in Lilian Ashleigh that should mar the picture you have drawn?”

“What is there in Lilian Ashleigh which in the least accords with the picture? In the first place, the wife of a young physician should not be his perpetual patient. The more he loves her, and the more worthy she may be of love, the more her case will haunt him wherever he goes. When he returns home, it is not to a holiday; the patient he most cares for, the anxiety that most gnaws him, awaits him there.”

“But, good heavens! why should Lilian Ashleigh be a perpetual patient? The sanitary resources of youth are incalculable. And —”

“Let me stop you; I cannot argue against a physician in love! I will give up that point in dispute, remaining convinced that there is something in Lilian’s constitution which will perplex, torment, and baffle you. It was so with her father, whom she resembles in face and in character. He showed no symptoms of any grave malady. His outward form was, like Lilian’s, a model of symmetry, except in this, that, like hers, it was too exquisitely delicate; but when seemingly in the midst of perfect health, at any slight jar on the nerves he would become alarmingly ill. I was sure that he would die young, and he did so.”

“Ay, but Mrs. Ashleigh said that his death was from brain-fever, brought on by over-study. Rarely, indeed, do women so fatigue the brain. No female patient, in the range of my practice, ever died of purely mental exertion.”

“Of purely mental exertion, no; but of heart emotion, many female patients, perhaps? Oh, you own that! I know nothing about nerves; but I suppose that, whether they act on the brain or the heart, the result to life is much the same if the nerves be too finely strung for life’s daily wear and tear. And this is what I mean, when I say you and Lilian will not suit. As yet, she is a mere child; her nature undeveloped, and her affections therefore untried. You might suppose that you had won her heart; she might believe that she gave it to you, and both be deceived. If fairies nowadays condescended to exchange their offspring with those of mortals, and if the popular tradition did not represent a fairy changeling as an ugly peevish creature, with none of the grace of its parents, I should be half inclined to suspect that Lilian was one of the elfin people. She never seems at home on earth; and I do not think she will ever be contented with a prosaic earthly lot. Now I have told you why I do not think she will suit you. I must leave it to yourself to conjecture how far you would suit her. I say this in due season, while you may set a guard upon your impulse; while you may yet watch, and weigh, and meditate; and from this moment on that subject I say no more. I lend advice, but I never throw it away.”

She came here to a dead pause, and began putting on her bonnet and scarf, which lay on the table beside her. I was a little chilled by her words, and yet more by the blunt, shrewd, hard look and manner which aided the effect of their delivery; but the chill melted away in the sudden glow of my heart when she again turned towards me and said —

“Of course you guess, from these preliminary cautions, that you are going into danger? Mrs. Ashleigh wishes to consult you about Lilian, and I propose to take you to her house.”

“Oh, my friend, my dear friend, how can I ever repay you?” I caught her hand, the white firm hand, and lifted it to my lips.

She drew it somewhat hastily away, and laying it gently on my shoulder, said, in a soft voice, “Poor Allen, how little the world knows either of us! But how little perhaps we know ourselves! Come, your carriage is here? That is right; we must put down Dr. Jones publicly and in all our state.”

In the carriage Mrs. Poyntz told me the purport of that conversation with Mrs. Ashleigh to which I owed my reintroduction to Abbots’ House. It seems that Mr. Vigors had called early the morning after my first visit! had evinced much discomposure on hearing that I had been summoned! dwelt much on my injurious treatment of Dr. Lloyd, whom, as distantly related to himself, and he (Mr. Vigors) being distantly connected with the late Gilbert Ashleigh, he endeavoured to fasten upon his listener as one of her husband’s family, whose quarrel she was bound in honour to take up. He spoke of me as an infidel “tainted with French doctrines,” and as a practitioner rash and presumptuous; proving his own freedom from presumption and rashness by flatly deciding that my opinion must be wrong. Previously to Mrs. Ashleigh’s migration to L— — Mr. Vigors had interested her in the pretended phenomena of mesmerism. He had consulted a clairvoyante, much esteemed by poor Dr. Lloyd, as to Lilian’s health, and the clairvoyante had declared her to be constitutionally predisposed to consumption. Mr. Vigors persuaded Mrs. Ashleigh to come at once with him and see this clairvoyante herself, armed with a lock of Lilian’s hair and a glove she had worn, as the media of mesmerical rapport.

The clairvoyante, one of those I had publicly denounced as an impostor, naturally enough denounced me in return. On being asked solemnly by Mr. Vigors “to look at Dr. Fenwick and see if his influence would be beneficial to the subject,” the sibyl had become violently agitated, and said that, “when she looked at us together, we were enveloped in a black cloud; that this portended affliction and sinister consequences; that our rapport was antagonistic.” Mr. Vigors then told her to dismiss my image, and conjure up that of Dr. Jones. Therewith the somnambule became more tranquil, and said: “Dr. Jones would do well if he would be guided by higher lights than his own skill, and consult herself daily as to the proper remedies. The best remedy of all would be mesmerism. But since Dr. Lloyd’s death, she did not know of a mesmerist, sufficiently gifted, in affinity with the patient.” In fine, she impressed and awed Mrs. Ashleigh, who returned in haste, summoned Dr. Jones, and dismissed myself.

“I could not have conceived Mrs. Ashleigh to be so utterly wanting in common-sense,” said I. “She talked rationally enough when I saw her.”

“She has common-sense in general, and plenty of the sense most common,” answered Mrs. Poyntz; “but she is easily led and easily frightened wherever her affections are concerned, and therefore, just as easily as she had been persuaded by Mr. Vigors and terrified by the somnambule, I persuaded her against the one, and terrified her against the other. I had positive experience on my side, since it was clear that Lilian had been getting rapidly worse under Dr. Jones’s care. The main obstacles I had to encounter in inducing Mrs. Ashleigh to consult you again were, first, her reluctance to disoblige Mr. Vigors, as a friend and connection of Lilian’s father; and, secondly, her sentiment of shame in reinviting your opinion after having treated you with so little respect. Both these difficulties I took on myself. I bring you to her house, and, on leaving you, I shall go on to Mr. Vigors, and tell him what is done is my doing, and not to be undone by him; so that matter is settled. Indeed, if you were out of the question, I should not suffer Mr. Vigors to reintroduce all these mummeries of clairvoyance and mesmerism into the precincts of the Hill. I did not demolish a man I really liked in Dr. Lloyd, to set up a Dr. Jones, whom I despise, in his stead. Clairvoyance on Abbey Hill, indeed! I saw enough of it before.”

“True; your strong intellect detected at once the absurdity of the whole pretence — the falsity of mesmerism, the impossibility of clairvoyance.”

“No, my strong intellect did nothing of the kind. I do not know whether mesmerism be false or clairvoyance impossible; and I don’t wish to know. All I do know is, that I saw the Hill in great danger — young ladies allowing themselves to be put to sleep by gentlemen, and pretending they had no will of their own against such fascination! Improper and shocking! And Miss Brabazon beginning to prophesy, and Mrs. Leopold Smythe questioning her maid (whom Dr. Lloyd declared to be highly gifted) as to all the secrets of her friends. When I saw this, I said, ‘The Hill is becoming demoralized; the Hill is making itself ridiculous; the Hill must be saved!’ I remonstrated with Dr. Lloyd as a friend; he remained obdurate. I annihilated him as an enemy, not to me but to the State. I slew my best lover for the good of Rome. Now you know why I took your part — not because I have any opinion, one way or the other, as to the truth or falsehood of what Dr. Lloyd asserted; but I have a strong opinion that, whether they be true or false, his notions were those which are not to be allowed on the Hill. And so, Allen Fenwick, that matter was settled.”

Perhaps at another time I might have felt some little humiliation to learn that I had been honoured with the influence of this great potentate not as a champion of truth, but as an instrument of policy; and I might have owned to some twinge of conscience in having assisted to sacrifice a fellow-seeker after science — misled, no doubt, but preferring his independent belief to his worldly interest — and sacrifice him to those deities with whom science is ever at war — the Prejudices of a Clique sanctified into the Proprieties of the World. But at that moment the words I heard made no perceptible impression on my mind. The gables of Abbots’ House were visible above the evergreens and lilacs; another moment, and the carriage stopped at the door.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31