A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 8.

When I returned to the drawing-room, the party was evidently about to break up. Those who had grouped round the piano were now assembled round the refreshment-table. The cardplayers had risen, and were settling or discussing gains and losses. While I was searching for my hat, which I had somewhere mislaid, a poor gentleman, tormented by tic-doloureux, crept timidly up to me — the proudest and the poorest of all the hidalgos settled on the Hill. He could not afford a fee for a physician’s advice; but pain had humbled his pride, and I saw at a glance that he was considering how to take a surreptitious advantage of social intercourse, and obtain the advice without paying the fee. The old man discovered the hat before I did, stooped, took it up, extended it to me with the profound bow of the old school, while the other hand, clenched and quivering, was pressed into the hollow of his cheek, and his eyes met mine with wistful mute entreaty. The instinct of my profession seized me at once. I could never behold suffering without forgetting all else in the desire to relieve it.

“You are in pain,” said I, softly. “Sit down and describe the symptoms. Here, it is true, I am no professional doctor, but I am a friend who is fond of doctoring, and knows something about it.”

So we sat down a little apart from the other guests, and after a few questions and answers, I was pleased to find that his “tic” did not belong to the less curable kind of that agonizing neuralgia. I was especially successful in my treatment of similar sufferings, for which I had discovered an anodyne that was almost specific. I wrote on a leaf of my pocketbook a prescription which I felt sure would be efficacious, and as I tore it out and placed it in his hand, I chanced to look up, and saw the hazel eyes of my hostess fixed upon me with a kinder and softer expression than they often condescended to admit into their cold and penetrating lustre. At that moment, however, her attention was drawn from me to a servant, who entered with a note, and I heard him say, though in an undertone, “From Mrs. Ashleigh.”

She opened the note, read it hastily, ordered the servant to wait without the door, retired to her writing-table, which stood near the place at which I still lingered, rested her face on her hand, and seemed musing. Her meditation was very soon over. She turned her head, and to my surprise, beckoned to me. I approached.

“Sit here,” she whispered: “turn your back towards those people, who are no doubt watching us. Read this.”

She placed in my hand the note she had just received. It contained but a few words, to this effect:—

DEAR MARGARET — I am so distressed. Since I wrote to you a few hours ago, Lilian is taken suddenly ill, and I fear seriously. What medical man should I send for? Let my servant have his name and address.

A. A.

I sprang from my seat.

“Stay,” said Mrs. Poyntz. “Would you much care if I sent the servant to Dr. Jones?”

“Ah, madam, you are cruel! What have I done that you should become my enemy?”

“Enemy! No. You have just befriended one of my friends. In this world of fools intellect should ally itself with intellect. No; I am not your enemy! But you have not yet asked me to be your friend.”

Here she put into my hands a note she had written while thus speaking. “Receive your credentials. If there be any cause for alarm, or if I can be of use, send for me.” Resuming the work she had suspended, but with lingering, uncertain fingers, she added, “So far, then, this is settled. Nay, no thanks; it is but little that is settled as yet.”

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