Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter IV.

The Silent Message

When man attempts a really heroic act — when he conquers fear unutterable and flings himself body and soul into the breach, bent only on protecting one he has been set to guard nor counting the cost — then though such a self-proved hero may be overwhelmed in many different ways, he can be thoroughly disconcerted in but one.

Vanaman was prepared to fight and be overwhelmed. He was not prepared to wheel defensive at Robinson’s side and see nothing to combat. There, however, was the room, peaceful, silent, dry as any normal bedroom should be, and save for himself and Robinson, quite empty of anything visibly animate.

“You — dreaming — fool!” he muttered blankly, and he was addressing himself.

Again he whirled, this time toward the bed. Ah! But here was an enemy to fight indeed — an enemy old as earthly life and which Vanaman had spent years in training himself to strive against.

The old man had dropped back, his face darkly livid; there was foam on his lips, and his yellow hands, releasing the box at last, beat the air as he choked for breath. That shriek which had roused the doctor had also awakened Leilah, and an instant later she appeared in the doorway, clad in a hastily flung on negligee.

“Another seizure,” announced Vanaman; and again they were working together, two young lives giving freely of their strength and skill to save that possibly rather worthless old one.

Yet through it all, and despite his conviction that he had recently suffered from a particularly vivid dream, one question repeated itself continually in the back of the doctor’s brain. What had Leilah Robinson seen in the study at the time of her uncle’s first seizure, of which she could not afterward quite bring herself to speak?

The green box lay on a table by the bedside. It glowed like an enormous clouded emerald, oblong, polished — without ornament. The scarlet inscription was, as usual, underneath.

“You will, of course, call in Dr. Bruce — this morning,” said Vanaman, not as one who makes a suggestion, but rather as a man who states a settled fact.

Leilah had breakfasted below stairs, and the doctor had just finished appeasing his own very healthy appetite from a tray brought to him in the patient’s room. As for the patient himself, since the last attack he had slept without interruption, breathing heavily, and too deep in unconsciousness even to know that his grasping claws no longer clutched the green box, their prey.

Miss Robinson, who had been bending solicitously over him, straightened and turned to look at the young doctor, her tired, lovely eyes dilating darkly.

“You mean you can’t stay with him any longer? That you don’t wish to go on treating him?”

Vanaman smiled. Though professional ethics forbade him even to attempt “pirating” another man’s patient on the strength of a substitute call, to say that he did not wish to keep the case would have been decidedly untrue. He was interested in it no longer merely because Robinson was a very wealthy man. There were other reasons, one being a sense rather than a knowledge of some very queer mystery connected with it; the other and more important being Miss Robinson herself.

Nevertheless, since he was no patient-stealing quack, but an honorable gentleman, he explained his position to her and made ready for departure.

“Have Dr. Bruce in as soon as you can get him,” he advised, “and send at once for a professional nurse. I have written some instructions for her in case your uncle has another seizure, but I very much doubt if he will have one, at least for some hours. This box —”

He broke off abruptly, frowning at the translucent green thing on the table.

“Yes — and that box?” she prompted in a very low voice.

He started, and their eyes met in a long, almost challenging look.

But for some obscure reason within himself Vanaman felt suddenly averse to asking the question that had been on his lips. Never mind what she had seen in the study the previous night. Let it be that he had dreamed, and that she had been disturbed by anxiety over her uncle’s illness. Later, he condemned as cowardice this reluctance to have it out with her frankly then and there, but at the time the impulse toward reticence was practically irresistible.

“If he wakes and asks for the box, I should by all means give it to him,” he said in a manner almost unnaturally off-hand. “Keep him as quiet as possible in every way, and of course if Dr. Bruce is still out of town to-day and you need me, I shall be glad to return at any time.”

“Thank you. It was good of you to stay with him so long.”

But in her manner was a hint of disappointment that for the life of him Vanaman could not get out of his mind the rest of that day.

Toward evening his phone rang, and he answered it with even greater alacrity than last night. The hope that his ear might be greeted by a woman’s voice, drawling and unforgettably sweet, proved a false one. But though not from Leilah Robinson, the call turned out to be both interesting and surprising.

Dr. Bruce was on the wire, and after formally thanking the younger physician for attending Mr. Robinson in his absence, he proceeded to the astonishing part of what he had to say. While still an intern at the Belmont, Vanaman had once met Bruce, and remembered him as a large, domineering man with a manner almost offensively cocksure and very positive.

Now he regretted the instinctive dislike he had then felt for him. In fact, as he hung up the receiver after some quarter hour of conversation, it occurred to him that Bruce must be the most amazingly generous and unselfish person in their mutual profession. And yet — Vanaman ran puzzled fingers through his crop of reddish brown hair.

Exactly what had Bruce said? He had approved Vanaman’s treatment, had entered into some technical details of the old man’s condition, and informed him that the patient was again normally conscious. Also that on his last call there — he had made three that day — Robinson had expressed a wish to retain young Vanaman’s services as well as those of Dr. Bruce. And over the phone Bruce had very cordially urged the young man “to come in on the case.”

Of course, if Robinson wished to employ two physicians instead of one, that was nothing so extraordinary. Many wealthy men did that. What amazed Vanaman was Bruce’s complacency over being asked to consult with a man so much younger and less well-tried than himself, and the fact that he seemed to be sharing his case with a cheerful generosity not only uncommon but entirely out of keeping with his character as Vanaman knew it.

However, to inspect thoroughly the mouth of this unexpected gift horse he had only to walk a couple of blocks, and Bruce had said that the old man wished to talk with him personally as soon as possible. Being hampered by no other demands on his time, Vanaman promptly put on his hat and went.

He found the old man sitting up in bed, propped by many pillows, one yellow claw caressing his inevitable companion, the green box, and with Leilah in patient, though weary-looking attendance. No professional nurse was to be seen, and for an excellent reason. The one whom Leilah had dared engage that morning had been discharged by her uncle two hours afterward.

He greeted Vanaman almost cordially, but when the young man heard the proposition he had been sent for to consider he came near rising and leaving the house incontinently. No wonder Bruce had been so complacent, and no wonder, either, that there had been that faint hint of amusement in his voice over the wire.

“You don’t want me as a doctor at all,” complained the young man indignantly. “As I understand it, you are asking me to — to come here and live, sleep near you at night, and generally take charge of you in ways that any male nurse could do as well. And Dr. Bruce is to have entire control of the professional side of your case!”

The hawk brows pinched together, and the steely eyes narrowed.

“Well, then! What of it? If I’m willing to pay a doctor’s price for a male nurse, is there anything to get het up over? There’s reasons — right good reasons why I want just you and nobody else to stay by me a while. Treatment’s a different pair of shoes. I’ve had Bruce for my little ailments a long time. I’m reckoning to go right on having Bruce, but I want you for something different. Ye see this here box?”

“Of course.”

“Well, then! This here box is mine. Understand? When I first seen it in Lutz’s shop I wanted it, partly because it’s sech a purty thing, and partly because Lutz acted kinda queer about it. Didn’t seem to rightly know what it was, nor where it come from, nor even that he was right sure he wanted to sell it to me. I figgered then that somebody else had been dickerin’ with him for it, and he was aimin’ to run up the price between me and the other feller.

“I found out different since. I know right well now why Lutz wanted me to take it off his hands, and yet was kinda skeered to let it go.”

The old man paused to laugh. His was at all times a rather frightful laugh, a mere widening of the oblong mouth aperture, a showing of yellow fangs, and a silent writhing of the cords in his stringy neck.

Now, however, his mirth had an added ghastliness, for in it there was a kind of half-horrified, half-delighted defiance. His mouth closed suddenly and the lips drew inward.

“Well, then!” he snarled. “What I want I get, and what I get I keep! Understand? That’s old Jesse J. Robinson’s motto from A to Izzard. I wanted this here box, I got this box, and” — he glanced around the room with a strange, chilled-steel daring in his keen old eyes. “I mean to keep this box! Last night, young man, ye helped me keep it! Now do ye understand?”

“No, I don’t,” said Vanaman, and glanced at Miss Robinson.

Her eyes were large and dark, and in her lap the clasped fingers of her slim hands twined nervously together. What did she so desperately fear: That her uncle’s mind was going?

“Well, then, ye don’t have to understand,” announced Robinson impatiently. “Jest take it that I want somebody by me I can trust. I can trust Leilah, but I won’t hev her wearin’ herself all out and ugly watching by me. And I learnt last night that I can trust you. Now will ye stay by me, or won’t ye? If the terms I offered don’t suit, come right out and say so. Ye’ll find old Jesse Robinson can afford to pay-”

“The terms are fair enough,” interposed Vanaman. “It isn’t that.”

With pointblank refusal on his tongue, he looked again at Miss Robinson, and wavered. Unspeaking, the silent, desperate appeal in her eyes was unmistakable.

Vanaman was no vain fool to fancy that the young woman had succumbed on such short acquaintance to his personal attractions and wished him in the house for that reason. No; she was, for some cause, suffering torments of fear, all the more pitiable because of the tense self-control that allowed only a glimpse of her inward terror to look forth ever and again.

Wordlessly she claimed protection from — exactly what he knew not. But he did know that she claimed it of him, Vanaman, and that he had been hesitating on a point of personal pride!

“If ye have to do it, ye could attend to your practice from this house daytimes,” began the old man grudgingly, “but nights —”

“My practice is not in existence as yet,” in the doctor, and smiled. No one, looking at his frank, suddenly cheerful face, would have dreamed that he that moment decided to offer up a heroic sacrifice, let all his ambitious hopes go a-glimmering for a time, and accept a service that would humiliate him in the eyes of every other physician in town who might learn of it.

“I only opened my office in Tremont three days ago,” he explained. “When do you wish my — ah — attendance to begin, Mr. Robinson?”

“To-night — now. Can’t tell what minute I might need ye.”

“Very well. And I can assure you,” said Vanaman, speaking rather slowly, like a man who wishes to give full weight to each word, “that for whatever reason I am needed here, you can rely on me to the full extent of my ability and power to help.”

“Think I’d be wanting ye if I didn’t know that?” grumbled Robinson, snarling and testy.

But — the doctor in speaking had looked toward Leilah, not him, and the silent gratitude and relief in a pair of slate-gray eyes had already made of his offered sacrifice a holy and a beautiful thing.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30