The Jardines came the next day, self-invited guests. Ida had tried to prevent any such visit, in her desire to keep her husband’s degradation from the knowledge of his kindred; but Bessie was not to be so put off. She had heard that Brian was ill, and that Vernon had been dangerously ill; and her heart overflowed with love and compassion for her friend. It was not easy for Mr. Jardine to leave his parish, but he would have done a more difficult thing rather than see his wife unhappy; so on the Monday morning after that scene in the church, Ida received a telegram to say that Mr. and Mrs. Jardine were going to drive over to see her, and that they would claim her hospitality for a couple of days.
It was a drive of over thirty miles, only to be done by a merciful man between sunrise and sunset. Mr. and Mrs. Jardine started at five o’clock, breakfasted and lunched on the road, and brought their faithful steed, Drummer Boy, up to the Wimperfield portico at seven in the evening, with not a hair turned. Ida was waiting for them in the portico.
‘You darling, how pale and worried you look!’ exclaimed Bessie, as she hugged her friend; ‘and why didn’t you let me come before?’
‘You could have done me no good, dear, when my troubles were at the worst. Thank God the worst is over now — Vernie is getting on splendidly. He was downstairs to-day, and ate such a dinner. We were quite afraid he would bring on a relapse from over-eating. He is delighted at the idea of seeing you and Mr. Jardine.’
‘Has he gone to bed? I’ll go up to see him at once, if I may,’ said John Jardine.
‘He is in his own room. He asked to stop up till seven on purpose to see you.’
‘Then I’ll go to him this instant.’
The luggage had been brought out of the light T cart, and the Drummer Boy had been led round to the stables. Ida took Bessie to a room at the end of the house, remote from Brian’s apartments.
‘Why, this isn’t our usual room!’ said Bessie, astonished.
‘No, I thought this would be a pleasanter room in such warm weather. It looks east,’ Ida answered, rather feebly.
‘It’s a very nice room; only I felt more at home in the other. I have occupied it so often, you know, I felt almost as if it were my own. Oh, you cruel girl! why didn’t you let me come sooner? I wanted so to be with you in your trouble; and I offered to come directly I heard Vernie was ill!’
‘I know, dear; but you could have done no good. We were in God’s hands. We could only pray and wait.’
‘Love can always do good. I could have comforted you!
‘Nothing could have comforted me if he had died.’
‘And Brian — poor Brian has been ill, too. I thought him very much changed when we were here — so thin, so nervous, so depressed.’
‘Yes, he was ill then — he is very ill now. We take all the care we can of him, but he doesn’t get any better.’
‘Poor dear Brian! and he was once the soul of fun and gaiety — used to sing comic songs so capitally. I suppose it is a poor thing for a man to do, but it was very nice, especially at Christmas time. There are so few people who can do anything to help one over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Brian was good at everything — charades, clumps, consequences, dumb crambo. And to think that he should be ill so long! What is his complaint, Ida?’ asked Bessie, suddenly becoming earnest, after a lapse into childishness.
‘It is a nervous complaint,’ faltered Ida; ‘he will soon get over it, I hope and believe, if we take proper care of him. He is very excitable, very unlike his old self; and you must not be astonished at anything he may say or do.’
‘You don’t mean that he is out of his mind?’ said Bessie, with an awe-stricken look.
‘No, no; nothing of the kind — at least, nothing that is likely to be lasting; but he has delusions sometimes — a kind of hysterical affection. Oh, Bessie, I did not want you to know anything; I tried to keep you away.’
Bessie had her arms round her old friend, and Ida, quite broken down by the fears and agitations of the last six weeks, hid her face upon Mrs. Jardine’s shoulder and sobbed aloud. It was a complete collapse of heroic resolutions, of that unflinching courage and strength of mind which had sustained her so long; but it was also a blessed relief to the overcharged heart and brain.
‘It is very selfish of me to plague you with my troubles,’ she said, when Bessie had kissed and comforted her with every expression of sympathy and tenderness in the gamut of womanly love, ‘but I wanted you to be prepared for the worst. And now, let me help you to change your gown, if you are going to make any change for dinner. The gong will sound in less than half-an-hour.’
‘Oh, those gongs, they always fill me with despair!’ cried Bess. ‘I am never ready when ours begins to buzz through the house, like a gigantic, melancholy-mad bumble bee. Of course I must change, dear; firstly, because I am smothered with dust, and sixthly, as Dogberry says, because I have brought a pretty gown to do honour to Wimperfield.’
And Bessie, rushing to her portmanteau, and tearing out its contents in a frantic way, shook out the laces and ribbons of a gracious Watteau-like arrangement in Madras muslin, while she chattered to her hostess.
‘Shall I send for Jane Dyson?’ the immaculate maid, who had lived with an archbishop’s wife. ‘She can unpack your things.’
‘Not for worlds. I have oceans to tell you, and I should hate that prim personage looking on and listening. Such news, Ida: Urania is engaged.’
‘That was what everybody said. This was her sixth season, and it was rapidly becoming a case of real distress, and she was getting blue, oh, to a frightful extent — a perambulatory epitome of Huxley-cum-Darwin — that’s what our boys call her. And now, after refusing ever so many nice young men in the Government offices because they were not rich enough for her, she is going to make a great match, and marry a nasty old man.’
‘Oh, Bessie! nasty and old!’
‘Strong language, isn’t it? but the gentleman has been to Kingthorpe, and there is no doubt about the fact. One wouldn’t mind his being elderly if he were only a gentleman; but he is not.’
‘Then why in mercy’s name does Miss Rylance marry him?’
‘Because he is Sir Tobias Vandilk, one of the richest men on the Stock Exchange. He is of Dutch extraction, they say; and this is supposed to account for his utter destitution with regard to English aspirates. He has a palace in Park Lane, and a park in Yorkshire; gives dinners of a most recherché description every Thursday in the season; and immense shooting parties, at which I am told he and his friends slaughter quintillions of pheasants, and flood the London market every autumn; and it is whispered that he has lent money to royal personages.’
‘Is Urania happy?’
‘If she is not, I know who is. Dr. Rylance looks twenty years younger since the engagement. He was beginning to get weighed down by Urania. You remember with what a firm hand he managed her in days gone by! Well, after she took to Huxley and Darwin, and the rest of them, that was all over. She was always tripping him up with some little shred of scientific knowledge, fresh from Tyndall; always attacking his old-fashioned notions with some new light. He was as merry as a boy let loose from school when he came down to Kingthorpe the other day. He went to one of our picnics, and made himself tremendously agreeable. We took Sir Tobias to see the Abbey, and had afternoon tea there. He pretended to admire everything, but in a patronising way that made me savage; affected to think Wendover Abbey a little bit of a place, as compared with his modern barrack in Yorkshire, with its riding-school, tan gallop, range of orchard-houses, picture-gallery, and so on. And Urania’s grandeur is something too large for words. “You and Mr. Jardine must come and stay with us at Hanborough some day,” she said, as if she were promising me a treat; so I told her plainly that my husband’s parish work made such a visit impossible. “Oh, but some day,” she said sweetly. “Never,” said I; “we are rooted in the chalk of Salisbury Plain.” “Poor things!” she sighed, “what a destiny!”’
‘And you all drank tea at the Abbey,’ said Ida, musingly; ‘dear old Abbey! I can fancy you there, in the long low library, with the afternoon sunlight shining in at the open windows, and Mary Stuart smiling at you from the panelling over one fire-place, and crafty Elizabeth looking sideways at you from over the other, and the Dijon roses clambering and twining round every lattice.’
‘How well you remember the old place. Isn’t it horrid of Brian to stay away all these years?’
‘It is — rather eccentric.’
‘Eccentric! It is positively wicked, when we know how agreeable he can make himself. Why, in that happy summer we spent at the Abbey he brightened all our lives. Didn’t he, now, Ida?’
‘He was very kind,’ faltered Ida, like a slave giving evidence under torture. ‘Have you heard from him lately?’
‘Not for more than a year, but father hears of him through his London agent, and we know he is well. He sent us all lovely presents last Christmas — Indian shawls, prayer-rugs, ivories, carved sandalwood boxes. The Vicarage is glorified by his gifts.’
The gong began booming and buzzing as Bessie pinned a big yellow rose among the folds of her Madras fichu, and Mrs. Jardine and her hostess went down to the drawing-room lovingly arms entwined, as in that long-ago holiday, when Ida was a guest at Kingthorpe.
Lady Palliser and Mr. Jardine were in the drawing-room talking to each other, while Brian paced up and down the room, pale and wan, as he had looked yesterday in the church. He offered his arm to Bessie at his wife’s bidding, without a word. Mr. Jardine followed, with Lady Palliser and Ida; and the little party of five sat down to dinner with a blight upon them, the awful shadow of domestic misery. There are many such dinners eaten every day in England — than which the Barmecide’s was a more cheerful feast, a red herring and bread and butter in a garret a banquet of sweeter savour.
For the first two courses Brian preserved a sullen silence. He ate nothing — did not even pretend to eat — and drank the sherry and soda-water which were offered to him without comment. With the third course the butler, who had supplied him with the prescribed amount of sherry, gave him plain soda-water. He looked at his tumbler for a moment or so, and burst out laughing.
‘Byron used to drink soda-water at dinners when he was the rage in London society,’ he said. ‘It was chic, and Byron was like Sara Bernhardt — he would have done anything to get himself talked about.’
‘I should have thought the fame he won by “Childe Harold” would have satisfied him, without any outside notoriety as a total abstainer,’ said Mr. Jardine.
‘Oh, if you think that, you don’t know Byron,’ exclaimed Brian. ‘He wanted people always to be talking of him. A man may write the greatest book that was ever written, and the world will accept it, and put him on a pinnacle; but they soon leave off talking about him unless he does something. He must keep a bear in his rooms — quarrel with his wife — wear a pea-green overcoat — cross the Channel in a balloon — and go on doing queer things — if he wants to be famous. Byron was an adept in the art of réclame— just as Whistler is on his smaller scale. It wasn’t enough for Byron to be the greatest poet of modern Europe, he wanted to be the most notorious rake and roué into the bargain.’
‘It was a curious nature,’ said Mr. Jardine —‘half gold and half tinsel.’
‘Ah, but the tinsel caught the public. I really don’t think, for a man who wants to make a stir in his generation, a fellow could have played his cards better than Byron did.’
‘It is a life that one can only contemplate with infinite pity and regret — a great nature, wrecked by small vices and smaller follies,’ said Mr. Jardine; and then Brian took up the strain, and talked with loud assertiveness of the right of genius to do what it likes in the world, launching out into a broad declaration of infidelity and rank materialism, which shocked and scared the three women who heard him.
Ida gave an imploring look at her stepmother, and they all three rose simultaneously, and hastily retired, driven away by that blatant blasphemy. John Jardine closed the door upon the ladies, and then went quietly back to his seat. He heard all that Brian had to say — he listened to his wild ramblings as to the voice of an oracle; and then, when Brian had poured out his little stock of argument in favour of materialism, had quoted Aristotle, and Holbach, and Hume, and Comte, and Darwin, and had perverted their arguments against a personal God into the divine right of man to ruin his soul and body, John Jardine, who had read more of Aristotle than Brian knew of all the metaphysicians put together, and who had Plato, Kant, and Dugald Stewart in his heart of hearts, gravely took up the strain, and made mincemeat of Mr. Wendover’s philosophy.
Brian listened meekly, and did not appear to take offence when the Vicar went on to warn him against the peril here and hereafter of a life misspelt, a constitution ruined by self-indulgence, talents unused, opportunities neglected. The pale and haggard wretch sat cowering, as the voice of reproof and warning went on, solemnly, earnestly, with the warm sympathy which springs from perfect pity, from the Christian’s wide love of his fellow-men.
‘For your wife’s — for your own sake — for the love of Him in whose image you were made — wrestle with the devil that possesses you,’ said John Jardine, when they had risen to leave the room, laying his hand affectionately upon Brian’s shoulder. ‘Believe me, victory is possible.’
‘Not now,’ Brian answered, with a semi-hysterical laugh. ‘It is too late. There comes an hour, you know, even in your all-merciful creed, when the door is shut. “Too late, ye cannot enter now.” The door is shut upon me. I fooled my life away in London. It was pleasant enough while it lasted, but it’s over now. I can say with Cleopatra —“O my life in Egypt, O, the dalliance and the wit.”’
They were in the hall by this time. The broad marble-paved hall, with its marble figures of gods and goddesses, of which nobody ever took any more notice than if they had been umbrella stands. They were crossing the hall on their way to the drawing-room, when Brian suddenly clutched John Jardine’s arm and reeled heavily against him, with an appalling cry.
‘Hold me!’ he screamed; ‘hold me! I am going down!’
It was one of the dreadful symptoms of his dreadful disease. All at once, with the solid black and white marble beneath his feet, he felt himself upon the edge of a precipice, felt himself falling, falling, falling, into a bottomless pit.
It was an awful feeling, a waking nightmare. He sank exhausted into John Jardine’s arms, panting for breath.
‘You are safe, it is only a momentary delusion,’ said Mr. Jardine. ‘Have you had that feeling often before?’
‘Yes — sometimes — pretty often,’ gasped Brian.
Mr. Jardine’s wide reading and large experience as a parish priest had made him half a doctor. He knew that this was one of the symptoms of delirium tremens, and a symptom seen mostly in cases of a dangerous type. He had suspected the nature of Mr. Wendover’s disease before now; but now he was certain of it.
He went with Brian to his room, advising him to lie down and rest. Brian appearing consentient, Mr. Jardine left him, with Towler in attendance.
In the drawing-room the Vicar contrived to get a little quiet talk with Ida, while at the other end of the room Lady Palliser was expatiating to Bessie upon the minutest details of her boy’s illness. He invited Ida’s confidence, and frankly told her that he had fathomed the nature of Brian’s disease.
‘I have seen too many cases in the course of my parochial experience not to recognise the painful symptoms. I am so sorry for you and for him. It is a bright young life thrown away.’
‘Do you think he will not recover?’
‘I think it is a very bad case. He is wasted to a shadow, and has a worn, haggard look that I don’t like. And then he has those painful hallucinations — that idea of falling down a precipice, for instance, which are oftenest seen in fatal cases.’
Ida told him of the scene in the church yesterday — she confided in him fully — telling him all that Dr. Mallison had said of the case.
‘What can I do?’ she asked, piteously.
‘I don’t think you can do more than you are doing. That man who waits upon your husband is a nurse, I suppose?’
‘Yes. Dr. Mallison sent him.’
‘And care is taken that the patient gets no stimulants supplied to him?’
‘Every care — and yet —’
‘And yet what?’
‘I have a suspicion — and I think Towler suspects too — that Brian does get brandy — somehow.’
‘But how can that be, if your servants are honest, and this attendant is to be depended upon?’
‘I can’t tell you. I believe the servants are incapable of deceiving me. Towler, the attendant, comes to us with the highest character.’
‘Well, I will be on the alert while I am with you,’ said Mr. Jardine; and Ida felt as if he were a tower of strength. ‘I have seen these sad cases, and had to do with them, only too often. On some occasions I have been happy enough to be the means of saving a man from his own folly.’
‘Pray stop as long as you can with us, and do all you can,’ entreated Ida. ‘I wish I had asked you to come sooner, only I was so ashamed for him, poor creature. I thought it would be a wrong to him to let anyone know how low he had fallen.’
‘It is part of my office to know how low humanity can fall and yet be raised up again,’ said Mr. Jardine.
‘You won’t tell Bessie — she would be so grieved for her cousin.’
‘I will tell her nothing more than she can find out for herself. But you know she is very quick-witted.’
There was a change for the worse in Towler’s charge next morning, when Ida, who still occupied the room adjoining her husband’s bedchamber, went in at eight o’clock to inquire how he had passed the night. Brian was up, half dressed, pacing up and down the room, and talking incoherently. He had been up ever since five o’clock, Towler said; but it was impossible to get him to dress himself, or suffer himself to be dressed. A frightful restlessness had taken possession of him, more intense than any previous restlessness, and it was impossible to do anything for him. His hallucinations since daybreak had taken a frightful form; he had seen poisonous snakes gliding in and out of the folds of the bedclothes; he had fancied every kind of hideous monster — the winged reptiles of the jura formation — the armour-plated fish of the old red sandstone — everything that is grotesque, revolting, terrible — skeletons, poison-spitting toads, vampires, were-wolves, flying cats — they had all lurked amidst the draperies of bed or windows, or grinned at him through the panes of glass.
‘Look!’ he shrieked, as Ida approached him, soothing, pleading in gentlest accents; ‘look! don’t you see them?’ he cried, pointing to the shapes that seemed to people the room, and trying to push them aside with a restless motion of his hands; ‘don’t you see them, the lares and lemures? Look, there is Cleopatra with the asp at her breast! That bosom was once beautiful, and see now what a loathsome spectacle death has made it — the very worms recoil from that corruption. See, there is Canidia, the sorceress, who buried the boy alive! Look at her hair flying loose about her head! hair, no, those locks are living vipers! and Sagana, with hair erect, like the bristles of a wild boar! See, Ida, how she rushes about, sprinkling the room with water from the rivers of hell! And Veia, whose cruel heart never felt remorse! Yes, he knew them well, Horace. These furies were the women he had loved and wooed!’
Fancies, memories flitted across his disordered brain, swift as lightning flashes. In a moment Canidia was forgotten, and he was Pentheus, struggling with Agave and her demented crew. They were tearing him to pieces, their fingers were at his throat. Then he was in the East, a defenceless traveller in the tropical desert, surrounded by Thugs. He pointed to one particular spot where he saw his insidious foe — he described the dusky supple figure, the sinuous limbs, gliding serpent-like towards him, the oiled body, the dagger in the uplifted hand. An illustration in Sir Charles Bell’s classic treatise had flashed into his brain. So, from memory to memory, with a frightful fertility of fancy, his unresting brain hurried on; while his wife could only watch and listen, tortured by an agony greater than his own. To look on, and to be powerless to afford the slightest help was dreadful. Up and down, and round about the room he wandered, talking perpetually, perpetually waving aside the horrid images which pursued and appalled him, his eyeballs in constant motion, the pupils dilated, his hollow cheeks deadly pale, his face bathed in perspiration.
‘Send for Mr. Fosbroke,’ said Ida, speaking on the threshold of the adjoining room, to the maid who brought her letters; and, in the midst of his distraction, Brian’s quick ear caught the name.
‘Fosbroke me no Fosbrokes!’ he said. ‘I will have no village apothecaries diagnosing my disease, no ignorant quack telling me how to treat myself.’
‘I will telegraph for Dr. Mallison, if you like, Brian,’ Ida answered, gently; ‘but I know Mr. Fosbroke is a clever man, and he perfectly understands —’
‘Yes, he will have the audacity to tell you he knows what is the matter with me. He will say this is delirium tremens— a lie, and you must know it is a lie!’
To her infinite relief, Mr. Jardine appeared at this moment He questioned Towler as to the possibility of tranquillising his patient; and he found that the sedatives prescribed by Dr. Mallison had ceased to exercise any beneficial effect. Nights of insomnia and restlessness had been the rule with the patient ever since Towler had been in attendance upon him.
‘I never knew such a brain, or such invention!’ exclaimed Towler; ‘the people and the places, and the things he talks about is enough to make a man’s hair stand on end.’
‘The natural result of a vivid memory, and a good deal of desultory reading.’
‘Most patients takes an idea and harps upon it,’ said Towler. ‘It’s the multiplication table — or the day of judgment — or the volcanoes and hot-springs, and what-you-may-call-ems, in the centre of the earth; and they’ll go on over and over again — always coming back to the same point, like a merry-go-round; but this one is quite different. There’s no bounds to his delusions. We’re at the North Pole one minute, and digging up diamonds in Africa the next.’
Brian had flung himself upon his bed, rolled in the damask curtain, like Henry Plantagenet, what time he went off into one of his fury-fits about Thomas Becket; and Mr. Jardine and Towler were able to talk confidentially at a respectful distance.
‘Are you sure that he does not get brandy without your knowledge?’
‘No, sir,’ said Towler; ‘that is what I am not sure about. It’s a puzzling case. He didn’t ought to be so bad as he is after my care of him. There ought to be some improvement by this time; instead of which it’s all the other way.’
‘What precautions have you taken?’
‘I’ve searched his rooms, and not a thing have I found stowed away anywhere. It isn’t often that he’s left to himself, for when I get my midday sleep Mrs. Wendover sits with him; or, if he’s cranky, and wants to be alone, she stays in the next room, with the door ajar between them; and Robert, the groom, is on duty in the passage, in case the patient should get unmanageable.’
‘I see — you have been very careful; but practically your patient has been often alone — the half-open door signifies nothing — he was unobserved, and free to do what he pleased all the same.’
‘But he couldn’t drink if there was no liquor within reach.’
‘Was there none? that is the question!’ answered Mr. Jardine.
‘Look about the rooms yourself, sir, and see if he could hide anything, except in such places as I’ve overhauled every morning,’ said Towler, with an offended air; and then, swelling with outraged dignity, he flung open doors of wardrobes and closets, pulled out drawers, and otherwise demonstrated the impossibility of anything remaining secret from his eagle eye.
‘What about the next room?’ asked Mr. Jardine, going into the adjoining room, which was Brian’s study.
The room was littered with books and papers heaped untidily upon tables and chairs, and even strewn upon the carpet. Brian had objected to any attempt at setting this apartment in order — the servants were to leave all books and papers untouched, on pain of his severe displeasure. Thus everything in the shape of litter had been allowed to accumulate, with its natural accompaniment, dust. Everyone knows the hideous confusion which the daily and weekly newspapers alone can make in a room if left unsorted and unarranged for a mouth or so; and mixed with these there were pamphlets, magazines, manuscripts, and piles of more solid literature in the shape of books brought up from the library for reference and consultation.
In one corner there were a pile of empty boxes, and on one of these Mr. Jardine’s eye lighted instantly, on account of its resemblance to a wine merchant’s case.
He pulled this box out from the others — a plain deal box, roughly finished, just the size of a two-dozen case. One label had been pulled off, but there was a railway label which gave the data of delivery, just three weeks back.
‘Have you any idea what this box contained?’ inquired Mr. Jardine.
‘No, sir. It was here when I came, just as you see it now.’
‘It looks very like a wine merchant’s box.’
‘Well, it might be a wine-case, sir, as far as the look of it but it might have held anything. It was empty when I came here, and there’s no stowage for wine bottles in these rooms, as you have seen with your own eyes.’
‘Don’t be too sure of that; and now go back to your patient, and get him to eat some breakfast, if you can, while I go downstairs.’
‘He can’t eat, sir. It’s pitiful; he don’t eat enough, for a robin. We try to keep up his strength with strong soups, and such like; but it’s hard work to get him to swallow anything.’
Mr. Jardine went down to the family breakfast room, where his wife, Ida, and her stepmother were sitting at table, with pale perturbed faces, and very little inclination for that excellent fare which the Wimperfield housekeeper provided with a kind of automatic regularity, and would have continued to provide on the eve of a deluge or an earthquake. He told Ida that all was going on quietly upstairs, and that he would share Towler’s task as nurse all that day, so that she might be quite easy in her mind as to the patient. And then the servants came trooping in, as the clock struck nine, and they all knelt down, and John Jardine read the daily portion of prayer and praise.
It had been decreed by medical authority that on this day, provided the sky were propitious and the wind in a warm quarter, Vernon was to go out for his first drive. Mr. Jardine accordingly entreated that the three ladies would accompany him, and that Ida would have no fear as to her husband’s welfare during her absence.
‘I don’t like to leave him,’ she said, in confidence, to Mr. Jardine; ‘he seems so much worse this morning — wilder than I have ever seen him yet — and so white and haggard.’
‘He is very bad, but your remaining indoors will do him no good. I will not leave him while you are away.’
Ida yielded. It was a relief to her to submit to authority — to have some one able to tell her to do this or that. She felt utterly worn out in body and mind — all the energy, the calm strength of purpose, which had sustained her up to a certain point, was now exhausted. Despair had taken possession of her, and with despair came that dull apathy which is like death in life.
John Jardine took his wife aside before he went back to Brian’s rooms.
‘I want you to take care of Ida, to keep with her all day. She has been sorely tried, poor soul, and needs all your love.’
‘She shall have it in full measure,’ answered Bessie. ‘How grave and anxious you look! Is Brian very ill?’
‘I am afraid so. I shall hear what Mr. Fosbroke says presently, and if his report be bad, I shall telegraph for the physician.’
‘Poor Brian! How strangely he talked at dinner last night! Oh, John, I hardly dare say it — but — is he out of his mind?’
‘Temporarily — but it is the delirium of a kind of brain fever, not madness.’
‘And he will recover?’
‘Please God; but he is very low. I am seriously alarmed about him.’
‘Poor dear Brian!’ sighed Bess. ‘He was once my favourite cousin. But I must go back to Ida. You need not be afraid of my neglecting her. I shan’t leave her all day.’
Mr. Jardine went to the housekeeper’s room to make an inquiry. He wanted to know what that box from London had contained, a box delivered upon such and such a date.
The housekeeper’s mind was dark, or worse than dark upon the subject — an obscurity enlightened by flashes of delusive light. Two housemaids, and an odd man who looked after the coal scuttles, were produced, and gave their evidence in a manner which would have laid them open to the charge of rank prevarication and perjury, as to the receipt of a certain wooden box, which at some stages of the inquiry became hopelessly entangled with a hamper from the Petersfield fishmonger, and a band-box from Lady Palliser’s Brighton milliner.
‘The carriage must have been paid,’ said the housekeeper, ‘that’s the difficulty. If there’d been anything to pay, it would have been entered in my book; but when the carriage is paid, don’t you see, sir, it’s out of my jurisdiction, as you may say,’ with conscious pride in a free use of the English language, ‘and I may hear nothing about it.’
But now the odd man, after much thoughtful ‘scratching of his head, was suddenly enlightened by a flash of memory from the paleozoic darkness of three weeks ago. He remembered a heavy wooden box that had come in his dinner-time — the fact of its coming at that eventful hour had evidently impressed him — and he had carried it up to Mr. Wendover’s own sitting-room.
It was very heavy, and Mr. Wendover had told him that it contained books.
‘Did you open it for Mr. Wendover?’
‘No, sir; I offered to open it, but Mr. Wendover says he’d got the tools himself, and would open it at his leisure. He had no call for the books yet awhile, he says, and didn’t want it opened.
‘I see, the box contained books. Thank you, that’s all I wanted to know.’
John Jardine had very little doubt in his mind now as to the actual contents of the box. He had no doubt that Brian, finding himself refused drink, for which he suffered the drunkard’s incessant craving, had contrived to get himself supplied from London; and that if the fire of his disease had known no abatement it was because the fuel that fed the flame had not been wanting.
The only question that remained to be answered was how Brian, carefully attended as he had been, had managed to dispose of his secret store of drink, under the very eyes, as it were, of his keeper. But Mr. Jardine knew that the sufferer from alcoholic poison is no less cunning than the absolute lunatic, and that falsehood, meanness, and fraud seem to be symptoms of the disease.
When he went back to Brian’s rooms, he found the patient lying on his bed, exhausted by the agitation and restlessness of the last few hours. He was not asleep, but was quieter than usual, in a semi-conscious state, muttering to himself now and then. Towler was sitting at a little table by the open window, breakfasting comfortably; his enjoyment of the coffee-pot, and a dish of ham and eggs, being in no manner lessened by the neighbourhood of the patient.
‘Haven’t been able to get him to take any nourishment,’ whispered Towler, as Mr. Jardine came quietly into the room ‘He’s uncommon bad.’
‘Mr. Fosbroke will be here presently, I hope.’
‘I don’t think he’ll be able to do much good when he does come,’ said Towler; ‘doctors ain’t in it with a case of this kind. If he don’t go off into a good sleep by-and-by, I’m afraid this will be a fatal case.’
Mr. Jardine made no reply to this discouraging observation. There are times when speech is worse than useless. He stood by the window, looking over at that shrunken figure on the groat old-fashioned four-post bed, with its voluminous drab damask curtains, its cords, fringes, tassels, and useless decorations — the nerveless, helpless figure of wasted youth, the wreckage of an ill-spent life. The haggard countenance, damp with the dews of mental agony, and of a livid pallor, looked like the face of death. What could medicine do for this man beyond diagnosing his case, and giving an opinion about it, for the satisfaction — God save the mark! — of his friends? John Jardine knew in his heart that not all the doctors in Christendom could pick this shattered figure up again, and replace it in its former position among mankind.
Still intent upon solving that mystery about the contents of the wine-case, Mr. Jardine’s eyes wandered about the room, trying to discover some hiding-place which the careful had overlooked. But so far he could see no such thing There was the tall four-poster, with its square cornice, a ponderous mahogany frame with fluted damask stretched across it. Could Brian have hidden his brandy up yonder, behind the mahogany cornice? Surely not. First the damask would have bulged with the weight of the bottles, and, secondly, the place was not accessible enough. He must have hidden his poison in some spot where he could apply himself to it furtively, hurriedly twenty, fifty, a hundred times in the day or night.
Presently Mr. Jardine’s glance fell on the half-open door of the bath-room. It was a slip of a room cut off the study, a room that had been created within the last twenty years. It was the only room which Mr. Jardine had not inspected before he went down to breakfast.
He pushed open the door, and went in, followed by Towler, wiping the egginess and haminess from his mouth as he went.
‘You kept your eye upon this room as well as the others, I suppose,’ said Mr. Jardine, looking about him.
‘Yes, sir, I have kept an eye upon everything.’
The apartment was not extensive. A large copper bath with a ponderous mahogany case, panelled, moulded, bevelled, the elaborate workmanship of local cabinet-makers; a row of brass hooks hung with bath towels, which looked like surplices pendent in a vestry; a washstand in a corner, a dressing-table and glass, with its belongings, in the window, and a wicker arm-chair, comprised the whole extent of furniture. No hiding-place here, one would suppose.
Mr. Jardine looked about the room thoughtfully. It was the one apartment in which the patient could hardly be intruded upon by his attendant. Here he could be sure of privacy.
‘Did you examine the case of the bath,’ he inquired presently, his mathematical eye quick to take in the difference between the inner shell of copper and the outer husk of mahogany.
‘No, sir,’ answered Towler, briskly. ‘Is it ‘oller?’
‘Of course it’s hollow. Surely your eye tells you that.’
‘Yes, sir; but there’s the hot-water pipes inside — and there’s no getting at it, except for a plumber.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Mr. Jardine, kneeling down at one end of the bath, where there was a convenient mahogany door for the accommodation of the plumber, a door which lay somewhat in shadow, and had escaped Towler’s observation.
‘Bring me a candle,’ said Mr. Jardine, unconsciously imitating the brotherhood of plumbers, whose consumption of candles is a household terror.
Towler returned to fetch a candle, while Mr. Jardine with cautious hand explored the cavern-like recesses between the bath and its outer shell, recesses in which lurked serpent-like convolutions of hot-water pipes and cold-water pipes, waste and overflow.
Yes, before Towler could arrive with the candle, he had fathomed the mystery. Three or four full bottles, and a large number of empties, were stowed away in this dusty receptacle. He drew one of the full bottles out into the light. ‘Hennessy’s Fine Old Cognac,’ said the label. This had been the secret source of fever and delirium — here had lurked the evil which had made all remedial measures vain.
Mr. Fosbroke was announced while John Jardine was washing the dust and the stains of rusty iron from his hands. Brian was in too low a condition to be rude to the country practitioner, much as he had protested against his interference. He suffered the apothecary to sit by his bed and feel his pulse, without a word of remonstrance.
‘How do you find him?’ asked Mr. Jardine, when Mr. Fosbroke had left the bedside.
‘Very bad; pulse small and thready — a hundred and forty in the minute; violent throbbing in the temporal and carotid arteries; profuse perspiration — all bad signs. What medicines has he been taking?’
He was shown the prescriptions.
‘Hum — hum — digitalis — bromide of potassium. I should like to inject chloral; but as the case is in Dr. Mallison’s hands —’
‘If you think there is danger I will telegraph for Mallison.’
‘There is always danger in this stage of the malady, especially in the case of a patient of Mr. Wendover’s age. The season, too, is unfavourable — the mortality in this complaint is nearly double in summer. If we can get him into a sound sleep of some hours he may wake with a decided turn for the better — the delirium subjugated; but in his low state, even sleep may be fatal — there is so little vital power. Yes, I should certainly telegraph for Dr. Mallison; and in the meantime I’ll try what can be done with chloral.’
‘You must do the utmost you can. Mrs. Wendover has implicit faith in you.’
‘I’ll drive back and get the chloral.’
When the apothecary was gone, Mr. Jardine’s first act was to telegraph to the London physician, his next, to put the unused bottles of cognac under lock and key, and, with Towler’s help, to clear away the empty bottles without the knowledge of the servants. No doubt every member of the household knew the nature of Mr. Wendover’s illness; but it was well to spare him the exposure of these degrading details.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50