If Emily’s eyes could have followed Alban as her thoughts were following him, she would have seen him stop before he reached the end of the road in which the cottage stood. His heart was full of tenderness and sorrow: the longing to return to her was more than he could resist. It would be easy to wait, within view of the gate, until the doctor’s visit came to an end. He had just decided to go back and keep watch — when he heard rapid footsteps approaching. There (devil take him!) was the doctor himself.
“I have something to say to you, Mr. Morris. Which way are you walking?”
“Any way,” Alban answered — not very graciously.
“Then let us take the turning that leads to my house. It’s not customary for strangers, especially when they happen to be Englishmen, to place confidence in each other. Let me set the example of violating that rule. I want to speak to you about Miss Emily. May I take your arm? Thank you. At my age, girls in general — unless they are my patients — are not objects of interest to me. But that girl at the cottage — I daresay I am in my dotage — I tell you, sir, she has bewitched me! Upon my soul, I could hardly be more anxious about her, if I was her father. And, mind, I am not an affectionate man by nature. Are you anxious about her too?”
“In what way?”
“In what way are you anxious, Doctor Allday?”
The doctor smiled grimly.
“You don’t trust me? Well, I have promised to set the example. Keep your mask on, sir — mine is off, come what may of it. But, observe: if you repeat what I am going to say —”
Alban would hear no more. “Whatever you may say, Doctor Allday, is trusted to my honor. If you doubt my honor, be so good as to let go my arm — I am not walking your way.”
The doctor’s hand tightened its grasp. “That little flourish of temper, my dear sir, is all I want to set me at my ease. I feel I have got hold of the right man. Now answer me this. Have you ever heard of a person named Miss Jethro?”
Alban suddenly came to a standstill.
“All right!” said the doctor. “I couldn’t have wished for a more satisfactory reply.”
“Wait a minute,” Alban interposed. “I know Miss Jethro as a teacher at Miss Ladd’s school, who left her situation suddenly — and I know no more.”
The doctor’s peculiar smile made its appearance again.
“Speaking in the vulgar tone,” he said, “you seem to be in a hurry to wash your hands of Miss Jethro.”
“I have no reason to feel any interest in her,” Alban replied.
“Don’t be too sure of that, my friend. I have something to tell you which may alter your opinion. That ex-teacher at the school, sir, knows how the late Mr. Brown met his death, and how his daughter has been deceived about it.”
Alban listened with surprise — and with some little doubt, which he thought it wise not to acknowledge.
“The report of the inquest alludes to a ‘relative’ who claimed the body,” he said. “Was that ‘relative’ the person who deceived Miss Emily? And was the person her aunt?”
“I must leave you to take your own view,” Doctor Allday replied. “A promise binds me not to repeat the information that I have received. Setting that aside, we have the same object in view — and we must take care not to get in each other’s way. Here is my house. Let us go in, and make a clean breast of it on both sides.”
Established in the safe seclusion of his study, the doctor set the example of confession in these plain terms:
“We only differ in opinion on one point,” he said. “We both think it likely (from our experience of the women) that the suspected murderer had an accomplice. I say the guilty person is Miss Jethro. You say — Mrs. Rook.”
“When you have read my copy of the report,” Alban answered, “I think you will arrive at my conclusion. Mrs. Rook might have entered the outhouse in which the two men slept, at any time during the night, while her husband was asleep. The jury believed her when she declared that she never woke till the morning. I don’t.”
“I am open to conviction, Mr. Morris. Now about the future. Do you mean to go on with your inquiries?”
“Even if I had no other motive than mere curiosity,” Alban answered, “I think I should go on. But I have a more urgent purpose in view. All that I have done thus far, has been done in Emily’s interests. My object, from the first, has been to preserve her from any association — in the past or in the future — with the woman whom I believe to have been concerned in her father’s death. As I have already told you, she is innocently doing all she can, poor thing, to put obstacles in my way.”
“Yes, yes,” said the doctor; “she means to write to Mrs. Rook — and you have nearly quarreled about it. Trust me to take that matter in hand. I don’t regard it as serious. But I am mortally afraid of what you are doing in Emily’s interests. I wish you would give it up.”
“Because I see a danger. I don’t deny that Emily is as innocent of suspicion as ever. But the chances, next time, may be against us. How do you know to what lengths your curiosity may lead you? Or on what shocking discoveries you may not blunder with the best intentions? Some unforeseen accident may open her eyes to the truth, before you can prevent it. I seem to surprise you?”
“You do, indeed, surprise me.”
“In the old story, my dear sir, Mentor sometimes surprised Telemachus. I am Mentor — without being, I hope, quite so long-winded as that respectable philosopher. Let me put it in two words. Emily’s happiness is precious to you. Take care you are not made the means of wrecking it! Will you consent to a sacrifice, for her sake?”
“I will do anything for her sake.”
“Will you give up your inquiries?”
“From this moment I have done with them!”
“Mr. Morris, you are the best friend she has.”
“The next best friend to you, doctor.”
In that fond persuasion they now parted — too eagerly devoted to Emily to look at the prospect before them in its least hopeful aspect. Both clever men, neither one nor the other asked himself if any human resistance has ever yet obstructed the progress of truth — when truth has once begun to force its way to the light.
For the second time Alban stopped, on his way home. The longing to be reconciled with Emily was not to be resisted. He returned to the cottage, only to find disappointment waiting for him. The servant reported that her young mistress had gone to bed with a bad headache.
Alban waited a day, in the hope that Emily might write to him. No letter arrived. He repeated his visit the next morning. Fortune was still against him. On this occasion, Emily was engaged.
“Engaged with a visitor?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. A young lady named Miss de Sor.”
Where had he heard that name before? He remembered immediately that he had heard it at the school. Miss de Sor was the unattractive new pupil, whom the girls called Francine. Alban looked at the parlor window as he left the cottage. It was of serious importance that he should set himself right with Emily. “And mere gossip,” he thought contemptuously, “stands in my way!”
If he had been less absorbed in his own interests, he might have remembered that mere gossip is not always to be despised. It has worked fatal mischief in its time.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52