A pale shaft

M. Châtelard sat down by the bed and laid his finger on the slender
wrist. A hardening pulse. Fever. He had anticipated fever, he almost
welcomed it as the natural course.

Would she live? These nervous creatures are as tough as cats. But,
poor soul, were it not perhaps best for her were she to pass? What a
situation! Great gods, what a situation! There was not one of these
searchers after psychological enigmas, not one of these implacable
exponents of the weaknesses of the human heart, not a Maupassant, not a
Mirbeau, not a d’Annunzio who could have devised the story of this
impasse. To die would be too absolutely commonplace a solution. If he,
Châtelard, could help it, she should not die, were it only for the
proper working-out of the problem.

Propping his chin on his hand and his elbow on the bed, the savant
leaned forward, gazing at his patient, till his keen eyes, piercing the
gloom, were able to trace the lines of the unconscious face.

“It is not that she is so beautiful—there are many in this country who
possess the same incredible purity of outline, the same delicate wealth
of feminine charm—but _c’est une ensorceleuse_! Did I not say it to the
young man? One of those women who create passions that become historic.
One of those whose fate is to make havoc as they go. The three men
here—they are mad of her, each in his different way. The poor
Gerardine, he could have cried like a child, as we turned him from the
room … and the sly, quiet, relentless Bethune, that man of granite …
the lover, he’s devoured; the very stone wastes in the furnace. How thin
he has grown since that Indian night! And the third—the most surprising
of all—the real husband! Oh, the strange story! the husband—the _first_
husband _par dessus le marché_, as though matters were not sufficiently
entangled already! Ah, ça! mais d’où sort-il, celui-là? C’est qu’il
faisait pitié—c’est encore lui le plus atteint des trois! One could
feel the frenzied soul under that air of calm command.” …

Then enthusiastically following the trail of his own Gallic deductions,
M. Châtelard began to reconstruct, _con amore_, the threads of the
drama.

“Un beau gaillard, malgré sa pâleur de revenant…. Avec lui, sans
doute, elle a appris ce que c’est que l’amour. Ils se sont aimés jeunes
et beaux…. Ils se valaient bien l’un l’autre, certes! Idylle
parfaite, heures parfumées! Then comes the cyclone. He is swept from
her by relentless duty. He dies, a hero in war as he was a hero in
love. She is alone, desolate. She mourns. At the psychological
moment, enters upon the scene the handsome, rich, powerful Sir
Gerardine. He offers her ease, position, comfort, a home, his
protection. She turns to him as a child to a father. She places her
hand in his. And thereafter follows the inevitable. The years have
gone by; she becomes more and more a woman; the demands of her nature
expand; and the old husband who is—and I don’t blame him—not content to
be father…. _Sapristi_, how he bores her, the old husband! Then
arrives the man, the young man, the man of her own age. (He has loved
her already as his friend’s wife, in the secret of his own soul, all in
honour and loyalty.) He seeks her now, knowing that his hour has come.”

“L’oublierai-je, jamais telle qu’elle était ce soir-là, au moment de la
première tentation? Ruisselante du feu vert de ses émeraudes; superbe
dans sa beauté, sa chasteté insolente; mais couvant déjà sous la neige
de sa blanche beauté, le feu destructeur de la passion renaissante.
Elle a lutté. Oh, oui, celle-là a lutté! Son âme et son corps se sont
entredéchirés…. Mais, poursuivie jusque dans cette solitude même par
l’implacable qui l’a traquée comme le tigre sa proie, la fin est
inévitable!”

“Et au moment suprême où, femme au zénith des a gloire, elle cède à la
seconde passion—voilà l’objet de la première qui rèsuscite, et vient la
rèclamer! Ah, dieux, quel cri! Les oreilles m’en tintent encore. Jamais
je ne l’oublierai, ce cri d’un coeur qui s’effondre….”

“And the resuscitated man? The devil! where does he come from?
Springing up in the old house in the middle of the night. Another
tragedy there! He misdoubts, as yet, nothing. Strong in his right, in
the memory of their love, he comes to claim her of the old husband—Of
the third, of the lover, he has no suspicion. My God, with what eyes of
trouble and wonder did he not look at me when I bade him leave her!
Unhappy fellow, why ’tis his very existence that’s killing her! How
long will it be before he finds out the truth, finds out that, at the
very moment of regaining his treasure, he has been robbed, robbed by him
who was his friend? And the friend, then, that man of granite, how will
he bear himself? Will even his relentless determination stand before
that terrible double knowledge of his own unconscious treachery to his
comrade and of the mortal danger to his beloved? A stronger man, even
than he, might well go mad! … As for the pitiable second husband, the
old man, who counts for so little in the midst of these three young
lives, and is yet so stricken in all he holds most dear—his dignity, his
honour, his pathetic senile confidence and affection—what of him? Oh,
antique, silent house, what palpitating drama do you not hold, this
desolate dawn! Those three men, each with his passion and his claim—his
just claim—and the woman there, lying so still! …”

So M. Châtelard mused, with ever and anon a keen eye to the patient, a
stealthy touch on the pulse.

A pale shaft of light pierced in between the curtains, and, like a
slowly shifting finger, moved straightly till it pointed to the bed. M.
Châtelard started, rubbed his eyes, adjusted his spectacles, and stared
again. The heavy, half-loosened tress that lay across the sheet shone
silver in the light—the tress that had been so richly golden, crown of
that haughty head, only the evening before.

“I have heard of such a thing,” said the doctor to himself, “but it is
the first time that I have seen it with my own eyes.” He bent over the
pillow and curiously lifted the strand of hair. There was no illusion
about it. Rosamond’s glorious hair was white.

“I think you had better get your uncle a little whisky, or something,”
said Lady Aspasia to Baby, as, upon their ejection into the passage, she
guided the poor gentleman’s vague footsteps towards her own room. “Come
in here, Arty; there’s a good fire.”

Sir Arthur turned his eyes upon her with a vacant look, catching at
surprise.

“Yes, my room. But, Lord, I don’t think any of us need mind the
_convenances_ to-night!”

She gave a dry laugh. At least, whatever rules were transgressed
now—they only regarded him and her: the thought came with sudden and
exceeding pleasantness upon her; and that heart of hers, atrophied by
long disuse, was stirred. She looked at the helpless, dazed creature,
sinking into her armchair, with a softness that, even in his most
gallant youth, his image had not evoked. “Good fellow” as she was, Lady
Aspasia was yet a woman in the hidden fibre.

Young Aspasia, shuffling about in her slippers, yet still fleet of foot,
broke in upon their silence with the decanter. Shivering, partly with
fatigue, partly with the chill of the dawn, she stood, vaguely watching
the elder lady administer a stiff bumper to Sir Arthur.

Complete as was the turmoil in her own mind, deep as was her distress
and anxiety anent Rosamond, Baby’s sense of humour was irresistibly
acute: the vision of Lady Aspasia, incompletely attired under her motor
coat, her loose coiled hair (divested of the dignity of her
“transformation”) presenting a strangely flat appearance, bending with
such solicitude over so reduced a Runkle, brought a hysterical giggle in
her throat.

“Pray,” said Lady Aspasia, wheeling round upon her, “don’t begin to cry
here, my dear! One is as much as I can manage.”

“I’m not crying,” retorted young Aspasia, as indignantly as her
chattering teeth would allow. “I’m laughing.”

“Then that’s worse,” responded the other, succinctly. “Take some
whisky, too. Go to bed.”

Sir Arthur, gulping down the potent mixture provided for him, extended a
forbidding left hand:

“One moment,” he ordered; then choked and coughed. But the stimulant
was working its effect, his backbone was notably stiffer. The native
dignity, not to say pomposity, was returning to his support. He regarded
his niece with eyes, severe, if somewhat watery. “How long, Aspasia,
have you known this—this—disgraceful state of affairs?”

He rolled his suffused gaze from the girl to his distinguished relative,
seeking a kindred indignation.

“You mean, how long I have known that Aunt Rosamond wasn’t married at
all? Oh, Lord, what am I saying?—that she’s got two husbands—gracious,
I can’t help being muddled. Who could? Anyhow, that she’s not married
to you? I——”

“The premises are by no means established,” interrupted Sir Arthur, with
not unsuccessful reaching after his old manner. “But how long, I ask,
have you known of the presence in this house—or in this neighbourhood—of
the person, impostor or no, who dares to present himself as Harry
English?”

“Well, as a matter of fact,” said Baby, hugging herself in her
dressing-gown, the warmth of the fire, the heat of her reawakening
antagonism, getting the better of her chill tremors; “as a matter of
fact, you have known him a good deal longer and more intimately than I
have.”

“Lord, child, how you bandy words!” said Lady Aspasia, disapprovingly;
“let her go to bed, Arty. Surely, you’ll have plenty of time by-and-by
for all this.”

But the Lieutenant-Governor waived the interruption aside with
impatience. Miss Cuningham did not await further questioning. It would
be scarce human to feel no complacency in the power to impart weighty
information. And Baby was among the most human of her race.

“You went and fished him out yourself,” she cried. “Your own particular,
private secretary.”

And still Sir Arthur was all at sea.

“Private secretary,” he repeated blankly, hastily running over in his
mind all the members of his staff within recent years. Nonsense!
Preposterous! There was not one who bore the faintest resemblance to
this black-avised, domineering intruder.

Lady Aspasia whistled under her breath to mark her displeasure at the
inopportune discussion, and mixed herself a companion bumper to Sir
Arthur’s.

“The native spring, not quite so native as we all fancied, Runkle.
Muhammed Saif-u-din. My goodness,” cried the girl, clasping her hands,
and struck with a new aspect of the situation, “no wonder I thought him
queer! … No wonder, Runkle, he looked at you as if he could murder
you! Lord, it’s just too romantic! To think of his being with you all
these days and weeks, and of his being here, alone with us—waiting,
waiting all the time.”

“Muhammed…” ejaculated Sir Arthur, and sat in his chair as if turned
to stone.

Then suddenly:

“Muhammed!” he cried again, in a high shrill voice, and bounded to his
feet. “The damned black scoundrel,” foamed the Lieutenant-Governor,
“the wretched nigger. The miserable beggar, whom I took from the gutter
and admitted into my household, and treated as a gentleman—a gentleman,
begad! By the Lord, he shall smart for this! It’s a hideous
conspiracy! No, no, Lady Aspasia, you don’t know the race as I do.
It’s trickery, it’s a piece of monstrous Indian jugglery. I tell you,
it’s a conspiracy between them all.”

“Of course,” cut in sarcastic Baby, trembliog again, this time with
anger, “it’s all a conspiracy, merely to annoy the Runkle. Captain
English has simply plotted not to have been killed, and poor Aunt
Rosamond lies at death’s door out of sheer aggravation—that’s part of
the conspiracy also.”

“And pray,” said Sir Arthur, unheeding anything but the opposition of
her tone, and turning furiously again upon the girl, “will you have the
kindness to answer me at last? You, you, my niece, how long have you
been in the business? A nice set of vipers I’ve been nourishing! Oh,
my God!”

He put his hand to his forehead and reeled; then stretched out his arm,
gropingly. Promptly, Lady Aspasia popped the glass she had destined for
herself into the vague fingers; and, as if mechanically, it was
instantly conveyed to his lips.

“I’ve been in the business no longer than you, yourself, Runkle.”

Young Aspasia, between anger, scorn, and her sense of humour, was now
perilously near the hysterics dreaded by her namesake.

“Now look here,” said the latter, catching the small figure by the elbow
and turning it towards the door, “you get out of this in double-quick
time; I’ll manage your uncle.”

“Master Muhammed will find he has made a little mistake—a little
mistake,” said the great man, spurred once more to his normal vigour of
intellect.

He was standing, legs wide apart, on the hearthrug, and glared at his
niece as she wheeled round on the threshold for her usual Parthian shot.

“It’s rather a pity that he does not happen to be Muhammed any more;
isn’t it, Runkle?” she cried spitefully; “that he never was Muhammed,
but always Harry English, Harry English, Harry English, who never was
dead at all!”

She closed the door with a slam upon a picture of her uncle’s suddenly
stricken face, of Lady Aspasia’s swift advance towards him with
outstretched hands.

“She’ll manage him!” said Baby to herself, with a sobbing giggle, as she
ran down the dark passage.