visitation

“What is love?” asked Leah, the next day, at twenty minutes past four
of a clear wintry afternoon.

With all his knowledge of five languages, Demetrius could find no
answer, and rose from his knees with the feelings of a man who is
trying to melt an iceberg with a lucifer match. Ever since Lady Jim
arrived to keep her appointment in the picture gallery, he had been
explaining his feelings at length, and in the orthodox attitude of a
mortal worshipping a goddess. He had crossed his “t’s” and dotted his
“i’s” with the utmost precision. From English he had glided into
French, to plead the attractions of illicit passion: two minutes of
German resulted in sentimental assertions of that passion’s
righteousness, and in illustrations of Wertherism; and, immediately
before she asked that impossible question, he had harked back to her
native tongue, to impress upon her the solid British common-sense of
his wooing. Leah listened to this polyglot love-making with the
feeling that she was camping under the tower of Babel. Demetrius might
have been a gramophone, pouring out recitations from the poets, for
all the impression his impassionate rhetoric made on her well-trained
feelings.

“I suppose all these speeches can be classified under the heading of
love,” she said unkindly, when his exhaustion gave her an opportunity
of intervening. “But–what is love?”

“I have been trying to explain,” stammered the Russian, getting on his
legs dispiritedly.

“Oh, your intentions are of the best. I gather that much; but I am
still waiting for a definition.”

“Love is worship,” ventured Demetrius, rashly.

“Then why aren’t you on your knees?”

“I have been on my knees for fifteen minutes.”

“Really! When did you look at your watch?”

“My heart told me.”

“Then your heart is a time-keeper, or perhaps a time-server.”

“If you will permit me to serve you, my service will be for all time.”

“Ah! It seems we are immortal, then?”

“You are,” he declared passionately; “every goddess is immortal.”

Lady Jim laughed. This war of words was amusing and pretty, but she
wished to arrive at some conclusion which would repay her for spending
an hour in a cold gallery, packed with shockingly bad pictures.

“I am waiting for your definition of love,” she said at length.

“I cannot explain the impossible.”

“It seems to me that you have been trying to do so. Would you like to
hear how I define love?”

His eyes burned like two menacing stars. “Yes,” he muttered in a husky
voice, and holding his passions in leash.

“Love is sacrifice,” said Leah, slowly.

“Then I–love you,” he burst out. “There is no sacrifice I would not
make for your dear sake.”

“Can I believe that?”

“Try me,” and he again dropped on his knees.

“Get up,” said Lady Jim, brusquely. He did so. “Take a seat!” He did
so. “Look at the floor, and not at me.” He did so. “Now then,” she
continued, feeling relieved that those fierce eyes were not making her
flesh creep, “do you know what you are, Monsieur Demetrius?”

“A fool,” he murmured bitterly, his gaze on the parquetry.

“I quite agree with you,” she rejoined promptly. “And why?”

“Because I love you.”

“Not at all. Because you don’t love Katinka Aksakoff.”

“What has that to do with this?” he said gloomily.

“Everything. She is free and I am not; she loves you, and I don’t; she
will do you good, I shall do you harm; she can gain your pardon and
make your fortune—-”

“And you can make me happy,” cried Demetrius, looking up with the air
of one who has found a clinching argument.

“With the crumbs from my husband’s table?”

“You don’t love him!”

The British-matron portion of Leah revolted against this plain
speaking. She liked sugar-coated speeches. “You have no right to say
that.”

“I have no right to make love to you,” cried the doctor, rising, “but
I do. Pschutt”–he snapped his fingers–“what care I for that English
pig, your husband? As to that young fool who sat beside you last
night—-”

Lady Jim clapped her hands, and jumped up, laughing. “Oh,” she cried,
with great enjoyment, “so it was Mr. Askew’s attentions that made you
lose your head?”

“But not my heart. I lost that months ago, when I first met you. Ah,
you cruel woman, have I not worshipped and adored you these many days?
Do I not ache here?” he struck his breast passionately. “Have you not
made my life miserable with your looks and smiles and coldness and
beauty?” He seized her hands roughly. “I love you so much that I–even
I, Constantine Demetrius–could kill you–kill you.”

She released herself with a cold laugh. “That sounds as though you
were in earnest. But if I could return your love—-”

“Ah!” he made a step towards her, trembling and breathing hard.

“One moment.” She waved him back, and retreated herself to the window.
“Supposing I could love you–what then?”

“I would–I would—-” He flung out his hands with a sob. “What is
your price?” he cried savagely.

“How crudely you put things!” said Lady Jim, coolly. “My price is your
services, to be given blindly, and without question.”

“And my reward?”

“Marriage with me.”

Demetrius stared, and gazed at her with unaffected amazement. “You
mock me,” he said faintly.

“No, I am in earnest. It is true that I am not free now. But,” she
looked at him steadily, “you can make me so.”

“Murder,” whispered Demetrius, looking up and down the long, empty,
chill gallery, and not at the Eve who was tempting him.

Leah blazed out into genuine rage. “What do you mean?” she cried,
stamping her foot. “Not a hair of Jim’s head shall be harmed.”

“Then how–how—-?”

“Sit down and listen,” she said, pointing to a chair. “I have a deeper
feeling for you than you think. No; leave my hand alone. We are now
talking business.”

“Business,” echoed Demetrius, blankly.

Lady Jim nodded composedly. “The pleasure can come later. You have no
money, no title, no position—-”

“I can make money,” he explained rapidly; “and I can take up again my
title of Prince, which I dropped when I became a doctor. As the wife
of a Russian noble—-”

“You will have to make your peace with the Czar to get these things.”

“I will do so.”

“Through Mademoiselle Askakoff?”

“No; there are other ways. I am not worthy of Katinka—-”

“And, therefore, think yourself worthy of me,” said Lady Jim, calmly.
“Thank you! There’s nothing like being honest.”

“But you do not understand—-”

“Oh yes, I do. I understand that you can make me a cheap sort of
princess, and in some way can give me money—-”

“All that you require–as my wife.”

“You must have the lamp of Aladdin, then,” said Leah, with a shrug.
“My capacity for spending will try even your finances. But at the
present moment I have not a penny, neither has my husband.”

“Well?” asked the doctor, anxiously.

Now that the plunge was made she found less difficulty in speaking
plainly. Leaning towards him, till the perfume of her hair and the
close neighbourhood of her whole gracious person nearly maddened him
into seizing her in his arms, she proceeded rapidly. “My husband’s
life is insured for twenty thousand pounds. If you as a doctor can
arrange to satisfy the insurance company of his death, so that we can
get the money, he will disappear, and I, in the eyes of the world,
shall be free to marry you.”

“Do you mean that I should give him a drug, and—-”

“No; I mean–Harold Garth.”

“My peasant patient. Well?”

“How stupid you are,” said Lady Jim, with unfeigned irritation. “This
man Garth is very like Jim, and is apparently dying—-”

“He can’t live another two months.”

“Then the matter is easily managed. Can’t you see?”

“Yes,” replied Demetrius, whose quick brain seized the feasibility of
the scheme at once. “But will your husband give you up?”

Leah nodded, not wishing to be too explicit. “We have arranged that.”

“And does he know that his disappearance means our marriage?”

“No! He thinks you are poor, and will do anything for money.”

“Ah,” said Demetrius, sarcastically. “Then the high-born nobleman does
not credit me with being a gentleman?”

“What does it matter what he thinks?” said Lady Jim, impatiently. “We
needn’t trouble about him after he disappears. Can it be managed?”

“Yes, if you will promise to marry me when you are free and in
possession of this money.”

She gave him both hands. “I do promise.”

He bent down and kissed them, passionately. “Consider it done.”

“Without any scandal?”

“Assuredly. Listen! The Duke wishes to save the life of this Garth,
because–he is fond of him.”

“Yes, yes; I understand. Go on.”

“I say to the Duke that a warm climate will work wonders,” continued
Demetrius, dramatically. “He will gladly consent, and with this Garth
I go to—-”

“To Nice, or Cannes, or—-”

“No,” said the doctor, sharply. “If I set foot on the Continent I may
be captured by the secret police. I have no wish to take Garth with me
to Siberia,” he added sarcastically. “It is not a warm climate. The
Azores–Madeira–Jamaica–Barbados–any such place, will make him
better.”

“I don’t want him to be made better,” said the other conspirator,
naïvely.

“Leave that to me, madame. Garth will die as Garth, and be buried as
Milor, your husband.”

“No, no,” said Leah, with a shudder. “I won’t have murder.”

“You are scrupulous,” rejoined Demetrius, with a shrug. “But make your
mind easy. Garth cannot live–he may die on the voyage—-

“Or he may live for months.”

Demetrius shrugged his shoulders again. “In that case, I may have to
assist nature.”

“No,” said Leah, again, and very determinedly. “I could never spend
the money with any pleasure if I thought that you–you assisted
nature,” she ended faintly, not liking to use a strong word.

The Russian looked at her with silent surprise. He could not
understand why she should be scrupulous in one thing and not in
another. She contemplated a fraud on the insurance company, and
bigamistic marriage with him, so it was impossible to guess why she
should object to the inclusion of a third crime.

“And it would scarcely be murder,” said Demetrius, continuing his
train of thought aloud. “He is so ill, this poor Garth, that the
relief of death—-”

“Don’t,” interrupted Leah, who both looked and felt pale. “I won’t
have it. Let the poor man die in peace. If he dies otherwise, I shall
refuse to marry you.”

“You may do that in any case,” said the doctor grimly. “What hold have
I over you?”

“There is no need for you to have any hold,” said Lady Jim, wincing,
and feeling that she had indeed delivered herself into the power of
the enemy. “But if you think I will not keep my promise you are
mistaken. I swear to marry you.”

“Ah, well,” said Demetrius, with a penetrating look. “If you do not
marry me, you cannot marry another, since your husband will always be
alive.”

He spoke with slow significance.

“Oh, you make him out to be immortal also,” said she, with an uneasy
laugh; then felt the necessity of bringing this interview to a
conclusion. “We must part now. It will not do for us to be seen
talking together.”

“I agree,” said Demetrius, gravely; “your proposal alters our
relations entirely. In society, I will speak to you little.”

Lady Jim nodded, and put her handkerchief to her lips with a feeling
of nausea. Now that her scheme was taking shape, its outlines appeared
rather repulsive. To read of such a plot conceived and detailed by a
dexterous author was amusing and stimulating; to engage in its
execution meant worry, and a fearful ignorance as to what might
happen, should things go awry. The same difference might be supposed
to exist between Aldershot man[oe]uvres and a real battle. Theorising
in criminality was easy; practice would be both difficult and
dangerous.

Moreover, she might have to pay a very large price for the privilege
of engaging in this questionable transaction. Demetrius would
certainly exact his bond in genuine Shylock fashion. Needless to say,
she had no intention of marrying him, and trusted to the providence of
the peacock fetish to avoid the necessity though at the moment she saw
no means whereby she could escape fulfilling her promise. This
reflection almost made her draw back. As yet, she was not under the
doctor’s thumb, and could extricate herself even at this eleventh hour
by denying everything, should he dare to speak out. But a second
thought of her desperate need of money, a sordid vision of cheap
hotels and ready-made frocks, a shuddering remembrance that the
future, as it now stood, meant limited pocket-money and the
everlasting boredom of Jim’s society, turned the scale in favour of
the venture. “Be bold! Be bold!” said the warning of the door in the
old fairy tale, and Leah thought the advice worth taking. But she
forgot the concluding words, “Be not too bold!”

“I leave details to you,” she said to her companion, when they had
concluded their nefarious bargain.

“Madame, I relieve you of all responsibility,” said Demetrius, now
quite his grave, restrained self. “But, should I tell the Duke that
your husband is suffering from consumption, you will endorse my
statement, I trust.”

“Consumption? Jim? Oh, Lord, he’s as healthy as a pig.”

“He will not be if he takes a certain medicine,” said the man, dryly.

Leah had a conscience, though for years it had been persistently
snubbed into holding its peace. After all, Jim _was_ her husband, and
she had no right to sanction tricks being played on his robust health.
“You don’t mean—-” Her voice died away nervously.

“I mean business,” Demetrius flashed out. “I love you, and I mean to
win you. The price that you ask shall be paid.”

“Without harm to Jim or this man Garth?”

“I swear it.”

“In that case”–Leah extended her hand, to withdraw it suddenly before
the Russian could rain kisses on its soft whiteness. A choking
sensation, new to one of her superb health, made her gasp frantically
after the breath which seemed to be leaving her. With unexpected force
came a new sensation. This abominable playing with the lives and
hearts of men stirred up to vehement protest a hitherto unknown better
self which overwhelmed her with wave upon wave of reproachful shame.
Conscience, uppermost for once in her greedy, selfish, animal life,
stripped the contemplated sin of its allurements, and she recoiled
before an inward vision of the horror her baser nature was creating.
It might prove to her what the monster proved to Frankenstein, and
haunt her with nightmare insistence for the remainder of an unbearable
life.

“So weak, madame?” asked Demetrius, reading the secret handwriting on
the wall like a very Daniel.

The sneer nerved her, and she strove desperately to escape from the
light of heaven into the material darkness, that would not reveal her
sin, unclothed and shameless. “No!” she cried in a loud, ringing
voice. “I–I—-” Again the celestial light mercilessly and mercifully
disclosed the inward foulness of that fair-seeming sin, and the sight
beat down her pride and courage into nothingness. “I take it all
back,” she stuttered, broken-up and panic-struck. “Forget–don’t move
in–in—-” Something clicked in her throat, and only by a violent
effort did she repress the climbing hysteria. Incapable of speech, and
only anxious to escape from this extraordinary influence, which
compelled her to face the powers of darkness in their naked horror,
she passed swiftly down the long, echoing gallery. Not till she was
safe in her own room did she halt, to consider why she had fled. Her
brain was now clear, and the actual world resumed its wonted aspect.
Her face was still white, her lips still quivered, her soul was still
shaken by the visitation. But, with a courage worthy of a better
cause, she sat down and fought with her fears, till the colour
returned and the nerves came under control. Yet her material nature
could not grasp that the terrible gift of the interior sight had been
hers for one short moment.

“I’m a fool!” she assured herself harshly.

And she was. For, as the walls of the flesh closed round her soul, to
darken it anew, her good angel, who had wrought the miracle, weeping
for the blind that would not see and the deaf that would not hear,
left her despairingly. Then the powers of darkness soothed her into
such contentment, that she laughed scornfully at her late folly, and
adopted their explanation.

“I’m run down with all this worry,” said Lady Jim. “I really need a
tonic.”