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Bella Donna - A Novel
by Robert Hichens
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Then Bella Donna had come down from her tower! Or had she never been there?

Isaacson looked at the long outline, and listened. His mind was full of that other music, the cry of Mohammedanism in the African night. This music of Europe seemed out of place, like a nothing masquerading beneath the stars. But in a moment he listened more closely; he moved a step nearer. He was searching in his memory, was asking himself what that music expressed, what it meant to him. No longer was it banal. There was a sound in it, even played upon a piano, even heard in this night and this desolate place between two deserts, of the elemental.

Bella Donna was playing that part of "The Dream of Gerontius" where the soul of man is dismissed to its Maker.

"Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo!" (Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul! Go from this world!)

She was playing that, and the stretched figure in the long chair was listening to it.

At that moment Isaacson felt glad that he had come to Egypt—glad in a new way.

"Go forth ... go from this world!"

Almost he heard the deep and irreparable voice of the priest, and in the music there was disintegration. In it the atoms parted. The temple crumbled to let the inmate come forth.

Presently the music ceased. The murmur of a voice was audible. Then one of the oblongs of light beyond the balcony was broken up by a darkness. And the darkness came out, and bent above the stretched figure in the chair. An instant later the electric burner that gave light to the balcony was extinguished. Nigel and his wife were together in the dimness, with the lighted room beyond them.

When the light was turned out, the pariah dog got up stealthily and crept much nearer to the Loulia. Its secret movement, observed by Isaacson, made an unpleasant impression upon him. He drew a parallel between it and himself, and felt himself to be a pariah, because of what he was doing. But something within him that was much stronger than his sense of discretion, and of "the right thing" for a decently bred man to do, had taken him to this place in the night, kept him there, even prompted him to imitate the starving dog, and to move nearer to those two who believed themselves isolated in the dimness.

He was determined to hear the voice of the stretched figure in the long chair.

The light that issued from the room of the faskeeyeh faintly illuminated part of the balcony. Isaacson heard the murmuring voice of Mrs. Armine again. Then one of the oblongs was again obscured, and the room was abruptly plunged in darkness. As Mrs. Armine returned, Isaacson stole down the shelving bank and took up a position close to the last window of this room. The crew and the servants were all forward on the lower deck, which was shut in closely by canvas. On the upper deck of the boat there was no one. If Mrs. Armine had lingered after putting out the light, she would perhaps have seen the figure of a man. But she did not linger. Isaacson had felt that she would not linger. And he was out of range of the vision of any one on the balcony, although now so close to it that it was almost as if he stood upon it. The Nile flowed near his feet with a sucking murmur that was very faint in the night. There was no other sound to interfere between him and the two voices.

A dress rustled. He thought of the sanctuary in the temple of Edfou. Then a faint and strangely toneless voice, that he did not recognize, said:

"That's ever so much better. I do hate that strong light."

"But who is that in the chair, then?" Isaacson asked himself, astonished. "Have they got some one on board with them?"

"Electric light tries a great many people."

Isaacson knew the voice which said that. It was Mrs. Armine's voice, gentle, melodious, and seductive. And he thought of the hoarse and hideous sound which that morning he had heard in the temple.

"Do sit down by me," said the first voice.

Could it really be Nigel's? This time there was in it a sound that was faintly familiar to Isaacson—a sound to which he listened almost as a man may regard a shadow and say to himself, "Is that shadow cast by my friend?"

A dress rustled. And the tiny noise was followed by the creak of a basket chair.

"Don't you think you're a little better to-night?" said Mrs. Armine.

The other sighed.

"No."

"Doctor Baring Hartley said you would recover rapidly."

"Ruby, he doesn't understand my case. He can't understand it."

"But he seemed so certain. And he's got a great reputation in America."

"But he doesn't understand. To-night I feel—when you were playing 'Gerontius' I felt that—that I must soon go. 'Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo'—I felt as if somewhere that was being said to me."

"Nigel!"

"It's strange that I, who've always loved the sun, should be knocked over by the sun, isn't it? Strange that what one loves should destroy one!"

"But—but that's not true, Nigel. You are getting better, although you don't think so."

"Ruby"—the voice was almost stern, and now it was more like the voice that Isaacson knew—"Ruby, I'm getting worse. To-day I feel that I'm going to die."

"Let me telegraph for Doctor Hartley. At dawn to-morrow I shall send the boat to Edfou—"

"If only Isaacson were here!"

There was a silence. Then Mrs. Armine said:

"What could Doctor Isaacson do more than has been done?"

"He's a wonderful man. He sees what others don't see. I feel that he might find out what's the matter."

"Find out! But, Nigel, we know it's the sun. You yourself—"

"Yes, yes!"

"To-morrow I'll wire for Doctor Hartley to come down at once from Assouan."

"It's this awful insomnia that's doing for me. All my life I've slept so well—till now. And the rheumatic pains; how can the sun—Ruby, sometimes I think it's nothing to do with the sun."

"But, then, what can it be? You know you would expose yourself, though I begged and implored—"

"But the heat's nothing new to me. For months in the Fayyum I worked in the full glare of the sun. And it never hurt me."

"Nigel, it was the sun. One may do a thing ninety-nine times, and the hundredth time one pays for it."

A chair creaked.

"Do you want to turn, Nigel? Wait, I'll help you."

"Isn't it awful to lose all one's strength like this?"

"It'll come back. Wait! You're slipping. Let me put my arm behind you."

"Yes, give me your hand, dearest!"

After a pause he said:

"Poor Ruby! What a time for you! You never guessed you'd married a miserable crock, did you?"

"I haven't. Any one may get a sunstroke. In two or three weeks you'll be laughing at all this. Directly it passes you'll forget it."

"But I have a feeling sometimes that—it's a feeling—of death."

"When? When?"

"Last night, in the night. I felt like a man just simply going out."

"I never ought to have let Doctor Hartley go. But you said you wanted to be alone with me, didn't you, Nigel?"

"Yes. I felt somehow that Hartley could be of no use—that no ordinary man could do anything. I felt as if it were Fate, and as if you and I must fight it together. I felt as if—perhaps—our love—"

The voice died away.

Isaacson clenched his hands, and moved a step backward. The shivering pariah dog slunk away, fearing a blow.

"What was that?" Nigel said.

"Did you hear something?"

"Yes—a step."

"Oh, it's one of the men, no doubt. Shall I play to you a little more?"

"Can you without putting on the light? I'm afraid of the light now and—and how I used to love it!"

"I'll manage."

"But you'll have to take away your hand! Wait a minute. Oh, Ruby, it's terrible! To-night I feel like a man on the edge of an abyss, and as if, without a hand, I must fall—I—"

Isaacson heard a dry, horrid sound, that was checked almost at once.

"I never—never thought I should come to this, Ruby."

"Never mind, dearest. Any one—"

"Yes—yes—I know. But I hate—it isn't like a man to—Go and play to me again."

"I won't play 'Gerontius.' It makes you think sad things, dreadful things."

"No, play it again. It was on your piano that day I called—in London. I shall always associate it with you."

The dress rustled. She was getting up.

Isaacson hesitated no longer. He went instantly up the bank. When he had reached the top he stood still for a moment. His breath came quickly. Below, the piano sounded. Bella Donna had not seen him, had not, without seeing him, divined his presence. He might go while she played, and she would never know he had been there eavesdropping in the night. No one would ever know. And to-morrow, with the sun, he could come back openly, defying her request. He could come back boldly and ask for his friend.

"Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo!"

He would come back and see the face that went with that changed voice, that voice which he had hardly recognized.

"Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul! Go from this world!"

He moved to go away to those far-off lights which showed where the Fatma lay, by Edfou.

"Go forth ... go from this world!"

Was it the voice of a priest? Or was it the irreparable voice of a woman?

Suddenly Isaacson breathed quietly. He unclenched his hands. A wave—it was like that—a wave of strong self-possession seemed to inundate him. Now, in the darkness on the bank, a great doctor stood. And this doctor had nothing to do with the far-off lights by Edfou. His mission lay elsewhere.

"Go forth—go forth from this world!"

He walked along the bank, down the bank to the gangway which connected the deck of the Loulia forward with the shore. He pushed aside the dropped canvas, and he stepped upon the deck. A number of dark eyes gravely regarded him. Then Hamza detached himself from the hooded crowd and came up to where Isaacson was standing.

"Give that card to your master, and ask if I can see him."

"Yes!" said Hamza.

He went away with the card. There was a pause.

Then abruptly, the sound of the piano ceased.



XXXIV

After the cessation of the music there was a pause, which seemed to Isaacson almost interminably prolonged. In it he felt no excitement. In a man of his type excitement is the child of uncertainty. Now all uncertainty as to what he meant to do had left him. Calm, decided, master of himself as when he sat in his consulting-room to receive the suffering world, he waited quietly for the return of his messenger. The many dark eyes stared solemnly at him, and he looked back at them, and he knew that his eyes told them no more than theirs told him.

When Hamza went with the card, he had shut behind him the door at the foot of the stairs, which divided the rooms on the Loulia from the deck. Presently as no one came, Isaacson looked at this door. He saw above it the Arabic inscription which Baroudi had translated for Mrs. Armine and he wondered what it meant. His eyes were almost fascinated by it and he felt it must be significant, that the man he had seen crouching beneath the black roof of the hashish cafe had set it there to be the motto of his wonderful boat. But he knew no Arabic, and there was no one to translate the golden characters. For Ibrahim that night was unwell, and was sleeping smothered in his haik.

The white door opened gently, and Hamza reappeared. He made a gesture which invited Isaacson to come to him. Isaacson felt that he consciously braced himself, as a strong man braces himself for a conflict. Then he went over the deck, down the shallow steps, and was led by Hamza into the first saloon of the Loulia, that room which Baroudi had called his "den," and which Mrs. Armine had taken as her boudoir. It was lit up. The door on the far side, beyond the dining-room, was shut. And Mrs. Armine was standing by the writing-table, holding Isaacson's card in her hand.

As soon as Isaacson had crossed the threshold, Hamza went out and shut the door gently.

Mrs. Armine was dressed in black, and on her cheeks were two patches of vivid red, of red that was artificial and not well put on. Isaacson believed that she had rushed from the piano to make up her face when she had learnt of his coming. She looked towards him with hard interrogation, at the same time lifting her hand.

"Hush, please!" she said, in a low voice. "He doesn't know you are here. He's asleep."

Her eyes went over his face with a horrible swiftness, and she added, "I was playing. I have been playing him to sleep."

As if remembering, she held out her hand to Isaacson. He went over to her softly and took it. As he did so, she made what seemed an involuntary and almost violent movement to draw it away, checked herself, and left her hand in his, setting her lips together. He noticed that in one of her eyelids a pulse was beating. He held her hand with a gentle, an almost caressing decision, while he said, imitating her withdrawn way of speaking:

"I'm afraid my coming at this hour has surprised you very much. Do forgive me, but—"

"What about my note?" she asked.

"May I sit down? What marvellous rugs! What an extraordinary boat this is!"

"Oh, sit—the divan! Yes, the rugs are fine—of course."

Hastily, and moving without her usual grace, she went to the nearest divan. He followed her. She sat down, but did not lean back. She had dropped his card on the floor.

"You read my note! Well, then—?"

It seemed to Isaacson that within his companion there was at this moment a violent mental struggle going on as to what course she should take, now, immediately; as if something within her was clamouring for defiance, something else was pleading for diplomacy. He felt that he was close to an almost red-hot violence, and wondered intensely whether it was going to have its way. He wondered, but he did not care. For he knew that nothing his companion did could change his inward decision. And even in a moment that was like a black thing lit up by tragic fires he enjoyed his alert mentality, as an athlete enjoys his power to give a tremendous blow even if he has just seen a sight that has waked in him horror.

"Well, then?" she repeated, always speaking in a very low voice, though not in a whisper.

A cuckoo clock sounded. She sprang up.

"That wretched—!"

She went over to the clock, tore the little door in the front out, inserted her fingers in the opening. There was a dry sound of tearing and splintering. She came back with minute drops of blood on her fingers.

"It drives Nigel mad!" she said. "It ought to have been stopped long ago. You got my note, and I your answer."

"And of course you think that I ought not to have come to-night."

She looked at him and sat down again. And by the way of her sitting down he knew that she had come to a decision as to conduct.

"I suppose you felt uneasy, and thought you would like to enquire a little more of me. Was that it?"

"I did feel a little uneasy, I confess."

"How did you come to-night?"

"I walked."

"Walked? Alone?"

"Quite alone."

"All that way! I'll send you back in the felucca."

"Oh, that will be all right."

"No, no, you shall have the felucca."

She touched an electric bell. Hamza came.

"The felucca, Hamza."

"Yes."

He went.

"They'll get it ready."

She moved some cushions. Isaacson noticed a yellowish tinge about her temples, just beyond the corners of her eyes above the cheek-bones. Most of her face was not made up, though there were one or two dabs of powder as well as the rouge.

"They'll get it ready in a moment," she repeated.

She turned towards him, smiling suddenly.

"And so you felt uneasy, and thought you'd hear a little more, and came at night so as not to startle or disturb him. That was good of you. The fact is, I didn't tell him I had met you to-day. I intended to, but when I got here I gave up the idea."

"Why was that?"

"He'd been reading all the notices about Harwich, and they'd utterly upset him."

Suddenly she noticed the tiny drops of blood on her fingers.

"Oh!" she said.

She put her hand up to the front of her gown, drew out a handkerchief, and pressed her fingers with it.

"How stupid of me!"

Hamza appeared.

"Ah, the felucca is ready!" said Mrs. Armine.

Isaacson leaned back quietly, and made himself comfortable on the broad divan.

"In a minute, Hamza!" she said.

Hamza went away.

"That's a marvellous fellow you've got," said Isaacson.

Although he spoke almost under his breath, he managed to introduce into his voice the quiet sound of a man of the world very much at his ease, and with a pleasant half-hour before him. "I saw him praying this afternoon."

"Praying?"

"Yes, when he brought your note."

A look of horror crept over her face, and was gone in an instant.

"Oh, all these people pray."

She sat more forward on the divan, almost like one about to get up. Isaacson crossed one leg over the other.

"What you told me this morning did make me uneasy about your husband," he said, leaving the Mohammedan world abruptly.

"Then I must have spoken very carelessly," she said, quickly.

All the time they were talking, she made perpetual slight movements, and was never perfectly still.

"Then you are not at all uneasy about his condition?"

"I—I didn't say that. Naturally, a wife is a little anxious if her husband has been ill. But he is so much better than he was that it would be foolish of me to be upset."

"I confess this morning you roused my professional anxiety."

"I really don't see why."

"Well, you know, we doctors become very alert about signs and symptoms. And you let drop one or two words which made me fear that possibly your husband might be worse than you supposed."

"Doctor Baring Hartley is in charge of the case."

"Well, but he isn't here!"

"He's coming here to-morrow."

"I understood he was waiting for you at Assouan. You'll forgive me for venturing to intrude into this affair, but as an old friend of your husband—"

"Doctor Hartley is at Assouan, but he will come down to-morrow to see his patient. You don't seem to realize that Assouan is close by, just round the corner."

"I know it is only a hundred and ten kilometres away."

"In a steam launch or by train that's absolutely nothing. He'll be here to-morrow."

"Then your husband feels worse?"

"Not at all."

"But if you've sent for Doctor Hartley?"

"I've only done that because instead of going up at once to Assouan, as we had intended, we've decided to remain here for the present. Nigel enjoys the quiet, and I dare say it's better for him. You forget he's just lost his only brother."

"You mean that I am wanting in delicacy in thrusting myself into your mutual grief?"

He spoke very simply, very quietly, but there was a note in his voice of inflexible determination.

"I don't wish to say that," she answered.

And her voice was harder than his.

"But I'm afraid you think it. I'll be frank with you, Mrs. Armine. Here is my friend, ill, isolated from medical help—"

"For the moment only."

"Isolated for the moment from medical help in a very lonely place—"

"My dear doctor!" She raised her narrow eyebrows. "To hear you talk, one would think we were at the end of the world instead of in the very midst of civilization and people."

"And here, by chance"—he saw her mouth set itself in a grimness which made her look suddenly middle-aged—"by chance, am I, an old acquaintance, a good friend, and, if I may say so of myself, a well-known medical man. Is it not natural if I come to see how the sick man is?"

"Oh, quite; and I've told you how he is."

"Isn't it natural if I ask to see the sick man himself?"

Her mouth went suddenly awry. She pressed her hand on a cushion. "No, I don't think it is when his wife asked you not to come to see him, because it would upset him, and because he had specially told her that for two or three weeks he wished to see nobody."

"Are you quite sure your husband wouldn't wish to see me?"

"He doesn't wish to see anybody for a few days."

"Are you quite sure that if he knew I was here he wouldn't wish to see me?"

"How on earth can one be quite sure of what other people would think, or want, if this, or that, or the other?"

"Then why not find out?"

"Find out?"

"By asking. I certainly am not the man to force myself upon a friend against his will. But I should be very much obliged to you if you would tell your husband I'm here, and ask him whether he wouldn't like to see me."

"You really wish me to wake an invalid up in the dead of night, just as he's been got off to sleep, in order to receive a visitor! Well, then, I flatly refuse."

"Oh, if he is really asleep!"

"I told you that just before you arrived I had been playing the piano to him and that he had fallen asleep. I don't think you are very considerate this evening, Doctor Isaacson."

She got up.

"A doctor, I think, ought to know better."

The little pulse in her eyelid was beating furiously.

He stood up, too.

"A doctor," he said, very quietly, "I think does know better than one who is not a doctor how to treat a sick man. What you said to me in the temple this morning, and what I heard when I was in Cairo and at Luxor before I came up the river, has alarmed me about my friend, and I must request to be allowed to see him."

"At Cairo and Luxor! What did you hear at Cairo and Luxor?"

"At Cairo I heard from a man that your husband was too ill to travel, and therefore certainly could not under any circumstances have gone to England when he heard of his brother's death. At Luxor from a woman I heard very much the same story."

"Of course, and probably with plenty of embroidery and exaggeration."

"Perhaps. But sunstroke can be a very serious thing."

"I never heard you were a specialist in sunstroke."

"And is Doctor Baring Hartley, who is watching this case from Assouan?"

They looked at each other for a minute in silence. Then she said:

"Perhaps I've been a little unjust to-night. I've had a good deal of trouble lately, and it's upset my nerves. I know you care for Nigel, and I'm grateful to you for your friendly anxiety. But perhaps you don't realize that you've expressed that anxiety in a way that—well, that has seemed to reflect upon me, upon my conduct, and any woman, any wife, would resent that, and resent it keenly."

"I'm sorry," he said, coldly. "In what way have I reflected upon you?"

"Your words, your whole manner—they seem to show doubt of my care of and anxiety about Nigel. I resent that."

"I'm sorry," he said again, and again with almost icy coldness.

Her lips trembled.

"Perhaps, being a man, you don't realize how it hurts a woman who has been through a nervous strain when some one pushes in from outside and makes nothing of all she has been doing, tacitly belittles all her care and devotion and self-sacrifice, and tries, or seems to wish to try, to thrust himself into her proper place."

"Oh, Mrs. Armine, you are exaggerating. I wish nothing of that kind. All I wish is to be allowed to use such medical talent as God has given me in the service of your husband and my friend."

Her lips ceased from trembling. "I cannot insult Doctor Baring Hartley by consenting to bring in another doctor behind his back," she said. And now her voice was as cold, as hard, as decisive as his own. "I am astonished that you should be so utterly indifferent to the etiquette of your own profession," she added.

"I will make that all right with Doctor Hartley when I get to Assouan."

"There will be no need for that."

"Do you mean that you are going to refuse absolutely to allow me to see your husband?"

"I do. In any case, you could not see him to-night, as he is asleep—"

She stopped. Through the silent boat there went the sharp, tingling noise of an electric bell.

"As he is asleep." She spoke more quickly and unevenly. "And to-morrow Doctor Hartley will be here, and I shall go by what he says. If he wishes a consultation—"

Again the bell sounded. She frowned. Hamza appeared at the door leading from the deck. He closed the door behind him, crossed the cabin without noise, opened the farther door, and vanished, shutting it with a swift gentleness that seemed almost unnatural.

"Then it will be a different matter, and I shall be very glad indeed to have your opinion. I know its value"—she looked towards the door by which Hamza had gone out—"but I must treat Doctor Hartley with proper consideration. And now I must say good night."

Her voice still hurried. Quickly she held out her hand.

"The felucca will take you home. And to-morrow, as soon as Doctor Hartley has been here and I have had a talk with him and heard what he thinks, I'll let you know all about it. It's very good of you to bother."

But Isaacson did not take the outstretched hand.

"Your husband is awake," he said, abruptly.

Her hand dropped.

"I think, I'm sure, that if he knew I was here he would be very glad to see me. I know you'll tell him, and let him decide for himself."

"But I'm sure he is asleep. I left him asleep."

"That bell—"

She smiled.

"Oh, that wasn't Nigel! That was my French maid. She's very glorified here. She makes Hamza attend upon her, hand and foot."

As she spoke, Isaacson remembered the words in Nigel's letter: "She packed off her French maid so as to be quite free."

"Oh, your maid!" he said.

And his voice was colder, firmer.

"Yes."

"But surely it may have been your husband who rang?"

"No, I don't think so. I'm quite sure not. Once Nigel gets off to sleep he doesn't wake easily."

"But I thought he suffered from insomnia!"

Directly he had said the words, Isaacson realized that he had made a false step. But it was too late to retrieve it. She was upon him instantly.

"Why?" she said, sharply. "Why should you think that?"

"You—"

"I never said so! I never said a word of it!"

She remembered the steps Nigel had said he heard when they were together upon the balcony, and beneath the rouge on her face her cheeks went grey.

"I never said a word of it!" she reiterated, with her eyes fastened upon him.

"You spoke of having 'got him off to sleep'—of having 'played him to sleep.' I naturally gathered that he had been sleeping badly, and that sleep was very important to him. And then the clock!"

He pointed to the broken toy from Switzerland.

But the greyness persisted in her face. He knew that his attempted explanation was useless. He knew that she had realized his overhearing of her conversation with Nigel. Well, that fact, perhaps, cleared some ground. But he would not show that he knew.

"Your vexation about the clock proved that the patient was sleeping badly and was sensitive to the least noise."

She opened her lips twice as if to speak, and shut them without saying anything; then, as if with a fierce effort, and speaking with a voice that was hoarse and ugly as the voice he had heard in the temple, she said:

"It's very late, and I'm really tired out. I can't talk any more. I've told you that Nigel is asleep and that I decline to wake him for you or for any one. The doctor who understands his case, and whom he himself has chosen to be in charge of it, is coming early to-morrow. The felucca is there"—she put out her hand towards the nearest door—"and will take you down the river. I must ask you to go. I'm tired."

She dropped her hand.

"This boat is my house, Doctor Isaacson, and I must seriously ask you to leave it."

"And I must insist, as a doctor, on seeing your husband."

All pretence was dropped between them. It was a fight.

"This is great impertinence," she said. "I refuse. I've told you my reason."

"I shall stop here till I see your husband," said Isaacson.

And he sat down again very quietly and deliberately on the divan.

"And if you like, I'll tell you my reason," he said.

But she did not ask him what it was. Through the sheet of glass he looked at her, and it was as if he saw a pursued hare suddenly double.

"It's too utterly absurd all this argument about nothing," she said, suddenly smiling, and in her beautiful voice. "Evidently you have been the victim of some ridiculous stories in Cairo or Luxor. Some kind people have been talking, as kind people talked in London. And you've swallowed it all, as you swallowed it all in London. I suppose they said Nigel was dying and that I was neglecting him, or some rubbish of that sort. And so you, as a medical Don Quixote, put your lance in rest and rush to the rescue. But you don't know Nigel if you think he'd thank you for doing it."

In the last sentence her voice, though still preserving its almost lazy beauty, became faintly sinister.

"Nigel knows me as the world does not," she continued, quietly. "And the one who treats me wrongly, without the respect due to me as his wife will find he has lost Nigel as a friend."

Isaacson felt like a man whose enemy has abruptly unmasked a battery, and who faces the muzzles of formidable guns.

"You don't know Nigel."

She said it softly, almost reflectively, and with a little droop of the head she emphasized it.

"You had better do what I ask you to do, Doctor Isaacson. If you wish to do Nigel good, you had better not try to force yourself in against my will in the dead of the night, when I'm tired out and have begged you to go. You had better let me ask Doctor Hartley for a consultation to-morrow, and tell Nigel, and call you in. That's the best plan—if you want to be nice to Nigel."

She sat down again on the divan, at a short distance from him, and close to the door by which Hamza had gone out.

"Nigel and I have talked this all over," she said, with a quiet sweetness.

"Talked this over?" Isaacson said.

With his usual quickness of mind he had realized the exact strength of the strategic position she had so suddenly and unexpectedly taken up. For the moment he wished to gain time. His former complete decision as to what he meant to do was slightly weakened by her presentation of Nigel, the believer. From his knowledge of his friend, he appreciated her judgment of Nigel at its full value. What she had just said was true, and the truth bristled like a bayonet-point in the midst of the lies by which it was surrounded.

"Talked this over? How can that be?"

"Very easily. When two people love each other there is nothing they do not discuss—even their enemies."

"My dear Mrs. Armine, no melodrama, please!"

"Melodrama or not, Doctor Isaacson, I promise you it is a fact that my friends are Nigel's friends, and that my enemies would, at a very few words from me, find that in Nigel they had an enemy."

"If you are speaking of me, your husband would never be my enemy."

"Do you know why he never told you we were going to be married?"

"It was no business of mine."

"His instinct informed him that you mistrusted me. Since then a good deal of time has passed. A man who loves his wife, and has proved her devotion to him, does not care about those who mistrust and condemn her. Their mistrust and condemnation reflect upon him, and not only on his love, but on his pride. I advise you, when you come to Nigel as a doctor, to come as my friend, otherwise I don't think you'll have an opportunity of doing him much good."

The cleverness of Isaacson, that cleverness which came from the Jewish blood within him, linked hands with the defiant adroitness of this woman even to-night and in the climax of suspicion. Why, with her powers, had she made such a tragic mess of her life? Why, with her powers, had she never been able to run straight along the way that leads to happiness? Useless questions! Their answer must be sought for far down in the secret depths of character. And now?

"If you come to Nigel when I call you in it will be all right, not otherwise, believe me."

She sat back on the divan. The greyness had gone out of her face. She looked now at her ease. Isaacson remembered how this woman had got the better of him in London, how she had looked as she stood in her room at the Savoy, when he saw her for the last time before she married his friend. She had been dressed in rose colour that day. Now she was in black—for Harwich. It seemed that for evening wear she had brought some "thin mourning." Did he mean her to get the better of him again?

"But you will not call me in," he said bluntly.

"Why not? As a doctor I rather believe in you."

"Nevertheless, you will not call me in."

"If Doctor Hartley desires a consultation, I promise you that I will. I hope you won't make your fee too heavy. You must remember we are almost poor people now."

It was very seldom that Isaacson changed colour; but at these words his dark face slowly reddened.

"If you suppose that—that I want to make money—" he began.

"It's always nice, if one takes a holiday, to be able to pay one's expenses. But I know you won't run Nigel in for too much."

Isaacson got up. His instinct was to go, to get away at once from this woman. For a moment he forgot the voice he had heard in the night; he forgot the words it had said. His egoism and his pride spoke, and told him to get away.

She read him. She got up, too, came away from her place near the door, and said, with a smile:

"You are going?"

He looked at her. He saw in her eyes the look he had seen in them when he had bade her good-bye at the Savoy after his useless embassy.

"You are going?"

"Yes," he said. "I am! Going to see your husband!"

And before she could speak or move, he was at the door through which Hamza had passed; he had opened it and disappeared, shutting it softly behind him.



XXXV

With such abrupt and adroit decisiveness had Meyer Isaacson acted, so swift and cunning had been his physical carrying out of his sudden resolve—a resolve, perhaps, determined by her frigid malice—that for a moment Mrs. Armine lost all command of her powers—even, so it seemed, all command of her thoughts and desires. When the door shut and she was alone, she stood where she was and at first did not move a finger. She felt dull, unexcited, almost sleepy, and as one who is dropping off to sleep sometimes aimlessly reiterates some thought, apparently unconnected with any other thought, unlinked with any habit of the mind, she found herself, in imagination, with dull eyes, seeing the Arabic characters above the doorway of the Loulia, dully and silently repeating the words Baroudi had chosen as the motto of the boat in which this thing—Isaacson's departure to Nigel—had happened:

"The fate of every man have we bound about his neck."

So it was. So it must be. With an odd and almost grotesque physical response to the meaning which at this moment she but vaguely apprehended, she let her body go. She shrank a little, drawing her shoulders forward, like one on whom a burden that is heavy is imposed. About her neck had been bound this fate. But the movement, slight though it was, recalled the woman who had defied and had bled the world—had defied the world of women, and had bled the world of men. And, like a living thing, there sprang up in her mind the thought:

"I'm the only woman on board this boat."

And she squared her shoulders. The numbness passed, or she flung it angrily from her. And she had the door open and was through the doorway in an instant, and crying out in the long corridor that led to the room of the faskeeyeh:

"Nigel! Nigel! What do you think of my surprise?"

There were energy and beauty in the cry, and she came into the room with a sort of soft rush that was intensely feminine. The men were there. Nigel was sitting up, but leaning against cushions on the divan close to the upright piano, on which stood the score of "Gerontius." Isaacson was standing before him, bending, and holding both his hands strongly, in an attitude that looked almost violent. Behind him, in the Eastern house of Baroudi the spray of the little fountain aspired, and the tiny gilded ball rose and fell with an airy and frivolous movement.

Mrs. Armine was not reasoning as she came in to these two. She was acting purely on the prompting of an instinct long proved by life. There was within her no mental debate. She did not know how long she had stood alone. She did not ask herself whether Meyer Isaacson had had time to say anything, or, if he had had time, what it was likely that he had said. She just came in with this soft rush, went to her husband, sat down touching him, put her hand on his shoulder, with the fingers upon his neck, and said:

"What do you think of my surprise? I dared it! Was I wrong? Has it done you any harm, Nigel?"

As she spoke she looked at the face of Isaacson and she knew that he had not spoken. A natural flush came to join the flush of rouge on her cheeks.

"Nigel, you've got to forgive me!" she said.

"Forgive you!"

The weak voice spoke with a stronger note than it had found on the balcony. Isaacson let go his friend's hands. He moved. The almost emotional protectiveness that had seemed mutely to exclaim, "I'll save you! Here's a hand—here are two strong hands—to save you from the abyss!" died out of his attitude. He stood up straight. But he kept his eyes fastened on his friend. Never in his consulting-room had he looked at any patient as he now looked at Nigel Armine, with such fiercely searching eyes. His face said to the leaning man before him: "Give up your secrets. I mean to know them all."

"Forgive you!" Nigel repeated.

Feebly he put out one hand and touched his wife. He was looking almost dazed.

"And to-night, when I—when I said, 'If only Isaacson were here!' did you know then?"

"That he was coming? Yes, I knew. And I nearly had to tell you—so nearly! But, you see, a woman can keep a secret."

"How did you know?"

He looked at Isaacson. But Isaacson let her answer. It was enough for him that he was with his friend. He did not care about anything else. And all this time he was at doctor's work.

"We met this morning in the temple of Edfou, and I told Doctor Isaacson about your sunstroke, and asked him to come up to-night and see you."

She lied with the quiet aplomb which Isaacson remembered almost enjoying in the Savoy Restaurant one night, when they were grouped about a supper-table. Quietly then she had handed him out the lies which he knew to be lies. She had made him presents of them, and as he had received her presents then, he received them now, but a little more indifferently. For he was deeply attentive to Nigel.

That colour, that dropped wrist, the cruel emaciation, the tremulous hands, the pathetic eyes that seemed crying for help—what did they indicate? And there were other symptoms, even stronger, in Nigel that already had almost assailed the doctor, as if clamouring for his notice and striving to tell a story.

"But why are you here, in Egypt?" asked Nigel. "You didn't come out because—?"

"No, no," said Isaacson.

"But then"—a smile that was rather like tears came into the sick man's face—"but then perhaps you came to—to see our happiness! You remember my letter, Ruby?"

"Yes," she said.

His hand still lay on hers.

"Well, since then it's been a bad time for me. But that happiness has never failed me—never."

"And it never shall," she said.

As she spoke she looked up again at Isaacson, and he read a cool menace in her eyes. Those eyes repeated what her voice had told him on the other side of that door. They said: "My enemy can never find a friend in my husband." But now that Isaacson saw these two people together, he realized the truth of their relations as words could never have made him realize them.

There was a little silence, broken only by the tiny whisper of the faskeeyeh. Then Mrs. Armine said gently:

"Now, Nigel, you've had your surprise, and you ought to sleep. Doctor Isaacson's coming back to-morrow to have a consultation with Doctor Hartley at four o'clock."

She spoke as if the whole matter were already arranged.

"Sleep! You know I can't sleep. I never can sleep now."

"Is the insomnia very bad?" asked Isaacson, quietly.

"I never can sleep scarcely. The nights are so awful."

"Yes, Nigel, dearest. But to-night I think you will sleep."

"Why to-night?"

"Because of this happy surprise I arranged for you. But I shall be sorry I arranged it if you get excited. Do you know how late it is? It is past eleven. You must let Doctor Isaacson go to the felucca. Our bargain was that to-night he should not attempt to hear all about you or enter into the case. It would not be fair to Doctor Hartley."

"Damn Doctor Hartley!" murmured the sick man, almost peevishly.

"I know. But we must behave nicely to him. Be good now, and go to bed. I have told Doctor Isaacson a lot, and I know you'll sleep now you can feel he's near you."

"I don't want anything more to do with Hartley. He knows nothing. I won't have him to-morrow."

He spoke crossly.

"Nigel!"

She put her hand upon his.

"Forgive me, dearest! Oh, what a brute I am!"

Tears came into his eyes.

"I martyrize her, I know I do," he said to Isaacson; "but I don't believe it's my fault. I do feel so awfully ill!"

His head drooped. Isaacson felt his pulse. Nigel gazed down at the divan, staring with eyes that had become filmy. Mrs. Armine looked at Isaacson, and he, with a doctor's memory that was combined with the memory of a man who had formerly been conquered, compared this poor pulse that fluttered beneath his sensitive fingers with another pulse which once he had felt beating strongly—a pulse which had made him understand the defiance of a life.

"You had better get to bed," he said to Nigel, letting his wrist go, and watching it sharply as it dropped to the cushions. "I shall give you something to make you sleep."

Mrs. Armine opened her lips, but this time he sent her a look which caused her to shut them.

"I don't know whether you are in the habit of taking anything—whether you are given anything at night. If so, to-night it is to be discontinued. You are to touch nothing except what I am going to give you. Directly you are in bed I'll come."

"But—" Nigel began, "we haven't—"

"Had any talk. I know. There'll be plenty of time for that. But Mrs. Armine is quite right. It is late, and you must go at once to bed."

Nigel made a movement to get up. Mrs. Armine quickly and efficiently helped him, put her arm around him, supported his arm, led him away into the narrow corridor from which the bedrooms opened. They disappeared through a little doorway on the left.

Then Isaacson sat down and waited, looking at the leaping spray and at the gilded trifle that was its captive. Presently his eyes travelled away from that, and examined the room and everything in it. That man whom he had seen driving the Russian horses, and squatting on the floor of the hashish cafe, might well be at home here. And he himself—could not he be at home here, with these marvellous prayer-rugs and embroideries, into which was surely woven something of the deep and eternal enigma of the East? But his friend and—that woman?

Actively, now, he hated Mrs. Armine. He was a man who could hate well. But he was not going to allow his hatred to run away with him. Once, in a silent contest between them, he had been worsted by her. In this second contest he now declined to be worsted. One fall was enough for this man who was not accustomed to be overthrown. If his temper and his pride were his enemies, he must hold them in bondage. She had struck at both audaciously that night. But the blow, instead of driving him away, had sent him straight to the sick man. That stroke of hers had miscarried. But Isaacson recognized her power as an opponent.

A consultation to-morrow at four with this young doctor! So that was ordained, was it, by Bella Donna?

His energy of mind soon made him weary of sitting, and he got up and went towards the balcony which so lately he had been watching from the bank of the Nile. As he stepped out upon it he saw a white figure by the rail, and he remembered that Hamza had been with Nigel, and had disappeared at his approach. He had not given Hamza a thought. The sick man had claimed all of him. But now, in this pause, he had time to think of Hamza.

As he came out upon the balcony the Egyptian turned round to look at him.

Hamza was dressed in white, with a white turban. His arms hung at his sides. His thin hands, the fingers opened, made two dark patches against his loose and graceful robe. His dark face, seen in the night, and by the light which came from the room of the faskeeyeh, was like an Eastern dream. In his eyes lay a still fanaticism. Those eyes drew something in Isaacson. He felt oddly at home with them, without understanding what they meant. And he thought of the hashish-smoker, and he thought of the garden of oranges, surrounding the little secret house, to which the hashish-smoker sometimes came. These Easterns dwell apart—yes, despite the coming of the English, the so-called "awakening" of the East—in a strange and romantic world, an enticing world. Had Bella Donna undergone its charm? Unconsciously his eyes were asking this question of this Eastern who had been to Mecca, who prayed—how many times a day!—and was her personal attendant. But the eyes gave him no answer. He came a little nearer to Hamza, stood by the rail, and offered him a cigarette. Hamza accepted it, with a soft salute, and hid it somewhere in his robe. They remained together in silence. Isaacson was wondering if Hamza spoke any English. He looked full of secrets, that were still and calm within him as standing water in a sequestered pool, sheltered by trees in a windless place. Starnworth, perhaps, would have understood him—Starnworth who understood at least some of the secrets of the East. And Isaacson recalled Starnworth's talk in the night, and his parting words as he went away—"A different code from ours!"

And the secret of the dahabeeyah, of the beautiful Loulia—was it locked in that breast of the East?

In the silence Isaacson's mind sought converse with Hamza's, strove to come into contact with Hamza's mind. But it seemed to him that his mind was softly repelled. Hamza would not recognize the East that was in Isaacson, or perhaps he felt the Jew. When the voice of Mrs. Armine was heard from the threshold of the lighted chamber these two had not spoken a word. But Isaacson had learnt that in any investigation of the past, in any effort to make straight certain crooked paths, in any search after human motives, he would get no help from this mind that was full of refusal, from this soul that was full of prayer.

"Doctor Isaacson!"

A dress rustled.

"You are out here—with Hamza?"

She stood in one of the doorways.

"Will you please come and give my husband the sleeping draught?"

"Certainly."

When they were in the room by the fountain she said:

"Of course, you know, this is all wrong. We're not doing the right thing by Doctor Hartley at all. But I don't like to thwart Nigel. Convalescents are always wilful."

"Convalescents!" he said.

"Yes, convalescents."

"You think your husband is convalescent?"

"Of course he is. You didn't see him in the first days after his sunstroke."

"That's true."

"Please give him the draught, or whatever it is, and then we really must try and get some rest."

As she said the last words he noticed in her voice the sound of a woman who had nearly come to the end of her powers of resistance.

"It won't take a moment," he said. "Where is he?"

"I'll show you."

She went in front of him to a cabin, in which, on a smart bed, Nigel lay supported by pillows. One candle was burning on a bracket of white wood, giving a faint light. Mrs. Armine stood by the head of the bed looking down upon the thin, almost lead-coloured face that was turned towards her.

"Now Doctor Isaacson is going to make you sleep."

"Thank God. The rheumatism's awfully bad to-night."

"Rheumatism?" said Isaacson.

Already he had poured some water into a glass, and dropped something into it. He held the glass towards Nigel, not coming quite near to him. To take the glass, it was necessary for the sick man to stretch out his arm. Nigel made a movement to do this; but his arm dropped, and he said, almost crossly:

"Do put it nearer."

Then Isaacson put it to his mouth.

"Rheumatism?" he repeated, when Nigel had swallowed the draught.

"Yes. I have it awfully badly, like creatures gnawing me almost."

He sighed, and lay lower in the bed.

"I can't understand it. Rheumatism in this perfect climate!" he murmured.

Mrs. Armine made an ostentatious movement as if to go away and leave them together.

"No, don't go, Ruby," Nigel said.

He felt for her hand.

"I want you—you two to be friends," he said. "Real friends. Isaacson, you don't know what she's been in—in all this bad time. You don't know."

His feeble voice broke.

"I'll be here to-morrow," said Isaacson, after a pause.

"Yes, come. You must put me—right."

Mrs. Armine could not accompany Isaacson to the felucca or say a word to him alone, for Nigel kept, almost clung to, her hand.

"I must stay with him till he sleeps," she almost whispered as Isaacson was going.

She was bending slightly over the bed. Some people might have thought that she looked like the sick man's guardian angel, but Isaacson felt an intense reluctance to leave the dahabeeyah that night.

He looked at Mrs. Armine for a moment, saw that she fully received his look, and went away, leaving her still in that beautifully protective attitude.

He came out on deck. The felucca was waiting. He got into it, and was rowed out into the river by two sailors. As they rowed they began to sing. The lights of the Loulia slipped by, yellow light after yellow light. From above the blue light looked down like a watchful eye. The darkness of the water, like streaming ebony, took the felucca and the fateful voices. And the tide gave its help to the oarsmen. The lights began to dwindle when Isaacson said to the men:

"Hush!"

He held up his hand. The Nubians lay on their oars, surprised. The singing died in their throats.

Across the water there came a faint but shrill sound of laughter. Some one was laughing, laughing, laughing, in the night.

The Nubians stared at each other, the man who was stroke turning his head towards his companion.

Faint cries followed the laughter, and then—was it not the sound of a woman, somewhere sobbing dreadfully?

Isaacson listened till it died away.

Then, with a stern, tense face, he nodded to the Nubians.

They bent again to the oars, and the felucca dropped down the Nile.



XXXVI

When she had sent her note to the Fatma, Mrs. Armine had secretly telegraphed to Doctor Hartley, begging him to come to the Loulia as quickly as possible. She had implied to Isaacson that he would arrive about four the next day. Perhaps she had forgotten, or had not known how the trains ran from Assouan.

However that was, Doctor Hartley arrived many hours before the time mentioned by Mrs. Armine for a consultation, and was in full possession of the case and in command of the patient while Isaacson was still on the Fatma.

Isaacson had not slept all night. That dream of the Nile into which he had softly sunk was gone, was as if it never had been. His instinct was to start for the Loulia at daybreak. But for once he denied this instinct. Cool reason spoke in the dawn saying, "Festina lente." He listened. He held himself in check. After his sleepless night, in which thought had been feverish, he would spend some quiet, lonely hours. There was, he believed, no special reason, after the glance he had sent to Mrs. Armine just before he went out of Nigel's cabin, why he should hurry in the first hour of the new day to the sick man he meant to cure. Let the sleeping draught do its work, and let the clear morning hours correct any fever in his own mind.

And so he rested on deck, while the sun climbed the pellucid sky, and he watched the men at the shaduf. The sunlight struck the falling water and made it an instant's marvel. And the marvel recurred, for the toil never ceased. The naked bodies bent and straightened. The muscles stood out, then seemed to flow away, like the flowing water, on the arms under the bronze-coloured skin. And from lungs surely made of brass came forth the fierce songs that have been thrown back from the Nile's brown banks perhaps since the Sphinx first set his unworldly eyes towards eternity.

But though Isaacson deliberately paused to get himself very thoroughly and calmly in hand, paused to fight with possible prejudice and drive it out of him, he did not delay till the hour fixed by Mrs. Armine. Soon after one o'clock in the full heat of the day, he set out in the tiny tub which was the only felucca on board of the Fatma, and he took Hassan with him. Definitely why he took Hassan, he perhaps could not have stated. He just thought he would take him, and did.

Very swiftly he had returned with the tide in the night. Now, in the eye of day, he must go up river against it. The men toiled hard, lifting themselves from their seats with each stroke of the oars and bracing their legs for the strain. But the boat's progress was slow, and Isaacson sometimes felt as if some human strength were striving persistently to repel him. He had the sensation of a determined resistance which must be battled with ruthlessly. And now and then his own body was tense as he watched his men at their work. But at last they drew near to the Loulia, and his keen, far-seeing eyes searched the balcony for figures. He saw none. The balcony was untenanted. Now it seemed to him as if in the fierce heat, upon the unshaded water, the great boat was asleep, as if there was no life in her anywhere; and this sensation of the absence of life increased upon him as they came nearer and nearer. All round the upper deck, except perhaps on the land side of the boat, which he could not see, canvas was let down. Shutters were drawn over the windows of the cabins. The doors of the room of the fountain were open, but the room was full of shadow, which, from his little boat, the eyes of Isaacson could not penetrate. As they came alongside no voice greeted them. He began to regret having come in the hour of the siesta. They glided along past green shutter after green shutter till they were level with the forward deck. And there, in an attitude of smiling attention, stood the tall figure of Ibrahim.

Isaacson felt almost startled to find his approach known, to receive a graceful greeting.

He stepped on board followed closely by Hassan. The deck was strewn with scantily clad men, profoundly sleeping. Isaacson addressed himself in a low voice to Ibrahim.

"You understand English?"

"Yes, my gentleman. You come to meet the good doctor who him curin' my Lord Arminigel. He bin here very long time."

"He's here already?"

Ibrahim smiled reassuringly.

"Very long time, my gentleman. Him comin' here to live with us till my lord him well."

And Ibrahim turned, gathered together his gold-coloured skirts, and mounted the stairs to the upper deck. Isaacson hesitated for a moment, then followed him slowly. In that brief moment of hesitation the words had gone through Isaacson's mind: "I ought to have been here sooner."

As he mounted and his eyes rose over the level of the top step of the companion, he was aware of a slight young man, very smartly dressed in white ducks, a loose silk shirt, a low, soft collar and pale, rose-coloured tie, a perfectly cut grey jacket with a small blue line in it, rose-coloured socks, and white buckskin boots, who was lying almost at full length in a wide deck-chair against cushions, with a panama hat tilted so far down over his eyes that its brim rested delicately upon his well-cut, rather impertinent short nose. From his lips curled gently pale smoke from a cigarette.

As Isaacson stepped upon the Oriental rugs which covered the deck, this young man gently pushed up his hat, looked, let his legs quietly down, and getting on his feet, said:

"Doctor Isaacson?"

"Yes," said Isaacson coming up to him.

The young man held out his hand with a nonchalant gesture.

"Glad to meet you. I'm Doctor Baring Hartley, in charge of this sunstroke case aboard here. Came down to-day from Assouan to see how my patient was getting on. Will you have a cigarette?"

"Thanks."

Doctor Isaacson accepted one.

"Fine air at Assouan! This your first visit to the Nile?"

The young man spoke with scarcely a trace of American accent. With his hat set back, he was revealed as brown-faced, slightly freckled, with very thick, dark hair, that was parted in the middle and waved naturally, though it looked as if it had been crimped; a small moustache, rather bristling, because it had been allowed only recently to grow on a lip that had often been shaved; a round, rather sensual chin; and large round eyes, in colour a yellow-brown. In these eyes the character of the man was very clearly displayed. They were handsome, and not insensitive; but they showed egoism, combined with sensuality. He looked very young, but was just over thirty.

"Yes, it's my first visit."

"Won't you sit down?"

He spoke with the ease of a host, and sank into his deck chair, laying his hat down upon his knees and stretching out his legs, from which he pulled up the white ducks a little way. Isaacson sat down on a smaller chair, leaned forward, and said, in a very practical, businesslike voice:

"No doubt Mr. or Mrs. Armine—or both of them, perhaps, has explained how I have come into this affair? I'm an old friend of your patient."

"So I gathered," said Doctor Hartley, in a voice that was remarkably dry.

"I knew him long before he was married, very long before he was ever a sick man, and being out here, and hearing about this sudden and severe illness, of course I called to see how he was."

"Very natural."

"Probably you know my name as a London consulting physician."

"Decidedly. Your success, of course, is great, Doctor Isaacson. Indeed, I wonder you are able to take a holiday. I wonder the ladies will let you go."

He smiled, and touched his moustache affectionately.

"Why the ladies, especially?"

"I understood your practice lay chiefly among the neurotic smart women of London."

"No."

Isaacson's voice echoed the dryness of Doctor Hartley's.

"I'm sorry."

"May I ask why?"

"On the other side of the water we find them—shall I say the best type of patients?"

"Ah!"

Isaacson remembered the sentence of Mrs. Armine which had sent him straight to the sick man. He seemed to detect her cruel prompting in the half-evasive yet sufficiently clear words just spoken.

"Now about Mr. Armine," he said, brushing the topic of himself away. "I am sure—"

But Doctor Hartley interrupted with quiet firmness. One quality he seemed to have in the fullest abundance. He seemed to be largely self-possessed.

"It always clears the ground to be frank, I find," he said, smoothing out some creases in his ducks. "I don't require a consultation, Doctor Isaacson. I don't consider it a case that needs a consultation at present. Directly I do, I shall be glad to call you in."

Isaacson looked down at the rug beneath his chair.

"You consider Mr. Armine going on satisfactorily?" he asked, looking up.

"It's a severe case of sunstroke. It will take time and care. I have decided to stay aboard for a few days to devote myself entirely to it."

"Very good of you."

"I have no doubt whatever of very soon pulling my patient round."

"You don't see any complications in the case?"

"Complications?"

The tone was distinctly, almost alertly, hostile. But Isaacson reiterated coolly:

"Yes, complications. You are quite satisfied this is a case of sunstroke?"

"Quite."

The word came with a hard stroke, that was like the stroke of finality.

"Well, I'm not."

Doctor Hartley stared.

"I know you have come over with a view to a consultation," he said, stiffly. "But my patient has not demanded it, and as I think it entirely unnecessary, you will recognize that we need not pursue this conversation."

"You say the patient does not wish for my opinion on the case?" said Isaacson, allowing traces of surprise to escape him.

"I do. He is quite satisfied to leave it in my hands. He told me so this morning when I arrived."

"I am not reflecting for a moment on your capacity, Doctor Hartley. But, really, in complex cases, two opinions—"

"Who says the case is complex?"

"I do. I was extremely shocked at the appearance of Mr. Armine when I saw him last night. If you had ever known him in health, you would have been as shocked as I was. He was one of the most robust, the most brilliantly healthy, strong-looking men I have even seen."

As he spoke, Armine seemed to stand before Isaacson as he had been.

"The change in him, mind and body, is appalling," he concluded.

And there was in his voice an almost fearful sincerity.

Doctor Hartley fidgeted. He moved his hat, pulled down his ducks, dropped his cigarette on the rug, then rather hastily and awkwardly put it out with his foot. Sitting with his feet no longer cocked up but planted firmly on the rug, he said:

"Of course, an attack like this changes a man. What else could you expect? Really! What else could you expect? I noticed all that! That's why I am going to stay. Upon my word"—as he spoke he seemed to work himself into vexation—"upon my word, Doctor Isaacson, to hear you, anyone would suppose I had been making light of my patient's condition."

Isaacson was confronted with fluffy indignation.

"You'll be accusing me of professional incompetence next, I dare say," continued Doctor Hartley. "I have not told you before, but I'll tell you now, that I consider it a breach of the etiquette that governs our profession, your interfering with my patient."

"How interfering?"

"I hear you gave him something last night—something to make him sleep."

"I did."

"Well, it's had a very bad effect upon him."

"Is he worse to-day?"

Isaacson, unknown to himself, said it with an almost fierce emphasis. Doctor Hartley drew his lips tightly together.

"This is not a consultation," he said coldly.

"I ask as a friend of the patient's, not as a doctor."

"His night was not good."

He shut his lips tightly again. His face and his whole smartly-dressed body expressed a rather weak but very lively hostility.

"He's asleep now," he added.

"Asleep now?"

"Yes. He'll sleep for several hours. I have put him to sleep."

Isaacson's body suddenly felt relaxed, as if all the muscles of it were loosened. For several hours his friend would sleep. For a moment he enjoyed a sense of fascinating relief. Then his consciousness of relief, awoke him to another and fuller consciousness of why this relief had come to him, of that which had preceded it, and given it its intensity.

He must take off the gloves.

"Look here, Doctor Hartley," he said. "I don't want to put you out. I am really not a vulgar, greedy doctor pushing myself into a case with which I have no concern, for some self-interested motive. I can assure you that I have more than enough to do with illness in London and should be thankful to escape from it here. I want a holiday."

"Take one, my dear Doctor Isaacson," remarked Doctor Hartley, imperturbably—"take one, and leave me to work."

"No. Professional etiquette or no professional etiquette, I can't take one while my friend is in such a condition of illness. I can't do that."

"I'm really afraid you'll have to, so far as this case is concerned. I'm an American, and I'm not going to be pushed away from a thing I've set my hand to—pushed away discourteously, and against the desires of those who have called me in. Never in the course of my professional experience has another physician butted in—yes, that's the expression for it: butted right in—without 'With' or 'By your leave,' as you have. It's simply not to be borne. And I'm not the man to bear what's not to be borne. Really, if one didn't know you to be a doctor, one would almost take you for a Bowery detective. Straight, now, one would!"

"Where's Mrs. Armine?" said Isaacson abruptly. "Is she asleep, too?"

"She is."

The languid impertinence of the voice goaded Isaacson. Scarcely ever, if ever, before had he felt such an almost physical longing for violence. But he did not lose his self-restraint, although he suffered bitterly in keeping it.

"Have you any idea how long she is going to sleep?"

"Some hours."

"What? Do you mean that you have put her to sleep, too?"

"I have ventured to do so. Her night had not been good."

Isaacson remembered the sounds that had come to him over the Nile.

"You have given her a sleeping draught?" he said.

"I have."

"But she was expecting me here. She was expecting me here for a consultation."

"I beg your pardon. You were good enough to say you meant to come. Mrs. Armine has been scrupulously delicate and courteous to me. That I know. You placed her in a very difficult position. She explained matters when I arrived."

She had "explained matters"! Isaacson felt rather as if he were fighting an enemy who had laid a mine to check or to destroy him, and had then retreated to a distance.

"Last night, Doctor Hartley," he said, very quietly and coldly, "Mr. Armine, in Mrs. Armine's presence, expressed a strong wish to put himself in my hands. I came here with not the least intention of being impolite, but since you have chosen to make things difficult for me I must speak out. Last night Mr. Armine said, 'I don't want anything more to do with Hartley. He knows nothing. I won't have him to-morrow.' Mrs. Armine was with us and heard these words."

A violent flush showed through the brown on the young man's face. His round eyes stared with an expression of crude amazement that was almost laughable.

"He—he said—" he began. Then abruptly, allowing an American drawl to appear in his voice, he said, "Pardon! But I don't believe it."

"It's quite true, nevertheless."

"I don't believe it. That's a fact. I've seen Mr. Armine, and he was most delighted to welcome me. He put himself entirely in my hands. He asked me to 'save' him."

Suddenly Isaacson felt a sickness at his heart.

"I must see him," he almost muttered.

"I won't have him disturbed," said Doctor Hartley, with now the transparently open enmity of a very conceited man who had been insulted. "As his physician I forbid you to disturb my patient."

The two men looked at one another in silence.

"After what occurred last night, and what has occurred here to-day, I cannot go without seeing either Mr. or Mrs. Armine," Isaacson said at last.

Was Nigel's weakness of mind, the sad product of his illness of body, to fight against his friend, to battle against his one chance of recovery? That would complicate matters. That—Isaacson clearly recognized it—would place him at so grave a disadvantage that it might render his position impossible. What had been the scene last night after he had left the Loulia? How had it affected the sick man? Again he seemed to hear that dreadful laughter, the cries that had followed upon it!

"If I am not to see Mr. Armine as a doctor, then I must ask to see him as a friend."

"For a day or two I shall not be able to give permission for any one to see him, except Mrs. Armine and myself, and of course his servant, Hamza."

Isaacson sent a sudden, piercing look, a look that was like something sharp that could cut deep into the soul, to the man who faced him. Just for a moment a suspicion besieged him, a suspicion hateful and surely absurd, yet—for are not all things possible in the cruel tangle of life?—that might be grounded on truth. Before that glance the young doctor moved, with a start of uneasiness, despite his self-possession.

"What—what d'you mean?" he almost stammered. "What d'you mean?" He felt mechanically at his tie. "I don't understand you," he said. Then, recovering himself, as the strangely fierce expression died away from the eyes which had learnt what they wanted to know, he added:

"I certainly shall not give permission for you to see Mr. Armine. You would disturb and upset him very much. He needs the greatest quiet and repose. The brain is a fearfully sensitive organ."

Now, suddenly, Isaacson felt as if he was with an obstinate boy, and any anger he had felt against his companion evaporated. Indeed, he was conscious of a strong sensation of pity, mingled with irony. For a moment he had wronged the young doctor by a doubt, and for that moment he had a wish to make some amends. The man's unconsciousness of it did not concern him. It was to himself really that the amends were due.

"Doctor Hartley," he said almost cordially, "I think we don't quite understand one another. Perhaps that is my fault. I oughtn't to have repeated Mr. Armine's words. They were spoken and meant. But a sick man speaks out of his sickness. We doctors realize that and don't take too much account of what he says. You are here, I am sure, with no desire but to cure my poor friend. I am here with the same desire. Why should we quarrel?"

"I have no wish whatever to quarrel. But I will not submit to a man butting in from outside and trying to oust me from a case of which I have been formally given the control."

"I don't wish to oust you. I only wish to be allowed to co-operate with you. I only wish to hear your exact opinion of the case and to be allowed to form and give you mine. Come, Doctor Hartley, it isn't as if I were a pushing, unknown man. In London I'm offered far more work than I can touch. It will do your medical reputation no harm to call me in, in consultation. Without undue conceit, I hope I can say that. And if—if you have got hold of the idea that I'm on the Nile to make money, disabuse your mind of it. This is a case in which a little bit of my own personal happiness is wrapped up. I've—I've a strong regard for this sick man. That's the truth of it."

Doctor Hartley looked at him, looked away, and looked at him again.

"I don't doubt your friendship for Mr. Armine," he said, at last, laying a faint stress upon the penultimate word.

"Will you let me discuss the case amicably with you? No formal consultation! Just let me hear your views fully, and mention anything that occurs to me."

"Occurs? But you haven't examined the patient. You haven't made any thorough examination, or entered into the circumstances of the case."

"No. But I've seen the patient."

"Only for a very few minutes, I understand. How can you have formed a definite opinion?"

"I did not say I had. But one or two things struck me."

Doctor Hartley stared with his handsome, round eyes.

"For instance, the patient's sallow colour, the patient's rheumatic pains, the patient's breath, and—did you happen to observe it? But no doubt you did!—the patient's dropped wrist."

The young doctor's face had become more serious. He looked much less conscious of himself at this moment.

"Dropped wrist!" he said.

"Yes."

"Of course! Muscular weakness brought on quite naturally by prolonged illness. The man has simply been knocked down by this touch of the sun. Travellers ought to be more careful than they are out here."

"I suppose you're aware that the patient has already lived and worked in Egypt for many months at a time. He has land in the Fayyum, and has been cultivating it himself. He's no novice in Egypt, no untried tourist. He's soaked in the sun without hurt by the month together."

"As much as that?" said Hartley.

"Isn't it rather odd that so early in the year as February he should be stricken down by the spring sunshine?"

"It is queer—yes, it is queer," assented the other.

He crossed one leg over the other and looked abstracted.

"I suppose Mr. Armine himself thought the illness was brought about by the sun?" said Isaacson, after a minute.

"Well—oh, from the first it was an understood thing that he'd got a touch of the sun. There's no doubt whatever about that. He went out at noon, and actually dug at Thebes without covering his head. Sheer madness! People saw him doing it."

"And it all came on after that?"

"Yes, the serious symptoms. Of course he wasn't in very good health to start with."

"No?"

"He'd been having dyspepsia. Caught a chill one evening bathing in the Nile—somewhere off Kous, I believe it was. That rendered him more susceptible than usual."

"Naturally. So that he was already unwell before he did that foolish thing at Thebes?"

"He was seedy, but not really ill."

"What a long talk you're having!" said a voice.

Both men started, and into Doctor Baring Hartley's face there came a look of painful self-consciousness, as of one unexpectedly detected in an unpardonable action. He sprang up.

Mrs. Armine was standing near the top of the companion.



XXXVII

She came towards them.

"You've made friends without any introduction?"

She had on a hat and veil, and carried a fan in her hand.

"How can you be awake and up? But it's impossible, after the veronal I gave you. And such a night as you had! You mustn't—"

Doctor Hartley, still looking dreadfully guilty, was beside her. His solicitude was feverish.

"Really, I can't permit—" he almost stammered.

She looked at him.

"Your voices woke me!"

He was silent. He stood like a man who had been struck.

"How d'you do, Doctor Isaacson? Please forgive me for saying it, but, considering you are two doctors discussing the case of a patient sleeping immediately beneath you, you are not too careful to moderate your voices. Another minute and my husband would have been awake. He was moving and murmuring as it was. As for me—well, you just simply woke me right up, so I thought I would come and join you, and see whether I could keep you quiet."

Her face looked ghastly beneath the veil. Her voice, though she kept it very low, sounded bitter and harsh with irony, and there was something almost venomous in her manner.

"The question is," she added, standing midway between Hartley and Isaacson, "whether my unfortunate husband is to have a little rest or not. When we tied up here we really thought we should be at peace, but it seems we were mistaken. At any rate, I hope the consultation is nearly done, for my head is simply splitting."

Doctor Hartley was scarlet. He shot a vicious glance at Isaacson.

"There has been no consultation, Mrs. Armine," he said.

His eyes implored her forgiveness. His whole body looked pathetic, begging, almost like a chastised dog's.

"No consultation? Then what's the good of all this talky-talky? Have you waked me up by discussing the weather and the temples? That's really too bad of you!"

Her face worked for a second or two. It was easy to see that she was scarcely mistress of herself.

"I think I shall pack you both off to see Edfou," she continued, violently beginning to use her fan. "You can chatter away there and make friends to your hearts' content, and there'll be only the guardian to hear you. Then poor Nigel can have his sleep out whatever happens to me."

Suddenly she gaped, and put up her fan to her mouth.

"Ah!" she said.

The exclamation was like something between a sigh and a sob. Immediately after she had uttered it she cleared her throat.

"I told Doctor Isaacson his coming here to-day was absolutely useless," began Doctor Hartley. "I told him no consultation was required. I begged him to leave the case in my hands. Over and over again I—"

"Oh, you don't know Doctor Isaacson if you think that a courteous request will have any effect upon him. If he wants to be in a thing, he will be in it, and nothing in heaven or earth will stop him. You forget his nationality."

She yawned again, and moved her shoulders.

"You are wronging me grossly, and you know it!" Isaacson said, in a very low voice.

He had laid his hat down on a little straw table. Now he took it up. What was the good of staying? How could a decent man stay? And yet the struggle within him was bitter. If he could only have been certain of this man Hartley, perhaps there would have been no struggle. He might have gone with an almost quiet heart. Or if he had been certain of something else, absolutely certain, he might have remained and acted, completely careless in his defiance of the woman who hated him. But though his instinct was alive, telling him things, whispering, whispering all the time; even though his observation had on the previous night begun to back up his instinct, saying, "Yes, you must be right! You are right!" yet he actually knew nothing. He knew nothing except that this young man, between whose hands lay Nigel's life, was under the spell of Mrs. Armine.

He took up his hat and held it tightly, crushing the soft brim between his fingers. Doctor Hartley was looking at him with the undisguised enmity of the egoist tricked. He had had time to find out that Isaacson had begun subtly to induce him to do what he had refused to do. If Mrs. Armine had not appeared unexpectedly, Nigel Armine's case would have been, perhaps, pretty thoroughly discussed by the two doctors.

"Pushing trickster!"

His round eyes said that with all the vindictiveness of injured conceit.

"You are wronging me!" repeated Isaacson—"wronging me shamefully!"

Was he going? Yes, he supposed so. Yet he did not go.

"It's not a question of wronging any one," she said. "Facts are facts."

Her face was ravaged with physical misery. There was a battle going on between the sleeping draught she had taken and her will to be sleepless. She moved her shoulders again, with a sort of shudder, sideways.

"Nigel doesn't want you," she said.

"How can you say that? It's not true."

"It is true. Isn't it, Doctor Hartley? Didn't my husband—"

She yawned again, and put down her hand on the back of a chair to which she held tightly. "Didn't he ask you to remain on board and look after the case?"

"Certainly!" cried the young man, eagerly drinking in her returning favour. "Certainly!"

"Didn't he ask you to 'save him,' as he called it, poor, dear fellow?"

"That was the very word!"

"And last night?" said Isaacson, fixing his eyes upon her.

"Last night you startled him to death, rushing in upon him without warning or preparation. Wasn't it a cruel, dangerous thing to do in his condition, Doctor Hartley?"

"Most cruel! Unpardonably so! If anything had occurred you ought to have been held responsible, Doctor Isaacson."

"And then whatever it was you gave him, you forced it on him. And he had a perfectly terrible night in consequence."

"Not in consequence of what I gave him!" Isaacson said.

"It must have been."

"It was certainly not."

"He never had such a night before—never, till you interfered with him, and interrupted Doctor Hartley's treatment."

"Disgraceful!" exclaimed the young doctor. "I never have heard of such conduct. If it were ever to be made public, your medical reputation would be ruined."

"And I shouldn't mind if it was, over that!" said Isaacson.

His fingers no longer crushed the brim of his hat, but held it gently.

"I shouldn't mind if it was. But I think if very great care is not taken with this case, it will not be my medical reputation that will be ruined over it."

As if mechanically Mrs. Armine pulled at the chair which she was holding. She drew it nearer her, and twisted it a little round.

"What do you mean?" said Doctor Hartley.

"Mr. Armine is a well-known man. Almost all the English travellers on the Nile, and most people of any importance in Cairo, know of his illness—have heard about his supposed sunstroke."

"Supposed!" interrupted the young doctor, indignantly. "Supposed!"

"All these people will know the name of the medical man in charge of the case—the medical man who declined a consultation."

"Will know?" said Hartley.

Under the attack of Isaacson's new manner his self-possession seemed slightly less assured.

"I shall be in Assouan and Cairo presently," said Isaacson.

Mrs. Armine yawned and pulled at the chair. Her face twitched under her veil. She looked almost terribly alive, as if indeed her mind were in a state of ferment. Yet there was in her aspect also a sort of half-submerged sluggishness. Despite her vindictive agitation, her purposeful venom, she seemed already partially bound by a cloud of sleep. That she had cast away her power to charm as useless was the greatest tribute that Isaacson had ever had paid to his seeing eyes.

"Really! What has that to do with me? Do you suppose I am attending this case surreptitiously?" said Hartley.

He forced a laugh.

"No; but I think it very possible that you may regret ever having had anything to do with it."

In spite of himself, the young doctor was impressed by this new manner of the older man. For a moment he was partially emancipated from Mrs. Armine. For a moment he was rather the rising, not yet risen, medical man than the fully risen young man in love with a fascinating woman. When he chose, Isaacson could hold almost anybody. That was part of the secret of his success as a doctor. He could make himself "believed in."

"Some mistakes ring through the world," Isaacson added quietly. "I should not care to be the doctor who made one of them."

Mrs. Armine, with a sharp movement, twisted the chair quite round, pulled at one side of her dress, and sat down.

"But surely—" Doctor Hartley began.

"This really is the most endless consultation over a case that ever was!" said Mrs. Armine.

She leaned her arms on the arms of the chair and let her hands hang down.

"Do, Doctor Hartley, make my husband over to Doctor Isaacson, if you have lost confidence in yourself. It will be much better. And then, perhaps, we shall have a little peace."

Doctor Hartley turned towards her as if pulled by a cord.

"Oh, but indeed I have not lost confidence. There is, as I have repeatedly said, nothing complicated—"

"You are really sure?" said Isaacson.

He fixed his dark eyes on the young man. Doctor Hartley's uneasiness was becoming evident.

"Certainly I am sure—for the present." The last words seemed to present themselves to him as a sort of life-buoy. He grasped them, clung to them. "For the present—yes. No doctor, of course, not the cleverest, can possibly say that no complications ever will arise in regard to a case. But for the present I am satisfied all is going quite as it should go."

But he turned up the tail of his last sentence. By his intonation it became a question, and showed clearly the state of his mind.

Isaacson had one great quality, the lack of which in many men leads them to distresses, sometimes to disasters. He knew when ice would bear, and directly it would bear, he was content to trust himself on it, but he did not stamp upon it unnecessarily, to prove it beyond its strength.

Suddenly he was ready to go, to leave this boat for a time. He had done as much as he could do for the moment, without making an actual scene. He had even perhaps done enough. That turned-up tail of a sentence nearly convinced him that he had done enough.

"That's well," he said.

His voice was inexpressive, but his face, turned full to the young doctor, told a powerful story of terribly serious doubt, the doubt of a big medical man directed towards a little one.

"That's well," he quietly repeated.

"Good-bye, Mrs. Armine," he said.

She was sunk in her chair. Her arms were still lying along its arms, with her hands hanging. As Isaacson spoke, from one of these hands her fan dropped down to the rug. She did not feel after it.

"Are you really going?" she said.

A faint smile twisted her mouth.

"Yes."

"Good-bye, then!"

He turned away from her slowly.

"Well, good-bye, Doctor Hartley," he said.

All this conversation, since the arrival on deck of Mrs. Armine, had been carried on with lowered voices. But now Isaacson spoke more softly, and his eyes for an instant went from Doctor Hartley to the tall figure sitting low in the chair, and back again to Hartley.

He did not hold out his hand. His voice was polite, but almost totally inexpressive.

Doctor Hartley looked quickly towards the chair too.

"Good-bye," he said, hesitatingly.

His youth was very apparent at this moment, pushing up into view through his indecision. Every scrap of Isaacson's anger against him had now entirely vanished.

"Good-bye!"

Mrs. Armine moved her head slightly, settling it against a large cushion. She sighed.

Isaacson walked slowly towards the companion. As the Loulia was a very large dahabeeyah, the upper deck was long. It was furnished like a drawing-room, with chairs, tables, and sofas. Isaacson threaded his way among these cautiously as if mindful of the sick man below. At length he reached the companion and began to descend. Just as he got to the bottom a whispering voice behind him said:

"Doctor Isaacson!"

He turned. Doctor Hartley was at the top of the steps.

"One minute! I'll come down!" he said, still whispering.

He turned back and glanced over his shoulder. Then, putting his two hands upon the two rails on either side of the steps, he was swiftly and rather boyishly down, and standing by Isaacson.

"I—we—I think we may as well have a word together before you go."

His self-possession was distinctly affected. Anxiety showed itself nakedly in his yellow-brown eyes, and there were wrinkles in his low forehead just below the crimpy hair.

"She's fallen asleep," he added, looking hard at Isaacson.

"Just as you like," Isaacson said indifferently.

"I think, after what has passed, it will be better."

Isaacson glanced round on the stretched-out Nubians, on Ibrahim and Hassan in a corner, standing respectfully but looking intensely inquisitive.

"We'd—we can go in here," said Doctor Hartley.

He led the way softly down the steps under the Arabic inscription, and into the first saloon of the Loulia. As Isaacson came into it, instinctively he looked towards the shut door behind which—somewhere—Nigel was lying, asleep or not asleep.

"He'll sleep for some hours yet," said Doctor Hartley, seeing the glance. "Let's sit down here."

He sat down quickly on the nearest divan, and pulled his fingers restlessly.

"I didn't quite understand—that is—I don't know whether I quite gathered your meaning just now," he began, looking at Isaacson, then looking down between his feet.

"My meaning?"

"Yes, about this case."

"I thought you considered a consultation unnecessary."

"A formal consultation—yes. Still, you mustn't think I don't value a good medical opinion. And of course I know yours is a good one."

Isaacson said nothing. Not a muscle of his face stirred.

"The fact is—the fact is that, somehow, you have thoroughly put Mrs. Armine's back up. She thinks you altogether undervalue her devoted service."

"I shouldn't wish to do that."

"No, I knew! Still—"

He took out a handkerchief and touched his lips and his forehead with it.

"She has been really so wonderful!" he said—"waiting on him hand and foot, and giving herself no rest night or day."

"Well, but her maid? Wasn't she able to be of service?"

"Her maid? What maid?"

"Her French maid."

A smile of pity moved the corners of the young man's mouth.

"She hasn't got one. She sent her away long ago. Merely to please him. Oh, I assure you it isn't all milk and honey with Mr. Armine."

Isaacson motioned towards the inner part of the vessel.

"And she's not come back? The maid's never come back?"

"Of course not. You do so misunderstand her—Mrs. Armine."

Isaacson said nothing. He felt that a stroke of insincerity was wanted here, but something that seemed outside of his will forbade him to give it.

"That is what has caused all this," continued Hartley. "I shouldn't really have objected to a consultation so much, if it had come about naturally. But no medical man—you spoke very seriously of the case just now."

"I think very seriously of it."

"So do I, of course."

Doctor Hartley pursed his lips.

"Of course. I saw from the first it was no trifle."

Isaacson said nothing.

"I say, I saw that from the first."

"I'm not surprised."

There was a pause in which the elder doctor felt as if he saw the younger's uneasiness growing.

"You'll forgive me for saying it, Doctor Isaacson, but—but you don't understand women," said Hartley, at last. "You don't know how to take them."

"Perhaps not," Isaacson said, with an apparent simplicity that sounded like humility.

Doctor Hartley looked more at his ease. Some of his cool self-importance returned.

"No," he said. "Really! And I must say that—you'll forgive me?"

"Certainly."

"—that it has always seemed to me as if, in our walk of life, that was half the battle."

"Knowing how to take women?"

"Exactly."

"Perhaps you're right." He looked at the young man as if with admiration. "Yes, I dare say you are right."

Doctor Hartley brightened.

"I'm glad you think so. Now, a woman like Mrs. Armine—"

The mention of the name recalled him to anxiety. "One moment!" he almost whispered. He went lightly away and in a moment as lightly returned.

"It's all right! She'll sleep for some hours, probably. Now, a woman like Mrs. Armine, a beautiful, celebrated woman, wants a certain amount of humouring. And you don't humour her. See?"

"I expect you know."

Isaacson did not tell of that sheet of glass through which Mrs. Armine and he saw each other too plainly.

"She's a woman with any amount of heart, any amount. I've proved that." He paused, looked sentimental, and continued, "Proved it up to the hilt. But she's a little bit capricious. She wants to be taken the right way. I can do anything with her."

He touched his rose-coloured tie, and pulled up one of his rose-coloured socks.

"And the husband?" Isaacson asked, with a detached manner. "D'you find him difficult?"

"Between ourselves, very!"

"That's bad."

"He tries her very much, I'm afraid, though he pretends, of course, to be devoted to her. And she's simply an angel to him."

"Hard on her!"

"I sympathize with her very much. Of course, she's told me nothing. She's too loyal. But I can read between the lines. Tell me, though. Do you think him very bad?"

"Very."

Isaacson spoke without emotion, as if out of a solely medical mind.

"You don't—ah—you don't surely think him in any danger?"

Isaacson slightly shrugged his shoulders.

"But—h'm—but about the sunstroke! If it isn't sunstroke—?"

Hartley waited for an interruption. None came.

"If it isn't sunstroke entirely, the question is, what is it?"

Isaacson looked at him in silence.

"Have you formed any definite opinion?" said Hartley, at last bringing himself to the point.

"I should have to watch the case, if only for a day or two before giving any definite opinion."

"Well, but—informally, what do you think about it? What did you mean upstairs about unless very great care was taken a—a—medical reputation might be—er—ruined over it. 'Ruined' is a very strong word, you know."

The egoist was evidently very much alarmed.

"And then you said that very possibly I might regret ever having had anything to do with it. That was another thing."

Isaacson looked down meditatively.

"I didn't, and I don't, understand what your meaning could have been."

"Doctor Hartley, I can't say very much. A doctor of any reputation who is at all known in the great world has to be guarded. This is not my case. If it were, things would be different. I may have formed an opinion or not. In any event, I cannot give it at present. But I am an older man than you. I have had great experience, and I should be sorry to see a rising young physician, with probably a big future before him, get into deep waters."

"Deep waters?"

Isaacson nodded gravely.

"Mrs. Armine may think this illness is owing to a sunstroke. But she may be wrong. It may be owing to something quite different. I believe it is."

"But what? What?"

"That has to be found out. You are here to find it out."

"I—I really believe a consultation—"

He hesitated.

"But there's her great dislike of you!" he concluded, naively.

Isaacson got up.

"If Mr. Armine gets rapidly worse—"

"Oh, but—"

"If he dies and it's discovered afterwards that the cause of his illness had never been found out by his doctor, and that a consultation with a man—forgive me—as widely known as myself was refused, well, it wouldn't do you any good, I'm afraid."

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