A Woman Perfected by Richard Marsh

A Woman Perfected by Richard Marsh.jpg

CHAPTER I

STRICKEN

Donald Lindsay was prostrated by a stroke of apoplexy on Thursday, April 3. It was surmised that the immediate cause was mental. He arrived home apparently physically well, but in a state of what, for him, was a state of unusual agitation. As a rule he was a dour man; much given to silence; self-contained. At that time there was staying at Cloverlea, with his daughter Nora, a school-friend, Elaine Harding. During lunch both girls were struck by his unusual talkativeness. Often during a meal he would hardly open his lips for any other purpose except eating and drinking. That morning he talked volubly to both girls on all sorts of subjects. After lunch Nora said laughingly to Elaine–

“I wonder what’s the matter with papa. I don’t know when I remember him so conversational.”

He put in no appearance at tea; but as that was a common occurrence his absence went unnoticed. When, however, the gong having sounded for dinner, the girls were waiting for him in the drawing-room, and still he did not come, Nora sent a servant to his dressing-room to inquire if he would be long. The man returned to say that his master was neither in his dressing-room nor his bedroom; that he had spent the afternoon in his study, from which no one had seen him issue; that the study door was locked, and knockings went unheeded. Nora, opening a French window in the drawing-room, went along the terrace towards the study.

The study opened on to the terrace. It had two long windows. At neither of them were the blinds down or the curtains drawn. It was elicited afterwards that the servant whose duty it was to attend to such matters had knocked at the door when the shadows lowered. On turning the handle, he found that it was locked; Mr. Lindsay informed him from within that he would draw the blinds himself. It seemed that he had not done so. The room was in darkness, with the exception of the flicker of the firelight. Nora said to Miss Harding, who had followed at her heels–

“Whatever does papa want with a fire on a day like this?” All that week the weather had been not only warm, but positively hot. There had been one of those hot spells which we sometimes get in April; and, as frequently, have to do without in August. Save in the evenings and early mornings fires had remained unlit in all the living rooms. That Thursday had been the hottest day of all. Mr. Lindsay was one of those persons who seldom felt the cold, but quickly suffered from the heat. He preferred to be without a fire in his own apartments when the rest of the establishment was glad enough to be within reach of a cheerful blaze. That there should be one in his study on such a day as that struck his daughter as strange. She stood close up to the window, her friend at her side. “The room seems empty.”

“It is empty,” said Miss Harding. Nora knocked, without result. “What’s the use of knocking? There’s no one there.” Nora tried the handle first of one window, then of the other; both were fastened. “What’s the use?” asked Miss Harding. “Any one can see that the room is empty. There’s light enough for that.”

At that moment the fire flared up in such a way that all the room within was lit by its radiance; so clearly lit as to make it plain that it had no occupant.

“But,” observed Nora, “if it’s empty why should the door be locked? Papa never leaves it locked when he’s not inside.”

Two figures approached through the darkness. In front was the housekeeper, Mrs. Steele.

“Miss Nora,” she began, “you’d better go indoors. I’m afraid there’s something wrong.”

“Why should I go indoors?” the girl demanded. “And what can be wrong? We can see all over the room; we saw plainly just now, didn’t we, Elaine? There’s no one there.”

“Your father’s there,” said Mrs. Steele.

Her tone was grim. Before Nora could ask how she knew that, there was a crash of glass. Looking round with a start she found that Stephen Morgan, the butler, had broken a pane in the other window.

“Morgan,” she cried, “what are you doing?”

“This is the shortest way in,” he answered.

He thrust his arm through the broken pane; lifted the hasp; the window was open. He went through it. Nora was following when she was checked by Mrs. Steele.

“Miss Nora,” she persisted, “you had better go indoors.”

“I am going indoors; isn’t this indoors? If, as you put it, there is something wrong, who is more concerned than I?” All four entered. Morgan, who had passed round to the other side of the large writing-table, which was in the centre of the room, gave a sudden exclamation. Nora hurried round to where he was. Some one was lying huddled up on the floor; as if, slipping awkwardly out of his chair, he had lain helplessly where he had fallen. Nora dropped on her knees by his side. “Papa!” she cried. “Father!”

No one answered. Morgan lit the lamp which always stood on Mr. Lindsay’s writing-table. In the days which followed Nora often had occasion to ask herself what, exactly, happened next. She was conscious that in the room there was a strong smell of burnt paper; always, afterwards, when her nostrils were visited by the odour of charred paper that scene came back to her. The cause of the smell was not far to seek; the hearth was full of ashes. Evidently Mr. Lindsay had been burning papers on a wholesale scale; apparently for that reason he had had a fire; Nora had a vague impression–which recurred to her, later, again and again–that many of the papers were only partially consumed. The room was littered with papers; they were all over the table; on chairs, on the floor; drawers stood open, papers peeped out of them; which was the more remarkable since Mr. Lindsay was the soul of neatness. Plainly the finger of God had touched him when he was still in the midst of the task which he had set himself. There came a time when Nora had reason to wish that she had retained her self-possession sufficiently to give instructions that all papers, both burnt and unburnt, were to be left exactly as they were; and had taken steps to ensure those instructions being carried out. But at the moment all she thought of was her father. He was not dead; his stertorous breathing was proof of that. They carried him up-stairs; undressed him, put him to bed, who an hour or two before had been the hale, strong man; who had never known what it was to be sick; who had so loved to do everything for himself.

Apoplexy was Dr. Banyard’s pronouncement, when he appeared upon the scene; though there were features about the case which induced him to fall in readily with Nora’s suggestion that a specialist should be sent for from town. The great man arrived in the middle of the night. When he saw Nora he was sententious but vague, as great doctors are apt to be; the girl gathered from his manner that the worst was to be feared.

On the following day, the Friday, towards evening, Mr. Lindsay partially regained consciousness–that is, he opened his eyes, and when his child leaned over him it was plain he knew her, though he got no further than the mere recognition. He could neither speak, nor move, nor do anything for himself at all. That night Nora dreamed a dream. She dreamed that her father came into her room in his night-shirt, and leaned over her, and whispered that he had something to say to her–which he must say to her; but which was for her ear alone–he was just about to tell her what it was when she woke up. So strong had the conviction of his actual presence been that for some moments she could not believe that it was a dream; she started up in bed fully expecting to find him standing by her side. When she found that he was not close enough to touch she leaned out of bed, murmuring–

“Father! father!”

It was only after she had lit a candle that she was constrained to the belief that it was a dream. Even then she was incredulous. She actually carried her candle to the door, and looked out into the passage, half expecting to see him passing along it. When she returned into her room she was in a curious condition, both mentally and bodily. She trembled so that she had to sink on to a chair. Then she did what she had not done for years–she cried. If she had had to say what prompted her tears, her explanation would have been a curious one; she would have had to say that she cried because of her father’s grief; that it was his anguish which moved her to tears. Dream or no dream, what had struck her about him, as he leaned over her as she lay in bed, was his agony. In all the years she had known him she had never known him show signs of emotion; yet, as he leant over her she had felt, even in her sleep, that he was under the stress of some terrible trouble; that he wished to say to her what he had to say so much that his anxiety to say it was tearing at the very roots of his being. It was some minutes before she regained her self-control; when she did she slipped on a dressing-gown and went to her father’s room. The night nurse answered her unspoken question by informing her that no change had taken place; that the sick man was just as he had been. Nora moved to his bed. There he lay, on his back, exactly as before. She had the feeling strong upon her that he had heard her coming; that, in some strange fashion, he was glad to see her; though, when she stood beside him, he looked up at her with such agony in his eyes that the sight of it brought tears to hers. Again there came to her that odd conviction which had possessed her when she woke out of sleep, that there was something which he strenuously wished to say to her; that he was torn by the desire to relieve himself of a burden which was on his mind.

On the Saturday his condition remained the same; he was conscious but motionless, helpless, and, above all, speechless. So convinced was she that if he could only speak, if only some means could be found by which he could convey his thoughts to her, that he would be more at his ease, that she appealed to Dr. Banyard.

“Can nothing be done to restore to him the power of speech, if only for a few minutes?”

“I believe that I am doing all that medicine can do; you heard Sir Masterman say that he could do no more.”

“Can you think of no way in which he can convey to us his meaning? I believe that he has something which he wishes very much to say–something on his mind; and that if he could only say it–get it off his mind–he would at least be happier.”

The doctor eyed her shrewdly.

“Have you any notion what it is?”

“Not the slightest. If I had I might prompt him, and get at it that way. But my father has never been very communicative with me; I know nothing of his private affairs–absolutely nothing; I only know that he is my father.”

“Have you any other relations?”

“So far as I know only an aunt, his sister. I have never seen her–I don’t think they have been on good terms; I don’t know her address; I believe she lives abroad.”

“Had your mother no relations?”

“I cannot tell you; I know nothing of my mother–she died when I was born. I have been wondering if what he wishes to say is that, if–if the worst comes, he would like to be buried in her grave. I don’t know where her grave is; he has never spoken of her to me.”

The doctor continued to eye her intently. He had a clever face, with a whimsical mouth, which seemed to be a little on one side; his eyes were deep-set, and were surrounded by a thick thatch of iron-grey hair.

“How old are you?”

“I shall be twenty in June.”

“That’s a ripe age.”

She sighed.

“I feel as if I were a hundred.”

“You don’t look it; however, that’s by the way. At such a time as this, Miss Lindsay, you ought not to be alone in this great house, with all the weight upon your shoulders.”

“I’m not alone; Elaine is with me.”

“Yes; and she–is even older than you.”

“Elaine is twenty-four.”

“I don’t doubt it. If you’re a hundred I should say that she is a thousand.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing.” But she felt that he had meant something; she wondered what. He went on. “What I intended to remark was that I think you ought to have some one with you who would give proper attention to your interests. As it is, you are practically at the mercy of a lot of servants and–and others. Hasn’t your father an old friend, in whom you yourself have confidence–a business friend? By the way, who is his man of business–his lawyer?”

She shook her head.

“If father has any friends I don’t know them. He has never been very sociable with anybody about here; I can’t say what old acquaintances he may have had elsewhere. As you are probably aware, he was frequently away.”

“Did you never go with him?”

“Never–never once. I have never been with my father anywhere out of this immediate neighbourhood, except when I first went to school, when he escorted me.”

“But you always knew where he was?”

“Sometimes; not always.”

“Had he an address in town?”

“Only his club, so far as I know.”

“Which was his club?”

“The Carlton.”

“That sounds good enough. Did you use to write to him there?”

“Not often; he only liked me to write to him when I had something of importance to say. He cared neither for reading nor for writing letters. He once told me that there were a lot of women who seemed to have nothing better to do than waste their own and other people’s time by scribbling a lot of nonsense, which they cut up into lengths, sent through the post, and called letters. He hoped I should never become one of them. I remembered what he said, and never troubled him with one of the ‘lengths’ called letters if I could help it.”

Both of them smiled; only the doctor’s was a whimsical smile, and hers was hardly suggestive of mirth.

“You haven’t told me who his lawyer is.”

“The only lawyer I ever heard him mention was Mr. Nash.”

“Nash? He only employed him in little local jobs; in no sense was he his man of business; I’ve reasons for knowing that his opinion of Herbert Nash’s legal ability is not an unduly high one.”

As before, Nora shook her head.

“He is the only lawyer I ever heard papa mention.”

“But, my dear Miss Lindsay, your father is a man of affairs–of wealth; he lives here at the rate of I don’t know how many thousand pounds a year, and has never owed a man a penny; you must know something of his affairs.”

“All I know is that he has always given me all the money I wanted, and not seldom more than I wanted; I have never had to ask him for any; but beyond that I know nothing.”

When Dr. Banyard got home he said to his wife–

“Helen, if I had to define a male criminal lunatic, I am inclined to think that I should say it was a man who brought up his women-folk in the lap of luxury without giving them the faintest inkling as to where the wherewithal to pay for that luxury came from.”

His wife said mischievously–

“It is at least something for women-folk, as you so gracefully describe the salt of the earth, to be brought up in the lap of luxury; please remember that, sir. And pray what prompts this last illustration of the wisdom of the modern Solomon?”

“That man Lindsay; you know how he’s been a mystery to all the country-side; the hints which have been dropped; the guesses which have been made; the clues which the curious have followed, ending in nothing; the positive libels which have been uttered. It turns out that he’s as much a mystery to his own daughter as he is to anybody else; I’ve just had it from her own lips. The man lies dying, leaving her in complete ignorance of everything she ought to know–at the mercy, not impossibly, of those who do know. Just as God is calling him home he wants to tell her; I can see it in his eyes, and so can she; but he is dumb. Unless a miracle is worked he’ll die silent, longing to tell her what he ought to have told her years ago.”

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Categories: English Literature

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