Dr. Montgomery’s approximate estimate of the duration of Armstrong’s delirium proved to be only a few days shorter than the actual fact. In less than a week all anxiety regarding any possible complications was set at rest by the doctor’s report that his patient was progressing normally and as well as could be expected. The skull had sustained no injury, and the brain suffered only from the concussion. The household became accustomed to the still figure, which gave evidence of its returning strength only by the increasing frequency of incoherent ramblings, the voice developing in firmness as the days progressed.
Inez was about again by this time, and with sunken eyes and ashen face shared with Helen the privilege of watching beside the patient during the last week of his unconsciousness. But it was a different Inez from the serious but happy and alert girl who had sat beside Armstrong in the automobile when it had crashed against the wall. The burden of bearing her secret alone, during all these weeks, had been in itself a wearing experience, but this was as nothing compared with the agony of soul through which she had since passed. The very struggle with herself, and the sense of personal sacrifice she experienced, had previously served in her own mind to sanctify her affection and to justify its existence. Now that she had allowed her passion to burst from her control, all justification was at an end. Her womanhood and sense of right seemed to separate themselves from her weaker emotions, and to judge and condemn them without mitigation.
It was natural that Helen should attribute her changed condition to the horror of the accident itself; yet Inez knew that the scene which was enacted in her mind over and over again until it almost drove her mad was that of her own shameless disloyalty. She shuddered as it returned to her even now while sitting beside Armstrong’s bed; she shrank from Helen’s sympathetic caress and her thoughtful solicitude. If she could only cry out and proclaim to them all the unworthy part she had performed, she would feel some sense of relief in the self-abasement it must bring to her.
Armstrong’s delirious wanderings were a sore trial to Inez, but she accepted and bore them with the unflinching courage of an ascetic. The sound of his voice, the undirected, expressionless gaze of his eyes, the uncertainty of what each disconnected sentence might call to mind—all drove fresh barbs into a soul already tortured by self-condemnation. At first his mind had seemed to center itself upon his wife and his enforced separation from her.
“When it is finished,” he had murmured, tossing from side to side and finally raising his hand as if reaching out to some one—“when it is finished she will understand.”
“She does understand, dear,” Helen had cried out, seizing his hand and pressing it to her lips; but instantly he withdrew it, and his words again became incoherent and meaningless.
At another time, when both Helen and Inez were sitting near by, his eyes opened, and he seemed to be looking directly at his wife.
“She refuses to continue the work, Helen,” he said, as she sprang to his side, believing that at last his mind had cleared—“you were quite wrong, do you not see?”
Helen looked at Inez quickly, noting the swift color which suffused her pale face, but before a word could be spoken the invalid had relapsed into his former condition. Inez made an excuse to escape from the room for a moment.
“You were quite wrong—do you not see?” she repeated Armstrong’s words to herself. Was he simply rambling, or had the subject been brought up for previous discussion? Inez’ conscience, sensitive from the load already resting upon it, quivered with new apprehensiveness. Yet Helen’s attitude toward her had in no way changed—in fact, the awful anxiety of the first suspense, together with the later mutual responsibilities which they had shared, had seemed to Inez to draw them even more closely to each other. She tried to gain an answer to her inward questionings from Helen’s face as she re-entered the room, but found there nothing but cordiality and friendliness.
“He must be getting nearer and nearer to a return of consciousness,” Helen had said, quite naturally; “but how he wanders!” She looked over affectionately to her husband, still and helpless, but breathing with the steady regularity of convalescence. “Sometimes it is about his work at the library—sometimes it is about me. What agony of spirit he must be passing through if he realizes any of it!”
“He loves you, Helen,” Inez cried, impulsively—“he loves you now, just as he always has!”
“Of course.” Helen looked up questioningly from her fancy work. She was not yet ready to take Inez into her confidence. “What a strange remark, dear! Is it not quite natural that my husband should love me?”
Helen’s smiling face, as she asked her simple but disconcerting question, completely unnerved Inez.
“He has been so worried about the time which his work compelled him to be away from you,” Inez replied, at length, trying to conceal her confusion. “He finished the first draft of the book the day of the accident. His first thought, after he put down his pen, was to return to the villa, that he might surprise you at lunch.”
“Cerini!” called Armstrong.
Helen placed her hand upon his forehead soothingly.
“I owe it to my wife—” the invalid continued; “but I shall come back—come back.”
“Yes, dear, you shall go back,” she answered, quietly, resting her cheek against his—“you shall go back.”
“When it is finished—” Armstrong murmured, again subsiding into silence.
So the days passed, one by one, differing little, each from the other, yet filled with many and conflicting emotions on the part of the faithful watcher by the bedside. With all its pain, Helen welcomed this period during which she could work out her problem with the unconscious help of the rambling, disconnected sentences which escaped from her husband’s lips. Sometimes they were full of tenderness for her; again they were reproaches, levelled at himself for his neglect; but most frequently they made reference to his work in some of its various stages. Alternately her heart was touched by his apparent affection for her, and the wound again torn open by his appeal to or dependence upon Inez. But through it all came the one conviction, which needed but this strengthening reassurance to make her determined path seem certain—that whatever drew him away from his work and back to her was a sense of duty, and that alone.
Helen questioned Dr. Montgomery upon the ordinary phenomena in cases such as this.
“His mutterings may be absolutely meaningless,” he replied to her questions, “or they may be thoughts or actual repetitions of conversations which he has previously had.”
“In the latter case, would he be likely to repeat them correctly?”
“Yes, provided he repeats them at all.”
“And these thoughts or conversations, if correctly repeated, would presumably indicate his convictions at the time they occurred?”
“His convictions at the time they occurred,” Dr. Montgomery assented; “but their reliability as normal expressions would depend upon his mental condition at the time the thoughts occurred or the words were spoken.”
Armstrong’s recovery came unexpectedly, even after the long days of waiting.
The perfect July day was drawing to a close, and Helen had watched the sinking sun from the window beside his bed. It was all so beautiful! The world seemed full of glorious hopefulness and promise, and her heart filled to overflowing at the thought that for her, who loved it so, that promise no longer held good. She turned to the silent figure lying upon the bed. Would he ever realize what she had gone through and must still endure for him? She sank upon her knees, burying her face in the counterpane, as if to shut out the overpowering grandeur, which produced so sad a contrast. Suddenly she felt a hand resting upon her head, and a voice spoke her name.
She looked up quickly straight into her husband’s eyes, now wide open and filled with an expression so full of love and devotion that her heart sprang forth in eager response. It was the expression which his face had worn when she had first confessed her love for him, and the intervening months, with their brief joy and their long sorrow, were obliterated on the instant. Once more he was the devoted, thoughtful, irresistible lover, and Helen felt the weight of years roll off her tired shoulders, leaving her the happy, buoyant girl, proud of having won this strong man’s affection. She gazed at him silently, fearing lest the eyes close again, and unwilling to lose a moment of their present significance; but they remained open.
“Helen,” Armstrong repeated, still looking intently at her, “be patient, dear.
I know how shamefully I have neglected you, I know how much I have hurt you; but my work is nearly finished now. Then, believe me, all will be as before.”
The voice was calm and sustained. There was no hesitation, no rambling. Still, she did not fully comprehend that he was himself again.
“Yes, dear,” she replied, humoring him; “then all will be as before.”
He could not see the sharp pain which showed in her face as she spoke, nor did he realize how her heart wished that it might be so.
“I must get up,” he continued, after a moment’s silence. “What time is it? I shall be late at the library.”
“You have finished your work for to-day, Jack,” she answered, quietly.
“Have I?” he asked, simply.
His glance slowly wandered about the room. “Is it not morning?” he queried, at length.
“It is afternoon,” she replied, turning toward the window. “See—the sun is just sinking behind San Miniato.”
“Afternoon?” he queried, vaguely—“afternoon, and I still in bed?”
“You have not been well,” she volunteered, guardedly, carefully following the doctor’s injunctions. “Don’t bother now; you will be feeling much better in the morning.”
“Not well?” Armstrong’s mind was groping around for some familiar landmark upon which to fasten. “I was at the library—was it this morning?—Ceriniwas there, Miss Thayer was there—where is Miss Thayer?”
“She went out only a moment ago. But don’t try to think about it now. It will be much better for you to do that later.”
He weakly acquiesced and closed his eyes, still holding her hand firmly grasped in his own. The doctor found him gently sleeping, with Helen watching patiently beside him, when he entered the room an hour later.
She held up her disengaged hand warningly. “He is himself again,” she whispered.
“Good!” replied Dr. Montgomery, with satisfaction. “Tell me about it.”
“That is splendid,” he said, when she had recounted the details; “he is progressing famously. You won’t be able to keep him from questioning, but try to let the awakening come as gradually as possible.”
The morning brought renewed strength to the invalid. The nurse called Helen as soon as Armstrong wakened, and he plied her with countless interrogations.
Uncle Peabody came in to see him immediately after a light breakfast had been served, but Inez, upon one pretext or another, delayed entering the sick-room.
“It will be better for him to become accustomed to his new conditions,” she urged, when Helen suggested her going to see him. “You and Mr. Cartwright should have these first moments with him. Later I shall be only too glad to help in any way I can.”
But Armstrong himself was not to be denied.
“There is more to all this than you are telling me,” he said, petulantly, at last, after learning from Helen and Uncle Peabody such details as he could draw forth regarding the duration of his illness and its general nature. “I remember now leaving the library in the motor-car with Miss Thayer. We went—where did we go? Oh yes; to San Domenico. Then we came home. Did we come home?” he asked, with uncertainty in his voice; but before an answer could be given he had himself supplied the connecting link.
“I have it!” he cried, raising himself upon his elbow—“there was an accident.
Alfonse tried to take that turn at the foot of the hill, and we smashed against the wall.”
“Yes,” Helen assented, trying to calm his rising excitement, “there was an accident, and you were badly hurt; but you are nearly well now. Please go slowly, Jack, or you will undo all that your long rest has accomplished. There is plenty of time.”
“But Miss Thayer,” he replied, not heeding her admonition and glancing about searchingly. “Where is Miss Thayer? She was injured, too?”
“Not seriously,” Helen reassured him.
“Then where is she?”
“I don’t know exactly, but she is not far away.”
“You have not sent her away while I have been ill?” he asked, with a touch of his former suspicion.
“No, Jack.” All of the tired, strained tone came back in Helen’s voice as she turned away from the bed to conceal her disappointment.
Armstrong sensed it all as he had failed to do at other times since the gap had begun to widen.
“I did not mean that, Helen,” he said, and reaching over he took her hand and drew her to him; “I really did not mean it.”
“It is all right, Jack,” Helen replied, withdrawing her hand and trying to smile; “I will find Inez and send her to you.” And before he could remonstrate she had left the room.
While he waited Armstrong had a brief moment of introspection. Again he had wounded her, and for no cause. He had enjoyed the short period since his awakening, particularly on account of the tender and affectionate care Helen had given him, which she had for a long time withheld because of his own self- centred interest. It was with real regret that he found this little visit with his wife so abruptly brought to an end, yet he himself had forced the termination. He must fight against this unfortunate attribute, he told himself, and show Helen his real feelings toward her.
His reveries were interrupted by Inez’ entrance. Silently she stood beside him, holding out her hand, which he quietly grasped for a moment and then released. He wondered at the color in her face and at her apparent unwillingness to meet his glance.
“They tell me we have been through an accident together,” he said, slowly.
“Thank God it was I who was injured and not you.”
Inez turned from him, closing her eyes involuntarily. “Don’t speak of it!” she cried, impulsively; “it was too awful!”
“But it is all over now.”
“All but the memory,” she replied, faintly. “Let us forget it, I beg of you.”
“I was going to ask you for some of the details,” Armstrong continued, “which you alone can give.”
“Oh, I beg of you,” she repeated; “I could not bear it.”
“Then by all means let us forget it,” he replied, curiously affected by the girl’s emotion. “Perhaps some time later you will feel more like talking about it. You see, I can remember nothing after the crash against the wall.”
“Thank God!” cried Inez, passionately, turning away her head.
“I suppose it is better so,” Armstrong assented, still wondering at the intensity of her emotion. “But when one has had a whole fortnight of his life blotted out, he naturally feels a bit of curiosity concerning what happened during all that time.”
“You must excuse me, Mr. Armstrong. You don’t know how this tortures me, and I really cannot bear it.”
Armstrong watched the girl as she turned and fairly fled from the room, completely mystified by her extraordinary attitude.
“What in the world can have happened?” he asked himself; and then he settled back on the pillow and tried to answer his own question.