There is no place like the sick-room for self-examination and introspection.
In the still monotony of the slow-passing days, the invalid’s mind is freed from the conventions of every-day complexities, and can view its problems with a veracity and a clearness at other times impossible. As Armstrong’s convalescence continued, he marshalled before him certain events which had occurred since his arrival in Florence, and examined them with great minuteness. Some of these seemed trivial, and he wondered why they came back at this time and forced themselves upon him with such persistence; some of them were important, and he realized that Helen had much of which she might justly complain.
His eyes followed her as she moved about the room, quick to anticipate each wish or necessity, and sweetly eager to respond; yet he distinctly felt the barrier between them. He was conscious now that this barrier had existed for some time, and he found it difficult to explain to himself why he had only recently become aware of it. Helen’s conversations with him came back with renewed force and vital meaning. He had resented it when she had told him that his work at the library had made him indifferent to everything else, yet she had been quite right in what she said. He had wilfully misunderstood her efforts to bring him back to himself, and had openly blamed her for faults which existed only in his own neglect. He had accused her of being jealous of his intimacy with Miss Thayer, yet her attitude toward Inez was a constant refutation. He had treated her even with incivility and unpardonable irritability.
The fault was his, he admitted, yet were there not extenuating circumstances?
No one could have foreseen how completely engrossed he was to become in his work, or the extent of the mastery which the spell of this old-time learning was to gain over him. Naturally, he would have avoided it had he foreseen it; but once under its influence he had been carried forward irresistibly, unable to withdraw, unwilling to oppose. And yet he had boasted of his strength!
“You have become infinitely bigger and stronger and grander,” Helen had said to him, even when her heart was breaking, “and I admire you just so much the more.”
Armstrong winced as these words came home to him. With so much real cause for complaint and upbraiding, Helen had gently tried to show him his shortcomings, tempering her comment with expressions full of loyalty and affection.
But on one point she had been wholly wrong. It was natural that she should have misinterpreted the intimacy which a community of interests had brought about between Miss Thayer and himself. Inez was, of course, much stronger intellectually than Helen, and by reason of this was far better fitted to assist him in his own intellectual expressions. But their intimacy had never extended beyond this even in thought or suggestion. Helen had insisted that Inez was in love with him, and he had tried to show her the absurdity of her suspicion. Here, at least, he had been in the right. Throughout their close association, and even after Helen had spoken, he had never discovered the slightest evidence that any such affection existed. The still unexplained remarks of the contessa’s might or might not be significant. Emory, of course, was prejudiced, and his comments did not require serious consideration. Miss Thayer’s refusal to continue the work, the comparative infrequency of her visits to his sick-chamber—in fact, everything went to show how far Helen had wandered from the actual facts.
Armstrong found some comfort in this conclusion. With Helen so unquestionably wrong in this hypothesis, it of course went without saying that she was equally wrong in what she had said later. She believed that he had a career before him. Cerini had said the same thing, Miss Thayer had said so—and Armstrong himself believed, in the consciousness of having completed an unusual piece of work, that such a possibility might exist. He felt no conceit, but rather that overpowering sense of hopefulness which comes to a man as a result of successful endeavor—not yet crowned, but completed to his own satisfaction. If this career was to be his, he could not follow Helen’s assumption that it must separate them. That was, of course, as ridiculous as her feelings about Inez. Success for him must mean the same to her, his wife.
When the right time came he would take up these two points specifically with her and show her the error which had misled her.
This self-examination covered several days. At first Armstrong found himself unable to think long at a time without becoming mentally wearied; but by degrees his mind gained in vigor, and proved fully equal to the demands made upon it. The details of what had happened on the day of the accident came back to him one by one up to the point of the accident itself, but he felt annoyed that he could not learn more of this. From Helen, Uncle Peabody, and the doctor he knew of the early belief that he had been killed and of the excitement caused by his revived respiration. Of his period of delirium, the nurse had given him more information than the others; but of the break between the moment when the car struck the wall, and the time when Helen arrived upon the scene, Miss Thayer alone held the key. Armstrong’s curiosity regarding this interval was, perhaps, heightened by the evident aversion which she felt to discussing it. To mention the subject in her presence was certain to drive her from the room, her face blazing with color, her body trembling in every nerve.
The patient was able to move about a little by this time, and at the close of each day he found relief from the monotony of his room and the veranda by short walks in the garden, rich in its midsummer gorgeousness of color. A couch had been placed near the retaining wall, so that he could rest upon it whenever he felt fatigued. Between his solicitude concerning the situation with Helen, and his determination to discover from Miss Thayer the occasion of her remarkable attitude, his thoughts were fully occupied.
On this particular afternoon Armstrong had thrown himself upon the couch, and for a moment closed his eyes. With no warning he saw a scene enacted before his mental vision in which he himself was the central figure. He was lying still and lifeless upon the grass by the roadside at the foot of the hill.
Four other figures were in the picture. He recognized Inez, but the other women and the boy he had never seen. The figures moved about, as in a kinetoscope. One of the women ran into the cottage and returned with a basin of water. Inez knelt beside him and bathed his forehead. He could see the tense expression on her face. She seemed to speak to the women, but he could distinguish no words. Then he saw himself lifted and carried into the cottage.
At this point the picture disappeared as suddenly as it had come.
Armstrong opened his eyes when he found the picture gone, and sat up, gazing about him excitedly. He saw Inez crossing the veranda and called to her abruptly.
“Tell me,” he cried, as she hastened to obey the summons and before she reached him, “who carried me into the cottage after the accident?”
The girl paled at the suddenness and intensity of the question. “There were four of us,” she said, faintly—“two peasant women, a boy, and myself.”
Armstrong passed his hand over his forehead and gazed at Inez intently. So far, then, his vision had been correct. Breathlessly he pursued his interrogations.
“Before that did one of the women bring some water from the cottage, and did you kneel beside me and bathe my face?”
“Yes. Who has told you?”
“Then it all happened just like that?”
“Like what?” Inez was trembling, vaguely apprehensive.
Armstrong rose. “Why, as you have just said,” he replied. “You know I have been trying to get you to tell me about it.”
“You are unkind,” Inez retorted, quickly. “You know how much all mention of this pains me, yet you persist.”
“Forgive me.” Armstrong controlled himself and held out his hand kindly. “I don’t mean to hurt you, believe me, but my mind is ever searching out that connecting link. You won’t tell me about it, so I suppose I shall never find it.”
She started to reply, but as quickly checked herself. “There is nothing for me to tell,” she said, at length, without looking up. “I will send Helen to you,” she added, as she hastened away.
Armstrong again threw himself upon the couch, and, trying to assume the same position, closed his eyes in a vain endeavor to summon back the vision he had seen. If it had only continued a little longer he might have learned all! The fugitive nature of his quest proved a fascination, and day after day he exerted every effort to gratify his whim.
Inez clearly avoided him. Whether or not this was apparent to the other members of the family he could not tell, but it was quite obvious to him.
There must be some reason beyond what he knew, and he had almost stumbled upon it! Another week passed by, more rapidly than any since his convalescence began because of the determination with which he pursued his baffling problem.
Again he lay upon his couch in the garden, his eyes closed, but with his mind fixed upon its one desire. Suddenly he felt the presence of some one. A thrill of expectation passed through him, but he dared not open his eyes lest the impression should disappear. For what seemed a long time he was conscious of this person standing beside him, and he knew that whoever it might be was gazing at him intently. Then he felt a hand gently take his arm, which was hanging over the side of the couch, and, raising it carefully, place it in a more comfortable position. Then the hand rested for a moment on his forehead.
Opening his eyes a little, as if by intuition, he saw Miss Thayer tiptoeing along the path toward the house. He closed his eyes again, and as he did so he felt a sudden return of the subconscious impression.
Now, in his mind’s eye he saw a cheaply furnished room, and Miss Thayer leaning, with ashen face and dishevelled hair, against a closed door. He saw her sink upon the floor and pass through a paroxysm of grief. She murmured some incoherent words, and then stood erect, looking straight at him as he lay upon the bed. Then she lifted his arm, just as she had a moment before, and covered his hand with kisses, sobbing the while with no attempt at control.
“Speak to me!” he seemed to hear her say. “Tell me that you are not dead!” He could feel the intensity of her gaze even as he lay there. “Jack, my beloved; you are mine, dear—do you hear?—and I am yours.” Beads of perspiration gathered on his forehead. “How I have loved you all these weeks!… Now I can tell you of it, dear—it will do no harm!”
Held by a force he could not have broken had he wished, Armstrong watched the progress of the tragedy.
“My darling, my beloved!” he heard Inez whisper; “open your eyes just once, and tell me that I may call you mine if only for this one terrible moment… .
This is our moment, dear—no one can take it from us!… Have you not seen how I have loved you, how I have struggled to keep you from knowing it?… Jack! Jack!
this is the beginning and the end!”
He could endure the scene no longer. With a look of horror on his face, he sprang to his feet and glanced about him. He was alone in the garden. He stumbled rather than walked to the retaining wall, and rested against it for support.
“Great God!” he cried, aloud, “have I regained my mind only to lose it again?”
He glanced toward the house. There was no one in sight, but Helen was playing Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” upon the piano in the hall, and the sound of the music soothed him.
“Dreams—hallucinations,” he repeated to himself. “God! what an experience!”