With Armstrong’s convalescence progressing so satisfactorily, Helen returned to her music with a clear conscience. She was determined that the influence upon him of her personal presence should be reduced as nearly as possible to a minimum. Naturally, during the period of his illness and the attendant weakness, she had been with him almost constantly; naturally he had turned to her with what seemed to be his former affection. But the die was cast, and the accident which for the time being interrupted the progress of events predestined to occur could in no way prevent their final accomplishment. Helen thought often of Uncle Peabody’s optimistic suggestion that the present condition was bound to straighten matters out, but she refused to be buoyed up by false hopes, only to suffer a harder blow when once again Armstrong became what she believed to be himself. She saw no gain in tuning up the heart- strings to their former pitch, when neither she nor Jack could again play upon them with any degree of harmony.
Helen was with her husband for whatever portion of the day he needed her, whether it was to read aloud to him, or to converse, or to wander about the garden. She served each meal to him with her own hands, and watched the progress of his improvement so carefully that nothing remained undone. Yet, with deliberate intention, she was with him no more than this. Whenever she found him interested in something or with some one who engaged his attention for the time being, she slipped away so quietly that he scarcely noticed it and devoted herself to her own interests, which she was desperately trying to make fill the void in her life. Her music was her greatest solace, for in it she found a response to her every mood. In the dim-lit hall of the villa she sat for hours at the piano, her fingers running over the keys, her mind pondering upon her complex problem—each action apparently separated from the other, yet in exact accord. Sometimes it was a nocturne of Chopin’s, sometimes an impromptu of Schubert’s; but always she found in the unspoken, poetic expression of the composer’s soul an answering sympathy which was lacking in other forms more tangible.
Inez interrupted one of these communions, when Helen supposed herself alone with Debussy. Lately she had found herself turning to the charm and mystery of his atmosphere, the strangeness of his idiom, the vagueness of his rhythms, and the fugitive grace and fancy of his harmonic expression with an understanding and a surrender which she had never before felt. The music reflected upon her its delicate perception of nature in all its moods—the splash of the waves upon the shore, the roaring of the surf, the gloom of the forests relieved by the moonlight on the trees.
“Don’t, Helen—I beg of you!” Inez exclaimed, suddenly. “Say it to me, but don’t torture me with those weird reproaches. Every note almost drives me wild!”
“Why, Inez, dear!” cried Helen, startled by the girl’s words no less than by the suddenness of the interruption. “What in the world do you mean? You should have told me before if my playing affected you so.”
“I love it, Helen,” she replied; “but lately it has hurt me through and through. I can hear your voice echoing in every note you strike, and I feel its bitter reproach.”
Helen tried to draw Inez beside her, but the girl sank upon the floor, resting her elbows on Helen’s knees and looking up into her face with tense earnestness.
“You have been terribly unstrung these days, dear,” Helen replied, “and you are unstrung now or you would not discover what does not exist. It is your instinctive sympathy for poor Mélisande that makes you feel so—you see her, as I do, floating resistlessly over the terraces and fountains, the plaything of Fate, a phantom of love and longing and uncertainty. That is what you feel, dear.”
Helen took Inez’ face between her hands and looked into her eyes for a moment.
“People call it mystical and unreal,” she continued, “but I believe that some of us have it in our own lives, don’t you?”
Inez did not reply directly, and struggled to escape the searching gaze.
“Helen,” she said, abruptly, “I simply cannot stay on here; I shall go mad if I do. Each time I suggest going you say that you need me, and it seems ungrateful, after all you have done for me, to speak as I do. But you cannot understand. I am not myself, and I am getting into a condition which will make me a burden to you instead of a help.”
“I do need you, dear,” Helen replied, quietly, “but certainly not at the expense either of your health or your happiness. The effects of the accident have lasted much longer than I thought they would. I wanted you to be quite recovered before you left us.”
“If the accident were all!” moaned Inez, burying her face in Helen’s lap.
Helen made no response, but laid her hand kindly upon Inez’ head. After a few moments the girl straightened up. Her eyes burned with the intensity of her sudden resolve, and she spoke rapidly, as if fearful that her courage would prove insufficient for the task she had set for herself to do.
“Helen!” she cried, “I am going to tell you something which will make you hate me. You will want me to leave you, and our friendship will be forever ended.”
“Wait, dear,” urged Helen—“wait until you are calmer; then, if you choose, tell me all that you have in your heart.”
“No; I must tell you now. I love Jack, Helen—do you understand? I love your husband, and, fight it as I do, I cannot help it. Think of having to make a confession like that!”
Helen’s face lighted up with glad relief.
“I am so glad that you have told me this,” she said, quietly.
Inez gazed at Helen in wonder, amazed by her calmness and her unexpected words.
“But I must tell you more,” she continued, wildly; “I have loved him for weeks—almost since I first came here!”
“I know you have, Inez.” Helen pressed a kiss upon the girl’s forehead. “I have known it for a long time; but I have also seen your struggle against it, and your loyalty to me—and to him.”
“You have known it?” Inez asked, faintly. Then her voice strengthened again.
“But you have not known all! I did fight against it, as you say, and I was loyal until”—her voice broke for a moment—“until that day of the accident—in the cottage—I thought him dead—”
“Yes,” encouraged Helen, eagerly.
“Until then I was loyal, but when I was alone with him, and thought him dead, I—oh, Helen, you will hate me as I hate myself—then I kissed him, and I told him of my love, and I—”
“Yes, I know, dear,” Helen interrupted, her voice full of tenderness. “No one can blame you for what you did under such awful circumstances. I suspected what had happened when I found you where you had fainted across his body. But you can’t imagine how glad I am that you have told me all this. I felt sure you would, some day.”
“You will let me go now, won’t you? You can see how impossible it is for me to stay.”
“I need you now more than ever,” replied Helen, firmly. “If you insist on leaving I shall not urge you to stay, but even you—knowing what you do—cannot know how much I need you.”
“How did you know?” Inez asked, weakly.
“From what Ferdy said first, then from what I saw myself.”
“Why did you not send me away, then?”
“I had no right to do so, Inez.”
“Of course you were perfectly sure of Jack.”
Helen winced. “Yes,” she replied, quietly; “I was sure of Jack.”
“But you understand now that I really cannot stay?”
“Jack needs you still.”
“No; his manuscript is complete. He will not need me for the revision.”
“You would stay if he did?”
“Then if you would stay if he needed you, surely you will do the same for me?”
“Will you? When Jack is quite himself again I will urge no longer. Now that you have told me this, it will be easier for you. Will you not do this for me?”
“There is nothing I would not do for you, Helen!” cried Inez, throwing her arms impulsively around her friend’s neck and kissing her passionately. “You are so strong you make me more ashamed than ever of my own weakness.”
“Thank you, dear,” Helen replied, simply, returning her embrace; “but don’t make any mistake about my strength. It is because I lack it so sadly that I ask you to stay.”
Dr. Montgomery found Armstrong’s temperature considerably higher when he called later in the day, after the disquieting mental experience his patient had passed through. Armstrong also appeared to be preoccupied, and more interested in asking questions than in answering them. For the first time he seemed to be curious in regard to the nature of his illness.
“In a case like mine, is it possible for the mental convalescence to be retarded or to go backward?” he asked.
“Yes,” Dr. Montgomery replied, “it is possible, but hardly probable, especially with a patient who has progressed so normally as you have.”
“It is normal for the memory to have a complete lapse, as in my case?”
“Is it possible for a knowledge of the events which occurred during such a lapse to be restored—say, weeks afterward?”
“Yes; under certain conditions.”
“And those conditions are?” asked Armstrong, eagerly.
The doctor settled back in his chair.
“Let me see if I can make it clear to you: all memories are permanent—that is to say, every event makes a distinct, even though it may be an unconscious, impression upon the brain. Sometimes these memories remain dormant for months, or even years, before something occurs to bring them to mind; but even before this the memories are there, just the same.”
“But you are speaking of every-day occurrences, are you not? My question is whether or not it might be possible for me, for example, to have a reviving knowledge of certain events which took place during a period of apparent unconsciousness.”
“I understand. Yes, it would be quite possible for this to happen.”
“What would be necessary to bring it about?”
Dr. Montgomery smiled at his patient’s earnestness.
“Are you so eager to recall that period? But the question is a fair one. Some incident must take place similar to something which occurred during the unconscious period in order to revive the dormant memory. I doubt if you could do it deliberately.”
“I have no intention of trying,” Armstrong replied; “but I am interested in this particular phase of the case. Suppose, during the apparently unconscious period, some one had lifted my arm or placed a hand upon my forehead—would the same act be enough to restore the dormant memory, as you call it?”
“Quite enough—though it would not necessarily do so. I have known several cases where the repetition of such an act has produced just the result which you describe.”
“And these revived impressions are apt to be trustworthy?”
“As a photographic plate,” replied the doctor, emphatically.
Armstrong was silent for some moments.
“It is an interesting phase, as you say,” he remarked, at length. “I think I may try the experiment, after all.”
“The chances will be against you; but I imagine you have been pretty well informed of what has happened. Don’t try to think too hard. It will be all the better for you to give your brain a little rest; it has had a hard shaking- up.”
So this was the solution of the mystery for which he had sought so long!
Armstrong found himself in a curious position after the doctor took his departure, leaving behind him a new knowledge of affairs which, six hours before, his patient would have considered absolutely preposterous. Helen was right, and had been right from the beginning. His one consolation was removed, and in its place was a complication which seemed past straightening out. To the blame which Armstrong had already taken to himself on Helen’s account, he must now add the responsibility of having inspired this sentiment in Inez’ heart, which meant unhappiness to all. Even though this had been done unconsciously, he told himself, it was no less culpable in that he had not himself discovered the situation and checked it before any serious harm had been done. Helen had seen it, the contessa had seen it, and he wondered how many others. He had been blind in this, criminally blind, and now he must pay the penalty.
But this penalty could not be borne by him alone—he could see that clearly.
Helen and Inez were both hopelessly involved. And what a woman his wife had shown herself to be! Knowing of this affection on the part of Inez, she had suffered them to continue together in order that his work might not be disturbed. She had told him just how matters stood—not with recriminations, but with loving solicitude, offering to sacrifice herself, if necessary, to secure his happiness, drinking her cup of sorrow to the dregs, and alone! It was plain enough to him now. He thought of Helen as she was when they first came to Florence, and compared her with the Helen of to-day. He had brought about that change; he alone was responsible for it. She had craved the present, with its sunshine, its birds, its happiness, and instead of all this he had filled it for her with nothing but sorrow and suffering! He merited the scoring Emory gave him, even though the denunciation had gone too far.
As the bandage fell from his eyes, the character which he had assumed during these past months stood out clearly before him, shorn of its academic halo, and pitiful in its unfulfilled ideals. He had sought to join that company of humanists who had awakened the world to the joy and beauty of intellectual attainment. He had believed himself worthy of this honor, in that he believed he had understood and sympathized with their underlying motives. So he had in principle, but how wofully he had failed in his efforts to carry them out!
Instead of assimilating the happy youthfulness of the Greek, together with the Grecian harmony of existence, he had developed his morbid self-centering and self-consciousness. His blind, unreasoning devotion to his single interest had resulted in folly and fanaticism. He had overlooked the cardinal element in the humanistic creed that knowledge without love meant death and isolation.
Instead of singling out and joining together the beauties for which humanism stood, he had embraced and emphasized its limitations.
“I am an impostor!” Armstrong exclaimed, no longer able to endure his mental lashing in silence—“an arrant impostor! I have set myself up as a modern apostle, I have written platitudes upon intellectual supremacy and the religion of knowledge, when the one single personal attribute to which I can justly lay claim is insufferable academic arrogance. I have seized a half- truth and fortified it with fact; and in accomplishing this stupendous piece of fatuous nonsense I have stultified myself and destroyed the happiness of all!”