By MARJORIE BOWEN,
Author of "The Viper of Milan."
"YOU know, sir, that I am a very great man?"
The pale young visitor slightly bowed his head.
"A very great man indeed," repeated Dr. Joshua Ward.
And then he screwed up his eyes, and was silent.
It was a very large room, very handsomely furnished.
At one end a black curtain hung, an affected white statue of the Goddess of Health before it; and upon a shelf above the desk at which the doctor sat, stood a row of skulls neatly painted with various signs in red.
The doctor himself was a large man, dressed in garnet-coloured velvet and a quantity of lace. Round his head a blue silk handkerchief was twisted; under his right eye a large dark birth-mark added to the brutal and sinister expression of his face. He bit the nails of his coarse blunt fingers, and looked on the floor. The patient was a youth wearing a simple fawn cloth coat and a plain tie, his whole expression and bearing of languor and weariness almost unendurable.
The apathy of illness was written in his wan features and lustreless eyes; a certain grace of breed and youth alone remained to show what consumption had ravaged.
"Can you cure me?" he asked, breaking into the silence without much interest, it seemed. Dr. Ward smiled.
"There is no doubt of that," he answered. "I can do anything I choose."
"So I have heard," said the young man with a little cough, and in gentle tones.
"Am I not allowed to drive my carriage through St. James's Park for the marvellous cure I worked on His Majesty? Am I not the inventor of the drop and pill—remedy for every evil? Do I not pay Agostino Carlini a hundred a year to work on my bust in white marble as long as he lives?"
The young man looked at him gravely and wistfully.
"All this is why, sir, I have come to you."
Dr. Ward squared his elbows on the arms of his chair.
"I will tell you, you are very ill indeed—very ill."
He seemed to expand his huge and flaunting person.
"To cure you, sir, will be little short of a miracle."
"You have worked them before, they said." The young man coloured a little.
"Naturally," said Joshua Ward; "but they are expensive."
He gazed covertly and cruelly at the composed sweet face, in which death was clearly written, and fell to biting his fingers again.
"First, your name and station?" he demanded pompously.
The young man hesitated.
"I can pay——" he began.
"How much?" asked Dr. Ward contemptuously. "Do you think miracles can be worked for half-crown?"
A faint smile came over the youth's colourless lips.
"Name your price. A year of life would be worth much to me."
But the doctor wished to know with whom he dealt.
"Who are you, sir?"
The other roused himself to some show of animation.
"Whether I am a strolling player or an earl, I can pay you what you want. My name is Henry Beauchamp."
"Well, Mr. Beauchamp," said the doctor, "you should have come to me before. You are a very sick man indeed. Without my help you would have only a brief while to live."
"And you want to live?"
Dr. Ward scratched his chin.
"I suppose you wonder," remarked the youth, "but I have those who would be glad of my life, and I am young to die."
"Well, the price?"
"A hundred guineas, since I do not make profit out of the dying."
"A hundred guineas?"
"And that is pure charity."
"I would question if my life is worth so much!" The youth gave his melancholy smile.
"To you it should be, even if there is no one else to set a value on it, sir."
"I will pay your price."
"Well, then," said the doctor, sour that he had not asked more, "we waste time; the cure must begin at once."
Mr. Beauchamp rose.
The quack's little eyes glinted over his frail elegant person.
"You have no time to lose," he remarked.
"The money?" reminded Dr. Ward.
The young man drew out a purple pocket-book worked with gold thread, and took from it three bills on the Bank of England. He laid them on the table, and completed the sum in gold.
"Now the cure," he said half defiantly, half pleadingly.
Dr. Ward swept the money into the palm of his hand, counted and examined the notes, then locked it away into a little coffer of brass and ebony.
The patient took his seat again and coughed.
"The elixir," said Dr. Ward, "is in my laboratory. Wait a little; I will fetch it. It is the famous Friar's Balsam, and every drop is worth, sir, what you pay for a bottle."
He rose ponderously and disappeared behind the black curtain.
Mr. Beauchamp did not move, but the composure vanished from his face; an expression of deep emotion flushed and changed his features. He fixed his eyes, to which the luminous light seemed to have returned, on the row of skulls, and a ghastly expression of horror distorted his pale mouth.
He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his lips and his brow.
The lace at his cuffs shook as if in a breeze with the trembling of the hands.
A violent cough took him. He rose up and sat down again, resting his brow in his thin palm, his elbow on the arm of the chair.
He was sitting so, quite still, when Dr. Ward returned with a tall bottle in his hand.
"This is the elixir," he announced with weight.
Mr. Beauchamp looked up, almost with a start.
"Ah, yes," he said—"the elixir."
"And there are the pills."
The young man rose.
"Will this cure me?" he asked breathlessly.
"It is the elixir!" was the pompous answer.
Mr. Beauchamp took the bottle in his hand and looked at the greenish fluid it contained.
"Is this true magic?" he asked. "But, no; what wit I have tells me you are a charlatan! Well, old rogue, an hour's delusion were cheap for a hundred guineas. Let this only make me think I shall live—live!"
"Sir," said Joshua Ward, a little discomfited, yet master of himself, "you talk like the ignorant. Did I not cure the King?"
"I think," smiled Mr. Beauchamp, "he was not so sick as I am."
"Unbelief will counteract any cure," announced the quack. "Yet, even if you doubt, that medicine will do you much good."
The patient's grey eyes fixed themselves in a wistful fashion on the self-satisfied, impudent face of the doctor.
"Could this give me health for a year," he asked—"just for one year? Yet why do I ask you, since this is your trade, and credulity your livelihood?"
Dr. Ward smiled.
"This will cure you of your present disease."
He tapped the pill box.
"In a week's time come to me again, and, according to your progress, I will change the treatment."
Mr. Beauchamp regarded him yearningly, as if he would give much to know how much he was being fooled; but the quack's face was inscrutable.
"Two pills and a glassful of the mixture every third day," said Dr. Ward, dismissing him with a lofty air.
Mr. Beauchamp bowed, took up his medicine, and left the room in a meditating silence.
He was half-way down the wide handsome stairs, when he heard a soft footfall behind him, and a soft voice addressing him—
He turned slowly.
A young girl in a white muslin dress, a white muslin cap with a green ribbon in it, and a design of blurred roses on her skirt, was standing close behind him with a breathless air of timid pity.
He smiled at her vaguely and waited.
Seeing him regard her with such quiet courtesy, she was quick to tell him of her position.
"I am the housekeeper's daughter," she said—"Dr. Ward's maid."
With no change in his almost meek regard of her, he answered—
"Is there anything you want with me?"
She spoke quickly, glancing over her shoulder anxiously.
"Do not trust in what he says. Don't trust what he gives you; it is poison—or near it—fraud, all of it!"
Above them, through the large window that lit the stairs, the clear spring sunshine fell on an intelligent and sweet expression, and showed the young man's face pale and slightly pock-marked.
"Would you rob me of hope?" he asked gently.
She had brown eyes, dark and eager.
"What made you come?" was her counter question.
"You think I look over-sensible for such trickery?" he responded. "I do not know; it seemed to me I should like to be duped a while. I half believed——"
She lowered her voice.
"He is a cheat. That stuff is a compound of antimony—dangerous! Living here I must know!"
He half sighed.
"I was desperate."
"Do you want to—be cured—so much?" she asked in a half horror.
He shook his head.
"I was lonely."
"What has that to do with it?"
"Indeed, I know not."
The little maid looked troubled.
"Don't take his medicine," she repeated.
"My child, it can make me no worse than I am."
She gazed at him doubtfully.
"Are you very sick?"
He flushed faintly.
"This is a poor employment for you." His languid eyes dwelt reflectively on her fresh bright prettiness.
"I am leaving it," she confided—"soon, in the autumn. I am to marry a soldier. He was at Portobello."
A light flashed into Mr. Beauchamp's eyes.
"I am a soldier, too," he said; "I was at Port Lazaro with Vernon."
On this he turned away quickly, and passed out of the great, over-magnificent house.
Outside, the plane trees were covered with new foliage, and rustling against the blue; the air was pure and clear. Mr. Beauchamp, walking across Lincoln's Inn Fields, stopped by the railings of the garden and watched a blackbird in the grass. Some of the trees were low, with graceful branches that almost touched the ground, and shaded a magic space of sunless freshness.
It was quite silent. The spring sun cast precise shadows from the posts of the footway and from the porticoes of the mansions; in the plane trees in the centre it fell in a moving tangle of quivering light.
Mr. Beauchamp watched the blackbird, which was swift, vivid, and noiseless, in the tall uncut grass.
A man so bent that the sunlight rested on his back, and his face was in the shadow, went by with a basket of watercress, and then a hackney coach lazily dragged over the cobbles, the driver absorbed in an old copy of The Gazette that gave stale news of the war.
Mr. Beauchamp took off his hat that the sunshine might fall over his face. As the watercress seller and the hackney disappeared out of sight, perfect stillness again laid a spell of tranquillity on the square.
Even the blackbird disappeared.
But presently across the cobbles came the quack's little maid, wearing a chip hat and a shawl embroidered in red and white.
Mr. Beauchamp did not see her till she was beside him, and then he started, so earnestly had he been dreaming. She looked at him searchingly and dropped a courtesy.
"I did not know you was a soldier, sir," she said.
"You would not think it. I came home from South America a month ago." He smiled mournfully and kindly.
"From the war?" she said.
He made no answer.
"You were in the fight at Port Lazaro?" she asked. "I heard of that."
"It was a wretched expedition," he answered with a little cough. "Everything went wrong. Cathcart and Vernon quarrelled, the Spanish had the upper hand, and the climate—the sun——"
"Did you fall ill there, sir?"
He gave her his vague look.
"There were six hundred of us left dead before we were repulsed at Lazaro. Most of the others died of fever; some came home—like me."
"You have your friends?" she suggested with timidity.
"They think I am dead."
"My name was in The Gazette as one of the dead. Well, I lived."
He looked up at the plane trees.
"I wish that I had died!"
She paled to hear him.
"You must not say that."
"Ah"—he looked at her wonderingly—"this month you are the first who has asked me anything of myself; London is too occupied with sending fresh men to the war to think of those who return." He drew himself up against the paling. "I was in the Dragoon Guards, a fine regiment."
"Your friends," she repeated, "they—they do not know you are back?"
"Sir, you should tell them."
Mr. Beauchamp smiled.
"I am a dying man; I took the fever. The life was hard; I have slept three nights in the rain—afterwards the smallpox. If this elixir"—he touched his pocket, and his smile deepened—"cures me, I will tell them—not else. I would rather they did not see me die; they think it was done finely—in a battle."
"Alas!" said the little maid.
"I should not talk to you like this. Why do you tempt me with your sympathy?" he asked wistfully.
"Ah, but the medicine is no good!" she cried. "Antimony he made it of, sir, and is trickery!"
He flushed, but answered gravely—
"I do not doubt you are right—desire deceives us against our reason. I heard of Joshua Ward and of his cures; I went to his lectures, but——"
He broke off.
"You must not think me quite a fool, my child. I have a little lodging in Islington and a volume of Plato, and I had set myself to die quietly; but yesterday, at church, I saw her dressed in black, for me."
He paused, then added—
"I am so changed she would not know me."
"You cannot tell," said the girl, feeling her way to comfort.
"At that moment I thought, if there is magic——" He checked himself and repeated the word "magic," then pulled the bottle from his pocket and flung it against the railings, where it broke.
"I was never really tricked," he said, "but a wild hope for a moment——"
A swift cloud was obscuring the sun with a dun vapour.
"You have paid for that," said the maid, looking at the green fragments of glass at her feet.
Mr. Beauchamp coughed.
"Do we not always pay for folly?" He smiled at her. "Thank you for your courteous attention. I think it is going to rain."
"What do you mean to do?" she asked.
"Go back to Islington and wait. She—will never know."
He held out his hand.
"See, it is raining already."
Large drops were splashing on to the plane leaves with a heavy sound.
"Good-bye," he said.
She looked at him regretfully.
"I—I am sorry, sir," she faltered.
He smiled again and passed on, lifting his hat slowly.
The quack's maid watched his stooping figure walking heavily away, and did not notice the rain.
"A soldier! " she said aloud. "A soldier!"