Chapter L

IT was mid-day in Berlin on the last day of February. After a succession of stormy days of unusual severity a hard frost set in, which had lasted now nearly a week. The Thiergarten, all save the footpaths, was deep in snow, crisp, glittering, and frozen over. The trees, to the tips of the slenderest twigs, were thickly frosted, and gleaming in their coating of unspotted purity. But the keen, clear sky, which had lent such brilliancy to the frost for some days, was now completely overcast. Another storm was evidently gathering. The heavens wondrously low down were unbroken in their heavy sombreness—a sullen background piled up with heavy banks of purplish-black clouds and vapoury masses of dun-coloured smoke. There was not a break nor a rift—not even a tone of paler gray or lead colour—to show where behind all the sun must somewhere be shining.

The contrast between the lowering sky and the trees in their gleaming delicate white splendour made up a wonderful scene for eyes that had never before seen any of the moods of a northern winter. Stella, who had by this time passed the first stage of convalescence, sat by one of the large double windows of their sitting-room in the Eisengau pension looking at the scene with an impassive gaze. A book lay open on a table near her—some needlework had fallen to her feet, where Dustiefoot lay, alternately dozing off into a light slumber, and looking up at his mistress as if longing for some sign of recognition.

Ritchie sat near the open fireplace, the only one in the

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house, and constructed for an English invalid who had stayed there for a couple of years some time previously. There was a glowing coal fire whose lambent flames were joyously thrown back by blue-and-white tiles that lined the fireplace, each with figures more or less classic or symbolical. Ritchie looked up from the sporting newspaper he was reading and stared into the fire for some time with knitted brows. Then his eyes rested on some of these figures with a look of marked disapproval.

‘I say, Stella.’

She turned round with a start.

‘I wish you would come and tell me what some of these old hags are doing, or what they mean. Just look at this one with a stick something like a stock-whip handle, and a shock of wool on it.’

He placed a chair for Stella, and she looked at the figure he pointed out with a slow smile breaking on her face.

‘Why, that is Clotho, one of the Parcæ—the inexorable sisters, the daughters of night and darkness—’

‘Well, that is all Greek to me. Why do people put three sulky-looking females round a fireplace—one with a rum sort of stick, the other with a ball of twine, and this savage-looking old party with a pair of shears, as if she were going to cut a fellow's jugular vein?’

‘That is her métier—her trade. You must know the old Greeks had many tales and symbols of man's life. These are the three Fates—mysterious women who preside over our destinies. Clotho with her spindle spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures its length, and Atropos with the abhorred shears cuts it short.’

‘Then, according to that, this is the old vixen who nearly did for you, Stella. Look at the squint of the old banshee. …. Thank God she didn't have a snip at you with her shears this time, Stella.’

‘But it would have been so much easier to die than come back bit by bit so weak and shaken. I remember I had an old doll once I was very fond of. Its hair fell off, and the blue came out of its eyes, and its complexion disappeared altogether. Last of all, a kangaroo pup of Tom's ran away with it, and took its head off, and I never found it again. But I got the head of another defunct doll, and I got Tom to fasten it on to Sheba somehow. I feel just as she must

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have felt. Ted, are you sure that Dr. Seemann did not screw someone else's head on me?’

‘When you talk to me a little I am quite sure he didn't. But, by Jove! Stella, it was an awful close shave. I had just got back from the old man's funeral, and was going into the dining-room to hear the will read when I got the telegram Maisie sent, and for a bit I thought to myself. “It's all U P, old man.” For though I didn't say much, I could see you were awfully ill all the time. Once on board ship a fellow who was very ill—he hadn't come out of his cabin the first two weeks—was with me on the deck the first day he came up. We had got pretty chummy, for his cabin was next to mine, and I often did little things for him—roused up the doctor once when poor old Lakemann seemed to be choking. Well, we were walking up and down, and he spied you sitting back and looking away over the sea—one of the Miss O'Briens near you. “Who is that lady?” says he, and I saw he was looking at you. “That is my wife,” said I. “No,” said he, “I don't mean that lively-looking young lady. I could almost tell without being told she is your wife. I mean that one leaning back, looking exactly like a sleep-walker. She must have seen a ghost some time.” He would hardly believe I wasn't putting a hoax on him when I said you were my wife, and not Miss Harry O'Brien. Many a time after that I thought you did just look as if you were awake in your sleep—no, sleeping awake. Oh bother, you know what I mean.’

‘Yes; but you must think of something more lively to tell me. I am very tired of myself, Ted.’

‘Oh, but I want to talk a little about yourself, Stella. Always when I want to talk to you, since you got well enough to speak, someone is in the way, or you are not up, or you have gone to bed, or there is a silent fit on you—and old Seemann said to me: “Don't make her talk when she doesn't want to till she is built up”—as if you were a wall or a chimney.’

‘Has it been very dull for you in Berlin all these weeks, Ted?’

‘Well, it didn't matter to me a straw where I was while you were so ill, Stella. But since you've been out of danger I've been toddling round. You see, I know several fellows now. The Avenells came across in the same boat with me.

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Dick, the eldest of them, is in the British embassy—an attaché they call it. He speaks of his duties, but as far as I can make out, his work is to always wear a neat suit and a flower in his buttonhole, and play scat and billiards. Of course he has to go to dinner-parties and balls, and the worst of it is he often has to dance attendance on a fat old frump half the night, instead of looking after some pretty girl. That's the very worst aspect of diplomacy, he says. And then Farningham here is very good company—at any rate, he's the sort I get on with. And you like Mrs. Farningham?’

‘Yes, very much,’ returned Stella, but her voice all the time was perfectly level and emotionless.

‘Is it Farningham or his wife that is related to the old Professor you met at Dr. Stein's?’

‘It is Mrs. Farningham. Her mother is married to the Professor.’

‘And there was a Dr. Langdale—who came from the Professor's every day, sometimes twice, to ask for you, till you were out of danger—isn't he another relation of Mrs. Farningham's?’

‘Her brother.’ She shivered a little as if she were cold, and Ted heaped more coal on the fire.

‘Ah, now I begin to get things a little straight. I've sometimes been most awfully mixed up. “My wife's father-in-law,” Farningham says, “my stepchildren,” “my wife's stepfather,” “my mother-in-law,” “my wife's mother-in-law,” “my brother-in-law,” “my wife's brother-in-law,” just like one of those affairs like a little telescope you turn round, and see different snaps of things spluttering at you every blessed shake. You see Mrs. Farningham's first husband's people are here from America in shoals. It's a jolly good thing there wasn't room for many of them in this pension.’

‘Why—don't you like them?’

‘Oh, I'd like them well enough, if there weren't so many women among them, with not a blessed turn to do but ask a fellow questions—clatter-clatter all the time, like a bell on a runaway steer. There's one of them a tall, thin woman, with eyes like knitting-pins. She's got about twenty hairs on her scalp, and twenty skewers to keep them in a tiny bob on top of her head, leaving her long,

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lean neck perfectly bare. I'm not what you'd call a prude you know, but, by George, the nakedness of that neck gives me a sort of a turn! She writes for two newspapers, and she has a red morocco sort of book, with an indelible pencil, and sometimes she stops in the middle of eating her soup to put something down in this. “I dare not trust my memory, it's so treacherous,” she says. “By the Lord,” thinks I to myself, “I wish it were so treacherous you'd forget to ask me questions!” Yes, I sit next to her at the table-d'hôte, and there she goes at me hammer and tongs. And the less I know about the things she's interested in, the more I catch her using the indelible pencil on the sly. “Now, Mr. Ritchie, you are laughing at me, when you say you never heard of Raphael or Michael Angelo,” she'll say, screwing her long neck round above my head, like a native companion in a fit. Ah, she's yards taller than I am. Wait till you see her. And there Farningham sits on the opposite side of the table, grinning at me like a negro minstrel. Let me see, she's his wife's first husband's first cousin's aunt once removed. Now what relation would you say she is to Farningham?’

‘I really haven't the faintest conception,’ returned Stella, with a little smile.

‘No more has he. But she calls him Charles, and speaks to him solemnly about the privileged classes in England. You know he is to be Sir Charles F. when his governor dies. And then she reminds him of things that happened to his wife's first husband, as if he were the one, you know. Now, I call that deuced awkward; at any rate, it might be in many cases. I dare say it would be more damaging to the other fellow though, if Farningham had been the first husband. They say Mrs. Farningham's eldest boy by her first husband will be a millionaire when he is twenty-one; but he is a delicate little chap. Am I talking too much, Stella?’

‘Oh no; it's rather amusing. I thought by something Mrs. Farningham let fall that some of her American connections were a little trying. But she did not say much; she's very loyal to them.’

‘She's a regular trump. She says the right thing to everybody; and she's like you, Stella, she never gets the least ruffled—never sticks her back up, but takes everything

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as if it were rather fun. She had a bad illness in Dresden, but she has got over it so well—she's better than she was before. I wish you were like that. What does old Seemann mean by some mischief before the fever came on? Was it—was it that shock, Stella? You know what I mean.’

She put up her hands to her head wearily. ‘I know what you mean, Ted. But there was something besides that: and the day I was taken ill it came all over again, but worse; only nothing seems very bad now. I do not think I should talk about things that used to hurt me. It cannot be helped any more; nothing can that has gone really wrong.’ She gave a long, low sigh, and lay back with closed eyes.

‘Don't say that, Stella, please,’ said Ted gently. ‘It was awfully steep to think I was the cause of all when your life hung on a thread. I used to go to the opera and places; but often I didn't know whether I was standing on my head or my heels.’

‘You are not to blame for my illness, Ted. If anyone is to blame, it is Laurette; but I myself most of all. Oh, I don't mean what she concealed about you.’

Ted looked perplexed, but he would ask no questions; and, indeed, he attributed Stella's words to some confusion left by the fever. It may be noted in passing, that Stella did not once suspect him of any complicity in the imposition that had wrecked her life. Only at this period she would have rejected the word ‘wrecked’ as being too strong. Everything had shrunk so inconceivably. It was as though nothing mattered very much, if only one were left in perfect quiet.

‘Dr. Seemann is to come only every second day now, he told me,’ said Ted, in a cheerful voice. ‘What a stunning old chap he is! The best fever doctor in Berlin, they say; and you can't easily beat that. It was the Professor who saw to his attending you.’

There was silence for a few moments, and then Stella said very slowly:

‘Do you know when Dr. Langdale came to Berlin?’ She named him without the least tremor.

‘No; but I remember the first time I noticed him particularly. It was two weeks after I came back. I was at

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the opera-house, with Dick Avenell. We went out into the wide passage behind the boxes, and there Dick met a couple of very lively little French ladies. I don't think they were any better than they ought to be, you know—nothing but a couple of roses and a dagger with diamonds in the handle by way of a bodice. Dick swore I had just come from New Caledonia, and had brought a message from some of their friends there. After a little time, he dodged round a pillar all at once, and left me talking to them alone; at least, they were jabbering away, half in French; and I put in a word edgeways, now and then, in English, but I'm blessed if I could tell what any of us were saying. In the middle of it, who should come round but this Dr. Langdale, with his mother! I had seen him once or twice when he came to inquire after you for the Kellwitzes, and he stared hard at me, I can tell you. I didn't know his name till Farningham told me. It seems he's been in Australia for a little time; and he has been a good deal off colour, too, in Berlin. He went to Vienna last week, to see a chum of his who is making a great noise with some operations on eyes, so Farningham told me. It was lucky the Farninghams came here, a few days after I got back from London. I've gone about with him a good deal, and with Dick and his brother Minimus—comical name, isn't it? Comes of three brothers being at a public school together. Now, why do you suppose Dick left me in the lurch like that? He told me plump it was because he saw an old dowager-aunt of a girl he's sweet on, coming our way, and he couldn't afford to be seen with the little Frenchies. A married man, said he, with no end of tin, can stand any racket; but a penniless attaché has to be deuced proper when on parade. Wasn't that a friendly trick to play a fellow? But he and Minimus are awful fun sometimes. Minimus is supposed to be studying Oriental languages for a “diplomatic career” in India. “People teach languages so much better in Germany,” he says; and he goes once a month, perhaps, to an old chap, who swears at him because he is an idle young dog, and makes an appointment with him to come next week to learn some alphabet; but Min. doesn't, as a rule, turn up. He says I'd better give him a billet on my run; he thinks it would be much jollier than spoiling his eyes over rubbishy Eastern pot-hooks. I've often been more

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miserable than a tuckerless dingo; but still I went to theatres and things. I couldn't nurse you, Stella, you see!’

‘Of course not. It was much better you should go about.’

‘But now I can look after you a bit, Stella; and that little Maisie—by George, she's worth her weight in gold!’

There was a knock at the door; and in response to Ritchie's robust invitation to come in, a fair, youthful-looking man entered, slight, and rather under the middle height.

‘Are you allowed to see people so early in the day, Mrs. Ritchie? Why, this is quite the Darby-and-Joan business— and an open fireplace, I declare!’

‘Yes; and the three inexorable sisters—daughters of Night and Darkness—with the spindle-and-shears business, Farningham!’ said Ted, with a dignified wave of his hand towards the tiles.

‘Why, Ritchie, old fellow, you're coming it strong with the classics. Do tell that to Miss Caroline Sendler. You must know, Mrs. Ritchie, that your husband is carrying on a barefaced flirtation with an elderly lady from America— one related to me in some mystical way!’

‘I remember. She's your wife's first——’

‘Don't—don't, my dear fellow. Let it remain with the dark riddles of a world not realized. You are really making progress now, Mrs. Ritchie?’

‘Oh yes, thank you. To-day, I quite know the people from the trees.’

‘And do you eat anything? Because I have heard dreadful tales on that score.’

‘Now, Stella, tell the truth. Yesterday, you looked at the thigh of a pigeon, and said, “Oh, take it away—it looks so dreadfully pathetic!” And that was your dinner. Yes, upon my honour, Farningham, I had to take it away; and a little while afterwards, when Fräulein—what's her name, the nurse you know?—came in with a little soup, Signora here said, without blinking, “But I've had dinner, you know!” ’

‘Ah, but that sort of thing will never do. My wife declares she ate all day when she was getting well. And that reminds me why I came!’

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‘Now you really wound me. I thought it was to find out whether I ate anything,’ said Stella, with a little of her old sprightliness.

‘So it was; but merely to knock at the door and inquire, and then ask if my wife might come. But this young man was too lazy to open the door, as Fräulein Hennig does. And you look so jolly and cosy, one can't tear one's self away. Now I know why Amalie and I have given up being domesticated. It's the absence of an open fireplace!’

At this juncture another knock was heard at the door, which was speedily opened.

‘May I come in?’ said a flute-like woman's voice.

It was Mrs. Farningham: a tall, graceful woman, with dark eyes and hair, a clear pale skin, a delicately aquiline nose, and an exquisitely chiselled mouth. In feature there was a strong resemblance between her and Langdale, and also at times in expression.

‘Ah, you are really better this morning!’ she said, taking Stella's hand, and giving Ted a friendly nod.

‘I was on the eve of coming to tell you,’ said her husband. ‘But I suppose I'd better stay a little longer, and then our family circle will be completed by the babies and— collateral branches! You'd better send me away, Mrs. Ritchie; for I assure you there is absolutely no end to us! And will you forgive me if I carry your husband off? I am always hiring or buying or exchanging horses; and I always get “choused,” he says, if I am alone!’

‘Hadn't I better take Dustiefoot for a run, Stella? … Lose him? That's more than my place is worth. You may be sure I won't come back without him. Out, boy, out!’

But though Dustiefoot rose up with alacrity at the sound, he got no farther than the door, till he ran back, and put his head on his mistress's lap, looking up fondly into her face.

‘Out, Dustiefoot—out!’ said Stella; and on this the dog trotted away.

When the two men were gone, Mrs. Farningham drew her chair nearer Stella's, saying;

‘How did you sleep last night, dear?’

‘Tolerably well, thank you, for two or three hours.’

‘And after that?’

‘Oh, then it was the old stupid story. Endless processions

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of people filing by, as if I were a mummy holding a levée.’

‘And that chamber into which you dare not peep—does it still remain?’

‘Yes; and myriads of voices high and low telling me to pass in—but they get fainter night by night. Now, when I waken up in the soft light and see Fräulein Hennig's quiet face, I do not any longer feel like a terrified child that covers its head and trembles because of ghost stories it has heard.’

‘Ah, that is a great stage. This is your first serious illness. For the first time you know something of the terror of demoralized nerves. But now that you begin to regain tranquillity the worst is over.’

‘Do you think so? I am glad to feel so unmoved; but sometimes—I hardly know why—it frightens me a little that all which used to be so much to me seems so incredibly remote.’

‘Oh, that is merely brain exhaustion. As you get stronger —as you are “built up,” to use Dr. Seemann's words—the old interests will revive.’