They were promptly and plainly answered; and they led to no other conclusion than that the strange lady was, mentally and physically, in excellent health. Not satisfied with questions, he carefully examined the great organs of life. Neither his hand nor his stethoscope could discover anything that was amiss. With the admirable patience and devotion to his art which had distinguished him from the time when he was a student, he still subjected her to one test after another. The result was always the same. Not only was there no tendency to brain disease-- there was not even a perceptible derangement of the nervous system. 'I can find nothing the matter with you,' he said. 'I can't even account for the extraordinary pallor of your complexion. You completely puzzle me.'
'The pallor of my complexion is nothing,' she answered a little impatiently. 'In my early life I had a narrow escape from death by poisoning. I have never had a complexion since--and my skin is so delicate, I cannot paint without producing a hideous rash. But that is of no importance. I wanted your opinion given positively. I believed in you, and you have disappointed me.' Her head dropped on her breast. 'And so it ends!' she said to herself bitterly.
The Doctor's sympathies were touched. Perhaps it might be more correct to say that his professional pride was a little hurt. 'It may end in the right way yet,' he remarked, 'if you choose to help me.'
She looked up again with flashing eyes, 'Speak plainly,' she said. 'How can I help you?'
'Plainly, madam, you come to me as an enigma, and you leave me to make the right guess by the unaided efforts of my art. My art will do much, but not all. For example, something must have occurred-- something quite unconnected with the state of your bodily health-- to frighten you about yourself, or you would never have come here to consult me. Is that true?'
She clasped her hands in her lap. 'That is true!' she said eagerly. 'I begin to believe in you again.'
'Very well. You can't expect me to find out the moral cause which has alarmed you. I can positively discover that there is no physical cause of alarm; and (unless you admit me to your confidence) I can do no more.'
She rose, and took a turn in the room. 'Suppose I tell you?' she said. 'But, mind, I shall mention no names!'
'There is no need to mention names. The facts are all I want.'
'The facts are nothing,' she rejoined. 'I have only my own impressions to confess--and you will very likely think me a fanciful fool when you hear what they are. No matter. I will do my best to content you-- I will begin with the facts that you want. Take my word for it, they won't do much to help you.'
She sat down again. In the plainest possible words, she began the strangest and wildest confession that had ever reached the Doctor's ears.
'It is one fact, sir, that I am a widow,' she said. 'It is another fact, that I am going to be married again.'
There she paused, and smiled at some thought that occurred to her. Doctor Wybrow was not favourably impressed by her smile-- there was something at once sad and cruel in it. It came slowly, and it went away suddenly. He began to doubt whether he had been wise in acting on his first impression. His mind reverted to the commonplace patients and the discoverable maladies that were waiting for him, with a certain tender regret.
The lady went on.
'My approaching marriage,' she said, 'has one embarrassing circumstance connected with it. The gentleman whose wife I am to be, was engaged to another lady when he happened to meet with me, abroad: that lady, mind, being of his own blood and family, related to him as his cousin. I have innocently robbed her of her lover, and destroyed her prospects in life. Innocently, I say--because he told me nothing of his engagement until after I had accepted him. When we next met in England--and when there was danger, no doubt, of the affair coming to my knowledge--he told me the truth. I was naturally indignant. He had his excuse ready; he showed me a letter from the lady herself, releasing him from his engagement. A more noble, a more high-minded letter, I never read in my life. I cried over it--I who have no tears in me for sorrows of my own! If the letter had left him any hope of being forgiven, I would have positively refused to marry him. But the firmness of it-- without anger, without a word of reproach, with heartfelt wishes even for his happiness--the firmness of it, I say, left him no hope. He appealed to my compassion; he appealed to his love for me. You know what women are. I too was soft-hearted--I said, Very well: yes! In a week more (I tremble as I think of it) we are to be married.'
She did really tremble--she was obliged to pause and compose herself, before she could go on. The Doctor, waiting for more facts, began to fear that he stood committed to a long story. 'Forgive me for reminding you that I have suffering persons waiting to see me,' he said. 'The sooner you can come to the point, the better for my patients and for me.'
The strange smile--at once so sad and so cruel--showed itself again on the lady's lips. 'Every word I have said is to the point,' she answered. 'You will see it yourself in a moment more.'
She resumed her narrative.
'Yesterday--you need fear no long story, sir; only yesterday-- I was among the visitors at one of your English luncheon parties. A lady, a perfect stranger to me, came in late--after we had left the table, and had retired to the drawing-room. She happened to take a chair near me; and we were presented to each other. I knew her by name, as she knew me. It was the woman whom I had robbed of her lover, the woman who had written the noble letter. Now listen! You were impatient with me for not interesting you in what I said just now. I said it to satisfy your mind that I had no enmity of feeling towards the lady, on my side. I admired her, I felt for her--I had no cause to reproach myself. This is very important, as you will presently see. On her side, I have reason to be assured that the circumstances had been truly explained to her, and that she understood I was in no way to blame. Now, knowing all these necessary things as you do, explain to me, if you can, why, when I rose and met that woman's eyes looking at me, I turned cold from head to foot, and shuddered, and shivered, and knew what a deadly panic of fear was, for the first time in my life.'
The Doctor began to feel interested at last.
'Was there anything remarkable in the lady's personal appearance?' he asked.
'Nothing whatever!' was the vehement reply. 'Here is the true description of her:--The ordinary English lady; the clear cold blue eyes, the fine rosy complexion, the inanimately polite manner, the large good-humoured mouth, the too plump cheeks and chin: these, and nothing more.'
'Was there anything in her expression, when you first looked at her, that took you by surprise?'
'There was natural curiosity to see the woman who had been preferred to her; and perhaps some astonishment also, not to see a more engaging and more beautiful person; both those feelings restrained within the limits of good breeding, and both not lasting for more than a few moments--so far as I could see.