Dartmouth suddenly found himself standing upright, his shoulders clutched in a pair of strong hands, and Hollington's anxious face a few inches from his own.
"What the devil is the matter with you, Hal?" exclaimed Hollington. "Have you set up a private lunatic asylum, or is it but prosaic dyspepsia?"
"Becky!" exclaimed Dartmouth, as he grasped the situation. "I am so glad to see you. Where did you come from?"
"You frightened your devoted Jones to death with one of your starvation moods, and he telegraphed for me. The idea of a man having the blues in the second month of his engagement to the most charming girl in Christendom!"
"Don't speak to me of her," exclaimed Dartmouth, throwing himself into a chair and covering his face with his hands.
"Whew! What's up? You haven't quarrelled already? Or won't the governor give his consent?"
"No," said Dartmouth, "that's not it."
"Then what the devil is the matter? Is--is she dead?"
"Was she married to some other man before?"
"I beg your pardon; I was merely exhausting the field of conjecture. Will you kindly enlighten me?"
"If I did, you would say I was a lunatic."
"I have been inclined to say so occasionally before--"
"Becky, Weir Penrhyn is my--" And then he stopped. The ludicrous side of the matter had never appealed to him, but he was none the less conscious of how ridiculous the thing would appear to another.
"Your what? Your wife? Are you married to her already, and do you want me to break it to the old gentleman? What kind of a character is he? Shall I go armed?"
"She is not my wife, thank God! If she were--"
"For heaven's sake, Harold, explain yourself. Can it be possible that Miss Penrhyn is like too many other women?"
Dartmouth sprang to his feet, his face white to the lips.
"How dare you say such a thing?" he exclaimed. "If it were any other man but you, I'd blow out his brains."
Hollington got up from the chair he had taken and, grasping Dartmouth by the shoulders, threw him back into his chair.
"Now look here, Harold," he said; "let us have no more damned nonsense. If you will indulge in lugubrious hints which have but one meaning, you must expect the consequences. I refuse to listen to another word unless you come out and speak plain English."
He resumed his seat, and Dartmouth clasped his hands behind his head and stared moodily at the fire. In a few moments he turned his eyes and fixed them on Hollington.
"Very well," he said, "I will tell you the whole story from beginning to end. Heaven knows it is a relief to speak; but if you laugh, I believe I shall kill you."
"I will not laugh," said Hollington. "Whatever it is, I see it has gone hard with you."
Dartmouth began with the night of the first attempt of his suppressed poetical genius to manifest itself, and gave Hollington a comprehensive account of each detail of his subsequent experiences, down to the reading of the letters and the spiritual retrospect they had induced. He did not tell the story dramatically; he had no fire left in him; he stated it in a matter-of-fact way, which was impressive because of the speaker's indisputable belief in his own words. Hollington felt no desire to laugh; on the contrary, he was seriously alarmed, and he determined to knock this insane freak of Harold's brain to atoms, if mortal power could do it, and regardless of consequences to himself.
When Dartmouth had finished, Hollington lit a cigar and puffed at it for a moment, meditatively regarding his friend meanwhile. Then he remarked, in a matter-of-fact tone:
"So you are your own grandfather, and Miss Penrhyn is her own grandmother."
Dartmouth moved uneasily. "It sounds ridiculous--but--don't chaff."
"My dear boy, I was never more serious in my life. I merely wanted to be sure that I had got it straight. It is A.B.C. by this time to you, but it has exploded in my face like a keg of gunpowder, and I am a trifle dazed. But, to come down to deadly earnest, will you allow me to speak to you from the medical point of view? You know I had some idea at one time of afflicting the community with one more physician, until we stumbled on those coal mines, and my prospective patients were spared premature acquaintance with the golden stairs. May I speak as an unfledged doctor, but still as one burdened with unused knowledge?"
"You can say what you like."
"Very well, then. You may or may not be aware that what you are pleased to call the blues, or moods, are, in your case, nothing more or less than melancholia. When they are at their worst they are the form known as melancholia attonita. In other words, you are not only steeped in melancholy, but your brain is in, a state of stupor: you are all but comatose. These attacks are not frequent, and are generally the result of a powerful mental shock or strain. I remember you had one once after you had crammed for two months for an examination and couldn't pull through. You scared the life out of the tutors and the boys, and it was not until I threatened to put you under the pump that you came to. Your ordinary attacks are not so alarming to your friends, but when indulged in too frequently, they are a good deal more dangerous."
He paused a moment, but Dartmouth made no reply, and he went on.
"Any man who yields habitually to melancholia may expect his brain, sooner or later, to degenerate from its original strength, and relax the toughness and compactness of its fibre. Absolute dementia may not be the result for some years, but there will be occasional and painful indications of the end for a long space before it arrives. The indications, as a rule, will assume the form of visions and dreams and wild imaginings of various sorts. Now do you understand me?"
"You mean," said Dartmouth, wheeling about and looking him directly in the eyes, "you mean that I am going mad?"
"I mean, my dear boy, that you will be a raving maniac inside of a month, unless you dislodge from your brain this horrible, unnatural, and ridiculous idea."
"Do I look like a madman?" demanded Dartmouth.
"Not at the present moment, no. You look remarkably sane. A man with as good a brain as yours does not let it go all at once. It will slide from you imperceptibly, bit by bit, until one day there will be a climax."
"I am not mad," said Dartmouth; "and if I were, my madness would be an effect, not a cause. What is more, I know enough about melancholia to know that it does not drift into dementia until middle age at least. Moreover, my brain is not relaxed in my ordinary attacks; my spirits are prostrate, and my disgust for life is absolute, but my brain--except when it has been over-exerted, as in one or two climaxes of this experience of mine--is as clear as a bell. I have done some of my best thinking with my hand on the butt of a pistol. But to return to the question we are discussing. You have left one or two of the main facts unexplained. What caused Weir's vision? She never had an attack of melancholia in her life."
"Telepathy, induction, but in the reverse order of your solution of the matter. Your calling her by her grandmother's name was natural enough in your condition--you have acknowledged that your melancholia had already taken possession of you. Miss Penrhyn had, for some reason best known to her sleeping self, got herself up to look like her grandmother, and, she being young and pretty, her semi-lunatic observer addressed her as Sioned instead of heaven knows what jaw-breaking Welsh title. Then you went ahead and had the vision, which was quite in keeping with your general lunar condition. I believe you said there was a moon."
Dartmouth frowned. "I asked you not to chaff," he said. "What is more, I have had melancholia all my life, but delusion never before. But let that pass. The impulse to write--what do you say to that?"
"The impulse was due to the genius which you have undoubtedly inherited from your grandfather. The inability to put your ideas into verbal form is due to amnesic aphasia. The portion of your brain through which your genius should find speech is either temporarily paralyzed or else deficient in composition. You had better go up and see Jackson. He can cure you if anyone can."
"Do you believe I can be cured?"
"You can certainly make the attempt."
Dartmouth threw back his head and covered his face with his hands. "O God!" he exclaimed, "if you knew the agony of the longing to feel the ecstasy of spiritual intoxication, and yet to feel as if your brain were a cloud-bank--of knowing that you are divinely gifted, that the world should be ringing with your name, and yet of being as mute as if screwed within a coffin!"
"My dear boy, it will all come out right in the end. Science and your own will can do much, and as for the rest, perhaps Miss Penrhyn will do for you what those letters intimate Sioned did for your grandfather."
Dartmouth got up and leaned his elbow on the mantelpiece.
"I do not know that I shall marry Weir Penrhyn," he said.
"Why not? Because your grandfather had an intrigue with her grandmother?--which, by the way, is by no means clearly proved. That there was a plan on foot to that end the letters pretty well show, but--"
"I don't care a hang about the sins of my ancestors, or of Weir's either--if that were all. If I do not marry her it will be because I do not care to shatter an ideal into still smaller bits. I loved her with what little good was left in me. I placed her on a pedestal and rejoiced that I was able so to do. Now she is the woman whose guilty love sent us both to our death. I could never forget it. There would always be a spot on the sun."
"My God, Harold," exclaimed Hollington, "you are mad. Of all the insane, ridiculous, idiotic speeches that ever came from man's lips, that is the worst."
"I can't help it, Becky. The idea, the knowledge, is my very life and soul; and when you think it all over you will see that there are many things that cannot be explained--Weir's words in the gallery, for instance. They coincide exactly with the vision I had four nights later. And a dozen other things--you can think them out for yourself. When you do, you will understand that there is but one light in which to look at the question: Weir Penrhyn and I are Lionel Dartmouth and Sioned Penrhyn reborn, and that is the end of the matter."
Hollington groaned, and threw himself back in his chair with an impatient gesture.
"Well," he said, after a few moments' silence, "accepting your remarkable premisses for the sake of argument, will you kindly enlighten me as to since when you became so beautifully complete and altogether puerile a moralist? Suppose you did sin with her some three-quarters of a century ago, have not time and suffering purified you both--or rather her? I suppose it does not make so much difference about you."
"It is not that. It is the idea that is revolting--that this girl should have been my mistress at any time--"
"But, great heaven! Harold, such a sin is a thing of the flesh, not of the spirit, and the physical part of Sioned Penrhyn has enriched the soil of Constantinople these sixty years. She has committed no sin in her present embodiment."
"Sin is an impulse, a prompting, of the spirit," said Dartmouth.
Hollington threw one leg over the arm of the chair, half turning his back upon Dartmouth.
"Rot!" he said.
"Not at all. Otherwise, the dead could sin."
"I am gratified to perceive that you are still able to have the last word. All I can say is, that you have done what I thought no living man could do. I once read a novel by a famous American author in which one of the characters would not ask the heroine to marry him after her husband's death because he had been guilty of the indelicacy of loving her (although mutely, and by her unsuspected) while she was a married woman. I thought then that moral senility could go no further, but you have got ahead of the American. Allow me to congratulate you."
"You can jibe all you like. I may be a fool, but I can't help it. I have got to that point where I am dominated by instinct, not by reason. The instincts may be wrong, because the outgrowth of a false civilization, but there they are, nevertheless, and of them I am the product. So are you, and some day you will find it out. I do not say positively that I will not marry Weir Penrhyn. I will talk it over with her, and then we can decide."
"A charming subject to discuss with a young girl. It would be kinder, and wiser, and more decent of you never to mention the matter to her. Of what use to make the poor girl miserable?"
"She half suspects now, and it would come out sooner or later."
"Then for heaven's sake do it at once, and have it over. Don't stay here by yourself any longer, whatever you do. Go to-morrow."
"Yes," said Dartmouth, "I will go to-morrow."
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