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Chapter 35

XXXV.

Bessie crept up to her room, where she spent the rest of the night in her chair, amid a tumult of emotion which she would have called thinking. She asked herself the most searching questions, but she got no very candid answers to them, and she decided that she must see the whole fact with some other's eyes before she could know what she had meant or what she had done.

When she let the daylight into her room, it showed her a face in her mirror that bore no trace of conflicting anxieties. Her complexion favored this effect of inward calm; it was always thick; and her eyes seemed to her all the brighter for their vigils.

A smile, even, hovered on her mouth as she sat down at the breakfast-table, in the pretty negligee she had worn all night, and poured out Miss Lynde's coffee for her.

"That's always very becoming to you, Bessie," said her aunt. "It's the nicest breakfast gown you have."

"Do you think so?" Bessie looked down at it, first on one side and then on the other, as a woman always does when her dress is spoken of.

"Mr. Alan said he would have his breakfast in his room, miss," murmured the butler, in husky respectfulness, as he returned to Bessie from carrying Miss Lynde's cup to her. "He don't want anything but a little toast and coffee."

She perceived that the words were meant to make it easy for her to ask: "Isn't he very well, Andrew?"

"About as usual, miss," said Andrew, a thought more sepulchral than before. "He's going on—about as usual."

She knew this to mean that he was going on from bad to worse, and that his last night's excess was the beginning of a debauch which could end only in one way. She must send for the doctor; he would decide what was best, when he saw how Alan came through the day.

Late in the afternoon she heard Mary Enderby's voice in the reception-room, bidding the man say that if Miss Bessie were lying down she would come up to her, or would go away, just as she wished. She flew downstairs with a glad cry of "Molly! What an inspiration! I was just thinking of you, and wishing for you. But I didn't suppose you were up yet!"

"It's pretty early," said Miss Enderby. "But I should have been here before if I could, for I knew I shouldn't wake you, Bessie, with your habit of turning night into day, and getting up any time in the forenoon."

"How dissipated you sound!"

"Yes, don't I? But I've been thinking about you ever since I woke, and I had to come and find out if you were alive, anyhow."

"Come up-stairs and see!" said Bessie, holding her friend's hand on the sofa where they had dropped down together, and going all over the scene of last night in that place for the thousandth time.

"No, no; I really mustn't. I hope you had a good time?"

"At your house!"

"How dear of you! But, Bessie, I got to thinking you'd been rather sacrificed. It came into my mind the instant I woke, and gave me this severe case of conscience. I suppose it's a kind of conscience."

"Yes, yes. Go on! I like having been a martyr, if I don't know what about."

"Why, you know, Bessie, or if you don't you will presently, that it was I who got mamma to send him a card; I felt rather sorry for him, that day at Mrs. Bevidge's, because she'd so obviously got him there to use him, and I got mamma to ask him. Everything takes care of itself, at a large affair, and I thought I might trust in Providence to deal with him after he came; and then I saw you made a means the whole evening! I didn't reflect that there always has to be a means!"

"It's a question of Mr. Durgin?" said Bessie, coldly thrilling at the sound of a name that she pronounced so gayly in a tone of sympathetic amusement.

Miss Enderby bobbed her head. "It shows that we ought never to do a good action, doesn't it? But, poor thing! How you must have been swearing off!"

"I don't know. Was it so very bad? I'm trying to think," said Bessie, thinking that after this beginning it would be impossible to confide in Mary Enderby.

"Oh, now, Bessie! Don't you be patient, or I shall begin to lose my faith in human nature. Just say at once that it was an outrage and I'll forgive you! You see," Miss Enderby went on, "it isn't merely that he's a jay; but he isn't a very nice jay. None of the men like him—except Freddy Lancaster, of course; he likes everybody, on principle; he doesn't count. I thought that perhaps, although he's so crude and blunt, he might be sensitive and high-minded; you're always reading about such things; but they say he isn't, in the least; oh, not the least! They say he goes with a set of fast jays, and that he's dreadful; though he has a very good mind, and could do very well if he chose. That's what cousin Jim said to-day; he's just been at our house; and it was so extremely telepathic that I thought I must run round and prevent your having the man on your conscience if you felt you had had too much of him. You won't lay him up against us, will you?" She jumped to her feet.

"You dear!" said Bessie, keeping Mary Enderby's hand, and pressing it between both of hers against her breast as they now stood face to face, "do come up and have some tea!"

"No, no! Really, I can't."

They were both involuntarily silent. The door had been opened to some one, and there was a brief parley, which ended in a voice they knew to be the doctor's, saying, "Then I'll go right up to his room." Both the girls broke into laughing adieux, to hide their consciousness that the doctor was going up to see Alan Lynde, who was never sick except in the one way.

Miss Enderby even said: "I was so glad to see Alan looking so well, last night."

"Yes, he had such a good time," said Bessie, and she followed her friend to the door, where she kissed her reassuringly, and thanked her for taking all the trouble she had, bidding her not be the least anxious on her account.

It seemed to her that she should sink upon the stairs in mounting them to the library. Mary Enderby had told her only what she had known before; it was what her brother had told her; but then it had not been possible for the man to say that he had brought Alan home tipsy, and been alone in the house with her at three o'clock in the morning. He would not only boast of it to all that vulgar comradehood of his, but it might get into those terrible papers which published the society scandals. There would be no way but to appeal to his pity, his generosity. She fancied herself writing to him, but he could show her note, and she must send for him to come and see her, and try to put him on his honor. Or, that would not do, either. She must make it happen that they should be thrown together, and then speak to him. Even that might make him think she was afraid of him; or he might take it wrong, and believe that she cared for him. He had really been very good to Alan, and she tried to feel safe in the thought of that. She did feel safe for a moment; but if she had meant nothing but to make him believe her grateful, what must he infer from her talking to him in the light way she did about forgiving him for not coming back to dance with her. Her manner, her looks, her tone, had given him the right to say that she had been willing to flirt with him there, at that hour, and in those dreadful circumstances.

She found herself lying in a deep arm-chair in the library, when she was aware of Dr. Lacy pausing at the door and looking tentatively in upon her.

"Come in, doctor," she said, and she knew that her face was wet with tears, and that she spoke with the voice of weeping.

He came forward and looked narrowly at her, without sitting down. "There's nothing to be alarmed about, Miss Bessie," he said. "But I think your brother had better leave home again, for a while."

"Yes," she said, blankly. Her mind was not on his words.

"I will make the arrangements."

"Thank you," said Bessie, listlessly.

The doctor had made a step backward, as if he were going away, and now he stopped. "Aren't you feeling quite well, Miss Bessie?"

"Oh yes," she said, and she began to cry.

The doctor came forward and said, cheerily: "Let me see." He pulled a chair up to hers, and took her wrist between his fingers. "If you were at Mrs. Enderby's last night, you'll need another night to put you just right. But you're pretty well as it is." He let her wrist softly go, and said: "You mustn't distress yourself about your brother's case. Of course, it's hard to have it happen now after he's held up so long; longer than it has been before, I think, isn't it? But it's something that it has been so long. The next time, let us hope, it will be longer still."

The doctor made as if to rise. Bessie put her hand out to stay him. "What is it makes him do it?"

"Ah, that's a great mystery," said the doctor. "I suppose you might say the excitement."

"Yes!"

"But it seems to me very often, in such cases, as if it were to escape the excitement. I think you're both keyed up pretty sharply by nature, Miss Bessie," said the doctor, with the personal kindness he felt for the girl, and the pity softening his scientific spirit.

"I know!" she answered. "We're alike. Why don't I take to drinking, too?"

The doctor laughed at such a question from a young lady, but with an inner seriousness in his laugh, as if, coming from a patient, it was to be weighed. "Well, I suppose it isn't the habit of your sex, Miss Bessie."

"Sometimes it is. Sometimes women get drunk, and then I think they do less harm than if they did other things to get away from the excitement." She longed to confide in him; the words were on her tongue; she believed he could help her, tell her what to do; out of his stores of knowledge and experience he must have some suggestion, some remedy; he could advise her; he could stand her friend, so far. People told their doctors all kinds of things, silly things. Why should she not tell her doctor this?

It would have been easier if it had been an older man, who might have had a daughter of her age. But he was in that period of the early forties when a doctor sometimes has a matter-of-fact, disagreeable wife whose idea stands between him and the spiritual intimacy of his patients, so that it seems as if they were delivering their confidences rather to her than to him. He was able, he was good, he was extremely acute, he was even with the latest facts and theories; but as he sat straight up in his chair his stomach defined itself as a half-moon before him, and he said to the quivering heap of emotions beside him, "You mean like breaking hearts, and such little matters?"

It was fatally stupid, and it beat her back into herself.

"Yes," she said, with a contempt that she easily hid from him, "that's worse than getting drunk, isn't it?"

"Well, it isn't so regarded," said the doctor, who supposed himself to have made a sprightly answer, and laughed at it. "I wish, Miss Bessie, you'd take a little remedy I'm going to send you. You've merely been up too late, but it's a very good thing for people who've been up too late."

"Thank you. And about my brother?"

"Oh! I'll send a man to look after him to-night, and tomorrow I really think he'd better go."

William Dean Howells