Mr. Hilton telegraphed at once countermanding, for the present, the nurse for whom he had sent.
That night, when the household had all retired, he came quietly to his patient's room, and entering noiselessly, sat silent in a far corner. There was no artificial right; the patient had to be kept in darkness. There was, however, a bright moonlight; sufficient light stole in through the edges of the blinds to allow him, when his eyes grew accustomed, to see what might happen.
Harold lay quite still till the house was quiet. He had been thinking, ever since he had ascertained the identity of Stephen. In his weakness and the paralysing despair of his blindness all his former grief and apprehension had come bank upon him in a great wave; veritably the tide of circumstances seemed to run hard against him. He had had no idea of forcing himself upon Stephen; and yet here he was a guest in her house, without her knowledge or his own. She had saved his life by her energy and resource. Fortunately she did not as yet know him; the bandages, and his act in suppressing his voice, had so far protected him. But such could not last for long. He could not see to protect himself, and take precautions as need arose. And he knew well that Stephen's nature would not allow her to be satisfied without doing all that was possible to help one who had under her eyes made a great effort on behalf of others, and to whom there was the added bond that his life was due to her. In but a little time she must find out to whom she ministered.
What then would happen? Her kindness was such that when she realised the blindness of her old friend she might so pity him that out of the depths of her pity she would forgive. She would take back all the past; and now that she knew of his old love for her, would perhaps be willing to marry him. Back flooded the old memory of her independence and her theory of sexual equality. If out of any selfish or mistaken idea she did not hesitate to ask a man to marry her, would it be likely that when the nobler and more heroic side of her nature spoke she would hesitate to a similar act in pursuance of her self-sacrifice?
So it might be that she would either find herself once again flouted, or else married to a man she did not love.
Such a catastrophe should not happen, whatever the cost to him. He would, blind as he was, steal away in the night and take himself out of her life; this time for ever. Better the ingratitude of an unknown man, the saving of whose life was due to her, than the long dull routine of a spoiled life, which would otherwise be her unhappy lot.
When once this idea had taken root in his mind he had taken such steps as had been open to him without endangering the secrecy of his motive. Thanks to his subtle questioning of the Doctor, he now knew that his room was close to the ground, so that he would easily drop from the window and steal away with out immediate danger of any restraining accident. If he could once get away he would be all right. There was a large sum to his credit in each of two London banks. He would manage somehow to find his way to London; even if he had to walk and beg his way.
He felt that now in the silence of the night the time had come. Quietly he rose and felt his way to the door, now and again stumbling and knocking against unknown obstacles in the manner of the recently blind. After each such noise he paused and listened. He felt as if the very walls had ears. When he reached the door he turned the key softly. Then he breathed more freely. He felt that he was at last alone and free to move without suspicion.
Then began a great and arduous search; one that was infinitely difficult and exasperating; and full of pathos to the sympathetic man who watched him in silence. Mr. Hilton could not understand his movements as he felt his way about the room, opening drawers and armoires, now and again stooping down and feeling along the floor. He did not betray his presence, however, but moved noiselessly away as the other approached. It was a hideously real game of blindman's- buff, with perhaps a life as the forfeit.
Harold went all over the room, and at last sat down on the edge of his bed with a hollow suppressed groan that was full of pain. He had found his clothes, but realised that they were now but rags. He put on the clothes, and then for a long time sat quiet, rocking gently to and fro as one in pain, a figure of infinite woe. At last he roused himself. His mind was made up; the time for action had come. He groped his way towards the window looking south. The Doctor, who had taken off his shoes, followed him with catlike stealthiness.
He easily threw open the window, for it was already partly open for ventilation.
When Mr. Hilton saw him sit on the rail of the balcony and begin to raise his feet, getting ready to drop over, he rushed forward and seized him. Harold instinctively grappled with him; the habit of his Alaskan life amidst continual danger made in such a case action swift as thought. Mr. Hilton, with the single desire to prevent him from killing himself, threw himself backward and pulled Harold with him to the stone floor.
Harold, as he held him in a grip of iron, thundered out, forgetful in the excitement of the moment the hushed voice to which he had limited himself:
'What do you want? who are you?'
'H-s-s-sh! I am Mr. Hilton.' Harold relaxed the rigour of his grasp but still held him firmly:
'How did you come here? I locked my door!'
'I have been in the room a long time. I suspected something, and came to watch; to prevent your rash act.'
'Rash act! How?'
'Why, man, if you didn't kill, you would at least cripple yourself.'
'How can I cripple myself when the flower-bed is only a few feet below?'
'There are other dangers for a man who--a man in your sad state. And, besides, have I no duty to prevent a suicide!' Here a brilliant idea struck Harold. This man had evidently got some wrong impression; but it would serve to shield his real purpose. He would therefore encourage it. For the moment, of course, his purpose to escape unnoticed was foiled; but he would wait, and in due time seize another opportunity. In a harder and more determined tone than he had yet used he said:
'I don't see what right you have to interfere. I shall kill myself if I like.'
'Not whilst you are in my care!' This was spoken with a resolution equal to his own. Then Mr. Hilton went on, more softly and with infinite compassion: 'Moreover, I want to have a talk with you which may alter your views.' Harold interrupted, still playing the game of hiding his real purpose:
'I shall do as I wish; as I intend.'
'You are injuring yourself even now by standing in the draught of that open window. Your eyes will feel it before long . . . Are you mad . . . ?'
Harold felt a prick like a pin in his neck; and turned to seize his companion. He could not find him, and for a few moments stumbled through the dark, raging . . .
It seemed a long time before he remembered anything. He had a sense of time lapsed; of dreamland thoughts and visions. Then gradually recollection came back. He tried to move; but found it impossible. His arms and legs were extended wide and were tied; he could feel the cord hurting his wrists and ankles as he moved. To him it was awful to be thus blind and helpless; and anger began to surge up. He heard the voice of Mr. Hilton close by him speaking in a calm, grave, sympathetic tone:
'My poor fellow, I hated to take such a step; but it was really necessary for your own safety. You are a man, and a brave one. Won't you listen to me for a few minutes? When you have heard what I have to say I shall release you. In the meantime I apologise for the outrage, as I dare say you consider it!' Harold was reasonable; and he was now blind and helpless. Moreover, there was something in the Doctor's voice that carried a sense of power with it.
'Go on! I shall listen!' He compelled himself to quietude. The Doctor saw, and realised that he was master of himself. There were some snips of scissors, and he was free.
'See! all I want is calm for a short time, and you have it. May I go on?'
'Go on!' said Harold, not without respect. The Doctor after a pause spoke:
'My poor fellow, I want you to understand that I wish to help you, to do all in my power to restore to you that which you seem to have lost! I can sympathise with your desire to quit life altogether now that the best part of it, sight, seems gone. I do not pretend to judge the actions of my fellows; and if you determine to carry out your purpose I shall not be able to prevent you for ever. I shall not try to. But you certainly shall not do so till you know what I know! I had wished to wait till I could be a little more certain before I took you into confidence with regard to my guessing as to the future. But your desire to destroy yourself forces my hand. Now let me tell you that there is a possibility of the removal of the cause of your purpose.'
'What do you mean?' gasped Harold. He was afraid to think outright and to the full what the other's words seemed to imply.
'I mean,' said the other solemnly, 'that there is a possibility, more than a possibility, that you may recover your sight!' As he spoke there was a little break in his voice. He too was somewhat unnerved at the situation.
Harold lay still. The whole universe seemed to sway, and then whirl round him in chaotic mass. Through it at length he seemed to hear the calm voice:
'At first I could not be sure of my surmise, for when I used the ophthalmoscope your suffering was too recent to disclose the cause I looked for. Now I am fairly sure of it. What I have since heard from you has convinced me; your having suffered from rheumatic fever, and the recrudescence of the rheumatic pain after your terrible experience of the fire and that long chilling swim with so seemingly hopeless an end to it; the symptoms which I have since noticed, though they have not been as enlightening to me as they might be. Your disease, as I have diagnosed it, is an obscure one and not common. I have not before been able to study a case. All these things give me great hopes.'
'Thank God! Thank God!' the voice from the bed was now a whisper.
'Thank God! say I too. This that you suffer from is an acute form of inflammation of the optic nerve. It may of course end badly; in permanent loss of sight. But I hope--I believe, that in your case it will not be so. You are young, and you are immensely strong; not merely muscularly, but in constitution. I can see that you have been an athlete, and no mean one either. All this will stand to you. But it will take time. It will need all your own help; all the calm restraint of your body and your mind. I am doing all that science knows; you must do the rest!' He waited, giving time to the other to realise his ideas. Harold lay still for a long time before he spoke:
'Doctor.' The voice was so strangely different that the other was more hopeful at once. He had feared opposition, or conflict of some kind. He answered as cheerily as he could:
'Yes! I am listening.'
'You are a good fellow; and I am grateful to you, both for what you have done and what you have told me. I cannot say how grateful just yet; hope unmans me at present. But I think you deserve that I should tell you the truth!' The other nodded; he forgot that the speaker could not see.
'I was not intending to commit suicide. Such an idea didn't even enter my head. To me, suicide is the resource of a coward. I have been in too many tight places to ever fear that.'
'Then in the name of goodness why were you trying to get out of that window?'
'I wanted to escape; to get away!'
'In your shirt and trousers; and they are not over much! Without even slippers!' A faint smile curled round the lips of the injured man. Hope was beginning to help already.
'Even that way!'
'But man alive! you were going to your death. How could you expect to get away in such an outfit without being discovered? When you were missed the whole countryside would have been up, and even before the hue-and-cry the first person who saw you would have taken charge of you.'
'I know! I know! I had thought of it all. But I was willing to chance it. I had my own reasons!' He was silent a while. The Doctor was silent too. Each man was thinking in his own way. Presently the Doctor spoke:
'Look here, old chap! I don't want to pry into your secrets; but, won't you let me help you? I can hold my tongue. I want to help you. You have earned that wish from any man, and woman too, who saw the burning ship and what you did to save those on board. There is nothing I would not do for you. Nothing! I don't ask you to tell me all; only enough for me to understand and help. I can see that you have some overpowering wish to get away. Some reason that I cannot fathom, certainly without a clue. You may trust me, I assure you. If you could look into my face, my eyes, you would understand. But-- There! take my hand. It may tell you something!'
Harold took the hand placed in his, and held it close. He pressed his other hand over it also, as though the effect of the two hands would bring him double knowledge. It was infinitely pathetic to see him trying to make his untrained fingers do the duty of his trained eyes. But, trained or not, his hands had their instinct. Laying down gently the hand he held he said, turning his bandaged eyes in the direction of his companion:
'I shall trust you! Are we alone; absolutely alone?'
'Have I your solemn promise that anything I say shall never go beyond yourself?'
'I promise. I can swear, if it will make your mind more easy in the matter.'
'What do you hold most sacred in the world?' Harold had an odd thought; his question was its result.
'All told, I should think my profession! Perhaps it doesn't seem to you much to swear by; but it is all my world! But I have been brought up in honour, and you may trust my promise--as much as anything I could swear.'
'All right! My reason for wanting to get away was because I knew Lady de Lannoy!'
'What!' Then after a pause: 'I should have thought that was a reason for wanting to stay. She seems not only one of the most beautiful, but the sweetest woman I ever met.'
'She is all that! And a thousand times more!'
'Then why-- Pardon me!'
'I cannot tell you all; but you must take it that my need to get away is imperative.' After pondering a while Mr. Hilton said suddenly:
'I must ask your pardon again. Are you sure there is no mistake. Lady de Lannoy is not married; has not been. She is Countess in her own right. It is quite a romance. She inherited from some old branch of more than three hundred years ago.' Again Harold smiled; he quite saw what the other meant.
He answered gravely
'I understand. But it does not alter my opinion; my purpose. It is needful--absolutely and imperatively needful that I get away without her recognising me, or knowing who I am.'
'She does not know you now. She has not seen you yet.'
'That is why I hoped to get away in time; before she should recognise me. If I stay quiet and do all you wish, will you help me?'
'I will! And what then?'
'When I am well, if it should be so, I shall steal away, this time clothed, and disappear out of her life without her knowing. She may think it ungrateful that one whom she has treated so well should behave so badly. But that can't be helped. It is the lesser evil of the two.'
'And I must abet you? All right! I will do it; though you must forgive me if you should ever hear that I have abused you and said bad things of you. It will have to be all in the day's work if I am not ultimately to give you away. I must take steps at once to keep her from seeing you. I shall have to invent some story; some new kind of dangerous disease, perhaps. I shall stay here and nurse you myself!' Harold spoke in joyful gratitude:
'Oh, you ARE good. But can you spare the time? How long will it all take?'
'Some weeks! Perhaps!' He paused as if thinking. 'Perhaps in a month's time I shall unbandage your eyes. You will then see; or . .
'I understand! I shall be patient!'
In the morning Mr. Hilton in reporting to Lady de Lannoy told her that he considered it would be necessary to keep his patient very quiet, both in mind and body. In the course of the conversation he said:
'Anything which might upset him must be studiously avoided. He is not an easy patient to deal with; he doesn't like people to go near him. I think, therefore, it will be well if even you do not see him. He seems to have an odd distrust of people, especially of women. It may be that he is fretful in his blindness, which is in itself so trying to a strong man. But besides, the treatment is not calculated to have a very buoyant effect. It is apt to make a man fretful to lie in the dark, and know that he has to do so for indefinite weeks. Pilocarpin, and salicylate of soda, and mercury do not tend towards cheerfulness. Nor do blisters on the forehead add to the content of life!'
'I quite understand,' said Stephen, 'and I will be careful not to go near him till he is well. Please God! it may bring him back his sight. Thank you a thousand times for your determination to stay with him.'
So it was that for more than two weeks Harold was kept all alone. No one attended him but the Doctor. He slept in the patient's room for the whole of the first week, and never had him out of sight for more than a few minutes at a time. He was then able to leave him alone for longer periods, and settled himself in the bedroom next to him. Every hour or two he would visit him. Occasionally he would be away for half a day, but never for more. Stephen rigidly observed the Doctor's advice herself, and gave strict orders that his instructions were to be obeyed.
Harold himself went through a period of mental suffering. It was agony to him to think of Stephen being so near at hand, and yet not to be able to see her, or even to hear her voice. All the pain of his loss of her affection seemed to crowd back on him, and with it the new need of escaping from her unknown. More than ever he felt it would not do that she should ever learn his identity. Her pity for him, and possibly her woman's regard for a man's effort in time of stress, might lead through the gates of her own self-sacrifice to his restoration to his old place in her affections. Nay! it could not be his old place; for at the close of those days she had learned of his love for her.