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Philosopher Dick

Chapter XVII

page 464

Chapter XVII.

"Now I have told you all about my adventures, and misadventures also," said Raleigh, as he threw himself back in a lounge chair by the side of his friend Doctor Valentine, and lit another cigar.

"I wonder that you are here to tell them," replied the other.

"Why, they are nothing to the exciting incidents of your stormy career."

"That's just it. In your place I should have been dead or in a lunatic asylum long ago. The crushing loneliness and monotony of the existence you have gone through would have done for me in six months."

"Our dispositions are so very different," remarked the philosopher placidly; "you are all fire and energy, susceptible and enthusiastic in all things, whereas I am phlegmatic and unsociable. You rush to action, while I have a contemplative turn. You are a child of passion, I am a cold-blooded animal."

"I fancy," replied the doctor, "that you greatly mistake your own character, as you certainly under-page 465rate your own capabilities. You have grown shy and reserved, my boy, from habit, but not from nature. You are not gushing, I admit; but you are by no means unsympathetic, and you might shine in lots of ways that you little dream of. I shouldn't wonder, now, but that you would make a good actor."

"Me an actor!" exclaimed Raleigh, with amused incredulity. "Well, that beats everything. There was a grand old fellow on the station, who informed me once that I was cut out for domestic felicity; rather rich that, wasn't it? But an actor, of all things! Why, my dear fellow, I have not one of the qualifications requisite for the stage, nor have I ever had the slightest inclination that way—I have no gift of mimicry like you, and I could never recite, not even at school."

"All that is to be acquired," said the Doctor. "You know that I was on the boards once myself."

"Yes, so you told me, but I never heard from you the particulars of that escapade. What on earth sent you off on that lay?"

"I can hardly tell you, for I never rightly knew myself," continued Doctor Valentine. "It was just one of those madcap freaks to which I have been prone all my life, and done on the spur of some irresistible impulse. I remember the circumstance perfectly. I was studying medicine at the time, and page 466was studying hard too, without any idea of giving it up. I was engaged in the dissecting room with a chum—just such another harum-scarum impressionable fool as myself—and I suppose we got downright sick of the work for the moment, for all at once he threw down the knife and cried out, "What do you say, Val? let's cut this gory business and go on the stage. I know the manager of a theatrical troupe that starts to-morrow on a provincial tour; he would take us."

"'Done,' I exclaimed, and without another thought or a look behind us we were off like red-shanks.

"A week later, I was performing as a super in some country town."

"And how long did the fit last?"

"For two years or more I stuck to it; fascinated at first, then disillusionised, and at last repelled with disgust. I came to look upon it as a sort of prostitution, and slunk away ashamed and degraded."

"You always fly to extremes, Val. I can't understand how you can apply such a term of reprobation to the theatrical profession. I have always considered it an intelligent and honourable one, and capable of conferring a vital benefit on public taste. Then I should have thought that the free-and-easy life, and the excitement of the performance, would possess a charm of its own."

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"I thought so too, and considered it delightful until I found it out to be unendurable," said the Doctor with a smile. "I certainly had some lively times while the illusion lasted; then I suddenly discovered that it was all stale, flat, and unprofitable."

"Did you ever try to distinguish yourself? Had you no ambition?" inquired Raleigh.

"I did cherish some hopes of fame, and shaped pretty well at first, especially in the comic line."

"I am positive," pursued Raleigh, "that with your natural histrionic powers you could have achieved great things. Were you never told so by leading actors?"

"Very little is ever achieved on the stage," replied Valentine, "except through industry and steady training. In all its principal features it is a trade, which has to be following from its beginning, and it will often take a man some years to learn to walk—I mean it literally—to pace the boards. I never took a leading part, and as Mercutio—my highest flight in the classic drama—I don't think that I could have been a grand success, although one great actor whom I met encouraged me to better things. But the greatest hit I ever made was as a boy in buttons. My get-up was splendid, and as I stood at the side entrance, swelling out in gorgeous livery, a breast inflated like a pigeon's, page 468and covered with brass buttons, a wasp-like waist, with a redundant protuberance behind; eyes staring, mouth open, body bent forward and ready to rush upon the stage, even the actors burst out laughing, and I brought down the house. But imagine a man having to contemplate such antics in sober earnestness afterwards."

"I admit it isn't dignified," remarked Raleigh, "but I should imagine it was full of fun. Then you must have made many interesting acquaintances, and I daresay got up some tender interchanges too in these ramblings."

"I never was without them," remarked the Doctor complacently. "It has been my fate to be much loved by the fair, and to respond to the soft passion with corresponding ardour; but, now I think about it, my most charming attachment at that period was of a purely Platonic character. There was a young and aspiring actress engaged in the same company. A beautiful and most attractive girl, with a passionate regard for the higher glories of the drama. To her the triumphs of the stage became a sort of worship—her whole heart was in it. I must have kindled my enthusiasm at her fire, for I took after her. We became inseparable, and spent all our spare time in heroic declamation and in studying Shakespeare. page 469Sometimes in the warm summer evenings we would wander forth into the fields together, discuss our parts, recite pathetic passages to one another, and attudinise in the moonlight with rapture. Then, how she would turn her lustrous eyes upon me, full of tenderness and stirring emotion—but it was all in the passion of the play!"

"And you never made love to her?" exclaimed the philosopher, with surprise.

"Never out of our parts," replied the Doctor. "Strange to say, I don't think it ever occurred to me. We only played at love, and yet I loved her too, in an ideal, fantastical sort of way. I cherished her as a friend, and admired her as a devoted follower might do. I was happy in witnessing her achieve a decided success as Lady Macbeth, and then we parted, and drifted out of sight and mind."

"Go on," said Raleigh; "let us have the next chapter."

"I returned home," continued Doctor Valentine," on being informed that all would be forgiven, and that I could make a fresh start. I was sick of adventures for the time, and quite cured of the stage mania. I resumed my medical studies, and soon passed the preliminary exams. with credit. I was then in a fair way to succeed in my profession, had I stuck to it, as page 470I ought to have done, and really wished to do. But it has been my untoward fate to wander from the beaten track, led astray by false lights or by uncontrollable impulse. I have often wished that I had a little of your placid and sedate disposition; it would have preserved me from sore vicissitudes, ending in this wretched breakdown."

"I fear," replied Raleigh, "that we have both missed our way in life; you have been blown on the rocks by the violence of your passions, I have drifted on to a lea shore for want of propelling power, and have got stuck in the mud. If I had possessed a spark of your enthusiasm to inspire me with will and energy, I should have found it a better conductor than star-gazing. But now we have fortunately met, and we can make up for one another's deficiencies. Coupled together we can brave any sea. You will furnish the impulse, I will direct it."

"Ay," said Valentine, "if my poor battered little bark does not founder on the way."

"What nonsense!" exclaimed his friend. "Don't give way to any such notion. Why, man, you are worlds better already, and you will soon be all right again; only you should really take more care of yourself. Avoid the night air—if I were you, I should positively refuse to go out at night for any one— page 471moderate your exercise, and above all" — and the philosopher gave an uneasy glance in the direction of the bottle.

"Stimulants!" ejaculated the Doctor. "Don't I know it, my child? I tell myself so every day. I have been lectured on the subject by every physician whom I have consulted; I am warned on the point in every letter I receive from home. But if you felt as I do, dear boy, you would act as I do. I get so low, so fearfully low. All my vitals are disordered, my nerves are unstrung. I suffer terribly from mental depression. Where can I turn for relief? A few glasses of toddy, and a blessed change sets in; the vitals work smoothly, my nerves are braced up again, my mind is unburdened. I am cheered and warmed to the cockles of my heart. I find myself singing a song, chatting gaily with my dear Raleigh, listening complacently to his extravagant paradoxes, cracking jokes with all comers, or regaling the company with a few racy reminiscences of joyous days. There! thou grave and sober Mentor, look not thus austerely upon me; hold not up the finger of caution, relax that pensive brow! Let me find relief while I may, even if it be only momentary; let us be happy while we can—it may not be for long. There—have another weed—and pass the bottle!"

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Raleigh complied, but with a sigh. He turned away his face to conceal an expression of pity and solicitude which he could not suppress, for at that moment his poor friend was seized with one of his most violent fits of coughing, that shook his slight frame and seemed to rack his whole being—leaving him exhausted and gasping for breath.

When the paroxysm was over, the Doctor poured himself out an ample draught, which he swallowed with considerable relief to his shattered nerves; then he lit a cigar, and, with a kindly smile at his companion, he proceeded with his story.

"I now come to the most eventful passage," he said, "in my luckless career; the one which, at the time, exerted an overpowering dominion over me, and which has influenced all my after-life. I fell in love!"

"Is that all!" cried Raleigh laughingly. "Why, according to your own account, you have been in love, off and on, ever since you were put into breeches."

"I plead guilty," replied Valentine, "to many amours. But they were fleeting effusions that left no permanent trace behind them—mere sparks that blazed brightly for the moment, and then died out in smoke. But this was a devouring flame that burnt me to the core."

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"I wish," said Raleigh, "that I had known la grande passion, just to have realised what it was like. I have done a little billing and cooing in my youth, but these heavenly flights of ecstatic rapture are unknown to me."

"Thank your stars, my child!" exclaimed the Doctor earnestly, "that you have escaped them, and pray that it may never be your fate to fall in love."

"What, then," pursued the other, "becomes of all the tender rage of poets in all ages, and the gushing effusions of sentimental writers, who pour forth an unintermitting flood of rhapsody, and would make out that before this divine blaze of the soul all other lights pale?"

"In intensity, perhaps," said the Doctor gravely; "but it is one that scorches and consumes. Happier far is the man who is temperate even in his sentiments, and with whom heart and head go together. The truest and most durable love resembles friendship——But mine was always an impetuous nature, that never knew moderation in anything.

"When I returned to my medical studies I had to make up for lost time, and I went to work with a will, and kept it up with unflagging ardour. I accomplished in one year the ordinary result of two years' page 474studies, but I knocked up under it. It is the pace that kills, and I couldn't keep it up. I was ordered complete rest and relaxation, and I went to a little watering-place on the south coast of Wales to recruit. It was there that I first met her. She was a beautiful woman, especially in her figure, which was perfectly modelled, and she was always well dressed; but then she was a widow, and old enough to be my mother. People talk a great deal about love at first sight," continued the Doctor, "but I can't say that I believe in it. My first impressions of my fair friend were not particularly favourable. I admired her, no doubt, as everybody else did, but I was not captivated. She was somewhat self-complacent and reserved in company, and she was deficient in light-heartedness. Her face generally wore a calm and slightly disdainful expression, and there was a touch of hardness about her mouth and chin which not even the most engaging smile could entirely obliterate. Her eyes were large and dark, and full of intensity, but more penetrating than sympathetic. She had a lovely forehead, fit to wear a crown, and she bore herself with an air of conscious sovereignty, like one accustomed to adulation, and expecting it from all comers.

"But what a volcano under that placid brow; what tumults of passion within that soft exterior—passion page 475that was unfathomable in its depths, insatiable in its demands, unrelaxing in its fiery embrace.

"When I first met her she was accompanied by a friend, a staid and kindly old lady, and our acquaintance began through my rendering the elderly party some slight medical assistance. She had sprained her ankle on the shingle, and I bandaged it up. One visit led to another, and I suppose I managed to make myself agreeable, for in the space of very few days we all became fast friends, and I spent most of my evenings in their company. They were very charming, those early days of genial intimacy, this sprightly prelude to the thrilling and passionate concerto that was to follow. The delightful sensation of returning health and strength to my overtaxed brain gave me a new life; the bracing air, the lovely scenery, the outdoor exercise, contributed to the charm. The old lady was of a literary turn, and I was able to conduce to her entertainment by reading to her aloud; my fair friend was very musical, and we sang duets together. We became intimate, tender; we sympathised, we confided to one another, and soon she became transformed to my eye from a cold and rather supercilious belle into a fascinating and true-hearted woman.

"How we first fell in love I can hardly say. It page 476was thoroughly mutual and spontaneous, and certainly not of my seeking.

"I remember that one balmy night we stood side by side on a terrace overlooking the moonlit sea; by chance my hand touched hers; the contact vibrated through me like an electric shock, I clasped her dainty fingers in mine, she returned the soft pressure with a touch that sent a thrill to my heart, and yet seemed to hold me with a grip of iron. Insensibly I drew her towards me, she yielded to my embrace, her warm breath fanned my cheek, her eyes looked into mine. I gave myself up to her. From that moment I became her vassal, her slave; my heart could only beat for her alone!"

"This is truly delightful," exclaimed Raleigh, "and it makes a fellow feel queerish all-over; but wait a bit until I replenish the glasses, and then give us the sequel."

"My fair friend," continued the Doctor, "was a woman of the world, and, however impulsive in her feelings, she was not lacking in discretion. While she gave herself up unreservedly to the tender passion, she was careful in preserving outwardly the strictest decorum. During our friend's stay our amorous intercourse had to be carried on in stolen interviews and under the mask of secrecy; but she managed very page 477cleverly to part with her chaperon, while remaining herself at the same watering-place; and then, unobserved and unrestricted, we were able to give free vent to our enchanting attachment. During these halcyon days we lived but for one another, we were immersed in love, we tasted all its sweets with unquenchable delight. Oh! when I think of those blissful hours I can hardly realise now the state of ecstasy in which I then lived. When I used to return to my lodgings late in the night, after spending an evening of rapture by her side, and fortified as a parting gift with a few glasses of hot toddy, I did not walk the earth like any ordinary mortal—I trod the air. I would look up into the glowing heavens and feel myself transported into ethereal regions of elysium; the music of the spheres resounded to my ears, and my soul felt kindled by a celestial fire."

"And how long did this heavenly treat last?" inquired the philosopher.

"Days and weeks passed unheeded," pursued Doctor Valentine. "We were too pleasantly engaged to take note of commonplace events, when all of a sudden we were rudely aroused from our blissful enchantment by the clacking of scandalous tongues. We awoke one morning to find ourselves unpleasantly notorious."

"How was that?" asked Raleigh. "I understood page 478you to say that your lady-love combined prosaic caution with her poetic transports."

"So she did as a rule, and we were very careful to keep up appearances; but women are capricious beings, and a wayward freak spoilt it all. We had wandered together along the beach one warm summer afternoon, under the shadow of the great beetling cliffs, and some distance from the village where we lived. It was a glorious day, the air was clear and balmy, a gentle breeze just rippled the face of the waters, and made them glitter in the evening glow like a sea of gold. A thrilling stillness and perfect solitude pervaded the place. We were reclining on the pebbly shore, nestled close together, and whispering soft nothings to responsive glances—a perfect love idyll—when suddenly my charmer sprang to her feet and said she would have a bathe. I tried to dissuade her, and forcibly dwelt upon the risk of being seen. But she was one of those headstrong women, who, when not controlled by their own sense of caution, will submit to no restraint; wilful as a spoilt child, and untractable in her least caprices. I pleaded in vain. The coast was clear, and she fancied herself secure. In a few moments she had disrobed, then flinging her garments laughingly into my lap, and clad only in her gauzy shift, she bounded forth and plunged into the dancing waves, page 479where she paddled about like a sportive mermaid. When she rose to return I never in my life saw so glorious a sight. The sun was setting, and poured a flood of golden light on her lovely form, with its exquisite outline hardly veiled by the clinging drapery; her flowing hair reached down to her waist, and was wafted in the breeze, shaking forth showers of glittering pearls. Her eyes beaming with delight, her voluptuous lips slightly apart, and wreathed in smiles, her"——

"Venus rising from the sea," exclaimed Raleigh merrily. "A few more minute particulars, and I will depict it on canvas."

"Impossible!" replied the Doctor warmly. "No art could picture such resplendent loveliness, no language describe it—not even the verse of Horace.

"I greeted her with rapturous congratulations, and as she ran swiftly past me to hide herself under cover of the rocks, and dry herself as best she could, I remained transfixed with the glowing vision on my mind's eye. We laughed heartily over this mad freak as we trudged home in the twilight, but it cost us dear. Some fishermen, concealed from our view, must have witnessed it, for next day the report was all over the place; we were met with impudent glances and sneering comments wherever we went; page 480all the respectabilities of the village turned their backs on us, and even the landlady, getting alarmed, gave my queen notice to seek for lodgings elsewhere. This was the first check to our hitherto unruffled happiness, the first little cloud on the serene azure of our heaven."

After a pause and some refreshment, the Doctor continued his story, but in a sadder strain.

"I believe," he said, "that she really loved me; but hers was an egotistical passion, jealous, all-engrossing, and cruelly exacting. It was a love that could neither brook contradiction, nor submit to any sacrifice. But I loved her with a singleness of heart and an earnestness of devotion which I never experienced before or since. It was an infatuation that knew no bounds—that for her sake would have urged me to any trial, that would not have shrunk from any folly, no, not even from crime! We removed to London. My friend would not consent that we should live apart, but neither would she hear of my abandoning my professional career. She had, indeed, some very sensible ideas as to my future prospects, and she watched over them with motherly care. With considerable tact and good management she arranged that I should lodge at her house, while pursuing my medical studies, and without giving rise to any scandal. Thus for many months we continued to live under page 481the same roof, all in all to one another, but almost strangers to outward appearances."

"Was that not solid happiness?" inquired Raleigh.

"Alas!" cried the other, "there is nothing solid about that fickle and tormenting passion. Already the sweet serenity of our first transports had departed. It was not from satiety, for I continued to love her with my whole heart—could see nothing else beside her in the whole world—but from the jars and worries of daily existence, the little annoyances arising from our equivocal mode of living. I cannot stand the curb, nor could I ever adapt myself to a life of constant dissembling. To these irksome restraints was added a boding dread that some day the natural consequences of our cohabitation would have to be confronted. That fear was never absent from my restless mind."

"I should have thought," remarked his friend, "that with your medical knowledge you could have provided against any such contingency. At least, such is the popular notion that passes current at the present day."

"That is easier said than done," replied the other, "and the medical faculty gets credit for a great deal more than it knows anything about on that delicate subject. Any suggestions that I made in that respect, page 482moreover, were met at the outset with unflinching opposition on the part of the lady. How we escaped so long was more good luck than good management."

"There was, after all," remarked the philosopher, "a very simple way out of the difficulty—too simple, I suppose, to be thought of. Why didn't you get married?"

"Once again, dear boy," replied Valentine, "I must confess that I cannot answer your question, for I do not know. It remains the unrevealed mystery of the story. I admit," he continued, "that I always entertained an inveterate antipathy to the matrimonial tie, and what I have seen of married felicity in others, during my varied experience of life, has not tended to materially alter that impression. But when I discovered the necessity of taking that step to protect the honour of one I loved so dearly, I did not hesitate for a moment. I offered to marry her, and indeed was most anxious to do so. Strange to say, it was from the lady that the opposition sprang—not openly, for we looked upon ourselves, even then, as joined in true and lasting union, but by numberless evasions and delays. The 'happy day' was postponed, on one excuse or another, until the time was past when it could have screened us from an undesirable exposure. The very memory of this period is fraught page 483with gloom and bitterness to me, and I never care to revert to it even in silent thought. The gloomy forebodings from which I suffered did not, however, appear to be shared by my mistress, for she kept up her spirits amazingly, became more fascinating and devoted than ever, and clung to me with bewitching endearments. The time soon came when further concealment of her condition was impossible, and I advised that she should retire to some secluded spot, out of the way of observation, and remain there until the event was over. This she would by no means agree to; but she kept appealing to me to procure another way of escape from her trouble, and she urged it with a passionate tenacity of purpose that overcame all resistance on my part. For I was a child in her hands—a mere plaything! And yet, how I struggled! How my conscience rebelled; how my heart grew faint with fear and anxiety. I warned her of the danger; I pleaded, I implored, I wept like a child, I grovelled at her feet. She was unrelenting. Fearless for herself—pitiless for me! Oh, that scene! It haunts me now with an appalling dread—dark, ghastly. My worst anticipations came about; she sank under it, fainted repeatedly, then lay cold and pale and motionless—I thought she was dead! I hung over her inanimate form in speechless agony, page 484overwhelmed, distracted—then, frantic with grief, I raved like a madman. I writhed in the tortures of remorse, I gave myself up for lost. The terrible reality seemed to burst upon me, and branded me as a criminal—a murderer. I saw myself being dragged before the tribunal; the awful sentence thundered in my ears—then the felon's cell—the gallows!"

"No, never!" cried Raleigh, as he rose excitedly and seized his friend by the hand. "No! it could never have come to that. You were innocent before God of any such crime, and you could have escaped the law."

"Escape would have been impossible," replied the other hoarsely, as he staggered to his feet. "I was too much distracted in mind and purpose to have attempted it. Then the evidence was clear; the cause of death; the blood-stained room—— All the previous circumstances would have come out — there would have been no defence—no escape"—— and the speaker pressed his hands against his eyes, as if to close them against a harrowing vision.

The two friends stood side by side; then with a common impulse they moved towards the door, and went out of the heated enclosure into the open, where they paused under the moonlit sky. Doctor Valentine drew a long breath, then throwing his head backwards, page 485he gazed intently at the clear and glittering heavens, and remained absorbed in meditation.

There was a long silence.

"Inexorable destiny!" Raleigh muttered to himself, as he watched with mournful sympathy the haggard and dejected countenance of his friend. "Inexorable destiny! with what ruthless hand dost thou mould our frail and plastic natures to thine iron will! with what callous disdain dost thou fling us rudely adrift, to struggle blindly through the meshes of the net which thou hast cast over us, to encumber our footsteps and involve us in numberless failures and misfortunes! How many poor wretches perish at the start, entrapped to their destruction! how many more, irretrievably betrayed into thy crafty lures, escape only to linger out their sorrowful lot in distress of body and anguish of heart! See this poor victim of thy malignant rule. Never was there a more genial or kindlier compound of human clay, gifted too with a soul, frail indeed and pliable to the fitful gusts of passion implanted within it, but imbued with native goodness—a heart responsive to every appeal of pity or claim of affection; a nature bright, refined, glowing with intelligence and enthusiasm; a character of unimpeachable honesty, and ever open to generous impulses. Yet see what a wreck thou hast made of page 486him; and, but for a fickle chance that trembled in thy balance, thou wouldst have dragged him forth to an ignominious death, or consigned him to a living tomb, a prey to horror and despair, there to pine and wither amidst the foulest outcasts of mankind. Such is Fate!"

Then turning to his friend, who remained standing in gloomy abstraction, he said aloud, "Let us come in out of the cold night air, which is bad for you. Dismiss from your mind, dear Val, all painful reminiscences of bygone days; let us not be concerned with what is past or dead, or with what might have been, but only with the present—your health and happiness."