Isabel Ecclestone Mackay.

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your heart."

"That is your advice?" She spoke heavily. "You would like some day to
see me marry a man I could - love?"

"Yes, a thousand times yes!"

"I shall think over what you say." She was still gravely controlled but
it was a control which would not last much longer. She glanced around
the empty room with a quick caught breath. "Why are you left all alone?"

"Is a keeper necessary?" Then, ashamed of his irritation and willing to
end a scene which threatened to make things harder for both of them, he
added in his ordinary tone, "I really do not know who is responsible for
such unparalleled neglect. Jane played me to sleep, I fancy. She said
her mother was upstairs but would be down presently. It must be late. I
had better go."

"Wait a moment, I will see if there is any message from mother."

As she left the room her light scarf slipped from her shoulders and fell
softly across his arm. Callandar crushed it passionately to his lips and
then, folding it carefully, laid it beside the gloves upon the table.
Even the scarf was not for him. Aunt Amy, passing through the hall on
her way upstairs, saw the dumb caress and shivered anew at the
mysterious power of "They" which could tear such a man as Callandar from
the woman he loved.

Esther was gone only a moment and when she returned she brought with her
a change of atmosphere. Something had banished every trace of
self-consciousness from her manner. She looked anxious but it was an
anxiety with which no embarrassment mingled.

"Doctor," she said at once, "mother seems to be ill. The door is locked
and she did not answer my knocking. Yet she is not asleep. I could hear
her talking. I think you ought to come up."

An indescribable look flitted across the doctor's face. He looked at the
girl a moment in measuring silence and then pointed to a chair.

"Sit down," he said briefly, "I thought that this would come. I have
been afraid of it for some time. Is it possible that you have no
suspicion at all in regard to these peculiar - illnesses - of your
mother's?"

The startled wonder in her eyes was answer enough even without the
quick, "What do you mean?"

Callandar's face grew gravely compassionate. "I think you ought to
know," he said. "I have put off saying anything because I was not
absolutely sure myself. And I have never had quite the right opportunity
of finding out. But I have had fears for some time now that your mother
is in the habit of taking some drug which - well, which is certainly not
good for her. Do not look so frightened. It may not be serious. Do you
remember when you first consulted me about your mother and how we both
agreed that the medicine she was taking for her nervous attacks might be
harmful? I was suspicious then, but there was little to go on, only her
fear of any one seeing the prescription, and a few general symptoms
which might be due to various causes. Since then I - I have noticed
things which have made me anxious. I think for her own sake as well as
yours and mine, the sooner the truth is known the better. Are you sure
the door is locked?"

"Yes," the girl's voice was tense, "but the window is open. It opens on
the top of the veranda. You could enter there."

"If that is the only way, I must take it. I thought, I hoped that if
things were as I feared she would tell me herself, but she never has. It
is useless, now, to hope for her confidence. The instinct is so strongly
for concealment. We must help her in spite of herself."

"Hurry then! I shall wait here. You will call me if necessary?"

She did not ask him exactly what it was that he feared nor did he tell
her, but for the first time in many weeks they were able to look at each
other as comrades look. The eruption of the old trouble into the new
obscured the latter so that, for the time at least, the sick woman
behind the locked door held first place in both their thoughts.

It seemed to Esther that she waited a long time before the summons came.
Then she heard him call, "Esther!" It was a doctor's call, cool,
passionless, commanding. She flew up the stairs, closing Jane's door as
she hurried by. The door to her mother's room was open. It was brightly
lighted. The shade of the lamp had been removed and its garish yellow
fell full upon the bed and the strange figure which lay there.

Mary Coombe had apparently thrown herself down fully dressed - but in
what a costume! Surely no nightmare held anything more bizarre. Esther
had no time to notice details but she remembered afterwards how the feet
were clothed in different coloured stockings and that while one
displayed a gaily buckled slipper, the other was carefully laced into a
tan walking boot. Just now she could see nothing but the face, for the
greatest shock was there. It did not look like Mary's face at all - it
was strange, old, yellow and repulsive. Her unbrushed, lustreless hair
hung about it in a dull mat, one of her hands was clutched in it - the
hand was dirty.

A terrible thought struck every vestige of colour from Esther's cheek.
Her terrified gaze swept over the disordered room, up to the face of the
man who stood there so silently, then down again to the inert woman upon
the bed. Once, not long ago, she had seen a drunken man asleep upon the
roadside grass - like this.

"Is it - is it drink?" The words were a whisper of horror.

The doctor shook his head.

"I wish it were. I wish it were only that. Have you never heard of the
drug habit - morphia, opium? That is what we have to fight - and it is
what I feared."

"Oh!" It was a breath of relief. To Esther, who knew nothing of drugs,
or drug habits, the truth seemed less awful than the thing she
had imagined.

"Is - is it serious?" she asked timidly.

The doctor smiled grimly. "You will see. No need to frighten you now.
But it will be a fight from this on." He threw a light coverlet over the
helpless figure and replacing the shade on the lamp, turned down the
flaring wick. "I will tell you what I can, but at present it is very
little. Probably this began long ago, before your father's death. In the
first place there may have been a prescription - I think you said she had
had an illness in which she suffered greatly. The drug, opium in some
form probably, may have been given to reduce the pain - and continued
after need for it was gone without knowledge of its dangerous qualities.
Nervous people form the habit very quickly. Then - I am only
guessing - as the amount contained in the original prescription ceased to
produce the desired effect, she may have found out what drug it was that
her appetite craved. If she saw the danger then, it was already too
late. She could not give up voluntarily and was compelled to go on,
shutting her eyes to the inevitable consequences, if indeed she ever
clearly knew them."

"But now that you know? It ought not to be hard to help her now that you
know. There are other drugs - "

"Yes. There is a frying-pan and a fire. In fact I fear that she has
already tried that expedient herself. Some of the symptoms point to
cocaine. No, our best hope is in the decreasing dose with proper
auxiliary treatment. I cannot tell yet how serious the case may be. At
any rate there must be an end of the mystery. Every one in the house
must know, even Jane; for in this fight ignorance means danger. But," he
hesitated and his face grew dark, "you cannot realise what this is going
to mean. It is my burden, not yours. At least I have the right to save
you that. We must have a nurse - "

A little eager cry burst from her. "Oh, no! Not that! You wouldn't do
that. You can't mean not to let me help."

"You do not know - "

"I do not care what it means. But if you won't let me help, if you shut
me out - " Her voice quivered dangerously, but with a spark of her old
fire she recovered herself. "You cannot," she added more firmly,
"because it is my burden as well as yours. Whatever she is to you, she
was my father's wife and I am responsible to him. Unless extra help is
really needed, no nurse shall take my place."

"Very well," quietly. "Call Aunt Amy, then, and search the room. She
will sleep for a long time yet. When she wakes there must be no more of
the drug within her reach. I must find out the amount to which she has
been accustomed and arrange a decreasing dose. But if you are to be a
nurse, you know, you must expect a bad time. It will not be easy."

Esther's reply was to call Aunt Amy and while the doctor explained to
the bewildered old lady the danger in which her niece stood and the
absolute importance of keeping all "medicine" away from her, Esther
quietly and swiftly searched the room. Boxes and drawers she unlocked
and opened, the dresser, the writing-table, the bureau, the long unused
sewing basket, all were examined without success. But in the locked box
which contained her father's portrait, she made another discovery which
woke a little throb of angry pity in her heart. There, still wrapped in
its carelessly torn off postal wrappings, lay the box containing the
ruby ring which Jessica Bremner had returned. Mary must have got it from
the post herself and had immediately hidden it, careless of the fact
that all Esther's careful savings had been necessary to make the return
possible. Without comment she slipped the ring into the bosom of
her dress.

"Have you found anything?"

"Nothing yet."

Aunt Amy took a fascinated step nearer the figure on the bed. If
Callandar could have intercepted the look she cast upon it he might have
been warned of the subtle change which had taken place in her of late,
but the doctor had turned to help Esther. Aunt Amy could gaze
undisturbed.

"She looks like Richard," said Aunt Amy suddenly. "Do you remember
Richard?" She brushed her hand over her eyes in a painful effort of
memory. "He was a bad man, a very bad man."

"She means her brother Richard," explained Esther. "He has been dead for
ages. I believe he was not a family ornament."

"Just like Richard," murmured Aunt Amy again with a quickly checked
chuckle. "But you ought to be glad of that. You won't have to marry her
now. You can marry Esther."

If a shell had burst in the quiet room, it could scarcely have caused
more consternation. The doctor's stern face quivered, Esther's searching
hand dropped paralysed. Here was a danger indeed! Was their secret
really so patent? Or had it been but a vagrant guess of a clouded mind?

Callandar recovered himself first. Without glancing at the girl he
walked quietly over to the bed and placing his hand upon Aunt Amy's
shoulder compelled wavering eyes to his.

"Aunt Amy, you must never say that again." He spoke with the crisp
incisiveness of a master, but for once his subject did not immediately
respond. With a sulky look she tried to wrench herself free.

"Why?" she questioned. But Callandar knew his business too
well to argue. "You must never say it again," he repeated.
"You - must - never - say - it - again!"

The poor, weak lips began to quiver. Her own boldness had frightened her
quite as much as his vehemence. Her eyes fluttered and fell.

"Very well, Doctor," she answered meekly.

They searched now in silence and presently Esther emerged from the
closet with a pair of dainty slippers in her hand.

"I think I have found something," she said. "There are three pairs of
party slippers and the toes of them are all stuffed with these." She
handed the doctor a package of innocent looking tablets done up in
purplish blue paper.

Callandar glanced at them, shook them out and counted their number.

"You are sure you have them all?"

"I can find no trace of more."

"Then I think we have a strong fight coming - but a good hope, too."


CHAPTER XXIX


Miss A. Milligan stood before the door of her select dressmaking
parlours, meditatively picking her teeth with a needle. We hasten to
observe that her teeth were quite clean and that this was merely a
harmless habit denoting intense mental concentration. Miss Milligan was
tall and full of figure with an elegant waist and a bust so like a
pin-cushion that it fulfilled the duties of that article admirably. Her
small bright eyes set in a wide expanse of face suggested nothing so
much as currants in an underdone bun, and just now, as she watched the
graceful figure of Mrs. Coombe, bride to be, disappear around the
corner, they gave the impression of having been poked too far in while
the bun was soft.

The door of Miss Milligan's select parlours did not open upon the main
street, it being far from her desire to attract promiscuous trade. The
parlours, indeed, were situated upon one of the "nicest" streets in
Coombe and occupied a corner lot, so that a splendid view down two of
the most genteel residential streets was obtainable from their windows.
The only sign of business anywhere was a board of chaste design over the
doorway, bearing the simple legend, "A. MILLIGAN." Even the word
"Dressmaker" was considered superfluous. Also there was one window, near
the door, which from time to time displayed wonderfully coloured plates
of terribly twisting and elegantly elongated females purporting to be
the very latest from Paris (_France_).

Mrs. Coombe was getting some "things" made at Miss Milligan's. It had
been rumoured at first that she had contemplated running down to Toronto
and Detroit, buying most of her trousseau there, but for some
unexplained reason the plan had been given up. Doctor Callandar, it
appeared, believed in patronising local tradesmen and had been
sufficiently ungallant to veto the Detroit visit altogether. Everybody
wondered why Mary Coombe stood it. Surely it was bad enough when a man
sets up to be a domestic tyrant after marriage. They were surprised at
Dr. Callandar - they hadn't thought it of him.

"It is women like Mary Coombe who submit tamely to such indignities,"
declared the eldest Miss Sinclair, "who have held back the emancipation
of women from the beginning of time."

"She looks so poorly, too," agreed Miss Jessie. "I am sure she needs a
change. I should think that Esther would insist upon it."

But Esther appeared in all things to back up Dr. Callandar. People
admitted that they were disappointed in Esther and only hoped that the
day would never come when she would be sorry. For if all the world loves
a lover, all the world is indulgent to a prospective bride and any one
could see that this particular bride was being denied her proper
privileges. Any one would think she was a child and not to be trusted
alone. Esther went with her everywhere, simply everywhere. Of course it
was sweet of Esther to be so attentive, but people didn't wonder that
her mother didn't like it.

Such were the current comments of the town, sent out somewhat in the
nature of feelers, for behind them all, Coombe, having a very sensitive
nose for gossip, was uneasily aware that their cleverest investigators
were not yet in possession of the root of the matter. Every one seemed
to know everything, and yet - no wonder that Miss Milligan picked her
teeth in agonies of mental tumult at finding herself sole possessor of a
satisfactory explanation which she was bound in honour not to disclose.

Mrs. Coombe had just been in. She had been having a "first fitting" and
in the privacy of the fitting room she had been perfectly frank with
Miss Milligan. She had told Miss Milligan "things." She had told her
things which would move a heart of stone, regardless of the fact that
Miss Milligan's heart was made of the softest of soft materials and beat
warmly under her spiky pin cushion. The fact that her eyes were hard and
black had nothing to do with it; mistakes in eyes occur constantly in
the best regulated families. At this very moment when her eyes were more
like currants than ever she was making up her mind that, come what
might, doctors or no doctors, she was not going to see a fellow
creature put upon.

For, you see, Mrs. Coombe, poor little thing, had confided in Miss
Milligan. She had told her all about it, and like most mysteries, it had
turned out to be very simple. It seemed that Dr. Callandar, such a
perfectly charming man in most respects, had a most absurd prejudice
against patent medicines. This prejudice, common to the medical
profession on account of patents interfering with profits, was, in Dr.
Callandar's case, almost an obsession. Miss Milligan, being a sensible
person, knew very well that there are patents _and_ patents. Some of
them are frauds, of course, but there are others which are better than
any prescription that any doctor ever wrote. Miss Milligan did not speak
from hearsay, she had had an extensive experience the results of which
lent themselves to conversational effort. Therefore it is easy to see
how she understood and sympathised at once when Mrs. Coombe told her of
a remedy which she had found to be quite excellent but which the doctor
absolutely forbade her to use.

"Not that he means to be inconsiderate, dear Miss Milligan, only he is
so very sure of his own point of view. Doctors have to be firm of
course. But you can see it is rather hard on me. The trouble is that I
cannot obtain the remedy I need in Coombe. It is a remedy very little
known and useful only in obscure nerve troubles. I have been in the
habit of getting it from a certain firm in Detroit, not a very
well-known firm, and now, of course, that is impossible - without
upsetting the doctor, which I hesitate to do."

Miss Milligan was of the opinion that a little upsetting was just what
the doctor required.

"No - o." The visitor shook her head. She could not bring her mind to it.
She would prefer to suffer herself. But did not Miss Milligan think
that, in face of such an unreasonable and violent prejudice, a little
innocent strategy might be justified?

Miss Milligan thought so, very emphatically.

Mrs. Coombe sighed. "I do so want to look well for the wedding, you
know. And really, nothing seems to help me like my own particular
medicine. It is hard, very hard, to be without it."

Miss Milligan did not doubt it. It seemed, to her, a perfect shame. But
had Mrs. Coombe ever tried "Peebles' Perfect Pick-me-ups" for the
nerves? They were certainly very excellent.

Yes. Mrs. Coombe had heard of them and no doubt they were very good for
some people. But constitutions differ so. On the whole she felt sure
that even "Peebles' Perfect Pick-me-ups" would not suit her nearly as
well as her own particular remedy.

It was at this point that Miss Milligan stopped fitting and began to
pick her teeth, a sign, as we have before stated, of great mental
activity. If nothing would suit Mrs. Coombe but this one medicine and if
the medicine could be obtained in Detroit and if Mrs. Coombe had the
correct address - why not write for it? It was a brilliant idea, but Mrs.
Coombe shook her head.

She had the address, naturally, and she had also thought of writing, but
it would be of no use. Esther and the doctor actually watched her mail.

"Incredible!"

"Oh, not in any offensive way. They did not mean to be tyrannous. They
were quite convinced that patent medicines were very injurious. But
women suffering from nerves (like yourself, dear Miss Milligan) know
that relief is often found in the least likely places and from remedies
not mentioned in the Materia Medica."

Miss Milligan knew that very well. And people are so hard to convince.
When Mrs. Barker, over the hill, had first recommended that new
blood-purifier to Miss Milligan, Miss Milligan had laughed. But after
taking only six bottles she had thanked Mrs. Barker with tears in her
eyes. "And I must say," added she in a burst of virtuous indignation,
"that if I were going to Detroit to-morrow I would bring you back all
the patent medicine you wanted, Mrs. Coombe, and be very glad to
do it."

This was most satisfactory save for one small fact, namely that Miss
Milligan was not going to Detroit to-morrow. Mrs. Coombe thanked her
very much and raised her arm (which shook sadly) while Miss Milligan
pinned in the underarm seam.

"Even as it is," went on Miss Milligan, "I don't see why - a little
higher please, and turn a trifle to the light, thank you! - I don't see
why it can't be done. Nobody inspects my mail, thank heaven! and one
address is as good to a druggist as another."

What a bright idea! Strange that it had never occurred to Mrs. Coombe to
arrange things so easily. It was very, very clever and kind of Miss
Milligan to think of it. But - people might talk! Think how upset the
doctor would be if their innocent little plot were spoken of abroad.
People are so unkind, quite horrid in fact. And as Esther and the doctor
were doing it all for her good they would naturally hate to have their
actions misunderstood. Of course, Mrs. Coombe knew that Miss Milligan
herself would never mention it to a soul. She felt quite sure of that,
still - as it did not appear how the little plot could be spread abroad
under those circumstances unless the lay-figure in the corner should
become communicative, Mrs. Coombe's sentence remained plaintively
unfinished. Miss Milligan, in spite of its being so very unnecessary,
found herself promising solemnly never to mention it.

As the whole thing was entirely unpremeditated it seemed like a special
piece of good luck that Mrs. Coombe should have at that moment in her
pocket a note to the druggists (who were not called druggists, exactly)
and that all she needed to do was to add Miss Milligan's address, and
hand to that lady sufficient money to secure a postal note as an
enclosure. She did this very quickly and the whole little affair was
satisfactorily disposed of when Esther was seen coming hurriedly down
the street.

"I thought," said Esther, who entered a little out of breath and with a
worried pucker between her eyes, "I thought that I would just run in and
see how the linings look."

"You can never tell anything from linings," said Miss Milligan in an
injured tone. "Gracious! I don't suppose any one would ever want a dress
if they went by the way the linings look. I always advise my customers
never to look in the glass until I get to the material, what with seams
on the wrong side and all!"

"There is really nothing at all to see as yet," assented Mrs. Coombe
crossly.

Esther seated herself by the open window.

"Very well," she said quietly. "I won't look. I'll just wait."

Mrs. Coombe shrugged her shoulders and displaced a pin or two. There was
an injured look upon her face and Miss Milligan, replacing the pins,
wondered how it is that nice girls like Esther Coombe never see when
they're not wanted.

The fitting went quickly forward. Mrs. Coombe seemed to have lost all
her genial expansiveness. Miss Milligan's pins had overflowed from her
pin-cushion into her mouth and Esther, who appeared tired, gazed
steadily out of the window. Only the humming of the machines in the
adjoining workroom and the subdued talk and laughter of Miss Milligan's
young ladies saved the silence from becoming oppressive. Occasionally,
when her supply of pins became exhausted, Miss Milligan would
contribute a cooing murmur to the effect that it did "set beautiful
across the shoulders" or that "the long line over the hip was
quite elegant."

Without doubt the atmosphere had changed with the coming of Esther. Mrs.
Coombe became each moment more fidgety, she became, in fact, jerky! Her
hands twitched, her head twitched, she could not stand still and
suddenly she twitched herself out of Miss Milligan's hands altogether
and flinging herself into a chair declared that she couldn't stand any
more fitting that day. Even Miss Milligan's black currant eyes could see
that her nerves were terribly wrong - she looked ghastly, poor thing! And
all on account of a silly prejudice regarding patent medicines.

Esther, who exhibited no surprise at her mother's sudden collapse,
helped Miss Milligan to unpin the linings.

"My mother has been a little longer than usual without her tonic," she
calmly explained. "The other fittings can wait," and quickly, yet
without flurry, she found Mary's hat, bag, gloves and parasol and picked
up her handkerchief which she had flung upon the floor.

Mrs. Coombe accepted these services without thanks, indulging indeed in
a little spiteful laugh which Miss Milligan obligingly attributed to her
poor nerves. Things had come to a pretty pass indeed, thought the
sympathetic dressmaker, when a grown woman is obliged to have her
medicine chosen for her like a baby.

As she stood in the doorway watching the two ladies out of sight, a just
indignation grew within the breast so strongly fortified outside, so
vulnerable within; and without even waiting to call her giggling young


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