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When Hugh Elwyn reached the familiar turning whence he could see the Bellaiis' high house, time seemed to have slipped back.
The house was all lit up as it had been on that summer night seven years ago. Everything was the same—even to the heaped-up straw into which his half-reluctant feet now sank. There was even a doctor's carriage drawn up a little way from the front door, but this time it was a smart electric brougham.
He rang the bell, and as the door opened, Jim Bellair suddenly came into the hall, out of a room which Elwyn knew to be the smoking-room—a room in which he and Fanny had at one time spent long hours in contented, nay in ecstatic, dual solitude.
"I have come to inquire—I only heard tonight—" he began awkwardly, but the other cut him short, "Yes, yes, I understand—it's awfully good of you, Elwyn! I'm awfully glad to see you. Come in here—" and perforce he had to follow. "The doctor's upstairs—I mean Sir Joseph Pixton. Fanny was determined to have him, and he very kindly came, though of course he's nut a child's | | 120 doctor. He's annoyed because Fanny won't have trained nurses; but I don't suppose anything would make any difference. It's just a fight—a fight for the little chap's life—that's what it is, and we don't know yet who'll win."
He spoke in quick, short sentences, staring with widely open eyes at his erstwhile friend as he spoke. "Pneumonia—I suppose you don't know anything about it? I thought children never had such things, especially not in hot weather."
"I had a frightful illness when I was about your boy's age," said Elwyn eagerly. "It's the first thing I can really remember. They called it inflammation of the lungs. I was awfully bad. My mother talks of it now, sometimes."
"Does she?" Bellair spoke wearily. "If only one could do something," he went on. " But you see the worst of it is that I can do nothing—nothing! Fanny hates my being up there—she thinks it upsets the boy. He's such a jolly little chap, Hugo. You know we called him Peter after Fanny's father?"
Elwyn moved towards the door. He felt dreadfully moved by the other's pain. He told himself that after all he could do no good by staying, and he felt so ashamed, such a cur——| | 121
"You don't want to go away yet?" There was sharp chagrin, reproachful dismay, in Bellair's voice. Elwyn remembered that in old days Jim had always hated being alone. "Won't you stay and hear what Pixton says? Or—or are you in a hurry?"
Elwyn turned round. "Of course I'll stay," he said briefly.
Bellair spared him thanks, but he began walking about the room restlessly. At last he went to the door and set it ajar. "I want to hear when Sir Joseph comes down," he explained, and even as he spoke there came the sound of heavy, slow footsteps on the staircase.
Bellair went out and brought the great man in.
"I've told Mrs. Bellair that we ought to have Bewdley! He knows a great deal more about children than I can pretend to do; and I propose, with your leave, to go off now, myself, and if possible bring him back." The old doctor's keen eyes wandered as he spoke from Bellair's fair face to Hugh Elwyn's dark one "Perhaps," he said, "perhaps, Mr. Bellair, you would get someone to telephone to Dr. Bewdley's house to say that I'm coming? It might save a few moments."
As Bellair left the room, the doctor turned | | 122 to Elwyn and said abruptly, "I hope you'll be able to stay with your brother? All this is very hard on him; Mrs. Bellair will scarcely allow him into the child's room, and though that, of course, is quite right, I'm sorry for the man. He's wrapped up in the child."
And when Bellair came back from accompanying the old doctor to his carriage, there was a smile on his face—the first smile which had been there for a long time: "Pixton thinks you're my brother! He said, 'I hope your brother! will manage to stay with you for a bit.' Now I'll go up and see Fanny. Pixton is certainly more hopeful than the last man we had—"
Bellair's voice had a confident ring. Elwyn remembered with a pang that Jim had always been like that—always believed, that is, that the best would come to pass.
When left alone, Elwyn began walking restlessly up and down, much as his friend had walked up and down a few minutes ago. Something of the excitement of the fight going on above had entered into him; he now desired ardently that the child should live, should emerge victor from the grim struggle.
At last Bellair came back. "Fanny believes that this is the night of crisis," he said slowly. All the buoyancy had left his voice. "But— | | 123 but Elwyn, I hope you won't mind—the fact is she's set her heart on your seeing him. I told her what you told me about yourself, I mean your illness as a child, and it's cheered her up amazingly, poor girl! Perhaps you could tell her a little bit more about it, though I like to think that if the boy gets through it"—his voice broke suddenly—"she won't remember this—this awful time. But don't let's keep her waiting—" He took Elwyn's consent for granted, and quickly the two men walked up the stairs of the high house, on and on and on.
"It's a good way up," whispered Bellair, "but Fanny was told that a child's nursery couldn't be too high. So we had the four rooms at the top thrown into two."
They were now on the dimly-lighted landing. "Wait one moment—wait one moment, Hugo." Bellair's voice had dropped to a low, gruff whisper.
Elwyn remained alone. He could hear slight movements going on in the room into which Bellair had just gone;and then there also fell on his ears the deep, regular sound of snoring. Who could be asleep in the house at such a moment? The sound disturbed him; it seemed to add a touch of grostesque horror to the situation.| | 124
Suddenly the handle of the door in front of him moved round, and he heard Fanny Bellair's voice, unnaturally controlled and calm. "I sent Nanna to bed, Jim. The poor old creature was absolutely worn out. And then I would so much rather be alone when Sir Joseph brings back the other doctor. He admits—I mean Sir Joseph does—that to-night is the crisis."
The door swung widely open, and Elwyn, moving instinctively back, visualized the scene before him very distinctly.
There was a screen on the right hand, a screen covered, as had been the one in his own nursery, with a patchwork of pictures varnished over.
Mrs. Bellair stood between the screen and the pale blue wall. Her slim figure was clad in some sort of long white garment, and over it she wore an apron, which he noticed was far too large for her. Her hair, the auburn hair which had been her greatest beauty, and which he had once loved to praise and to caress, was fastened back, massed up in as small a compass as possible. That, and the fact that her face was expressionless, so altered her in Elwyn's eyes as to give him an uncanny feeling that the woman before him was not the woman he had known, had | | 125 loved, had left,—but a stranger, only bound to him by the slender link of a common humanity.
She waited some moments as if listening, then she came out on to the landing, and shut the door behind her very softly.
The sentence of conventional sympathy half formed on Elwyn's lips died into nothingness; as little could he have offered words of cheer to one who was being tortured; but in the dim light their hands met and clasped tightly.
"Hugo?" she said, "I want to ask you something. You told Jim just now that you were once very ill as a child,—ill like this, ill like my child. I want you to tell me honestly if that is true? I mean, were you very, very ill?"
He answered her in the same way, without preamble, baldly: "It is quite true," he said. "I was very ill—so ill that my mother for one moment thought that I was dead. But remember, Fanny, that in those days they did not know nearly as much as they do now. Your boy has two chances for every one that I had then."
"Would you mind coming in and seeing him?" Her voice faltered, it had become more human, more conventional, in quality.
"Of course I will see him," he said. "I | | 126 want to see him,—dear." She had suddenly become to him once more the thing nearest his heart; once more the link between them became of the closest, most intimate nature, and yet, or perhaps because of its intensity, the sense of nearness which had sprung at her touch into being was passionless.
The face which had been drained of all expression quickened into agonized feeling. She tried to withdraw her hand from his, but he held it firmly, and it was hand in hand that together they walked into the room.
As they came round the screen behind which lay the sick child, Bellair went over to the farthest of the three windows and stood there with crossed arms staring out into the night.
The little boy lay on his right side, and as they moved round to the edge of the large cot, Elwyn, with a sudden tightening of the throat, became aware that the child was neither asleep nor, as he in his ignorance had expected to find him, sunk in stupor or delirium. But the small, dark face, framed by the white pillow, was set in lines of deep, unchildlike gravity, and in the eyes which now gazed incuriously at Elwyn there was a strange, watchful light which seemed to illumine that which was within rather than that which was without.
As is always the case with a living creature | | 127 near to death, little Peter Bellair looked very lonely.
Then Elwyn, moving nearer still, seemed—or so at least Fanny Bellair will ever believe—to take possession of the moribund child, yielding him as he did so something of his own strength to help him through the crisis then imminent. And indeed the little creature whose forehead, whose clenched left hand lying on the sheet were beginning to glisten with sweat, appeared to become merged in some strange way with himself. Merged, not with the man was to-day, but with the Hugh Elwyn of thirty years back, who, as a lonely only child, had lived so intensely secret, imaginative a life, peopling the prim alleys of Hyde Park with fairies, imps, tricksy hobgoblins in whom he more than half believed, and longing even then, as ever after, for the unattainable, never carelessly happy as his father and mother believed him to be. . . .
Hugh Elwyn stayed with the Bellairs all that night. He shared the sick suspense the hour of the crisis brought, and he was present when the specialist said the fateful words, "I think, under God, this child will live."
When at last Elwyn left the house, clad in an old light coat of Bellair's in order that the folk early astir should not see that he was wearing | | 128 evening clothes, he felt happier, more light-hearted, than he had done for years.
His life had been like a crowded lumber-room, full of useless and worn-out things he had accounted precious, while he had ignored the one possession that really mattered and that linked him, not only with the future, but with the greatest reality of his past.
The inevitable pain which this suddenly discovered treasure was to bring was mercifully concealed from him, as also the sombre fact that he would henceforth go lonely all his life, perforce obliged to content himself with the crumbs of another man's feast. For Peter Bellair, high-strung, imaginative, as he will ever be, will worship the strong, kindly, simple man he believes to be his father, but to that dear father's friend he will only yield the careless affection born of gratitude for much kindness.
In the matter of the broken engagement, Hugh Elwyn was more fairly treated by the men and women whom the matter concerned, or who thought it concerned them, than are the majority of recusant lovers.
"Hugh Elwyn has never been quite the same since the war, and you know Winifred Fanshawe really liked the other man the | | 129 best," so said those who spent an idle moment in discussing the matter, and they generally added, "It's a good thing that he's spending the summer with his old friends, the Bellairs. They're living very quietly just now, for their little boy has been dreadfully ill, so it's just the place for poor old Hugo to get over it all!"
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