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A Silent Guardian by Robert Smythe Hichens

I

The door of the long, dreary room, with its mahogany chairs, its littered table, its motley crew of pale, silent people, opened noiselessly. A dreary, lean footman appeared in the aperture, bowing towards a corner where, in a recess near a forlorn, lofty window, sat a tall, athletic-looking man of about forty-five years of age, with a strong yet refined face, clean shaven, and short, crisp, dark hair. The tall man rose immediately, laying down an old number of Punch, and made his way out, watched rather wolfishly by the other occupants of the room. The door closed upon him, and there was a slight rustle and a hiss of whispering.

Two well-dressed women leaned to one another, the feathers in their hats almost mingling as they murmured: “Not much the matter with him, I should fancy.”

“He looks as strong as a horse; but modern men are always imagining themselves ill. He has lived too much, probably.”

They laughed in a suppressed ripple.

At the end of the room near the door, under the big picture of a grave man in a frock-coat, holding a double eye-glass tentatively in his right hand as if to emphasise an argument—a young girl bent towards her father, who said to her in a low voice:

“That man who has just left the room is Brune, the great sculptor.”

“Is he ill?” the girl asked.

“It seems so, since he is here.”

Then a silence fell again, broken only by the rustle of turned pages and the occasional uneasy shifting of feet.

       * * * * *

Meanwhile, in a small room across the hall, by a window through which the autumn sun streamed with a tepid brightness, Reginald Brune lay on a narrow sofa. His coat and waistcoat were thrown open; his chest was bared. Gerard Fane, the great discoverer of hidden diseases, raised himself from a bent posture, and spoke some words in a clear, even voice.

Brune lifted himself half up on his elbow, and began mechanically to button the collar of his shirt. His long fingers did not tremble, though his face was very pale.

He fastened the collar, arranged his loose tie, and then sat up slowly.

A boy, clanking two shining milk-cans, passed along the pavement, whistling a music-hall song. The shrill melody died down the street, and Brune listened to it until there was a silence. Then he looked up at the man opposite to him, and said, as one dully protesting, without feeling, without excitement:—

“But, doctor, I was only married three weeks ago.”

Gerard Fane gave a short upward jerk of the head, and said nothing. His face was calmly grave. His glittering brown eyes were fastened on his patient. His hands were loosely folded together.

Brune repeated, in a sightly raised voice:—

“I was married three weeks ago. It cannot be true.”

“I am here to tell the truth,” the other replied.

“But it is so—so ironic. To allow me to start a new life—a beautiful life—just as the night is coming. Why, it is diabolical; it is not just; the cruelty of it is fiendish.”

A spot of gleaming red stained each of the speaker's thin cheeks. He clenched his hands together, riveting his gaze on the doctor, as he went on:—

“Can't you see what I mean? I had no idea—I had not the faintest suspicion of what you say. And I have had a very hard struggle. I have been poor and quite friendless. I have had to fight, and I have lost much of the good in my nature by fighting, as we often do. But at last I have won the battle, and I have won more. I have won goodness to give me back some of my illusions. I had begun to trust life again. I had—”

He stopped abruptly. Then he said:—

“Doctor, are you married?”

“No,” the other answered; and there was a note of pity in his voice.

“Then you can't understand what your verdict means to me. Is it irrevocable?”

Gerard Fane hesitated.

“I wish I could hope not; but—”

“But—?”

“It is.”

Brune stood up. His face was quite calm now and his voice, when he spoke again, was firm and vibrating.

“I have some work that I should wish to finish. How long can you give me?”

“Three months.”

“One will do if my strength keeps up at all. Good-bye.”

There was a thin chink of coins grating one against the other. The specialist said:—

“I will call on you to-morrow, between four and five. I have more directions to give you. To-day my time is so much taken up. Good-bye.”

The door closed.

In the waiting-room, a moment later, Brune was gathering up his coat and hat.

The two ladies eyed him curiously as he took them and passed out.

“He does look a little pale, after all,” whispered one of them. A moment later he was in the street.

From the window of his consulting-room, Gerard Fane watched the tall figure striding down the pavement.

“I am sorry that man is going to die,” he said to himself.

And then he turned gravely to greet a new patient.

II

Gerard Fane's victoria drew up at the iron gate of No. 5 Ilbury Road, Kensington, at a quarter past four the following afternoon. A narrow strip of garden divided the sculptor's big red house from the road. Ornamental ironwork on a brick foundation closed it in. The great studio, with its huge windows and its fluted pillars, was built out at one end. The failing sunlight glittered on its glass, and the dingy sparrows perched upon the roof to catch the parting radiance as the twilight fell. The doctor glanced round him and thought, “How hard this man must have worked! In London this is a little palace.”

“Will you come into the studio, sir, please?” said the footman in answer to his summons. “Mr Brune is there at present.”

“Surely he cannot be working,” thought the doctor, as he followed the man down a glass-covered paved passage, and through a high doorway across which a heavy curtain fell. “If so, he must possess resolution almost more than mortal.”

He passed beyond the curtain, and looked round him curiously.

The studio was only dimly lit now, for daylight was fast fading. On a great open hearth, with dogs, a log-fire was burning; and beside it, on an old-fashioned oaken settle, sat a woman in a loose cream-coloured tea-gown. She was half turning round to speak to Reginald Brune, who stood a little to her left, clad in a long blouse, fastened round his waist with a band. He had evidently recently finished working, for his hands still bore evident traces of labour, and in front of him, on a raised platform, stood a statue that was not far from completion. The doctor's eyes were attracted from the woman by the log-fire, from his patient, by the lifeless, white, nude figure that seemed to press forward out of the gathering gloom. The sculptor and his wife had not heard him announced, apparently, for they continued conversing in low tones, and he paused in the doorway, strangely fascinated—he could scarcely tell why—by the marble creation of a dying man.

The statue, which was life size, represented the figure of a beautiful, grave youth, standing with one foot advanced, as if on the point of stepping forward. His muscular arms hung loosely; his head was slightly turned aside as in the attitude of one who listens for a repetition of some vague sound heard at a distance. His whole pose suggested an alert, yet restrained, watchfulness. The triumph of the sculptor lay in the extraordinary suggestion of life he had conveyed into the marble. His creature lived as many mollusc men never live. Its muscles seemed tense, its body quivering with eagerness to accomplish—what? To attack, to repel, to protect, to perform some deed demanding manfulness, energy, free, fearless strength.

“That marble thing could slay if necessary,” thought Gerard Fane, with a thrill of the nerves all through him that startled him, and recalled him to himself.

He stepped forward to the hearth quietly, and Brune turned and took him by the hand.

“I did not hear you,” the sculptor said. “The man must have opened the door very gently. Sydney, this is Dr Gerard Fane, who is kindly looking after me.”

The woman by the fire had risen, and stood in the firelight and the twilight, which seemed to join hands just where she was. She greeted the specialist in a girl's young voice, and he glanced at her with the furtive thought, “Does she know yet?”

She looked twenty-two, not more.

Her eyes were dark grey, and her hair was bronze. Her figure was thin almost to emaciation; but health glowed in her smooth cheeks, and spoke in her swift movements and easy gestures. Her expression was responsive and devouringly eager. Life ran in her veins with turbulence, never with calm. Her mouth was pathetic and sensitive, but there was an odd suggestion of almost boyish humour in her smile.

Before she smiled, Fane thought, “She knows.”

Afterwards, “She cannot know.”

“Have you a few moments to spare?” Brune asked him. “Will you have tea with us?”

Fane looked at Mrs Brune and assented. He felt a strange interest in this man and this woman. The tragedy of their situation appealed to him, although he lived in a measure by foretelling tragedies. Mrs Brune touched an electric bell let into the oak-panelled wall, and her husband drew a big chair forward to the hearth.

As he was about to sit down in it, Gerard Fane's eyes were again irresistibly drawn towards the statue; and a curious fancy, born, doubtless, of the twilight that invents spectres and of the firelight that evokes imaginations, came to him, and made him for a moment hold his breath.

It seemed to him that the white face menaced him, that the white body had a soul, and that the soul cried out against him.

His hand trembled on the back of the chair. Then he laughed to himself at the absurd fancy, and sat down.

“Your husband has been working?” he said to Mrs Brune.

“Yes, all the day. I could not tempt him out for even five minutes. But then, he has had a holiday, as he says, although it was only a fortnight. That was not very long for—for a honeymoon.”

As she said the last sentence she blushed a little, and shot a swift, half-tender, half-reproachful glance at her husband. But he did not meet it; he only looked into the fire, while his brows slightly contracted.

“I think Art owns more than half his soul,” the girl said, with the flash of a smile. “He only gives to me the fortnights and to Art the years.”

There was a vague jealousy in her voice; but then the footman brought in tea, and she poured it out, talking gaily.

From her conversation, Fane gathered that she had no idea of her husband's condition. With a curious and fascinating naturalness she spoke of her marriage, of her intentions for the long future.

“If Reginald is really seedy, Dr Fane,” she said, “get him well quickly, that he may complete his commissions. Because, you know, he has promised, when they are finished, to take me to Italy, and to Greece, to the country of Phidias, whose mantle has fallen upon my husband.”

“Do not force Dr Fane into untruth,” said Brune, with an attempt at a smile.

“And is that statue a commission?” Fane asked, indicating the marble figure, that seemed to watch them and to listen.

“No; that is an imaginative work on which I have long been engaged. I call it, 'A Silent Guardian.'”

“It is very beautiful,” the doctor said. “What is your idea exactly? What is the figure guarding?”

Brune and his wife glanced at one another—he gravely, she with a confident smile.

Then he said, “I leave that to the imagination.”

Dr Fane looked again at the statue, and said slowly, “You have wrought it so finely that in this light my nerves tell me it is alive.”

Mrs Brune looked triumphant.

“All the world would feel so if they could see it,” she said; “but it is not to be exhibited. That is our fancy—his and mine. And now I will leave you together for a few minutes. Heal him of his ills, Dr Fane, won't you?”

She vanished through the door at the end of the studio. The two men stood together by the hearth.

“She does not know?” Fane asked.

The other leaned his head upon his hand, which was pressed against the oak mantelpiece.

“I am too cowardly to tell her,” he said in a choked voice. “You must.”

“And when?”

“To-day.”

There was a silence. Then, in his gravest professional manner, Fane gave some directions, and wrote others down, while the sculptor looked into the dancing fire. When Fane had finished:—

“Shall I tell her now?” he asked gently.

Brune nodded without speaking. His face looked drawn and contorted as he moved towards the door. His emotion almost strangled him, and the effort to remain calm put a strain upon him that was terrible.

Gerard Fane was left alone for a moment—alone with the statue whose personality, it seemed to him, pervaded the great studio. In its attitude there was a meaning, in its ghost-like face and blind eyes a resolution of intention, that took possession of his soul. He told himself that it was lifeless, inanimate, pulseless, bloodless marble; that it contained no heart to beat with love or hate, no soul to burn with impulse or with agony; that its feet could never walk, its hands never seize or slay, its lips never utter sounds of joy or menace. Then he looked at it again, and he shuddered.

“I am over-working,” he said to himself; “my nerves are beginning to play me tricks. I must be careful.”

And he forcibly turned his thoughts from the marble that could never feel to the man and woman so tragically circumstanced, and to his relation towards them.

A doctor is so swiftly plunged into intimacy with strangers. To the sculptor it was as if Fane held the keys of the gates of life and death for him; as if, during that quarter of an hour in the consulting-room, the doctor had decided, almost of his own volition, that death should cut short a life of work and of love. And even to Fane himself it seemed as if his fiat had precipitated, even brought about, a tragedy that appealed to his imagination with peculiar force. His position towards this curiously interesting girl was strange. He had seen her for a quarter of an hour only, and now it was his mission to cause her the most weary pain that she might, perhaps, ever know. The opening of the studio door startled him, and his heart, that usually beat so calmly, throbbed almost with violence as Mrs Brune came up to him.

“What is it?” she asked, facing him, and looking him full in the eyes with a violence of interrogation that was positively startling. “What is it you have to tell me? Reginald says you have ordered him to keep quiet—that you wish me to help you in—in something. Is he ill? May he not finish his commissions?”

“He is ill,” said Gerard Fane, with a straightforward frankness that surprised himself.

She kept her eyes on his face.

“Very ill?”

“Sit down,” the doctor said, taking her hands and gently putting her into a chair.

With the rapidity of intellect peculiar to women, she heard in those two words the whole truth. Her head drooped forward. She put out her hands as if to implore Fane's silence.

“Don't speak,” she murmured. “Don't say it; I know.”

He looked away. His eyes rested on the statue that made a silent third in their sad conference. How its attitude suggested that of a stealthy listener, bending to hear the more distinctly! Its expressionless eyes met his, and was there not a light in them? He knew there was not, yet he caught himself saying mentally:—

“What does he think of this?” and wondering about the workings of a soul that did not, could not, exist.

Presently the girl moved slightly, and said:—

“He only knew this for certain yesterday?”

“Only yesterday.”

“Ah! but he must have suspected it long ago,”—she pointed towards the statue—“when he began that.”

“I don't understand,” Fane said. “What can that marble have to do with his health or illness?”

“When we first began to love each other,” she said, “he began to work on that. It was to be his marriage gift to me, my guardian angel. He told me he would put all his soul into it, and that sometimes he fancied, if he died before me, his soul would really enter into that statue and watch over and guard me. 'A Silent Guardian' he has always called it. He must have known.”

“I do not think so,” Fane said. “It was impossible he should.”

The girl stood up. The tears were running over her face now. She turned towards the statue.

“And he will be cold—cold like that!” she cried in a heart-breaking voice. “His eyes will be blind and his hands nerveless, and his voice silent.”

She suddenly swayed and fainted into Fane's arms. He held her a moment; and when he laid her down, a reluctance to let the slim form, lifeless though it was, slip out of his grasp, came upon him. He remembered the previous day, the doomed man going down the street—his thought as he looked from the window of his consulting-room, “I am sorry that man is going to die.”

Now, as he leant over the white girl, he whispered, forming the very words with his lips, “I am not sorry.”

And the statue seemed to bend and to listen.

III

Six weeks passed away. Winter was deepening. Through the gloom and fog that shrouded London, Christmas approached, wrapped in seasonable snow. The dying man had finished his work, and a strange peace stole over him. Now, when he suffered, when his body shivered and tried to shrink away, as if it felt the cold hands of death laid upon it, he looked at the completed statue, and found he could still feel joy. There had always been in his highly-strung, sensitive nature an element, so fantastic that he had ever striven to conceal it, of romance; and in his mind, affected by constant pain, by many sleepless nights, grew the curious idea that his life, as it ebbed away from him, entered into his creation. As he became feeble, he imagined that the man he had formed towered above him in more God-like strength, that light flowed into the sightless eyes, that the marble muscles were tense with vigour, that a soul was born in the thing which had been soulless. The theory, held by so many, of re-incarnation upon earth, took root in his mind, and he came to believe that, at the moment of death, he would pass into his work and live again, unconscious, it might be, of his former existence. He loved the statue as one might love a breathing man; but he seldom spoke of his fancies, even to Sydney.

Only, he sometimes said to her, pointing to his work:—

“You will never be alone, unprotected, while he is there.”

And she tried to smile through the tears she could not always keep back.

Gerard Fane was often with them. He sunk the specialist in the friend, and not a day passed without a visit from him to the great studio, in which the sculptor and his wife almost lived.

He was unwearied in his attendance upon the sick man, unwavering in his attempts to soothe his sufferings. But, in reality, and almost against his will, the doctor numbered each breath his patient drew, noted with a furious eagerness each sign of failing vitality, bent his ear to catch every softest note in the prolonged diminuendo of this human symphony.

When Fane saw Mrs Brune leaning over her husband, touching the damp brow with her cool, soft fingers, or the dry, parched lips with her soft, rosy lips, he turned away in a sick fury, and said to himself:—

“He is dying, he is dying. It will soon be over.”

For with a desperate love had entered into him a desperate jealousy, and even while he ministered to Brune he hated him.

And the statue, with blind eyes, observed the drama enacted by those three people, the two men and the woman, till the curtain fell and one of the actors made his final exit.

Fane's nerves still played him tricks sometimes. He could not look at the statue without a shudder; and while Brune imaginatively read into the marble face love and protection, the doctor saw there menace and hatred. He came to feel almost jealous of the statue, because Sydney loved it and fell in with her husband's fancy that his life was fast ebbing into and vitalising the marble limbs, that his soul would watch her from the eyes that were now without expression and thought.

When Fane entered the studio, he always involuntarily cast a glance at the white figure—at first, a glance of shuddering distaste, then, as he acknowledged to himself his love for Sydney, a glance of defiance, of challenge.

One evening, after a day of many appointments and much mental stress and strain, he drove up to Ilbury Road, was admitted, and shown as usual into the studio. He found it empty. Only the statue greeted him silently in the soft lamplight, that scarcely accomplished more than the defining of the gloom.

“My master is upstairs, sir,” said the footman. “I will tell him you are here.”

In a moment Sydney entered, with a lagging step and pale cheeks. Without thinking of the usual polite form of greeting, she said to Fane, “He is much worse to-day. There is a change in him, a horrible change. Dr Fane, just now when I was talking to him it seemed to me that he was a long way off. I caught hold of his hands to reassure myself. I held them. I heard him speaking, but it was as if his words came from a distance. What does it mean? He is not—he is not—”

She looked the word he could not speak.

Fane made her sit down.

“I will go to him immediately,” he said. “I may be able to do something.”

“Yes, go—do go!” she exclaimed with feverish excitement.

Then suddenly she sprang up, and seizing his hands with hers, she said in a piercing voice: “You are a great doctor. Surely—surely you can keep this one life for me a little longer.”

As they stood, Fane was facing the statue, which was at her back, and while she spoke his eyes were drawn from the woman he loved to the marble thing he senselessly hated. It struck him that a ghastly change had stolen over it. A sudden flicker of absolute life surely infused it, quickened it even while she spoke, stole through the limbs one by one, welled up to the eyes as light pierces from a depth, flowed through all the marble. A pulse beat in the dead, cold heart. A mind rippled into the rigid, watching face. There was no absolute movement, and yet there was the sense of stir. Fane, absorbed in horror, seemed to watch an act of creation, to see life poured from some invisible and unknown source into the bodily chamber that had been void and dark.

Motionless he saw the statue dead; motionless he saw the statue live.

He drew his hands from Sydney's. He was too powerfully impressed to speak, but she looked up into his face, turned, and followed his eyes.

She, too, observed the change, for her lips parted, and a wild amazement shone in her eyes. Then she touched Fane's arm, and whispered, rather in awe than in horror, “Go—go to him. See if anything has happened. I will stay and watch here.”

With a hushed tread Fane left the studio, passed through the hall, ascended the stairs to the sculptor's room. Outside the door he hesitated for a moment. He was trembling. He heard a clock ticking within. It sounded very loud, like a hammer beating in his ears. He pushed the door open at length, and entered. Brune's tall figure was sitting in an armchair, bowed over a table on which lay an open Art magazine.

His head lay hidden on his arms, which were crossed.

Fane raised the face and turned it up towards him.

It was the face of a dead man.

He looked at it, and smiled.

Then he stole down again to the studio, where Sydney was still standing.

“Yes?” she said interrogatively, as he entered.

“He is dead,” Fane answered.

She only bowed her head, as if in assent. She stood a moment, then she turned her tearless eyes to him, and said:—

“Why could not you save him?”

“Because I am human,” Fane answered.

“And we did not say good-bye,” she said.

Fane was strung up. Conflicting feelings found a wild playground in his soul. His nerves were in a state of abnormal excitement, and something seemed to let go in him—the something that holds us back, normally, from mad follies. He suddenly caught Sydney's hand, and in a choked voice said:—

“He is dead. Think a little of the living.”

She looked at him, wondering.

“Think of the living that love you. He neither hates nor loves any more. Sydney! Sydney!”

As she understood his meaning she wrung her hand out of his, and said, as one trying to clear the road for reason:—

“You love me, and he bought you to keep him alive. Why, then—”

A sick, white change came over her face.

“Sydney! Sydney!” he said.

“Why, then he bought death from you. Ah!”

She put her hand on the bell, and kept it there till the servant hurried in.

“Show Dr Fane out,” she said. “He will not come here again.”

And Fane, seeing the uselessness of protest, ready to strike himself for his folly, went without a word. Only, as he went, he cast one look at the statue. Was there not the flicker of a smile in its marble eyes?

IV

People said Dr Gerard Fane was over-working, that he was not himself. His manner to patients was sometimes very strange, brusque, impatient, intolerant. A brutality stole over him, and impressed the world that went to him for healing very unfavourably. The ills of humanity rendered him now sarcastic instead of pitiful, a fatal attitude of mind for a physician to adopt; and he was even known to pronounce on sufferers sentence of death with a callous indifference that was inhuman as well as impolitic. As the weeks went by, his reception-room became less crowded than of old. There were even moments in his day when he had leisure to sit down and think, to give a rein to his mood of impotent misery and despair. Sydney had never consented to receive him again. Woman-like—for she could be extravagantly yet calmly unreasonable—she had clung to the idea that Fane had hastened, if not actually brought about, her husband's death by his treatment. She made no accusation. She simply closed her doors upon him. She had a horror of him, which never left her.

Again and again Fane called. She was always denied to him. Then he met her in the street. She cut him. He spoke to her. She passed on without a reply. At last a dull fury took possession of him. Her treatment of him was flagrantly unjust. He had wished the sculptor to die, but he had allowed nature to accomplish her designs unaided, even to some extent hampered and hindered by his medical skill and care. He loved Sydney with the violence of a man whose emotions had been sedulously repressed through youth, vanquished but not killed by ambition, and the need to work for the realisation of that ambition. The tumults of early manhood, never given fair play, now raged in his breast, from which they should have been long since expelled, and played havoc with every creed of sense, and every built-up theory of wisdom and experience. Fane became by degrees a monomaniac.

He brooded incessantly over his developed but starved passion, over the thought that Sydney chose to believe him a murderer. At first, when he was trying day after day to see her, he clung to his love for her; but when he found her obdurate, set upon wronging him in her thought, his passion, verging towards despair, changed, and was coloured with hatred. By degrees he came to dwell more upon the injury done to him by her suspicion than upon his love of her, and then it was that a certain wildness crept into his manner, and alarmed or puzzled those who consulted him.

That his career was going to the dogs Fane understood, but he did not care. The vision of Sydney was always before him. He was for ever plotting and planning to be with her alone—against her will or not, it was nothing to him. And when he was alone with her, what then?

He would know how to act.

It was just in the dawn of the spring season over London that further inaction became insupportable to him. One evening, after a day of listless inactivity spent in waiting for the patients who no longer came in crowds to his door, he put on his hat and walked from Mayfair to Kensington, vaguely, yet with intention. He looked calm, even absent; but he was a desperate man. All fear of what the world thinks or says, all consideration of outward circumstances and their relation to worldly happiness, had died within him. He was entirely abstracted and self-centred.

He reached the broad thoroughfare of Ilbury Road, with its line of artistic red houses, detached and standing in their gardens. The darkness was falling as he turned into it and began to walk up and down opposite the house with the big studio in which he was once a welcome visitor. There was a light in one of the bedroom windows and in the hall, and presently, as Fane watched, a brougham drove up to the door. It waited a few moments before the house, then some one entered the carriage. The door was banged; the horse moved on. Through the windows Fane saw a woman's face, pale, against the pane. It was the face of Sydney. For a moment he thought he would call to the coachman to stop. Then he restrained himself, and again walked up and down, waiting. She must return presently. He would speak to her as she was getting out of the carriage. He would force her to receive him.

Towards nine o'clock his plans were altered by an event which took place. The house door opened, and the footman came out with a handful of letters for the post. The pillar-box was very near, and the man carelessly left the hall door on the jar while he walked down the road. Fane caught a glimpse of the hall that he knew so well. A step, and he could be in the house. He hesitated. He looked down the road. The man had his back turned, and was putting the letters into the box. Fane slipped into the garden, up the steps, through the door. The hall was empty. At his right was the passage leading to the studio. He stole down it, and tried the door. It opened. In the darkness the heavy curtain blew against his face. In another instant he closed the door softly at his back, and stood alone in the wide space and the blackness. Here there was not a glimmer of light. Thick curtains fell over the windows. No fire burned upon the hearth. There was no sound except when a carriage occasionally rolled down the road, and even then the wheels sounded distant.

The silence and darkness had their effect upon Fane. He had done a desperate thing; but, until he found himself alone in the vacant studio, he had not fully realised the madness of his conduct, and how it would appear to the world. After the first moments of solitude had passed he came to himself a little, and half opened the door with the intention of stealing out; but he heard steps in the hall, and shrank back again like a guilty creature. He must wait, at least, until the household retired to rest.

And, waiting, the old, haunting thoughts came back to assail him once more. He began to brood over Sydney's cruel treatment of him, over her vile suspicions. Here, in the atmosphere which he knew so well—for a faint, strange perfume always lingered about the studio, and gave to it the subtle sense of life which certain perfumes can impart—his emotions were gradually quickened to fury. He recalled the days of his intimacy with the sculptor, of his unrestrained converse with Sydney. He recalled his care for the invalid, persevered in, despite his passion, to the end. And then his thought fastened upon the statue, which, strange to say, he had almost forgotten.

The statue!

It must be there, with him, in the darkness, staring with those white eyes in which he had seen a soul flicker.

As the recollection of it came to him, he trembled, leaning against the wall.

He was in one of those states of acute mental tension in which the mind becomes so easily the prey of the wildest fantasies, and slowly, laboriously, he began to frame a connection between the lifeless marble creature and his own dreary trouble.

Because of one moment of folly Sydney treated him as a pariah, as a criminal. Her gentle nature had been transformed suddenly.

By what subtle influence?

Fane remembered the day of his first visit to Ilbury Road, and his curious imagination that the statue recognised and hated him.

Had that hatred prompted action? Was there a devil lurking in the white, cold marble to work his ruin? When Sydney sent him out of her presence for ever, the watching face had seemed to smile.

Fane set his teeth in the darkness. He was no longer sane. He was possessed. The tragedy of thought within him invited him to the execution of another tragedy. He stretched out his hand with the rehearsing action of one meditating a blow.

His hand fell upon an oak table that stood against the wall, and hit on something smooth and cold. It was a long Oriental dagger that the dead sculptor had brought from the East. Fane's fingers closed on it mechanically. The frigid steel thrilled his hot palm, and a pulse in his forehead started beating till there was a dull, senseless music in his ears that irritated him.

He wanted to listen for the return of Sydney's carriage.

His soul was ablaze with defiance. He was alone in the darkness with his enemy; the cold, deadly, blind, pulseless thing that yet was alive; the silent thing that had yet whispered malign accusations of him to the woman he loved; the nerveless thing that poisoned a beautiful mind against him, that stole the music from his harp of life and let loose the winds upon his summer.

His fingers closed more tightly, more feverishly upon the slippery steel.

Sydney actually thought, or strove to think, him a criminal. What if he should earn the title? A sound as of the sea beating was in his ears, and flashes of strange light seem to leap to his vision. What would a man worth the name do to his enemy?

And he and his enemy were shut up alone together.

He drew himself up straight and steadied himself against the wall, peering through the blackness in the direction of the statue.

And, as he did so, there seemed to steal into the atmosphere the breath of another living presence. He could fancy he heard the pulse of another heart beating near to his. The sensation increased upon him powerfully until suspicion grew into conviction.

His intention had subtly communicated itself to the thing he could not see.

He knew it was on guard.

There was no actual sound, no movement, but the atmosphere became charged by degrees with a deadly, numbing cold, like the breath of frost in the air. A chill ran through Fane's blood. A sluggish terror began to steal over him, folding him for the moment in a strange inertia of mind and of body. A creeping paralysis crawled upon his senses, like the paralysis of nightmare that envelops the dreamer. He opened his lips to speak, but they chattered soundlessly. Mechanically his hand clutched the thin, sharp steel of the dagger.

His enemy—then Sydney.

He would not be a coward. He struggled against the horror that was upon him.

And still the cold increased, and the personality of Fane's invisible companion seemed to develop in power. There was a sort of silent violence in the hidden room, as if a noiseless combat were taking place. Waves of darkness were stirred into motion; and Fane, as a man is drawn by the retreating tides of the sea out and away, was drawn from the wall where he had been crouching.

He stole along the floor, the dagger held in his right hand, his heart barely beating, his lips white—nearer, nearer to his enemy.

He counted each step, until he was enfolded in the inmost circle of that deadly frost emanating from the blackness before him.

Then, with a hoarse cry, he lifted his arm and sprang forward and upward, dashing the dagger down as one plunging it through a human heart.

The cry died suddenly into silence.

There was the sound of a heavy fall.

It reached the ears of the servants below stairs.

The footman took a light, and, with a scared face, went hesitatingly to the studio door, paused outside and listened while the female servants huddled in the passage.

The heavy silence succeeding the strange sound appalled them, but at length the man thrust the door open and peered in.

The light from the candle flickered merrily upon Fane's bowed figure, huddled face downwards upon the floor.

His neck was broken.

The statue, that was the dead sculptor's last earthly achievement, stood as if watching over him. But it was no longer perfect and complete.

Some splinters of marble had been struck from the left breast, and among them, on the smooth parquet, lay a bent Oriental dagger.

 
 
 

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