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Chapter Seventeen WE STAND AT THE CROSS-ROADS
The next day we procured a specialist from Los Angeles to come out and examine Helen. He was an elderly man with white hair and whiskers, together with what I thought were objectionably brusque manners. I was partly reassured by the speed and skill with which he worked—"the old devil is efficient for all his rudeness," I thought. I had a documentary history of the case, prepared by our doctor in London. This I gave him. He stuffed it into his pocket without so much as glancing at it. He spoke sharply once or twice to Miss Brock because that young woman did not move quickly enough to suit him. To Helen he said almost nothing beyond asking a half dozen brief questions. When he had finished—he was about an hour at it, all told—he turned to me and said: "Come to my office tomorrow, Mister—let's see, what is your name? ah, yes, Jevons"—(consulting his note-book). "I'll give you my opinion of your wife's case then. Here's the card of a local doctor—a good man. Use him. I'll come out again, if you wish or your doctor sends for me. Good morning." He was off without waiting for further reply.

"Ted, he's a beast," Helen exclaimed. "Don't let him near me."

I tried to explain that a great scientist and expert perhaps lost, in time, some of his human touch. His reputation we knew to be supreme in his field; it was best to take him as we found him.

"I shan't worry about his manners, sweetheart, while he is curing you," I concluded.

I went in to Los Angeles the next morning to call at the doctor's office. The waiting room was full of all sorts and conditions of men and women, seated on chairs around the four walls. I stood, for there were no more empty chairs. A young lady, the doctor's secretary, took my card and laid it on her desk.

"The doctor is engaged just now," she said. More arrived, but none was shown into the doctor's office. I stood, my heart beating wildly, almost frenzied by the delay. The door opened, and the old physician looked into his waiting room. He beckoned to a lady in a far corner. She arose and went toward him. In my anxiety, I forgot all etiquette.

"Doctor!" I pleaded. "One moment."

"What is it?" he turned, vexed. "Can't you wait your turn?"

"Just a word and then I'll wait all day, if necessary."

"Well?"

"My wife—you examined her yesterday—can you tell me—?" I stumbled over my words.

"Let's see—what name?"

"Mrs. Jevons," I answered.

"Oh, yes, Mr. Jevons—that case." He spoke in a loud tone of voice. All the waiting room was listening.

"There's absolutely no hope, Mr. Jevons. I don't think she will live three months. Good morning."

"No—no—hope! Doctor!" I knew my voice was breaking, and I could feel the eyes of all those sitting there upon me.

"You came too late," he said. "What's the use of coming out here with a case in its last stages? There's no hope."

He went into his room, followed by the woman patient, and banged the door. I stood stunned, dazed, so weak I did not trust myself to take a step; and still the eyes from all around the room stared at me. "You God damned brute!" I muttered under my breath, "God damn your dirty soul!" and staggered toward the doctor's closed door. Then I paused. "After all," I thought, "why should we matter to him?" A great rage against the others sitting there seized me. Had they no decency to stare at me like that? I stiffened. "I won't give them any more show for their money, the loathsome hounds," and I went to the secretary's desk to pay the fee. I was surprised to note that I counted out the bills with a steady hand. She handed me a receipt.

"I am sorry, Mr. Jevons," she said, so the others could not hear.

I looked at her blankly a moment. "Thank you."

In the street I had to lean against the wall of an office building for a time, for there was no strength in my legs. A policeman came from the centre of the street.

"What's the matter, young fellow? Sick?"

"Just a momentary faintness," I answered. "I'm all right, really."

"Well, go in there and get yourself a drink."

I saw him pointing with his club at a nearby café. I got there somehow and sat down at a little table.

"What's yours, bud?" the bartender called with a great assumption of joviality.

"A glass of sherry," I gasped. He brought it and set it before me. I saw him preparing for a pleasant chat.

"I'm very sorry," I said, "but would you mind not talking to me? I—I've got some business to think out."

"Oh, have it your own way," he replied, deeply offended, and returned behind his bar.

There was just one problem in my mind. What was I to say to Helen? Should I tell her the truth? Ought I to tell her? Three months, or less, the doctor had said. Could I make her happy for those three months? Was that not better than telling her? But would she guess? Could I keep it from her? Should I be able to play my part? Back and forth these questions raced in my mind. No answer came, for either choice seemed wrong. Helen and I did not lie to each other. But this was a different kind of lie from any mere vulgar deception. Had she the right to know?

"Say, if you're going to sit there all day, how about a little action?"—this from the bartender.

"Oh, hell," I exclaimed, "bring me anything you like—or have it yourself on me."

"Thanks, I'll take half a dozen cigars," he said, rattling a box. "Damned if you aren't a queer guy. From the East, I guess."

"Yes—but please do me the favour to keep still."

"I'm not trying to butt in on nobody," he muttered, aggrieved again. "And I'm good enough to talk to any stuck-up Eastern guy that comes along."

As I disappointed him by ignoring this last remark, he took refuge in polishing glasses. I was conscious of a distant rumbling inside him from time to time. But I did not dare go back to Helen until I had got control of myself again. Furthermore, I must make up my mind about what I was to tell her. There seemed no way in which I could force my thoughts into an orderly arrangement. Little glimpses of our life together—of all we had done and planned in the last four years—kept interposing themselves between me and the present. "Helen—Helen—my Helen—my wife," was ceaselessly echoing inside my head. Finally a resolve came to me. "I can't tell her," I said to myself—"right or wrong, I can't."

I went to the telegraph office and sent a message to Mr. Claybourne. Then I took the long journey back to our bungalow. Helen was sitting on the verandah when I got there, the baby riding a hobby-horse near her, and Miss Brock reading aloud. Helen's face was thin now, but she had lost none of her delicate beauty. I went up to her and kissed her.

"What did the doctor say, Ted dear? How long you have been."

"He says it is all right, sweetheart. I am bringing good news." I wondered that the lie did not choke me.

"Honour bright, Ted?" she exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. It was our one oath of truthfulness that she demanded of me. Never before had I violated it.

"Honour bright, Helen precious."

"Ted, isn't it glorious! I feel better already. Will it be in June?"

I kneeled in front of her chair and hid my face in her lap.

"Why, Ted! I believe you are crying!"

I clung to her hand.

"Dear old boy, Ted. I love you," she leaned over me and whispered.

The local practitioner confirmed the opinion of Dr. Krehstadt, the specialist. He and I, with Miss Brock, held a council-of-war while Helen was taking her afternoon nap next day.

"Why in the name of heaven did the doctors in London and New York talk so optimistically to us?" I asked him, for he was a pleasant-spoken young man with friendly blue eyes. He shrugged.

"Perhaps," he hazarded, "they thought it important to keep your courage up. Or it is possible"—and he hesitated—"I hate to say this of my colleagues—yet it may be they wished to pass you along. I don't say it was the reason in your case, Mr. Jevons, but I have known it to have been done with other tubercular cases sent out here."

"What have you thought, Miss Brock?" I turned to the trained nurse. She was a level-headed, taciturn person, with a quiet way of always doing her work exactly as expected of her. It suddenly occurred to me I had not asked her opinion before.

"I have had a good deal of experience with tuberculosis patients, Mr. Jevons. I confess I have been worried about Mrs. Jevons since I first came into the case."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Well, Mr. Jevons—I'm not a doctor. It's not my business to offer opinions or to make a diagnosis. Besides, Mr. Jevons—seeing you with Mrs. Jevons every day, who could tell you? I've seen a lot of death and suffering in my hospital work—I thought I was callous. I guess I'm not."

A grey cloud caught on the summit of one of the mountains and spread along below the topmost ridge. I watched it slowly blotting out the crest of the range.

"Do you object if I smoke?" the doctor inquired.

"No—pray do," I said. I felt tired, old—as if youth had suddenly left me. Miss Brock got up and went into the house.

"Doctor," I pleaded again. "Is there anything we can try—however new or experimental—whatever the risk, as long as it offers just one chance—one?"

He shook his head. "I know of nothing, Mr. Jevons, that will cause new lung tissue to grow."

I knew my question was hopeless; I had read the best medical works on tuberculosis since this had come to Helen, but one struggles for a gleam of hope to the end.

"She has had no pain—or very little; no h?morrhages. That, too, misled us."

"There are many cases like your wife's," the doctor said. "Simply a gradual wasting away and loss of strength."

"I can't reason it out, doctor. It isn't fair."

He shifted in his chair, knocking the ash from his cigar.

"If you were a doctor, Mr. Jevons, you would come across a lot of things you couldn't reason out—that aren't fair. But they happen."

"Yes," I said. "I suppose, like everybody, we think our own case the only important one in the world. But it does not make it any easier to know there are others suffering as we suffer. I am not fond of seeking that kind of sympathy. I say it's a damned unfair thing all round."

"I'm afraid, Mr. Jevons, that Nature cares nothing for the individual."

The doctor threw away his cigar and held out his hand.

"I'll look in every day, Mr. Jevons—but there isn't much I can do."

"How long?" I faltered, as he went toward his horse and buggy.

"It's hard to say—something depends, of course, on her natural vitality." He stood, choosing words. "I don't believe you will lose her until after Christmas."

The word rang in my head, as I watched him drive away.

How many Christmas days had we planned, years ago in Deep Harbor? And now—I could think no longer.

Miss Brock appeared in the door. "Mrs. Jevons is awake. She wants to see you."

"I'm coming." My Helen—my Helen—I could feel the blood beating against my temples on the way to her tent.

November, the beginning of December—I checked the days off. Helen could not stir from her chair now—the dark circles were deepening under the grey eyes—the cheeks that once glowed on horseback in the winter fields of Hertfordshire were white and drawn in the warm California sunshine.

It was pain, agony, to look at her, and yet I laughed and joked with her, between our love-making, as we had always done. For, strangest thing of all, Helen thought she was getting better. The first day she discovered that walking was too great an effort, I was terror-stricken, thinking, "Now she will guess." But no, she attributed it merely to some passing phase—to being overtired—and her gentle good humour and faith were as steadfast as ever. She noticed that she coughed more, and that the coughing spells left her exhausted. Nevertheless she attributed even that to the normal progress of the disease toward its cure. Thus each day made it more certain than ever that I could not tell her the truth.

There were many nights that I lay awake in our tent, beside Helen, and fought this question over again and again. To this day I have not found the answer. Would she have more directions to give me about the baby, if she knew, I wondered? and several times this thought nearly forced me to speak. Would it be right to let her leave her baby without a word about her future? Then, when morning came, Helen would talk to me about going home in June, or make plans for doing something to our house in Hertfordshire, and I could not speak.

Christmas day came, after great preparations on our part to observe it as we always had. There was a tree for the baby, and I ransacked Los Angeles for things to please Helen, or other trifles to make her laugh. The coloured genius of the kitchen cooked a marvellous turkey. We had a plum pudding all the way from England. Dinner was served on a little table before Helen's tent. Miss Brock allowed Helen to eat some of the white meat of the turkey. Hand in hand Helen and I sat watching the baby's joy in her heap of new toys.

"Our Christmas, Ted. It's our day," Helen whispered, her cheek against mine—her old trick when she was happy or pleased. "Do look at baby, Ted. Isn't she a darling?"

"Mummy dear, Santa Claus brought me a real paint-box, an' brushes, an' pencils, an' paper, an' a book to paint in."

"Isn't that wonderful! Show mummy all your presents."

Baby began bringing them up, one by one, laying them in rows at her mother's feet. A telegraph boy arrived. I snatched the message from him. I had wired Mr. Claybourne a day or two before that time was nearly up. He had foreseen that Helen might read it.

"Coming with mother for a Christmas visit. We leave tomorrow. Love to you three." I showed it to Helen.

"How nice of dad, Ted! I'm so glad he's going to take a holiday. Why didn't they plan to be here today?"

Soon after, she went to sleep, and I sat at her feet, thinking of Christmas. At five the doctor dropped in. I saw Miss Brock talking aside with him by his buggy.

"Don't wake her yet," he said, and led me around to the front verandah. I knew what he meant.

"It may be tonight or tomorrow, Mr. Jevons," he began, as he took his chair. "Miss Brock reports that she has grown markedly weaker in the last twenty-four hours. The excitement of Christmas was not good for her, but I did not want to deprive her of that pleasure. I can stay, if you wish it. There is nothing, however, that I can do. Miss Brock is most competent. I shall be within call, in any event."

"Her father and mother are leaving Deep Harbor tomorrow."

"They will be too late." He said it quite gently, laying his hand upon my knee. I could see him watching me narrowly.

"Go back to her, my boy. I mustn't keep you." He got up and walked down the steps.

In the tent I found Helen just waking up.

"It was—a—beautiful—Christmas—Ted. Why—Ted—I'm awfully—weak."

I gave her a sip of brandy; the doctor had authorized it. Miss Brock came to the tent.

"Will you leave us please?" I asked. "Stay within call with the baby."

Helen was dozing again and did not hear what I said. I put her on her bed and slipped off her dressing gown, tucking her in for the night. The sun was just setting, and the first chill of the California night air sent shivers through me. I put on a heavy overcoat and set my chair beside her bed to wait.

All night I sat there, holding one of her hands. Now and then Miss Brock, with a flash-lamp, came out from the bungalow. I sent her back each time. Helen seemed to sleep quite peacefully. Only once did a fit of coughing rouse her. It was about seven when she opened her eyes and smiled at me.

"I think I'll be able to get up today, Ted," she said, so faintly, yet distinctly. I kissed her. She gave me her hand to hold. As she lay there looking at me with her grey eyes, I saw the expression in them change. Something had come into them that I did not know.

"Miss Brock!" I called.

She stepped in instantly.

"Bring the baby here, will you? Then take her away again." Miss Brock quickly returned with little Helen.

"Good morning, mummy dear," she said.

"Helen—the baby—to say good morning," I whispered in her ear. Helen opened her eyes, looking at me a little puzzled. The strange expression was still there. Slowly she turned her head and looked at the baby.

"Good morning, baby—precious."

I signed to Miss Brock, who took the child away. For a long time yet I sat, holding Helen's hand. She dozed; and again her eyes would open, with the faintest flicker of her smile upon her lips as she saw me by her. Then she opened her eyes once, and I saw she no longer knew me.

"Helen—my Helen girl—it's Ted—your Ted," I whispered frantically. She gave no sign—but slowly, ever so slowly, the eyes glazed. Her hand was still in mine when I knew the end had come. I looked at my watch on the camp table. Twenty minutes to eleven.

I got to my feet, gently laying the hand I had held on her breast. I stooped and kissed her lips. From the door of the tent I looked back again. She was beautiful. I faced the breeze and the dazzling sunshine without. A heavy scent of orange-blossoms was in the air.

I walked into the living room of the bungalow. Miss Brock sprang to her feet when she saw me come in. She gave me one look and dashed for the tent. I sat down before the empty fire place. Little baby Helen ran to me and climbed into my lap. A pair of grey eyes looked up smiling at me. I think that saved me....



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