Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Madeleine had reached the calmness of despair once more, and this time without a glimmer of hope. Life had showered its gifts sardonically upon her before breaking her in her youth, and there was still a resource in its budget that it had no power to withhold. She was a firm believer in the dogmas of the Church and knew that she would be punished hereafter. Well, so would he. It might be they would be permitted to endure their punishment together. And meanwhile, there was oblivion, delusions possibly, and then death.
It was summer and there were no engagements to break. The doctor was caught in the whirlwind of another small-pox epidemic and lived in rooms he reserved for the purpose. He did not insist upon her departure from town as he knew her to be immune, and he thought it best she should remain where she could pursue her regimen uninterrupted; and tax her strength as little as possible. If he did not dismiss her from his mind at least he had not a misgiving. She had never disobeyed him, she appeared to have forgotten Masters at last, she took her tonics automatically, and there were good plays in town. In a few months she would be restored to health and himself.
He returned to the hotel at the end of six weeks. It was the dinner hour but his wife was not at the piano. He tapped on the door that led from the parlor to her bedroom, and although there was no response he turned the knob and entered.
Madeleine was lying on the bed, asleep apparently.
He went forward anxiously; he had never known her to sleep at this hour before. He touched her lightly on the shoulder, but she did not awaken. Then he bent over her, and drew back with a frown. But although horrified he was far from suspecting the whole truth. He had been compelled to break more than one patient of too ardent a fidelity to his prescriptions.
He forced an emetic down her throat, but it had no effect. Then he picked her up and carried her into the bath room and held her head under the shower. The blood flowed down from her congested brain. She struggled out of his arms and looked at him with dull angry eyes.
"What do you mean?" she demanded. "How dared you do such a thing to me?"
"You had taken too much, my dear," he said kindly. "Or else it affects you more than it did--possibly because you no longer need it. I shall taper you off by degrees, and then I think we can do without it."
"Without it? I couldn't live without it. I need more--and more--" She looked about wildly.
"Oh, that is all right. They always think so at first. In six months you will have forgotten it. Remember, I am a doctor--and a good one, if I say so myself."
She dropped her eyes. "Very well," she said humbly. "Of course you know best."
"Now, put on dry clothes and let us have dinner. It seems a year since I dined with you."
"I haven't the strength."
He went into the parlor and returned with a small glass of cognac. "This will brace you up, and, as I said, you must taper off. But I'll measure the doses myself, hereafter."
She put on an evening gown, but with none of her old niceness of detail. She merely put it on. Her wet hair she twisted into a knot without glancing at the mirror. As she entered the parlor she staggered slightly. Talbot averted his eyes. He may have had similar cases, and, as a doctor, become hardened to all manifestations of human weakness, but this patient was his wife. It was only temporary, of course, and a not unnatural sequel. But Madeleine! He felt as a priest might if a statue of the Virgin opened its mouth and poured forth a stream of blasphemy.
Then he went forward and put his arm about her. "Brace up," he said. "I hear the waiters in the dining-room. They must not see you like this. Where--where have you taken your meals?"
"In my bedroom."
"I hoped so. Has any one seen you?"
"I don't know--no. I think not. I have been careful enough. I do not wish to disgrace you."
He was obliged to give her another glass of cognac, and she sat through the dinner without betraying herself, although she would eat nothing. She was sullen and talked little, and when the meal was over she went directly to bed.
Dr. Talbot followed her, however, and searched her wardrobe and bureau drawers. He found nothing. When he returned to the parlor he locked the cupboard where he kept his hospitable stores and put the key in his pocket. But he did not go out, and toward midnight he heard her moving restlessly about her room. She invited him eagerly to enter when he tapped.
"I'm nervous, horribly nervous," she said. "Give me some more cognac --anything."
"You'll have nothing more tonight. I shall give you a dose of valerian."
She swallowed the noxious mixture with a grimace and was asleep in a few moments.