XXV. Fate's Shuttlecock
 

Some ten minutes later, Helen Cumberly and Denise Ryland were in turn admitted to Henry Leroux's flat. They found him seated on a couch in his dining-room, wearing the inevitable dressing-gown. Dr. Cumberly, his hands clasped behind him, stood looking out of the window.

Leroux's pallor now was most remarkable; his complexion had assumed an ivory whiteness which lent his face a sort of statuesque beauty. He was cleanly shaven (somewhat of a novelty), and his hair was brushed back from his brow. But the dark blue eyes were very tragic.

He rose at sight of his new visitors, and a faint color momentarily tinged his cheeks. Helen Cumberly grasped his outstretched hand, then looked away quickly to where her father was standing.

"I almost thought," said Leroux, "that you had deserted me."

"No," said Helen, seeming to speak with an effort--"we--my father, thought--that you needed quiet."

Denise Ryland nodded grimly.

"But now," she said, in her most truculent manner, "we are going to . . . drag you out of . . . your morbid . . . self . . . for a change . . . which you need . . . if ever a man . . . needed it."

"I have just prescribed a drive," said Dr. Cumberly, turning to them, "for to-morrow morning; with lunch at Richmond and a walk across the park, rejoining the car at the Bushey Gate, and so home to tea."

Henry Leroux looked eagerly at Helen in silent appeal. He seemed to fear that she would refuse.

"Do you mean that you have included us in the prescription, father?" she asked.

"Certainly; you are an essential part of it."

"It will be fine," said the girl quietly; "I shall enjoy it."

"Ah!" said Leroux, with a faint note of contentment in his voice; and he reseated himself.

There was an interval of somewhat awkward silence, to be broken by Denise Ryland.

"Dr. Cumberly has told you the news?" she asked, dropping for the moment her syncopated and pugnacious manner.

Leroux closed his eyes and leant back upon the couch.

"Yes," he replied. "And to think that I am a useless wreck--a poor parody of a man--whilst--Mira is . . . Oh, God! help me!--God help her!"

He was visibly contending with his emotions; and Helen Cumberly found herself forced to turn her head aside.

"I have been blind," continued Leroux, in a forced, monotonous voice. "That Mira has not--deceived me, in the worst sense of the word, is in no way due to my care of her. I recognize that, and I accept my punishment; for I deserved it. But what now overwhelms me is the knowledge, the frightful knowledge, that in a sense I have misjudged her, that I have remained here inert, making no effort, thinking her absence voluntary, whilst--God help her!--she has been" . . .

"Once again, Leroux," interrupted Dr. Cumberly, "I must ask you not to take too black a view. I blame myself more than I blame you, for having failed to perceive what as an intimate friend I had every opportunity to perceive; that your wife was acquiring the opium habit. You have told me that you count her as dead"--he stood beside Leroux, resting both hands upon the bowed shoulders-- "I have not encouraged you to change that view. One who has cultivated--the--vice, to a point where protracted absences become necessary--you understand me?--is, so far as my experience goes" . . .

"Incurable! I quite understand," jerked Leroux. "A thousand times better dead, indeed."

"The facts as I see them," resumed the physician, "as I see them, are these: by some fatality, at present inexplicable, a victim of the opium syndicate met her death in this flat. Realizing that the inquiries brought to bear would inevitably lead to the cross- examination of Mrs. Leroux, the opium syndicate has detained her; was forced to detain her."

"Where is the place," began Leroux, in a voice rising higher with every syllable--"where is the infamous den to which--to which" . . .

Dr. Cumberly pressed his hands firmly upon the speaker's shoulders.

"It is only a question of time, Leroux," he said, "and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that--though at a great cost to yourself--this dreadful evil has been stamped out, that this yellow peril has been torn from the heart of society. Now, I must leave you for the present; but rest assured that everything possible is being done to close the nets about Mr. King."

"Ah!" whispered Leroux, "Mr. King!"

"The circle is narrowing," continued the physician. "I may not divulge confidences; but a very clever man--the greatest practical criminologist in Europe--is devoting the whole of his time, night and day, to this object."

Helen Cumberly and Denise Ryland exhibited a keen interest in the words, but Leroux, with closed eyes, merely nodded in a dull way. Shortly, Dr. Cumberly took his departure, and, Helen looking at her companion interrogatively:--

"I think," said Denise Ryland, addressing Leroux, "that you should not over-tax your strength at present." She walked across to where he sat, and examined some proofslips lying upon the little table beside the couch. "'Martin Zeda,'" she said, with a certain high disdain. "Leave 'Martin Zeda' alone for once, and read a really cheerful book!"

Leroux forced a smile to his lips.

"The correction of these proofs," he said diffidently, "exacts no great mental strain, but is sufficient to--distract my mind. Work, after all, is nature's own sedative."

"I rather agree with Mr. Leroux, Denise," said Helen;--"and really you must allow him to know best."

"Thank you," said Leroux, meeting her eyes momentarily. "I feared that I was about to be sent to bed like a naughty boy!"

"I hope it's fine to-morrow," said Helen rapidly. "A drive to Richmond will be quite delightful."

"I think, myself," agreed Leroux, "that it will hasten my recovery to breathe the fresh air once again."

Knowing how eagerly he longed for health and strength, and to what purpose, the girl found something very pathetic in the words.

"I wish you were well enough to come out this afternoon," she said; "I am going to a private view at Olaf van Noord's studio. It is sure to be an extraordinary afternoon. He is the god of the Soho futurists, you know. And his pictures are the weirdest nightmares imaginable. One always meets such singular people there, too, and I am honored in receiving an invitation to represent the Planet!"

"I consider," said Denise Ryland, head wagging furiously again, "that the man is . . . mad. He had an exhibition . . . in Paris . . . and everybody . . . laughed at him . . . simply laughed at him."

"But financially, he is very successful," added Helen.

"Financially!" exclaimed Denise Ryland, "financially! To criticize a man's work . . . financially, is about as . . . sensible as . . . to judge the Venus . . . de Milo . . . by weight!--or to sell the works . . . of Leonardo . . . da Vinci by the . . . yard! Olaf van Noord is nothing but . . . a fool . . . of the worst possible . . . description . . . imaginable."

"He is at least an entertaining fool!" protested Helen, laughingly.

"A mountebank!" cried Denise Ryland; "a clown . . . a pantaloon . . . a whole family of . . . idiots . . . rolled into one!"

"It seems unkind to run away and leave you here--in your loneliness," said Helen to Leroux; "but really I must be off to the wilds of Soho." . . .

"To-morrow," said Leroux, standing up and fixing his eyes upon her lingeringly, "will be a red-letter day. I have no right to complain, whilst such good friends remain to me--such true friends." . . .