Authors: Wilkie Collins
There was but one thing to be done — to go at once to the bank. If Ovid had not been in the wilds of Canada, Mrs. Gallilee would have made her confession to him without hesitation. As it was, the servant called a cab, and she made her confession to the bankers.
The matter was soon settled to her satisfaction. It rested (exactly as Miss Minerva had anticipated) with Mr. Gallilee. In the house, he might abdicate his authority to his heart’s content. Out of the house, in matters of business, he was master still. His “investments” represented excellent “security;” he had only to say how much he wanted to borrow, and to sign certain papers — and the thing was done.
Mrs. Gallilee went home again, with her pecuniary anxieties at rest for the time. The carriage was waiting for her at the door.
Should she fulfil her intention of visiting Benjulia? She was not a person who readily changed her mind — and, besides, after the troubles of the morning, the drive into the country would be a welcome relief. Hearing that Mr. Gallilee was still at home, she looked in at the smoking-room. Unerring instinct told her where to find her husband, under present circumstances. There he was, enjoying his cigar in comfort, with his coat off and his feet on a chair. She opened the door. “I want you, this evening,” she said — and shut the door again; leaving Mr. Gallilee suffocated by a mouthful of his own smoke.
Before getting into the carriage, she only waited to restore her face with a flush of health (from Paris), modified by a sprinkling of pallor (from London). Benjulia’s humour was essentially an uncertain humour. It might be necessary to fascinate the doctor.
The complimentary allusion to Ovid, which Benjulia had not been able to understand, was contained in a letter from Mr. Morphew, and was expressed in these words: — ”Let me sincerely thank you for making us acquainted with Mr. Ovid Vere. Now that he has left us, we really feel as if we had said good-bye to an old friend. I don’t know when I have met with such a perfectly unselfish man — and I say this, speaking from experience of him. In my unavoidable absence, he volunteered to attend a serious case of illness, accompanied by shocking circumstances — and this at a time when, as you know, his own broken health forbids him to undertake any professional duty. While he could preserve the patient’s life — and he did wonders, in this way — he was every day at the bedside, taxing his strength in the service of a perfect stranger. I fancy I see you (with your impatience of letter-writing at any length) looking to the end. Don’t be alarmed. I am writing to your brother Lemuel by this mail, and I have little time to spare.”
Was this “serious case of illness” — described as being “accompanied by shocking circumstances” — a case of disease of the brain?
There was the question, proposed by Benjulia’s inveterate suspicion of Ovid! The bare doubt cost him the loss of a day’s work. He reviled poor Mr. Morphew as “a born idiot” for not having plainly stated what the patient’s malady was, instead of wasting paper on smooth sentences, encumbered by long words. If Ovid had alluded to his Canadian patient in his letters to his mother, his customary preciseness of language might be trusted to relieve Benjulia’s suspense. With that purpose in view, the doctor had written to Mrs. Gallilee.
Before he laid down his pen, he looked once more at Mr. Morphew’s letter, and paused thoughtfully over one line: “I am writing to your brother Lemuel by this mail.”
The information of which he was in search might be in
letter. If Mrs. Gallilee’s correspondence with her son failed to enlighten him, here was another chance of making the desired discovery. Surely the wise course to take would be to write to Lemuel as well.
His one motive for hesitating was dislike of his younger brother — dislike so inveterate that he even recoiled from communicating with Lemuel through the post.
There had never been any sympathy between them; but indifference had only matured into downright enmity, on the doctor’s part, a year since. Accident (the result of his own absence of mind, while he was perplexed by an unsuccessful experiment) had placed Lemuel in possession of his hideous secret. The one person in the world who knew how he was really occupied in the labouratory, was his brother.
Here was the true motive of the bitterly contemptuous tone in which Benjulia had spoken to Ovid of his nearest relation. Lemuel’s character was certainly deserving of severe judgment, in some of its aspects. In his hours of employment (as clerk in the office of a London publisher) he steadily and punctually performed the duties entrusted to him. In his hours of freedom, his sensual instincts got the better of him; and his jealous wife had her reasons for complaint. Among his friends, he was the subject of a wide diversity of opinion. Some of them agreed with his brother in thinking him little better than a fool. Others suspected him of possessing natural abilities, but of being too lazy, perhaps too cunning, to exert them. In the office he allowed himself to be called “a mere machine” — and escaped the overwork which fell to the share of quicker men. When his wife and her relations declared him to be a mere animal, he never contradicted them — and so gained the reputation of a person on whom reprimand was thrown away. Under the protection of this unenviable character, he sometimes said severe things with an air of perfect simplicity. When the furious doctor discovered him in the labouratory, and said, “I’ll be the death of you, if you tell any living creature what I am doing!” — Lemuel answered, with a stare of stupid astonishment, “Make your mind easy; I should be ashamed to mention it.”
Further reflection decided Benjulia on writing. Even when he had a favour to ask, he was unable to address Lemuel with common politeness.
“I hear that Morphew has written to you by the last mail. I want to see the letter.” So much he wrote, and no more. What was barely enough for the purpose, was enough for the doctor, when he addressed his brother.
Between one and two o’clock, the next afternoon, Benjulia (at work in his labouratory) heard the bell which announced the arrival of a visitor at the house. No matter what the circumstances might be, the servants were forbidden to disturb him at his studies in any other way.
Very unwillingly he obeyed the call, locking the door behind him. At that hour it was luncheon-time in well-regulated households, and it was in the last degree unlikely that Mrs. Gallilee could be the visitor. Getting within view of the front of the house, he saw a man standing on the doorstep. Advancing a little nearer, he recognised Lemuel.
“Hullo!” cried the elder brother.
“Hullo!” answered the younger, like an echo.
They stood looking at each other with the suspicious curiosity of two strange cats. Between Nathan Benjulia, the famous doctor, and Lemuel Benjulia, the publisher’s clerk, there was just family resemblance enough to suggest that they were relations. The younger brother was only a little over the ordinary height; he was rather fat than thin; he wore a moustache and whiskers; he dressed smartly — and his prevailing expression announced that he was thoroughly well satisfied with himself. But he inherited Benjulia’s gipsy complexion; and, in form and colour, he had Benjulia’s eyes.
“How-d’ye-do, Nathan?” he said.
“What the devil brings you here?” was the answer.
Lemuel passed over his brother’s rudeness without notice. His mouth curled up at the corners with a mischievous smile.
“I thought you wished to see my letter,” he said.
“Why couldn’t you send it by post?”
“My wife wished me to take the opportunity of calling on you.”
“That’s a lie,” said Benjulia quietly. “Try another excuse. Or do a new thing. For once, speak the truth.”
Without waiting to hear the truth, he led the way into the room in which he had received Ovid. Lemuel followed, still showing no outward appearance of resentment.
“How did you get away from your office?” Benjulia inquired.
“It’s easy to get a holiday at this time of year. Business is slack, old boy — ”
“Stop! I don’t allow you to speak to me in that way.”
“No offence, brother Nathan!”
“Brother Lemuel, I never allow a fool to offend me. I put him in his place — that’s all.”
The distant barking of a dog became audible from the lane by which the house was approached. The sound seemed to annoy Benjulia. “What’s that?” he asked.
Lemuel saw his way to making some return for his brother’s reception of him.
“It’s my dog,” he said; “and it’s lucky for you that I have left him in the cab.”
“Well, he’s as sweet-tempered a dog as ever lived. But he has one fault. He doesn’t take kindly to scientific gentlemen in your line of business.” Lemuel paused, and pointed to his brother’s hands. “If he smelt that, he might try his teeth at vivisecting You.”
The spots of blood which Ovid had once seen on Benjulia’s stick, were on his hands now. With unruffled composure he looked at the horrid stains, silently telling their tale of torture.
“What’s the use of washing my hands,” he answered, “when I am going back to my work?”
He wiped his finger and thumb on the tail of his coat. “Now,” he resumed, “if you have got your letter with you, let me look at it.”
Lemuel produced the letter. “There are some bits in it,” he explained, “which you had better not see. If you want the truth — that’s the reason I brought it myself. Read the first page-and then I’ll tell you where to skip.”
So far, there was no allusion to Ovid. Benjulia turned to the second page — and Lemuel pointed to the middle of it. “Read as far as that,” he went on, “and then skip till you come to the last bit at the end.”
On the last page, Ovid’s name appeared. He was mentioned, as a “delightful person, introduced by your brother,” — and with that the letter ended. In the first bitterness of his disappointment, Benjulia conceived an angry suspicion of those portions of the letter which he had been requested to pass over unread.
“What has Morphew got to say to you that I mustn’t read?” he asked.
“Suppose you tell me first, what you want to find in the letter,” Lemuel rejoined. “Morphew is a doctor like you. Is it anything medical?”
Benjulia answered this in the easiest way — he nodded his head.
“Is it Vivisection?” Lemuel inquired slyly.
Benjulia at once handed the letter back, and pointed to the door. His momentary interest in the suppressed passages was at an end. “That will do,” he answered. “Take yourself and your letter away.”
“Ah,” said Lemuel, “I’m glad you don’t want to look at it again!” He put the letter away, and buttoned his coat, and tapped his pocket significantly. “You have got a nasty temper, Nathan — and there are things here that might try it.”
In the case of any other man, Benjulia would have seen that the one object of these prudent remarks was to irritate him. Misled by his profound conviction of his brother’s stupidity, he now thought it possible that the concealed portions of the letter might be worth notice. He stopped Lemuel at the door. “I’ve changed my mind,” he said; “I want to look at the letter again.”
“You had better not,” Lemuel persisted. “Morphew’s going to write a book against you — and he asks me to get it published at our place. I’m on his side, you know; I shall do my best to help him; I can lay my hand on literary fellows who will lick his style into shape — it will be an awful exposure!” Benjulia still held out his hand. With over-acted reluctance, Lemuel unbuttoned his coat. The distant dog barked again as he gave the letter back. “Please excuse my dear old dog,” he said with maudlin tenderness; “the poor dumb animal seems to know that I’m taking his side in the controversy.
means, in his language, Fie upon the cruel hands that bore holes in our head and use saws on our backs. Ah, Nathan, if you have got any dogs in that horrid place of yours, pat them and give them their dinner! You never heard me talk like this before — did you? I’m a new man since I joined the Society for suppressing you. Oh, if I only had the gift of writing!”
The effect of this experiment on his brother’s temper, failed to fulfil Lemuel’s expectations. The doctor’s curiosity was roused on the doctor’s own subject of inquiry.