The Novel of the White Powder (part 2/4)

Late as it was, I put on my bonnet and went to Dr. Haberden, and in his great consulting-room, ill-lighted by a candle which the doctor brought in with him, with stammering lips, and a voice that would break in spite of my resolve, I told him all; from the day on which my brother began to take the medicine down to the dreadful thing I had seen scarcely half an hour before.

When I had done, the doctor looked at me for a minute with an expression of great pity on his face.

“My dear Miss Leicester,” he said, “you have evidently been anxious about your brother; you have been worrying over him, I am sure. Come, now, is it not so?

“I have certainly been anxious,” I said. “For the last week or two I have not felt at ease.”

“Quite so; you know, of course, what a queer thing the brain is?”

“I understand what you mean; but I was not deceived. I saw what I have told you with my own eyes.”

“Yes, yes, of course. But your eyes had been staring at that very curious sunset we had to-night. That is the only explanation. You will see it in the proper light to-morrow, I am sure. But, remember, I am always ready to give any help that is in my power; do not scruple to come to me, or to send for me if you are in any distress.”

I went away but little comforted, all confusion and terror and sorrow, not knowing where to turn. When my brother and I met the next day, I looked quickly at him, and noticed, with a sickening at heart, that the right hand, the hand on which I had clearly seen the patch as of a black fire, was wrapped up with a handkerchief.

“What is the matter with your hand, Francis?” I said in a steady voice.

“Nothing of consequence. I cut a finger last night, and it bled rather awkwardly, so I did it up roughly to the best of my ability.”

“I will do it neatly for you, if you like.”

“No, thank you, dear, this will answer very well. Suppose we have breakfast; I am quite hungry.”

We sat down, and I watched him. He scarcely ate or drank at all, but tossed his meat to the dog when he thought my eyes were turned away; and there was a look in his eyes that I had never yet seen, and the thought fled across my mind that it was a look that was scarcely human. I was firmly convinced that awful and incredible as was the thing I had seen the night before, yet it was no illusion, no glamour of bewildered sense, and in the course of the morning I went again to the doctor’s house.

He shook his head with an air puzzled and incredulous, and seemed to reflect for a few minutes.

“And you say he still keeps up the medicine? But why? As I understand, all the symptoms he complained of have disappeared long ago; why should he go on taking the stuff when he is quite well? And by the bye where did he get it made up? At Sayce’s? I never send any one there; the old man is getting careless. Suppose you come with me to the chemist’s; I should like to have some talk with him.”

We walked together to the shop. Old Sayce knew Dr. Haberden, and was quite ready to give any information.

“You have been sending that in to Mr. Leicester for some weeks, I think, on my prescription,” said the doctor, giving the old man a pencilled scrap of paper.

The chemist put on his great spectacles with trembling uncertainty, and held up the paper with a shaking hand.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “I have very little of it left; it is rather an uncommon drug, and I have had it in stock some time. I must get in some more, if Mr. Leicester goes on with it.”

“Kindly let me have a look at the stuff,” said Haberden; and the chemist gave him a glass bottle. He took out the stopper and smelt the contents, and looked strangely at the old man.

“Where did you get this?” he said, “and what is it? For one thing, Mr. Sayce, it is not what I prescribed. Yes, yes, I see the label is right enough, but I tell you this is not the drug.”

“I have had it a long time,” said the old man, in feeble terror. “I got it from Burbage’s in the usual way. It is not prescribed often, and I have had it on the shelf for some years. You see there is very little left.”

“You had better give it to me,” said Haberden. “I am afraid something wrong has happened.”

We went out of the shop in silence, the doctor carrying the bottle neatly wrapped in paper under his arm.

“Dr. Haberden,” I said when we had walked a little way–“Dr. Haberden.”

“Yes,” he said, looking at me gloomily enough.

“I should like you to tell me what my brother has been taking twice a day for the last month or so.”

“Frankly, Miss Leicester, I don’t know. We will speak of this when we get to my house,”

We walked on quickly without another word till we reached Dr. Haberden’s. He asked me to sit down, and began pacing up and down the room, his face clouded over, as I could see, with no common fears.

“Well,” he said at length, “this is all very strange; it is only natural that you should feel alarmed, and I must confess that my mind is far from easy. We will put aside, if you please, what you told me last night and this morning, but the fact remains that for the last few weeks Mr. Leicester has been impregnating his system with a drug which is completely unknown to me. I tell you, it is not what I ordered; and what that stuff in the bottle really is remains to be seen.”

He undid the wrapper, and cautiously tilted a few grains of the white powder on to a piece of paper, and peered curiously at it.

“Yes,” he said, “it is like the sulphate of quinine, as you say; it is flaky. But smell it.”

He held the bottle to me, and I bent over it. It was a strange sickly smell, vaporous and overpowering, like some strong anaesthetic.

“I shall have it analyzed,” said Haberden. “I have a friend who has devoted his whole life to chemistry as a science. Then we shall have something to go upon. No, no, say no more about that other matter; I cannot listen to that, and take my advice and think no more about it yourself.”

That evening my brother did not go out as usual after dinner.

“I have had my fling,” he said with a queer laugh; “and I must go back to my old ways. A little law will be quite a relaxation after so sharp a dose of pleasure,” and he grinned to himself, and soon after went up to his room. His hand was still all bandaged.

Dr. Haberden called a few days later.

“I have no special news to give you,” he said. “Chambers is out of town, so I know no more about that stuff than you do. But I should like to see Mr. Leicester if he is in.”

“He is in his room,” I said; “I will tell him you are here.”

“No, no, I will go up to him; we will have a little quiet talk together. I dare say that we have made a good deal of fuss about very little; for, after all, whatever the white powder may be, it seems to have done him good.”

The doctor went upstairs, and standing in the hall I heard his knock, and the opening and shutting of the door; and then I waited in the silent house for an hour, and the stillness grew more and more intense as the hands of the clock crept round. Then there sounded from above the noise of a door shut sharply, and the doctor was coming down the stairs. His footsteps crossed the hall, and there was a pause at the door. I drew a long sick breath with difficulty, and saw my face white in a little mirror, and he came in and stood at the door. There was an unutterable horror shining in his eyes; he steadied himself by holding the back of a chair with one hand, and his lower lip trembled like a horse’s, and he gulped and stammered unintelligible sounds before he spoke.

“I have seen that man,” he began in a dry whisper. “I have been sitting in his presence for the last hour. My God! and I am alive and in my senses! I, who have dealt with death all my life, and have dabbled with the melting ruins of the earthly tabernacle. But not this! Oh, not this,” and he covered his face with his hands as if to shut out the sight of something before him.

“Do not send for me again, Miss Leicester,” he said with more composure. “I can do nothing in this house. Good-bye.”

As I watched him totter down the steps and along the pavement towards his house, it seemed to me that he had aged by ten years since the morning.

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