He walked on mechanically, aimlessly. He was tired out and dejected beyond measure by this tragic encounter. It was not any immediate affection for the old man, who had been no more to him than a strange force driving him on for its own purposes; it was the others he had evoked—and, above all, the sense of common misfortune which no man can avert for ever. For the moment he lost faith in his own power to maintain himself against a patient and faceless Nemesis.
It was morbid—the old terrifying signs of breakdown—the pointing finger.
“Thus far and no further with your brain, Robert Stonehouse.”
And then, suddenly, he found that he was in a familiar street, and, stopping short, as though from old custom, to look up. There was the finest house in Harley Street which they were to have decorated with their brass plates. If it had risen straight out of the ground at the behest of his fancy he could not have been more painfully disconcerted. He had never known before that he had avoided it. He knew it now, and the realization was like the opening of a door into a dark and unexplored chamber of his mind. He stood there shivering with cold, and wet, and weariness. Who lived there now, he wondered? The old back-numbers whom they were to have ousted so ruthlessly? Well, he could find out. Someone lived there, at any rate. He could see a light in one of the upper rooms. He crossed over and went up the steps cautiously, like a thief. All the brass plates but one had gone. That one shone brightly in the lamp-light, giving the door a one-eyed, impish look. He could read the letters distinctly, and yet he had to spell them over twice. It was as though she herself had suddenly opened the door and spoken to him.
“Frances Wilmot, M.D.”
Then he turned and walked away. But at the next corner he stopped and looked up again at the lighted window. What freakish fancy had possessed her——? Perhaps she was there now. He could see her in the room that had been his enemy. And he had brief vision of himself standing there in the empty street as he had done when he had loved her so desperately, gazing up at that signal of warmth and comfort out of the depths of his own desolateness.
He said “Francey!” under his breath, ironically, as though he had uttered a child’s “open-sesame!” to prove that there had never been any magic in the word. But the sound hurt him.
This time he did not look back.
Nor was there any reassurance to be found that night in the concrete justification of his life. He set himself down to work in vain. One ghost called up another. The room with its solemn, bloodless impedimenta became—not a monument to his success, but a Moloch, to whom everything had been sacrificed—the joy of life, its laughter, its colour—and Christine. And not only Christine. He had been sacrificed too.