The old woman jerked her head and stood aside. Her toil-worn face with the melancholy monkey eyes was inscrutable, but Stonehouse guessed at the swift analysis he was undergoing. In his iron temper he could afford to be amused.
“Mademoiselle is within.”
The room was a huge square. To make it, two floors at least of the respectable Kensington house must have been sacrificed. The walls were decorated with Egyptian frescoes and Chinese embroideries, and silk divans which might have figured in a cinema producer’s idea of a Turkish harem were set haphazard on the mosaic floor. In the centre a stone fountain of the modern-primitive school and banked with flowers splashed noisily. Somehow it offered Kensington the final insult. But she had wanted it, just as she had wanted the Greek columns. There was even a certain magnificence about the room’s absurdity. It was so hopelessly wrong that it attained a kind of perfection.
She herself sat on the edge of the fountain and fed a gorgeous macaw who, from his gilded perch, received her offerings with a lofty friendliness. But as Stonehouse entered she sprang up and ran to him, feeling through his pockets like an excited child.
“The poison—the poison!” she demanded.
He had to laugh.
“I forgot it,” he said.
“C’est dommage. You ’ave not taken it yourself by any chance?”
“No—I wouldn’t do that at any rate.”
“C’est vrai. I ask—you ’ave an air un peu souffrant. Well, never mind. It’s droll though—I think about you just when you ring up—I ’ave a damn pain—not ze tummy-ache this time—and I say: ’Le pauvre jeune homme, ’ere is a chance for ’im to pay me out for kissing ’im when ‘e don’t want to be kissed.’ You remember—I say I send for you one day. But ze old pain—it ’as gone now. You—’ow do you say?—you conjure it away.”
“Your pains don’t interest me,” he said. “For one thing I don’t believe you ever had any. I suppose you think a pain is the best entertainment to offer a doctor. It’s thoughtful of you, but I didn’t come here to be amused.”
“Then I wonder what you want of me,” she remarked. She went back to her place on the fountain’s edge, sitting amidst the flowers and crushing them under her hands. The pose appealed to him as expressively callous, and yet it was innocent too, the pose of a child or an animal who destroys without knowledge or ill-will.
“Do people usually want things from you?” he asked.
“Always—all ze time.”
“And you give so much.”
She eyed him seriously.
“I give what I ’ave to give.”
“And take what you can get.”
“Like you, Monsieur le docteur.”
The absoluteness of his hatred made it possible for him to laugh with her.
“My fees are fairly reasonable at any rate. I’ve helped some people for nothing.”