Dr. Dimsby was a small man.
A foot my junior in stature, 20 years my senior in age, round of girth, with a soberly trimmed beard and no moustache, clad in a prim suit, and shod in shiny boots, he was a man whose appearance rendered him very much my opposite.
“Come, ladies,” he commanded in an airy tenor.
Swiftly he handed Clara his bag, steered both Bellefeys by the elbow, and deposited Miss Bellefey in the chair beside the fire.
“Let us examine the patient.”
This doctor directed his own entrance with such deftness that it was difficult to catch Miss Bellefey’s eye as she was whisked from my side.
At last I did, but I gleaned just a glance before her attention was overtaken by “How are we feeling today, my dear?” and “Have we been entertaining?” and “We must not tire ourselves.”
“You will excuse us, I am sure, sir,” he called to me without turning in my direction, for he was gesturing to Clara for his bag and retrieving instruments from its depths. “We are engaged in a family matter.”
With the doctor now fervidly listening to her heart, Miss Bellefey called, “It was so good to see you, Mr. Morgan,” as her mother held her hand and sang, “Please, come again soon, Mr. Morgan!”
As I bid the ladies goodnight, the physician rose with displeasure, briskly crossed the room, and conducted me to the threshold. With a half-bow, he gestured to the door, sneered as I withdrew, closed the door before me, and I was alone in the hall.
Sconces burned on both walls, flickering in the silence.
The man appalled me, and the thought of Miss Bellefey’s health resting in his hands saturated me with more concern for her than I had felt before I arrived.
Yet I had seen her, I had made her laugh, and I had garnered glimmers of her capacity for renewal.
And though I aimed not to idealize her, it was difficult to imagine what one of uncommon intelligence, warmth, depth, and beauty could possess as a shortcoming.
I took but a breath before the general emerged from his study and gestured for me to follow him inside.
His lair was dominated on three walls by books and armaments, and on the west side by a row of windows facing the front garden. The casements were open, cool scents of autumn drifting in.
He took one of the armchairs beside the fire and motioned for me to take the other.
“Well, Mr. Morgan,” he boomed, his voice low as a bass drum underpinning a military band. “This house has been bustling with activity. Your return has been no small occasion.”
He poured us each a whiskey and gestured toward me with his pipe. “Tell me, how does my daughter seem to you?”
I considered my words as I filled my pipe. Something in the general’s change of behavior toward me evoked a directness I had never addressed him with before.
“Weakened,” I said. “Underweight. Anguished. But I suppose the doctor with the dictatorial manner could say more.”
The general regarded me with a quick eye that bore a gleam of appreciation.
“Dr. Dimsby is wont to usurp a room,” he rumbled with a wry look. “He carries a sense of inferiority that compels him to overcompensate. Though he has the sense to cower to me. The man was a surgeon in the war. I’ve never liked him. Billina’s cousin. You may have noticed a vein of similarity in manner, though my wife is altruistic in her command, where her cousin is merely heavy-handed.”
I was glad the general disliked the doctor. But to hear that the old bones was a relative disheartened me. I suspected it cemented his standing.
The general looked directly in my eyes. “It was not a coincidence, Mr. Morgan,” he said, “that you ran into my wife in the park.”
He took a long drink, pausing, I thought, to ensure he had my attention.
“Billina has revealed to me that she has been extending her walks for months, hoping to appeal to you in person since her letter yielded rejection from your employer.”
“Her letter yielded rejection from my employer?”
“Ah, yes — we did not think you were aware that Mr. Edmund Mix had replied to Billina something to the effect of ‘Dear Madam, I beg you not to trouble my grieving friend.’”
“Your wife wrote to my friend?”
“My wife wrote to you, at your office. I believe Mr. Mix intercepted the letter.”
What misery Mundy had caused in trying to protect me!
How might Mrs. Bellefey’s letter have lessened my heartache?
“When did she write to me?”
“Oh, I believe soon after you were last here.”
The general let this sink in, then said:
“I believe you are aware, Mr. Morgan, that when Catherine was a child, we suffered a loss that broke us each in our own ways. Catherine and her sister were not yet twelve years old. I understand you know loss too, and that yours struck when you were — four years old, was it?”
“My mother died when I was three. My father and brother were killed when I was four.”
The general held my eye in a manner of such disarming compassion that I felt a jolt in my heart.
“You have every ounce of my sympathy,” he said.
He was silent for a moment, then looked to the fire and mused: “For a mother, such as my wife, our loss will never heal. For a father, for a son, for a brother — life can devastate, as you know. But for Catherine, I have rarely seen her happy since Julianna died. For a father, for a mother, an unhappy daughter is as heartbreaking as a loss.”
I understood for the first time that the general’s rigid exterior safeguarded a tender interior. Suddenly I was able to see the qualities of his that had nurtured my love.
“Catherine showed joy in her time with you. Billina observed it. I was too obtuse. What I saw was an elegant, enamored writer with few practical applications, tenuous expectations, and no familial grounding.”
“That stings, sir, but your assessment is on the mark. Though I am perhaps less elegant than you believe.”
His eyes followed mine to my scuffed boots, which punctuated my meaning.
“Indeed, you have neither valet nor punctiliousness. I attribute the former to your tenuous expectations and the latter to your want of familial grounding.”
I could not argue with facts.
His beefy arm reached out to refill my glass. “It has been since Catherine rescinded her potential for happiness that I have changed my mind about you. I have realized that the change in my daughter when you are near is palpable. You cannot imagine my satisfaction tonight when her laughter sang through these sad walls as I sat here drinking my tea.”
“I cannot express my joy at being in her company.”
The general tapped the ashes from his pipe with a nod and the air of a man conferring with a younger officer on strategy.
He was being frank, so I conveyed, “She told me again that she will not marry me.”
He refilled his pipe, lit it, and drew on it reflectively. “Women bring a certain capacity to marriage,” he said, “that, Billina tells me, Catherine does not have. This can be a shortcoming. You must consider whether you require a woman’s primal capacity in matrimony.”
“You mean love? Forgive me, General, but as we are speaking candidly, I will say I feel she loves me as I love her. I did not believe so two hours ago, but when she took my hands tonight I was convinced that she did, just as I was before she broke our engagement. The pain of the loss made me doubt and forget, but I will not doubt or forget again.”
The general regarded the bottom of his glass. “This subject is Billina’s realm. If your mother were alive, she and Billina would confer and advise you on your best course. I may be a tactician, and my wife and daughter may possess my heart, yet I know little of women, or, better said, I leave women’s matters to women’s wisdom. You, however, Mr. Morgan, may find yourself having more exposure to muliebral discourse than a gentleman is traditionally accustomed to.”
The plain talk I had been appreciating seemed to have lapsed into the kind of circumlocution that I found frustrating about polite society.
Still, I relished the fire at my side, the whiskey that warmed my veins, and the general’s geniality.
“While I’m unclear on the matters you speak of, ” I said, “I hope I will have this exposure. Anything to advance my case. Yet I recall Mrs. Bellefey saying twenty minutes ago, ‘It would not aid either of you to discuss the matter.’”
“That, I believe, speaks to Billina’s optimism. She believes Catherine’s health will improve with treatment. Her cousin conducts the treatment with a proprietary blend of scientific dogma, histrionic fatalism, and what I contend is charlatanism.”
“What does your daughter think of this treatment?”
“That, Mr. Morgan, I hope she will make you privy to.”
I could see our meeting was drawing to a close, so I rose, emptied my pipe, and the general led me to his study door.
“I am not a woman and I am not a doctor,” he said. “I am, however, a father, and I know what I hope for. Goodnight, Mr. Morgan.”
Alone again in the hall, I looked straight to the drawing room. The door was open; the room was dark. I was glad to deduce that the doctor was gone.
I found the last part of my conference with the general as cryptic as my meeting with Mr. Griffin.
Indeed, my experience was that fatherly figures of all sorts often spoke in riddles.
I recalled how when I was a boy, my benefactor, the elder Mr. Mix, made it a point to call me into his study whenever he returned from his travels — to appraise the condition of his ward, and advise me with enigmas.
“When you are a man, Henry, you will feel your feet,” he said when I’d been installed in his house for a few months at the age of six.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, though I did not understand what he meant.
I was a quiet boy, never sure of my place, and filled to my rim with grief.
Now I was infused with worry — and also hope and relief.
I stood in the hall, feeling my feet.
Then I opened the door and stepped out into the night air.