Read CHAPTER XVI of Juggernaut , free online book, by Alice Campbell, on ReadCentral.com.

She heard her own voice, muffled and unnatural. It seemed to work a sort of magic, for the python vanished, melted away like mist; she drew a great shuddering breath and found she was lying on her bed, unharmed, but with the sheet muffled about her throat and the thick eiderdown quilt resting in a roll across her. Her heart was still pounding, perspiration streamed from her while she laughed hysterically and repeated to herself:

“But pythons don’t bite! Pythons don’t bite!”

No, of course! how absurd it was! they crushed you to death. What an illogical creation of her sub-consciousness! It had been so vivid, the sensation so acute, the thing had had such solidity! Revelling in her sense of security, she lay quite still, listening to her breathing as it slowed down to normal. What had prompted the dream? Was it because she had been thinking of that snake episode of her childhood? Was it a python after all? Somehow there seemed more to it than that; the suspicion haunted her that the dream held some hidden significance.

A sharp tap came at the door.

“Who is it?” she cried, starting up and realising that it was morning.

The door opened a crack and the slightly prim accents of the night-nurse called through:

“It’s after your usual time,” she said. “I thought you would like to know.”

Esther sprang out of bed.

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry! Something must have gone wrong with my clock.”

It was true. Last night’s accident had damaged the alarm. She raced through her dressing and hurried across the hall to her patient’s room, devoutly hoping the doctor would not find out she had overslept. Luck was against her. For the first time since she had been on the case he was there before her, standing at the foot of the bed, looking down thoughtfully at the sleeping old man. It was not a heinous offence to be twenty minutes late on a single occasion, yet somehow the sight of the big, bulky figure, planted there as though lying in wait for her, made her suddenly uncomfortable.

“I’m afraid I’ve overslept a little,” she murmured apologetically as she greeted him.

Instead of replying, he took his watch from his pocket and looked at it. Then, without moving his head, he turned his little greyish eyes upon her and regarded her fixedly. That was all, yet she felt completely crushed by his disapprobation. She started to make excuses, then felt that she could not. Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth. She knew that any explanation would sound stupid and futile. Why was it the man affected her in this oppressive fashion? No other doctor had ever done so. Why was it that the mere physical presence of him, of his big, thick body and his little bald head with its small, glancing eyes, filled her at times with a sort of repulsion? From the first she had had the sensation vaguely, now it had become intensified a hundred-fold.

“I’m developing nerves!” she scolded herself severely as she went into the dressing-room to prepare her patient’s morning milk. “Why should I be afraid of any man? ... Yet it isn’t that I’m exactly afraid. I can’t explain it, quite.”

She was glad when she returned to find him gone. She gratefully drank the tea which a maid brought her and began to take a more normal view of things. She recalled the fact that to-night she was going to dine and dance with Roger Clifford, and the thought cheered her immensely. By the time she had had her breakfast she was inwardly calm and ready to face the doctor when he came for his usual morning visit. Moreover, she was pleased about Sir Charles, who was making really steady progress. It astonished her that a man of his age and general health should be doing so well.

With this in her mind, she was unprepared for the sober, pessimistic expression of Dr. Sartorius’s face when he had finished his examination. He withdrew a little distance from the bed, and beckoned her to follow him.

“We must do something,” he said in a low tone, frowning at the carpet. “I do not like his extreme weakness. His pulse is bad, very bad. He needs boosting up.”

“Why, doctor, I thought he was doing so well! I ... that is, considering he’s over seventy and all that, it seemed to me that...”

Her voice trailed off, blighted by the brief scorn with which he glanced at her before continuing steadily:

“We must put some strength into him if we can. Iron and arsenic ...”

“Oh, yes, doctor, certainly injections.”

“There are two things we have to fear now,” he continued didactically, still in a whisper. “One is his general condition of weakness, the other is excitement. He mustn’t be upset in any way or startled.”

“No, of course not: I’ll be very careful.”

She wondered a little that he should a second time lay such stress on the matter of excitement. He seemed to have little confidence in her, but that, she suspected, might be owing to his low opinion of women in general.

“That is all. I’d better give him an injection now, I think.”

“Yes, doctor.”

She brought the usual accessories a basin of water, cotton-wool, iodine and placed them on the little table by the bed, feeling a sudden grave doubt about her patient. Had she been too optimistic? If she had, then so had the night-nurse, who only last evening had remarked to her how well the old man was going on. Yet she was impressed by the doctor’s ability to discern things hidden from her eyes. Perhaps all along he had regarded it as a losing fight.

“Now then, nurse, help me to get Sir Charles over on his left side.”

The invalid did not demur, merely made a grimace as the needle shot into his emaciated thigh. With the basin in one hand and a wad of cotton-wool in the other, Esther happened to glance at the doctor. He was stooping over, his thick body bent at the hips, his small eyes narrowed in cold absorption as he watched the mixture run through the needle into the flesh. Suddenly her eyes grew round, she stared fascinated. Something stirred in her memory, a suggestion that was horrible, frightening. What was it? Ah, now she knew: her nightmare the python! He reminded her of a python.

“Good God! nurse, what are you about?”

The basin had fallen from her shaking hand to the floor. How stupid of her! She was on her knees in an instant, confused, apologetic, mopping up the puddle with a towel.

“I can’t think how it happened,” she stammered, feeling an utter fool, and conscious of the cold, amazed scrutiny directed at her from above. At the same time a voice inside her brain was repeating mechanically, “But pythons don’t bite pythons don’t bite.... Of course, I was thinking of the hypodermic needle!” ...

“Please try to be more careful. That sort of thing is inexcusable. Is there anything wrong with you this morning?”

“No, nothing, doctor. I can’t tell you what made me drop it.”

He still stared at her searchingly, his eyes probing her as if he had some suspicion regarding her sanity. A weak voice came from the bed.

“Anybody might drop a basin, doctor,” murmured Sir Charles dryly. “You might yourself.”

Esther laughed gratefully as she covered him up again, but she felt her laugh to be a trifle hysterical. She hated the doctor to think her an imbecile, yet for some reason her identification of the man with the creature of her dream now struck her as extremely funny. She wanted to laugh and laugh; it took all her resolution to restrain herself.... Of course, the whole thing was clear now. Psycho-analysis explained things so wonderfully. No doubt, now that she recognised the source of that vague shrinking she felt in regard to Sartorius she would experience it no longer. Odd, in more ways than one he did resemble a python. His heavy, slow movements, the feeling he gave one of having cold blood in his veins, his little, glancing eyes that so often seemed the only part of him alive.... Yes, and there was something else, though perhaps it was very fanciful of her to think of it in that way. Jacques had told her how whenever the doctor had sufficient money a windfall, as he himself had called it he would quit work, his practice, that is, and devote himself to research until the last penny was exhausted before bestirring himself again. Was not that the python’s method, making a hearty meal of sheep, then lying by for a long period until he had absorbed it completely? What a curious idea revolting, somehow...

At intervals all during the day she caught Sartorius looking at her in a meditative fashion, as though speculating about her mental condition. Each time she felt his gaze upon her she longed again to burst into laughter, her eyes danced, her mouth twitched. If only he had any idea!

When early that evening she set out for the Casino with her escort, Miss Clifford came out of the drawing-room to bid her good-night.

“Have a good time, my dear,” she said in her friendly fashion. “It would be a pity to be in Cannes and not see something of its gay side. You look extremely nice,” she added with a glance of approval.

Esther glowed with appreciation of the compliment, inwardly hoping Roger agreed with his aunt in her opinion of her. She felt his eye upon her as she stood there with her simple evening coat wrapped tightly about her, the grey of its fur collar soft against her throat, but he said nothing. A movement behind her made her turn towards the drawing-room door.

Vous sortez?

It was Lady Clifford who spoke. There was a brittle, intensely Gallic intonation about the query with its upward inflection, reminding one somehow of a postman’s knock, a sort of rat-tat-tat.

Miss Clifford answered for them.

“Yes, Therese, Roger is taking Miss Rowe out to dinner. It is such an excellent idea for both of them to have a bit of fun.”

“Ah!”

An indescribable glint came into the wide grey eyes, and there was a brief pause before Lady Clifford smiled and gave a little wave of the hand.

Alors amusez-vous bien!” she said, and turned away.

Could it be that she was displeased with her stepson for paying attention to a nurse in her employ? Esther was not quite sure, but she felt a moment’s awkwardness. It vanished, however, when a moment later she climbed into the Citroen beside Roger.

“I hope you don’t mind this plebeian way of getting about?” Roger said as he started the car. “I somehow feel I don’t like to use the chauffeur and the Rolls in case my stepmother should want it.”

“What do you think I’m used to, anyway?” demanded Esther with a light-hearted laugh.

He turned his head and surveyed her critically.

“I’m not sure what you’re used to,” he replied. “But as you sit there you look like a million dollars, as they say in your country.”

She was satisfied he admired her. The evening was hers to enjoy.

The Restaurant des Ambassadeurs was rapidly filling when they entered and made their way to the table reserved for them. With keen interest Esther looked about her at the groups of sleek, well-dressed people, English, French, Russian, Italian. There was a large party of Americans who had crossed on the same boat with Roger. Their voices rang out, their R’s smacked of the Middle-West, Mommer and Popper seeing Europe, accompanied by a brace of coltish daughters, a reedy son with enormous spectacles, and the son’s two college chums, who looked to be good at football. Farther along sat two Russians who never spoke, one an owlish young man with glassy eyes and damp hair raked smoothly back, his companion a woman much older than himself, with broad cheek-bones and a mouth that was a great blot of scarlet in the midst of her chalk-white face.

Esther spied the plump, hennaed woman whom she had seen speak to Lady Clifford that day weeks ago, sitting at a table with another Frenchwoman equally plump and two men, fat and bald, both wearing a good deal of jewellery. The younger man, incredibly, had round his pudgy wrist a bangle set with turquoises! On the other side of this hilarious party was a large, sober-faced Englishman who looked like a stockbroker, Roger said, and with him a little humming-bird of a girl, starry-eyed, infantile belonging to musical comedy, no doubt. What a medley!

Look! Over there

Esther touched her companion’s arm suddenly.

“Do you see? There’s Captain Holliday and with his fat Spanish friend. Isn’t she dreadful?”

Following her eyes, Roger discovered across the room the redoubtable Arthur, nonchalantly ordering dinner for his vis-a-vis, a colossal, swarthy creature, dripping with pearls and glittering with diamonds like a chandelier.

“Spanish, did you say?”

“Yes, from the Argentine. I’ve seen them together before. It is she who has offered him the job.” She almost added, “And it is she whom your stepmother is jealous of,” but she pulled herself up in time.

“What a lot you seem to know about Holliday,” remarked Roger half-quizzically, half-seriously, eyeing her over the menu.

She laughed cheerfully.

“I do. I told you he interested me as a type. Caviare or grape-fruit? Oh, caviare. I feel like it, somehow.”

“So do I. And after that what about some sole specialte de la maison? How does that strike you? With a pigeon en cocotte to follow?”

“Marvellous! I’m glad I’m hungry. I missed tea on purpose.”

“So did I miss tea, but for other reasons. I took a bank at baccarat they’ve opened the room and time ceased to be.”

“Did you win?”

“No fear; I was down as usual. What about a simple Bronx to start with? And do you like a dry champagne?”

“Very dry, thanks!”

“It’s a good thing; it saves me buying two kinds. Waiter!”

“I feel this is going to be really a spree,” sighed Esther contentedly. “I have been abstemious for so long. You, too I notice you confine yourself to Evian water.”

“Oh, you’ve noticed that, have you? Yes, I take it for my complexion like my stepmother.”

“That’s so, she does drink Evian, doesn’t she? She scarcely touches wine.... How exquisite she is don’t you think? She is one of the loveliest women I have ever seen.”

“I quite agree,” he said slowly. “Therese will stand a good deal of looking at. Exquisite that’s the right word. There is only one thing about her that isn’t exquisite.”

“What is that?” she asked him curiously.

“Her hands.”

She gave a quick understanding nod.

“I know I’ve thought that, too. They don’t seem to go with the rest of her, although she takes such perfect care of them.”

“A psychologist chap once told me,” he remarked after a thoughtful pause, “that hands like that you mustn’t misunderstand me, he was only speaking of the type were the hands of the successful cocotte.”