The servant--completely puzzled by his own stupidity--attempted to make his apologies.
"Pray forgive me, gentlemen," he said. "I am afraid I have confused the cards I distribute with the cards returned to me. I think I had better consult my master."
Left by themselves, the visitors began to speak jestingly of the strange situation in which they were placed. The original holder of Number Fourteen described his experience of the Doctor in his own pithy way. "I applied to the fellow to tell my fortune. He first went to sleep over it, and then he said he could tell me nothing. I asked why. 'I don't know,' says he. ' I do,' says I--'humbug!' I'll bet you the long odds, gentlemen, that you find it humbug, too."
Before the wager could be accepted or declined, the door of the inner room was opened again. The tall, spare, black figure of a new personage appeared on the threshold, relieved darkly against the light in the room behind him. He addressed the visitors in these words:
"Gentlemen, I must beg your indulgence. The accident--as we now suppose it to be--which has given to the last comer the number already held by a gentleman who has unsuccessfully consulted me, may have a meaning which we can none of us at present see. If the three visitors who have been so good as to wait will allow the present holder of Number Fourteen to consult me out of his turn--and if the earlier visitor who left me dissatisfied with his consultation will consent to stay here a little longer--something may happen which will justify a trifling sacrifice of your own convenience. Is ten minutes' patience too much to ask of you?"
The three visitors who had waited longest consulted among themselves, and (having nothing better to do with their time) decided on accepting the Doctor's proposal. The visitor who believed it all to be "humbug" coolly took a gold coin out of his pocket, tossed it into the air, caught it in his closed hand, and walked up to the shaded lamp on the bracket.
"Heads, stay," he said, "Tails, go." He opened his hand, and looked at the coin. "Heads! Very good. Go on with your hocus-pocus, Doctor--I'll wait."
"You believe in chance," said the Doctor, quietly observing him. "That is not my experience of life."
He paused to let the stranger who now held Number Fourteen pass him into the inner room--then followed, closing the door behind him.
THE consulting-room was better lighted than the waiting-room, and that was the only difference between the two. In the one, as in the other, no attempt was made to impress the imagination. Everywhere, the commonplace furniture of a London lodging-house was left without the slightest effort to alter or improve it by changes of any kind.
Seen under the clearer light, Doctor Lagarde appeared to be the last person living who would consent to degrade himself by an attempt at imposture of any kind. His eyes were the dreamy eyes of a visionary; his look was the prematurely-aged look of a student, accustomed to give the hours to his book which ought to have been given to his bed. To state it briefly, he was a man who might easily be deceived by others, but who was incapable of consciously practicing deception himself.
Signing to his visitor to be seated, he took a chair on the opposite side of the small table that stood between them--waited a moment with his face hidden in his hands, as if to collect himself--and then spoke.
"Do you come to consult me on a case of illness?" he inquired, "or do you ask me to look to the darkness which hides your future life?"
The answer to these questions was frankly and briefly expressed. "I have no need to consult you about my health. I come to hear what you can tell me of my future life."
"I can try," pursued the Doctor; "but I cannot promise to succeed."
"I accept your conditions," the stranger rejoined. "I never believe nor disbelieve. If you will excuse my speaking frankly, I mean to observe you closely, and to decide for myself."
Doctor Lagarde smiled sadly.
"You have heard of me as a charlatan who contrives to amuse a few idle people," he said. "I don't complain of that; my present position leads necessarily to misinterpretation of myself and my motives. Still, I may at least say that I am the victim of a sincere avowal of my belief in a great science. Yes! I repeat it, a great science! New, I dare say, to the generation we live in, though it was known and practiced in the days when pyramids were built. The age is advancing; and the truths which it is my misfortune to advocate, before the time is ripe for them, are steadily forcing their way to recognition. I am resigned to wait. My sincerity in this matter has cost me the income that I derived from my medical practice. Patients distrust me; doctors refuse to consult with me. I could starve if I had no one to think of but myself. But I have another person to consider, who is very dear to me; and I am driven, literally driven, either to turn beggar in the streets, or do what I am doing now."
He paused, and looked round toward the corner of the room behind him. "Mother," he said gently, "are you ready?"
An elderly lady, dressed in deep mourning, rose from her seat in the corner. She had been, thus far, hidden from notice by the high back of the easy-chair in which her son sat. Excepting some f olds of fine black lace, laid over her white hair so as to form a head-dress at once simple and picturesque, there was nothing remarkable in her attire. The visitor rose and bowed. She gravely returned his salute, and moved so as to place herself opposite to her son.
"May I ask what this lady is going to do?" said the stranger.
"To be of any use to you," answered Doctor Lagarde, "I must be thrown into the magnetic trance. The person who has the strongest influence over me is the person who will do it to-night."
He turned to his mother. "When you like," he said.
Bending over him, she took both the Doctor's hands, and looked steadily into his eyes. No words passed between them; nothing more took place.