"La Belle Monopede," the far-famed one-legged dancer, had been out of England for nearly three years, touring first the Continent and then Australia and South Africa, and, to my great joy, was now once again back on the stage of the dear old Imperial. The appearance of my slim figure in its costume of filmy silk tights seemed as unique and surprising an event as ever, and I was gratified to find my little efforts to please received with such friendly and enthusiastic applause. I had reached the last week of my season at the theatre, and it was on the Friday night that, at the end of my first dance, I became aware of very noticeable applause coming from one of the large boxes on the left of the stage. I glanced swiftly across as I bowed to the general acclaim, and with a little thrill of pleasure I saw against the background of the other applauding occupants of the box the lovely, laughing face of Lady Moira Pomeroy.
She waved vivaciously across to me as my eyes caught hers, and as I made my exit, hopping swiftly and effortlessly to the wings, I blew, in return, a little laughing kiss of greeting.
I don't think there is very much need, at this time of day, to introduce Lady Moira Pomeroy to anybody at all familiar with smart society. The newspapers have made her name, her beauty and her doings famous - one had almost written notorious - wherever newspapers are read. Favoured with extraordinary beauty, youth, and high spirits, she could always be counted upon to lead the brighter elements of the smartest set in the latest and most novel escapade. Her fads of to-day become the fashions of tomorrow. She hunted, swam, raced, danced, wrote a little, painted a little, flew her own plane, had starred in the movies and on the stage - in fact, she had done everything worth, or not worth, doing.
Even as Lady Moira Trent, before her marriage a few years ago, at the age of twenty-three, to the Hon. Ronald Pomeroy, the heir of the Earl of Dyneham, she had startled society with the number and variety of her pranks. And then had come, a few months after her twenty-first birthday, catastrophe, or what was generally regarded as such by a sympathetic public. Some mysterious malady developed in her right leg, which persisted in spite of every effort. A famous surgeon was called in, and finally the limb was amputated within a few inches of the hip.
That was the finish of poor Lady Moira Trent, was society's pitying verdict. But society reckoned without Lady Moira! Such a little thing as the loss of a leg, be it ever so dainty and shapely, wasn't going to ruin her young life! No sooner had she made her remarkably quick recovery than she proceeded to make her beautiful, one-legged figure, the best known and most conspicuous in town. It became immediately evident that the loss of a leg had made not the slightest difference to her outlook on life and, in fact, instead of trying to conceal her deficiency, she positively delighted in making the most flamboyant display of it.
She habitually wore the briefest and most daring frocks; and - always a devotee of high heels - she was now able, daintily balanced on the slimmest and most delicately fashioned of crutches, to wear on her single foot, fragile slippers, slender, stiltlike heels of an almost incredible height, six inches being, for her, quite normal. Photographs of her in all kinds of daring dress and undress were weekly features of the fashionable illustrated journals, and the society paragraphists were kept as busy as ever chronicling the bewildering variety and amazing originality of her doings.
Finally she brought off what was regarded by her young admirers as her cleverest and most spectacular coup. She became engaged to the most eligible and handsomest bachelor in London - the Hon. Ronald Pomeroy, - who fell desperately in love with her, and within a few months they were married.
As with every other vicissitude of life, marriage made not the slightest difference to Lady Moira Pomeroy, as she now was, and she continued her spectacular career as gaily as ever. And it was shortly after her marriage that I had become acquainted with her, following one of my periodic "seasons" at the Imperial. We became very friendly, especially as we shared a common handicap, and then I had started out on my world tour and had not seen her again until the moment I have described, just after the first dance that evening.
Such, then, was Lady Moira Pomeroy. I have purposely dilated upon her, as her character and outlook have a very important bearing upon the strange story I have to tell. And her attitude throughout may, perhaps, be found rather more creditable if some attempt is made to understand her.
And so to come to the first of the many shocks I was to receive during my renewal of friendly relations with that beautiful, enigmatic, wayward, yet always amazingly attractive personality.
As I had expected, when I reached my dressing-room to change for my next dance, my maid handed me a note from Lady Moira, asking me to join her party in her box after my performance. When at last the curtain was rung down on my final dance I hurried to my dressing-room and, waiting only to remove my make-up, I threw a filmy wrap over my silk tights and, snatching up a crutch, made my way round to Moira's box.
There were two other ladies besides the hostess, and three gentlemen in the box. Ronald, Moira's husband, I knew, of course, also Bruce Fanshawe and one of the ladies. The third man, whose age I charged to be about thirty, tall, dark, very distinguished looking, with the clean-cut features of an actor, I did not know; but I at once got a definite impression that he was a personage of some kind with a distinct and curiously compelling personality. He was introduced to me as Dr. Somebody - I didn't quite catch the name, though later I was to know it only too well; but I smiled amiably enough as he bowed ceremoniously, in un-English fashion, over my outstretched fingers. When Moira, who occupied a chair in the front of the box, drew me down into the vacated chair at her side and kissed me in the warm, impulsive way that was so characteristic of her. As my act had immediately preceded the somewhat lengthy interval, the curtain was now down, and we were able to chatter in comfort.
"Well, Sonia, darling," she began, "and so really have decided to honour poor old England once again with your presence! What ages you have been away - " Then suddenly her face changed, and she looked at me with wide, startled eyes. "Why, my child," she went on rapidly, "what on earth is the matter?"
There was ample reason for Moira's sudden, alarmed question. For I was sitting staring at her as if turned to stone. For the moment the shock I had received threatened to overwhelm me, so utterly unexpected had it been.
I had not observed Moira fully until she swung round on her chair to gossip with me, and it was then that I saw the thing that had so completely unnerved me. Originally, the first thing one noted about Moira, even before her exquisite beauty, was the single, slim, shapely, silk-clad leg that was always so fully displayed by her very brief frocks. And now, unless my eyes were playing me extraordinary tricks, the leg - well, it simply wasn't there!
Moira's frock was as usual, of the most daring description. It was cut to the lowest possible point in front, and behind was almost completely backless. The top, what there was of it, was of shimmery black satin, fitting almost skin-tight, and from it the beautiful white bust, shoulders and arms emerged in complete and exquisite nudity. Below the waist, the little wisp of skirt was of very delicate and priceless clinging black lace and, I should say at a venture, would normally have reached scarcely to the knee.
Now, as Moira sat, it swelled gently in a smooth, rounded curve just below the hips, and a few inches of it lay emptily on the chair seat, falling just short of the edge of the latter, and leaving it quite clear that she had lost both legs.
Swayed by sudden emotion, I bent forward, taking Moira's hand in mine. "Moira, darling," I stammered, your leg! What a terrible thing! I didn't know. When - when did it happen?"
Moira, who since her first alarmed question had been holding a cigarette in an abnormally long, jewelled holder, poised between dainty fingers, while she regarded me in a sort of puzzled wonder, now inhaled a long puff of smoke, and then laughed in relieved and genuine amusement.
"Sonia, my dear," she exclaimed in those flute-like tones of hers, "you frightened the life out of me! For the moment I thought you had gone dippy. And you mean to say you didn't know? Why, I thought everybody did. You see what happens when you go off dancing into the blue. It's the oldest stale news now. I've been a legless woman for over two years. It rather suits me, what do you think?"
"But Moira," I persisted, a little shocked, in spite of my knowledge of her, at her quite unassumed levity in what, for anybody else, would have been unutterably poignant circumstances. "It's splendidly plucky of you to take it a little that; but it must have been a terrible experience. I can hardly take it in the full significance of it now. It seems incredible that you should actually be completely legless."
"You're a darling, Sonia," she said softly, "to be so genuinely concerned about me. But, honestly, dearest, You don't understand me a little bit. I suppose I ought to shed tears over my unhappy lot, but honest to goodness, I can't, and I don't want to. I was born happy-go-lucky and devil-may-care, and I shall be so to the end. I managed, as you know, to get a devil of a lot of fun out of being one-legged, and I'm getting just as much out of being legless. I've so used to it now that leglessness seems quite a natural state. In fact, I've almost forgotten what it was like to be one-legged; while as for my two-legged days - well, they seem to go back to the ark. Gospel, my dear, I assure you."
I had to laugh. I couldn't help it. Moira's astonishing vivacity and high spirits chased gloom as naturally as the sunshine dispelled the snow.
"That's right," Moira babbled delightedly. "Dry your tears, darling, and don't ever let me see such things again. Heavens! I had expected you, when at last we met again, to go into raptures over what has been described as my 'charming leglessness'. See the daily Press society columns - and you actually cry over me. Shocking bad form! And now, dear heart, run away and fling on your things. We only came to see your show. Ronald and I are only just back from Paris, otherwise we should, of course, have shown up on your first night. We are all going on to the 'Silver Slipper' for a morsel of food and, of course, you'll join us. We'll wait for you here."
I hurried away. My feelings, as may be imagined, were rather mixed. But I was certainly now happier than I was sad. After all, if Fate had decreed that Lady Moira was to be legless, it was surely just as well that she was able to escape the blow in her dauntless, gallant way so entirely characteristic of her. That soothed me and helped me to take a very much less tragic view of the matter . Besides I had now begun to be conscious of the subtle fascination which her present condition was able to exercise, a fascination which, it may be remembered by readers who have so far followed my adventures, was so potently wielded by the many limbless beauties I had encountered in that amazing club, the "Moignon D'Or."
I was back again in the box within a very few minutes, clad in a filmy evening gown almost as daring as Moira's, my little foot in a dainty slipper with a four inch heel, and a slender, beautifully fashioned crutch under my right arm.
The party was now ready to move and, despite my new feelings, I could not wholly suppress a little poignant thrill as I saw Ronald place an exquisite long-fringed shawl about Moira's shoulders, and then take her up tenderly in his arms, pressing a little surreptitious kiss upon her uplifted lips as he did so. It was quite evident, at any rate, that his wife's leglessness had not affected in any way his devotion and love.
We divided into two parties outside the theatre, and went off to London' s latest smart night club in two cars. Moira, Ronald and myself in Ronald's big Rolls-Royce limousine, and the others in my own car, which was, of course, waiting by the stage-door to pick me up.
I sank luxuriously back on the cushions, Moira on my right and Ronald facing us with his back to the chauffeur. And as we moved off, I had a sudden half-aroused thought that, had a stranger caught a glimpse of us at that moment in the car's softly lighted interior, he must have gasped in sheer astonishment. Myself, with just a single, shapely leg, very fully revealed below my very brief frock; Moira, just a beautiful halfwoman, daintily poised at my side, nothing at all showing below the cushions on which she lounged; and Ronald looking as if there was nothing in the least extraordinary riding with two beautiful women with but a single leg between them!
However, Moira engaged my attention with her pleasant chatter. "Moira, darling," I said," you never told me - how did it happen? Your leg, I mean. Was it an accident?"
Moira shot a quick little sidelong glance at me, and I had the curious feeling that for just a split second the smile had suddenly died out of her beautiful eyes. But I felt I must have been mistaken, for when she faced me fully she was just as gay and debonair as ever.
"Oh, that," she said, with a humorous little grimace. "No, it wasn't an accident. To tell you the real truth, dear heart, it wasn't altogether unexpected. Did you ever hear how I lost my right leg - that is, the first one to take its departure?"
"Some trouble - I never heard quite what - developed in the limb, wasn't it?"
"Yes. It appears I must have got hold of a germ, or something of the sort, when I was a kiddy. Anyhow, some early mischief started the trouble, which later developed in my right leg. Everything possible was done, but without success, and at last it became obvious that the only thing that remained was amputation. Well, there it was. A blow, my child, but one can always come up smiling. Now, as it happens, I had recently been reading of the remarkable work being done in Paris by the very big gun in the surgical world - a certain Dr. Nicholas, who was not only a clever surgeon in the ordinary way, but also a wonderful plastic surgeon as well. When he performed an amputation, especially on a beautiful woman - among whom, by the way, his chief practice lay - he did not just lop off a limb and leave it at that. He was too great an artist for such a thing. His ideal was to leave his patient's body as beautiful as he found it, working on it, so to speak, as a sculptor would fashion the pliant clay into a thing of loveliness.
"Here was the man for my money, I thought, and he was at once communicated with. Well, Dr. Nicholas came. He was perfectly charming and perfectly understanding. He examined me, and agreed that amputation within four or five inches of the hip-joint was imperative. The next day the operation took place, and it was entirely successful, not only from the surgical standpoint, but also from mine, or when at last I was able to judge his handiwork, I found that by some miracle of skin-grafting and fleshbuilding he had left me a stump about 5 inches long from the hip, not only a plump perfect oval, but absolutely without scar or blemish, the flesh soft and satin smooth, as beautiful as any other part of my body."
Moira paused and drew expectantly on the cigarette, one of which, in its long, slender holder, was hardly ever out of her fingers, and then went on with her story as vivaciously as if she were telling me some interesting item of gossip. Ronald looked on quietly, a little smile half tender, half sad, on his lips.
"So far, so good - or so bad, as the case may be," Moira continued. "But there was something else in store. Fate had not yet finished with me. During his examination, as he later revealed to me just before he left for Paris, Dr. Nicholas had discovered the beginnings of the malady in my remaining leg. He assured me the danger was exceedingly remote, and prescribed certain treatment for me. But I knew, that sooner or later, I was going to provide him with another little artistic success. I warned poor darling Ronald, by the way, when we became engaged,that in all probability he would have a legless wonder for his wife, but it didn't make a bit of difference to him, bless his great big heart! However, just over two years ago, Dr. Nicholas came again. He performed his miracle a second time, leaving me with a stump at my left hip the exact twin in size and perfect contour, of that of my right, just as firm-fleshed, smooth-skinned and embellished - Voila!"
"Yes," she continued, "Dr. Nicholas is certainly a great man, even though he looks just a little too like one to be quite true. did that strike you about him, Sonia?"
"Then that was Dr. Nicholas to whom I was introduced in the box at the theatre?" I asked quickly, not altogether surprised at the revelation. "But how do you mean, 'too like a great man to be quite true?'"
"I really shouldn't have said that, my child," said Moira, a little more soberly. "Trying to be clever is my besetting sin. so; all that I actually meant was that - well, he looks the great surgeon to the life, doesn't he? More like you get them in the movies or on the stage than they are in real life."
I nodded comprehendingly. That was exactly how Dr. Nicholas did strike one. And yet here was something else in him than just that - something compelling, hypnotic, and certainly decidedly enigmatic.
"Is he now living in London?" I asked.
"Oh, no. He is in London, as usual, on a big case, and I persuaded him to stay for a little while longer. Which reminds me, darling, we are having a little country house party at Greensheaves next week, and, of course, you are coming. Can you manage it?"
"After Saturday night," I said, "I shall be free for a few weeks, when I start out again on my next world tour."
"Splendid! Then you can make a nice long stay. It will be lovely to have you, darling."
"And - Dr. Nicholas - is he to be one of the party?"
Once again I caught that little sidelong glance of hers, but whether it held any significance or not, I was once again not certain.
"Oh, yes," she replied, quite steadily. "I am really having the house party to ask a few friends to meet him. He is really charming, isn't he, Ronald?"
Then Ronald made one of his few contributions to the conversation.
"Oh, yes," he cried, with his slow, pleasant smile, "he's charming all right; damned agreeable. I'm told he lops off a limb with the most charming air in the world."
We both laughed, I in somewhat surprised appreciation of the unexpected bite in Ronald's little quip, and then, for the moment, we drove on in silence. I lay back cosily, idly thinking of all that Moira had told me, and speculating on my coming meeting with the famous and intriguing doctor, fortunately unaware of the depths to which that encounter was to lead. That there was nothing in the least sinister behind Moira's very warm invitation I was never in the least doubt, though certainly she played her own strange part in the grim drama that was so soon to be staged at Greensheaves. But, thank God, she had no hand in the grave peril that came to me through that fateful invitation "to meet Dr. Nicholas."
As our visit to the 'Silver Slipper' was of the most uneventful description, and, in any case, has little bearing on this story, I shall not delay upon it, but get on to more pertinent matters. The only thing of any note I have record in connection with it is that, on better acquaintance with Dr. Nicholas, I was not sure that I liked him altogether. He was quite charming, certainly very handsome, and was, in fact, rather noticeably attentive to myself. But something which I could not for the life of me define, held me aloof. The feeling was purely instinctive, and I had to let it go at that.
However, I arrived at Greensheaves shortly after ten on Sunday, after a pleasant run down in my big Hispano-Suiza, and was received by Ronald, in the absence of Moira, who, as I was not at all surprised to hear, was still in her room. She had left orders, however, that I was to be taken up to her as soon as I arrived. I delayed only to change from my traveling clothes into a filmy frock and to freshen myself up a little, and then went up to Moira's room.
I found her ensconced among the silken pillows of her gorgeous Chinese lacquer bed, like a queen upon her throne, the pink and ivory of her lovely body gleaming softly through the filmy transparency of her sleeveless black and gold pyjamas.
A lacquer tray, containing the delicate porcelain impedimenta of an already eaten breakfast, lay on a small beautifully fashioned table in gold, Chinese filigree, at the side of the bed. The inevitable cigarette, in its long jewelled holder, was held between slim fingers, and on the bed were scattered newspapers and magazines in riotous profusion.
Moira welcomed me warmly, pulling me down beside her for an affectionate kiss. Then she reached for a big cigarette-box in hammered gold, and offered me a cigarette, sinking lazily back on her pillows again. I remained perched on the bed facing her.
"Well, now the revels, such as they are, may begin," she said, a trifle cryptically, I thought, until she went on. "For, with your arrival, the party is complete. Dr. Nicholas just beat you by getting here last night. By the way, was it really fancy on my part, or were you - shall we say? - just a little bit scared of the doctor at the 'Silver Slipper' on Friday night?"
I stared at Moira in complete surprise, marvelling at the quickness of her perception. I had been quite sure I had given no hint of my feelings towards the doctor, but Moira had diagnosed them at a single glance.
"I don't remember being scared, exactly," I said defensively. "what made you think that?"
"Oh! it doesn't matter, dear heart, "said Moira lightly. "probably it was just my fancy - and certainly the doctor was not at all fearsome in his attentions to you. Only, I just thought - Do you believe in intuition, Sonia?"
"I think I do, rather," I said, still a little bit at sea.
"I certainly do," she went on, "and anyone I instinctively distrust, I keep at arm's length. It's a safe plan, and I recommend it to you if ever the need arises."
Then, with apparent and complete inconsequence she sat up and, with a sweep of the hand, flung aside the delicate, lace fringed bed-clothes.
"Here I am lazing the whole morning away," she cried, "and a glorious sun is bidding me up and doing. We'll have the devoted Annette in." And drawing to her the electric bell cord that hung above her pillows, she pressed the little ivory button.
But I was just a little thoughtful. What exactly had been behind Moira's remarks? Was she warning me off her preserves? Had she resented the doctor's attentions to me, and had got me up in her bedroom to give me the most delicate of hints? Or was she actually warning me against the doctor?
Knowing Moira as I did, I felt that the first theory was quite untenable. Yet why should she warn me, even in such vague terms, against the doctor? The puzzle intrigued me; but in the circumstances, I had to leave it for the moment.
Meanwhile, Moira was sitting upright like some beautiful, hip-length carved goddess that had been lifted from its pedestal and deposited there; and, now that the veiling bed-clothes had been flung aside, I could not be unconscious of the display of her charms.
"Darling, I think you look perfect," I said, quite sincerely - and I hope my readers will understand. Everything is relative, and I trust it will be obvious that in the special circumstances I am describing, matters were not altogether on a normal plane. "Certainly Dr. Nicholas has lived up to his great reputation," I went on. "For even in maiming you, he has left you as beautiful as he found you.
A little flicker of delight danced in Moira's eyes, no doubt at the obviously genuine nature of my appreciation, and, hugging me to her, she kissed me warmly.
"So you are really beginning to think that leglessness does suit me after all?" she said whimsically.
"Well," I said, "if I can't go quite so far, I can at least admire your really wonderful courage."
"Oh, as to that," she said lightly - and it was only much later that the full significance of her words was brought home to me --"it isn't altogether courage. Please, darling, do not credit me with too many of the virtues."
At that moment there came a light knock on the door, and in response to Moira's cheery "Come in," there entered a very pretty, neatly attired maid.
"Annette," said Moira," I think it is about time we rose, what you say?"
"Yes, my lady," said the maid, with a smile. "I prepared the bath when you rang, my lady."
"Excellent! I'm quite ready."
Annette bent down and gathered her mistress tenderly in her arms; and though the moment had a sudden poignancy for me, Moira was unconcerned, and waved to me cheerfully as I stood up and adjusted my crutch.
"I shall be with you very shortly," she said turning in the maid's arms as she was being carried to the dressing-room. Then, with a little mischievous grin, she added, "Go and be nice to Dr. Nicholas - unless of course, Tina is with him, when I don't think you need bother."
As I made way down to the spacious hall I puzzled over the inner meaning of Moira's cryptic little remark. Who was "Tina," and what had she do to with Dr. Nicholas? But when I had passed through the hall and reached the long verandah that overlooked the broad lawns at the rear of the house, l was able to make a shrewd guess at the solution of the little mystery.
From the verandah, a shallow flight of very broad, stone steps let to a beautiful sweep of green park-land, dotted here and there with great shady trees. Over to the left was a miniature lake with a pretty summer house, in the form of a Swiss chalet, on its shores; and to the right a couple of tennis courts had been laid down, surrounded by pretty flowered borders. One of the courts, I noted, was occupied by a quartet, which included the two beautiful twins, partnered respectively by Bruce Fanshawe and Ronald.
Directly facing the verandah was a fine stretch of open lawn, and this was strewn with deck-chairs, cane and wicker furniture, great gaudily striped sunshades - in fact, all the paraphernalia usually found on a sunny lawn in summer. Various guests, masculine and feminine, some of them known to me, others strangers, basked in the hot sun, with cooling drinks at their elbows, one or two summoning up sufficient energy, every know and then, to applaud a particularly good rally on the tennis court.
And coming slowly across the pack, from the direction of the summer house, was Dr. Nicholas, in a well-cut, tightly fitting suit of light gray flannel, chatting amiably with a very pretty girl who, as she gossiped, looked up at him every now and then, with every appearance of delighted interest.
So this, I took, was Tina, whom Moira must have taken it for granted I knew, but whom I never met before. I could see she was quite charming, just arriving at her twenties, an unusually pretty, shingled blonde. Her daintily slim figure was attractively gowned in a fashionable straight frock of shimmering, Peachcoloured crepe de chine, with a skirt that, even in these days of short frocks, was startlingly brief. Hers, however, was certainly a case in which more than usual brevity was perfectly justified; for her legs, so daintily displayed, were the prettiest and shapeliest I had ever encountered. And her small feet, in beautifully fitting, low-cut slippers, with astonishingly high, slender heels, were exquisitely dainty.
The greatest effect was enhanced by a striking splash of colour provided by a magnificent long-fringed shawl in vivid vari-coloured silk that was flung with careless grace about her shoulders. As she came swinging gracefully along at Dr. Nicholas's side I thought she looked the loveliest thing, and I was not at all surprised that the doctor had apparently fallen a victim to her charms.
I did not leave the verandah and join the others on the lawn below but sat in the grateful shade and watched with growing interest the doctor and his lovely companion as they gradually came nearer. A little to the left of the general group of people on the lawn was a somewhat isolated, gaudily coloured sunshade, beneath which were a garden table and a number of deep comfortable and inviting wicker chairs. It was for these that the pair was making, and at last they reached them and, choosing a couple of chairs, sank gracefully into them.
They were now comparatively near me; though, engrossed as they were with one another, they were unconscious of my presence on the verandah. Not that I could overhear anything they said, nor had I any wish to do so -- I was simply interested in them as a mere spectator, and was thus idly whiling away the time until Moira joined me again.
The doctor's arm, I noticed, stole almost mechanically round Tina's shoulders as they talked, and I could see his fingers smoothing the silk of the shawl over them in a gentle, caressing manner. And then I saw a thing that, by its very unexpectedness, sent a thrill pulsing through me, and immediately quickened my interest in something definitely personal.
Tina was still talking animatedly to the doctor and, responding half instinctively to his caressing touch, she slid of her right slipper and began to smooth her companion's ankle with the unslippered foot. But it was not just this intimate little caress that thrilled me; in common with many other girl, I have often employed it myself. It was the startling fact that the silk stocking encasing her dainty foot was delicately "mittened" at the toe, so that, as I could plainly see from where I sat, the slender white toes were quite bare!
I had just made this fascinating discovery when a little bubble of well-known laughter behind me made me turn, and I found Annette standing by my chair, with Moira lying in lazy comfort in her arms.
"Moira!" I said excitedly. "You didn't tell about Tina - that is Tina I suppose?" I added, indicating the doctor's companion. "Why didn't you tell me about her?"
"What a tremendous fuss," laughed Moira. "I thought you had met Tina Romney, darling - I thought everybody had! I forgot you've been away in the wilds so long. However, we can very soon remedy that."
She sent a musical call over he intervening space, and Dr. Nicholas looked up. Immediately he was on his feet, with a friendly wave of the hand. Then, after a brief word with Tina, he hurried across to us. In smiling unconcern, as if he were quite accustomed to performing the service, he took Moira from the arms of the maid, who then retired, and we all three joined Tina beneath the big sunshade, the doctor placing Moira in a chair with a tender care that was almost loverly.
Moira's costume, by the way, would surely have made everyone who did not know her well gasp with astonishment. She had changed, certainly but only from one set of pyjamas to another. This set was beautifully supple, gorgeously flowered, printed chiffon, that clung to her lovely body with revealing grace; and from the little very brief trouserette there emerged the twin stumps, just as frankly as they had in the bedroom. She had, however, made one concession to the conventions, for the stumps were now no longer bare, but were clad in smooth-fitting fleshcoloured silk.
"Tina," Moira said when we were all settled, "I thought you knew Sonia - Miss Merrill; but I find I was wrong. And you certainly ought to know each other."
"Of course, I knew Miss Merrill by sight," returned Tina with a charming smile. "I've seen your wonderful act more than once," she went on, turning to me. Do - do you mind accepting my - my foot? I'm - I'm afraid I am unable to shake hands."
With quite astonishing flexibility, she lifted the little unslippered foot, as she made her attractively halting apology, and I took it in my hands, savouring its smooth, delicate texture, I saw how beautifully fashioned were the long, slender, bare toes, the little nails like tiny shells of corals, the whole foot as dainty and well cared for as the delicate hand of a fastidious and fashionable beauty.
Beneath the filmy stocking I caught the glint of a thin, gold anklet, and on one of the toes gleamed a tiny, but costly jewelled ring. The stocking was beautifully "mittened," with a delicate lace edging where the toes appeared, and between the toes were slender strands of silk, so that each toe emerged from its own particular slot. The effect of this was that the stocking foot at this point fitted with neat perfection, and could not ride up in any circumstances, while the little lace slots formed a dainty setting for the slim bare toes.
I released the little foot at last with a gentle squeeze, and Tina returned it expertly to her slipper. Then Moira, who was sitting next to me, leant towards her. "Tina will persist in hiding her charms," she said, with a little mischievous smile. "Why do you do it, my child?" And with a swift movement she slid the shawl from Tina's shoulders.
Of course, I had expected the revelation, ever since seeing Tina caress the doctor's ankle with those pretty toes or her; but nevertheless there was a real thrill in the sudden exposure of her lovely shoulders, so entirely without arms, and yet, in themselves, so perfect and shapely. Tina's frock was quite sleeveless and the armholes were filled simply with the bare, smoothly rounded ends of the shoulders, which protruded only very slightly and revealed not the slightest trace of arms. No blemish or irregularity of line marred their exquisite symmetry. It was as if some great sculptor, having in a moment of temporary aberration, forgotten the arms, but devoted his genius to making the shoulders as perfect as possible.
Tina flushed adorably beneath our scrutiny; but, almost unconsciously, she preened herself before us, and it seemed quite obvious that she was not at all insensible to the fascination of her own unique charms.
"You know, Tina," said Moira, and despite the fantastic nature of her words, there was something oddly sincere in her tones, "your shoulders are the most lovely things, in their way. After all, arms are the merest commonplace; everybody has them, and not one pair in a thousand is worth looking at. But your shoulders - they are unique. Actually arms would spoil them!"
We all laughed at Moira's comical earnestness. Of course, she was to be expected to go further than anybody else in her worship of the unusual in beauty. But, to my surprise, I saw the doctor nod portentously two or three times, as if in agreement with Moira's fantastic contention. But he said nothing, and then the conversation became general.
In just the same important way the doctor took out his gold cigarette-case and handed it round. It was quite fascinating to watch Tina select her cigarette with her flexible toes and convey it expertly to her lips, removing it any now and then, when she had inhaled, just as naturally as if she were using a hand. And with a little secret smile I noted that in the mean time her left foot was also unslippered, and that the pretty bare toes again fondled the doctor's ankle. It seemed clear to me that the little armless beauty had fallen a very willing victim to the handsome doctor's very obvious attractions, and that he himself was not at all indifferent to her attentions.
But, at the same time he wasn't quite indifferent to myself either. I discovered him looking at me every now and then, obviously trying to catch my eye; and when, despite myself, our glances met, his lips would curl in a little friendly smile that I had perforce to return. Then, during a lull in the conversation, he turned directly to me.
"Would I seem very impertinent, Miss Merrill," he said, "if, as a medical man, I were to inquire how exactly you lost your leg?"
"Not at all, doctor," I said, inwardly taken by surprise by the direct question, "though candidly, the details are not very clear in my mind. You see, I was only seven at the time of the actual amputation. A fall from a garden swing was, I think, the actual beginning of the trouble."
"H'm!" murmured the doctor, with what I thought quite unnecessary portentousness. "A fall - yes, anything might come from a fall. . . dangerous things... Never to know to what mischief they lead. Might I - might I, purely in a professional capacity, of course - might I be permitted to see the stump, Miss Merrill?"
I am, as readers who have so far followed my adventures well know, not in the least sensitive about displaying my stump - in fact, while on stage it is always in evidence. But something, at that juncture, made me hesitate for just the fraction of a second. Then I realised that my intuitive distrust of the doctor was leading me to absurd lengths, so without more ado I allowed him to make the examination.
"Of course time has been a wonderful plastic surgeon in your case, Miss Merrill," he said when he concluded his inspection. "You see, the scar has practically disappeared. Time has been very kind to you."
"Tell me, Miss Merrill," he continued, leaning forward, "and please don't be in the least alarmed - it is merely professional curiosity on my part - but are there any other effects of childhood's fall of yours?" No hurt or pain elsewhere?"
I shook my head.
"Oh, no," I said, "at least nothing that I have ever been aware of."
"You use your remaining leg a great deal," he went on. "Much more, of course, than the ordinary one-legged woman. Never felt any trouble there?"
"No," I replied, wondering a little at his persistence. "A little fatigue, of course, very frequently, but no actual pain or anything of that sort."
The doctor nodded gravely again.
"Excellent!" he murmured. "I was just - well, curious. But - oh, excellent, quite excellent!
In some curious way, the murmured words left me with a vague sense of uneasiness; then I happened to glance across at Moira, and was more definitely disturbed by what I saw. For she was gazing at Dr. Nicholas; and on her face, usually so vivacious, was now a look that seemed curiously compounded of anger and fear. And then she caught my glance, and whatever had clouded her face lifted instantly, and she was apparently quite her old self again.
"Enough of this - this consulting-room ghoulishness," she cried gaily. "Dr. Nicholas, I forbid you to turn my lawns into a surgery. I think it high time we joined my other guests. Besides, it must be nearly lunch time. Doctor, dear, will you very kindly lend me those big, strong arms of yours, and carry me over? Come along, darling, we're getting too morbid for words!"
And so our quiet little conference broke up, and forming a sort of procession with Moira, in the doctor's arms, in the rear, we crossed leisurely to the other members of the party.
During the pleasant, sunlit days that followed, the curiously mixed impressions that I had taken away from that odd little conference became gradually blurred. I suppose I was at first afraid of some vague something that I could not define. The doctor's curious interest in me, Moira's very uncharacteristic moment of angry fear - if that was what I had surmised on her face - had both left me disturbed and apprehensive. But these emotions gradually faded, and, if not quite forgotten, were, at any rate, hidden in the background of my mind.
Meanwhile, I was kept continually amused by the relations between the doctor, Moira and Tina. Moira, I knew, was really attached to her husband, who was extremely fond of her. But both were of very happy-go-lucky disposition, and neither minded in the least if the other indulged in a mild flirtation with some body else. Ronald was at the time deep in a little affair with one of the pretty Lane twins, and Moira seemed quite fascinated by the doctor.
He divided his favours with seeming impartiality between Moira and Tina, though I felt that the relations between himself and the pretty armless girl were much stronger than the very light ties that bound him to the hostess. The affair had, however, its extremely odd aspects, for there was a very handsome, very distinguished young man, to whom any pretty, normally formed girl would have willingly lost her heart, apparently quite content to pay court to two beautiful girls, one of whom was quite legless and the other was completely armless!
It was remarkable, however, and not unamusing, how, though the trio were frequently seen together, the doctor managed for the most part to pair off with only one at the time -- Moira one evening, and Tina another. Moira's affair was radically different from that of Tina, for while she flirted slightly with the doctor there could be no doubt that the charming armless beauty was head over heels in love with him.
I hope it will not be thought that, in all this, I was playing the eavesdropper, or that Moira left me too much to my own devices. There was nothing at all covert about anybody's doings at Greensheaves, which was in every way liberty hall, and the little flirtations I have described took place quite openly only a few yards from where I sat, or even, when I was a member of the party, in my presence. Besides, I did not lack cavaliers of my own, one or two being almost embarrassing in the assiduity of their attentions. But this is not the story of my flirtations, though those of Moira and Tina certainly have their very important place in the drama.
And that drama was even now moving inevitably to its first crisis. I had been now at Greensheaves three days, and it was on the Tuesday evening that there fell the first of the unexpected blows that were gradually to reduce me to despair and very nearly ended in complete disaster.
After dinner on that particular evening the doctor had gone into the park, this time with both Moira and Tina, and I had taken the opportunity to slip away to the writing-room to write a letter. I had covered several sheets with my spidery scrawl, when the door opened softly and, to my surprise and annoyance, Dr. Nicholas came in, closing the door quietly after him.
"I come as ambassador to their highnesses Lady Moira and Miss Romney," he said in his richest and most agreeable tones. "We happened to drift into a little discussion about theatrical matters, and I made a suggestion, which I am happy to say was carried with acclamation, that you should be asked to join us and put us right upon certain points. I hope you will do us that honour, Miss Merrill."
I was surprised at his mission, and, as usual where he was concerned, just a little suspicious of his genuineness. But I laughed, I hope naturally.
"I shall, of course, only be too delighted," I said, "to join you when I have finished this letter - if you won't mind the little delay?"
"Oh, certainly," he said, showing his teeth. Then, producing his flat gold cigarette-case, a habit with him on all occasions, he offered me one of the fat, expensive brand of cigarettes he smoked.
I took the cigarette and lit it from the match he struck. He himself lit a cigarette also, and then, with his little bow, he began to stroll up and down the room, puffing contentedly. Apparently he fully intended to wait until I had finished my letter.
I was destined, however, never to finish that letter. For quite suddenly, without any warning, I began to feel at first uncomfortably hot, and then definitely faint. I called, and saw the doctor running towards me, a look of surprise and apprehension on his face. He got me quickly to a couch, and my last recollection was of his pressing an electric-bell button with impatient thrust. Then I dropped swiftly into some black, bottomless pit.
I awoke to find an assembly of most of the house party about the couch. Moira, resting on a low pouffe, was chaffing my hands while the doctor ministered to me. My head was aching terribly, and my tongue felt like a piece of wood in my mouth.
"Drink this," said the doctor, soothingly presenting a glass to my lips. I drank thirstily, and felt better almost immediately. Then I sat up and smiled rather mistily at the company.
"What happened exactly?" asked the doctor earnestly. "Had you been feeling unwell before, or was the attack quite unexpected?"
"Quite," I murmured. "I had been feeling perfectly well. Then I-I-had that cigarette... .
"The cigarette!" cried the doctor. "I had completely forgotten that. But -- it couldn't...I wonder."
He turned swiftly and made for the desk at which I had been sitting and there, on the carpet below the desk, lying where it had obviously dropped from my lips, was the partly smoked cigarette. The doctor picked it up, sniffed it, examined it closely, and then lit it and puffed strongly.
"It couldn't have been the cigarette," he said after a while. "It's perfectly all right - unless the Turkish flavour upsets you, Miss Merrill?"
"I shook my head, as I am quite a heavy smoker of all brands of cigarettes.
He looked at me for some moments in puzzled thought. Then: "Do you think you could stand up?" he asked.
I lifted myself and stood poised for a moment on my single foot. Then a sudden shot of agony shot through my leg, and I fell back on the couch, white and frightened.
"What is it?" asked the doctor in grave concern, and I told him what had happened.
"We must get you to bed at once," he said with decision and though I weakly protested, he had his way. Within a few minutes I was lying in bed, and he was subjecting me to a thorough examination. He spent a lot of what I considered quite unnecessary time over my stump.
Then he turned his attention to my leg, which he subjected to just as careful an examination, returning every now and then to a little discolored mark like a tiny bruise that marked the smooth whiteness of my thigh, and which I never remembered seeing be fore. He questioned me about this, but I was unable to give him any information.
At last he stood up; and while his face was still grave, his voice was kind.
"Now, my dear young lady, there isn't any occasion for alarm. You mustn't distress yourself. I shall give you a little injection, and we'll hope to have you as right as ever in no time."
He performed his little operation at once, making the injection in my thigh; but he would answer none of my alarmed questions except in his soothing, "Nothing at all to worry about" formula. Then, giving me a mild soporific, he left me with an affectionate pat on the cheek, and I fell almost at once into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I was allowed to get up next morning, and I was intensely relieved to find that, though my leg was weak and shaky, there was no pain, and I was, of course, able to get about quite easily on my crutches. But, momentarily reliant though I was, my mind was not by any means easy. What had happened to me? What was the cause of that utterly unexpected breakdown? Had it been a sudden unbearable spasm of pain in my leg that has caused the faintness and, if so, how had that arisen? I was completely at a loss and as completely alarmed.
The doctor was cautiously noncommittal. It was nothing... but I had better be careful. And, my dear young lady, that's the thing. . . overwork, you know... The strain of continuous dancing on your one slender little leg... Rest no worry. And with that I had better be content.
The doctor continued his treatment, and though I had one or two further attacks they were not so pronounced, and I felt at least that the trouble, whatever it was, was gradually being combated.
And then, a few nights later, came despair, black and unrelieved.
Upon that night Moira gave a special dance which was attended in addition to the members of the house party, by a host of her smart friends from town. I had so far recovered my health and spirits by this time as to be able to enter into the festivities with all my usual abandon, and we ladies all vied with each other in the originality and daring of our costumes.
Tina was universally admired: her slim figure, clad only in cobwebby, black silk tights, through which the pink-tinted ivory of her lovely body gleamed alluringly, and from which her wonderful bare white bust and armless shoulders emerged in all their startling beauty. With this costume she wore amazing slippers with 6 inch heels; and the shapely bare toes of both feet, when revealed, gleamed with many jewelled rings. She fascinated everybody by her feats with those flexible toes of hers, and she won a little bet, in addition to delighted applause, by standing balanced only on one foot in its incredible high heeled slipper, while with the toes of the other she lifted a brimming glass of champagne to her lips and drank it off!
For myself, I had my own share of admiration. I had borrowed a pair of Moira's filmiest chiffon pyjamas, which I wore over flesh coloured silk tights, the little trouserettes permitting a full display of my leg, with an alluring glimpse of my silk-clad stump as it peeped from its filmy setting.
Moira was, of course, as spectacular as ever, and her entrance was indeed a triumph, heralded as it was by a flourish of trumpets from the band. For the occasion, Ronald had dressed as a page, in white wig, Pink silk flowered coat, tight satin breeches, silk stockings and buckled shoes complete. Supported by silkencased straps from his shoulders, after the fashion of a pedlar's tray, was a flat, cushioned seat, on which Moira rested as if she were some sculptured goddess being exhibited to a crowd of admiring connoisseurs.
Ropes of pearls, in graduated lengths, hung almost from throat to waist; jewelled bangles covered her arms; costly rings gleamed on her fingers; and on each stump was a perfectly fitting, flat gold circlet, beaten to wafer thinness and hung with loops of tiny pearls. And thus, like some barbaric, legless queen, being borne in triumph, she was carried through a laughing and applauding throng, to be placed upon a specially prepared cushion-topped pedestal, where she received her guests and declared the revels open.
I forgot my troubles for a while in the hectic gaiety of the evening, but as the night wore on I became, for me, unusually tired, and the dull ache that I now had come to dread developed in my leg. I recovered my slender, white "evening" crutch from behind the couch where I had deposited it, and, throwing a wrap about my shoulders, I slipped away unnoticed into the cool of the darkened park, gradually making my way to the little summer-house I have already mentioned, on the borders of the lake.
Here I dropped into a seat, and there came flooding back to me all the apprehensions and fears that had been occasioned by my strange, inexplicable fainting fit and the developments to which it gave rise. And while I meditated in depressed abstraction, I heard a footfall outside, and there passed -- shadow figures in the gloom - Dr. Nicholas carrying Moira in his arms.
A little to my dismay, he paused in the wide doorway and, placing Moira on a chair by the lake-side, took on at her side. I was about to get up and so make my presence known, when Moira asked a question that, as it were, rooted me to my chair, and for the life of me I couldn't help waiting for the reply.
"Doctor," she said, and there was no lightness or gaiety in her tones, "tell me, and please tell me the truth -- what is Sonia's trouble? I do not understand it at all. It developed so suddenly. What is it?"
"My dear Moira," came the cool tones of the doctor, "please don't distress yourself. Miss Merrill's trouble may be purely temporary. I am hopeful - most hopeful."
"Dr. Nicholas," Moira rapped out in staccato annoyance. "Please don't fence with me like that. I'm not quite ignorant of these matters, as you very well know. I want to know, I must know, what your opinion is."
"My child, restrain yourself. To be quite candid, I think it would be just as well if, all things considered, Miss Merrill were to place herself entirely in my care in a good nursing home. There you have my opinion -- and it is not so very terrible at all."
"I see," said Moira, in a queer, hopeless way. "I see. Then, Dr. Nicholas," she went on suddenly, and paused. I had a curious intuitive feeling that she had been on the brink of asking some direct, very pertinent, very deadly question, and felt herself unable to do it.
"It -- it doesn't matter," she finished lamely. "poor Sonia - poor darling Sonia!"
I could stand the strain no longer. I caught up my crutch and swung out to comfort them, ignoring the astonished dismay that leapt to their eyes.
"Dr. Nicholas," I stammered, "I have heard everything that was said. I couldn't help it. I was sitting here when you arrived, an4 you both arrived and you both plunged so quickly into matter so vital to myself that I couldn't help but sit still and listen."
"I quite understand, Miss Merrill," said the doctor in sympathetic tones, standing up and laying a gentle hand upon my shoulder. "And, if I may say so, it is just as well that things have happened as they have. It saves me the uncomfortable task of seeking an opportunity of telling you the truth."
"And -- and what exactly is the truth -- doctor?" I asked, keeping my tones as steady as I was able. "And please, do not buoy me up with false hopes. It was quite right of you to consider Moira's feelings -- but in this matter I am vitally concerned, and the truth is infinitely to be preferred to little untruths. I must know the worst!"
The doctor bowed gravely, but hesitated to speak.
"If this trouble is not checked," I went on, steeling myself for the ordeal, "it means -- amputation -- of my remaining leg; is that it?"
"My dear young lady," said the doctor, after a pregnant pause, "as we have gone so far, we might as well face the whole truth. I am afraid - very much afraid - that amputation is imperative -- now. My grave and well considered advice is that you make preparations at once for the operation. And please, Miss Merrill, do not look upon it as complete and irretrievable disaster. I shall place at your disposal all the skill I possess. I shall contrive a stump just as shapely and perfect as the one you have -- and, after all, as Lady Moira has proved, life can be a pleasant, even enjoyable affair, without legs. You will be surprised at the way you will settle down to the new conditions and begin to take an interest in life again."
I looked at him through hopeless, misted eyes. This, then, was the end. My dancing days were over. Never more was I to hear the plaudits of my enthusiastic audiences. I was to be reduced to Moira's helpless state without Moira's gay, careless courage. I felt Moira's hand softly creep into mine and, glancing down dully, I saw her sitting there like some figure symbolical of my future state, the little silk-clad stumps gleaming palely in the dusk. Suddenly everything grew dim and shadowy before me; the strength began to slip from my limbs; my crutch slid from beneath my arm and clattered to the ground. Then I swayed forward and was caught by Dr. Nicholas as darkness engulfed me.
I lay that night sleepless in the darkness of my room, looking down vistas that held no hope, no solace. I did not know, nor care, whether the revels were still afoot, or whether the dancers had retired. I was too busy with my own catastrophe that, with such startling suddenness, had swooped down out of the blue and enveloped me.
How long I lay there in that nerve-racking nightmare I don't know; but presently I was aware that somebody had come softly to the door, opened it, and slipped quietly through. Then the light was suddenly switched on, and I sat up blinking in some alarm. "Sorry, Sonia, darling," came the comforting tones of Moira. "Hope I didn't startle you."
I couldn't help a little start of surprise, when my eyes grew accustomed to the bright light, for Moira was seated on the carpet just inside the closed door. She was now, I saw, in pyjamas of filmy, clinging flesh-pink silk, with the usual alluring little trouserettes, so I gathered she must have been to bed and had just come from her room. I surmised that she had not bothered to call her maid, but had acted for herself, dropping from the bed and swinging from her room with the aid of her hands, and along the corridor to my room.
This way of getting about was, by the way, a frequent little trick of Moira's, employed sometimes when she wanted to get from one room to another and didn't bother to summon help, and at others merely a little "stunt" to show that she wasn't quite as helpless as she seemed. She had, in fact, attained quite astonishing agility in this respect, and rather prided herself on her skill.
Now she swung swiftly long the carpet towards me, leapt expertly to a chair by the bedside, and from that gained my bed. With her arms about me, she snuggled warmly against me and kissed me affectionately.
"Sonia, darling," she began -- and I had never seen her so serious -- "I just had to come and see you, and I wanted only our two selves to discuss this -- this dreadful affair -- so I came alone. Listen, dear heart. I know only too well what a terrible thing this is for you. You are not like me. I don't care a row of pins about having no legs. But you are different. You are quite happy with your one dainty leg; but the thought of losing another leg is just torture. Besides, it would mean the end of your dancing career - a thing too shocking to contemplate.
"Now, what I think is this: Dr. Nicholas may be the greatest surgeon in his line in the world; but like any other man, he is not infallible, and he may be mistaken. Quite honestly and candidly, I think he is. I know this malady that he is convinced is developing in your leg only too well - it was responsible for my own amputations. It is a sort of necrosis -- a rotting of the bone - and its appearance in your case has been startlingly sudden, amazingly so. Normally it is the growth of years. Now, you have never complained before --"
"Never!" I exclaimed earnestly.
"There you are!" went on Moira. "Of course, the doctor knows his job; but I think he has been too readily influenced by that childhood fall of yours, and I feel sure his conclusions have been - too hasty. Now, what I suggest is this: See Dr. Nicholas tomorrow, and tell him quite simply that you'd like a second opinion. I don't know quite how the doctor will take it, but that can't be helped. We'll get in Sir Clinton Brand, and see what he says. What do you think?"
I hugged Moira with sudden warmth and kissed her fondly on the lips. There was probably nothing to be gained by her plan. Dr. Nicholas was too clever a surgeon to have made a mistake of such magnitude. But, nevertheless, Moira's suggestion gave me new hope and courage just when I needed both. I felt curiously quite unreasonably elated. The very name of the famous surgeon, Sir Clinton Brand, seemed to promise comfort and stability.
Moira hugged me in return, and then, with a light laugh, she turned with her hands on the bed, poised ready to drop to the floor.
"Sonia, my child," she said, and there was a queer, inscrutable look in her eyes, "I think I've saved your leg. Wait and see!"
With that, she dropped lightly to the carpet and, swaying easily to the door, reached up and just managed to touch the electric light switch. The room was plunged in darkness, and I heard Moira slip softly out into the corridor and silently close the door after her.
I didn't get a chance for a discreet talk with the doctor until the evening of the next day, when, as I strolled out into the park after dinner, I found him in the summer house with Moira. I apologised for my intrusion, the doctor receiving me with that grave cordiality that was one of his charming assets.
I flashed a quick look at Moira, and plugged at once into the matter that had brought me.
"Dr. Nicholas," I said, a little shakily, "I hope you won't mind my asking such a question - only you will, I think, understand my concern, in the circumstances - but are you quite sure about - about my leg - absolutely sure?"
"Yes, quite!" replied the doctor, with decision, staring a little.
"There isn't any possibility of mistake?"
"Well - none of us are absolutely infallible, "said the doctor with a wide, magnanimous smile. "But in my opinion there cannot be a mistake in this case. The trouble has come with apparent suddenness, I admit, but it has been what we call 'masked' for years. It has been there all the time.
My hopes were falling about me like dead leaves, but I persisted, as indeed I had to persist if my sanity was to be saved.
"You -- you said just now," I urged, holding on to my courage, "that all this was, was so in your opinion. Might it - might it not he as well, in a case of this extreme gravity, to have a second opinion? Would you - would you have any objection, for instance, to calling Sir Clinton Brand in consultation?"
For the first time since I had known him, I saw all the suavity and charm fall from the doctors face, like the falling away of some impalpable mask. At the same time his whole figure stiffened, and his attitude became one of actual menace.
"I don't think you consciously intend an insult," he said coldly. "You act, of course, simply from ignorance, which, in the circumstances, is to be understood. Who is Sir Clinton Brand that I should heed what he says? It would be for him to call me in when his own feeble skill fails. But I don't call in Sir Clinton Brand or any other man. I am Dr. Nicholas; and, in my profession I am self-sufficing. When Dr. Nicholas gives an opinion, that opinion is accepted, never questioned."
I don't know what came to me then - some cold, frozen anger, that his own icy monstrous egoism had brought forth.
"All of which means," I said in clear, steady tones that amazed myself as I heard them, "that you refuse to call in another opinion?"
"Most decidedly it does!" he snapped, now perilously close to losing his temper.
"Very good," I said. "Then, naturally, my only course is to take the case completely out of your hands and put in those of somebody less skillful, no doubt, but - somewhat more reasonable."
For a moment I thought he was going to strike me, for he took a step in my direction, his hands clenched by his sides. But Moira by whose chair he now stood, stretched forth a hand and closed her fingers over his.
"Dr. Nicholas," she said very quietly, "I don't think you quite realise that you are behaving more like a spoilt child than a famous surgeon. Miss Merrill has every right to do exactly as she thinks fit in a case of this kind. If my word has any weight with her, I would advise her to seek an appointment with Sir Clinton at once."
Dr. Nicholas turned slowly, his fists still clenched, his face blank. For a palpating moment or so he stood thus gazing down a a calm-eyed Moira. Then the tension of his body relaxed. He drew himself up to his full height of over 6 feet, and then bowed stiffly with a formality that was more un-English than ever.
"I see," he said with forced calm. "I quite understand. I am dismissed. Very well. I have the honour, Lady Moira and Miss Merrill, to bid you both good-bye."
He turned swiftly on his heel, walked out of the summer-house and so to the house.
I looked at Moira, and was relieved to hear her quiet amused laughter. "And that's that," she said, as she pressed a button that would, I knew, summon Annette, her maid. "I shouldn't let it trouble you, Sonia. I rather expected what happened. And the doctor will come running back in his own good time. The main thing is that you've gained your point, and Sir Clinton will save your leg - I think you can safely reckon on that."
The arrival of Annette prevented any further questions from me, and when we reached the house, we found that the doctor had already departed and that he had left instructions for his luggage to be sent on to catch the Continental boat-train the next morning.
That same morning found me speeding to London in my car, my one anxiety being to fix an appointment with Sir Clinton Brand as soon as humanly possible.
It was with a good deal of apprehension that, a few days later, I sat in the great man's consulting room. I had decided to say nothing about Dr. Nicholas, for the simple reason that medical etiquette would certainly have forced Sir Clinton to consult the doctor about my case, and I did not want that. I wanted Sir Clinton to make a completely independent diagnosis, without being influenced in any way by Dr. Nicholas's conclusions.
I shall not weary you with a detailed description with the many exhaustive - and exhausting - tests I underwent, including the very searching X-ray examination to which both my leg and stump were subjected. The main thing, the wonderful, almost unhoped for theory - in fact, the utterly inexplicable thing - was that, in the end, Sir Clinton pronounced me completely sound, with not a suggestion of necrosis about a bone in my body.
The great surgeon was, in fact, curious to know who had put the idea of necrosis into my head, and I had to put all the blame on Moira - whom, of course, I did no mention by name.
"A great deal of mischief can be done by one's friends," was his smiling comment as we shook hands. But as I left his consulting-room with joy and relief in my heart, I could only wonder at the puzzle of Dr. Nicholas's conduct. I could account for it in just one way, and that not a particularly satisfactory one. My half-formed theory was that he had so specialised in his own particular branch of surgery that he had become absolutely obsessed by it and saw disease in every pain. The fact that I had already lost a leg, and through a fall, has simply accentuated matters in my case. Amputation was the only possible thing to be done. I had always sensed something queer about him, and this theory explained that feeling. He was queer - in a way, he was not quite sane.
This theory had its points, but it had one great weakness. It did not explain that extraordinary fainting fit of mine and the subsequent pain and weakness in my leg. Except for these two points I felt that there was something in the theory. But there were one or two other things - in connection with the events at Greensheaves, that I had omitted to take into consideration. The whole amazing, incredible truth had by no means emerged as yet, and, in fact, had not even guessed at by me.
It was, too, a very considerable time before I was to learn what that truth actually was. For when I telephoned to Greensheaves to tell Moira my wonderful news, I received a shock. Greensheaves, except for the servants, was deserted. Moira had left England with Ronald; even Tina Romney could not be located, and I discovered afterwards that she, too, had gone abroad.
A few weeks later I started on my new American tour, which was to be followed by tours in South America and South Africa, concluding with a series of appearances at the principal European capitals.
So it was not until after my return to Europe that I was destined to see Moira again. And that meeting, and the events that followed it, still hold their place among the most amazing experiences of my eventful life.
Once again I found myself back in Europe, after a successful and happy time in the various countries I had visited; and now, after making my various appearances in the European capitals, I had at last reached Paris. I put up at the Hotel Crillon, in which magnificent caravanserai I had often stayed before, and, curiously enough, it occurred to me, that there was just a possibility of running across Moira here, as she usually made the hotel her headquarters while in Paris.
So I was not altogether surprised, though very delighted, when that evening, as I was being shown to my table for dinner, I caught sight of Moira seated with Ronald in a semisecluded little alcove directly facing me. At the same moment Ronald saw me and, with a sudden smile of welcome, he stood up and beckoned me. I was received quite excitedly by both, and arrangements were at once made for me to join them at their table during their stay.
After the waiters had taken our orders for food, I became more and more aware of the curious, enigmatic quality of Moira's smile as she looked at me, a smile that was shared by Ronald whenever their eyes met. In fact, Moira's manner had been just a little puzzling from the outset of our meeting, and I wondered at what could be at the back of it. Then I saw her make a little sign to Ronald, half a nod, half a lift of the eyebrow, and with an odd look at me he bent over and slid from Moira's shoulders a shimmering, filmy wrap that covered them.
I must have gone deadly white, and I know I shivered with the sudden shock of that astounding revelation. For I might have been looking at Tina Romney's shoulders, so completely similar were those of Moira, now fully and daringly displayed in all the beauty of complete nudity. The familiar shapely arms had gone - gone entirely, without a trace! Only the lovely, suavely moulded shoulders remained, the ends perfectly rounded and smoothfleshed, entirely without scar or blemish.
Moira armless! It seemed unthinkable, incredible. Its implications could not be grasped entirely during those first astonishing few minutes. And then I began to realise all that it meant. Moira was now nothing but a beautiful, entirely limbless trunk, utterly helpless, unable to do a single thing of herself just a living fragment of a beautiful woman! It was more than amazing - it was stupendous!
I was awakened at last from my semi-stupor by Moira's soft, clear laughter, and then her voice, coming in soothing accents.
"Poor darling Sonia," she was saying. "It was a shame to spring such a surprise upon you without warning. I forget that other people are not so irresponsible and easy-going as myself, and that they will most certainly be much more sensitive about my limblessness than I am. But do I look as - as repulsive as all that in my new guise?"
The shocked surprise faded out of my face, yielding to softened affection, and I leant forward and, with caressing fingers, smoothed the bare white armless shoulder nearest to me.
"You know, darling," I said, "you could never be repulsive to me in any guise. You are still as lovely as ever. No doubt I shall think you lovelier when I get used to the -- the new conditions. But, dearest, you must admit it is all so - well, bewildering is a mild term."
"Yes, I realise it must be," said Moira soothingly, "and if I weren't so theatrical, matters would not be so nerve-racking for my friends. But, after all, Sonia, this latest development was not unexpected. I knew from the first that there was every likelihood of losing my arms as well as my legs, though I didn't distress you by telling you that. All that was in the nature of my malady. So there you are. It was to be, and, as you know, I never worry about things that can't be helped. At any rate, I still retain a heart that can be happy, and lips that are still able to smile. Things might be worse."
My own smile was a little awry as I contemplated her gay, smiling courage, though one could never remain sad for long in her presence.
"And that's enough about myself," she went on. "Now, it's your turn, Sonia. Of course, I heard all about your wonderful recovery." Her eyelids fluttered rapidly, and for just a split second she looked away. "Sir Clinton is a wonderful man, isn't he? And then you shook the dust of England from your feet - or should I say your foot! How did the tours go?"
And so while we discussed the excellent food, I gave them a perfunctory description of my travels and triumphs, unable, however, to avoid watching, with poignant interest, how Ronald helped Moira to food and wine, she accepting the amazing situation with a devastating calmness, and he, as ever, performing his extraordinary task with all the good humour and real honest affection that, throughout all the strange vicissitudes of Moira's unique career, had never failed him.
But all the time as we talked or were silent, there wheeled and danced at the back of my mind, a maze of questions, doubts, suspicions even, that demanded explanations of some sort . And I knew that, sooner or later, Moira and I would have to face each other and thrash out the truth of all that had happened since that fateful arrival of mine at Greensheaves.
As a matter of fact, however, the opportunity presented itself sooner than I expected, and as the result of no efforts of mine. Dinner at last came to an end, and Moira turned to me.
"Ronald has an appointment, darling, with some friends," she said. "You are really an angel dropped from heaven to-night, as I was wondering what I should do with myself. We'll go up to our suite and make ourselves cosy there."
I agreed, giving no sign of the little thrill that came to me at her proposal. Ronald put Moira's voluminous wrap about her shoulders, and arranged it so that it covered her now tiny form completely. Then, taking the wonderful limbless body in his arms, he led the way out, careless of the interested stares of the other diners. Arrived at their suite, he handed Moira over to the care of Annette, who still remained her devoted attendant, and then smilingly took his leave.
Annette, carrying Moira as tenderly as a mother would a child, placed her on a big luxurious couch and, removing her wrap, piled up the cushions about her, forming a comfortable silken nest for her mistress to rest in. She placed a cigarette between Moira's lips and lit it, putting a gold ash-tray within easy reach of the head. Then with a little smiling bow, she left us to ourselves.
Once again the wonder of Moira's latest transformation filled me, as I took in all the details of the beautiful limbless trunk, now so fully outlined against the background of the massed cushions. Her frock - or rather her costume - was as usual, of the most daring and revealing description, leaving, as I have indicated, her beautiful bust and armless shoulders displayed in the frankest possible manner. Round her shapely throat was a single, short string of magnificent pearls. The effect was most strikingly bizarre, and was certainly one that would make a very definite appeal to a nature such as Moira's.
When Annette left us, I crossed to Moira's couch and sank down amid the cushions at her side. And so, for a little while, we chatted about nothing in particular, I carefully waiting my opportunity to introduce the topic that was uppermost in my mind.
"Sonia, darling," she said, eyeing me queerly, "I wonder what you really think of me deep down in that clever little brain of yours - I wonder!"
I drew a deep breath. The moment had come. I put an arm about Moira and, drawing her to me, I looked steadfastly into her eyes.
"Moira," I said, "would it be unpardonably impertinent of me if I were to ask you one or two questions about oh -, about certain affairs at Greensheaves - and certain developments later? May I -- or am I trespassing on forbidden ground?"
Those long-lashed lids of hers fluttered rapidly for a moment or so, and I thought she was going to put me off with some laughing excuse. But at last her eyes steadied, and she regarded me gravely.
"Go on, Sonia, dear," she said. "What exactly is the trouble?"
"Of course," I began, "Dr. Nicholas was the surgeon who amputated your arms?"
"Yes," replied Moira, nodding, "in Paris, here -- not long after you went abroad."
"I see. Moira, you suggested in my case that I should call in another specialist. Did you ever think that another opinion should have been obtained in your own case?"
Moira stiffened slightly in my arms and then relaxed.
"Well, no," she said. "You see, I never thought it necessary. I knew my own case thoroughly, and I knew that Dr. Nicholas understood it in every way."
"And yet," I persisted, "Dr. Nicholas, apparently, was absolutely convinced that he understood my case perfectly -- and Sir Clinton Brand pronounced me absolutely free from taint."
"Which shows," said Moira, with a return to her ordinary flippancy, "what a fortunate thing it was that you followed my suggestion!"
"But, Moira, darling," I protested, "you are hiding your real feelings. How could a surgeon of the standing and reputation of Dr. Nicholas make such a mistake! This thing is incredible!
"But," stammered Moira, "what else are we to think? If it wasn't a mistake, where - where do we stand?"
I looked steadily at her, as she lay half-shrinking in my arms.
"If you want my real opinion," I said quietly. "I think there was something monstrously wrong somewhere. Also, I am quite convinced, Moira, that you, too, knew that there was something wrong when you advised me to consult another specialist. It is to you that I really owe the fact, that I am not, at this moment, as legless as you, poor darling. Moira, what is the truth about this strange, uncanny business. I am convinced you know it. What is it?"
There fell a long pregnant silence in the room and at last Moira stirred in my arms and sighed.
"Give me another cigarette, dear heart," she said, with apparent inconsequence; but I understood her need of that unfailing solace of hers. I placed a cigarette between her lips and lit it, and for a few moments she puffed in silence.
"Sonia," she said at length, "this is a queer story you have forced from me - perhaps the queerest you have ever heard. And somehow, after all, I feel a great relief in being able at least to tell you the truth. I myself am not wholly free from some connection with the matter - though only in a way that affects myself, and myself alone. Some people would say that Dr. Nicholas is mad; but I wouldn't say that altogether. He is mentally extremely alert, with a well balanced brain, and, in his own line, probably the most skillful surgeon in the world. But he is definitely queer. There is a pronounced kink in the delicate mechanism of his brain. He does not know that I have discovered his secret - or, if he does, he had made no sign. The theory that I have evolved is that his kink is the direct result of the special branch of surgery to which he has devoted his life. You are aware, of course, that, in his case, he has raised amputation almost to the level of a fine art. He works on the bodies of his patients exactly as a great sculptor does on the marble from which he creates masterpieces of beauty. And there isn't any doubt that the doctor has come to regard the result of his labours as even more shapely and beautiful than were the complete bodies of his patients before he worked upon them - "
"I nodded more or less comprehendingly, amazed though I was, for something of all this had been floating, as it were, nebulous and shadowy through the dim recesses of my mind, ever since my meeting with Moira in the hotel-dining room.
"You mean," I cried, "that he has become so absorbed in his work that he is ready to see the necessity for amputation in every pain?" But Moira shook her head.
"No," she said, "that would not fit all the facts. It would be infinitely better if it did. That would be in a way understandable. You see, in practically every case on which Dr. Nicholas is called upon to operate, conditions are quite normal. The patients had been under the care of a competent medical man, possibly a specialist, long before Dr. Nicholas is called in, and the fact that the malady is present has been quite definitely established before he touches the case. There isn't then any question of his 'seeing the necessity for amputation in every pain', as you put it, though there isn't any doubt that he takes a strange, artistic pleasure in the job of re-fashioning a human body in as beautiful and shapely a manner as he knows how.
But every now and then a patient consults him, or he is thrown in contact with one who, he feels, is a fit subject for what he would, no doubt, call artistic experiment. And then, I'm afraid, he does not wait for a symptom -- he manufactures one!"
"Moira!" I looked at her in sudden, amazed alarm. "What exactly do you mean? How could he do a thing like that?"
"Well," said Moira with a queer little smile, "suppose we take your case. You are presented to Dr. Nicholas at Greensheaves. You are a celebrated one-legged dancer, in whom he is immediately interested. He quickly notices that you are not at all sensitive about your one-legged condition, but are, on the contrary, rather vain of your beautiful leg and marvellous dancing. I at once gathered what was in his mind when he began to question you about the loss of your leg and was so portentously solemn about that childhood fall of yours. He had already decided that, in you he had discovered an admirable piece of marble, ready for the chisel of the sculptor! Very well. He seizes the first opportunity that offers of finding you quite alone - the evening you went to the writing-room. He arrives with some little excuse about settling some dispute we were having. He offers you a cigarette. You smoke it and promptly faint - "
"But Moira, wait a bit - he actually smoked that cigarette afterwards."
"Did he? That was a very clever bit of work on his part. What was preventing him substituting another partly smoked cigarette below the writing-desk before anybody arrived on the scene? That was what he did, you can bet all you have on it! It was an undrugged cigarette he smoked so critically before the crowd! And another thing he did before help arrived. He gave you an injection in the thigh. Remember that tiny discoloured bruise about which he was so gravely alarmed? That was caused by his own hypodermic needle. The drug he administered was responsible for the sudden, inexplicable pain in your leg and the alarming weakness that followed. Your quite unexpected wish to consult another surgeons completely upset all his plans, though he tried to bluff the matter out. And he knew that another specialist would at once find nothing radically wrong - so, with becoming dignity, he took his leave and scuttled back to Paris. And that, believe me, dear Sonia, is the history of your case."
I sat there looking at Moira in stunned silence. That her explanation of what had occurred was the right one, I felt only too sure. The whole sequence of events, the secret springs of the doctor's conduct, became at once crystal clear. I drew a deep breath as I realised what a narrow escape I had had.
And then a sudden devastating thought struck a chill down my spine.
"Moira!" I cried, holding her slightly away from me, so that I could see her face. What about yourself. Where do you stand in all this hideous business? When you first met Dr. Nicholas, you were famous for the beauty of your perfect figure. Now, all that remains is just a lovely fragment, arms and legs both irretrievably gone. But - it is unthinkable!"
"What exactly is unthinkable?" asked Moira, very quietly.
"Oh -- for just a mad moment I thought -- I thought that Dr. Nicholas might have chosen you as a subject for, as you put it, 'artistic experiment'."
"Not so unthinkable as you imagine, dear heart," said Moira again, in those light tones of hers. "For extraordinary and fantastic as it may seem, that is exactly what Dr. Nicholas did!"
"But darling!" I could not keep the horrified tones out of my voice.
"Hold me tightly, Sonia, dear," said Moira as she nestled more close to me, "and do not look at me for the moment. You have heard some of the truth of this strange business; you might as well hear the whole. You remember I said that in your case he manufactured apparent symptoms by injecting a drug into your thigh, and you may have wondered how I guessed at the trick he employed. It was all very simple, because - well, that is actually what he did to me. He does not know, or professes not know, as I have already told you, that I discovered that trick his, but I did.
You see, when I first consulted him, I was an absolutely genuine patient, I already knew that amputation of my right leg was imperative. But - and now I have to make an astounding confession. You know how keen I have always been on unique experience. Well, inexplicable, as it may seem, I was actually thrilled to death at the prospect of having a leg amputated and of afterwards showing myself off as a one-legged beauty! It isn't, naturally, a common craving, but, as any big surgeon will tell you, it isn't altogether unknown. At any rate, that was I felt; and Dr. Nicholas, in the circumstances, exactly suited my purpose.
"I suppose -- in fact I am sure -- he at once sensed the type of individual I was. For one thing I was so particular about the perfection of contour and the unblemished beauty of the stump he was to provide for me, and in addition I was so intensely interested in the details of the coming amputation. At any rate, while I was convalescing after the operation he told me his little fairy story of the extreme probability of the malady eventually attacking my other leg, and he provided me with a drug, the injection of which, he said, might possibly arrest the progress of the disease.
"Now, I had already had my left leg thoroughly examined, and I knew that there was not the slightest prospect of this becoming tainted. Also, very secretly I had that drug analysed. It was simply a noxious poison without any curative powers, but with very definite harmful results. However, I said nothing, but I thought a great deal.
And now comes the most amazing part of the whole strange affair. Somehow, in a way I cannot even attempt to explain the thrill of being one-legged had got in my blood. I actually liked being one-legged! And after a while I began to play with a perfectly astounding idea. What would it be like to be quite legless, with two perfect stumps instead of one? Well, the idea got hold of me, and in the end I capitulated. I used the drug Dr. Nicholas had provided, and consulted him again. He was very solemn, very dignified; but, I could see, inwardly filled with a sort of holy triumph. He performed a most wonderful operation, giving me a stump the exact replica of the other. And so I became legless, and, Sonia, I - I revelled in it. It was tremendously thrilling. I loved to show myself off; delighted in being carried about; enjoyed all the attention I attracted.
And then even while you were staying with me at Greensheaves, I was assailed by the final and most potent temptation. You remember how perfectly lovely were Tina Romney's marvellous armless shoulders. Well, they haunted me. I used to imagine myself without arms, and the thrill was ecstasy. And I actually prepared the way during that house party by telling Dr. Nicholas that I was becoming alarmed by the frequent pains in my arms. Then came your adventure with the doctor and his flight to Paris. Ronald and I crossed to the Continent almost immediately, roamed about for awhile, and eventually arrived in Paris. And, inevitably, of course, we resumed our friendly relations with the doctor, despite my very definite, but diplomatically hidden, feeling of resentment over his attempt on you. He at once inquired about my arms, and, of course, I told him they had been giving me a great deal of trouble. And so I reached the last stage. Dr. Nicholas got a no doubt quite hectic thrill out of performing a double amputation; while I was left as you see me, just a beautiful limbless trunk. And there you have the whole weird and wonderful story."
"And -- and you don't mind?" I asked, when at length I was able to speak.
"Of course, darling, you won't understand me a little bit," said Moira, now smiling up at me with all her old vivacity. "But it is the simple truth that I am absolutely thrilled to be as I am. There is something extraordinarily attractive, at any rate to me, in being totally helpless, only able to move in somebody else's arms, dependent on somebody else for everything, I am quite foolishly fascinated by my armless shoulders, and I think my little twin stumps are just perfect. I know it all sounds fantastically incredible. I don't even try to understand it myself. I only know that other cases have been recorded in which beautiful limbless women have had exactly similar feelings about their condition. It's a strange world; the strangest things happen in it.
Once again I was silent, pondering over this most extraordinary of confessions. And then, prompted, no doubt, by the train of memories started by Moira's narration, I suddenly thought of Tina Romney.
"Moira," I said quickly, "what happened to Tina Romney after all? I never saw her again since the little contretemps at Greensheaves. I remember being told at the time that she had gone abroad. She was very sweet on Dr. Nicholas, by the way - or it appeared so."
Moira looked at me with that characteristic little, quizzical gleam in her eyes.
"Of course, you wouldn't know," she said. Then she laughed in a mischievous way. "Would you like to see her again? she's in Paris. Yes, of course you would. We'll fix it up. It will be rather fun."
And nothing more could I get out of her at the time.
It was two nights later that we set out in the big car after dinner. Ronald was, of course, in attendance on Moira and I was escorted by a handsome young friend of his. Moira was radiant and was looking exceedingly beautiful in one of her scantiest and most revealing creations.
Dancing was in full swing when we entered, and for a time we watched the gay scene from our table, advantageously placed on the edge of the dancing floor. And then, during a momentary lull I caught sight of Tina at a table across the floor. Her beautiful, bare, armless shoulders, quite as perfect as Moira's, were very much in evidence, only a wisp of her fragile frock being visible above the table, and as my eyes fell upon her, she was lifting a cocktail to her lips with those dainty, flexible toes of hers. And then, with a shock of complete surprise, I saw her companion - it was Dr. Nicholas!
I turned and met the laughing eyes of Moira, who sat opposite me, her own bare, wonderful shoulders as daringly displayed as Tina's.
"So you see Tina Nicholas," she said as calmly as if she were making a purely commonplace remark.
"Tina Nicholas!" I exclaimed. "Then - "
Moira nodded, laughing outright.
"Yes. They were married in Paris shortly after our little house-party. Would you like to meet them -- or do you still feel that the doctor is outside the pale?"
I hadn't any real feelings about the doctor, one way or another. Of course, the trick he had tried to play upon me was of a particularly detestable nature, but I realised that he was not altogether normal; and, in any case, I would probably never meet him again.
"I should like to meet Tina," I said at length. "And I imagine I can tolerate the doctor for the time being."
Ronald managed to get a signal through the maze of dancers, and Dr. Nicholas seeing us waved a welcoming hand. Within a few minutes we had joined the couple at the table and Dr. Nicholas was making his apologies in his old solemnly portentous manner.
"A thousand pities, my dear Miss Merrill," he said. "A thousand pities. I confess that I was sadly in error. Your symptoms led one astray. But I am only too pleased and thankful that everything turned out so well. I make no excuse -- none. I can only hope that you have been able to forgive me after the lapse of time."
I made some perfunctory reply, hardly able to hide my disgust at his hypocrisy, and at last I was able to turn to Tina. Just as I did so, she was raising her shapely right foot to her lips to take, between her bare toes, the cigarette she was smoking. And I could only sit there and stare, conscious, too that Moira was watching me with that old enigmatic smile on her lips. For, as Tina raised her leg, the filmy skirt of her extremely brief frock naturally fell back, and there, fully exposed just below the left hip, clad in skin-tight, cobwebby silk, was a plump, rounded, perfectly shaped stump. The slender, shapely left leg had gone, leaving Tina only the single limb, the dainty right leg which she was now using so expertly.
Tina caught my glance and immediately became immensely excited.
"Oh, Miss Merrill!" she exclaimed. "of course, we haven't seen each other since my amputation. Isn't it too absolutely thrilling that I, too, should have a stump just like yours or one of Moira's! You remember how they used to fascinate me at Greensheaves. Don't you think that René - my husband, Dr. Nicholas - has surpassed himself?"
Somewhat surprised as I was by the girls quite cheerful, in fact, enthusiastic acceptance of her new condition, I responded smilingly. There was no doubt at all that the pathetic aspect of her semi-helpless state - her beautiful body now left with that single, shapely limb - had, happily for her, hardly troubled her. She was much more concerned with the attention her unique charms attracted, and was quite frankly intrigued by her own incomplete beauty.
She talked gaily about herself, giving me details of her operation, her marriage, her life with the doctor and incidentally disclosing the fact that despite her one-legged and armless condition, she was enjoying life to the full.
"Do you know," was one of her little disclosures made quite gleefully, "I can now get about the house quite easily by myself. I learnt to balance myself and hop about on my one leg just like you do. I used to stumble at first but René was always there to catch me and it was all tremendous fun! Now I am quite expert and enjoy hopping about the house and even on the lawns. René's friends are all amazed at my skill."
And she went on, chatting gaily just as any other happily married bride would have done. It was really impossible to pity her and I'm sure that any attempt to do so would have been met only with surprised resentment on her part.
I looked across at Moira again, trying to read the riddle of that odd little smile that still twisted her lips. It concerned Tina, I knew, who was in her way, just as much a puzzle as Moira had been. And it was to Moira I felt I should have to apply if I wanted this last little problem explained. As it turned out Moira gave me the opportunity I sought.
* * *
"And what did you think of Tina?" she asked that night, as we sat alone in her sitting-room.
"Apparently, quite enjoying the sensation of being a ravishing, young beauty with only a single limb," I replied. "Moira, tell me -- is Tina a victim of the doctor, as I was to have been, or is she in your class -- a kind of consenting party?"
"Well," said Moira, dryly. "As a matter of fact, in a way, she is both. Sounds odd, I admit, but it's the truth. Did you ever know, by the way, that Dr. Nicholas amputated Tina's arms?"
"That's certainly news to me," I said, my eyes wide with surprise. "I always imagined that Tina was born without arms."
"Well, it's a fact. It was really through Tina that I got into touch with the doctor and it was from her that I got her story -- though, of course, not in the complete manner in which I shall tell it to you. I had to fill in a number of facts of which she had, and still has, happily, no knowledge. You see, Tina was, as far as I can gather, the very first girl upon whom Dr. Nicholas experimented. She lived in Paris with her parents and was the most beautiful thing you ever saw -- except for one thing. She had been born with both arms crippled. They were not altogether useless, but they were very badly deformed and very naturally, they completely spoiled the poor girl's life.
She was about seventeen when Dr. Nicholas first came to her parent's house and I fancy he must have fallen in love with her right away, as she did with him. He had been called in to see if anything could be done for the crippled arms and without hesitation he advised complete amputation at the shoulder joints - in my opinion, a very excellent suggestion, quite apart from my odd ideas on the subject. The parents were horrified, but Tina was absolutely delighted at the proposal. To be rid of the burden of her deformed arms would be heaven to her!
Well, eventually the operation was performed and, as you saw, the doctor worked wonders with Tina's shoulders, fashioning them into things of perfect beauty. Tina was ecstatic; even her parents were mollified. I don't know whether from that operation sprang the doctor's strange passion for remodeling the female form; no doubt the seeds, at any rate were present before. But I know that Tina, in a way that is more or less understandable, in the circumstances, from that time, really revelled in her armlessness and, as you know, was even quite fascinated by the charms of your one-legged figure and my leglessness. And I know once heard her laughingly confess in the doctor's presence, when we happened to be discussing the subject, that she wouldn't mind so much losing one leg, if it had to be, as that would still leave her with a shapely leg and foot, and it would be rather thrilling, as she put it, to have a little stump like one of mine.
"I'm afraid that little confession of hers remained docketed in one of the cells in the doctor's brain and no doubt when he thought the time was ripe, he used his little hypodermic needle; a mysterious malady developed in Tina's leg -- and now she has 'that little stump' she thought 'rather thrilling'!
"She is certainly thrilled by it," I said, "which is very fortunate, taking everything into consideration. Only. . . well, will the ingenious and highly artistic doctor stop there?"
"I fancy he will," said Moira. "At any rate, while Tina wishes to be as she is. But if she ever happens to confess in her loving husband's hearing, that she finds complete limblessness 'rather thrilling' - well, I 'm afraid that those fascinating little bare toes of hers will never lift another cocktail to her dainty lip."
"And meanwhile," I said, "the doctor goes scot-free, working his secret and sinister will with impunity."
"Meanwhile - yes," echoed Moira. "But do you know Sonia, I have a feeling that this time will come. I feel that one of these days, somebody, perhaps the husband or lover of one of his patients, who has blundered on his secrets - will visit him and - well, experiment on him! I'm afraid that though the result will not be so artistic as one of the doctor's own masterpieces, it will be dreadfully effective." An odd little silence fell on the room, and then Moira broke the tension, characteristically, with a laugh.
"How gruesome we have become all of a sudden," she said. "And, in my way, I'm quite as blameworthy as the doctor. But we are all queer in some way, Sonia - you, I, Tina, everybody. None of us is quite the same. It's a weird and wonderful world."
I nodded and, as no doubt, you are also, dear reader, I was in hearty agreement with her - yes, it's a weird and wonderful world!"