MORE LINKS OF THE DAISY CHAIN
CHARLOTTE M. YONGE
Quand on veut dessecher un marais, on ne fait pas voter les grenouilles.—Mme. EMILE. DE GIRADIN
'Richard? That's right! Here's a tea-cup waiting for you,' as the almost thirty-year-old Incumbent of Cocksmoor, still looking like a young deacon, entered the room with his quiet step, and silent greeting to its four inmates.
'Thank you, Ethel. Is papa gone out?'
'I have not seen him since dinner-time. You said he was gone out with Dr. Spencer, Aubrey?'
'Yes, I heard Dr. Spencer's voice—"I say, Dick"—like three notes of consternation,' said Aubrey; 'and off they went. I fancy there's some illness about in the Lower Pond Buildings, that Dr. Spencer has been raging so long to get drained.'
'The knell has been ringing for a little child there,' added Mary; 'scarlatina, I believe—'
'But, Richard,' burst forth the merry voice of the youngest, 'you must see our letters from Edinburgh.'
'You have heard, then? It was the very thing I came to ask.'
'Oh yes! there were five notes in one cover,' said Gertrude. 'Papa says they are to be laid up in the family archives, and labelled "The Infants' Honeymoon."'
'Papa is very happy with his own share,' said Ethel. 'It was signed, "Still his own White Flower," and it had two Calton Hill real daisies in it. I don't know when I have seen him more pleased.'
'And Hector's letter—I can say that by heart,' continued Gertrude. '"My dear Father, This is only to say that she is the darlint, and for the pleasure of subscribing myself—Your loving SON,"—the son as big as all the rest put together.'
'I tell Blanche that he only took her for the pleasure of being my father's son,' said Aubrey, in his low lazy voice.
'Well,' said Mary, 'even to the last, I do believe he had as soon drive papa out as walk with Blanche. Flora was quite scandalized at it.'
'I should not imagine that George had often driven my father out,' said Aubrey, again looking lazily up from balancing his spoon.
Ethel laughed; and even Richard smiled; then recovering herself, she said, 'Poor Hector, he never could call himself son to any one before.'
'He has not been much otherwise here,' said Richard.
'No,' said Ethel; 'it is the peculiar hardship of our weddings to break us up by pairs, and carry off two instead of one. Did you ever see me with so shabby a row of tea-cups? When shall I have them come in riding double again?'
The recent wedding was the third in the family; the first after a five years' respite. It ensued upon an attachment that had grown up with the young people, so that they had been entirely one with each other; and there had been little of formal demand either of the maiden's affection or her father's consent; but both had been implied from the first. The bridegroom was barely of age, the bride not seventeen, and Dr. May had owned it was very shocking, and told Richard to say nothing about it! Hector had coaxed and pleaded, pathetically talked of his great empty house at Maplewood, and declared that till he might take Blanche away, he would not leave Stoneborough; he would bring down all sorts of gossip on his courtship, he would worry Ethel, and take care she finished nobody's education. What did Blanche want with more education? She knew enough for him. Couldn't Ethel be satisfied with Aubrey and Gertrude? or he dared say she might have Mary too, if she was insatiable. If Dr. May was so unnatural as to forbid him to hang about the house, why, he would take rooms at the Swan. In fact, as Dr. May observed, he treated him to a modern red-haired Scotch version of 'Make me a willow cabin at your gate;' and as he heartily loved Hector and entirely trusted him, and Blanche's pretty head was a wise and prudent one, what was the use of keeping the poor lad unsettled?
So Mrs. Rivers, the eldest sister and the member's wife, had come to arrange matters and help Ethel, and a very brilliant wedding it had been. Blanche was too entirely at home with Hector for flutterings or agitations, and was too peacefully happy for grief at the separation, which completed the destiny that she had always seen before her. She was a picture of a bride; and when she and Hector hung round the Doctor, insisting that Edinburgh should be the first place they should visit, and calling forth minute directions for their pilgrimage to the scenes of his youth, promising to come home and tell him all, no wonder he felt himself rather gaining a child than losing one. He was very bright and happy; and no one but Ethel understood how all the time there was a sensation that the present was but a strange dreamy parody of that marriage which had been the theme of earlier hopes.
The wedding had taken place shortly after Easter; and immediately after, the Rivers family had departed for London, and Tom May had returned to Cambridge, leaving the home party at the minimum of four, since, Cocksmoor Parsonage being complete, Richard had become only a daily visitor instead of a constant inhabitant.
There he sat, occupying his never idle hands with a net that he kept for such moments, whilst Ethel sat behind her urn, now giving out its last sighs, profiting by the leisure to read the county newspaper, while she continually filled up her cup with tea or milk as occasion served, indifferent to the increasing pallor of the liquid.
Mary, a 'fine young woman,' as George Rivers called her, of blooming face and sweet open expression, had begun, at Gertrude's entreaty, a game of French billiards. Gertrude had still her childish sunny face and bright hair, and even at the trying age of twelve was pleasing, chiefly owing to the caressing freedom of manner belonging to an unspoilable pet. Her request to Aubrey to join the sport had been answered with a half petulant shake of the head, and he flung himself into his father's chair, his long legs hanging over one arm—an attitude that those who had ever been under Mrs. May's discipline thought impossible in the drawing-room; but Aubrey was a rival pet, and with the family characteristics of aquiline features, dark gray eyes, and beautiful teeth, had an air of fragility and easy languor that showed his exercise of the immunities of ill-health. He had been Ethel's pupil till Tom's last year at Eton, when he was sent thither, and had taken a good place; but his brother's vigilant and tender care could not save him from an attack on the chest, that settled his public-school education for ever, to his severe mortification, just when Tom's shower of honours was displaying to him the sweets of emulation and success. Ethel regained her pupil, and put forth her utmost powers for his benefit, causing Tom to examine him at each vacation, with adjurations to let her know the instant he discovered that her task of tuition was getting beyond her. In truth, Tom fraternally held her cheap, and would have enjoyed a triumph over her scholarship; but to this he had not attained, and in spite of his desire to keep his brother in a salutary state of humiliation, candour wrung from him the admission that, even in verses, Aubrey did as well as other fellows of his standing.
Conceit was not Aubrey's fault. His father was more guarded than in the case of his elder sons, and the home atmosphere was not such as to give the boy a sense of superiority, especially when diligently kept down by his brother. Even the half year at Eton had not produced superciliousness, though it had given Eton polish to the home-bred manners; it had made sisters valuable, and awakened a desire for masculine companionship. He did not rebel against his sister's rule; she was nearly a mother to him, and had always been the most active president of his studies and pursuits; and he was perfectly obedient and dutiful to her, only asserting his equality, in imitation of Harry and Tom, by a little of the good-humoured raillery and teasing that treated Ethel as the family butt, while she was really the family authority.
'All gone, Ethel,' he said, with a lazy smile, as Ethel mechanically, with her eyes on the newspaper, tried all her vessels round, and found cream-jug, milk-jug, tea-pot, and urn exhausted; 'will you have in the river next?'
'What a shame!' said Ethel, awakening and laughing. 'Those are the tea-maker's snares.'
'Do send it away then,' said Aubrey, 'the urn oppresses the atmosphere.'
'Very well, I'll make a fresh brew when papa comes home, and perhaps you'll have some then. You did not half finish to-night.'
Aubrey yawned; and after some speculation about their father's absence, Gertrude went to bed; and Aubrey, calling himself tired, stood up, stretched every limb portentously, and said he should go off too. Ethel looked at him anxiously, felt his hand, and asked if he were sure he had not a cold coming on. 'You are always thinking of colds,' was all the satisfaction she received.
'What has he been doing?' said Richard.
'That is what I was thinking. He was about all yesterday afternoon with Leonard Ward, and perhaps may have done something imprudent in the damp. I never know what to do. I can't bear him to be a coddle; yet he is always catching cold if I let him alone. The question is, whether it is worse for him to run risks, or to be thinking of himself.'
'He need not be doing that,' said Richard; 'he may be thinking of your wishes and papa's.'
'Very pretty of him and you, Ritchie; but he is not three parts of a boy or man who thinks of his womankind's wishes when there is anything spirited before him.'
'Well, I suppose one may do one's duty without being three parts of a boy,' said Richard, gravely.
'I know it is true that some of the most saintly characters have been the more spiritual because their animal frame was less vigorous; but still it does not content me.'
'No, the higher the power, the better, of course, should the service be. I was only putting you in mind that there is compensation. But I must be off. I am sorry I cannot wait for papa. Let me know what is the matter to-morrow, and how Aubrey is.'
Richard went; and the sisters took up their employments—Ethel writing to the New Zealand sister-in-law her history of the wedding, Mary copying parts of a New Zealand letter for her brother, the lieutenant in command of a gun-boat on the Chinese coast. Those letters, whether from Norman May or his wife, were very delightful, they were so full of a cheerful tone of trustful exertion and resolution, though there had been perhaps more than the natural amount of disappointments. Norman's powers were not thought of the description calculated for regular mission work, and some of the chief aspirations of the young couple had had to be relinquished at the voice of authority without a trial. They had received the charge of persons as much in need of them as unreclaimed savages, but to whom there was less apparent glory in ministering. A widespread district of very colonial colonists, and the charge of a college for their uncultivated sons, was quite as troublesome as the most ardent self-devotion could desire; and the hardships and disagreeables, though severe, made no figure in history—nay, it required ingenuity to gather their existence from Meta's bright letters, although, from Mrs. Arnott's accounts, it was clear that the wife took a quadruple share. Mrs. Rivers had been heard to say that Norman need not have gone so far, and sacrificed so much, to obtain an under-bred English congregation; and even the Doctor had sighed once or twice at having relinquished his favourite son to what was dull and distasteful; but Ethel could trust that this unmurmuring acceptance of the less striking career, might be another step in the discipline of her brother's ardent and ambitious nature. It is a great thing to sacrifice, but a greater to consent not to sacrifice in one's own way.
Ethel sat up for her father, and Mary would not go to bed and leave her, so the two sisters waited till they heard the latch-key. Ethel ran out, but her father was already on the stairs, and waved her back.
'Here is some tea. Are you not coming, papa?—it is all here.'
'Thank you, I'll just go and take off this coat;' and he passed on to his room.
'I don't like that,' said Ethel, returning to the drawing-room, where Mary was boiling up the kettle, and kneeling down to make some toast.
'Why, what's the matter?'
'I have never known him go and change his coat but when some infectious thing has been about. Besides, he did not wait to let me help him off with it.'
In a few seconds the Doctor came down in his dressing-gown, and let himself be put into his easy-chair; his two daughters waiting on him with fond assiduity, their eyes questioning his fagged weary face, but reading there fatigue and concern that made them—rather awe-struck—bide their time till it should suit him to speak. Mary was afraid he would wait till she was gone; dear old Mary, who at twenty-two never dreamt of regarding herself as on the same footing with her three years' senior, and had her toast been browner, would have relieved them of her presence at once. However, her father spoke after his first long draught of tea.
'Well! How true it is that judgments are upon us while we are marrying and giving in marriage!'
'What is it, papa? Not the scarlatina?'
'Scarlatina, indeed!' he said contemptuously. 'Scarlet fever in the most aggravated form. Two deaths in one house, and I am much mistaken if there will not be another before morning.'
'Who, papa?' asked Mary.
'Those wretched Martins, in Lower Pond Buildings, are the worst. No wonder, living in voluntary filth; but it is all over the street—will be all over the town unless there's some special mercy on the place.'
'But how has it grown so bad,' said Ethel, 'without our having even heard of it!'
'Why—partly I take shame to myself—this business of Hector and Blanche kept Spencer and me away last dispensary day; and partly it was that young coxcomb, Henry Ward, thought it not worth while to trouble me about a simple epidemic. Simple epidemic indeed!' repeated Dr. May, changing his tone from ironical mimicry to hot indignation. 'I hope he will be gratified with its simplicity! I wonder how long he would have gone on if it had not laid hold on him.'
'You don't mean that he has it?'
'I do. It will give him a practical lesson in simple epidemics.'
'And Henry Ward has it!' repeated Mary, looking so much dismayed that her father laughed, saying—
'What, Mary thinks when it comes to fevers being so audacious as to lay hold of the doctors, it is time that they should be put a stop to.'
'He seems to have petted it and made much of it,' said Ethel; 'so no wonder! What could have possessed him?'
'Just this, Ethel; and it is only human nature after all. This young lad comes down, as Master Tom will do some day, full of his lectures and his hospitals, and is nettled and displeased to find his father content to have Spencer or me called in the instant anything serious is the matter.'
'But you are a physician, papa,' said Mary.
'No matter for that, to Mr. Henry I'm an old fogie, and depend upon it, if it were only the giving a dose of salts, he would like to have the case to himself. These poor creatures were parish patients, and I don't mean that his treatment was amiss. Spencer is right, it was an atmosphere where there was no saving anyone, but if he had not been so delighted with his own way, and I had known what was going on, I'd have got the Guardians and the Town Council and routed out the place. Seventeen cases, and most of them the worst form!'
'But what was Mr. Ward about?
'"Says I to myself, here's a lesson for me; This man's but a picture of what I shall be,"
'when Master Tom gets the upper hand of me,' returned Dr. May. 'Poor Ward, who has run to me in all his difficulties these thirty years, didn't like it at all; but Mr. Henry was so confident with his simple epidemic, and had got him in such order, that he durst not speak.'
'And what brought it to light at last?'
'Everything at once. First the clerics go to see about the family where the infant died, and report to Spencer; he comes after me, and we start to reconnoitre. Then I am called in to see Shearman's daughter—a very ugly case that—and coming out I meet poor Ward himself, wanting me to see Henry, and there's the other boy sickening too. Then I went down and saw all those cases in the Lower Ponds, and have been running about the town ever since to try what can be done, hunting up nurses, whom I can't get, stirring dishes of skim milk, trying to get the funerals over to-morrow morning by daybreak. I declare I have hardly a leg to stand on.'
'Where was Dr. Spencer?'
'I've nearly quarrelled with Spencer. Oh! he is in high feather! he will have it that the fever rose up bodily, like Kuhleborn, out of that unhappy drain he is always worrying about, when it is a regular case of scarlet fever, brought in by a girl at home from service; but he will have it that his theory is proved. Then I meant him to keep clear of it. He has always been liable to malaria and all that sort of thing, and has not strength for an illness. I told him to mind the ordinary practice for me; and what do I find him doing the next thing, but operating upon one of the worst throats he could find! I told him he was as bad as young Ward; I hate his irregular practice. I'll tell you what,' he said, vindictively, as if gratified to have what must obey him, 'you shall all go off to Cocksmoor to-morrow morning at seven o'clock.'
'You forget that we two have had it,' said Mary.
'Which of you?'
'All down to Blanche.'
'Never mind for that. I shall have enough to do without a sick house at home. You can perform quarantine with Richard, and then go to Flora, if she will have you. Well, what are you dawdling about? Go and pack up.'
'Papa,' said Ethel, who had been abstracted through all the latter part of the conversation, 'if you please, we had better not settle my going till to-morrow morning.'
'Come, Ethel, you have too much sense for panics. Don't take nonsense into your head. The children can't have been in the way of it.'
'Stay, papa,' said Ethel, her serious face arresting the momentary impatience of fatigue and anxiety, 'I am afraid Aubrey was a good while choosing fishing-tackle at Shearman's yesterday with Leonard Ward; and it may be nothing, but he did seem heavy and out of order to-night; I wish you would look at him as you go up.'
Dr. May stood still for a few moments, then gave one long gasp, made a few inquiries, and went up to Aubrey's room. The boy was fast asleep; but there was that about him which softened the weary sharpness of his father's manner, and caused him to desire Ethel to look from the window whence she could see whether the lights were out in Dr. Spencer's house. Yes, they were.
'Never mind. It will make no real odds, and he has had enough on his hands to-day. The boy will sleep quietly enough to-night, so let us all go to bed.'
'I think I can get a mattress into his room without waking him, if you will help me, Mary,' said Ethel.
'Nonsense,' said her father, decidedly. 'Mary is not to go near him before she takes Gertrude to Cocksmoor; and you, go to your own bed and get a night's rest while you can.'
'You won't stay up, papa.'
'I—why, it is all I can do not to fall asleep on my feet. Good night, children.'
'He does not trust himself to think or to fear,' said Ethel. 'Too much depends on him to let himself be unstrung.'
'But, Ethel, you will not leave, dear Aubrey.'
'I shall keep his door open and mine; but papa is right, and it will not do to waste one's strength. In case I should not see you before you go—'
'Oh, but, Ethel, I shall come back! Don't, pray don't tell me to stay away. Richard will have to keep away for Daisy's sake, and you can't do all alone—nurse Aubrey and attend to papa. Say that I may come back.'
Well, Mary, I think you might,' said Ethel, after a moment's thought. 'If it were only Aubrey, I could manage for him; but I am more anxious about papa.'
'You don't think he is going to have it?'
'Oh no, no,' said Ethel, 'he is what he calls himself, a seasoned vessel; but he will be terribly overworked, and unhappy, and he must not come home and find no one to talk to or to look cheerful. So, Mary, unless he gives any fresh orders, or Richard thinks it will only make things worse, I shall be very glad of you.'
Mary had never clung to her so gratefully, nor felt so much honoured. 'Do you think he will have it badly?' she asked timidly.
'I don't think at all about it,' said Ethel, something in her father's manner. 'If we are to get through all this, Mary, it must not be by riding out on perhapses. Now let us put Daisy's things together, for she must have as little communication with home as possible.'
Ethel silently and rapidly moved about, dreading to give an interval for tremblings of heart. Five years of family prosperity had passed, and there had been that insensible feeling of peace and immunity from care which is strange to look back upon when one hour has drifted from smooth water to turbid currents. There was a sort of awe in seeing the mysterious gates of sorrow again unclosed; yet, darling of her own as Aubrey was, Ethel's first thoughts and fears were primarily for her father. Grief and alarm seemed chiefly to touch her through him, and she found herself praying above all that he might be shielded from suffering, and might be spared a renewal of the pangs that had before wrung his heart.
By early morning every one was astir; and Gertrude, bewildered and distressed, yet rather enjoying the fun of staying with Richard, was walking off with Mary.
Soon after, Dr. Spencer was standing by the bedside of his old patient, Aubrey, who had been always left to his management.
'Ah, I see,' he said, with a certain tone of satisfaction, 'for once there will be a case properly treated. Now, Ethel, you and I will show what intelligent nursing can do.'
'I believe you are delighted,' growled Aubrey.
'So should you be, at the valuable precedent you will afford.'
'I've no notion of being experimented on to prove your theory,' said Aubrey, still ready for lazy mischief.
For be it known that the roving-tempered Dr. Spencer had been on fire to volunteer to the Crimean hospitals, and had unwillingly sacrificed the project, not to Dr. May's conviction that it would be fatal in his present state of health, but to Ethel's private entreaty that he would not add to her father's distress in the freshness of Margaret's death, and the parting with Norman. He had never ceased to mourn over the lost opportunity, and to cast up to his friend the discoveries he might have made; while Dr. May declared that if by any strange chance he had come back at all, he would have been so rabid on improved nursing and sanatory measures, that there would have been no living with him.
It must be owned that Dr. May was not very sensible to what his friend called Stoneborough stinks. The place was fairly healthy, and his 'town councillor's conservatism,' and hatred of change, as well as the amusement of skirmishing, had always made him the champion of things as they were; and in the present emergency the battle whether the enemy had travelled by infection, or was the product of the Pond Buildings' miasma, was the favourite enlivenment of the disagreeing doctors, in their brief intervals of repose in the stern conflict which they were waging with the fever—a conflict in which they had soon to strive by themselves, for the disease not only seized on young Ward, but on his father; and till medical assistance was sent from London, they had the whole town on their hands, and for nearly a week lived without a night's rest.
The care of the sick was a still greater difficulty. Though Aubrey was never in danger, and Dr. Spencer's promise of the effects of 'intelligent nursing' was fully realized, Ethel and Mary were so occupied by him, that it was a fearful thing to guess how it must fare with those households where the greater number were laid low, and in want of all the comforts that could do little.
The clergy worked to the utmost; and a letter of Mr. Wilmot's obtained the assistance of two ladies from a nursing sisterhood, who not only worked incredible wonders with their own hands among the poor, but made efficient nurses of rough girls and stupid old women. Dr. May, who had at first, in his distrust of innovation, been averse to the importation—as likely to have no effect but putting nonsense into girls' heads, and worrying the sick poor—was so entirely conquered, that he took off his hat to them across the street, importuned them to drink tea with his daughters, and never came home without dilating on their merits for the few minutes that intervened between his satisfying himself about Aubrey and dropping asleep in his chair. The only counter demonstration he reserved to himself was that he always called them 'Miss What-d'ye-call-her,' and 'Those gems of women,' instead of Sister Katherine and Sister Frances.
Good words are silver, but good deeds are gold.—Cecil and Mary
'It has been a very good day, papa; he has enjoyed all his meals, indeed was quite ravenous. He is asleep now, and looks as comfortable as possible,' said Ethel, five weeks after Aubrey's illness had begun.
'Thank God for that, and all His mercy to us, Ethel;' and the long sigh, the kiss, and dewy eyes, would have told her that there had been more to exhaust him than his twelve hours' toil, even had she not partly known what weighed him down.
'Poor things!' she said.
'Both gone, Ethel, both! both!' and as he entered the drawing-room, he threw himself back in his chair, and gasped with the long-restrained feeling.
'Both!' she exclaimed. 'You don't mean that Leonard—'
'No, Ethel, his mother! Poor children, poor children!'
'Mrs. Ward! I thought she had only been taken ill yesterday evening.'
'She only then gave way—but she never had any constitution—she was done up with nursing—nothing to fall back on—sudden collapse and prostration—and that poor girl, called every way at once, fancied her asleep, and took no alarm till I came in this morning and found her pulse all but gone. We have been pouring down stimulants all day, but there was no rousing her, and she was gone the first.'
'And Mr. Ward—did he know it?'
'I thought so from the way he looked at me; but speech had long been lost, and that throat was dreadful suffering. Well, "In their death they were not divided."'
He shaded his eyes with his hand; and Ethel, leaning against his chair, could not hinder herself from a shudder at the longing those words seemed to convey. He felt her movement, and put his arm round her, saying, 'No, Ethel, do not think I envy them. I might have done so once—I had not then learnt the meaning of the discipline of being without her—no, nor what you could do for me, my child, my children.'
Ethel's thrill of bliss was so intense, that it gave her a sense of selfishness in indulging personal joy at such a moment; and indeed it was true that her father had over-lived the first pangs of change and separation, had formed new and congenial habits, saw the future hope before him; and since poor Margaret had been at rest, had been without present anxiety, or the sight of decay and disappointment. Her only answer was a mute smoothing of his bowed shoulders, as she said, 'If I could be of any use or comfort to poor Averil Ward, I could go to-night. Mary is enough for Aubrey.'
'Not now, my dear. She can't stir from the boy, they are giving him champagne every ten minutes; she has the nurse, and Spencer is backwards and forwards; I think they will pull him through, but it is a near, a very near touch. Good, patient, unselfish boy he is too.'
'He always was a very nice boy,' said Ethel; 'I do hope he will get well. It would be a terrible grief to Aubrey.'
'Yes, I got Leonard to open his lips to-day by telling him that Aubrey had sent him the grapes. I think he will get through. I hope he will. He is a good friend for Aubrey. So touching it was this morning to hear him trying to ask pardon for all his faults, poor fellow—fits of temper, and the like.'
'That is his fault, I believe,' said Ethel, 'and I always think it a wholesome one, because it is so visible and unjustifiable, that people strive against it. And the rest? Was Henry able to see his father or mother?'
'No, he can scarcely sit up in bed. It was piteous to see him lying with his door open, listening. He is full of warm sound feeling, poor fellow. You would like to have heard the fervour with which he begged me to tell his father to have no fears for the younger ones, for it should be the most precious task of his life to do a parent's part by them.'
'Let me see, he is just of Harry's age,' said Ethel, thoughtfully, as if she had not the strongest faith in Harry's power of supplying a parent's place.
'Well,' said her father, 'remember, a medical student is an older man than a lieutenant in the navy. One sees as much of the interior as the other does of the surface. We must take this young Ward by the hand, and mind he does not lose his father's practice. Burdon, that young prig that Spencer got down from London, met me at Gavin's, when I looked in there on my way home, and came the length of Minster Street with me, asking what I thought of an opening for a medical man—partnership with young Ward, &c. I snubbed him so short, that I fancy I left him thinking whether his nose was on or off his face.'
'He was rather premature.'
'I've settled him any way. I shall do my best to keep the town clear for that lad; there's not much more for him, as things are now, and it will be only looking close after him for a few years, which Spencer and I can very well manage.'
'If he will let you.'
'There! that's the spitefulness of women! Must you be casting up that little natural spirit of independence against him after the lesson he has had? I tell you, he has been promising me to look on me as a father! Poor old Ward! he was a good friend and fellow-worker. I owe a great deal to him.'
Ethel wondered if he forgot how much of the unserviceableness of his maimed arm had once been attributed to Mr. Ward's dulness, or how many times he had come home boiling with annoyance at having been called in too late to remedy the respectable apothecary's half measures. She believed that the son had been much better educated than the father, and after the fearful lesson he had received, thought he might realize Dr. May's hopes, and appreciate his kindness. They discussed the relations.
'Ward came as assistant to old Axworthy, and married his daughter; he had no relations that his son knows of, except the old aunt who left Averil her L2000.'
'There are some Axworthys still,' said Ethel, 'but not very creditable people.'
'You may say that,' said Dr. May emphatically. 'There was a scapegrace brother that ran away, and was heard of no more till he turned up, a wealthy man, ten or fifteen years ago, and bought what they call the Vintry Mill, some way on this side of Whitford. He has a business on a large scale; but Ward had as little intercourse with him as possible. A terrible old heathen.'
'And the boy that was expelled for bullying Tom is in the business.'
'I hate the thought of that,' said the Doctor. 'If he had stayed on, who knows but he might have turned out as well as Ned Anderson.'
'Has not he?'
'I'm sure I have no right to say he has not, but he is a flashy slang style of youth, and I hope the young Wards will keep out of his way.'
'What will become of them? Is there likely to be any provision for them?'
'Not much, I should guess. Poor Ward did as we are all tempted to do when money goes through our hands, and spent more freely than I was ever allowed to do. Costly house, garden, greenhouses—he'd better have stuck to old Axworthy's place in Minster Street—daughter at that grand school, where she cost more than the whole half-dozen of you put together.'
'She was more worth it,' said Ethel; 'her music and drawing are first-rate. Harry was frantic about her singing last time he was at home—one evening when Mrs. Anderson abused his good-nature and got him to a tea-party—I began to be afraid of the consequences.'
'Pish!' said the Doctor.
'And really they kept her there to enable her to educate her sisters,' said Ethel. 'The last time I called on poor Mrs. Ward, she told me all about it, apologizing in the pretty way mothers do, saying she was looking forward to Averil's coming home, but that while she profited so much, they felt it due to her to give her every advantage; and did not I think—with my experience—that it was all so much for the little ones' benefit? I assured her, from my personal experience, that ignorance is a terrible thing in governessing one's sisters. Poor thing! And Averil had only come home this very Easter.'
'And with everything to learn, in such a scene as that! The first day, when only the boys were ill, there sat the girl, dabbling with her water-colours, and her petticoats reaching half across the room, looking like a milliner's doll, and neither she nor her poor mother dreaming of her doing a useful matter.'
'Who is spiteful now, papa? That's all envy at not having such an accomplished daughter. When she came out in time of need so grandly, and showed all a woman's instinct—'
'Woman's nonsense! Instinct is for irrational brutes, and the more you cultivate a woman, the less she has of it, unless you work up her practical common sense too.'
'Some one said she made a wonderful nurse.'
'Wonderful? Perhaps so, considering her opportunities, and she does better with Spencer than with me; I may have called her to order impatiently, for she is nervous with me, loses her head, and knocks everything down with her petticoats. Then—not a word to any one, Ethel—but imagine her perfect blindness to her poor mother's state all yesterday, and last night, not even calling Burdon to look at her; why, those ten hours may have made all the difference!'
'Poor thing, how is she getting on now?'
'Concentrated upon Leonard, too much stunned to admit another idea—no tears—hardly full comprehension. One can't take her away, and she can't bear not to do everything, and yet one can't trust her any more than a child.'
'As she is,' said Ethel, 'but as she won't be any longer. And the two little ones?'
'It breaks one's heart to see them, just able to sit by their nursery fire, murmuring in that weary, resigned, sick child's voice, 'I wish nurse would come.' 'I wish sister would come.' 'I wish mamma would come.' I went up to them the last thing, and told them how it was, and let them cry themselves to sleep. That was the worst business of all. Ethel, are they too big for Mary to dress some dolls for them?'
'I will try to find out their tastes the first thing to-morrow,' said Ethel; 'at any rate we can help them, if not poor Averil.'
Ethel, however, was detained at home to await Dr. Spencer's visit, and Mary, whose dreams had all night been haunted by the thought of the two little nursery prisoners, entreated to go with her father, and see what could be done for them.
Off they set together, Mary with a basket in her hand, which was replenished at the toy-shop in Minster Street with two china-faced dolls, and, a little farther on, parted with a couple of rolls, interspersed with strata of cold beef and butter, to a household of convalescents in the stage for kitchen physic.
Passing the school, still taking its enforced holiday, the father and daughter traversed the bridge and entered the growing suburb known as Bankside, where wretched cottages belonging to needy, grasping proprietors, formed an uncomfortable contrast to the villa residences interspersed among them.
One of these, with a well-kept lawn, daintily adorned with the newest pines and ornamental shrubs, and with sheets of glass glaring in the sun from the gardens at the back, was the house that poor Mr. and Mrs. Ward had bought and beautified; 'because it was so much better for the children to be out of the town.' The tears sprang into Mary's eyes at the veiled windows, and the unfeeling contrast of the spring glow of flowering thorn, lilac, laburnum, and, above all, the hard, flashing brightness of the glass; but tears were so unlike Ethel that Mary always was ashamed of them, and disposed of them quietly.
They rang, but in vain. Two of the servants were ill, and all in confusion; and after waiting a few moments among the azaleas in the glass porch, Dr. May admitted himself, and led the way up-stairs with silent footfalls, Mary following with breath held back. A voice from an open door called, 'Is that Dr. May?' and he paused to look in and say, 'I'll be with you in one minute, Henry; how is Leonard?'
'No worse, they tell me; I say, Dr. May—'
'One moment;' and turning back to Mary, he pointed along a dark passage. 'Up there, first door to the right. You can't mistake;' then disappeared, drawing the door after him.
Much discomfited, Mary nevertheless plunged bravely on, concluding 'there' to be up a narrow, uncarpeted stair, with a nursery wicket at the top, in undoing which, she was relieved of all doubts and scruples by a melancholy little duet from within. 'Mary, Mary, we want our breakfast! We want to get up! Mary, Mary, do come! please come!'
She was instantly in what might ordinarily have been a light, cheerful room, but which was in all the dreariness of gray cinders, exhausted night-light, curtained windows, and fragments of the last meal. In each of two cane cribs was sitting up a forlorn child, with loose locks of dishevelled hair, pale thin cheeks glazed with tears, staring eyes, and mouths rounded with amaze at the apparition. One dropped down and hid under the bed-clothes; the other remained transfixed, as her visitor advanced, saying, 'Well, my dear, you called Mary, and here I am.'
'Not our own Mary,' said the child, distrustfully.
'See if I can't be your own Mary.'
'You can't. You can't give us our breakfast.'
'Oh, I am so hungry!' from the other crib; and both burst into the feeble sobs of exhaustion. Recovering from fever, and still fasting at half-past nine! Mary was aghast, and promised an instant supply.
'Don't go;' and a bird-like little hand seized her on either side. 'Mary never came to bed, and nobody has been here all the morning, and we can't bear to be alone.'
'I was only looking for the bell.'
'It is of no use; Minna did jump out and ring, but nobody will come.'
Mary made an ineffectual experiment, and then persuaded the children to let her go by assurances of a speedy return. She sped down, brimming over with pity and indignation, to communicate to her father this cruel neglect, and as she passed Henry Ward's door, and heard several voices, she ventured on a timid summons of 'papa,' but, finding it unheard, she perceived that she must act for herself. Going down-stairs, she tried the sitting-room doors, hoping that breakfast might be laid out there, but all were locked; and at last she found her way to the lower regions, guided by voices in eager tones of subdued gossip.
There, in the glow of the huge red fire, stood a well-covered table, surrounded by cook, charwoman, and their cavaliers, discussing a pile of hot-buttered toast, to which the little kitchen-maid was contributing large rounds, toasted at the fire.
Mary's eyes absolutely flashed, as she said, 'The children have had no breakfast.'
'I beg your pardon, ma'am,' and the cook rose, 'but it is the nurse-maid that takes up the young ladies' meals.'
Mary did not listen to the rest; she was desperate, and pouncing on the bread with one hand, and the butter with the other, ran away with them to the nursery, set them down, and rushed off for another raid. She found that the commotion she had excited was resulting in the preparation of a tray.
'I am sure, ma'am, I am very sorry,' said the cook, insisting on carrying the kettle, 'but we are in such confusion; and the nurse-maid, whose place it is, has been up most of the night with Mr. Leonard, and must have just dropped asleep somewhere, and I was just giving their breakfast to the undertaker's young men, but I'll call her directly, ma'am.'
'Oh, no, on no account. I am sure she ought to sleep,' said Mary. 'It was only because I found the little girls quite starving that I came down. I will take care of them now. Don't wake her, pray. Only I hope,' and Mary looked beseechingly, 'that they will have something good for their dinner, poor little things.'
Cook was entirely pacified, and talked about roast chicken, and presently the little sisters were sitting up in their beds, each in her wrapper, being fed by turns with delicately-buttered slices, Mary standing between like a mother-bird feeding her young, and pleased to find the eyes grow brighter and less hollow, the cheeks less wan, the voices less thin and pipy, and a little laugh breaking out when she mistook Minna for Ella.
While tidying the room, she was assailed with entreaties to call their Mary, and let them get up, they were so tired of bed. She undertook to be still their Mary, and made them direct her to the house-maid's stores, went down on her knees at the embers, and so dealt with matches, chips, and coal, that to her own surprise and pride a fire was evoked.
'But,' said Ella, 'I thought you were a Miss May.'
'So I am, my dear.'
'But ladies don't light fires,' said Minna, in open-eyed perplexity.
'Oh,' exclaimed the younger sister, 'you know Henry said he did not think any of the Miss Mays were first-rate, and that our Ave beat them all to nothing.'
The elder, Minna, began hushing; and it must be confessed that honest Mary was not superior to a certain crimson flush of indignation, as she held her head into the grate, and thought of Ethel, Flora, and Blanche, criticized by Mr. Henry Ward. Little ungrateful chit! No, it was not a matter of laughing, but of forgiveness; and the assertion of the dignity of usefulness was speedily forgotten in the toilette of the small light skin-and-bone frames, in the course of which she received sundry compliments—'her hands were so nice and soft,' 'she did not pull their hair like their own Mary,' 'they wished she always dressed them.'
The trying moment was when they asked if they might kneel at her lap for their prayers. To Mary, the twelve years seemed as nothing since her first prayers after the day of terror and bereavement, and her eyes swam with tears as the younger girl unthinkingly rehearsed her wonted formula, and the elder, clinging to her, whispered gravely, 'Please, what shall I say?'
With full heart, and voice almost unmanageable, Mary prompted the few simple words that had come to her in that hour of sorrow. She looked up, from stooping to the child's ear, to see her father at the door, gazing at them with face greatly moved. The children greeted him fondly, and he sat down with one on each knee, and caressed them as he looked them well over, drawing out their narration of the wonderful things 'she' had done, the fingers pointing to designate who she was. His look at her over his spectacles made Mary's heart bound and feel compensated for whatever Mr. Henry Ward might say of her. When the children had finished their story, he beckoned her out of the room, promising them that he would not keep her long.
'Well done, Molly,' he said smiling, 'it is well to have daughters good for something. You had better stay with them till that poor maid has had her sleep out, and can come to them.'
'I should like to stay with them all day, only that Ethel must want me.'
'You had better go home by dinner-time, that Ethel may get some air. Perhaps I shall want one of you in the evening to be with them at the time of the funeral.'
'Yes, it must be. Better for all, and Henry is glad it should be so. He is out on the sofa to-day, but he is terribly cut up.'
'I see some improvement—Burdon does not—but I think with Heaven's good mercy we may drag him through; the pulse is rather better. Now I must go. You'll not wait dinner for me.'
Mary spent the next hour in amusing the children by the fabrication of the dolls' wardrobe, and had made them exceedingly fond of her, so that there was a very poor welcome when their own Mary at length appeared, much shocked at the duration of her own slumbers, and greatly obliged to Miss May. The little girls would scarcely let Mary go, though she pacified them by an assurance that she or her sister would come in the evening.
'Don't let it be your sister. You come, and finish our dolls' frocks!' and they hung about her, kissing her, and trying to extract a promise.
After sharing the burthen of depression, it was strange to return home to so different a tone of spirits when she found Aubrey installed in Ethel's room as his parlour, very white and weak, but overflowing with languid fun. There was grief and sympathy for the poor Wards, and anxious inquiries for Leonard; but it was not sorrow brought visibly before him, and after the decorous space of commiseration, the smiles were bright again, and Mary heard how her father had popped in to boast of his daughter being 'as good as a house-maid, or as Miss What's-her-name;' and her foray in the kitchen was more diverting to Aubrey than she was as yet prepared to understand. 'Running away with the buttered toast from under the nose of a charwoman! let Harry never talk of taking a Chinese battery after that!' her incapacity of perceiving that the deed was either valiant or ludicrous, entertaining him particularly. 'It had evidently hit the medium between the sublime and ridiculous.'
When evening came, Mary thought it Ethel's privilege to go, as the most efficient friend and comforter; but Ethel saw that her sister's soul was with the Wards, and insisted that she should go on as she had begun.
'O, Ethel, that was only with the little ones. Now you would be of use to poor Averil.'
'And why should not you? and of more use?'
'You know I am only good for small children; but if you tell me—'
'You provoking girl,' said Ethel. 'All I tell you is, that you are twenty-three years old, and I won't tell you anything, nor assist your unwholesome desire to be second fiddle.'
'I don't know what you mean, Ethel; of course you always tell me what to do, and how to do it.'
Ethel quite laughed now, but gave up the contest, only saying, as she fondly smoothed back a little refractory lock on Mary's smooth open brow, 'Very well then, go and do whatever comes to hand at Bankside, my dear. I do really want to stay at home, both on Aubrey's account, and because papa says Dr. Spencer is done up, and that I must catch him and keep him quiet this evening.'
Mary was satisfied in her obedience, and set off with her father. Just as they reached Bankside, a gig drove up containing the fattest old man she had ever beheld; her father whispered that it was old Mr. Axworthy, and sent her at once to the nursery, where she was welcomed with a little shriek of delight, each child bounding in her small arm-chair, and pulling her down between them on the floor for convenience of double hugging, after which she was required to go on with the doll-dressing.
Mary could not bear to do this while the knell was vibrating on her ear, and the two coffins being borne across the threshold; so she gathered the orphans within her embrace as she sat on the floor, and endeavoured to find out how much they understood of what was passing, and whether they had any of the right thoughts. It was rather disappointing. The little sisters had evidently been well and religiously taught, but they were too childish to dwell on thoughts of awe or grief, and the small minds were chiefly fixed upon the dolls, as the one bright spot in the dreary day. Mary yielded, and worked and answered their chatter till twilight came on, and the rival Mary came up to put them to bed, an operation in which she gave her assistance, almost questioning if she were not forgotten, but she learnt that her father was still in the house, the nurse believed looking at papers in Mr. Henry's room with the other gentlemen.
'And you will sit by us while we go to sleep. Oh! don't go away!'
The nurse was thankful to her for so doing, and a somewhat graver mood had come over Minna as she laid her head on her pillow, for she asked the difficult question, 'Can mamma see us now?' which Mary could only answer with a tender 'Perhaps,' and an attempt to direct the child to the thought of the Heavenly Father; and then Minna asked, 'Who will take care of us now?'
'Oh, will you?' cried Ella, sitting up; and both little maids, holding out their arms, made a proffer of themselves to be her little children. They would be so good if she would let them be—
Mary could only fondle and smile it off, and put them in mind that they belonged to their brother and sister; but the answer was, 'Ave is not so nice as you. Oh, do let us—'
'But I can't, my dears. I am Dr. May's child, you know. What could I say to him?'
'Oh! but Dr. May wouldn't mind! I know he wouldn't mind! Mamma says there was never any one so fond of little children, and he is such a dear good old gentleman.'
Mary had not recognized him as an old gentleman at fifty-eight, and did not like it at all. She argued on the impracticability of taking them from their natural protectors, and again tried to lead them upwards, finally betaking herself to the repetition of hymns, which put them to sleep. She had spent some time in sitting between them in the summer darkness, when there was a low tap, and opening the door, she saw her father. Indicating that they slept, she followed him out, and a whispered conference took place as he stood below her on the stairs, their heads on a level.
'Tired, Mary? I have only just got rid of old Axworthy.'
'The nurse said you were busy with papers in Henry's room.'
'Ay—the Will. Henry behaves very well; and is full of right feeling, poor fellow!'
'What becomes of those dear little girls? They want to make themselves a present to me, and say they know you would like it.'
'So I should, the darlings! Well, as things are left, it all goes to Henry, except the L10,000 Ward had insured his life for, which divides between the five. He undertakes, most properly, to make them a home—whether in this house or not is another thing; he and Averil will look after them; and he made a most right answer when Mr. Axworthy offered to take Leonard into his office,' proceeded the communicative Doctor, unable to help pouring himself out, in spite of time and place, as soon as he had a daughter to himself. 'Settle nothing now—education not finished; but privately he tells me he believes his mother would as soon have sent Leonard to the hulks as to that old rascal, and the scamp, his grand-nephew.'
Mary's answer to this, as his tones became incautiously emphatic, was a glance round all the attic doors, lest they should have ears.
'Now then, do you want to get home?' said the Doctor, a little rebuked.
'Oh no, not if there is anything I can do.'
'I want to get this girl away from Leonard. He is just come to the state when it all turns on getting him off to sleep quietly, and not disturbing him, and she is too excited and restless to do anything with her; she has startled him twice already, and then gets upset—tired out, poor thing! and will end in being hysterical if she does not get fed and rested, and then we shall be done for! Now I want you to take charge of her. See, here's her room, and I have ordered up some tea for her. You must get her quieted down, make her have a tolerable meal, and when she has worked off her excitement, put her to bed—undressed, mind—and you might lie down by her. If you can't manage her, call me. That's Leonard's door, and I shall be there all night; but don't if you can help it. Can you do this, or must I get Miss "What-d'ye-call-her" the elder one, if she can leave the Greens in Randall's Alley?
Well was it that Mary's heart was stout as well as tender; and instead of mentally magnifying the task, and diminishing her own capabilities, she simply felt that she had received a command, and merely asked that Ethel should be informed.
'I am going to send up to her.'
'And shall I give Averil anything to take?'
'Mutton-chops, if you can.'
'I meant sal-volatile, or anything to put her to sleep.'
'Nonsense! I hate healthy girls drugging themselves. You don't do that at home, Mary!'
Mary showed her white teeth in a silent laugh at the improbability, there being nothing Ethel more detested than what she rather rudely called nervous quackeries. Her father gave her a kiss of grateful approbation, and was gone.
There was a light on the table, and preparations for tea; and Mary looked round the pretty room, where the ornamental paper, the flowery chintz furniture, the shining brass of the bedstead, the frilled muslin toilet, and et ceteras, were more luxurious than what she ever saw, except when visiting with Flora, and so new as to tell a tale of the mother's fond preparation for the return of the daughter from school. In a few moments she heard her father saying, in a voice as if speaking to a sick child, 'Yes, I promise you, my dear. Be good, be reasonable, and you shall come back in the morning. No, you can't go there. Henry is going to bed. Here is a friend for you. Now, Mary, don't let me see her till she has slept.'
Mary took the other hand, and between them they placed her in an arm-chair, whose shining fresh white ground and gay rose-pattern contrasted with her heated, rumpled, over-watched appearance, as she sank her head on her hand, not noticing either Mary's presence or the Doctor's departure. Mary stood doubtful for a few seconds, full of pity and embarrassment, trying to take in the needs of the case.
Averil Ward was naturally a plump, well-looking girl of eighteen, with clearly-cut features, healthy highly-coloured complexion, and large bright hazel eyes, much darker than her profuse and glossy hair, which was always dressed in the newest and most stylish fashion, which, as well as the whole air of her dress and person, was, though perfectly lady like, always regarded by the Stoneborough world as something on the borders of presumption on the part of the entire Ward family.
To Mary's surprise, the five weeks' terrible visitation, and these last fearful five days of sleepless exertion and bereavement, had not faded the bright red of the cheek, nor were there signs of tears, though the eyes looked bloodshot. Indeed, there was a purple tint about the eyelids and lips, a dried-up appearance, and a heated oppressed air, as if the faculties were deadened and burnt up, though her hand was cold and trembling. Her hair, still in its elaborate arrangement, hung loose, untidy, untouched; her collar and sleeves were soiled and tumbled; her dress, with its inconvenient machinery of inflation, looked wretched from its incongruity, and the stains on the huge hanging sleeves. Not a moment could have been given to the care of her own person, since the sole burthen of nursing had so grievously and suddenly descended on her.
Mary's first instinct was to pour out some warm water, and bringing it with a sponge, to say, 'Would not this refresh you?'
Averil moved petulantly; but the soft warm stream was so grateful to her burning brow, that she could not resist; she put her head back, and submitted like a child to have her face bathed, saying, 'Thank you.'
Mary then begged to remove her tight heavy dress, and make her comfortable in her dressing-gown.
'Oh, I can't! Then I could not go back.'
'Yes, you could; this is quite a dress; besides, one can move so much more quietly without crinoline.'
'I didn't think of that;' and she stood up, and unfastened her hooks. 'Perhaps Dr. May would let me go back now!' as a mountain of mohair and scarlet petticoat remained on the floor, upborne by an over-grown steel mouse-trap.
'Perhaps he will by and by; but he said you must sleep first.'
'Sleep—I can't sleep. There's no one but me. I couldn't sleep.'
'Then at least let me try to freshen you up. There. You don't know what good it used to do my sister Blanche, for me to brush her hair. I like it.'
And Mary obtained a dreamy soothed submission, so that she almost thought she was brushing her victim to sleep in her chair, before the maid came up with the viands that Dr. May had ordered.
'I can't eat that,' said Averil, with almost disgust. 'Take it away.'
'Please don't,' said Mary. 'Is that the way you use me, Miss Ward, when I come to drink tea with you?'
'Oh, I beg your pardon,' was the mechanical answer.
Mary having made the long hair glossy once more, into a huge braid, and knotted it up, came forth, and insisted that they were to be comfortable over their grilled chickens' legs. She was obliged to make her own welcome, and entertain her hostess; and strenuously she worked, letting the dry lips imbibe a cup of tea, before she attempted the solids; then coaxing and commanding, she gained her point, and succeeded in causing a fair amount of provisions to be swallowed; after which Averil seemed more inclined to linger in enjoyment of the liquids, as though the feverish restlessness were giving place to a sense of fatigue and need of repose.
'This is all wrong,' said she, with a faint bewildered smile, as Mary filled up her cup for her. 'I ought to be treating you as guest, Miss May.'
'Oh, don't call me Miss May! Call me Mary. Think me a sister. You know I have known something of like trouble, only I was younger, and I had my sisters.'
'I do not seem to have felt anything yet,' said Averil, passing her hands over her face. 'I seem to be made of stone.'
'You have done: and that is better than feeling.'
'Done! and how miserably! Oh, the difference it might have made, if I had been a better nurse!'
'Papa and Dr. Spencer both say you have been a wonderful nurse, considering—' the last word came out before Mary was aware.
'Oh, Dr. May has been so kind and so patient with me, I shall never forget it. Even when I scalded his fingers with bringing him that boiling water—but I always do wrong when he is there—and now he won't let me go back to Leonard.'
'But, Averil, the best nurse in the world can't hold out for ever. People must sleep, and make themselves fit to go on.'
'Not when there is only one:' and she gasped.
'All the more reason, when there is but one. Perhaps it is because you are tired out that you get nervous and agitated. You will be quite different after a rest.'
'Are you sure?' whispered Averil, with her eyes rounded, 'are you sure that is all the reason?'
'What do you mean?' said Mary.
Averil drew in her breath, and squeezed both hands tight on her chest, as she spoke very low: 'They sent me away from mamma—they told me papa wanted me: then they sent me from him; they said I was better with Leonard; and—and I said to myself, nothing should make me leave Leonard.'
'It was not papa—my father—that sent you without telling you,' said Mary, confidently.
'No,' said Averil.
'No; I have heard him say that he would take all risks, rather than deceive anybody,' said Mary, eagerly. 'I have heard him and Dr. Spencer argue about what they called pious frauds, and he always said they were want of faith. You may trust him. He told me Leonard was in the state when calm sleep was chiefly wanted. I know he would think it cruel not to call you if there were need; and I do not believe there will be need.'
Something like this was reiterated in different forms; and though Averil never regularly yielded, yet as they sat on, there came pauses in the conversation, when Mary saw her nodding, and after one or two vibrations in her chair, she looked up with lustreless glassy eyes. Mary took one of these semi-wakened moments, and in the tone of caressing authority that had been already found effectual, said she must sleep in bed; took no notice of the murmur of refusal, but completed the undressing, and fairly deposited her in her bed.
Mary's scrupulous conscience was distressed at having thus led to the omission of all evening orisons; but if her own simple-hearted loving supplications at the orphan's bedside could compensate for their absence, she did her utmost. Then, as both the room-door and that of the sick-chamber had been left open, she stole into the passage, where she could see her father, seated at the table, and telegraphed to him a sign of her success. He durst not move, but he smiled and nodded satisfaction; and Mary, after tidying the room, and considering with herself, took off her more cumbrous garments, wrapped herself in a cloak, and lay down beside Averil, not expecting to sleep, but passing to thoughts of Harry, and of that 23rd Psalm, which they had agreed to say at the same hour every night. By how many hours was Harry beforehand with her? That was a calculation that to Mary was always like the beads of the chaplain of Norham Castle. Certain it is, that after she had seen Harry lighting a fire to broil chickens' legs in a Chinese temple, under the willow-pattern cannon-ball tree, and heard Henry Ward saying it was not like a lieutenant in the navy, she found herself replying, 'Use before gentility;' and in the enunciation of this—her first moral sentiment—discovered that it was broad daylight.
What o'clock it was she could not guess. Averil was sound asleep, breathing deeply and regularly, so that it was; a pleasure to listen to her; and Mary did not fear wakening her by a shoeless voyage of discovery to the place whence Dr. May was visible.
He turned at once, and with his noiseless tread came to her. 'Asleep still? So is he. All right. Here, waken me the moment he stirs.'
And rather by sign than word, he took Mary into the sickroom, indicated a chair, and laid himself on a sofa, where he was instantaneously sound asleep, before his startled daughter had quite taken everything in; but she had only to glance at his haggard wearied face, to be glad to be there, so as to afford him even a few moments of vigorous slumber with all his might.
In some awe, she looked round, not venturing to stir hand or foot. Her chair was in the full draught of the dewy morning breeze, so chilly, that she drew her shawl tightly about her; but she knew that this had been an instance of her father's care, and if she wished to make the slightest move, it was only to secure a fuller view of the patient, from whom she was half cut off by a curtain at the foot of the bed. A sort of dread, however, made Mary gaze at everything around her before she brought her eyes upon him—her father's watch on the table, indicating ten minutes to four, the Minster Tower in the rising sunlight—nay, the very furniture of the room, and Dr. May's position, before she durst familiarize herself with Leonard's appearance—he whom she had last seen as a sturdy, ruddy, healthful boy, looking able to outweigh two of his friend Aubrey.
The original disease had long since passed into typhus, and the scarlet eruption was gone, so that she only saw a yellow whiteness, that, marked by the blue veins of the bared temples, was to her mind death-like. Mary had not been sheltered from taking part in scenes of suffering; she had seen sickness and death in cottages, as well as in her own home, and she had none of the fanciful alarms, either of novelty or imagination, to startle her in the strange watch that had so suddenly been thrust on her but what did fill her with a certain apprehension, was the new and lofty beauty of expression that sat on that sleeping countenance. 'A nice boy,' 'rather a handsome lad,' 'a boy of ingenuous face,' they had always called Leonard Ward, when animated with health and spirits; and the friendship between him and Aubrey had been encouraged, but without thinking of him as more than an ordinary lad of good style. Now, however, to Mary's mind, the broad brow and wasted features in their rest had assumed a calm nobility that was like those of Ethel's favourite champions—those who conquered by 'suffering and being strong.' She looked and listened for the low regular breath, almost doubting at one moment whether it still were drawn, then only reassured by its freedom and absence from effort, that it was not soon to pass away. There was something in that look as if death must set his seal on it, rather than as if it could return to the flush of health, and the struggle and strife of school-boy life and of manhood.
More than an hour had passed, and all within the house was as still as ever; and through the window there only came such sounds as seem like audible silence—the twittering of birds, the humming of bees, the calls of boys in distant fields, the far-away sound of waggon-wheels—when there was a slight move, and Mary, in the tension of all her faculties, had well-nigh started, but restrained herself; and as she saw the half-closed fingers stretch, and the head turn, she leant forward, and touched her father's hand.
Dr. May was on his feet even before those brown eyes of Leonard's had had time to unclose; and as Mary was silently moving to the door, he made a sign to her to wait.
She stood behind the curtain. 'You are better for your sleep.'
'Yes, thank you—much better.'
The Doctor signed towards a tray, which stood by a spirit-lamp, on a table in the further corner. Mary silently brought it, and as quietly obeyed the finger that directed her to cordial and spoon—well knowing the need—since that unserviceable right arm always made these operations troublesome to her father.
'Have you been here all night, Dr. May?'
'Yes; and very glad to see you sleeping so well.'
'Thank you.' And there was something that made Mary's eyes dazzle with tears in the tone of that 'Thank you.' The Doctor held out his hand for the spoon she had prepared, and there was another 'Thank you;' then, 'Is Ave there?'
'No, I made her go to bed. She is quite well; but she wanted sleep sorely.'
'Thank you,' again said the boy; then with a moment's pause, 'Dr. May, tell me now.'
Mary would have fled as breaking treacherously in upon such tidings; but a constraining gesture of her father obliged her to remain, and keep the cordial ready for immediate administration.
'My dear, I believe you know,' said Dr. May, bending over him—and Mary well knew what the face must be saying.
'Both?' the faint tones asked.
'Recollect the sorrow that they have been spared,' said Dr. May in his lowest, tenderest tones, putting his hand out behind him, and signing to Mary for the cordial.
'She could not have borne it;' and the feebleness of those words made Mary eager to put the spoon once more into her father's hands.
'That is right, my boy. Think of their being together;' and Mary heard tears in her father's voice.
'Thank you,' again showed that the cordial was swallowed; then a pause, and in a quiet, sad, low tone, 'Poor Ave!'
'Your mending is the best thing for her.'
Then came a long sigh; and then, after a pause, the Doctor knelt down, and said the Lord's Prayer—the orphan's prayer, as so many have felt it in the hour of bereavement.
All was quite still, and both he and Mary knelt on for some short space; then he arose in guarded stillness, hastily wiped away the tears that were streaming over his face, and holding back the curtain, showed Mary the boy, again sunk into that sweet refreshing sleep. 'That is well over,' he said, with a deep sigh of relief, when they had moved to a safe distance. 'Poor fellow! he had better become used to the idea while he is too weak to think.'
'He is better?' asked Mary, repressing her agitation with difficulty.
'I believe the danger is over; and you may tell his sister so when she wakes.'
And a heart at leisure from itself To soothe and sympathize.—Miss Waring
Recovery had fairly set in, and 'better' was the universal bulletin, eating and drinking the prevailing remedy.
Henry Ward had quickly thrown off his illness. The sense that all depended on him, acted as a stimulus to his energies; he was anxious to be up and doing, and in a few days was down-stairs, looking over his father's papers, and making arrangements. He was eager and confident, declaring that his sisters should never want a home while he lived; and, when he first entered his brother's room, his effusion of affection overwhelmed Leonard in his exceeding weakness, and the thought of which during the rest of the day often brought tears to his eyes.
Very grateful to Dr. May, Henry declared himself anxious to abide by his advice; and discussed with him all his plans. There had been no will, but the house and land of course were Henry's. The other property gave about L2000 to each of the family; and Averil had about as much again from the old aunt, from whom she had taken her peculiar name. The home of all should, of course, still be their present one; Averil would teach her sisters, and superintend the house, and Leonard continue at the school, where he had a fair chance of obtaining the Randall scholarship in the course of a year or two. 'And if not,' said Henry, 'he may still not lose his University education. My father was proud of Leonard; and if he would have sent him there, why should not I?'
And when Dr. May thought how his own elder sons had insisted on greater advantages of education for their juniors than they had themselves enjoyed, he felt especially fatherly towards the young surgeon. On only one point was he dissatisfied, and that he could not press. He thought the establishment at Bankside too expensive, and counselled Henry to remove into the town, and let the house; but this was rejected on the argument of the uncertainty of finding a tenant, and the inexpediency of appearing less prosperous; and considering that Mr. and Mrs. Ward had themselves made the place, Dr. May thought his proposal hard-hearted. He went about impressing every one with his confidence in Henry Ward, and fought successfully at the Board of Guardians to have him considered as a continuation of his father, instead of appointing a new union doctor; and he watched with paternal solicitude that the young man's first return to his practice should be neither too soon for his own health or his patients' fears; giving him no exhortation more earnest, nor more thankfully accepted, than that he was to let no scruple prevent his applying to himself in the slightest difficulty; calling him in to pauper patients, and privately consulting in cases which could not be visited gratis. The patronage of Henry Ward was one of the hobbies that Dr. May specially loved, and he cantered off upon it with vehemence such as he had hardly displayed for years.
Aubrey recovered with the tardiness of a weakly constitution, and was long in even arriving at a drive in the brougham; for Dr. May had set up a brougham. As long as Hector Ernescliffe's home was at Stoneborough, driving the Doctor had been his privilege, and the old gig had been held together by diligent repairs; but when Maplewood claimed him, and Adams was laid aside by rheumatism, Flora would no longer be silenced, and preached respectability and necessity. Dr. May did not admit the plea, unless Adams were to sit inside and drive out of window; but then he was told of the impropriety of his daughters going out to dinner in gigs, and the expense of flies. When Flora talked of propriety in that voice, the family might protest and grumble, but were always reduced to obedience; and thus Blanche's wedding had been the occasion of Ethel being put into a hoop, and the Doctor into a brougham. He was better off under the tyranny than she was, in spite of the solitude he had bewailed. Young Adams was not the companion his father had been, and was no loss; and he owned that he now got through a great deal of reading, and at times a great deal of sleep; and mourned for nothing but his moon and stars—so romantic a regret, that Dr. Spencer advised him not to mention it.
After Aubrey's first drives, Dr. Spencer declared that the best way of invigorating him would be to send him for a month to the sea-side, while the house could be thoroughly purified before Gertrude's return. Dr. Spencer and Mary would take care of Dr. May; and Ethel had begun to look forward to a tete-a-tete with Aubrey by the sea, which they had neither of them ever seen, when her anticipations were somewhat dashed by her father's exclaiming, that it would be the best thing for Leonard Ward to go with them. She said something about his not being well enough to travel so soon.
'Oh, yes, he will,' said Dr. May; 'he only wants stimulus to get on fast enough. I declare I'll ask Henry about it; I'm just going to meet him at the hospital.'
And before another word could be said, he let himself out at the back door of the garden, in which they had been meeting Richard, who was now allowed to come thus far, though both for Daisy's sake and his flock's, he had hitherto submitted to a rigorous quarantine; and the entire immunity of Cocksmoor from the malady was constantly adduced by each doctor as a convincing proof of his own theory.
'Well, I do hope that will go off!' exclaimed Ethel, as soon as her father was out of hearing. 'It will be a terrible upset to all one's peace and comfort with Aubrey!'
'Indeed—what harm will the poor boy do?' asked Richard.
'Make Aubrey into the mere shame-faced, sister-hating, commonplace creature that the collective boy thinks it due to himself to be in society,' said Ethel, 'and me from an enjoying sister, into an elderly, care-taking, despised spinster—a burden to myself and the boys.'
'But why, Ethel, can't you enjoy yourself!'
'My dear Richard, just imagine turning loose a lot of boys and girls, with no keeper, to enjoy themselves in some wild sea place! No, no: the only way to give the arrangement any shade of propriety, will be to be elderly, infuse as much vinegar as possible into my countenance, wear my spectacles, and walk at a staid pace up and down the parade, while my two sons disport themselves on the rocks.'
'If you really think it would not be proper,' said Richard, rather alarmed, 'I could run after my father.'
'Stuff, Richard; papa must have his way; and if it is to do the boy good, I can sacrifice a crab—I mean myself—not a crustacean. I am not going to be such a selfish wretch as to make objections.'
'But if it would not be the correct thing? Or could not you get some one to stay with you?'
'I can make it the correct thing. It is only to abstain from the fun I had hoped for. I meant to have been a girl, and now I must be a woman, that's all; and I dare say Aubrey will be the happier for it—boys always are.'
'If you don't like it, I wish you would let me speak to papa.'
'Richard, have you these five years been the safety-valve for my murmurs without knowing what they amount to?'
'I thought no one complained unless to get a thing remedied.'
'Exactly so. That is man! And experience never shows man that woman's growls relieve her soul, and that she dreads nothing more than their being acted on! All I wish is, that this scheme may die a natural death; but I should be miserable, and deserved to be so, if I raised a finger to hinder it. What, must you go? Rule Daisy's lines if she writes to Meta, please.'
'I did so. I have been trying to make her write straighter.'
'Of course you have. I expect I shall find her organ of order grown to a huge bump when she comes home. Oh! when will our poor remnants be once more a united family? and when shall I get into Cocksmoor school again?'
When Dr. May came home, his plan was in full bloom. Henry had gratefully accepted it, and answered for his brother being able to travel by the next Monday; and Dr. May wanted Ethel to walk with him to Bankside, and propose it there—talking it over with the sister, and making it her own invitation. Ethel saw her fate, and complied, her father talking eagerly all the way.
'You see, Ethel, it is quite as much for his spirits as his health that I wish it. He is just the age that our Norman was.'
That was the key to a great deal. Ethel knew that her father had never admitted any of the many excuses for the neglect of Norman's suffering for the three months after his mother's death; but though it thrilled her all over, she was not prepared to believe that any one, far less any Ward, could be of the same sensitive materials as Norman. To avoid answering, she went more than half-way, by saying, 'Don't you think I might ask those poor girls to come with him?'
'By no manner of means,' said the Doctor, stopping short. 'It is just what I want, to get him away from his sister. She minds nothing else; and if it were not for Mary, I don't know what the little ones would do; and as to Henry, he is very good and patient; but it is the way to prevent him from forming domestic tastes to have no mistress to his house. He will get into mischief, or marry, if she does not mind what she is about.'
'That must come to an end when Leonard is well, and goes back to school.'
'And that won't be till after the holidays. No, some break there must be. When he is gone, Mary can put her into the way of doing things; she is anxious to do right; and we shall see them do very well. But this poor boy—you know he has been always living at home, while the others were away; he was very fond of his mother, and the first coming out of his room was more than he could bear. I must have him taken from home till he is well again, and able to turn to other things.'
And before Ethel's eyes came a vision of poor Mrs. Ward leaning on her son's arm, on Saturday afternoon walks, each looking fond and proud of the other. She felt her own hardness of heart, and warmed to the desire of giving comfort.
Bankside was basking in summer sunshine, with small patches of shade round its young shrubs and trees, and a baking heat on the little porch.
The maid believed Miss Ward was in the garden. Mr. Leonard had been taken out to-day; and the Doctor moving on, they found themselves in the cool pretty drawing-room, rather overcrowded with furniture and decoration, fresh and tasteful, but too much of it, and a contrast to the Mays' mixture of the shabby and the curious, in the room that was so decidedly for use, and not for show.
What arrested the attention was, however, the very sweetest singing Ethel had ever heard. The song was low and sad, but so intensely sweet, that Dr. May held up his hand to silence all sound, and stood with restrained breath and moistened eyes. Ethel, far less sensitive to music, was nevertheless touched as she had never before been by sound; and the more, as she looked through the window and saw in the shade of a walnut-tree, a sofa, at the foot of which sat Averil Ward in her deep mourning, her back to the window, so that only her young figure and the braids of her fair hair were to be seen; and beyond, something prostrate, covered with wrappers. The sweet notes ended, Dr. May drew a deep sigh, wiped his spectacles, and went on; Ethel hung back, not to startle the invalid by the sight of a stranger; but as Averil rose, she saw him raising himself, with a brightening smile on his pale face, to hold out his hand to the Doctor. In another minute Averil had come to her, shaken hands, and seated herself where she could best command a view of her brother.
'I am glad to see him out of doors,' said Ethel.
'Henry was bent on it; but I think the air and the glare of everything is too much for him; he is so tired and oppressed.'
'I am sure he must like your singing,' said Ethel.
'It is almost the only thing that answers,' said Averil, her eyes wistfully turning to the sofa; 'he can't read, and doesn't like being read to.'
'It is very difficult to manage a boy's recovery,' said Ethel. 'They don't know how to be ill.'
'It is not that,' replied the sister, as if she fancied censure implied, 'but his spirits. Every new room he goes into seems to beat him down; and he lies and broods. If he could only talk!'
'I know that so well!' said Ethel. But to Averil the May troubles were of old date, involved in the mists of childhood. And Ethel seeing that her words were not taken as sympathy, continued, 'Do not the little girls amuse him?'
'Oh no! they are too much for him; and I am obliged to keep them in the nursery. Poor little things! I don't know what we should do if your sister Mary were not so kind.'
'Mary is very glad,' began Ethel, confusedly. Then rushing into her subject: 'Next week, I am to take Aubrey to the seaside; and we thought if Leonard would join us, the change might be good for him.'
'Thank you,' Averil answered, playing with her heavy jet watch-guard. 'You are very good; but I am sure he could not move so soon.'
'Ave,' called Leonard at that moment; and Ethel, perceiving that she likewise was to advance, came forth in time to hear, 'O, Ave! I am to go to the sea next week, with Aubrey May and his sister. Won't it—'
Then becoming aware of the visitor, he stopped short, threw his feet off the sofa, and stood up to receive her.
'I can't let you come if you do like that,' she said, shaking his long thin hand; and he let himself down again, not, however, resuming his recumbent posture, and giving a slight but effective frown to silence his sister's entreaties that he would do so. He sat, leaning back as though exceedingly feeble, scarcely speaking, but his eyes eloquent with eagerness. And very fine eyes they were! Ethel remembered her own weariness, some twelve or fourteen years back, of the raptures of her baby-loving sisters about those eyes; and now in the absence of the florid colouring of health, she was the more struck by the beauty of the deep liquid brown, of the blue tinge of the white, and of the lustrous light that resided in them, but far more by their power of expression, sometimes so soft and melancholy, at other moments earnest, pleading, and almost flashing with eagerness. It was a good mouth too, perhaps a little inclined to sternness of mould about the jaw and chin; but that might have been partly from the absence of all softening roundness, aging the countenance for the time, just as illness had shrunk the usually sturdy figure.
'Has Ethel told you of our plan?' asked Dr. May of the sister.
'Yes,' she hesitated, in evident confusion and distress. 'You are all very kind, but we must see what Henry says.'
'I have spoken to Henry! He answers for our patching Leonard up for next week; and I have great faith in Dr. Neptune.'
Leonard's looks were as bright as Averil's were disturbed.
'Thank you, thank you very much! but can he possibly be well enough for the journey?'
Leonard's eyes said 'I shall.'
'A week will do great things,' said Dr. May, 'and it is a very easy journey—only four hours' railway, and a ten miles' drive.'
Averil's face was full of consternation; and Leonard leant forward with hope dancing in his eyes.
'You know the place,' continued Dr. May, 'Coombe Hole. Quite fresh, and unhackneyed. It is just where Devon and Dorset meet. I am not sure in which county; but there's a fine beach, and beautiful country. The Riverses found it out, and have been there every autumn; besides sending their poor little girl and her governess down when London gets too hot. Flora has written to the woman of the lodgings she always has, and will lend them the maid she sends with little Margaret; so they will be in clover.'
'Is it not a very long way!' said Averil, thinking how long those ten yards of lawn had seemed.
'Not as things go,' said Dr. May. 'You want Dr. Spencer to reproach you with being a Stoneborough fungus. There are places in Wales nearer by the map, but without railway privilege; and as to a great gay place, they would all be sick of it.'
'Do you feel equal to it? as if you should like it, Leonard?' asked his sister, in a trembling would-be grateful voice.
'Of all things,' was the answer.
Ethel thought the poor girl had suffered constraint enough, and that it was time to release the boy from his polite durance, so she rose to take leave, and again Leonard pulled himself upright to shake hands.
'Indeed,' said Ethel, when Averil had followed them into the drawing-room, 'I am sorry for you. It would go very hard with me to make Aubrey over to any one! but if you do trust him with me, I must come and hear all you wish me to do for him.'
'I cannot think that he will be able or glad to go when it comes to the point,' said Averil, with a shaken tone.
Dr. May was nearer than she thought, and spoke peremptorily. 'Take care what you are about! You are not to worry him with discussions. If he can go, he will; if not, he will stay at home; but pros and cons are prohibited. Do you hear, Averil!'
'Yes; very well.'
'Papa you really are very cruel to that poor girl,' were Ethel's first words outside.
'Am I? I wouldn't be for worlds, Ethel. But somehow she always puts me in a rage. I wish I knew she was not worrying her brother at this moment!'
No, Averil was on the staircase, struggling, choking with the first tears she had shed. All this fortnight of unceasing vigilance and exertion, her eyes had been dry, for want of time to realize, for want of time to weep, and now she was ashamed that hurt feeling rather than grief had opened the fountain. She could not believe that it was not a cruel act of kindness, to carry one so weak as Leonard away from home to the care of a stranger. She apprehended all manner of ill consequences; and then nursing him, and regarding his progress as her own work, had been the sedative to her grief, which would come on her 'like an armed man,' in the dreariness of his absence. Above all, she felt herself ill requited by his manifest eagerness to leave her who had nursed him so devotedly—her, his own sister—for the stiff, plain Miss May whom he hardly knew. The blow from the favourite companion brother, so passionately watched and tended, seemed to knock her down; and Dr. May, with medical harshness, forbidding her the one last hope of persuading him out of the wild fancy, filled up the measure.
Oh, those tears! How they would swell up at each throb of the wounded heart, at each dismal foreboding of the desponding spirit. But she had no time for them! Leonard must not be left alone, with no one to cover him up with his wrappers.
The tears were strangled, the eyes indignantly dried. She ran out at the garden door. The sofa was empty! Had Henry come home and helped him in? She hurried on to the window; Leonard was alone in the drawing-room, resting breathlessly on an ottoman within the window.
'Dear Leonard! Why didn't you wait for me!'
'I thought I'd try what I could do. You see I am much stronger than we thought.' And he smiled cheerfully, as he helped himself by the furniture to another sofa. 'I say, Ave, do just give me the map—the one in Bradshaw will do. I want to find this place.'
'I don't think there is a Bradshaw,' said Averil, reluctantly.
'Oh yes, there is—behind the candlestick, on the study chimney-piece.'
'Very well—' There were more tears to be gulped down—and perhaps they kept her from finding the book.
'Where's the Bradshaw?'
'I didn't see it.'
'I tell you I know it was there. The left-hand candlestick, close to the letter-weight. I'll get it myself.'
He was heaving himself up, when Averil prevented him by hastening to a more real search, which speedily produced the book.
Eagerly Leonard unfolded the map, making her steady it for his shaking hand, and tracing the black toothed lines.
'There's Bridport—ten miles from there. Can you see the name, Ave?'
'No, it is not marked.'
'Never mind. I see where it is; and I can see it is a capital place; just in that little jag, with famous bathing. I wonder if they will stay long enough for me to learn to swim?'