Chapter VII.
 

The nurse of Mrs. Ridley had found her in a nervous chill, at which she was greatly troubled. More clothing was laid upon the bed, and bottles of hot water placed to her feet. To all this Mrs. Ridley made no objection--remained, in fact, entirely passive and irresponsive, like one in a partial stupor, from which she did not, to all appearance, rally even after the chill had subsided.

She lay with her eyes shut, her lips pressed together and her forehead drawn into lines, and an expression of pain on her face, answering only in dull monosyllables to the inquiries made every now and then by her nurse, who hovered about the bed and watched over her with anxious solicitude.

As she feared, fever symptoms began to show themselves. The evening had worn away, and it was past ten o'clock. It would not do to wait until morning in a case like this, and so a servant was sent to the office of Dr. Hillhouse, with a request that he would come immediately. She returned saying that the doctor was not at home.

Mrs. Ridley lay with her eyes shut, but the nurse knew by the expression of her face that she was not asleep. The paleness of her countenance had given way to a fever hue, and she noticed occasional restless movements of the hands, twitches of the eyelids and nervous starts. To her questions the patient gave no satisfactory answers.

An hour elapsed, and still the doctor did not make his appearance. The servant was called and questioned. She was positive about having left word for the doctor to come immediately on returning home.

"Is that snow?" inquired Mrs. Ridley, starting up in bed and listening. The wind had risen suddenly and swept in a gusty dash against the windows, rattling on the glass the fine hard grains which had been falling for some time.

She remained leaning on her arm and listening for some moments, while an almost frightened look came into her face.

"What time is it?" she asked.

"After eleven o'clock," replied the nurse.

All at once the storm seemed to have awakened into a wild fury. More loudly it rushed and roared and dashed its sand-like snow against the windows of Mrs. Ridley's chamber. The sick woman shivered and the fever-flush died out of her face.

"You must lie down!" said the nurse, speaking with decision and putting her hands on Mrs. Ridley to press her back. But the latter resisted.

"Indeed, indeed, ma'am," urged the nurse, showing great anxiety, "you must lie down and keep covered up in bed. It might be the death of you."

"Oh, that's awful!" exclaimed Mrs. Ridley as the wind went howling by and the snow came in heavier gusts against the windows. "Past eleven, did you say?"

"Yes, ma'am, and the doctor ought to have been here long ago. I wonder why he doesn't come?"

"Hark! wasn't that our bell?" cried Mrs. Ridley, bending forward in a listening attitude.

The nurse opened the chamber door and stood hearkening for a moment or two. Not hearing the servant stir, she ran quickly down stairs to the street door and drew it open, but found no one.

There was a look of suspense and fear in Mrs. Ridley's face when the nurse came back:

"Who was it?"

"No one," replied the nurse. "The wind deceived you."

A groan came from Mrs. Ridley's lips as she sank down upon the bed, where, with her face hidden, she lay as still as if sleeping. She did not move nor speak for the space of more than half an hour, and all the while her nurse waited and listened through the weird, incessant noises of the storm for the coming of Dr. Hillhouse, but waited and listened in vain.

All at once, as if transferred to within a few hundred rods of these anxious watchers, the great clock of the city, which in the still hours of a calm night could be heard ringing out clear but afar off, threw a resonant clang upon the air, pealing the first stroke of the hour of twelve. Mrs. Ridley started up in bed with a scared look on her face. Away the sound rolled, borne by the impetuous wind-wave that had caught it up as the old bell shivered it off, and carried it away so swiftly that it seemed to die almost in the moment it was born. The listeners waited, holding their breaths. Then, swept from the course this first peal had taken, the second came to their ears after a long interval muffled and from a distance, followed almost instantly by the third, which went booming past them louder than the first. And so, with strange intervals and variations of time and sound as the wind dashed wildly onward or broke and swerved from its course, the noon of night was struck, and the silence that for a brief time succeeded left a feeling of awe upon the hearts of these lonely women.

To the ears of another had come these strange and solemn tones, struck out at midnight away up in the clear rush of the tempest, and swept away in a kind of mad sport, and tossed about in the murky sky. To the ears of another, who, struggling and battling with the storm, had made his way with something of a blind instinct to within a short distance of his home, every stroke of the clock seemed to come from a different quarter; and when the last peal rang out, it left him in helpless bewilderment. When he staggered on again, it was in a direction opposite to that in which he had been going. For ten minutes he wrought with the blinding and suffocating snow, which, turn as he would, the wind kept dashing into his face, and then his failing limbs gave out and he sunk benumbed with cold upon the pavement. Half buried in the snow, he was discovered soon afterward and carried to a police station, where he found himself next morning in one of the cells, a wretched, humiliated, despairing man.

"Why, Mr. Ridley! It can't be possible!" It was the exclamation of the police magistrate when this man was brought, soon after daylight, before him.

Ridley stood dumb in presence of the officer, who was touched by the helpless misery of his face.

"You were at Mr. Birtwell's?"

Ridley answered by a silent inclination of his head.

"I do not wonder," said the magistrate, his voice softening, "that, you lost your way in the storm last night. You are not the only one who found himself astray and at fault. Our men had to take care of quite a number of Mr. Birtwell's guests. But I will not detain you, Mr. Ridley. I am sorry this has happened. You must be more careful in future."

With slow steps and bowed head Mr. Ridley left the station-house and took his way homeward. How could he meet his wife? What of her? How had she passed the night? Vividly came up the parting scene as she lay with her babe, only a few days old, close against her bosom, her tender eyes, in which he saw shadows of fear, fixed lovingly upon his face.

He had promised to be home soon, and had said a fervent "God bless you!" as he left a kiss warm upon her lips.

And now! He stood still, a groan breaking on the air. Go home! How could he look into the face of his wife again? She had walked with him through the valley of humiliation in sorrow and suffering and shame for years, and now, after going up from this valley and bearing her to a pleasant land of hope and happiness, he had plunged down madly. Then a sudden fear smote his heart. She was in no condition to bear a shock such as his absence all night must have caused. The consequences might be fatal. He started forward at a rapid pace, hurrying along until he came in sight of his house. A carriage stood at the door. What could this mean?

Entering, he was halfway up stairs when, the nurse met him.

"Oh, Mr. Ridley," she exclaimed, "why did you stay away all night? Mrs. Ridley has been so ill, and I couldn't get the doctor. Oh, sir, I don't know what will come of it. She's in a dreadful way--out of her head. I sent for Dr. Hillhouse last night, but he didn't come."

She spoke in a rapid manner, showing much alarm and agitation.

"Is Dr. Hillhouse here now?" asked Mr. Ridley, trying to repress his feelings.

"No, sir. He sent Dr. Angier, but I don't trust much in him. Dr. Hillhouse ought to see her right away. But you do look awful, sir!"

The nurse fixed her eyes upon him in a half-wondering stare.

Mr. Ridley broke from her, and passing up the stairs in two or three long strides, made his way to the bath-room, where in a few moments he changed as best he could his disordered appearance, and then hurried to his wife's chamber.

A wild cry of joy broke from her lips as she saw him enter; but when he came near, she put up her hands and shrunk away from him, saying in a voice that fairly wailed, it was so full of disappointment:

"I thought it was Ralph--my dear, good Ralph! Why don't he come home?"

Her cheeks were red with fever and her eyes bright and shining. She had started up in bed on hearing her husband's step, but now shrunk down under the clothing and turned her face away.

"Blanche! Blanche!" Mr. Ridley called the name of his wife tenderly as he stood leaning over her.

Moving her head slowly, like one in doubt, she looked at him in a curious, questioning way. Then, closing her eyes, she turned her face from him again.

"Blanche! Blanche!" For all the response that came, Mr. Ridley might as well have spoken to deaf ears. Dr. Angier laid his hand on his arm and drew him away:

"She must have as little to disturb her as possible, Mr. Ridley. The case is serious."

"Where is Dr. Hillhouse? Why did not he come?" demanded Mr. Ridley.

"He will be here after a while. It is too early for him," replied Dr. Angier.

"He must come now. Go for him at once, doctor."

"If you say so," returned Doctor Angier, with some coldness of manner; "but I cannot tell how soon he will be here. He does not go out until after eight or nine o'clock, and there are two or three pressing cases besides this."

"I will go," said Mr. Ridley. "Don't think me rude or uncourteous, Dr. Angier. I am like one distracted. Stay here until I get back. I will bring Dr. Hillhouse."

"Take my carriage--it is at the door; and say to Dr. Hillhouse from me that I would like him to come immediately," Dr. Angier replied to this.

Mr. Ridley ran down stairs, and springing into the carriage, ordered the driver to return with all possible speed to the office. Dr. Hillhouse was in bed, but rose on getting the summons from Dr. Angier and accompanied Mr. Ridley. He did not feel in a pleasant humor. The night's indulgence in wine and other allurements of the table had not left his head clear nor his nerves steady for the morning. A sense of physical discomfort made him impatient and irritable. At first all the conditions of this case were not clear to him; but as his thought went back to the incidents of the night, and he remembered not only seeing Mr. Ridley in considerable excitement from drink, but hearing it remarked upon by one or two persons who were familiar with his life at Washington, the truth dawned upon his mind, and he said abruptly, with considerable sternness of manner and in a quick voice:

"At what time did you get home last night?"

Ridley made no reply.

"Or this morning? It was nearly midnight when I left, and you were still there, and, I am sorry to say, not in the best condition for meeting a sick wife at home. If there is anything seriously wrong in this case, the responsibility lies, I am afraid, at your door, sir."

They were in the carriage, moving rapidly. Mr. Ridley sat-with his head drawn down and bent a little forward; not answering, Dr. Hillhouse said no more. On arriving at Mr. Ridley's residence, he met Dr. Angier, with whom he held a brief conference before seeing his patient. He found her in no favorable condition. The fever was not so intense as Dr. Angier had found it on his arrival, but its effect on the brain was more marked.

"Too much time has been lost." Dr. Hillhouse spoke aside to his assistant a's they sat together watching carefully every symptom of their patient.

"I sent for you before ten o'clock last night," said the nurse, who overheard the remark and wished to screen herself from any blame.

Dr. Hillhouse did not reply.

"I knew there was danger," pursued the nurse. "Oh, doctor, if you had only come when I sent for you! I waited and waited until after midnight."

The doctor growled an impatient response, but so muttered and mumbled the words that the nurse could not make them out. Mr. Ridley was in the room, standing with folded arms a little way from the bed, stern and haggard, with wild, congested eyes and closely shut mouth, a picture of anguish, fear and remorse.

The two physicians remained with Mrs. Ridley for over twenty minutes before deciding on their line of treatment. A prescription was then made, and careful instructions given to the nurse.

"I will call again in the course of two or three hours," said Dr. Hillhouse, on going away. "Should any thing unfavorable occur, send to the office immediately."

"Doctor!" Mr. Ridley laid his hand on the arm of Dr. Hillhouse. "What of my wife?" There was a frightened look in his pale, agitated face. His voice shook.

"She is in danger," replied the doctor.

"But you know what to do? You can control the disease? You have had such cases before?"

"I will do my best," answered the doctor, trying to move on; but Mr. Ridley clutched his arm tightly and held him fast:

"Is it--is it--puer-p-p--" His voice shook so that he could not articulate the word that was on his tongue.

"I am afraid so," returned the doctor.

A deep groan broke from the lips of Mr. Ridley. His hand dropped from the arm of Dr. Hillhouse and he stood trembling from head to foot, then cried out in a voice of unutterable despair:

"From heaven down to hell in one wild leap! God help me!"

Dr. Hillhouse was deeply moved at this. He had felt stern and angry, ready each moment to accuse and condemn, but the intense emotion displayed by the husband shocked, subdued and changed his tone of feeling.

"You must calm, yourself, my dear sir," he said. "The case looks bad, but I have seen recovery in worse cases than this. We will do our best. But remember that you have duties and responsibilities that must not fail."

"Whatsoever in me lies, doctor," answered Mr. Ridley, with a sudden calmness that seemed supernatural, "you may count on my doing. If she dies, I am lost." There was a deep solemnity in his tones as he uttered this last sentence. "You see, sir," he added, "what I have at stake."

"Just for the present little more can be done than to follow the prescriptions we have given and watch their effect on the patient," returned Dr. Hillhouse. "If any change occurs, favorable or unfavorable, let us know. If your presence in her room should excite or disturb her in any way, you must prudently abstain from going near her."

The two physicians went away with but little hope in their hearts for the sick woman. Whatever the exciting cause or causes might have been, the disease which had taken hold of her with unusual violence presented already so fatal a type that the issue was very doubtful.