The Allen House, or Twenty Years Ago and Now by T.S. Arthur
The rain had poured in torrents all day, and now, for the third time since morning, I came home, wet, uncomfortable and weary. I half dreaded to look at the slate, lest some urgent call should stare me in the face.
"It must indeed be a case of life and death, that takes me out again to-night," said I, as my good wife met me in the entry, and with light hands, made active by love, assisted in the removal of my great coat and comforter.
"Now come into the sitting-room," she said, "your slippers are on the rug, and your dressing-gown warmed and waiting. Tea is ready, and will be on the table by the time you feel a little comfortable. What a dreadful day it has been!"
"Dreadful for those who have been compelled to face the storm," I remarked, as I drew off my boots, and proceeded to take advantage of all the pleasant arrangements my thoughtful wife had ready for my solace and delight.
It was on my lip to inquire if any one had called since I went out, but the ringing of the tea-bell sent my thought in a new direction; when, with my second self leaning on an arm, and my little Aggy holding tightly by my hand, I moved on to the dining-room, all the disagreeable things of the day forgotten.
"Has any one been here?" I asked, as I handed my cup for a third replenishing. Professional habit was too strong--the query would intrude itself.
"Mrs. Wallingford called to see you."
"Ah! Is anybody sick?"
"I believe so--but she evaded my inquiry, and said that she wished to speak a word with the Doctor."
"She don't want me to call over to-night, I hope. Did she leave any word?"
"No. She looked troubled in her mind, I thought."
"No other call?"
"Yes. Mary Jones sent word that something was the matter with the baby. It cried nearly all last night, her little boy said, and to-day has fever, and lies in a kind of stupor."
"That case must be seen to," I remarked, speaking to myself.
"You might let it go over until morning," suggested my wife. "At any rate, I would let them send again before going. The child may be better by this time."
"A call in time may save life here, Constance," I made answer; the sense of duty growing stronger as the inner and outer man felt the renovating effects of a good supper, and the brightness and warmth of my pleasant home. "And life, you know, is a precious thing--even a baby's life."
And I turned a meaning glance upon the calm, sweet face of our latest born, as she lay sleeping in her cradle. That was enough. I saw the tears spring instantly to the eyes of my wife.
"I have not a word to say. God forbid, that in the weakness of love and care for you, dear husband, I should draw you aside from duty. Yes--yes! The life of a baby is indeed a precious thing!"
And bending over the cradle, she left a kiss on the lips, and a tear on the pure brow of our darling. Now was I doubly strengthened for the night. There arose at this instant a wild storm-wail, that shrieked for a brief time amid the chimneys, and around the eaves of our dwelling, and then went moaning away, sadly, dying at last in the far distance. The rain beat heavily against the windows. But I did not waver, nor seek for reasons to warrant a neglect of duty. "I must see Mary Jones's baby, and that to-night." I said this to myself, resolutely, by way of answer to the intimidating storm.
Mrs. Jones was a widow, and poor. She lived full a quarter of a mile away. So in deciding to make the visit that night, I hardly think a very strong element of self-interest was included in the motives that governed me. But that is irrelevant.
"As there is no prospect of an abatement in the storm," said I, after returning to our cosy little sitting-room, "it may be as well for me to see the baby at once. The visit will be over, so far as I am concerned, and precious time may be gained for the patient."
"I will tell Joseph to bring around the horse," said my wife.
"No--I will walk. Poor beast! He has done enough for one day, and shall not be taken out again."
"Horse-flesh is not so precious as man-flesh," Constance smiled entreatingly, as she laid her hand upon my shoulder. "Let Tom be harnessed up; it won't hurt him."
"The merciful man is merciful to his beast," I made answer. "If horse-flesh is cheaper than man-flesh, like most cheap articles, it is less enduring. Tom must rest, if his master cannot."
"The decision is final, I suppose."
"I must say yes."
"I hardly think your great coat is dry yet," said my wife. "I had it hung before the kitchen fire. Let me see."
"You must wait for ten, or fifteen minutes longer," she remarked, on returning from the kitchen. "One sleeve was completely wetted through, and I have turned it in order to get the lining dry."
I sat down and took Agnes on my lap, and was just getting into a pleasant talk with her, when the door-bell rung. A shadow fell across my wife's face.
"People are thoughtless of Doctors," she remarked, a little fretfully, "and often choose the worst weather and the most untimely seasons to send for them."
I did not answer, but listened as the boy went to the door. Some one was admitted, and shown into the office.
"Who is it?" I enquired, as Joseph came to the sitting-room.
My wife and I exchanged glances. She looking grave and curious; but no remark was made.
"Good-evening, Mrs. Wallingford," said I, on entering my office. "This is a very bad night for a lady to come out. I hope no one is seriously ill."
"I wish you would come over and see our Henry, Doctor."
There was a choking tremor in her voice; and as I looked in her face, I saw that it was pale and distressed.
"What's the matter?" I inquired.
"I can't say what it is, Doctor. Something's wrong. I'm afraid--yes, I'm afraid he's going out of his senses."
And she wrung her hands together with a nervous uneasiness in singular contrast with her usual quiet exterior.
"How is he affected?"
"Well, Doctor, he came home last evening looking as white as a sheet. I almost screamed out when I saw the strange, suffering expression on his colorless face. My first thought was that he had fallen somewhere, and been hurt dreadfully. He tried to pass me without stopping; but I put both hands on him, and said--'Oh, Henry! what does ail you?' 'Nothing of any account,' he answered, in a low, husky tone. 'I don't feel right well, and am going to my room to lie down.' And saying this, he brushed right past me, and went up stairs. I followed after him, but when I tried his door it was fastened on the inside. I called three times before he answered, and then he said--'Mother, I'm not sick; but I feel bad and want to be alone. Please don't disturb me to-night.' I don't think I would have known the voice if it hadn't been just then and there. Knowing his disposition, anxious and troubled as I was, I felt that it would be best for the time being to let him alone. And I did so. For an hour or more all in his room was as still as death, and I began to grow very uneasy. Then I heard his feet upon the floor moving about. I heard him walk to his bureau--my ears served me for eyes--then to the mantlepiece, and then to the window. All was still again for some minutes. My heart beat like a hammer, as one vague suggestion after another floated through my mind. Then he crossed the room with a slow step; turned and went back again; and so kept on walking to and fro. I listened, waiting for the sound to cease; nut he walked on and on, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, tramp, tramp, tramp, until it seemed as if every jarring footfall was on my heart. Oh, Doctor! I never had anything to affect me so before in my whole life. An hour passed, and still he walked the floor of his room. I could bear it no longer, and went and called to him. But he seemed deaf, and made no reply. I rattled at the lock and called again and again. Then he came close to the door, and said, speaking a little impatiently for him--
'Mother! Mother! For Heaven's sake don't trouble me! I don't feel just right, and you must let me alone for the present.'
"Well, he kept on walking for an hour longer, and then everything was still in his room for the night. This morning on trying his door it was unfastened. I went in. He was lying in bed wide awake. But, oh! such a change as I saw in his face. It was colorless as on the evening before; but less expressive of emotion. A dead calm seemed to have settled upon it. I took his hand; it was cold. I pressed his forehead; it was cold also. 'Henry, my son, how are you?' I asked. He did not reply; but looked in my face with a cold, steady gaze that chilled me. 'Are you sick, my son?' He merely shook his head slowly. 'Has anything happened? What has happened?' I pressed my question upon him; but it was of no use. He would not satisfy me. I then asked if he would not rise. 'Not yet,' he said. 'Shall I bring you some breakfast?' 'No--no--I cannot eat.' And he shook his head and shut his eyes, while there came into his face a look so sad and suffering that as I gazed on him I could not keep the tears back.
"And it has been no better with him all the day, Doctor," added Mrs. Wallingford, heaving a long sigh. "Oh, I am distressed to death about it. Won't you come and see him? I'm afraid if something isn't done that he will lose his senses."
"Have you no conjecture as to the cause of this strange condition of mind?" I asked.
"None," she replied. "Henry is a reserved young man, you know, Doctor; and keeps many things hidden in his mind even from me that should be outspoken."
"Has he no love affair on hand?"
"I think not."
"Hasn't he been paying attention to Squire Floyd's daughter?"
"I believe not, Doctor."
"I've seen him at the Squire's."
"Nothing serious, or I should have known of it. Henry is rather shy about the girls."
"And you wish me to see him to-night?"
"Yes. Something ought to be done."
"What is his condition just now?" I inquired. "How did you leave him?"
"He's been in bed nearly all day, and hasn't touched a mouthful. To all my persuasions and entreaties he answers--'Please, mother, let me alone. I will be better after a while.'"
"I think," said I, after musing on the case, "that, may be, the let-alone prescription will be the best one for the present. He is prostrated by some strong mental emotion--that seems clear; and time must be given for the mind to regain its equipoise. If I were to call, as you desire, it might annoy or irritate him, and so do more harm than good. No medicine that I can give is at all likely to reach his case."
Mrs. Wallingford looked disappointed, and demurred strongly to my conclusion.
I'm sure, Doctor, if you saw him you might suggest something. Or, may be, he would open his mind to you."
"I'll think it over," said I. "Mrs. Jones has sent for me to see her baby to-night. I was just about starting when you called. On my way back, if, on reflection, it seems to me advisable, I will drop in at your house."
"Call at any rate, Doctor," urged Mrs. Wallingford. "Even if you don't see Henry, you may be able to advise me as to what I had better do."
I gave my promise, and the troubled mother went back through storm and darkness to her home. By this time my overcoat was thoroughly dried. As Constance brought it forth warm from the fire, she looked into my face with an expression of inquiry. But I was not ready to speak in regard to Mrs. Wallingford, and, perceiving this at a glance, she kept silence on that subject.
As I opened the front door, the storm swept into my face; but I passed out quickly into the night, and shielding myself with an umbrella, as best I could, bent to the rushing wind, and took my solitary way in the direction of Mrs. Jones's humble dwelling, which lay quite upon the outskirts of our town. To reach my destination, I had to pass the Old Allen House, which stood within a high stone enclosure, surrounded by stately elms a century old, which spread their great arms above and around the decaying mansion, as if to ward off the encroachments of time. As I came opposite the gate opening upon the carriage way, I stopped suddenly in surprise, for light streamed out from both windows of the north-west chamber, which I knew had been closed ever since the death of Captain Allen, who passed to his account several years before.
This Allen House was one of the notable places in our town; and the stories in circulation touching the Allen family, now almost extinct, were so strongly tinctured with romance, that sober-minded people generally received them with a large measure of incredulity.
The spacious old two-story mansion, with its high-pitched roof and rows of dormer windows, was built by the father of Captain Allen, who had also followed the sea, and, it was said, obtained his large wealth through means not sanctioned by laws human or divine. Men and women of the past generation, and therefore contemporaries, did not hesitate to designate him an "old pirate," though always the opprobrious words were spoken in an undertone, for people were half afraid of the dark, reserved, evil-looking man, who had evidently passed a large portion of his life among scenes of peril and violence. There were more pleasing traditions of the beautiful wife he brought home to grace the luxurious dwelling he had fitted up in a style of almost princely splendor, compared with the plain abode of even the best off people in town. Who she was, or from whence she came, no one knew certainly. She was very young--almost a child--when the elder Captain Allen brought her to S----.
Very little intercourse, I believe, passed between the Allen family and the town's-people, except in a business way. The first regular entry made into the house beyond the formal drawing-room, was on the occasion of a birth, when the best nurse and gossip in town was summoned to attend the young mistress. A son was born. He was called John; though not under the sign of Christian baptism--John Allen; afterwards Captain Allen. The old sea-dog, his father, was absent at the time; but returned before the infant was four weeks old. The nurse described the meeting of husband and wife as very lover-like and tender on his part, but with scarcely a sign of feeling on hers. She did not repel him, nor turn from him; but received his caresses with the manner of one in whom all quick emotion had died. And so it continued between them--he thoughtful and assiduous, and she cold, and for the most part silent. But, to her babe, the young mother was passionate at times in her loving demonstrations. The pent up waters of feeling gave way in this direction, and poured themselves out, often, in a rushing flood. Towards all others she bore herself with a calm, sweet dignity of manner, that captivated the heart, and made it sigh for a better acquaintance with one around whom mystery had hung a veil that no hand but her own could push aside--and that hand was never lifted.
The next event in the Allen House, noted by the people, was the birth of a daughter. The same nurse was called in, who remained the usual time, and then retired; bearing with her a history of the period, which she related, very confidentially, at tea-tables, and in familiar gossip with choice spirits of her own.
Those who knew her best, were always something in doubt as to which of her stories contained truth and which romance. The latter element mingled largely, it is presumed, in all of them.
A great change had taken place in the Captain's manner. He no longer played the lover to a cold and distant mistress, but carried himself haughtily at times--captiously at times--and always with an air of indifference. All affection seemed transferred to his boy, who was growing self-willed, passionate, and daring. These qualities were never repressed by his father, but rather encouraged and strengthened. On learning that his next heir was a daughter, he expressed impatience, and muttered something about its being strangled at birth. The nurse said that he never deigned even to look at it while she was in the house.
The beautiful young wife showed signs of change, also. Much of the old sweetness had left her mouth, which was calmer and graver. Her manner towards Captain Allen, noted before, was of the same quiet, distant character, but more strongly marked. It was plain that she had no love for him. The great mystery was, how two so wholly unlike in all internal qualities, and external seeming, could ever have been constrained into the relationship, of man and wife. She was, evidently, an English woman. This was seen in her rich complexion, sweet blue eyes, fair hair, and quiet dignity of manner. Among the many probable and improbable rumors as to her first meeting with Captain Allen, this one had currency. A sailor, who had seen a good deal of service in the West Indies, told the following story:
An English vessel from Jamaica, richly freighted, had on board a merchant with his family, returning from a residence of a few years on the island, to the mother country.
They had been out only a day, when a pirate bore down upon them, and made an easy capture of the ship. The usual bloody scenes of that day followed. Death, in terrible forms, met the passengers and crew, and the vessel, after being robbed of its costliest treasures, was scuttled and sent down into the far depths of the ocean, from whence no sign could ever come.
But one living soul was spared--so the story went. An only child of the English merchant, a fair and beautiful young girl, whose years had compassed only the early spring-time of life, flung herself upon her knees before the pirate Captain and begged so piteously for life, that he spared her from the general slaughter he had himself decreed. Something in her pure, exquisitely beautiful face, touched his compassion. There were murmurs of discontent among his savage crew. But the strong-willed Captain had his way, and when he sailed back with his booty to their place of rendezvous, he bore with him the beautiful maiden. Here, it was said, he gave her honorable protection, and had her cared for as tenderly as was possible under the circumstances. And it was further related, that, when the maiden grew to ripe womanhood, he abandoned the trade of a buccaneer and made her his wife. The sailor told this story, shrugged his shoulders, looked knowing and mysterious, and left his auditors to draw what inference they pleased. As they had been talking of Captain Allen, the listeners made their own conclusion as to his identity with the buccaneer. True to human nature, in its inclination to believe always the worst of a man, nine out of ten credited the story as applied to the cut-throat looking captain, and so, after this, it was no unusual thing to hear him designated by the not very flattering sobriquet of the "old pirate."
Later events, still more inexplicable in their character, and yet unexplained, gave color to this story, and invested it with the elements of probability. As related, the old gossip's second intrusion upon the Aliens, in the capacity of nurse, furnished the town's-people with a few additional facts, as to the state of things inside of a dwelling, upon whose very walls seemed written mystery. In the beginning, Mrs. Allen had made a few acquaintances, who were charmed with her character, as far as she let herself be known. Visits were made and returned for a short season. But after the birth of her first child, she went abroad but rarely, and ceasing to return all visits, social intercourse came to an end. The old nurse insisted that this was not her fault, but wholly chargeable upon the Captain, who, she was certain, had forbidden his wife to have anything to do with the town's-people.