White Lies by Charles Reade
The baroness and Aubertin were just getting out of their carriage, when suddenly they heard shrieks of terror in the Pleasaunce. They came with quaking hearts as fast as their old limbs would carry them. They found Rose and Josephine crouched over the body of a man, an officer.
Rose was just tearing open his collar and jacket. Dard and Jacintha had run from the kitchen at the screams. Camille lay on his back, white and motionless.
The doctor was the first to come up. "Who! what is this? I seem to know his face." Then shaking his head, "Whoever it is, it is a bad case. Stand away, ladies. Let me feel his pulse."
Whilst the old man was going stiffly down on one knee, Jacintha uttered a cry of terror. "See, see! his shirt! that red streak! Ah, ah! it is getting bigger and bigger:" and she turned faint in a moment, and would have fallen but for Dard.
The doctor looked. "All the better," said he firmly. "I thought he was dead. His blood flows; then I will save him. Don't clutch me so, Josephine; don't cling to me like that. Now is the time to show your breed: not turn sick at the sight of a little blood, like that foolish creature, but help me save him."
"Take him in-doors," cried the baroness.
"Into our house, mamma?" gasped Rose; "no, no."
"What," said the baroness, "a wounded soldier who has fought for France! leave him to lie and die outside my door: what would my son say to that? He is a soldier himself."
Rose cast a hasty look at Josephine. Josephine's eyes were bent on the ground, and her hands clenched and trembling.
"Now, Jacintha, you be off," said the doctor. "I can't have cowards about him to make the others as bad. Go and stew down a piece of good beef for him. Stew it in red wine and water."
"That I will: poor thing!"
"Why, I know him," said the baroness suddenly; "it is an old acquaintance, young Dujardin: you remember, Josephine. I used to suspect him of a fancy for you, poor fellow! Why, he must have come here to see us, poor soul."
"No matter who it is; it is a man. Now, girls, have you courage, have you humanity? Then come one on each side of him and take hands beneath his back, while I lift his head and Dard his legs."
"And handle him gently whatever you do," said Dard. "I know what it is to be wounded."
These four carried the lifeless burden very slowly and gently across the Pleasaunce to the house, then with more difficulty and caution up the stairs.
All the while the sisters' hands griped one another tight beneath the lifeless burden, and spoke to one another. And Josephine's arm upheld tenderly but not weakly the hero she had struck down. She avoided Rose's eye, her mother's, and even the doctor's: one gasping sob escaped her as she walked with head half averted, and vacant, terror-stricken eyes, and her victim on her sustaining arm.
The doctor selected the tapestried chamber for him as being most airy. Then he ordered the women out, and with Dard's help undressed the still insensible patient.
Josephine sat down on the stairs in gloomy silence, her eyes on the ground, like one waiting for her deathblow.
Rose, sick at heart, sat silent too at some distance. At last she said faintly, "Have we done well?"
"I don't know," said Josephine doggedly. Her eyes never left the ground.
"We could not let him die for want of care."
"He will not thank us. Better for him to die than live. Better for me."
At this instant Dard came running down. "Good news, mesdemoiselles, good news! the wound runs all along; it is not deep, like mine was. He has opened his eyes and shut them again. The dear good doctor stopped the blood in a twinkle. The doctor says he'll be bound to save him. I must run and tell Jacintha. She is taking on in the kitchen."
Josephine, who had risen eagerly from her despairing posture, clasped her hands together, then lifted up her voice and wept. "He will live! he will live!"
When she had wept a long while, she said to Rose, "Come, sister, help your poor Josephine."
"Yes, love, what shall we do?"
"My duty," faltered Josephine. "An hour ago it seemed so sweet," and she fell to weeping patiently again. They went to Josephine's room. She crept slowly to a wardrobe, and took out a gray silk dress.
"Oh, never mind for to-day," cried Rose.
"Help me, Rose. It is for myself as well; to remind me every moment I am Madame Raynal."
They put the gray gown on her, both weeping patiently. It will be known at the last day, all that honest women have suffered weeping silently in this noisy world.
Camille soon recovered his senses and a portion of his strength: then the irritation of his wound brought on fever. This in turn retired before the doctor's remedies and a sound constitution, but it left behind it a great weakness and general prostration. And in this state the fate of the body depends greatly on the mind.
The baroness and the doctor went constantly to see him, and soothe him: he smiled and thanked them, but his eager eyes watched the door for one who came not.
When he got well enough to leave his bed the largest couch was sent up to him from the saloon; a kind hand lined the baron's silk dressing-gown for him warm and soft and nice; and he would sit or lie on his couch, or take two turns in the room leaning upon Rose's shoulder, and glad of the support; and he looked piteously in her eyes when she came and when she went. Rose looked down; she could do nothing, she could say nothing.
With his strength, Camille lost a portion of his pride: he pined for a sight of her he no longer respected; pined for her, as the thirsty pine for water in Sahara.
At last one day he spoke out. "How kind you are to me, Rose! how kind you all are--but one."
He waited in hopes she would say something, but she held her tongue.
"At least tell me why it is. Is she ashamed? Is she afraid?"
"She hates me: it is true, then, that we hate those whom we have wounded. Cruel, cruel Josephine! Oh, heart of marble against which my heart has wrecked itself forever!"
"No, no! She is anything but cruel: but she is Madame Raynal."
"Ah! I forgot. But have I no claim on her? Nearly four years she has been my betrothed. What have I done? Was I ever false to her? I could forgive her for what she has done to me, but she cannot forgive me. Does she mean never to see me again?"
"Ask yourself what good could come of it."
"Very well," said Camille, with a malicious smile. "I am in her way. I see what she wants; she shall have it."
Rose carried these words to Josephine. They went through her like a sword.
Rose pitied her. Rose had a moment's weakness.
"Let us go to him," she said; "anything is better than this."
"Rose, I dare not," was the wise reply.
But the next day early, Josephine took Rose to a door outside the house, a door that had long been disused. Nettles grew before it. She produced a key and with great difficulty opened this door. It led to the tapestried chamber, and years ago they used to steal up it and peep into the room.
Rose scarcely needed to be told that she was to watch Camille, and report to her. In truth, it was a mysterious, vague protection against a danger equally mysterious. Yet it made Josephine easier. But so unflinching was her prudence that she never once could be prevailed on to mount those stairs, and peep at Camille herself. "I must starve my heart, not feed it," said she. And she grew paler and more hollow-eyed day by day.
Yet this was the same woman who showed such feebleness and irresolution when Raynal pressed her to marry him. But then dwarfs feebly drew her this way and that. Now giants fought for her. Between a feeble inclination and a feeble disinclination her dead heart had drifted to and fro. Now honor, duty, gratitude,--which last with her was a passion,--dragged her one way: love, pity, and remorse another.
Not one of these giants would relax his grasp, and nothing yielded except her vital powers. Yes; her temper, one of the loveliest Heaven ever gave a human creature, was soured at times.
Was it a wonder? There lay the man she loved pining for her; cursing her for her cruelty, and alternately praying Heaven to forgive him and to bless her: sighing, at intervals, all the day long, so loud, so deep, so piteously, as if his heart broke with each sigh; and sometimes, for he little knew, poor soul, that any human eye was upon him, casting aside his manhood in his despair, and flinging himself on the very floor, and muffling his head, and sobbing; he a hero.
And here was she pining in secret for him who pined for her? "I am not a woman at all," said she, who was all woman. "I am crueller to him than a tiger or any savage creature is to the victim she tears. I must cure him of his love for me; and then die; for what shall I have to live for? He weeps, he sighs, he cries for Josephine."
Her enforced cruelty was more contrary to this woman's nature than black is to white, or heat to cold, and the heart rebelled furiously at times. As when a rock tries to stem a current, the water fights its way on more sides than one, so insulted nature dealt with Josephine. Not only did her body pine, but her nerves were exasperated. Sudden twitches came over her, that almost made her scream. Her permanent state was utter despondency, but across it came fitful flashes of irritation; and then she was scarce mistress of herself.
Wherefore you, who find some holy woman cross and bitter, stop a moment before you sum her up vixen and her religion naught: inquire the history of her heart: perhaps beneath the smooth cold surface of duties well discharged, her life has been, or even is, a battle against some self-indulgence the insignificant saint's very blood cries out for: and so the poor thing is cross, not because she is bad, but because she is better than the rest of us; yet only human.
Now though Josephine was more on her guard with the baroness than with Rose, or the doctor, or Jacintha, her state could not altogether escape the vigilance of a mother's eye.
But the baroness had not the clew we have; and what a difference that makes! How small an understanding, put by accident or instruction on the right track, shall run the game down! How great a sagacity shall wander if it gets on a false scent!
"Doctor," said the baroness one day, "you are so taken up with your patient you neglect the rest of us. Do look at Josephine! She is ill, or going to be ill. She is so pale, and so fretful, so peevish, which is not in her nature. Would you believe it, doctor, she snaps?"
"Our Josephine snap? This is new."
"Then look for the end of the world."
"The other day I heard her snap Rose: and this morning she half snarled at me, just because I pressed her to go and console our patient. Hush! here she is. My child, I am accusing you to the doctor. I tell him you neglect his patient: never go near him."
"I will visit him one of these days," said Josephine, coldly.
"One of these days," said the baroness, shocked. "You used not to be so hard-hearted. A soldier, an old comrade of your husband's, wounded and sick, and you alone never go to him, to console him with a word of sympathy or encouragement."
Josephine looked at her mother with a sort of incredulous stare. Then, after a struggle, she replied with a tone and manner so spiteful and icy that it would have deceived even us who know her had we heard it. "He has plenty of nurses without me." She added, almost violently, "My husband, if he were wounded, would not have so many, perhaps not have one."
With this she rose and went out, leaving them aghast. She sat down in the passage on a window-seat, and laughed hysterically. Rose heard her and ran to her. Josephine told her what her mother had said to her. Rose soothed her. "Never mind, you have your sister who understands you: don't you go back till they have got some other topic."
Rose out of curiosity went in, and found a discussion going on. The doctor was fathoming Josephine, for the benefit of his companion.
"It is a female jealousy, and of a mighty innocent kind. We are so taken up with this poor fellow, she thinks her soldier is forgotten."
"Surely, doctor, our Josephine would not be so unreasonable, so unjust," suggested her mother.
"She belongs to a sex, be it said without offending you, madame, among whose numberless virtues justice does not fill a prominent place."
The baroness shook her head. "That is not it. It is a piece of prudery. This young gentleman was a sort of admirer of hers, though she did not admire him much, as far as I remember. But it was four years ago; and she is married to a man she loves, or is going to love."
"Well, but, mamma, a trifling excess of delicacy is surely excusable." This from Rose.
"No, no; it is not delicacy; it is prudery. And when people are sick and suffering, an honest woman should take up her charity and lay down her prudery, or her coquetry: two things that I suspect are the same thing in different shapes."
Here Jacintha came in. "Mademoiselle, here is the colonel's broth; Madame Raynal has flavored it for him, and you are to take it up to him, and keep him company while he eats it."
"Come," cried the baroness, "my lecture has not been lost."
Rose followed Jacintha up-stairs.
Rose was heart and head on Raynal's side.
She had deceived him about Josephine's attachment, and felt all the more desirous to guard him against any ill consequences of it. Then he had been so generous to her: he had left her her sister, who would have gone to Egypt, and escaped this misery, but for her.
But on the other hand,
This watching of Camille saddened even her. When she was with him his pride bore him up: but when he was alone as he thought, his anguish and despair were terrible, and broke out in so many ways that often Rose shrank in terror from her peep hole.
She dared not tell Josephine the half of what she saw: what she did tell her agitated her so terribly: and often Rose had it on the tip of her tongue to say, "Do pray go and see if you can say nothing that will do him good;" but she fought the impulse down. This battle of feeling, though less severe than her sister's, was constant; it destroyed her gayety. She, whose merry laugh used to ring like chimes through the house, never laughed now, seldom smiled, and often sighed.
Dr. Aubertin was the last to succumb to the deep depression, but his time came: and he had been for a day or two as grave and as sad as the rest, when one day that Rose was absent, spying on Camille, he took the baroness and Josephine into his confidence; and condescended finally to ask their advice.
"It is humiliating," said he, "after all my experience, to be obliged to consult unprofessional persons. Forty years ago I should have been too wise to do so. But since then I have often seen science baffled and untrained intelligences throw light upon hard questions: and your sex in particular has luminous instincts and reads things by flashes that we men miss with a microscope. Our dear Madame Raynal suspected that plausible notary, and to this day I believe she could not tell us why."
Josephine admitted as much very frankly.
"There you see," said the doctor. "Well, then, you must help me in this case. And this time I promise to treat your art with more respect."
"And pray who is it she is to read now?" asked the baroness.
"Who should it be but my poor patient? He puzzles me. I never knew a patient so faint-hearted."
"A soldier faint-hearted!" exclaimed the baroness. "To be sure these men that storm cities, and fire cannon, and cut and hack one another with so much spirit, are poor creatures compared with us when they have to lie quiet and suffer."
The doctor walked the room in great excitement. "It is not his wound that is killing him, there's something on his mind. You, Josephine, with your instincts do help me: do pray, for pity's sake, throw off that sublime indifference you have manifested all along to this man's fate."
"She has not," cried the baroness, firing up. "Did I not see her lining his dressing-gown for him? and she inspects everything that he eats: do you not?"
"Yes, mother." She then suggested in a faltering voice that time would cure the patient, and time alone.
"Time! you speak as if time was a quality: time is only a measure of events, favorable or unfavorable; it kills as many as it cures."
"Why, you surely would not imply his life is in any danger?" This was the baroness.
"Madame, if the case was not grave, should I take this unusual step? I tell you if some change does not take place soon, he will be a dead man in another fortnight. That is all time will do for him."
The baroness uttered an exclamation of pity and distress. Josephine put her hand to her bosom, and a creeping horror came over her, and then a faintness. She sat working mechanically, and turning like ice within. After a few minutes of this, she rose with every appearance of external composure and left the room. In the passage she met Rose coming hastily towards the salon laughing: the first time she had laughed this many a day. Oh, what a contrast between the two faces that met there--the one pale and horror stricken, the other rosy and laughing!
"Well, dear, at last I am paid for all my trouble, and yours, by a discovery; he never drinks a drop of his medicine; he pours it into the ashes under the grate; I caught him in the fact."
"Then this is too much: I can resist no longer. Come with me," said Josephine doggedly.