A Simpleton by Charles Reade
Rosa fell ill with grief at the hotel, and could not move for some days; but the moment she was strong enough, she insisted on leaving Plymouth: like all wounded things, she must drag herself home.
But what a home! How empty it struck, and she heart-sick and desolate. Now all the familiar places wore a new aspect: the little yard, where he had so walked and waited, became a temple to her, and she came out and sat in it, and now first felt to the full how much he had suffered there--with what fortitude. She crept about the house, and kissed the chair he had sat in, and every much-used place and thing of the departed.
Her shallow nature deepened and deepened under this bereavement, of which, she said to herself, with a shudder, she was the cause. And this is the course of nature; there is nothing like suffering to enlighten the giddy brain, widen the narrow mind, improve the trivial heart.
As her regrets were tender and deep, so her vows of repentance were sincere. Oh, what a wife she would make when he came back! how thoughtful! how prudent! how loyal! and never have a secret. She who had once said, "What is the use of your writing? nobody will publish it," now collected and perused every written scrap. With simple affection she even locked up his very waste-paper basket, full of fragments he had torn, or useless papers he had thrown there, before he went to Plymouth.
In the drawer of his writing-table she found his diary. It was a thick quarto: it began with their marriage, and ended with his leaving home--for then he took another volume. This diary became her Bible; she studied it daily, till her tears hid his lines. The entries were very miscellaneous, very exact; it was a map of their married life. But what she studied most was his observations on her own character, so scientific, yet so kindly; and his scholar- like and wise reflections. The book was an unconscious picture of a great mind she had hitherto but glanced at: now she saw it all plain before her; saw it, understood it, adored it, mourned it. Such women are shallow, not for want of a head upon their shoulders, but of attention. They do not really study anything: they have been taught at their schools the bad art of skimming; but let their hearts compel their brains to think and think, the result is considerable. The deepest philosopher never fathomed a character more thoroughly than this poor child fathomed her philosopher, when she had read his journal ten or eleven times, and bedewed it with a thousand tears.
One passage almost cut her more intelligent heart in twain:--
"This dark day I have done a thing incredible. I have spoken with brutal harshness to the innocent creature I have sworn to protect. She had run in debt, through inexperience, and that unhappy timidity which makes women conceal an error till it ramifies, by concealment, into a fault; and I must storm and rave at her, till she actually fainted away. Brute! Ruffian! Monster! And she, how did she punish me, poor lamb? By soft and tender words--like a lady, as she is. Oh, my sweet Rosa, I wish you could know how you are avenged. Talk of the scourge--the cat! I would be thankful for two dozen lashes. Ah! there is no need, I think, to punish a man who has been cruel to a woman. Let him alone. He will punish himself more than you can, if he is really a man."
From the date of that entry, this self-reproach and self-torture kept cropping up every now and then in the diary; and it appeared to have been not entirely without its influence in sending Staines to sea, though the main reason he gave was that his Rosa might have the comforts and luxuries she had enjoyed before she married him.
One day, while she was crying over this diary, Uncle Philip called; but not to comfort her, I promise you. He burst on her, irate, to take her to task. He had returned, learned Christopher's departure, and settled the reason in his own mind: that uxorious fool was gone to sea by a natural reaction; his eyes were open to his wife at last, and he was sick of her folly; so he had fled to distant climes, as who would not, that could?
"So, ma'am," said he, "my nephew is gone to sea, I find--all in a hurry. Pray may I ask what he has done that for?"
It was a very simple question, yet it did not elicit a very plain answer. She only stared at this abrupt inquisitor, and then cried, piteously, "Oh, Uncle Philip!" and burst out sobbing.
"Why, what is the matter?"
"You will hate me now. He is gone to make money for me; and I would rather have lived on a crust. Uncle--don't hate me. I'm a poor, bereaved, heart-broken creature, that repents."
"Repents! heigho! why, what have you been up to now, ma'am? No great harm, I'll be bound. Flirting a little with some fool--eh?"
"Flirting! Me! a married woman."
"Oh, to be sure; I forgot. Why, surely he has not deserted you."
"My Christopher desert me! He loves me too well; far more than I deserve; but not more than I will. Uncle Philip, I am too confused and wretched to tell you all that has happened; but I know you love him, though you had a tiff: uncle, he called on you, to shake hands and ask your forgiveness, poor fellow! He was so sorry you were away. Please read his dear diary: it will tell you all, better than his poor foolish wife can. I know it by heart. I'll show you where you and he quarrelled about me. There, see." And she showed him the passage with her finger. "He never told me it was that, or I would have come and begged your pardon on my knees. But see how sorry he was. There, see. And now I'll show you another place, where my Christopher speaks of your many, many acts of kindness. There, see. And now please let me show you how he longed for reconciliation. There, see. And it is the same through the book. And now I'll show you how grieved he was to go without your blessing. I told him I was sure you would give him that, and him going away. Ah, me! will he ever return? Uncle dear, don't hate me. What shall I do, now he is gone, if you disown me? Why, you are the only Staines left me to love."
"Disown you, ma'am! that I'll never do. You are a good-hearted young woman, I find. There, run and dry your eyes; and let me read Christopher's diary all through. Then I shall see how the land lies."
Rosa complied with his proposal; and left him alone while she bathed her eyes, and tried to compose herself, for she was all trembling at this sudden irruption.
When she returned to the drawing-room, he was walking about, looking grave and thoughtful.
"It is the old story," said he, rather gently: "a misunderstanding. How wise our ancestors were that first used that word to mean a quarrel! for, look into twenty quarrels, and you shall detect a score of mis-under-standings. Yet our American cousins must go and substitute the un-ideaed word 'difficulty'; that is wonderful. I had no quarrel with him: delighted to see either of you. But I had called twice on him; so I thought he ought to get over his temper, and call on a tried friend like me. A misunderstanding! Now, my dear, let us have no more of these misunderstandings. You will always be welcome at my house, and I shall often come here and look after you and your interests. What do you mean to do, I wonder?"
"Sir, I am to go home to my father, if he will be troubled with me. I have written to him."
"And what is to become of the Bijou?"
"My Christie thought I should like to part with it, and the furniture--but his own writing-desk and his chair, no, I never will, and his little clock. Oh! oh! oh!--But I remember what you said about agents, and I don't know what to do; for I shall be away."
"Then, leave it to me. I'll come and live here with one servant; and I'll soon sell it for you."
"You, Uncle Philip!"
"Well, why not?" said he roughly.
"That will be a great trouble and discomfort to you, I'm afraid."
"If I find it so, I'll soon drop it. I'm not the fool to put myself out for anybody. When you are ready to go out, send me word, and I'll come in."
Soon after this he bustled off. He gave her a sort of hurried kiss at parting, as if he was ashamed of it, and wanted it over as quickly as possible.
Next day her father came, condoled with her politely, assured her there was nothing to cry about; husbands were a sort of functionaries that generally went to sea at some part of their career, and no harm ever came of it. On the contrary, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," said this judicious parent.
This sentiment happened to be just a little too true, and set the daughter crying bitterly. But she fought against it. "Oh no!" said she, "I mustn't. I will not be always crying in Kent Villa."
"I shall get over it in time--a little."
"Why, of course you will. But as to your coming to Kent Villa, I am afraid you would not be very comfortable there. You know I am superannuated. Only got my pension now."
"I know that, papa: and--why, that is one of the reasons. I have a good income now; and I thought if we put our means together"--
"Oh, that is a very different thing. You will want a carriage, I suppose. I have put mine down."
"No carriage; no horse; no footman; no luxury of any kind till my Christie comes back. I abhor dress; I abhor expense; I loathe everything I once liked too well; I detest every folly that has parted us; and I hate myself worst of all. Oh! oh! oh! Forgive me for crying so."
"Well, I dare say there are associations about this place that upset you. I shall go and make ready for you, dear; and then you can come as soon as you like."
He bestowed a paternal kiss on her brow, and glided doucely away before she could possibly cry again.
The very next week Rosa was at Kent Villa, with the relics of her husband about her; his chair, his writing-table, his clock, his waste-paper basket, a very deep and large one. She had them all in her bedroom at Kent Villa.
Here the days glided quietly but heavily.
She derived some comfort from Uncle Philip. His rough, friendly way was a tonic, and braced her. He called several times about the Bijou. Told her he had put up enormous boards all over the house, and puffed it finely. "I have had a hundred agents at me," said he; "and the next thing, I hope, will be one customer; that is about the proportion." At last he wrote her he had hooked a victim, and sold the lease and furniture for nine hundred guineas. Staines had assigned the lease to Rosa, so she had full powers; and Philip invested the money, and two hundred more she gave him, in a little mortgage at six per cent.
Now came the letter from Madeira. It gave her new life. Christopher was well, contented, hopeful. His example should animate her. She would bravely bear the present, and share his hopes of the future: with these brighter views Nature co-operated. The instincts of approaching maternity brightened the future. She fell into gentle reveries, and saw her husband return, and saw herself place their infant in his arms with all a wife's, a mother's pride.
In due course came another long letter from the equator, with a full journal, and more words of hope. Home in less than a year, with reputation increased by this last cure; home, to part no more.
Ah! what a changed wife he should find! how frugal, how candid, how full of appreciation, admiration, and love, of the noblest, dearest husband that ever breathed!
Lady Cicely Treherne waited some weeks, to let kinder sentiments return. She then called in Dear Street, but found Mrs. Staines was gone to Gravesend. She wrote to her.
In a few days she received a reply, studiously polite and cold.
This persistent injustice mortified her at last. She said to herself, "Does she think his departure was no loss to me? It was to her interests, as well as his, I sacrificed my own selfish wishes. I will write to her no more."
This resolution she steadily maintained. It was shaken for a moment, when she heard, by a side wind, that Mrs. Staines was fast approaching the great pain and peril of women. Then she wavered. But no. She prayed for her by name in the Liturgy, but she troubled her no more.
This state of things lasted some six weeks, when she received a letter from her cousin Tadcaster, close on the heels of his last, to which she had replied as I have indicated. She knew his handwriting, and opened it with a smile.
That smile soon died off her horror-stricken face. The letter ran thus:--
TRISTAN D'ACUNHA, Jan. 5.
DEAR CICELY,--A terrible thing has just happened. We signalled a raft, with a body on it, and poor Dr. Staines leaned out of the port-hole, and fell overboard. Three boats were let down after him; but it all went wrong, somehow, or it was too late. They could never find him, he was drowned; and the funeral service was read for the poor fellow.
We are all sadly cut up. Everybody loved him. It was dreadful next day at dinner, when his chair was empty. The very sailors cried at not finding him.
First of all, I thought I ought to write to his wife. I know where she lives; it is called Kent Villa, Gravesend. But I was afraid; it might kill her: and you are so good and sensible, I thought I had better write to you, and perhaps you could break it to her by degrees, before it gets in all the papers.
I send this from the island, by a small vessel, and paid him ten pounds to take it.
Your affectionate cousin,
Words are powerless to describe a blow like this: the amazement, the stupor, the reluctance to believe--the rising, swelling, surging horror. She sat like a woman of stone, crumpling the letter. "Dead!--dead?"
For a long time this was all her mind could realize--that Christopher Staines was dead. He who had been so full of life and thought and genius, and worthier to live than all the world, was dead; and a million nobodies were still alive, and he was dead.
She lay back on the sofa, and all the power left her limbs. She could not move a hand.
But suddenly she started up; for a noble instinct told her this blow must not fall on the wife as it had on her, and in her time of peril.
She had her bonnet on in a moment, and for the first time in her life, darted out of the house without her maid. She flew along the streets, scarcely feeling the ground. She got to Dear Street, and obtained Philip Staines's address. She flew to it, and there learned he was down at Kent Villa. Instantly she telegraphed to her maid to come down to her at Gravesend, with things for a short visit, and wait for her at the station; and she went down by train to Gravesend.
Hitherto she had walked on air, driven by one overpowering impulse. Now, as she sat in the train, she thought a little of herself. What was before her? To break to Mrs. Staines that her husband was dead. To tell her all her misgivings were more than justified. To encounter her cold civility, and let her know, inch by inch, it must be exchanged for curses and tearing of hair; her husband was dead. To tell her this, and in the telling of it, perhaps reveal that it was her great bereavement, as well as the wife's, for she had a deeper affection for him than she ought.
Well, she trembled like an aspen leaf, trembled like one in an ague, even as she sat. But she persevered.
A noble woman has her courage; not exactly the same as that which leads forlorn hopes against bastions bristling with rifles and tongued with flames and thunderbolts; yet not inferior to it.
Tadcaster, small and dull, but noble by birth and instinct, had seen the right thing for her to do; and she, of the same breed, and nobler far, had seen it too; and the great soul steadily drew the recoiling heart and quivering body to this fiery trial, this act of humanity--to do which was terrible and hard, to shirk it, cowardly and cruel.
She reached Gravesend, and drove in a fly to Kent Villa.
The door was opened by a maid.
"Is Mrs. Staines at home?"
"Yes, ma'am, she is at home: but--"
"Can I see her?"
"Why, no, ma'am, not at present."
"But I must see her. I am an old friend. Please take her my card. Lady Cicely Treherne."
The maid hesitated, and looked confused. "Perhaps you don't know, ma'am. Mrs. Staines, she is--the doctor have been in the house all day."
"Ah, the doctor! I believe Dr. Philip Staines is here."
"Why, that is the doctor, ma'am. Yes, he is here."
"Then, pray let me see him--or no; I had better see Mr. Lusignan."
"Master have gone out for the day, ma'am; but if you'll step in the drawing-room, I'll tell the doctor."
Lady Cicely waited in the drawing-room some time, heart-sick and trembling.
At last Dr. Philip came in, with her card in his hand, looking evidently a little cross at the interruption. "Now, madam, please tell me, as briefly as you can, what I can do for you."
"Are you Dr. Philip Staines?"
"I am, madam, at your service--for five minutes. Can't quit my patient long, just now."
"Oh, sir, thank God I have found you. Be prepared for ill news-- sad news--a terrible calamity--I can't speak. Read that, sir." And she handed him Tadcaster's note.
He took it, and read it.
He buried his face in his hands. "Christopher! my poor, poor boy!" he groaned. But suddenly a terrible anxiety seized him. "Who knows of this?" he asked.
"Only myself, sir. I came here to break it to her."
"You are a good, kind lady, for being so thoughtful. Madam, if this gets to my niece's ears, it will kill her, as sure as we stand here."
"Then let us keep it from her. Command me, sir. I will do anything. I will live here--take the letters in--the journals-- anything."
"No, no; you have done your part, and God bless you for it. You must not stay here. Your ladyship's very presence, and your agitation, would set the servants talking, and some idiot-fiend among them babbling--there is nothing so terrible as a fool."
"May I remain at the inn, sir; just one night?"
"Oh yes, I wish you would; and I will run over, if all is well with her--well with her? poor unfortunate girl!"
Lady Cicely saw he wished her gone, and she went directly.
At nine o'clock that same evening, as she lay on a sofa in the best room of the inn, attended by her maid, Dr. Philip Staines came to her. She dismissed her maid.
Dr. Philip was too old, in other words, had lost too many friends, to be really broken down by bereavement; but he was strangely subdued. The loud tones were out of him, and the loud laugh, and even the keen sneer. Yet he was the same man; but with a gentler surface; and this was not without its pathos.
"Well, madam," said he gravely and quietly. "It is as it always has been. 'As is the race of leaves, so that of man.' When one falls, another comes. Here's a little Christopher come, in place of him that is gone: a brave, beautiful boy, ma'am; the finest but one I ever brought into the world. He is come to take his father's place in our hearts--I see you valued his poor father, ma'am--but he comes too late for me. At your age, ma'am, friendships come naturally; they spring like loves in the soft heart of youth: at seventy, the gate is not so open; the soil is more sterile. I shall never care for another Christopher; never see another grow to man's estate."
"The mother, sir," sobbed Lady Cicely; "the poor mother?"
"Like them all--poor creature: in heaven, madam; in heaven. New life! new existence! a new character. All the pride, glory, rapture, and amazement of maternity--thanks to her ignorance, which we must prolong, or I would not give one straw for her life, or her son's. I shall never leave the house till she does know it, and come when it may, I dread the hour. She is not framed by nature to bear so deadly a shock."
"Her father, sir. Would he not be the best person to break it to her? He was out to-day."
"Her father, ma'am? I shall get no help from him. He is one of those soft, gentle creatures, that come into the world with what your canting fools call a mission; and his mission is to take care of number one. Not dishonestly, mind you, nor violently, nor rudely, but doucely and calmly. The care a brute like me takes of his vitals, that care Lusignan takes of his outer cuticle. His number one is a sensitive plant. No scenes, no noise; nothing painful--by-the-by, the little creature that writes in the papers, and calls calamities painful, is of Lusignan's breed. Out to-day! of course he was out, ma'am: he knew from me his daughter would be in peril all day, so he visited a friend. He knew his own tenderness, and evaded paternal sensibilities: a self-defender. I count on no help from that charming man."
"A man! I call such creachaas weptiles!" said Lady Cicely, her ghastly cheek coloring for a moment.
"Then you give them a false importance."
In the course of this interview, Lady Cicely accused herself sadly of having interfered between man and wife, and with the best intentions brought about this cruel calamity. "Judge, then, sir," said she, "how grateful I am to you for undertaking this cruel task. I was her schoolfellow, sir, and I love her dearly; but she has turned against me, and now, oh, with what horror she will regard me!"
"Madam," said the doctor, "there is nothing more mean and unjust than to judge others by events that none could foresee. Your conscience is clear. You did your best for my poor nephew: but Fate willed it otherwise. As for my niece, she has many virtues, but justice is one you must not look for in that quarter. Justice requires brains. It's a virtue the heart does not deal in. You must be content with your own good conscience, and an old man's esteem. You did all for the best; and this very day you have done a good, kind action. God bless you for it!"
Then he left her; and next day she went sadly home, and for many a long day the hollow world saw nothing of Cicely Treherne.
When Mr. Lusignan came home that night, Dr. Philip told him the miserable story, and his fears. He received it, not as Philip had expected. The bachelor had counted without his dormant paternity. He was terror-stricken--abject--fell into a chair, and wrung his hands, and wept piteously. To keep it from his daughter till she should be stronger, seemed to him chimerical, impossible. However, Philip insisted it must be done; and he must make some excuse for keeping out of her way, or his manner would rouse her suspicions. He consented readily to that, and indeed left all to Dr. Philip.
Dr. Philip trusted nobody; not even his own confidential servant. He allowed no journal to come into the house without passing through his hands, and he read them all before he would let any other soul in the house see them. He asked Rosa to let him be her secretary and open her letters, giving as a pretext that it would be as well she should have no small worries or trouble just now.
"Why," said she, "I was never so well able to bear them. It must be a great thing to put me out now. I am so happy, and live in the future. Well, dear uncle, you can if you like--what does it matter?--only there must be one exception: my own Christie's letters, you know."
"Of course," said he, wincing inwardly.
The very next day came a letter of condolence from Miss Lucas. Dr. Philip intercepted it, and locked it up, to be shown her at a more fitting time.
But how could he hope to keep so public a thing as this from entering the house in one of a hundred newspapers?
He went into Gravesend, and searched all the newspapers, to see what he had to contend with. To his horror, he found it in several dailies and weeklies, and in two illustrated papers. He sat aghast at the difficulty and the danger.
The best thing he could think of was to buy them all, and cut out the account. He did so, and brought all the papers, thus mutilated, into the house, and sent them into the kitchen. He said to his old servant, "These may amuse Mr. Lusignan's people, and I have extracted all that interests me."
By these means he hoped that none of the servants would go and buy more of these same papers elsewhere.
Notwithstanding these precautions, he took the nurse apart, and said, "Now, you are an experienced woman, and to be trusted about an excitable patient. Mind, I object to any female servant entering Mrs. Staines's room with gossip. Keep them outside the door for the present, please. Oh, and nurse, if anything should happen, likely to grieve or to worry her, it must be kept from her entirely: can I trust you?"
"You may, sir."
"I shall add ten guineas to your fee, if she gets through the month without a shock or disturbance of any kind."
She stared at him, inquiringly. Then she said,--
"You may rely on me, doctor."
"I feel I may. Still, she alarms me. She looks quiet enough, but she is very excitable."
Not all these precautions gave Dr. Philip any real sense of security; still less did they to Mr. Lusignan. He was not a tender father, in small things, but the idea of actual danger to his only child was terrible to him and he now passed his life in a continual tremble.
This is the less to be wondered at, when I tell you that even the stout Philip began to lose his nerve, his appetite, his sleep, under this hourly terror and this hourly torture.
Well did the great imagination of antiquity feign a torment, too great for the mind long to endure, in the sword of Damocles suspended by a single hair over his head. Here the sword hung over an innocent creature, who smiled beneath it, fearless; but these two old men must sit and watch the sword, and ask themselves how long before that subtle salvation shall snap.
"Ill news travels fast," says the proverb. "The birds of the air shall carry the matter," says Holy Writ; and it is so. No bolts nor bars, no promises nor precautions, can long shut out a great calamity from the ears it is to blast, the heart it is to wither. The very air seems full of it, until it falls.
Rosa's child was more than a fortnight old; and she was looking more beautiful than ever, as is often the case with a very young mother, and Dr. Philip complimented her on her looks. "Now," said he, "you reap the advantage of being good, and obedient, and keeping quiet. In another ten days or so, I may take you to the seaside for a week. I have the honor to inform you that from about the fourth to the tenth of March there is always a week of fine weather, which takes everybody by surprise, except me. It does not astonish me, because I observe it is invariable. Now, what would you say if I gave you a week at Herne Bay, to set you up altogether?"
"As you please, dear uncle," said Mrs. Staines, with a sweet smile. "I shall be very happy to go, or to stay. I shall be happy everywhere, with my darling boy, and the thought of my husband. Why, I count the days till he shall come back to me. No, to us; to us, my pet. How dare a naughty mammy say to 'me,' as if 'me' was half the 'portance of oo, a precious pets!"
Dr. Philip was surprised into a sigh.
"What is the matter, dear?" said Rosa, very quickly.
"Yes, dear, the matter. You sighed; you, the laughing philosopher."
"Did I?" said he, to gain time. "Perhaps I remembered the uncertainty of human life, and of all mortal hopes. The old will have their thoughts, my dear. They have seen so much trouble."
"But, uncle dear, he is a very healthy child."
"And you told me yourself carelessness was the cause so many children die."
"That is true."
She gave him a curious and rather searching look; then, leaning over her boy, said, "Mammy's not afraid. Beautiful Pet was not born to die directly. He will never leave his mam-ma. No, uncle, he never can. For my life is bound in his and his dear father's. It is a triple cord: one go, go all."
She said this with a quiet resolution that chilled Uncle Philip.
At this moment the nurse, who had been bending so pertinaciously over some work that her eyes were invisible, looked quickly up, cast a furtive glance at Mrs. Staines, and finding she was employed for the moment, made an agitated signal to Dr. Philip. All she did was to clench her two hands and lift them half way to her face, and then cast a frightened look towards the door; but Philip's senses were so sharpened by constant alarm and watching, that he saw at once something serious was the matter. But as he had asked himself what he should do in case of some sudden alarm, he merely gave a nod of intelligence to the nurse, scarcely perceptible, then rose quietly from his seat, and went to the window. "Snow coming, I think," said he. "For all that we shall have the March summer in ten days. You mark my words." He then went leisurely out of the room; at the door he turned, and, with all the cunning he was master of, said, "Oh, by the by, come to my room, nurse, when you are at leisure."
"Yes, doctor," said the nurse, but never moved. She was too bent on hiding the agitation she really felt.
"Had you not better go to him, nurse?"
"Perhaps I had, madam."
She rose with feigned indifference, and left the room. She walked leisurely down the passage, then, casting a hasty glance behind her, for fear Mrs. Staines should be watching her, hurried into the doctor's room. They met at once in the middle of the room, and Mrs. Briscoe burst out, "Sir, it is known all over the house!"
"Heaven forbid! What is known?"
"What you would give the world to keep from her. Why, sir, the moment you cautioned me, of course I saw there was trouble. But little I thought--sir, not a servant in the kitchen or the stable but knows that her husband--poor thing! poor thing!--Ah! there goes the housemaid--to have a look at her."
Mrs. Briscoe had not waited for this; she rushed after the woman, and told her Mrs. Staines was sleeping, and the room must not be entered on any account.
"Oh, very well," said the maid, rather sullenly.
Mrs. Briscoe saw her return to the kitchen, and came back to Dr. Staines; he was pacing the room in torments of anxiety.
"Doctor," said she, "it is the old story: 'Servants' friends, the master's enemies.' An old servant came here to gossip with her friend the cook (she never could abide her while they were together, by all accounts), and told her the whole story of his being drowned at sea."
Dr. Philip groaned, "Cursed chatterbox!" said he. "What is to be done? Must we break it to her now? Oh, if I could only buy a few days more! The heart to be crushed while the body is weak! It is too cruel. Advise me, Mrs. Briscoe. You are an experienced woman, and I think you are a kind-hearted woman."
"Well, sir," said Mrs. Briscoe, "I had the name of it, when I was younger--before Briscoe failed, and I took to nursing; which it hardens, sir, by use, and along of the patients themselves; for sick folk are lumps of selfishness; we see more of them than you do, sir. But this I will say, 'tisn't selfishness that lies now in that room, waiting for the blow that will bring her to death's door, I'm sore afraid; but a sweet, gentle, thoughtful creature, as ever supped sorrow; for I don't know how 'tis, doctor, nor why 'tis, but an angel like that has always to sup sorrow."
"But you do not advise me," said the doctor, in agitation, "and something must be done."
"Advise you, sir; it is not for me to do that. I am sure I'm at my wits' ends, poor thing! Well, sir, I don't see what you can do, but try and break it to her. Better so, than let it come to her like a clap of thunder. But I think, sir, I'd have a wet-nurse ready, before I said much: for she is very quick--and ten to one but the first word of such a thing turns her blood to gall. Sir, I once knew a poor woman--she was a carpenter's wife--a-nursing her child in the afternoon--and in runs a foolish woman, and tells her he was killed dead, off a scaffold. 'Twas the man's sister told her. Well, sir, she was knocked stupid like, and she sat staring, and nursing of her child, before she could take it in rightly. The child was dead before supper-time, and the woman was not long after. The whole family was swept away, sir, in a few hours, and I mind the table was not cleared he had dined on, when they came to lay them out. Well-a-day, nurses see sorrow!"
"We all see sorrow that live long, Mrs. Briscoe. I am heart-broken myself; I am desperate. You are a good soul, and I'll tell you. When my nephew married this poor girl, I was very angry with him; and I soon found she was not fit to be a struggling man's wife; and then I was very angry with her. She had spoiled a first-rate physician, I thought. But, since I knew her better, it is all changed. She is so lovable. How I shall ever tell her this terrible thing, God knows. All I know is, that I will not throw a chance away. Her body shall be stronger, before I break her heart. Cursed idiots, that could not save a single man, with their boats, in a calm sea! Lord forgive me for blaming people, when I was not there to see. I say I will give her every chance. She shall not know it till she is stronger: no, not if I live at her door, and sleep there, and all. Good God! inspire me with something. There is always something to be done, if one could but see it."
Mrs. Briscoe sighed and said, "Sir, I think anything is better than for her to hear it from a servant--and they are sure to blurt it out. Young women are such fools."
"No, no; I see what it is," said Dr. Philip. "I have gone all wrong from the first. I have been acting like a woman, when I should have acted like a man. Why, I only trusted you by halves. There was a fool for you. Never trust people by halves."
"That is true, sir."
"Well, then, now I shall go at it like a man. I have a vile opinion of servants; but no matter. I'll try them: they are human, I suppose. I'll hit them between the eyes like a man. Go to the kitchen, Mrs. Briscoe, and tell them I wish to speak to all the servants, indoors or out."
She stopped at the door, and said, "I had better get back to her, as soon as I have told them."
"And what shall I tell her, sir? Her first word will be to ask me what you wanted me for. I saw that in her eye. She was curious: that is why she sent me after you so quick."
Dr. Philip groaned. He felt he was walking among pitfalls. He rapidly flavored some distilled water with orange-flower, then tinted it a beautiful pink, and bottled it. "There," said he; "I was mixing a new medicine. Tablespoon, four times a day: had to filter it. Any lie you like."
Mrs. Briscoe went to the kitchen, and gave her message: then went to Mrs. Staines with the mixture.
Dr. Philip went down to the kitchen, and spoke to the servants very solemnly. He said, "My good friends, I am come to ask your help in a matter of life and death. There is a poor young woman up-stairs; she is a widow, and does not know it; and must not know it yet. If the blow fell now, I think it would kill her: indeed, if she hears it all of a sudden, at any time, that might destroy her. We are in so sore a strait that a feather may turn the scale. So we must try all we can to gain a little time, and then trust to God's mercy after all. Well, now, what do you say? Will you help me keep it from her, till the tenth of March, say? and then I will break it to her by degrees. Forget she is your mistress. Master and servant, that is all very well at a proper time; but this is the time to remember nothing but that we are all one flesh and blood. We lie down together in the churchyard, and we hope to rise together where there will be no master and servant. Think of the poor unfortunate creature as your own flesh and blood, and tell me, will you help me try and save her, under this terrible blow?"
"Ay, doctor, that we will," said the footman. "Only you give us our orders, and you will see."
"I have no right to give you orders; but I entreat you not to show her by word or look, that calamity is upon her. Alas! it is only a reprieve you can give her and to me. The bitter hour must come when I must tell her she is a widow, and her boy an orphan. When that day comes, I will ask you all to pray for me that I may find words. But now I ask you to give me that ten days' reprieve. Let the poor creature recover a little strength, before the thunderbolt of affliction falls on her head. Will you promise me?"
They promised heartily; and more than one of the women began to cry.
"A general assent will not satisfy me," said Dr. Philip. "I want every man, and every woman, to give me a hand upon it; then I shall feel sure of you."
The men gave him their hands at once. The women wiped their hands with their aprons, to make sure they were clean, and gave him their hands too. The cook said, "If any one of us goes from it, this kitchen will be too hot to hold her."
"Nobody will go from it, cook," said the doctor. "I'm not afraid of that; and now since you have promised me, out of your own good hearts, I'll try and be even with you. If she knows nothing of it by the tenth of March, five guineas to every man and woman in this kitchen. You shall see that, if you can be kind, we can be grateful."
He then hurried away. He found Mr. Lusignan in the drawing-room, and told him all this. Lusignan was fluttered, but grateful. "Ah, my good friend," said he, "this is a hard trial to two old men, like you and me."
"It is," said Philip. "It has shown me my age. I declare I am trembling; I, whose nerves were iron. But I have a particular contempt for servants. Mercenary wretches! I think Heaven inspired me to talk to them. After all, who knows? perhaps we might find a way to their hearts, if we did not eternally shock their vanity, and forget that it is, and must be, far greater than our own. The women gave me their tears, and the men were earnest. Not one hand lay cold in mine. As for your kitchen-maid, I'd trust my life to that girl. What a grip she gave me! What strength! What fidelity was in it! My hand was never grasped before. I think we are safe for a few days more."
Lusignan sighed. "What does it all come to? We are pulling the trigger gently, that is all."
"No, no; that is not it. Don't let us confound the matter with similes, please. Keep them for children."
Mrs. Staines left her bed; and would have left her room, but Dr. Philip forbade it strictly.
One day, seated in her arm-chair, she said to the nurse, before Dr. Philip, "Nurse, why do the servants look so curiously at me?"
Mrs. Briscoe cast a hasty glance at Dr. Philip, and then said, "I don't know, madam. I never noticed that."
"Uncle, why did nurse look at you before she answered such a simple question?"
"I don't know. What question?"
"About the servants."
"Oh, about the servants!" said he contemptuously.
"You should not turn up your nose at them, for they are all most kind and attentive. Only, I catch them looking at me so strangely; really--as if they--"
"Rosa, you are taking me quite out of my depth. The looks of servant girls! Why, of course a lady in your condition is an object of especial interest to them. I dare say they are saying to one another, 'I wonder when my turn will come!' A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind--that is a proverb, is it not?"
"To be sure. I forgot that."
She said no more; but seemed thoughtful, and not quite satisfied.
On this Dr. Philip begged the maids to go near her as little as possible. "You are not aware of it," said he, "but your looks, and your manner of speaking, rouse her attention, and she is quicker than I thought she was, and observes very subtly."
This was done; and then she complained that nobody came near her. She insisted on coming down-stairs; it was so dull.
Dr. Philip consented, if she would be content to receive no visits for a week.
She assented to that; and now passed some hours every day in the drawing-room. In her morning wrappers, so fresh and crisp, she looked lovely, and increased in health and strength every day.
Dr. Philip used to look at her, and his very flesh would creep at the thought that, ere long, he must hurl this fair creature into the dust of affliction; must, with a word, take the ruby from her lips, the rose from her cheeks, the sparkle from her glorious eyes-- eyes that beamed on him with sweet affection, and a mouth that never opened, but to show some simplicity of mind, or some pretty burst of the sensitive heart.
He put off, and put off, and at last cowardice began to whisper, "Why tell her the whole truth at all? Why not take her through stages of doubt, alarm, and, after all, leave a grain of hope till her child gets so rooted in her heart that"-- But conscience and good sense interrupted this temporary thought, and made him see to what a horrible life of suspense he should condemn a human creature, and live a perpetual lie, and be always at the edge of some pitfall or other.
One day, while he sat looking at her, with all these thoughts, and many more, coursing through his mind, she looked up at him, and surprised him. "Ah!" said she gravely.
"What is the matter, my dear?"
"Oh, nothing," said she cunningly.
"Uncle, dear," said she presently, "when do we go to Herne Bay?"
Now, Dr. Philip had given that up. He had got the servants at Kent Villa on his side, and he felt safer here than in any strange place: so he said, "I don't know: that all depends. There is plenty of time."
"No, uncle," said Rosa gravely. "I wish to leave this house. I can hardly breathe in it."
"What! your native air?"
"Mystery is not my native air; and this house is full of mystery. Voices whisper at my door, and the people don't come in. The maids cast strange looks at me, and hurry away. I scolded that pert girl Jane, and she answered me as meek as Moses. I catch you looking at me, with love, and something else. What is that something--? It is Pity: that is what it is. Do you think, because I am called a simpleton, that I have no eyes, nor ears, nor sense? What is this secret which you are all hiding from one person, and that is me? Ah! Christopher has not written these five weeks. Tell me the truth, for I will know it," and she started up in wild excitement.
Then Dr. Philip saw the hour was come.
He said, "My poor girl, you have read us right. I am anxious about Christopher, and all the servants know it."
"Anxious, and not tell me; his wife; the woman whose life is bound up in his."
"Was it for us to retard your convalescence, and set you fretting, and perhaps destroy your child? Rosa, my darling, think what a treasure Heaven has sent you, to love and care for."
"Yes," said she, trembling, "Heaven has been good to me; I hope Heaven will always be as good to me. I don't deserve it; but then I tell God so. I am very grateful, and very penitent. I never forget that, if I had been a good wife, my husband--five weeks is a long time. Why do you tremble so? Why are you so pale--a strong man like you? Calamity! Calamity!"
Dr. Philip hung his head.
She looked at him, started wildly up, then sank back into her chair. So the stricken deer leaps, then falls. Yet even now she put on a deceitful calm, and said, "Tell me the truth. I have a right to know."
He stammered out, "There is a report of an accident at sea."
She kept silence.
"Of a passenger drowned--out of that ship. This, coupled with his silence, fills our hearts with fear."
"It is worse--you are breaking it to me--you have gone too far to stop. One word: is he alive? Oh, say he is alive!"
Philip rang the bell hard, and said in a troubled voice, "Rosa, think of your child."
"Not when my husband-- Is he alive or dead?"
"It is hard to say, with such a terrible report about, and no letters," faltered the old man, his courage failing him.
"What are you afraid of? Do you think I can't die, and go to him? Alive, or dead?" and she stood before him, raging and quivering in every limb.
The nurse came in.
"Fetch her child," he cried; "God have mercy on her."
"Ah, then he is dead," said she, with stony calmness. "I drove him to sea, and he is dead."
The nurse rushed in, and held the child to her.
She would not look at it.
"Yes, our poor Christie is gone--but his child is here--the image of him. Do not forget the mother. Have pity on his child and yours."
"Take it out of my sight!" she screamed. "Away with it, or I shall murder it, as I have murdered its father. My dear Christie, before all that live! I have killed him. I shall die for him. I shall go to him." She raved and tore her hair. Servants rushed in. Rosa was carried to her bed, screaming and raving, and her black hair all down on both sides, a piteous sight.
Swoon followed swoon, and that very night brain fever set in with all its sad accompaniments; a poor bereaved creature, tossing and moaning; pale, anxious, but resolute faces of the nurse and the kitchen-maid watching: on one table a pail of ice, and on another the long, thick raven hair of our poor Simpleton, lying on clean silver paper. Dr. Philip had cut it all off with his own hand, and he was now folding it up, and crying over it; for he thought to himself, "Perhaps in a few days more only this will be left of her on earth."