The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
Somewhat later in the day, they went out for a stroll through the town together. To Herminia's great relief, Alan never even noticed she had been crying. Man-like, he was absorbed in his own delight. She would have felt herself a traitor if Alan had discovered it.
"Which way shall we go?" she asked listlessly, with a glance to right and left, as they passed beneath the sombre Tuscan gate of their palazzo.
And Alan answered, smiling, "Why, what does it matter? Which way you like. Every way is a picture."
And so it was, Herminia herself was fain to admit, in a pure painter's sense that didn't at all attract her. Lines grouped themselves against the sky in infinite diversity. Whichever way they turned quaint old walls met their eyes, and tumble-down churches, and mouldering towers, and mediaeval palazzi with carved doorways or rich loggias. But whichever way they turned dusty roads too confronted them, illimitable stretches of gloomy suburb, unwholesome airs, sickening sights and sounds and perfumes. Narrow streets swept, darkling, under pointed archways, that framed distant vistas of spire or campanile, silhouetted against the solid blue sky of Italy. The crystal hardness of that sapphire firmament repelled Herminia. They passed beneath the triumphal arch of Augustus with its Etruscan mason-work, its Roman decorations, and round the antique walls, aglow with tufted gillyflowers, to the bare Piazza d'Armi. A cattle fair was going on there; and Alan pointed with pleasure to the curious fact that the oxen were all cream-colored,--the famous white steers of Clitumnus. Herminia knew her Virgil as well as Alan himself, and murmured half aloud the sonorous hexameter, "Romanos ad templa deum duxere triumphos." But somehow, the knowledge that these were indeed the milk-white bullocks of Clitumnus failed amid so much dust to arouse her enthusiasm. She would have been better pleased just then with a yellow English primrose.
They clambered down the terraced ravines sometimes, a day or two later, to arid banks by a dry torrent's bed where Italian primroses really grew, interspersed with tall grape-hyacinths, and scented violets, and glossy cleft leaves of winter aconite. But even the primroses were not the same thing to Herminia as those she used to gather on the dewy slopes of the Redlands; they were so dry and dust-grimed, and the path by the torrent's side was so distasteful and unsavory. Bare white boughs of twisted fig-trees depressed her. Besides, these hills were steep, and Herminia felt the climbing. Nothing in city or suburbs attracted her soul. Etruscan Volumnii, each lolling in white travertine on the sculptured lid of his own sarcophagus urn, and all duly ranged in the twilight of their tomb at their spectral banquet, stirred her heart but feebly. St. Francis, Santa Chiara, fell flat on her English fancy. But as for Alan, he revelled all day long in his native element. He sketched every morning, among the huddled, strangled lanes; sketched churches and monasteries, and portals of palazzi; sketched mountains clear-cut in that pellucid air; till Herminia wondered how he could sit so long in the broiling sun or keen wind on those bare hillsides, or on broken brick parapets in those noisome byways. But your born sketcher is oblivious of all on earth save his chosen art; and Alan was essentially a painter in fibre, diverted by pure circumstance into a Chancery practice.
The very pictures in the gallery failed to interest Herminia, she knew not why. Alan couldn't rouse her to enthusiasm over his beloved Buonfigli. Those naive flaxen-haired angels, with sweetly parted lips, and baskets of red roses in their delicate hands, own sisters though they were to the girlish Lippis she had so admired at Florence, moved her heart but faintly. Try as she might to like them, she responded to nothing Perugian in any way.
At the end of a week or two, however, Alan began to complain of constant headache. He was looking very well, but grew uneasy and restless. Herminia advised him to give up sketching for a while, those small streets were so close; and he promised to yield to her wishes in the matter. Yet he grew worse next day, so that Herminia, much alarmed, called in an Italian doctor. Perugia boasted no English one. The Italian felt his pulse, and listened to his symptoms. "The signore came here from Florence?" he asked.
"From Florence," Herminia assented, with a sudden sinking.
The doctor protruded his lower lip. "This is typhoid fever," he said after a pause. "A very bad type. It has been assuming such a form this winter at Florence."
He spoke the plain truth. Twenty-one days before in his bedroom at the hotel in Florence, Alan had drunk a single glass of water from the polluted springs that supply in part the Tuscan metropolis. For twenty-one days those victorious microbes had brooded in silence in his poisoned arteries. At the end of that time, they swarmed and declared themselves. He was ill with an aggravated form of the most deadly disease that still stalks unchecked through unsanitated Europe.
Herminia's alarm was painful. Alan grew rapidly worse. In two days he was so ill that she thought it her duty to telegraph at once to Dr. Merrick, in London: "Alan's life in danger. Serious attack of Florentine typhoid. Italian doctor despairs of his life. May not last till to-morrow.--HERMINIA BARTON."
Later on in the day came a telegram in reply; it was addressed to Alan: "Am on my way out by through train to attend you. But as a matter of duty, marry the girl at once, and legitimatize your child while the chance remains to you."
It was kindly meant in its way. It was a message of love, of forgiveness, of generosity, such as Herminia would hardly have expected from so stern a man as Alan had always represented his father to be to her. But at moments of unexpected danger angry feelings between father and son are often forgotten, and blood unexpectedly proves itself thicker than water. Yet even so Herminia couldn't bear to show the telegram to Alan. She feared lest in this extremity, his mind weakened by disease, he might wish to take his father's advice, and prove untrue to their common principles. In that case, woman that she was, she hardly knew how she could resist what might be only too probably his dying wishes. Still, she nerved herself for this trial of faith, and went through with it bravely. Alan, though sinking, was still conscious at moments; in one such interval, with an effort to be calm, she showed him his father's telegram. Tears rose into his eyes. "I didn't expect him to come," he said. "This is all very good of him." Then, after a moment, he added, "Would you wish me in this extremity, Hermy, to do as he advises?"
Herminia bent over him with fierce tears on her eyelids. "O Alan darling," she cried, "you mustn't die! You mustn't leave me! What could I do without you? oh, my darling, my darling! But don't think of me now. Don't think of the dear baby. I couldn't bear to disturb you even by showing you the telegram. For your sake, Alan, I'll be calm,--I'll be calm. But oh, not for worlds,--not for worlds,--even so, would I turn my back on the principles we would both risk our lives for!"
Alan smiled a faint smile. "Hermy," he said slowly, "I love you all the more for it. You're as brave as a lion. Oh, how much I have learned from you!"
All that night and next day Herminia watched by his bedside. Now and again he was conscious. But for the most part he lay still, in a comatose condition, with eyes half closed, the whites showing through the lids, neither moving nor speaking. All the time he grew worse steadily. As she sat by his bedside, Herminia began to realize the utter loneliness of her position. That Alan might die was the one element in the situation she had never even dreamt of. No wife could love her husband with more perfect devotion than Herminia loved Alan. She hung upon every breath with unspeakable suspense and unutterable affection. But the Italian doctor held out little hope of a rally. Herminia sat there, fixed to the spot, a white marble statue.
Late next evening Dr. Merrick reached Perugia. He drove straight from the station to the dingy flat in the morose palazzo. At the door of his son's room, Herminia met him, clad from head to foot in white, as she had sat by the bedside. Tears blinded her eyes; her face was wan; her mien terribly haggard.
"And my son?" the Doctor asked, with a hushed breath of terror.
"He died half an hour ago," Herminia gasped out with an effort.
"But he married you before he died?" the father cried, in a tone of profound emotion. "He did justice to his child?--he repaired his evil?"
"He did not," Herminia answered, in a scarcely audible voice. "He was stanch to the end to his lifelong principles."
"Why not?" the father asked, staggering. "Did he see my telegram?"
"Yes," Herminia answered, numb with grief, yet too proud to prevaricate. "But I advised him to stand firm; and he abode by my decision."
The father waved her aside with his hands imperiously. "Then I have done with you," he exclaimed. "I am sorry to seem harsh to you at such a moment. But it is your own doing. You leave me no choice. You have no right any longer in my son's apartments."