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C. MORBUS, ESQ.
'Forgot were hatred, wrongs, and fears, The plaintive voice alone she hears, Sees but the dying man.'--SCOTT.
C. Morbus, Esq. Such was the card that some wicked wag, one of Clarence's fellow-clerks probably, left at his lodgings in the course of the epidemic which was beginning its ravages even while we were upon our pleasant journey--a shade indeed to throw out the light.
In these days, the tidings of a visitation of cholera are heard with compassion for crowded towns, but without special alarm for ourselves or our friends, since its conditions and the mode of combating it have come to be fairly understood.
In 1832, however, it was a disease almost unknown and unprecedented except in its Indian abode, whence it had advanced city by city, seaport by seaport, sweeping down multitudes before it; nor had science yet discovered how to encounter or forestall it. We heard of it in a helpless sort of way, as if it had been the plague or the Black Death, and thought of its victims as doomed.
That terrible German engraving, 'Death as a Foe,' which represents the grisly form as invading a ballroom in Paris, is an expression of the feeling with which the scourge was regarded on that first occasion. Two Years Ago gives some notion of the condition of things in 1849, but by that time there had been some experience, and means of prevention were better understood. On the alarm in that year there was a great inspection of cottages throughout Earlscombe and Hillside, but in 1832 there was no notion of such precautions. Nevertheless, on neither visitation, nor any subsequent one, has the disease come nearer to us than Bristol.
As far as memory serves me, the idea was that wholesome food, regular habits, and cleanliness were some protection, but one locality might be as dangerous as another. There had been cases in London all the spring, but no special anxiety was felt when Clarence returned to his work in the end of July, much refreshed and invigorated by his holiday, and with the understanding that he was to have a rise in position and salary on Mr. Castleford's return from Ireland, where he was still staying with his wife's relations. Clarence was received at the office with a kind of shamefaced cordiality, as if every one would fain forget the way in which he had been treated; and he was struck by finding that all the talk was of the advances of the cholera, chiefly at Rotherhithe. And a great shock awaited him. He went, as soon as business hours were over, to thank good old Miss Newton for the comfort and aid she had unwittingly given him, and to tell her from what she had saved him. Alas! it was the last benefit she was ever to confer on her old pupil. At the door he was told by a weeping, terrified maid that she was very ill with cholera, and that no hope was given. He tried to send up a message, but she was in a state of collapse and insensible; and when he inquired the next morning, the gentle spirit had passed away.
He attended her funeral that same evening. Griff said it was a proof how your timid people will do the most foolhardy things; but Clarence always held that the good woman had really done more for him than any one in actually establishing a contact, so to say, between his spirit and external truth, and he thought no mark of respect beyond her deserts. She was a heavy loss to him, for no one else in town gave him the sense of home kindness; and there was much more to depress him, for several of his Sunday class were dead, and the school had been broken up for the time, while the heats and the fruits of August contributed to raise the mortality.
His return had released a couple more clerks for their holiday; it was a slack time of year, with less business in hand than usual, and the place looked empty. Mr. Frith worked on as usual, but preserved an ungracious attitude, as though he were either still incredulous or, if convinced against his will, resolved that 'that prig of a Winslow' should not presume upon his services. Altogether the poor fellow was quite unhinged, and wrote such dismal bills of mortality, and meek, resigned forebodings that my father was almost angry, declaring that he would frighten himself into the sickness; yet I suppressed a good deal, and never told them of the last will and testament in which he distributed his possessions amongst us. Griff said he had a great mind to go and shake old Bill up and row him well, but he never did.
More than a week passed by, two of Clarence's regular days for writing, but no letter came. My mother grew uneasy, and talked of writing to Mrs. Robson, or, as we still called her, Gooch; but it was doubtful whether the answer would contain much information, and it was quite certain that any ill tidings would be sent to us.
At last we did hear, and found, as we had foreboded, that the letter had not been written for fear of alarming us, or carrying infection, though Clarence underlined the words 'I am perfectly well.'
Having to take a message into the senior partner's room, Clarence had found the old man crouched over the table, writhing in the unmistakable grip of the deadly enemy. No one else was available; Clarence had to collect himself, send for the doctor, and manage the conveyance of the patient to his rooms, which fortunately adjoined the office; for, through all his influx of wealth, Mr. Frith had retained the habits and expenditure of his early struggling days. His old housekeeper and her drudge showed themselves terrified out of their senses, and as incapable as unwilling. Naval experience, and waiting on me, had taught Clarence helpfulness and handiness; and though this was the very thing that had appalled his imagination, he seemed, as he said afterwards, 'to have got beyond his fright' to the use of his commonsense. And when at last the doctor came, and talked of finding a nurse, if possible, for they were scarce articles, the sufferer only entreated between his paroxysms, 'Stay, Winslow! Is Winslow there? Don't go! Don't leave me!'
No nurse was to be found, but to Clarence's amazement Gooch arrived. He had sent by the office boy to explain his absence; and before night the faithful woman descended on him, intending, as in her old days of authority, simply to put Master Clarry out of harm's way, and take the charge upon herself. Then, as he proved unmanageable and would not leave his patient, neither would she leave him, and through the frightful night that ensued, there was quite employment enough for them both. Gooch fully thought the end would come before morning, and was murmuring something about a clergyman, but was cut short by a sharp prohibition. However, detecting Clarence's lips moving, the old man said, 'Eh! speak it out!' 'And with difficulty, feeling as if I were somebody else,' said Clarence, 'I did get out some short words of prayer. It seemed so awful for him to die without any.'
When the doctor came in early morning, the watchers were astonished to hear that their charge had taken a turn for the better, and might recover if their admirable care were continued. The doctor had brought a nurse; but Mr. Frith would not let her come into the room, and there was plenty of need for her elsewhere.
Several days of unremitting care followed, during which Clarence durst not write to us, so little were the laws of infection understood. Good Mrs. Robson stayed all the time, and probably saved Clarence from falling a victim to his zeal, for she looked after him as anxiously as after the sick man; and with a wondering and thankful heart, he found himself in full health, when both were set free to return home. Clarence had written at the beginning of the illness to the only relations of whose existence or address he was aware, an old sister, Mrs. Stevens, and a young great-nephew in the office at Liverpool; and the consequence was the arrival of a sour-looking, old widow sister, who came to take charge of the convalescence, and, as the indignant Gooch overheard her say, 'to prevent that young Winslow from getting round him.'
There were no signs of such a feat having been performed, when, the panic being past, my father went up to London with Griffith, who was to begin eating his terms at the Temple. He was to share Clarence's lodgings, for the Robsons had plenty of room, and Gooch was delighted to extend her cares to her special favourite, as she already reigned over Clarence's wardrobe and table as entirely as in nursery days; and, to my great exultation, my father said it would be good for Griffith to be with his brother; and, moreover, we should hear of the latter. Nothing could be a greater contrast than his rare notifications or requests, scrawled on a single side of the quarto sheet, with Clarence's regular weekly lines of clerkly manuscript, telling all that could interest any of us, and covering every available flap up to the blank circle left for the trim red seal.
Promotion had come to Clarence in the natural course of seniority, and a small sum, due to him on his coming of age, was invested in the house of business, so that the two brothers could take between them all the Robsons' available rooms. Clarence's post was one of considerable trust; but there were no tokens of special favour, except that Mr. Frith was more civil to my father than usual, and when he heard of the arrangement about the lodgings, he snarled out, 'Hm! Law student indeed! Don't let him spoil his brother!'
Which was so far an expression of gratitude that it showed that he considered that there was something to be spoilt. Mr. Castleford, however, showed real satisfaction in the purchase of a share in the concern for Clarence. His own eldest son inherited a good deal of his mother's Irish nature, and was evidently unfit to be anything but a soldier, and the next was so young that he was glad to have a promising and trustworthy young man, from whom a possible joint head of the firm might be manufactured.
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