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THE GARDEN AT OWLKIRK.
No sooner had Faber left the cottage that same morning, than the foolish Mrs. Puckridge proceeded to pour out to the patient, still agitated both with her dream and her waking vision, all the terrible danger she had been in, and the marvelous way in which the doctor had brought her back from the threshold of death. Every drop of the little blood in her body seemed to rush to her face, then back to her heart, leaving behind it a look of terror. She covered her face with the sheet, and lay so long without moving that her nurse was alarmed. When she drew the sheet back, she found her in a faint, and it was with great difficulty she brought her out of it. But not one word could she get from her. She did not seem even to hear what she said. Presently she grew restless, and soon her flushed cheek and bright eye indicated an increase of fever. When Faber saw her, he was much disappointed, perceived at once that something had excited her, and strongly suspected that, for all her promises, Mrs. Puckridge had betrayed the means by which he recovered her.
He said to himself that he had had no choice, but then neither had the lady, and the thing might be hateful to her. She might be in love, and then how she must abominate the business, and detest him! It was horrible to think of her knowing it. But for knowing it, she would never be a whit the worse, for he never had a day's illness in his life and knew of no taint in his family.
When she saw him approach her bedside, a look reminding him of the ripple of a sudden cold gust passing with the shadow of a cloud over still water swept across her face. She closed her eyes, and turned a little from him. What color she had, came and went painfully. Cursing in his heart the faithlessness of Mrs. Puckridge, he assumed his coldest, hardest professional manner, felt her pulse with the gentlest, yet most peremptory inquiry, gave her attendant some authoritative directions, and left her, saying he would call again in the afternoon.
During seven days he visited her twice a day. He had good cause to be anxious, and her recovery was very slow. Once and again appeared threatenings of the primary complaint, while from the tardiness with which her veins refilled, he feared for her lungs. During all these visits, hardly a word beyond the most necessary passed between them. After that time they were reduced to one a day. Ever as the lady grew stronger, she seemed to become colder, and her manner grew more distant. After a fortnight, he again reduced them to one in two days--very unwillingly, for by that time she had come to occupy nearly as much of his thoughts as all the rest of his patients together. She made him feel that his visits were less than welcome to her, except for the help they brought her, allowed him no insight into her character and ways of thinking, behaved to him indeed with such restraint, that he could recall no expression of her face the memory of which drew him to dwell upon it; yet her face and form possessed him with their mere perfection. He had to set himself sometimes to get rid of what seemed all but her very presence, for it threatened to unfit him for the right discharge of his duties. He was haunted with the form to which he had given a renewal of life, as a murderer is haunted with the form of the man he has killed. In those marvelous intervals betwixt sleep and waking, when the soul is like a camera obscura, into which throng shapes unbidden, hers had displaced all others, and came constantly--now flashing with feverous radiance, now pale and bloodless as death itself. But ever and always her countenance wore a look of aversion. She seemed in these visions, to regard him as a vile necromancer, who first cast her into the sepulcher, and then brought her back by some hellish art. She had fascinated him. But he would not allow that he was in love with her. A man may be fascinated and hate. A man is not necessarily in love with the woman whose form haunts him. So said Faber to himself; and I can not yet tell whether he was in love with her or not. I do not know where the individuality of love commences--when love begins to be love. He must have been a good way toward that point, however, to have thus betaken himself to denial. He was the more interested to prove himself free, that he feared, almost believed, there was a lover concerned, and that was the reason she hated him so severely for what he had done.
He had long come to the conclusion that circumstances had straitened themselves around her. Experience had given him a keen eye, and he had noted several things about her dress. For one thing, while he had observed that her under-clothing was peculiarly dainty, he had once or twice caught a glimpse of such an incongruity as he was compelled to set down to poverty. Besides, what reason in which poverty bore no part, could a lady have for being alone in a poor country lodging, without even a maid? Indeed, might it not be the consciousness of the peculiarity of her position, and no dislike to him, that made her treat him with such impenetrable politeness? Might she not well dread being misunderstood!
She would be wanting to pay him for his attendance--and what was he to do? He must let her pay something, or she would consider herself still more grievously wronged by him, but how was he to take the money from her hand? It was very hard that ephemeral creatures of the earth, born but to die, to gleam out upon the black curtain and vanish again, might not, for the brief time the poor yet glorious bubble swelled and throbbed, offer and accept from each other even a few sunbeams in which to dance! Would not the inevitable rain beat them down at night, and "mass them into the common clay"? How then could they hurt each other--why should they fear it--when they were all wandering home to the black, obliterative bosom of their grandmother Night? He well knew a certain reply to such reflection, but so he talked with himself.
He would take his leave as if she were a duchess. But he would not until she made him feel another visit would be an intrusion.
One day Mrs. Puckridge met him at the door, looking mysterious. She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder to indicate that the lady was in the garden, but at the same time nudged him with her elbow, confident that the impartment she had to make would justify the liberty, and led the way into the little parlor.
"Please, sir, and tell me," she said, turning and closing the door, "what I be to do. She says she's got no money to pay neither me nor the doctor, so she give me this, and wants me to sell it. I daren't show it! They'd say I stole it! She declares that if I mention to a living soul where I got it, she'll never speak to me again. In course she didn't mean you, sir, seein' as doctors an' clergymen ain't nobody--leastways nobody to speak on--and I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir, but my meanin' is as they ain't them as ain't to be told things. I declare I'm most terrified to set eyes on the thing!"
She handed the doctor a little morocco case. He opened it, and saw a ring, which was plainly of value. It was old-fashioned--a round mass of small diamonds with a good-sized central one.
"You are quite right," he said. "The ring is far too valuable for you to dispose of. Bring it to my house at four o'clock, and I will get rid of it for you."
Mrs. Puckridge was greatly relieved, and ended the interview by leading the way to the back-door. When she opened it, he saw his patient sitting in the little arbor. She rose, and came to meet him.
"You see I am quite well now," she said, holding out her hand.
Her tone was guarded, but surely the ice was melting a little! Was she taking courage at the near approach of her deliverance?
She stooped to pick a double daisy from the border. Prompt as he generally was, he could say nothing: he knew what was coming next. She spoke while still she stooped.
"When you come again," she said, "will you kindly let me know how much I am in your debt?"
As she ended she rose and stood before him, but she looked no higher than his shirt-studs. She was ashamed to speak of her indebtedness as an amount that could be reckoned. The whiteness of her cheek grew warm, which was all her complexion ever revealed of a blush. It showed plainer in the deepened darkness of her eyes, and the tremulous increase of light in them.
"I will," he replied, without the smallest response of confusion, for he had recovered himself. "You will be careful!" he added. "Indeed you must, or you will never be strong."
She answered only with a little sigh, as if weakness was such a weariness! and looked away across the garden-hedge out into the infinite--into more of it at least I think, than Faber recognized.
"And of all things," he went on, "wear shoes--every time you have to step off a carpet--not mere foot-gloves like those."
"Is this a healthy place, Doctor Faber?" she asked, looking haughtier, he thought, but plainly with a little trouble in her eyes.
"Decidedly," he answered. "And when you are able to walk on the heath you will find the air invigorating. Only please mind what I say about your shoes.--May I ask if you intend remaining here any time?"
"I have already remained so much longer than I intended, that I am afraid to say. My plans are now uncertain."
"Excuse me--I know I presume--but in our profession we must venture a little now and then--could you not have some friend with you until you are perfectly strong again? After what you have come through, it may be years before you are quite what you were. I don't want to frighten you--only to make you careful."
"There is no one," she answered in a low voice, which trembled a little.
"No one--?" repeated Faber, as if waiting for the end of the sentence. But his heart gave a great bound.
"No one to come to me. I am alone in the world. My mother died when I was a child and my father two years ago. He was an officer. I was his only child, and used to go about with him. I have no friends."
Her voice faltered more and more. When it ceased she seemed choking a cry.
"Since then," she resumed, "I have been a governess. My last situation was in Yorkshire, in a cold part of the county, and my health began to fail me. I heard that Glaston was a warm place, and one where I should be likely to get employment. But I was taken ill on my way there, and forced to stop. A lady in the train told me this was such a sweet, quiet little place, and so when we got to the station I came on here."
Again Faber could not speak. The thought of a lady like her traveling about alone looking for work was frightful! "And they talk of a God in the world!" he said to himself--and felt as if he never could forgive Him.
"I have papers to show," she added quietly, as if bethinking herself that he might be taking her for an impostor.
All the time she had never looked him in the face. She had fixed her gaze on the far horizon, but a smile, half pitiful, half proud, flickered about the wonderful curves of her upper lip.
"I am glad you have told me," he said. "I may be of service to you, if you will permit me. I know a great many families about here."
"Oh, thank you!" she cried, and with an expression of dawning hope, which made her seem more beautiful than ever, she raised her eyes and looked him full in the face: it was the first time he had seen her eyes lighted up, except with fever. Then she turned from him, and, apparently lost in relief, walked toward the arbor a few steps distant. He followed her, a little behind, for the path was narrow, his eyes fixed on her exquisite cheek. It was but a moment, yet the very silence seemed to become conscious. All at once she grew paler, shuddered, put her hand to her head, and entering the arbor, sat down. Faber was alarmed. Her hand was quite cold. She would have drawn it away, but he insisted on feeling her pulse.
"You must come in at once," he said.
She rose, visibly trembling. He supported her into the house, made her lie down, got a hot bottle for her feet, and covered her with shawls and blankets.
"You are quite unfit for any exertion yet," he said, and seated himself near her. "You must consent to be an invalid for a while. Do not be anxious. There is no fear of your finding what you want by the time you are able for it. I pledge myself. Keep your mind perfectly easy."
She answered him with a look that dazzled him. Her very eyelids seemed radiant with thankfulness. The beauty that had fixed his regard was now but a mask through which her soul was breaking, assimilating it. His eyes sank before the look, and he felt himself catching his breath like a drowning man. When he raised them again he saw tears streaming down her face. He rose, and saying he would call again in the evening, left the room.
During the rest of his round he did not find it easy to give due attention to his other cases. His custom was to brood upon them as he rode; but now that look and the tears that followed seemed to bewilder him, taking from him all command of his thought.
Ere long the shadow that ever haunts the steps of the angel, Love, the shadow whose name is Beneficence, began to reassume its earlier tyranny. Oh, the bliss of knowing one's self the source of well-being, the stay and protector, the comfort and life, to such a woman! of wrapping her round in days of peace, instead of anxiety and pain and labor! But ever the thought of her looking up to him as the source of her freedom, was present through it all. What a glory to be the object of such looks as he had never in his dearest dreams imagined! It made his head swim, even in the very moment while his great Ruber, astonished at what his master required of him that day, rose to some high thorny hedge, or stiff rail. He was perfectly honest; the consequence he sought was only in his own eyes--and in hers; there was nothing of vulgar patronage in the feeling; not an atom of low purpose for self in it. The whole mental condition was nothing worse than the blossom of the dream of his childhood--the dream of being the benefactor of his race, of being loved and worshiped for his kindness. But the poison of the dream had grown more active in its blossom. Since then the credit of goodness with himself had gathered sway over his spirit; and stoical pride in goodness is a far worse and lower thing than delight in the thanks of our fellows. He was a mere slave to his own ideal, and that ideal was not brother to the angel that beholds the face of the Father. Now he had taken a backward step in time, but a forward step in his real history, for again another than himself had a part in his dream. It would be long yet, however, ere he learned so to love goodness as to forget its beauty. To him who is good, goodness has ceased to be either object or abstraction; it is in him--a thirst to give; a solemn, quiet passion to bless; a delight in beholding well-being. Ah, how we dream and prate of love, until the holy fire of the true divine love, the love that God kindles in a man toward his fellows, burns the shadow of it out!
In the afternoon Mrs. Puckridge appeared with the ring. He took it, told her to wait, and went out. In a few minutes he returned, and, to the woman's astonishment, gave her fifty pounds in notes. He did not tell her he had been to nobody but his own banker. The ring he laid carefully aside, with no definite resolve concerning it, but the great hope of somehow managing that it should return to her one day. The thought shot across his heaven--what a lovely wedding present it would make! and the meteor drew a long train of shining fancies after it.
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