Tardif was waiting, with his sails set and oars in the rowlocks, ready for clearing the harbor. I took one of them, and bent myself willingly to the light task. There was less wind than I had expected, but what there was blew in our favor. We were very quickly beyond the pier-head, where a group of idlers was always gathered, who sent after us a few warning shouts. Nothing could be more exhilarating than our onward progress. I felt as if I had been a prisoner, with, chains which had pressed heavily yet insensibly upon me, and that now I was free. I drew into my lungs the fresh, bracing, salt air of the sea, with a deep sigh of delight.
CHAPTER THE SECOND.
A PATIENT IN SARK.
It struck me after a while that my friend Tardif was unusually silent. The shifting of the sails appeared to give him plenty to do; and to my surprise, instead of keeping to the ordinary course, he ran recklessly as it seemed across the grunes, which lie all about the bed of the channel between Guernsey and Sark. These grunes are reefs, rising a little above low water, but, as the tide was about half-flood, they were a few feet below it; yet at times there was scarcely enough depth to float us over them, while the brown seaweed torn from their edges lay in our wake, something like the swaths of grass in a meadow after the scythe has swept through it. Now and then came a bump and a scrape of the keel against their sharp ridges. The sweat stood in beads upon Tardif's face, and his thick hair fell forward over his forehead, where the great veins in the temples were purple and swollen. I spoke to him after a heavier bump over the grunes than any we had yet come to.
"Tardif," I said, "we are shaving the weeds a little too close, aren't we?"
"Look behind you, Dr. Martin," he answered, shifting the sails a little.
I did not look behind us. We were more than half-way over the channel, and Guernsey lay four miles or so west of us; but instead of the clear outline of the island standing out against the sky, I could see nothing but a bank of white fog. The afternoon sun was shining brightly over it, but before long it would dip into its dense folds. The fogs about our islands are peculiar. You may see them form apparently thick blocks of blanched vapor, with a distinct line between the atmosphere where the haze is and where it is not. To be overtaken by a fog like this, which would almost hide Tardif at one end of the boat from me at the other, would be no laughing matter in a sea lined with sunken reefs. The wind had almost gone, but a little breeze still caught us from the north of the fog-bank. Without a word I took the oars again, while Tardif devoted himself to the sails and the helm.
"A mile nearer home," he said, "and I could row my boat as easily in the dark as you could ride your horse along a lane."
My face was westward now, and I kept my eye upon the fog-bank creeping stealthily after us. I thought of my mother and Julia, and the fright they would be in. Moreover a fog like this was pretty often succeeded by a squall, especially at this season; and when a westerly gale blew up from the Atlantic in the month of March, no one could foretell when it would cease. I had been weather-bound in Sark, when I was a boy, for three weeks at one time, when our provisions ran short, and it was almost impossible to buy a loaf of bread. I could not help laughing at the recollection, but I kept an anxious lookout toward the west. Three weeks' imprisonment in Sark now would be a bore.
But the fog remained almost stationary in the front of Guernsey, and the round red eyeball of the sun glared after us as we ran nearer and nearer to Sark. The tide was with us, and carried us on it buoyantly. We anchored at the fisherman's landing-place below the cliff of the Havre Gosselin, and I climbed readily up the rough ladder which leads to the path. Tardif made his boat secure, and followed me; he passed me, and strode on up the steep track to the summit of the cliff, as if impatient to reach his home. It was then that I gave my first serious thought to the woman who had met with the accident.
"Tardif, who is this person that is hurt?" I asked, "and whereabout did she fall?"
"She fell down yonder," he answered, with an odd quaver in his voice, as he pointed to a rough and rather high portion of the cliff running inland; "the stones rolled from under her feet, so," he added, crushing down a quantity of the loose gravel with his foot, "and she slipped. She lay on the shingle underneath for two hours before I found her; two hours, Dr. Martin!"
"That was bad," I said, for the good fellow's voice failed him—"very bad. A fall like that might have killed her."
We went on, he carrying his oars, and I my little portmanteau. I heard Tardif muttering. "Killed her!" in a tone of terror; but his face brightened a little when we reached the gate of the farm-yard. He laid down the oars noiselessly upon the narrow stone causeway before the door, and lifted the latch as cautiously as if he were afraid to disturb some sleeping baby.
He had given me no information with regard to my patient; and the sole idea I had formed of her was of a strong, sturdy Sark woman, whose constitution would be tough, and her temperament of a stolid, phlegmatic tone. There was not ordinarily much sickness among them, and this case was evidently one of pure accident. I expected to find a nut-brown, sunburnt woman, with a rustic face, who would very probably be impatient and unreasonable under the pain I should be compelled to inflict upon her.
It had been my theory that a medical man, being admitted to the highest degree of intimacy with his patients, was bound to be as insensible as an anchorite to any beauty or homeliness in those whom he was attending professionally; he should have eyes only for the malady he came to consider and relieve. Dr. Dobree had often sneered and made merry at my high-flown notions of honor and duty; but in our practice at home he had given me no opportunities of trying them. He had attended all our younger and more attractive patients himself, and had handed over to my care all the old people and children—on Julia's account, he had said, laughing.
Tardif's mother came to us as we entered the house. She was a little, ugly woman, stone deaf, as I knew of old. Yet in some mysterious way she could make out her son's deep voice, when he shouted into her ear. He did not speak now, however, but made dumb signs as if to ask how all was going on. She answered by a silent nod, and beckoned me to follow her into an inner room, which opened out of the kitchen.
It was a small, crowded room, with a ceiling so low, it seemed to rest upon the four posts of the bedstead. There were of course none of the little dainty luxuries about it with which I was familiar in my mother's bedroom. A long, low window opposite the head of the bed threw a strong light upon it. There were check curtains drawn round it, and a patchwork-quilt, and rough, homespun linen. Every thing was clean, but coarse and frugal—such as I expected to find about my Sark patient, in the home of a fisherman.
But when my eye fell upon the face resting on the rough pillow I paused involuntarily, only just controlling an explanation of surprise. There was absolutely nothing in the surroundings to mark her as a lady, yet I felt in a moment that she was one. There lay a delicate, refined face, white as the linen, with beautiful lips almost as white; and a mass of light, shining, silky hair tossed about the pillow; and large dark-gray eyes gazing at me beseechingly, with an expression that made my heart leap as it had never leaped before.
That was what I saw, and could not forbear seeing. I tried to recall my theory, and to close my eyes to the pathetic beauty of the face before me; but it was altogether in vain. If I had seen her before, or if I had been prepared to see any one like her, I might have succeeded; but I was completely thrown off my guard. There the charming face lay: the eyes gleaming, the white forehead tinted, and the delicate mouth contracting with pain: the bright, silky curls tossed about in confusion. I see it now just as I saw it then.
CHAPTER THE THIRD.
I suppose I did not stand still more than five seconds, yet during that pause a host of questions had flashed through my brain. Who was this beautiful creature? Where had she come from? How did it happen that she was in Tardif's house? and so on. But I recalled myself sharply to my senses; I was here as her physician, and common-sense and duty demanded of me to keep my head clear. I advanced to her side, and took the small, blue-veined hand in mine, and felt her pulse with my fingers. It beat under them a low but fast measure; too fast by a great deal. I could see that the general condition of her health was perfect, a great charm in itself to me; but she had been bearing acute pain for over twenty-eight hours, and she was becoming exhausted. A shudder ran through me at the thought of that long spell of suffering.
"You are in very great pain, I fear," I said, lowering my voice.
"Yes," her white lips answered, and she tried to smile a patient though a dreary smile, as she looked up into my face, "my arm is broken. Are you a doctor?"
"I am Dr. Martin Dobree," I said, passing my hand softly down her arm. The fracture was above the elbow, and was of a kind to make the setting of it give her considerable pain. I could see she was scarce fit to bear any further suffering just then; but what was to be done? She was not likely to get much rest till the bone was set.
"Have you had much sleep since your fall?" I asked, looking at the weariness visible in her eyes.
"Not any," she replied; "not one moment's sleep."
"Did you have no sleep all night?" I inquired again.
"No." she said, "I could not fall asleep."
There were two things I could do—give her an opiate, and strengthen her a little with sleep beforehand, or administer chloroform to her before the operation. I hesitated between the two. A natural sleep would have done her a world of good, but there was a gleam in her eyes, and a feverish throb in her pulse, which gave me no hope of that. Perhaps the chloroform, if she had no objection to it, would be the best.
"Did you ever take chloroform?" I asked.
"No: I never needed it," she answered.
"Should you object to taking it?"
"Any thing." she replied, passively. "I will do any thing you wish."
I went back into the kitchen and opened the portmanteau my father had put up for me. Splints and bandages were there in abundance, enough to set half the arms in the island, but neither chloroform nor any thing in the shape of an opiate could I find. I might almost as well have come to Sark altogether unprepared for my case.
What could I do? There are no shops in Sark, and drugs of any kind were out of the question. There was not a chance of getting what I needed to calm and soothe a highly-nervous and finely-strung temperament like my patient's. A few minutes ago I had hesitated about using chloroform. Now I would have given half of every thing I possessed in the world for an ounce of it.
I said nothing to Tardif, who was watching me with his deep-set eyes, as closely as if I were meddling with some precious possession of his own. I laid the bundle of splints and rolls of linen down on the table with a professional air, while I was inwardly execrating my father's negligence. I emptied the portmanteau in the hope of finding some small phial or box. Any opiate would have been welcome to me, that would have dulled the overwrought nerves of the girl in the room within. But the practice of using any thing of the kind was not in favor with us generally in the Channel Islands, and my father had probably concluded that a Sark woman would not consent to use them. At any rate, there they were not.
I stood for a few minutes, deep in thought. The daylight was going, and it was useless to waste time; yet I found myself shrinking oddly from the duty before me. Tardif could not help but see my chagrin and hesitation.
"Doctor," he cried, "she is not going to die?"
"No, no," I answered, calling back my wandering thoughts and energies; "there is not the smallest danger of that. I must go and set her arm at once, and then she will sleep."
I returned to the room, and raised her as gently and painlessly as I could, motioning to the old woman to sit beside her on the bed and hold her steadily. I thought once of calling in Tardif to support her with his strong frame, but I did not. She moaned, though very softly, when I moved her, and she tried to smile again as her eyes met mine looking anxiously at her. That smile made me feel like a child. If she did it again, I knew my hands would be unsteady, and her pain would be tenfold greater.
"I would rather you cried out or shouted," I said. "Don't try to control yourself when I hurt you. You need not be afraid of seeming impatient, and a loud scream or two would do you good."
But I knew quite well as I spoke that she would never scream aloud. There was the self-control of culture about her. A woman of the lower class might shriek and cry, but this girl would try to smile at the moment when the pain was keenest. The white, round arm under my hands was cold, and the muscles were soft and unstrung. I felt the ends of the broken bone grating together as I drew the fragments into their right places, and the sensation went through and through me. I had set scores of broken limbs before with no feeling like this, which was so near unnerving me. But I kept my hands steady, and my attention fixed upon my work. I felt like two persons—a surgeon who had a simple, scientific operation to perform, and a mother who feels in her own person every pang her child has to suffer.
All the time the girl's white face and firmly-set lips lay under my gaze, with the wide-open, unflinching eyes looking straight at me: a mournful, silent, appealing face, which betrayed the pain I made her suffer ten times more than any cries or shrieks could have done. I thanked God in my heart when it was over, and I could lay her down again. I smoothed the coarse pillows for her to lie more comfortably upon them, and I spread my cambric handkerchief in a double fold between her cheek and the rough linen—too rough for a soft cheek like hers.
"Lie quite still," I said. "Do not stir, but go to sleep as fast as you can."
She was not smiling now, and she did not speak; but the gleam in her eyes was growing wilder, and she looked at me with a wandering expression. If sleep did not come very soon, there would be mischief. I drew the curtains across the window to shut out the twilight, and motioned to the old woman to sit quietly by the side of our patient.
Then I went out to Tardif.
He had not stirred from the place and position in which I had left him. I am sure no sound could have reached him from the inner room, for we had been so still that during the whole time I could hear the beat of the sea dashing up between the high cliffs of the Havre Gosselin. Up and down went Tardif's shaggy mustache, the surest indication of emotion with him, and he fetched his breath almost with a sob.
"Well, Dr. Martin?" was all he said.
"The arm is set," I answered, "and now she must get some sleep. There is not the least danger, Tardif; only we will keep the house as quiet as possible."
"I must go and bring in the boat," he replied, bestirring himself as if some spell was at an end. "There will be a storm to-night, and I should sleep the sounder if she was safe ashore."
"I'll come with you," I said, glad to get away from the seaweed fire.
It was not quite dark, and the cliffs stood out against the sky in odder and more grotesque shapes than by daylight. A host of seamews were fluttering about and uttering the most unearthly hootings, but the sea was as yet quite calm, save where it broke in wavering, serpentine lines over the submerged reefs which encircle the island. The tidal current was pouring rapidly through the very narrow channel between Sark and the little isle of Breckhou, and its eddies stretching to us made it rather an arduous task to get Tardif's boat on shore safely. But the work was pleasant just then. It kept our minds away from useless anxieties about the girl. An hour passed quickly, and up the ravine, in the deep gloom of the overhanging rocks, we made our way homeward.
"You will not quit the island to-morrow," said Tardif, standing at his door, and scanning the sky with his keen, weather-wise eyes.
"I must," I answered; "I must indeed, old fellow. You are no land-lubber, and you will run me over in the morning."
"No boat will leave Sark to-morrow," said Tardif, shaking his head.
We went in, and he threw off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, preparatory to frying some fish for supper. I was beginning to feel ravenously hungry, for I had eaten nothing since dinner, and as far as I knew Tardif had had nothing since his early breakfast, but as a fisherman he was used to long spells of fasting. While he was busy cooking I stole quietly into the inner room to look after my patient.
The feeble light entering by the door, which I left open, showed me the old woman comfortably asleep in her chair, but not so the girl. I had told her when I laid her down that she must lie quite still, and she was obeying me implicitly. Her cheek still rested upon my handkerchief, and the broken arm remained undisturbed upon the pillow which I had placed under it. But her eyes were wide open and shining in the dimness, and I fancied I could see her lips moving incessantly, though soundlessly. I laid my hand across her eyes, and felt the long lashes brush against the palm, but the eyelids did not remain closed.
"You must go to sleep," I said, speaking distinctly and authoritatively; wondering at the time how much power my will would have over her. Did I possess any of that magnetic, tranquillizing influence about which Jack Senior and I had so often laughed incredulously at Guy's? Her lips moved fast; for now my eyes had grown used to the dim light I could see her face plainly, but I could not catch a syllable of what she was whispering so busily to herself.
Never had I felt so helpless and disconcerted in the presence of a patient. I could positively do nothing for her. The case was not beyond my skill, but all medicinal resources were beyond my reach. Sleep she must have, yet how was I to administer it to her?
I returned, troubled and irritable, to search once more my empty portmanteau. Empty it was, except of the current number of Punch, which my father had considerately packed among the splints for my Sunday-evening reading. I flung it and the bag across the kitchen, with an ejaculation not at all flattering to Dr. Dobree, nor in accordance with the fifth commandment.
"What is the matter, doctor?" inquired Tardif.
I told him in a few sharp words what I wanted to soothe my patient. In an instant he left his cooking and thrust his arms into his blue jacket again.
"You can finish it yourself, Dr. Martin," he said, hurriedly; "I'll run over to old Mother Renouf; she'll have some herbs or something to send mam'zelle to sleep."
"Bring her back with you," I shouted after him as he sped across the yard. Mother Renouf was no stranger to me. While I was a boy she had charmed my warts away, and healed the bruises which were the inevitable consequences of cliff-climbing. I scarcely liked her coming in to fill up my deficiencies, and I knew our application to her for help would be inexpressibly gratifying. But I had no other resource than to call her in as a fellow-practitioner, and I knew she would make a first-rate nurse, for which Suzanne Tardif was unfitted by her deafness.
CHAPTER THE FOURTH.
A RIVAL PRACTITIONER.
Mother Renouf arrived from the other end of the island in an incredibly short time, borne along by Tardif as if he were a whirlwind and she a leaf caught in its current. She was a short, squat old woman, with a skin tanned like leather, and kindly little blue eyes, twinkling with delight and pride. Yes, there they are, photographed somewhere in my brain, the wrinkled, yellow, withered faces of the two old women, their watery eyes and toothless mouths, with figures as shapeless as the bowlders on the beach, watching beside the bed where lay the white but tenderly beautiful face of the young girl, with her curls of glossy hair tossed about the pillow, and her long, tremulous eyelashes making a shadow on her rounded cheek.
Mother Renouf gave me a hearty tap on the shoulder, and chuckled as merrily as the shortness of her breath after her rapid course would permit. The few English phrases she knew fell far short of expressing her triumph and exultation; but I was resolved to confer with her affably. My patient's case was too serious for me to stand upon my dignity.
"Mother," I said, "have you any simples to send this poor girl to sleep? Tardif told me you had taken her sprained ankle under your charge. I find I have nothing with me to induce sleep, and you can help us if any one can."
"Leave her to me, my dear little doctor," she answered, a laugh gurgling in her thick throat; "leave her to me. You have done your part with the bones. I have no touch at all for broken limbs, though my father, good man, could handle them with any doctor in all the islands. But I'll send her to sleep for you, never fear."
"You will stay with us all night?" I said, coaxingly. "Suzanne is deaf, and ears are of use in a sick-room, you know. I intended to go to Gavey's, but I shall throw myself down here on the fern bed, and you can call me at any moment, if there is need."
"There will be no need," she replied, in a tone of confidence. "My little mam'zelle will be sound asleep in ten minutes after she has taken my draught."
I went into the room with her to have a look at our patient. She had not stirred yet, but was precisely in the position in which I placed her after the operation was ended. There was something peculiar about this which distressed me. I asked Mother Renouf to move her gently and bring her face more toward me. The burning eyes opened widely as soon as she felt the old woman's arm under her, and she looked up, with a flash of intelligence, into my face. I stooped down to catch the whisper with which her lips were moving.
"You told me not to stir," she murmured.
"Yes," I said; "but you are not to lie still till you are cramped and stiff. Are you in much pain now?"
"He told me not to stir," muttered the parched lips again, "not to stir. I must lie quite still, quite still, quite still!"
The feeble voice died away as she whispered the last words, but her lips went on moving, as if she was repeating them to herself still. Certainly there was mischief here. My last order, given just before her mind began to wander, had taken possession of her brain, and retained authority over her will. There was a pathetic obedience in her perfect immobility, united with the shifting, restless glance of her eyes, and the ceaseless ripple of movement about her mouth, which made me trebly anxious and uneasy. A dominant idea had taken hold upon her which might prove dangerous. I was glad when Mother Renouf had finished stewing her decoction of poppy-heads, and brought the nauseous draught for the girl to drink.
But whether the poppy-heads had lost their virtue, or our patient's nervous condition had become too critical, too full of excitement and disturbance, I cannot tell. It is certain that she was not sleeping in ten minutes' or in an hour's time. Old Dame Tardif went off to her bedroom, and Mother Renouf took her place by the girl's side. Tardif could not be persuaded to leave the kitchen, though he appeared to be falling asleep heavily, waking up at intervals, and starting with terror at the least sound. For myself I scarcely slept at all, though I found the fern bed a tolerably comfortable resting-place.
The gale that Tardif had foretold came with great violence about the middle of the night. The wind howled up the long, narrow ravine like a pack of wolves; mighty storms of hail and rain beat in torrents against the windows, and the sea lifted up its voice with unmistakable energy. Now and again a stronger gust than the others appeared to threaten to carry off the thatched roof bodily, and leave us exposed to the tempest with only the thick stone walls about us; and the latch of the outer door rattled as if some one outside was striving to enter. I am not fanciful, but just then the notion came across me that if that door opened we should see the grim skeleton, Death, on the threshold, with his bleached, unclad bones dripping with the storm. I laughed at the ghastly fancy, and told it to Tardif in one of his waking intervals, but he was so terrified and troubled by it that it grew to have some little importance in my own eyes. So the night wore slowly away, the tall clock in the corner ticking out the seconds and striking the hours with a fidelity to its duty, which helped to keep me awake. Twice or thrice I crept, with quite unnecessary caution, into the room of my patient.
No, there was no symptom of sleep there. The pulse grew more rapid, the temples throbbed, and the fever gained ground. Mother Renouf was ready to weep with vexation. The girl herself sobbed and shuddered at the loud sounds of the tempest without; but yet, by a firm, supreme effort of her will, which was exhausting her strength dangerously, she kept herself quite still. I would have given up a year or two of my life to be able to set her free from the bondage of my own command.
CHAPTER THE FIFTH.
LOCKS OF HAIR.
The westerly gale, rising every few hours into a squall, gave me no chance of leaving Sark the next day, nor for some days afterward; but I was not at all put out by my captivity. All my interest—my whole being, in fact—was absorbed in the care of this girl, stranger as she was. I thought and moved, lived and breathed, only to fight step by step against delirium and death, and to fight without my accustomed weapons. Sometimes I could do nothing but watch the onset and inroads of the fever most helplessly. There was no possibility of aid. The stormy waters which beat against that little rock in the sea came swelling and rolling in from the vast plain of the Atlantic, and broke in tempestuous surf against the island. The wind howled, and the rain and hail beat across us almost incessantly for two days, and Tardif himself was kept a prisoner in the house, except when he went to look after his live-stock. No doubt it would have been practicable for me to get as far as the hotel, but to what good? It would be quite deserted, for there were no visitors to Sark at this season, and I did not give it a second thought. I was entirely engrossed in my patient, and I learned for the first time what their task is who hour after hour watch the progress of disease in the person, of one dear to them.
Tardif occupied himself with mending his nets, pausing frequently with his solemn eyes fixed upon the door of the girl's room, very much as a patient mastiff watches the spot where he knows his master is near to him, though out of sight. His mother went about her household work ploddingly, and Mother Renouf kept manfully to her post, in turn with me, as sentinel over the sickbed. There the young girl lay whispering from morning till night, and from night till morning again—always whispering. The fever gained ground from hour to hour. I had no data by which to calculate her chances of getting through it; but my hopes were very low at times.
On the Tuesday afternoon, in a temporary lull of the hail and wind, I started off on a walk across the island. The wind was still blowing from the southwest, and filling all the narrow sea between us and Guernsey with boiling surge. Very angry looked the masses of foam whirling about the sunken reefs, and very ominous the low-lying, hard blocks of clouds all along the horizon. I strolled as far as the Coupee, that giddy pathway between Great and Little Sark, where one can see the seething of the waves at the feet of the cliffs on both sides, three hundred feet below one. Something like a panic seized me. My nerves were too far unstrung for me to venture across the long, narrow isthmus. I turned abruptly again, and hurried as fast as my legs would carry me back to Tardif's cottage.
I had been away less than an hour, but an advantage had been taken of my absence. I found Tardif seated at the table, with a tangle of silky, shining hair lying before him. A tear or two had fallen upon it from his eyes. I understood at a glance what it meant. Mother Renouf had cut off my patient's pretty curls as soon as I was out of the house. I could not be angry with her, though I did not suppose it would do much good, and I felt a sort of resentment, such as a mother would feel, at this sacrifice of a natural beauty. They were all disordered and ravelled. Tardif's great hand caressed them tenderly, and I drew out one long, glossy tress and wound it about my fingers, with a heavy heart.
"It is like the pretty feathers of a bird that has been wounded," said Tardif, sorrowfully.
Just then there came a knock at the door and a sharp click of the latch, loud enough to penetrate Dame Tardif's deaf ears, or to arouse our patient, if she had been sleeping. Before either of us could move, the door was thrust open, and two young ladies appeared upon the door-sill.
They were—it flashed across me in an instant—old school-fellows and friends of Julia's. I declare to you honestly, I had scarcely had one thought of Julia till now. My mother I had wished for, to take her place by this poor girl's side, but Julia had hardly crossed my mind. Why, in Heaven's name, should the appearance of these friends of hers be so distasteful to me just now? I had known them all my life, and liked them as well as any girls I knew; but at this moment the very sight of them was annoying. They stood in the doorway, as much astonished and thunderstricken as I was, glaring at me, so it seemed to me, with that soft, bright-brown lock of hair curling and clinging round my finger. Never had I felt so foolish or guilty.
"Martin Dobree!" ejaculated both in one breath.
"Yes, mesdemoiselles," I said, uncoiling the tress of hair as if it had been a serpent, and going forward to greet them; "are you surprised to see me?"
"Surprised!" echoed the elder. "No; we are amazed—petrified! However did you get here? When did you come?"
"Quite easily," I replied. "I came on Sunday, and Tardif fetched me in his own boat. If the weather had permitted, I should have paid you a call; but you know what it has been."
"To be sure," answered Emma; "and how is dear Julia? She will be very anxious about you."
"She was on the verge of a bilious attack when I left her," I said; "that will tend to increase her anxiety."
"Poor, dear girl," she replied, sympathetically. "But, Martin, is this young woman here so very ill? We have heard from the Renoufs she had had a dangerous fall. To think of your being in Sark ever since Sunday, and we never heard a word of it!"
No, thanks to Tardif's quiet tongue, and Mother Renouf's assiduous attendance upon mam'zelle, my sojourn in the island had been kept a secret; now that was at an end.
"Is that the young woman's hair?" asked Emma, as Tardif gathered together the scattered tresses and tied them up quickly in a little white handkerchief, out of their sight and mine. I saw them again afterward. The handkerchief had been his wife's—white, with a border of pink roses.
"Yes," I replied to her question, "it was necessary to cut it off. She is dangerously ill with fever."
Both of them shrank a little toward the door. A sudden temptation assailed me, and took me so much by surprise that I had yielded before I knew I was attacked. It was their shrinking movement that did it. My answer was almost as automatic and involuntary as their retreat.
"You see it would not be wise for any of us to go about," I said. "A fever breaking out in the island, especially now you have no resident doctor, would be very serious. I think it will be best to isolate this case till we see the nature of the fever. You will do me a favor by warning the people away from us at present. The storm has saved us so far, but now we must take other precautions."
This I said with a grave tone and face, knowing all the while that there was no fear whatever for the people of Sark. Was there a propensity in me, not hitherto developed, to make the worst of a case?
"Good-by, Martin, good-by," cried Emma, backing out through the open door. "Come away, Maria. We have run no risk yet, Martin, have we? Do not come any nearer to us. We have touched nothing, except shaking hands with you. Are we quite safe?"
"Is the young woman so very ill?" inquired Maria from a safe distance outside the house.
I shook my head in silence, and pointed to the door of the inner room, intimating to them that she was no farther away than there. An expression of horror came over both their faces. Scarcely waiting to bestow upon me a gesture of farewell, they fled, and I saw them hurrying with unusual rapidity across the fold.
I had at least secured isolation for myself and my patient. But why had I been eager to do so? I could not answer that question to myself, and I did not ponder over it many minutes. I was impatient, yet strangely reluctant, to look at the sick girl again, after the loss of her beautiful hair. It was still daylight. The change in her appearance struck me as singular. Her face before had a look of suffering and trouble, making it almost old, charming as it was; now she had the aspect of quite a young girl, scarcely touching upon womanhood. Her hair had not been shorn off closely—the woman could not manage that—and short, wavy tresses, like those of a young child, were curling about her exquisitely-shaped head. The white temples, with their blue, throbbing veins, were more visible, with the small, delicately-shaped ears. I should have guessed her age now as barely fifteen—almost that of a child. Thus changed, I felt more myself in her presence, more as I should have been in attendance upon any child. I scanned her face narrowly, and it struck me that there was a perceptible alteration; an expression of exhaustion or repose was creeping over it. The crisis of the fever was at hand. The repose of death or the wholesome sleep of returning health was not far off. Mother Renouf saw it as well as myself.
CHAPTER THE SIXTH.
WHO IS SHE?
We sat up again together that night, Tardif and I. He would not smoke, lest the scent of the tobacco should get in through the crevices of the door, and lessen the girl's chance of sleep; but he held his pipe between his teeth, taking an imaginary puff now and then, that he might keep himself wide awake. We talked to one another in whispers.
"Tell me all you know about mam'zelle," I said. He had been chary of his knowledge before, but his heart seemed open at this moment. Most hearts are more open at midnight than at any other hour.
"There's not much to tell, doctor," he answered. "Her name is Ollivier, as I said to you; but she does not think she is any kin to the Olliviers of Guernsey. She is poor, though she does not look as if she had been born poor, does she?"
"Not in the least degree," I said. "If she is not a lady of birth, she is one of the first specimens of Nature's gentlefolks I have ever come across."
"Ah, there is a difference!" he said, sighing. "I feel it, doctor, in every word I speak to her, and every step I walk with her eyes upon me. Why cannot I be like her, or like you? You'll be on a level with her, and I am down far below her."
I looked at him curiously. The slouching figure—well shaped as it was—the rough, knotted hands, the unkempt mass of hair about his head and face, marked him for what he was—a toiler on the sea as well as on the land. He understood my scrutiny, and colored under it like a girl.
"You are a better fellow than I am, Tardif," I said; "but that has nothing to do with our talk. I think we ought to communicate with the young lady's friends, whoever they may be, as soon as there are any means of communicating with the rest of the world. We should be in a fix if any thing should happen to her. Have you no clew to her friends?"
"She is not going to die!" he cried. "No, no, doctor. God must hear my prayers for her. I have never ceased to lift up my voice to Him in my heart since I found her on the shingle. She will not die!"
"I am not so sure," I said; "but in any case we should write to her friends. Has she written to any one since she came here?"
"Not to a soul," he answered, eagerly. "She told me she has no friends nearer than Australia. That is a great way off."
"And has she had no letters?" I asked.
"Not one," he replied. "She has neither written nor received a single letter."
"But how did you come across her?" I inquired. "She did not fall from the skies, I suppose. How was it she came to live in this out-of-the-world place with you?"
Tardif smoked his imaginary pipe with great perseverance for some minutes, his face overcast with thought. But presently it cleared, and he turned to me with a frank smile.
"I'll tell you all about it, Dr. Martin," he said. "You know the Seigneur was in London last autumn, and there was a little difficulty in the Court of Chefs Plaids here, about an ordonnance we could not agree over, and I went across to London to see the Seigneur for myself. It was in coming back I met with Mam'zelle Ollivier. I was paying my fare at Waterloo station—the omnibus-fare, I mean—and I was turning away, when I heard the man speak grumblingly. I thought it was at me, and I looked back, and there she stood before him, looking scared and frightened at his rough words. Doctor, I never could bear to see any soft, tender, young thing in trouble. If it's nothing but a little bird that has fallen out of its warm nest, or a lamb slipped down among the cliffs, I feel as if I could risk my life to put them back again in some safe place. Yes, and I have done it scores of times, when I dared not let my poor mother know. Well, there stood mam'zelle, pale and trembling, with the tears ready to fall in her eyes; just such a soft, poor, tender soul as my little wife used to be. You remember my little wife, Dr. Martin?"
I only nodded as he looked at me.
"Just such another," he went on; "only this one was a lady, and less able to take care of herself. Her trouble was nothing but the omnibus-fare, and she had no change, nothing but an Australian sovereign; so I paid it for her. I kept pretty near her about the station while she was buying her ticket, for I overheard two young men, who were roaming up and down, say as they looked at her, 'Pas de gants, et des souliers de velours!' That was true; she had no gloves on her hands, and her little feet had nothing on but some velvet slippers, all wet and muddy with the dirty streets. So I walked up to her, as if I had been her servant, you understand, and put her into a carriage, and stood at the door of it, keeping off any young men who wished to get in—for she was such a pretty young thing—till the train was ready to start, and then I got into the nearest second-class carriage there was to her."
"Well, Tardif?" I said, impatiently, as he paused, looking absently into the dull embers of the seaweed fire.
"I turned it over in my own mind then," he continued, "and I've turned it over in my own mind since, and I can make no sort of an account of it—a young lady travelling without any friends in a dress like that, as if she had not had a minute to spare in getting ready for her journey. It was a bad night for a journey too. Could she be going to see some friend who was dying? At every station I looked out to see if my young lady left the train; but no, not even at Southampton. Was she going on to France? 'I must look out for her at the pier-head,' I said to myself. But when we stopped at the pier I did not want her to think I was watching her, only I stood well in the light, that she might see me when she looked round. I saw her stand as if she was considering, and I moved away very slowly to our boat, to give her the chance of speaking to me, if she wished. But she only followed me very quietly, as if she did not want me to see her, and she went down into the ladies' cabin in a moment, out of sight. Then I thought, 'She is running away from some one, or from something.' She had no shawls, or umbrellas, or baskets, such as ladies are always cumbered with, and that looked strange."
"How was she dressed?" I asked.
"She wore a soft, bright-brown jacket," he answered—"a seal-skin they call it, though I never saw a seal with a skin like that—and a hat like it, and a blue-silk gown, and her little muddy velvet slippers. It was a strange dress for travelling, wasn't it, doctor?"
"Very strange indeed," I repeated. An idea was buzzing about my brain that I had heard a description exactly similar before, but I could not for the life of me recall where. I could not wait to hunt it out then, for Tardif was in a full flow of confidence.
"But my heart yearned to her," he said, "more than ever it did over any bird fallen from its nest, or any lamb that had slipped down the cliffs. All the softness and all the helplessness of every poor little creature I had ever seen in my life seemed about her; all the hunted creatures and all the trapped creatures came to my mind. I can hardly tell you about it, doctor. I could have risked my life a hundred times over for her. It was a rough night, and I kept seeing her pale, hunted-looking face before me, though there was not half the danger I've often been in round our islands. I couldn't keep myself from fancying we were all going down to the bottom of the sea, and that poor young thing, running away from one trouble, was going to meet a worse—if it is worse to die than to live in great trouble. Dr. Martin, they tell me all the bed of the sea out yonder under the Atlantic is a smooth, smooth floor, with no currents, or tides, or streams, but a great calm; and there is no life down there of any kind. Well, that night I seemed to see the dead who have perished by sea lying there calm and quiet with their hands folded across their breasts. A great company it was, and a great graveyard, strewed over with sleeping shapes, all at rest and quiet, waiting till they hear the trumpet of the archangel sounding so that even the dead will hear and live again. It was a solemn sight to see, doctor. Somehow I came to think it would not be altogether a bad thing for the poor young troubled creature to go down there among them and be at rest. There are some people who seem too tender and delicate for this world. Yet if there had come a chance I'd have laid down my life for hers, even then, when I knew nothing much about her."
"Tardif," I said, "I did not know what a good fellow you are, though I ought to have known it by this time."
"No," he answered, "it is not in me; it's something in her. You feel something of it yourself, doctor, or how could you stay in a poor little house like this, thinking of nothing but her, and not caring about the weather keeping you away from home? But let me go on. In the morning she came on deck, and talked to me about the islands, and where she could live cheaply, and it ended in her coming home here to lodge in our little spare room. There was another curious thing—she had not any luggage with her, not a box nor a bag of any kind. She never knew that I knew, for that would have troubled her. It is my belief that she has run away."
"But who can she have run away from, Tardif?" I asked.
"God knows," he answered, "but the girl has suffered; you can see that by her face. Whoever or whatever she has run away from, her cheeks are white from it, and her heart sorrowful. I know nothing of her secret; but this I do know: she is as good, and true, and sweet a little soul as my poor little wife was. She has been here all winter, doctor, living under my eye, and I've waited on her as her servant, though a rough servant I am for one like her. She has tried to make herself cheerful and contented with our poor ways. See, she mended me that bit of net; those are her meshes, though her pretty white fingers were made sore by the twine. She would mend it, sitting where you are now in the chimney-corner. No; if mam'zelle should die, it will be a great grief of heart to me. If I could offer my life to God in place of hers, I'd do it willingly."
"No, she will not die. Look there, Tardif!" I said, pointing to the door-sill of the inner room. A white card had been slipped under the door noiselessly—a signal agreed upon between Mother Renouf and me, to inform me that my patient had at last fallen into a profound slumber, which seemed likely to continue some hours. She had slept perhaps a few minutes at a time before, but not a refreshing, wholesome sleep. Tardif understood the silent signal as well as I did, and a more solemn expression settled on his face. After a while he put away his pipe, and, stepping barefoot across the floor without a sound, he stopped the clock, and brought back to the table, where an oil-lamp was burning, a large old Bible. Throughout the long night, whenever I awoke, for I threw myself on the fern bed and slept fitfully, I saw his handsome face, with its rough, unkempt hair falling across his forehead as it was bent over the book, while his mouth moved silently as he read to himself chapter after chapter, and turned softly the pages before him.
I fell into a heavy slumber just before daybreak, and when I awoke two or three hours after I found that the house had been put in order, just as usual, though no sound had disturbed me. I glanced anxiously at the closed door. That it was closed, and the white card still on the sill, proved to me that our charge had no more been disturbed than myself. The thought struck me that the morning light would shine full upon the weak and weary eyelids of the sleeper; but upon going out into the fold to look at her casement, I discovered that Tardif had been before me and covered it with an old sail. The room within was sufficiently darkened.
The morning was more than half gone before Mother Renouf opened the door and came out to us, her old face looking more haggard than ever, but her little eyes twinkling with satisfaction. She gave me a patronizing nod, but she went up to Tardif, laid a hand on each of his broad shoulders, and looked him keenly in the face.
"All goes well, my friend," she said, significantly. "Your little mam'zelle does not think of going to the good God yet."
I did not stay to watch how Tardif received this news, for I was impatient myself to see how she was going on. Thank Heaven, the fever was gone, the delirium at an end. The dark-gray eyes, opening languidly as my fingers touched her wrist, were calm and intelligent. She was as weak as a kitten, but that did not trouble me much. I was sure her natural health was good, and she would soon recover her lost strength. I had to stoop down to hear what she was saying.
"Have I kept quite still, doctor?" she asked, faintly.
I must own that my eyes smarted, and my voice was not to be trusted. I had never felt so overjoyed in my life as at that moment. But what a singular wish to be obedient possessed this girl! What a wonderful power of submissive self-control! she had cast aside authority and broken away from it, as she had done apparently, there must have been some great provocation before a nature like hers could venture to assert its own independence.
I had ample time for turning over this reflection, for Mother Renouf was worn out and needed rest, and Suzanne Tardif was of little use in the sick-room. I scarcely left my patient all that day, for the rumor I had set afloat the day before was sufficient to make it a difficult task to procure another nurse. The almost childish face grew visibly better before my eyes, and when night came I had to acknowledge somewhat reluctantly that as soon as a boat could leave the island it would be my bounden duty to return to Guernsey.
"I should like to see Tardif," murmured the girl to me that night, after she had awakened from a second long and peaceful sleep.
I called him, and he came in barefoot, his broad, burly frame seeming to fill up all the little room. She could not lift up her head, but her face was turned toward us, and she held out her small, wasted hand to him, smiling faintly. He fell on his knees before he took it into his great, horny palm, and looked down upon it as he held it very carefully with, tears standing in his eyes.
"Why, it is like an egg-shell," he said. "God bless you, mam'zelle, God bless you for getting well again!"
She laughed at his words—a feeble though merry laugh, like a child's—and she seemed delighted with the sight of his hearty face, glowing as it was with happiness. It was a strange chance that had thrown these two together. I could not allow Tardif to remain long; but after that she kept devising little messages to send to him through me whenever I was about to leave her. Her intercourse with Mother Renouf was extremely limited, as the old woman's knowledge of English was slight; and with Suzanne she could hold no conversation at all. It happened, in consequence, that I was the only person who could talk or listen to her through the long and dreary hours.
CHAPTER THE SEVENTH.
WHO ARE HER FRIENDS?
At another time I might have recognized the danger of my post; but my patient had become so childish-looking, and her mind, enfeebled by delirium, was in so childish a condition, that it seemed to me I little more than tending some young girl whose age was far below my own. I did not trouble myself, moreover, with any exact introspection. There was an under-current of satisfaction and happiness running through the hours which I was not inclined to fathom. The winds continued against me, and I had nothing to do but to devote myself to mam'zelle, as I called her in common with the people about me. She was still so far in a precarious state that, if she had been living in Guernsey, it would have been my duty to pay to her unflagging attention.
But upon Friday afternoon Tardif, who had been down to the Creux Harbor, brought back the information that one of the Sark cutters was about to venture to make the passage across the Channel the next morning, to attend the Saturday market, if the wind did not rise again in the night. It was clear as day what I must do. I must bid farewell to my patient, however reluctant I might be, with a very uncertain prospect of seeing her again. A patient in Sark could not have many visits from a doctor in Guernsey.
She was recovering with the wonderful elasticity of a thoroughly sound constitution; but I had not considered it advisable for her even to sit up yet, with her broken arm and sprained ankle. I took my seat beside her for the last time, her fair, sweet face lying upon the pillow as it had done when I first saw it, only the look of suffering was gone. I had made up my mind to learn something of the mystery that surrounded her; and the child, as I called her to myself, was so submissive to me that she would answer my questions readily.
"Mam'zelle," I said, "I am going away to-night. You will be sorry to lose me?"
"Very, very sorry," she answered, in her low, touching voice. "Are you obliged to go?"
If I had not been obliged to go, I should then and there have made a solemn vow to remain with her till she was well again.
"I must go," I said, shaking off the ridiculous and troublesome idea. "I have been away nearly six days. Six days is a long holiday for a doctor."
"It has not been a holiday for you," she whispered, her eyes fastened upon mine, and shining like clear stars.
"Well," I repeated, "I must go. Before I go I wish to write to your friends for you. You will not be strong enough to write yourself for some days, and it is quite time they knew what danger you have been in. I have brought a pen and paper, and I will post the letter as soon as I reach Guernsey."
A faint flush colored her face, and she turned her eyes away from me.
"Why do you think I ought to write?" she asked at length.
"Because you have been very near death." I answered. "If you had died, not one of us would have known whom to communicate with, unless you had left some direction in that box of yours, which is not very likely."
"No," she said, "you would find nothing there. I suppose if I had died nobody would ever have known who I am. How curious that would have been!"
Was she amused, or was she saddened by the thought? I could not tell.
"It would have been very painful to Tardif and to me," I said. "It must be very painful to your friends, whoever they are, not to know what has become of you. Give me permission to write to them. There can scarcely be reasons sufficient for you to separate yourself from them like this. Besides, you cannot go on living in a fisherman's cottage; you were not born to it—"
"How do you know?" she asked, quickly, with a sharp tone in her voice.
It was somewhat difficult to answer that question. There was nothing to indicate what position she had been used to. I had seen no token of wealth about her room, which was as homely as any other cottage chamber. Her conversation had been the simple, childish talk of an invalid recovering from a serious illness, and had scarcely proved her to be an educated person. Yet there was something in her face and tones and manner which, as plainly to Tardif as to me, stamped this runaway girl as a lady.
"Let me write to your friends," I urged, waiving the question. "It is not fit for you to remain here. I beg of you to allow me to communicate with them."
Her face quivered like a child's when it is partly frightened and partly grieved.
"I have no friends," she said; "not one real friend in the world."
An almost irresistible inclination assailed me to fall on my knees beside her, as I had seen Tardif do, and take a solemn oath to be her faithful servant and friend as long as my life should last. This, of course, I did not do; but the sound of the words so plaintively spoken, and the sight of her quivering face, rendered her a hundredfold more interesting to me.
"Mam'zelle," I said, taking her hand in mine, "if ever you should need a friend, you may count upon Martin Dobree as one as true as any you could wish to have. Tardif is another. Never say again you have no friends."
"Thank you," she answered, simply. "I will count you and Tardif as my friends. But I have no others, so you need not write to anybody."
"But what if you had died?" I persisted.
"You would have buried me quietly up there," she answered, "in the pleasant graveyard, where the birds sing all day long, and I should have been forgotten soon. Am I likely to die, Dr. Martin?"
"Certainly not," I replied, hastily; "nothing of the kind. You are going to get well and strong again. But I must bid you good-by, now, since you have no friends to write to. Can I do any thing for you in Guernsey? I can send you any thing you fancy."
"I do not want any thing," she said.
"You want a great number of things," I said; "medicines, of course—what is the good of a doctor who sends no medicine?—and books. You will have to keep yourself quiet a long time. You would like some books?"
"Oh, I have longed for books," she said, sighing; "but don't buy any; lend me some of your own."
"Mine would be very unsuitable for a young lady," I answered, laughing at the thought of my private library. "May I ask why I am not to buy any?"
"Because I have no money to spend in books," she said.
"Well," I replied, "I will borrow some for you from the ladies I know. We will not waste our money, neither you nor I."
I stood looking at her, finding it harder to go away than I had supposed. So closely had I watched the changes upon her face, that every line of it was deeply engraved upon my memory. Other and more familiar faces seemed to have faded in proportion to that distinctness of impression. Julia's features, for instance, had become blurred and obscure, like a painting which has lost its original clearness of tone.
"How soon will you come back again?" asked the faint, plaintive voice.
Clearly it did not occur to her that I could not pay her a visit without great difficulty. I knew how it was next to an impossibility to get over to Sark, for some time at least; but I felt ready to combat even impossibilities.
"I will come back," I said—"yes, I promise to come back in a week's time. Make haste and get well before then, mam'zelle. Good-by, now; good-by."
I was going to sleep at Vaudin's Inn, near to Creux Harbor, from which the cutter would sail almost before the dawn. At five o'clock we started on oar passage—a boat-load of fishermen bound for the market. The cold was sharp, for it was still early in March, and the easterly wind pierced the skin like a myriad of fine needles. A waning moon was hanging in the sky over Guernsey, and the east was growing gray with the coming morning. By the time the sun was fairly up out of its bed of low-lying clouds, we had rounded the southern point of Sark, and were in sight of the Havre Gosselin. But Tardif's cottage was screened by the cliffs, and I could catch no glimpse of it, though, as we rowed onward, I saw a fine, thin column of white smoke blown toward us. It was from his hearth, I knew, and, at this moment, he was preparing an early breakfast for my invalid. I watched it till all the coast became an indistinct outline against the sky.
CHAPTER THE EIGHTH.
THE SIXTIES OF GUERNSEY.
I was more than half-numb with cold by the time we landed at the quay, opposite the Sark office. The place was all alive, seeming the more busy and animated to me for the solitary six days I had been spending since last Sunday. The arrival of our boat, and especially my appearance in it, created quite a stir among the loungers who are always hanging about the pier. By this time every individual in St. Peter-Port knew that Dr. Martin Dobree had been missing for several days, having gone out in a fisherman's boat to Sark the Sunday before. I had seen myself in the glass before leaving my chamber at Vaudin's, and to some extent I presented the haggard appearance of a shipwrecked man. A score of voices greeted me; some welcoming, some chaffing. "Glad to see you again, old fellow!" "What news from Sark?" "Been in quod for a week?" "His hair is not cut short!" "No; he has tarried in Sark till his beard be grown!" There was a circling laugh at this last jest at my appearance, which had been uttered by a good-tempered, jovial clergyman, who was passing by on his way to the town church. I did my best to laugh and banter in return, but it was like a bear dancing with a sore head. I felt gloomy and uncomfortable. A change had come over me since I left home, for my return was by no means an unmixed pleasure.
As I was proceeding along the quay, with a train of sympathizing attendants, a man, who was driving a large cart piled with packages in cases, as if they had come in from England by the steamer, touched his hat to me, and stopped the horse. It was in order to inform me that he was conveying furniture which we—that is, Julia and I—had ordered, up to our new house, the windows of which I could see glistening in the morning sun. My spirits did not rise, even at this cheerful information. I looked coldly at the cases, bade the man go on, and shook off my train by taking an abrupt turn up a flight of steps, leading directly into the Haute Rue.
I had chosen instinctively the nearest by-way homeward, but, once in the Haute Rue, I did not pursue it. I turned again upon a sudden thought toward the Market Square, to see if I could pick up any dainties to tempt the delicate appetite of my Sark patient. Every step I took brought me into contact with some friend or acquaintance, whom I would have avoided gladly. The market was sure to be full of them, for the ladies of Guernsey, like Frenchwomen, would be there in shoals, with their maidservants behind them to carry their purchases. Yet I turned toward it, as I said, braving both congratulations and curiosity, to see what I could buy for Tardif's "mam'zelle."
The square had all the peculiar animation of an early market where ladies do their own bargaining. As I had known beforehand, most of my acquaintances were there; for in Guernsey the feminine element predominates terribly, and most of my acquaintances were ladies. The peasant-women behind the stalls also knew me. Most of them nodded to me as I strolled slowly through the crowd, but they were much too busy to suspend their purchases in order to catechise me just then, being sure of me at a future time. I had not done badly in choosing the busiest street for my way home.
But as I left the Market Square I came suddenly upon Julia, face to face. It had all the effect of a shock upon me. Like many other women, she seldom looked well out-of-doors. The prevailing fashion never suited her, however the bonnets were worn, whether hanging down the neck or slouched over the forehead, rising spoon-shaped toward the sky, or lying like a flat plate on the crown. Julia's bonnet always looked as if it had been made for somebody else. She was fond of wearing a shawl, which hung ungracefully about her, and made her figure look squarer and her shoulders higher than they really were. Her face struck sharply upon my brain, as if I had never seen it distinctly before; not a bad face, but unmistakably plain, and just now with a frown upon it, and her heavy eyebrows knitted forbiddingly. A pretty little basket was in her hand, and her mind was full of the bargains she was bent upon. She was even more surprised and startled by our encounter than I was, and her manner, when taken by surprise, was apt to be abrupt.
"Why, Martin!" she ejaculated.
"Well, Julia!" I said.
We stood looking at one another much in the same way as we used to do years before, when she had detected me in some boyish prank, and assumed the mentor while I felt a culprit. How really I felt a culprit at that moment she could not guess.
"I told you just how it would be," she said, in her mentor voice. "I knew there was a storm coming, and I begged and entreated of you not to go. Your mother has been ill all the week, and your father has been as cross as—as—"
"As two sticks," I suggested, precisely as I might have done when I was thirteen.
"It is nothing to laugh at," said Julia, severely. "I shall say nothing about myself and my own feelings, though they have been most acute, the wind blowing a hurricane for twenty-four hours together, and we not sure that you had even reached Sark in safety. Your mother and I wanted to charter the Rescue, and send her over to fetch you home as soon as the worst of the storm was over, but my uncle pooh-poohed it."
"I am very glad he did," I replied, involuntarily.
"He said you would be more than ready to come back in the first cutter that sailed," she went on. "I suppose you have just come in?"
"Yes," I said, "and I'm half numbed with cold, and nearly famished with hunger. You don't give me as good a welcome as the Prodigal Son got, Julia."
"No," she answered, softening a little; "but I'm not sorry to see you safe again. I would turn back with you, but I like to do the marketing myself, for the servants will buy any thing. Martin, a whole cartload of our furniture is come in. You will find the invoice inside my davenport. We must go down this afternoon and superintend the unpacking."
"Very well," I said; "but I cannot stay longer now."
I did not go on with any lighter heart than before this meeting with Julia. I had scrutinized her face, voice, and manner, with unwonted criticism. As a rule, a face that has been before us all our days is as seldom an object of criticism as any family portrait which has hung against the same place on the wall all our lifetime. The latter fills up a space which would otherwise be blank; the former does very little else. It never strikes you; it is almost invisible to you. There would be a blank space left if it disappeared, and you could not fill it up from memory. A phantom has been living, breathing, moving beside you, with vanishing features and no very real presence.
I had, therefore, for the first time criticised my future wife. It was a good, honest, plain, sensible face, with some fine, insidious lines about the corners of the eyes and lips, and across the forehead. They could hardly be called wrinkles yet, but they were the first faint sketch of them, and it is impossible to obliterate the slightest touch etched by Time. She was five years older than I—thirty-three last birthday. There was no more chance for our Guernsey girls to conceal their age than for the unhappy daughters of peers, whose dates are faithfully kept, and recorded in the Peerage. The upper classes of the island, who were linked together by endless and intricate ramifications of relationship, formed a kind of large family, with some of its advantages and many of its drawbacks. In one sense we had many things in common; our family histories were public property, as also our private characters and circumstances. For instance, my own engagement to Julia, and our approaching marriage, gave almost as much interest to the island as though we were members of each household.
I have looked out a passage in the standard work upon the Channel Islands. They are the words of an Englishman who was studying us more philosophically than we imagined. Unknown to ourselves we had been under his microscope. "At a period not very distant, society in Guernsey grouped itself into two divisions—one, including those families who prided themselves on ancient descent and landed estates, and who regarded themselves as the pur sang; and the other, those whose fortunes had chiefly been made during the late war or in trade. The former were called Sixties, the latter were the Forties."
Now Julia and I belonged emphatically to the Sixties. We had never been debased by trade, and a mesalliance was not known in our family. To be sure, my father had lost a fortune instead of making one in any way; but that did not alter his position or mine. We belonged to the aristocracy of Guernsey, and noblesse oblige. As for my marriage with Julia, it was so much the more interesting as the number of marriageable men was extremely limited; and she was considered favored indeed by Fate, which had provided for her a cousin willing to settle down for life in the island.
Still more greetings, more inquiries, more jokes, as I wended my way homeward. I had become very weary of them before I turned into our own drive. My father was just starting off on horseback. He looked exceedingly well on horseback, being a very handsome man, and in excellent preservation. His hair, as white as snow, was thick and well curled, and his face almost without a wrinkle. He had married young, and was not more than twenty-five years older than myself. He stopped, and extended two fingers to me.
"So you are back, Martin?" he said. "It has been a confounded nuisance, you being out of the way; and such weather for a man of my years! I had to ride out three miles to lance a baby's gums, confound it! in all that storm on Tuesday. Mrs. Durande has been very ill too; all your patients have been troublesome. But it must have been awfully dull work for you out yonder. What did you do with yourself, eh? Make love to some of the pretty Sark girls behind Julia's back, eh?"
My father kept himself young, as he was very fond of stating; his style of conversation was eminently so. It jarred upon my ears more than ever after Tardif's grave and solemn words, and often deep thoughts. I was on the point of answering sharply, but I checked myself.
"The weather has been awful," I said. "How did my mother bear it?"
"She has been like an old hen clucking after her duckling in the water," he replied. "She has been fretting and fuming after you all the week. If it had been me out in Sark, she would have slept soundly and ate heartily; as it was you, she has neither slept nor ate. You are quite an old woman's pet, Martin. As for me, there is no love lost between old women and me."
"Good-morning, sir," I said, turning away, and hurrying on to the house. I heard him laugh lightly, and hum an opera-air as he rode off, sitting his horse with the easy seat of a thorough horseman. He would never set up a carriage as long as he could ride like that. I watched him out of sight, and then went in to seek my poor mother.
CHAPTER THE NINTH.
A CLEW TO THE SECRET.
She was lying on the sofa in the breakfast-room, with the Venetian blinds down to darken the morning sunshine. Her eyes wore closed, though she held in her hands the prayer-hook, from which she had been reading as usual the Psalms for the day. I had time to take note of the extreme fragility of her appearance, which, doubtless I noticed the more plainly for my short absence. Her hands were very thin, and her cheeks hollow. A few silver threads were growing among her brown hair, and a line or two between her eyebrows were becoming deeper. But while I was looking at her, though I made no sort of sound or movement, she seemed to feel that I was there; and after looking up she started from her sofa, and flung her arms about me, pressing closer and closer to me.
"O Martin, my boy! my darling!" she sobbed, "thank God you are come back safe! Oh, I have been very rebellious, very unbelieving. I ought to have known that you would be safe. Oh, I am thankful!"
"So am I, mother," I said, kissing her, "and very hungry into the bargain."
I knew that would check her hysterical excitement. She looked up at me with smiles and tears on her face; but the smiles won the day.
"That is so like you, Martin," she said; "I believe your ghost would say those very words. You are always hungry when you come home. Well, my boy shall have the best breakfast in Guernsey. Sit down, then, and let me wait upon you."
That was just what pleased her most whenever I came in from some ride into the country. She was a woman with fondling, caressing little ways, such as Julia could no more perform gracefully than an elephant could waltz. My mother enjoyed fetching my slippers, and warming them herself by the fire, and carrying away my boots when I took them off. No servant was permitted to do any of these little offices for me—that is, when my father was out of the way. If he was there, my mother sat still, and left me to wait on myself, or ring for a servant, Never in my recollection had she done any thing of the kind for my father. Had she watched and waited upon him thus in the early days of their married life, until some neglect or unfaithfulness of his had cooled her love for him? I sat down as she bade me, and had my slippers brought, and felt her fingers passed fondly through my hair.
"You have come back like a barbarian," she said, "rougher than Tardif himself. How have you managed, my boy? You must tell me all about it as soon as your hunger is satisfied."
"As soon as I have had my breakfast, mother, I must put up a few things in a hamper to go back by the Sark cutter," I answered.
"What sort of things?" she asked. "Tell me, and I will be getting them ready for you."
"Well, there will be some physic, of course," I said; "you cannot help me in that. But you can find things suitable for a delicate appetite; jelly, you know, and jams, and marmalade; any thing nice that comes to hand. And some good port-wine, and a few amusing books."
"Books!" echoed my mother.
I recollected at once that the books she might select, as being suited to a Sark peasant, would hardly prove interesting to my patient. I could not do better than go down to Barbet's circulating library, and look out some good works there.
"Well, no," I said; "never mind the books. If you will look out the other things, those can wait."
"Whom are they for?" asked my mother.
"For my patient," I replied, devoting myself to the breakfast before me.
"What sort of a patient, Martin?" she inquired again.
"Her name is Ollivier," I said. "A common name. Our postmaster's name is Ollivier."
"Oh, yes," she answered; "I know several families of Olliviers. I dare say I should know this person if you could tell me her Christian name. Is it Jane, or Martha, or Rachel?"
"I don't know," I said; "I did not ask."
Should I tell my mother about my mysterious patient? I hesitated for a minute or two. But to what good? It was not my habit to talk about my patients and their ailments. I left them all behind me when I crossed the threshold of home. My mother's brief curiosity had been satisfied with the name of Ollivier, and she made no further inquiries about her. But to expedite me in my purpose, she rang, and gave orders for old Pellet, our only man-servant, to find a strong hamper, and told the cook to look out some jars of preserve.
The packing of that hamper interested me wonderfully; and my mother, rather amazed at my taking the superintendence of it in person, stood by me in her store-closet, letting me help myself liberally. There was a good space left after I had taken sufficient to supply Miss Ollivier with good things for some weeks to come. If my mother had not been by, I should have filled it up with books.
"Give me a loaf or two of white bread," I said; "the bread at Tardif's is coarse and hard, as I know after eating it for a week. A loaf, if you please, dear mother."
"Whatever are you doing here, Martin?" exclaimed Julia's unwelcome voice behind me. Her bilious attack had not quite passed away, and her tones were somewhat sharp and raspy.
"He has been living on Tardif's coarse fare for a week," answered my mother; "so now he has compassion enough for his Sark patient to pack up some dainties for her. If you could only give him one or two of your bad headaches, he would have more sympathy for you."
"Have you had one of your headaches, Julia?" I inquired.
"The worst I ever had," she answered. "It was partly your going off in that rash way, and the storm that came on after, and the fright we were in. You must not think of going again, Martin. I shall take care you don't go after we are married."
Julia had been used to speak out as calmly about our marriage as if it was no more than going to a picnic. It grated upon me just then; though it had been much the same with myself. There was no delightful agitation about the future that lay before us. We were going to set up housekeeping by ourselves, and that was all. There was no mystery in it; no problem to be solved; no discovery to be made on either side. There would be no Blue Beard's chamber in our dwelling. We had grown up together; now we had agreed to grow old together. That was the sum total of marriage to Julia and me.
I finished packing the hamper, and sent Pellet with it to the Sark office, having addressed it to Tardif, who had engaged to be down at the Creux Harbor to receive it when the cutter returned. Then I made a short and hurried toilet, which by this time had become essential to my reappearance in civilized society. But I was in haste to secure a parcel of books before the cutter should start home again, with its courageous little knot of market-people. I ran down to Barbet's, scarcely heeding the greetings which were flung after mo by every passer-by. I looked through the library-shelves with growing dissatisfaction, until I hit upon two of Mrs. Gaskell's novels, "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austin, and "David Copperfield." Besides these, I chose a book for Sunday reading, as my observations upon my mother and Julia had taught me that my patient could not read a novel on a Sunday with a quiet conscience.
Barbet brought half a sheet of an old Times to form the first cover of my parcel. The shop was crowded with market-people, and, as he was busy, I undertook to pack them myself, the more willingly as I had no wish for him to know what direction I wrote upon them. I was about to fold the newspaper round them, when my eye was caught by an advertisement at the top of one of the columns, the first line of which was printed in capitals. I recollected in an instant that I had seen it and read it before. This was what I had tried in vain to recall while Tardif was describing Miss Ollivier to me. "Strayed from her home in London, on the 20th inst., a young lady with bright-brown hair, gray eyes, and delicate features; age twenty one. She is believed to have been alone. Was dressed in a blue-silk dress, and seal-skin jacket and hat. Fifty pounds reward is offered to any person giving such information as will lead to her restoration to her friends. Apply to Messrs. Scott and Brown, Gray's Inn Road, E.C."
I stood perfectly still for some seconds, staring blankly at the very simple, direct advertisement under my eyes. There was not the slightest doubt in my mind that it had a direct reference to my pretty patient in Sark. I had a reason for recollecting the date of Tardif's return from London, the very day after the mournful disaster off the Havre Gosselin, when four gentlemen and a boatman had been lost during a squall. But I had no time for deliberation then, and I tore off a large corner of the Times containing that and other advertisements, and thrust it unseen into my pocket. After that I went on with my work, and succeeded in turning out a creditable-looking parcel, which I carried down to the Sark cutter.
Before I returned home I made two or three half-professional calls upon patients whom my father had visited during my absence. Everywhere I had to submit to numerous questions as to my adventures and pursuits during my week's exile. At each place curiosity seemed to be quite satisfied with the information that the young woman who had been hurt by a fall from the cliffs was an Ollivier. With that freedom and familiarity which exists among us, I was rallied for my evident absence and preoccupation of mind, which were pleasantly ascribed to the well-known fact that a large quantity of furniture for our new house had arrived from England while I was away. These friends of mine could tell me the colors of the curtains, and the patterns of the carpets, and the style of my chairs and tables; so engrossingly interesting to all our circle was our approaching marriage.
In the mean time, I had no leisure to study and ponder over the advertisement, which by so odd a chance had come into my hands. That must be reserved till I was alone at night.
CHAPTER THE TENTH.
Yet I found my attention wandering, and my wits wool-gathering, even in the afternoon, when I had gone down with Julia and my mother to the new house, to see after the unpacking of that load of furniture. I can imagine circumstances in which nothing could be more delightful than the care with which a man prepares a home for his future wife. The very tint of the walls, and the way the light falls in through the windows, would become matters of grave importance. In what pleasant spot shall her favorite chair be placed? And what picture shall hang opposite it to catch her eye the oftenest? Where is her piano to stand? What china, and glass, and silver, is she to use? Where are the softest carpets to be found for her feet to tread? In short, where is the very best and daintiest of every thing to be had, for the best and daintiest little bride the sun ever shone on?
There was not the slightest flavor of this sentiment in our furnishing of our new house. It was really more Julia's business than mine. We had had dozens of furnishing lists to peruse from the principal houses in London and Paris, as if even there it was a well-understood thing that Julia and I were going to be married. We had toiled through these catalogues, making pencil-marks in them, as though they were catalogues of an art exhibition. We had prudently settled the precise sum (of Julia's money) which we were to lay out. Julia's taste did not often agree with mine, as she had no eye for the harmonies of color—a singular deficiency among us, as most of the Guernsey women are born artists. We were constantly compelled to come to a compromise, each yielding some point; not without a secret misgiving on my part that the new house would have many an eyesore about it for me. But then it was Julia's money that was doing it, and after all she was more anxious to please me than I deserved.
That afternoon Pellet and I, like two assistants in a furnishing-house, unrolled carpets and stretched them along the floors before the critical gaze of my mother and Julia. We unpacked chairs and tables, scanning anxiously for damages on the polished wood, and setting them one after another in a row against the walls. I went about as in some dream. The house commanded a splendid view of the whole group of the Channel Islands, and the rocky islets innumerable strewed about the sea. The afternoon sun was shining full upon Sark, and whenever I looked through the window I could see the cliffs of the Havre Gosselin, purple in the distance, with a silver thread of foam at their foot. No wonder that my thoughts wandered, and the words my mother and Julia were speaking went in at one ear and out at the other. Certainly I was dreaming; but which part was the dream?
"I don't believe he cares a straw about the carpets!" exclaimed Julia, in a disappointed tone.
"I do indeed, dear Julia," I said, bringing myself back to the carpets. Here I had been obliged to give in to Julia's taste. She had set her mind upon having flowers in her drawing-room carpet, and there they were, large garlands of bright-colored blossoms, very gay, and, as I ventured to remark to myself, very gaudy.
"You like it better than you did in the pattern?" she asked, anxiously.
I did not like it one whit better, but I should have been a brute if I had said so. She was gazing at it and me with so troubled an expression, that I felt it necessary to set her mind at ease.
"It is certainly handsomer than the pattern?" I said, regarding it attentively; "very much handsomer."
"You like it better than the plain thing you chose at first?" pursued Julia.
I was about to be hunted into a corner, and forced into denying my own taste—a process almost more painful than denying one's faith—when my mother came to my rescue. She could read us both as an open book, and knew the precise moment to come between us.
"Julia, my love," she said, "remember that we wish to show Martin those patterns while it is daylight. To-morrow is Sunday, you know."
A little tinge of color crept over Julia's tintless face as she told Pellet he might go. I almost wished that I might be dismissed too; but it was only a vague, wordless wish. We then drew near to the window, from which we could see Sark so clearly, and Julia drew out of her pocket a very large envelope, which was bursting with its contents.
They were small scraps of white silk and white satin. I took them mechanically into my hand, and could not help admiring the pure, lustrous, glossy beauty of them. I passed my fingers over them softly. There was something in the sight of them that moved me, as if they were fragments of the shining garments of some vision, which in times gone by, when I was much younger, had now and then floated before my fancy. I did not know any one lovely enough to wear raiment of glistening white like these, unless—unless—. A passing glimpse of the pure white face, and glossy hair, and deep gray eyes of my Sark patient flashed across me.
"They are patterns for Julia's wedding-dress," said my mother, in a low, tender voice.
CHAPTER THE ELEVENTH.
TRUE TO BOTH.
"For Julia!" I repeated, the treacherous vision fading away instantaneously. "Oh, yes! I understand. They are very beautiful—very beautiful indeed."
"Which do you like most?" asked Julia, in a whisper, as she leaned against my shoulder.
"I like them all," I said. "There is scarcely any difference among them that I can see."
"No difference!" she exclaimed. "That is so like a man! Why, they are as different as can be. Look here, this one is only five shillings a yard, and that is twelve. Isn't that a difference?"
"A very great one," I replied. "But do you think you will look well in white, my dear Julia? You never do wear white."
"A bride cannot wear any thing but white," she said, angrily. "I declare, Martin, you would not mind if I looked a perfect fright."
"But I should mind very much," I urged, putting my arm around her; "for you will be my wife then, Julia."
She smiled almost for the first time that afternoon, for her mind had been full of the furniture, and too burdened for happiness. But now she looked happy.
"You can be as nice and good as any one, when you like," she said, gently.
"I shall always be nice and good when we are married," I answered, with a laugh. "You are not afraid of venturing, are you, Julia?"
"Not the least in the world," she said. "I know you, Martin, and I can trust you implicitly."
My heart ached at the words, so softly and warmly spoken. But I laughed again—at myself this time, not at her. Why should she not trust me? I would be as true as steel to her. I loved no one better, and I would take care not to love any one. My word, my honor, my troth, were all plighted to her. Only a scoundrel and a fool would be unfaithful to an engagement like ours.
We walked home together, we three, all contented and all happy. We had a good deal to talk of during the evening, and sat up late. Sundry small events had happened in Guernsey during my six-days' absence, and these were discussed with that charming minuteness with which women canvass family matters. It was midnight before I found myself alone in my own room.
I had half forgotten the crumpled paper in my waistcoat-pocket, but now I smoothed it out before me and pondered over every word. No, there could not be a doubt that it referred to Miss Ollivier. "Bright-brown hair, gray eyes, and delicate features." That exactly corresponded with her appearance. "Blue-silk dress, and seal-skin jacket and hat." It was precisely the dress which Tardif had described. "Fifty pounds reward." That was a large sum to offer, and the inference was that her friends were persons of good means, and anxious for her recovery.
Why should she have strayed from home? That was the question. What possible reason could there have been, strong enough to impel a young and delicately-nurtured girl to run all the risks and dangers of a flight alone and unprotected? Her friends evidently believed that she had not been run away with; there was not the ordinary element of an elopement in this case.
But Miss Ollivier had assured me she had no friends. What did she mean by the word? Here were persons evidently anxious to discover her place of concealment. Were they friends? or could they by any chance be enemies? This is not an age when enmity is very rampant. For my own part, I had not an enemy in the world. Why should this pretty, habitually-obedient, self-controlled girl have any? Most probably it was one of those instances of bitter misunderstanding which sometimes arise in families, and which had driven her to the desperate step of seeking peace and quietness by flight.
Then what ought I to do with this advertisement, thrust, as it would seem, purposely under my notice? If I had not wrapped up the parcel myself at Barbet's, I should have missed seeing it; or if Barbet had picked up any other piece of paper, it would not have come under my eye. A curious concatenation of very trivial circumstances had ended in putting into my hands a clew by which I could unravel all the mystery about my Sark patient. What was I to do with the clew?
I might communicate at once with Messrs. Scott and Brown, giving them the information they had advertised for six months before, and receive a reply, stating that it was no longer valuable to them, or containing an acknowledgment of my claim to the fifty pounds reward. I might sell my knowledge of Miss Ollivier for fifty pounds. In doing so I might render her a great service, by restoring her to her proper sphere in society. But the recollection of Tardif's description of her as looking terrified and hunted recurred vividly to me. The advertisement put her age as twenty-one. I should not have judged her so old myself, especially since her hair had been cut short. But if she was twenty-one, she was old enough to form plans and purposes for herself, and to choose, as far as she could, her own mode of living. I was not prepared to deliver her up, until I knew something more of both sides of the question.
Settled—that if I could see Messrs. Scot and Brown, and learn something about Miss Ollivier's friends, I might be then able to decide whether I would betray her to them but I would not write. Also, that I must see her again first, and once more urge her to have confidence in me. If she would trust me with her secret, I would be as true to her as a friend as I meant to be true to Julia.
Having come to these conclusions, I cut the advertisement carefully out of the crumpled paper, and placed it in my pocket-book with portraits of my mother and Julia, Here were mementos of the three women I cared most for in the world: my mother first, Julia second, and my mysterious patient third.
CHAPTER THE TWELFTH.
STOLEN WATERS ARE SWEET.
I was neither in good spirits nor in good temper during the next few days. My mother and Julia appeared astonished at this, for I was not ordinarily as touchy and fractious as I showed myself immediately after my sojourn in Sark.
I was ashamed of it myself. The new house, which occupied their time and thoughts so agreeably, worried me as it had not done before. I made every possible excuse not to be sent to it, or taken to it, several times a day.
The discussions over Julia's wedding-dress also, which had by no means been decided upon on Saturday afternoon, began to bore me beyond words. Whenever I could, I made my patients a pretext for getting away from them.
One of them, a cousin of my mother—as I have said, we were all cousins of one degree or another—Captain Carey, met me on the quay, a day or two after my return. He had been a commander in the Royal Navy, and, after cruising about in all manner of unhealthy latitudes, had returned to his native island for the recovery of his health. He and his sister lived together in a very pleasant house of their own, in the Vale, about two miles from St. Peter-Port.
He looked yellow enough to be on the verge of an attack of jaundice when he came across me.
"Hallo, Martin!" he cried, "I am delighted to see you, my boy. I've been a little out of sorts lately; but I would not let Johanna send for your father. He does very well to go dawdling after women, and playing with their pulses, but I don't want him dawdling after me. Tell me what you have to say about me, my lad."
He went on to tell me his symptoms, while a sudden idea struck me almost like a flash of genius.
I am nothing of a genius; but at that time new thoughts came into my mind with wonderful rapidity. It was positively necessary that I should run over to Sark this week—I had given my word to Miss Ollivier that I would do so—but I dared not mention such a project at home. My mother and Julia would be up in arms at the first syllable I uttered.