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All I heard from Arthur was that he thought she ought to have a little change. The next day she told me she had written to Mr. Hunter to ask him to fulfil his promise and get the sisters of Newtown to receive her for a fortnight. "Not," she added, "that I may help them, but that they may help me a little, for I need their services quite as much as some of their people; and Mr. Melville says my going will not be selfish, that you will look after Lucy. I am sure he thinks I have been a monster of selfishness all my life, and I do not think he would recommend a fresh step in that direction, so if I go it will be with a clear conscience."
Of course she went; and Lucy and I felt sure she would come back little short of an angel. "If she would be happy and forget Egerton's desertion we should have all we want, only it seems selfish in me to say so when I have my own dear, true William, and may make him happy all my life. Don't you think she will find some one worthy of her, dear Miss Melville?" And Lucy looked as though she thought to be worthy of her friend was the highest possible praise to bestow on any man.
I replied with a confident smile, that I had no doubt a bright future lay before them both, which they would prize all the more for this time of anxiety.
A FORTNIGHT passed, and Irene came back quiet, gentle, and indescribably sweet, as she could so well be when she chose. I expected fully each day to hear that she had decided to become a religious after Lucy's marriage, but I was disappointed. The fortnight in the Home, the fresh start, the earnest prayers offered for her, had had their fruits. She was humbled, sobered in her estimation of her own powers. She had learnt already how dear her own will was to her, and how selfishness had marred her whole life. But finding out one's faults and overcoming them are two different things. Irene had taken the one step, but she had much to do and suffer before she attained the other. Instead of being drawn towards the life of a religious, by the fortnight she had spent at Newtown, she seemed to have received an impression of its true aspect which made her shrink from embracing it. The seclusion, the services, the privileges, in other words the luxuries of the life she liked well enough; but its deeper, truer meaning, the giving up of all for CHRIST, the keeping nothing back, this she
realized was the true blessedness of a Sister's life, and from this she recoiled. In the fortnight she had seen enough with her quickness of perception to assure her, that, as she now was, she would be as restless in a sisterhood as in the world. Many things would be hard and repulsive to her disposition that to others would be comparatively easy. She found, for instance, nothing more difficult than to do simply what she was told; and again she saw clearly that work which was at first exciting from its novelty would soon grow into a daily routine, and become tame and hard, more than she could endure. Seeing and feeling this she felt humbled and sad. She left the future to care for itself, and very wisely set herself to improve the present.
Lucy daily grew stronger, and Irene was most unselfish in her efforts to enter fully into her bright future. It was arranged that Lucy should stay at Leighscombe until the end of April, then return to Lawton, and complete the arrangements for her marriage, which was to take place in the early part of June. After the marriage they were to make a short tour on the continent, and then return to their home, where Irene had promised to pay them a long visit.
About the end of November my health, for a great wonder, became uncertain, and I was unable to do my usual amount of work. It seemed providential on Irene's account, for having plenty to do was her great safeguard, and I was really thankful to allow much of my burden to rest on her shoulders. Arthur was more willing now that she should take a prominent part in the parish work, as he really pitied her, and saw she was sincere in trying to do right; but she was often a great trial to his patience. She would do too much, and what did more harm still, talk too much. She was his warm partisan, but her own views being so very pronounced, and her outward profession of them so decided, she did his influence with some people more harm than good. Yet she was so far right in all she said and did, that it resolved itself into a mere question of tact and expediency, which could not be commented upon by Arthur at any rate.
One day, quite at the end of Advent, when I was still a prisoner to the house, Irene and Arthur came from the church together looking anxious and excited. I soon found out the cause. A case of typhus fever had broken out in one of the cottages in the oldest part of the village down by the beach, only a quarter of a mile from Cliff Cottage. It was an epidemic to which we were subject from time to time, owing to the imperfect drainage, and over-crowding of that portion of
the parish which was inhabited by the poorest of the fishermen. When once this unwelcome visitor appeared it rarely left us until it had decimated that locality, and caused an amount of suffering very painful to contemplate. Since the last outbreak much had been done to improve the condition of the people, and we hoped we had seen the last of it, as we had escaped a visitation for five years. Irene had seen the sufferer, a poor girl who got her living as a dressmaker, and took care of six motherless brothers and sisters, dependent on the very precarious earnings of the father, an unsteady fisherman. She had given them some relief, and had waited after the service to tell Arthur of the case, and hear what he wished done. One or two of the children were ailing; and no doubt it would spread. Irene's great wish was to go down to the cottage and nurse them herself. She had no fear of infection, the danger was just the excitement and stimulant she wanted. She had merely mentioned her intention to Arthur without expecting the least opposition. I was almost inclined to be annoyed with him myself when I found he threw cold water on the scheme in the most decided manner. It seemed to me, at first, so noble and unselfish of her to think of such a plan.
"But Mr. Melville, why may I not go?" she urged. "They have no one to attend on them. You say you will send for a Sister, but even if you can get one, two days at least must elapse before she can be on the spot. It is too late for to-day's post, and what are they to do in the meantime ?"
"My dear Miss Purcell, what can you know of nursing? And you have no idea of the annoyances and discomforts of a night in Heard's cottage. A trained Sister would find it hard, and you would be utterly useless. Believe me, though you may not know it, this would be a step backwards, a clear act of self-will. Your father would certainly disapprove of it, and it is quite against my wish and consent. You will make yourself ill, and unfit for those duties which you are able to fulfil, while a woman from the village for some small remuneration would do all that is necessary for a little while at the cottage. If the disease spreads, we shall, I hope, be able to get a Sister to come to us who will manage everything well, and your help in a pecuniary sense will be of untold advantage to the sufferers; as we were sadly cramped the last time for means to procure nourishment in sufficient quantities. I would rather you did not see Grace again. Believe me the truest self-denial will be to yield to those who are set over you. I have no
right to desire you not to go, but your own good sense will I am sure
keep you away."
I dared not say a word. Such a speech from Arthur would have annihilated me at once. But Irene was differently constituted. At first she seemed inclined to yield, but soon her colour rose, her grey eyes lost their softness, and assumed the cold steely look which only grey eyes can wear, and in a half-satirical, half-haughty manner she rejoined, "I am sorry, Mr. Melville, that you will not bid me 'GOD speed;' but I fail to see the self-denial in taking care of myself when the comfort of a suffering fellow-creature is at stake. I should not like to be nursed by any of the old women in the village, and Grace Heard shall not be. I have no home claims that need make me so very cautious; why should I be more delicate than the Sisters? I should have the same motive to support me."
"They would be meeting danger in the path of duty, you would not, Miss Purcell." With these words, said in his sternest tones, Arthur left the room, took his hat and umbrella from the hall table and passed the window, his steps bent towards the village on the cliff.
Irene stood up and watched him. I believe at that moment she hated him. His quiet common-sense view of things irritated her excitable imaginative temperament; while the thorough reality and consistency of his whole life and character compelled her reverence and esteem. She had an unpleasant consciousness that he read her character more truly than any one else. She believed her motives to be quite pure when she pictured herself with a thrill of pleasure, the devoted untiring nurse of a village struck down with fever. She became once more a heroine to herself; but the view Arthur took of the matter, and the light in which he presented it dissipated the illusion, and she did not thank him for it. The common-place reality lifted her completely off her pedestal. Any one could give a few pounds more or less, what was there remarkable in that? She looked out of the window in silence for a few minutes, I watching the handsome, expressive face anxiously for some sign of relenting, but in vain. At last she turned towards me with the cold, defiant expression I had hoped never to see again, and kissing me with reckless earnestness said, "Good-bye, you dear steady-going old soul, I shall be sent to Coventry for my disobedience I suppose, and not allowed to pollute the sacred precincts of the vicarage, so we shall not meet for days; but
n'importe, I shall follow my own notions of right and wrong for once."
I gave her an appealing look which she would not meet, words I knew too well would be useless, and soon she left, battling with the wintry wind and thick drizzling rain.
It was quite late when Arthur came in, cold and worried, and silent, as he always was at such times. I asked no questions, knowing that as much as he chose to tell me would come out when the children were gone to bed, and we had our chat by the fire, over the parish, its wants and difficulties. That night he sat in silence so long that I drew my chair close to his, and put my hand on his arm, which rested on the table as he supported his head on it, and looked absently into the fire.
"Are matters so very bad at the Cliff?" I ventured to ask. I knew he was not vexed at my questioning him, for he took his arm off the table and put it around my waist, drawing me towards him with a smile and a caress all the more valued because so rare.
He answered my question by asking me another, "Are you better, little woman, able to take your own work on Christmas Day ?"
“Why, Arthur?” I asked, Christmas Day is not until to-morrow week, and Irene has practised with the choir. I thought it would be better, if you did not object, that she should play instead of me, but I hope to be out nevertheless. Her touch is so much better than mine that the exchange will be all gain."
"Miss Purcell has constituted herself village nurse, and I much doubt, however great her capabilities, her power of fulfilling so many duties at the same time; besides it might not be safe for the choir.”
“As to that,” I rejoined, “you know Dr. Sumner says the infection is only caught by actual contact with the disease; but of course if you wish it I could play. Indeed I might be able to take the practice to-morrow."
"No, no," he exclaimed, "take care of yourself. You can have the choir here for a little while, and I can manage myself for the daily services."
“But,” I persisted, "what of Irene? she will not give up coming to church again, will she?”
He smiled satirically, and replied, "I fancy she has excitement enough for the time. She tells me she shall come to church, but not into the choir; that she has long thought it most incorrect to have a