« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
woman there at all, and that this will be a good opportunity of discontinuing it in her own case."
This was just the sort of spiteful, stinging speech Irene could make when she was out of temper. She knew as well as I did that if Arthur could afford to pay a man to play the harmonium he would not have me in the choir, and she had very gladly taken my place during my illness. It was ungenerous of her to speak in such a manner at this time of worry and anxiety.
"But, Arthur, dear," I ventured, "you were a little hard on her this afternoon. It was a generous impulse you must allow. Few would have thought of it."
"I am sorry if I appeared so, Ruth, but somehow I always feel inclined to be hard and stern with Irene Purcell. She has such unbounded self-assurance, and such a craving for excitement, that one lives in perpetual dread of what she will do next. I wish they had never come here. After her father leaving her in our care, and Hunter begging me to keep a strict watch over her, she goes, in spite of all I can say, to Heard's cottage, and persists in her determination to remain there the night. Such a place as that is the worst in the village; the roof, you know, has scarcely a sound place in it, and Heard rarely comes home sober. The poor girl is very delirious, and one or two of the children are already sickening. A girl like Irene will be worse than useless there. Ann Brown and another woman could have done all that is needful until Sister Ida comes, as I trust she will in a day or two. I have seen Sumner, he is as much annoyed as I am. He says Miss Purcell is very strong; it may not do her any harm, but if she should take the infection and convey it to Lucy, it would be all óver with her. If there were any real good to be gained by the work I should be the last to put a stumbling-block in her way; but it is all the same story of self-will and selfishness over again. No good can come of it. She seemed to have taken a better turn the other day. She is so clever in many different ways, that she is twice as dangerous as an ordinary person would be."
"Ordinary she will never be," I exclaimed, "there will never be two Irene Purcells I am sure. It is wonderful how she has tamed that first class, the girls will do anything for her. At the mothers' meeting she can cut out and place better than any one, and her churchwork is beautiful every one says."
"All very true, Ruth, but how long will she carry on either work
steadily, do the dull routine part of it, I mean? Great capabilities are GOD's gifts, to be answered for; used diligently, not frittered away in self-pleasing. I should have a greater respect for Irene Purcell if she persevered steadily in one course, even if it were a very homely one, if it were true and real, than I have for her now with all her dazzling gifts; they are her temptation, and she will not see it. I trust her essay at nursing may not teach her the lesson rather roughly. I have written to Mr. Purcell. I wonder what my lady will think of that ?"
I wondered too. I did love Irene in spite of all her faults. Even after her most wilful moods, a smile and one of her winning speeches would bring me back to her side again.
IRENE remained at the Heards' cottage for two days and nights. They must have formed a sad experience to her, so unaccustomed to the squalid side of poverty, and to the sight of a fellow-creature battling for life, unconscious, and totally unable to prepare for that great change which seemed so likely to steal over her at any moment. I think she felt her utter ignorance and inability to do anything, even to arrange the pillows as comfortably as Ann Brown, whom she had engaged to help her, so much will experience gain over inexperience. At last the Sister came, and taking her place decidedly at the head of affairs, firmly but kindly declined all Irene's offers of personal assistance, gladly availing herself of the money she was so willing to give for necessaries for the sufferers, money which cost her no self-denial to bestow, but which will always do so much in sickness. Mr. Purcell wrote to Arthur, thanking him for what he had done to prevent Irene from risking her health, but saying that he had long regarded her as a self-willed woman, whose wisdom would only be purchased by experience. He had heard from Dr. Sumner, who hoped that no evil might arise from the contact with the fever patients.
I did not see Irene for nearly a week after Sister Ida's arrival. I was just well enough to get to church on Christmas Day, and it was with a sense of trustful dependence we joined in the prayers of the Church, "for all those afflicted or distressed in mind, body, or estate, especially those for whom our prayers are desired," for the fever was not spreading as it had done in former years, and though poor Grace
Heard was still hovering between life and death, there was a good hope that with the many comforts Irene was able to supply, she might still pull through. The younger members of the family were much less severely attacked.
At the early Celebration I saw Irene kneeling just where she did the first service she attended in Leighscombe. She shocked me dreadfully by her hollow-eyed, haggard appearance. The service was choral, and I caught myself listening for her sweet, full voice, but it was silent, and I felt a tinge of sadness creeping over my Christmas joy.
Arthur had not spoken to her since that night at the vicarage. She seemed purposely to have avoided him; and though we had sent to the cottage more than once to ask for the girls, and to fetch little pieces of decoration which Lucy was doing under Irene's guidance, we had received nothing beyond a general message that they were well. The boys we deemed it safer to keep from that end of the village. I fully counted on giving my Christmas greeting after service, when we met, as we almost always did, in the porch, the one who was out first waiting for the other. But now when I passed down the aisle Irene was gone. I hastened out and down the avenue just in time to see her hurrying away in the direction of the Cliff. I felt pained, and the tears gathered in my eyes, and when Arthur joined me a few kind words from him sent them coursing down my cheeks. I had to avoid the greetings of the people, as I did not care that they should see the tears which I was more than half ashamed of shedding. The boys were very anxious to see their dear Irene again, and I had promised if possible to bring her back to breakfast, and great was their lamentation when they found she had not come. Arthur was more vexed than he cared to acknowledge, for in spite of himself he could not feel indifferent to Irene. She had sent to London for camellias, and made a splendid cross for the altar, which she left at the church on Christmas Eve, with some hot-house flowers for the bouquets, and a new set of white markers as a surprise for Arthur.
Lucy came to the late service, driven down by Irene in the ponycarriage, looking so sweet. Her delicate complexion flushed with the drive in the frosty air, and her blue eyes soft with the expression of love and happiness that beamed out of them. Irene looked better than she had done in the morning. I stopped to help Lucy out, and receive her warm embrace, and Christmas wishes. Irene gave me her cheek
to kiss, and when I said in a bantering tone, "You naughty girl, to run away this morning, when you must have known we wanted to thank you for those lovely flowers, and the markers, just what Arthur likes," she replied in a hard tone of voice, "I do not like talking directly after mass, and I thought thanks were not required when gifts were made to the Church."
I felt repelled, and turned off just as Arthur came up. I heard his Christmas greeting, warm, fatherly to Lucy, distant and polite to Irene, and no word of thanks. I knew she would be disappointed, and I was sorry for her; I saw the mood she was in, and could not be vexed with her as I should have been with any one else.
The Celebration was over; Lucy had communicated and returned to her seat, when I heard in the stillness a fall and a low moan, and immediately two or three people came out of their seats. Irene had fainted, and was leaning pale and lifeless on Lucy's shoulder, her book falling from her hand into the aisle. I was quickly by her side, but she had rallied enough to walk out into the porch with our assistance, and I sent one of the boys to the parsonage for wine. She was trembling, and shivered, and begged so earnestly to be driven back to the cottage at once, that we could but yield, though we thought she would have done better to have rested a little at the vicarage.
In the evening Arthur called at the cottage, and found our worst fears realized. Dr. Sumner pronounced it a decided case of the fever, that she must have been ill for days, probably ever since the night at Heard's cottage. He hoped much from her good constitution, and my brother saw clearly that his fears were more on account of Lucy, as she had been so much with Irene up to the time of her faintness, but as yet she was only suffering from the fright and grief. Arthur had seen her pale and trembling, begging piteously that she might be allowed to remain with Irene if only until the nurse came; but it was out of the question, and Arthur had reminded her that some one else must be thought of even before her friend. It was her clear duty to take care of her health for the sake of Sir William Mervyn, and for his sake she at last promised to do so.
It was a sad Christmas for all. Irene had been ill so many days that there was a certain sense of relief in being able to give up the struggle to appear well, and in good spirits, with throbbing brows and aching limbs. But when she found that what she would not allow herself to think possible had really overtaken her, that she had the
fever, she grew most excited, declaring she knew Lucy would take it and die, and that she should have killed her. Everything was said that could possibly soothe her, but in vain; soon delirium set in, and in past scenes of joy and sorrow she seemed to forget the present burden. We wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Purcell, but in the guarded reply we received we read plainly how truly the girls were orphans. Mrs. Purcell said she knew we might be relied on to give them the fullest particulars of the dear girl's unfortunate illness, her coming would be quite useless, as there was such an efficient nurse. We were relieved
that she stayed away, but still her letter struck a chill, there was no heart in it. Sir William Mervyn was beguiling, as best he might, his weary months of waiting for his bride, in a tour through out-of-the-way regions on the continent, where letters found him at comparatively rare intervals, so he was spared the suspense he would otherwise have endured. I longed to be with them at the cottage, but had I done so I must have cut myself off entirely from my home duties, and it was decided that I had better not.
Some weeks passed of alternating hope and fear, and then Irene began to improve decidedly. She had an excellent constitution, and though she would be delicate for a long while there was no reason why she should not eventually be as strong as ever. Her first thought on returning consciousness was for Lucy, and when she heard she was as well as usual she began to rally at once. The trouble seemed to have rolled away like a dark cloud, and I was once more able to renew my frequent visits to the cottage. The village was almost entirely free from fever now, and Grace Heard was gone to a convalescent home at Irene's expense, from which we hoped she would return in a month able to resume her work and many cares, but it was only a fitful gleam of sunshine, before the full burst of the storm.
A day had passed without my having seen the girls, as Edgar was rather ailing, and I remained at home to look after him. I was sitting in the gloaming with the little fellow on my knee when there was a hurried ring at the bell, and Dr. Sumner was shown in.
Your brother is out, I hear," he said, "I am come to bring you bad news from the cottage. I want one of you to write to the Purcells at once, for this is a serious matter."
Oh! don't say Lucy has the fever," I exclaimed, "it would be too dreadful."
"I wish I could say no," he replied, sadly, "but it is too true, the