Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
"AND TO THE VIEWLESS SHADES HER SPIRIT FLED."
It was a habit with the two little girls, when the weather was bad and they could not ramble far afield in the spacious park, to take their exercise anywhere they could about the old rambling house, chasing each other up and down the corridors, skipping and dancing in the great unused reception-rooms, penetrating into every nook and corner, fearless, inquisitive, full of life and fun; but the sport which they enjoyed most of all was a game of hide-and-seek in the offices, the wood-sheds, and breweries, and disused coach-houses, kennels, and stabling. This was their sovereign domain, a region in which no one had ever interfered with their rights. Here they could be as noisy and as boisterous as they pleased, could give full indulgence to the riotous spirits of childhood. Mrs. Bridget was a kind nurse, but she was by no means a watchful one. The doctor had told her that it was good for children to run wild, most especially for little Rena, whose brain was in advance of her years; and Bridget acted upon this advice in a very liberal spirit. She was an arrant gossip, and would spend hours in the kitchen, with her arms folded in her apron, talking to the cook and housemaids, while her charges amused themselves as they listed in the house, or in the offices outside the house.
"They can't come to any harm," said Bridget. "They are not like mischievous boys, who would go climbing out of windows and getting into dangerous places. My little dears only run about and play prettily together."
A shout, a rush of little feet, and a peal of childish laughter in the passage outside the great stone kitchen would emphasise Bridget's remark.
No, they had never come to any harm in those rambling desolate stables, brewhouses, and wood-houses, till about three days after Roderick Layburne's departure, when, in a grand game of hide-and-seek, which had lasted over an hour, Linda, flushed and breathless with exercise and excitement, crept into the room which the sick man had occupied, and seated herself to rest upon the bed he had lain upon for fourteen weary days and fourteen restless nights.
She wondered a little at the tokens of recent occupation, such as she had never seen in any of these rooms before: ashes in the grate, a pipkin on one hob and a saucepan on the other, empty cups and jugs on a little table, and blankets on the bed where she was sitting.
She was too young to reason upon these evidences.
"Some one lives here," she told herself simply, but had no fear of the unknown personage. She waited so long for Rena to discover her hiding-place that she fell asleep at last, nestling down among those fever-tainted blankets. Rena found her there slumbering soundly, half an hour later, after having examined every hole and corner in her search, and crying with vexation at the difficulty of the quest.
It was not till ten days later that the evil result began to show itself. First Linda began to droop, and then Rena, each falling ill with exactly the same symptoms. The old doctor shook his head solemnly, "Scarlet fever, with the rash suppressed," he pronounced like an oracle; and immediately began to starve and to physic them, almost as if he were voluntarily working in unison with that deadly fever which was burning up their young blood.
The Squire was in an agony when he heard of his daughter's danger. He had seemed a careless and an indifferent father, and had seen very little of his child in those infantile years. He had no sympathy with childhood, could not understand its ways and ideas, knew not what to say to his little daughter or how to amuse her. It had been sufficient for him to know that she was near at hand, and that she was thriving.
But at the idea of peril he was like a madman. Barbara Layburne was surprised at the violence of his feelings. She looked at him with a curious air of suppressed cynicism.
"I had no idea you were so wrapped up in that baby," she said.
"Then you might have known as much. What else have I in this world to care for – to toil for – "
"Pray be reasonable, Mr. Bosworth. We all know that you love money for its own sake – not for those who are to come after you."
"Yes, but to know that when I am gone my wealth must be scattered to the four winds – that no grandchildren of mine will inherit all that I have slaved for; that no grandson of mine will assume my name, and hand it down to his son with the wealth. I have amassed, and which he should increase! Money fructifies of itself when there is but common prudence in the possessor. It is to my daughter's children I look for the reward of all my toils, the perpetuation of my name: and if she dies, the cord snaps, and all is over. I shall have to leave my money to a hospital or an almshouse. Horrid thought!"
"Horrid thought, indeed, for Squire Bosworth to contemplate his fortune as a means of blessing to the helpless!"
"You have a scathing tongue, Mrs. Barbara, and I sometimes think you have a malignant mind to set the tongue wagging. I never met but one woman who was true and pure and noble to the heart's core, and that was the sweet saint whom Fate snatched away from me."
"And who never loved you," sneered Barbara. "That is to the credit of her wisdom."
"Ay; but she was better to me than the women who have pretended to love me – women whose love has been a curse. Do not speak of her. Your lips befoul her."
And then he went to the chamber where the children were lying in their two little beds side by side. It had been impossible to part them; they would have fretted themselves to death in severance. And as they were both sick of the same fever, there seemed no need for keeping them in separate rooms.
The windows were curtained, the room kept in semi-darkness, as was the fashion in those days. Invalids were supposed to thrive best in the gloom. Every breath of air was excluded, and a large fire burned merrily in the grate, where divers messes and potions were stewing. An odour of drugs pervaded the room. The Squire could hardly draw his breath in that stifling atmosphere. But fresh air in a fever! Heaven forbid!
Bosworth sat by his child's bedside for a few minutes, holding the little burning hand in his, suffering an agony of helplessness and apprehension. What could his hoards do for her? Crœsus himself could not have bought an hour's respite for the little life that seemed ebbing away. How thick and laboured was her breathing!
"Surely she would do better with more air," said her father; but the nurses assured him that a puff of cold wind would be deadly. They dared not open a window. The nurses were Bridget and a woman from the village, who had a reputation for skill in all diseases. But the chief nurse was Barbara Layburne, who had taken up her abode in a room adjoining the sick-chamber, and who scarcely ceased from her watching by day or night.
She had heard the history of that fatal game at hide-and-seek, and how Rena had discovered Linda fast asleep on a bed in one of the rooms in the deserted stable. She knew too well what the fever meant, with its suppressed eruption – knew that she was to blame for the evil, by her carelessness after the sick man's departure. She had kept so close in her own den, had taken so little notice of the children, that she had never known of their occasional inroads upon the disused stables. Had she known more of children's ways, she would have known that it is just in such deserted regions that they love to play. Imagination is free amidst emptiness and solitude; and a child's fancy will convert a barn or a wood-shed into an enchanted palace.
"I will post to London and get the cleverest doctor in the town," exclaimed Bosworth.
It was the one only thing his money could do for that perishing child. He bent down and kissed the dry lips, inhaling the putrid breath, almost wishing that it might poison him if she were not to recover, and that they two might be laid in the same grave with the young mother. And then he left the sick-room, ordered a horse for himself, and another for his groom. The groom was to gallop on ahead to the market-town, and order a post-chaise to be in readiness for his master. The Squire was in London soon after nightfall, and at his club, inquiring for the doctor who was cleverest in fever cases. He was told of Dr. Denbigh in Covent Garden, a youngish man, but a great authority on fevers; and to Covent Garden he went between eleven o'clock and midnight.
Dr. Denbigh was a student, and given to working late. He answered the door himself, in dressing-gown and slippers, and on the Squire's urgent entreaty consented to start at once, or as soon as post-horses could be got ready. He could return in the morning early enough to see his gratis patients, who came to him in flocks. He was known in all the vilest slums and alleys of London, and was the beloved of the London poor.
It was a three hours' journey, with good horses and short stages, to Fairmile Court; and it was the dead of the night when Bosworth and the physician stole softly into the children's sick-chamber, where nurse Bridget was dozing in her armchair, while Mrs. Layburne sat bolt upright beside Rena's bed, watching the child's troubled slumbers.
"What an atmosphere!" cried Dr. Denbigh. "Draw back those curtains, madam, if you please; open yonder window."
"The doctor forbade us to open door or window."
"That is a fine old-fashioned style of treatment, madam, which has helped to people our churchyards. You needn't be afraid of the night air. It is a fine dry night, and as wholesome as the day. Pray let those poor children have some fresh air."
Barbara Layburne obeyed, deeming herself the unwilling accessory to a murder. Bridget had rubbed her eyes, and was staring wonderingly at the strange doctor. The village nurse was snoring rhythmically in an adjoining room.
Dr. Denbigh seated himself between the two little beds, and examined the sufferers, each in turn, with ineffable gentleness, with thoughtful patient care.
"The symptoms are exactly the same," he said gravely, "but they are severest here."
It was on Rena that his hand rested. The Squire groaned aloud.
"Shall I lose her?" he asked. "She is my all."
"The child is very ill. What does your doctor call the malady?"
"Scarlet fever! Why, there is no rash!"
"He tells me that in some cases the rash does not appear – in some of the worst cases."
"This is no scarlet fever, sir. It is typhus – commonly called gaol fever – distinctly marked. It is a low form of putrid fever. Your child and her companion must have been visiting some of the poor folks' cottages, where the disease is often found."
"They have not been beyond the park-gates. You have not taken them among the cottagers, have you, Bridget? You have not disobeyed my strict orders?"
"Never, sir. The little dears will tell you themselves, when they have got their senses back, that I never took them nowheres."
"Have you had any fever case lately among your servants, indoors or out?"
"Mrs. Layburne, yonder, can answer that question better than I."
"No, there has been no such illness," said Barbara.
"Strange," said the doctor; "the fever is gaol fever, and no other."
He wrote a prescription, ordered an entire change of treatment: wine, brandy, the strongest soup that could be made – a chicken boiled down to a breakfast-cupful of broth – and, above all, cleanliness and fresh air. He gave many directions for the comfort of the children, and left within the hour of his arrival, promising to come again in three days, when he would confer with the local doctor. He would write fully to that gentleman next morning, to explain his change of treatment.
"I have no doubt I shall induce him to concur with me," he said.
Mr. Bosworth followed him to the chaise.
"Tell me the truth, for God's sake," he said. "Is there any hope for my child?"
The physician shook his head with a sorrowful air.
"She is very ill; they are both dangerously ill," he answered. "I would not trifle with you for worlds. You are a man, and can meet misfortune with courage and firmness. I doubt if either of those children will recover; but I will do my utmost to save both. If the nurses follow out my instructions exactly, there may be a change for the better within forty-eight hours; if not, the case is hopeless. I would have you prepared for the worst."
They clasped hands and parted. It was some hours before Roland Bosworth went back to the house. He roamed about the park in the cold starry night, brooding over past and future. For the last fifteen years he had given himself up to the pursuit of money for its own sake. He had haunted the City and the Exchange; he had speculated successfully in many a hazardous enterprise at home and abroad. At a period when speculation was but a science in the bud, he had shown himself far in advance of his class. He had added thousand to thousand, gloating over every increase of his capital, every lucky transaction on 'Change; and now it dawned upon him all at once that in the very pursuit of wealth he had lost the faculty for enjoying it; that he had fallen unawares into the miser's sordid habits – had lost all gusto for pleasure, all delight in life. Nothing remained to him but the abstract idea of wealth, and the knowledge that he could leave it behind him as a monument of his own individual greatness when he should be dust. He could only thus leave it – only secure his grip upon the future – through that little child who lay dying yonder within those dimly-lighted windows. Again and again during those melancholy hours he had drawn near the house, had stood for a little while below those lighted windows, looking up at the open lattice, and listening for some sound from within. But there had been nothing – a solemn stillness, as it were the silence of death.
And now, when the first sign of daybreak showed cold and pale above the eastern side of the park, a long gray streak against which the topmost boughs of oak and elm showed inky black, Mr. Bosworth went back to the house from a still wider circuit, and looked up again at the open window. Suddenly as he stood there a long shrill shriek rose on the silent air like a wild appeal to heaven; and then another and another shriek; and then a burst of passionate sobbing.
"It means death," said the Squire, nerving himself like a stoic. "The end has come quickly."
It was Bridget who had screamed. She was sitting on the floor with one of the children on her lap, dead. A handkerchief had been hastily flung over the dead face, upon which Bridget's tears were streaming. Barbara Layburne sat beside the other bed, Rena's bed, soothing the little sufferer.
The Squire stood on the threshold.
"Is my child still alive?" he asked, hardly daring to enter that room of horror.
"Yes. She is a shade better, I think," answered Barbara; "the cold lotions have relieved her head. Poor little Linda changed for the worse soon after the doctor left. We have had a terrible night with her. Her struggling and restlessness at the last were awful. We could not hold her in her bed, and she died in Bridget's arms ten minutes ago."
"O my darling, my darling, my precious pet!" wailed the nurse, with her face bent over that marble face under the handkerchief.
Roland Bosworth gave a long sigh, significant of intense relief; yet this was but a reprieve after all, perhaps. One blossom had withered and fallen from the stem: the other would follow.
"Dr. Denbigh told me that my child was in more imminent danger than the other," he said.
"Ay, but fevers are so capricious," answered Barbara, calm and unshaken in this hour of sorrow, "and with children no one can be sure of anything. Yesterday Rena seemed the worst, but after Dr. Denbigh left Linda began to sink rapidly. We gave her brandy and beaten eggs at half-hour intervals; we cut off her hair and applied the cooling lotion to her head; it was not for want of care that she died."
"What will Rena do without her?" exclaimed the Squire, thinking more of the living than the dead. Linda had never been more to him than a chattel – something bought for his daughter's pleasure.
He went over to the bed, and sat beside it in the faint gray morning light. The candles had guttered and burnt low in the sockets of the massive old silver candlesticks. The morning looked in at the open casement, pale and cold.
They had cropped the child's golden hair close to her head. Pinched with illness and thus shorn of its luxuriant curls, the whole character of the face seemed altered.
"Why did you cut off her hair?" asked the Squire.
"It was by the doctor's orders. Did not you hear him tell us?"
"Ay, to be sure. My wits were wool-gathering."
He bent down and kissed the fevered lips as he had done before. The child was lying in a kind of stupor, neither sleep nor waking.
"Try to save her for me," said Bosworth, as he rose and left the room.
The village nurse was still asleep in the next room; she had watched two nights running, and was indemnifying herself for those two vigils. Bridget and Barbara laid out their dead in another room before they awakened the nurse. The doctor came at nine o'clock, heard what Dr. Denbigh had said, and shrugged his shoulders unbelievingly. He was disposed to ascribe Linda's death to that most reckless opening of a window between midnight and morning. He even affected to disapprove of those shorn tresses which lay in a golden heap upon the dressing-table, Linda's and Rena's so near in tint that it was not easy to distinguish one from the other.
"We shall see the effect of this new-fangled treatment," he said, looking at the prescription. "If Squire Bosworth were a man of society, he would not have committed such a breach of manners as to post off to town and bring down a strange doctor without conferring with me."
"He wanted to save his child," said Barbara.
"That is what we all want, madam; but it might just as well be done in accordance with professional etiquette," replied the doctor.
Although huffed by the Squire's conduct, he yet deigned to follow out Dr. Denbigh's treatment: and by a strict adherence to those instructions Rena began visibly to improve, and when the physician come to Fairmile on the third day he was able to give a favourable verdict.
"Your daughter is decidedly better," he said. "I am very sorry we lost her little companion. She was a pretty child – more robust than this one, and, as I thought, in less danger; but these little lives hang by the flimsiest thread."
The child who had been called Belinda was buried in the same churchyard where her unknown father lay in his pauper's grave; but the Squire showed himself unwontedly liberal, insomuch that he ordered a headstone to mark the child's resting-place – a stone upon which this inscription was cut at his own particular order:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
A CHILD OF FIVE YEARS,
WHO WAS FOR THREE YEARS THE BELOVED COMPANION OF
Obit October 29, 1712
Irene recovered, but her recovery was of the slowest. The loss of her playfellow retarded her convalescence. She sorrowed with a deeper sorrow than children are wont to feel at the loss of those they love. Fever and delirium hung upon her for nearly a month after her child-friend had been carried to Flamestead churchyard. Dr. Denbigh declared the case one of the most interesting and the most difficult that had come within his experience. There was a period in the history of the case when he began to fear for the little patient's mind; and even after convalescence her memory was found to be weakened, and there were moments of actual hallucination.
"She owes her life, under Providence, to Mrs. Bridget's excellent nursing," said Dr. Denbigh – commendation which brought sudden tears to Bridget's eyes. This praise was thoroughly deserved, for the nurse had devoted herself to her duties with untiring devotion, and had scarcely enjoyed a night's sleep during the four weary weeks of uncertainty that followed Linda's funeral. She grieved for the child that was gone with a deeper sorrow than might have been anticipated, seeing that her own particular charge, the child she had nursed from its birth, had been given back to her as if from the very jaws of death. She did her duty to the survivor with unstinted devotion; but it would have almost seemed that her heart was in the grave of that child which had been taken.
Squire Bosworth's conduct in many of the relations of life changed in a marked degree after this period of peril, in which his child's life, and as it were his own fate, had trembled in the balance. He became a more affectionate father, a better landlord, and a kinder master. He still appeared on 'Change every week, still speculated and laboured for the increase of his vast fortune, still hoarded and calculated and hung fondly over his piles of debentures and securities, mortgages and New River shares. The very bent and habit of his mind was too deeply engrained in him to be changed at forty years of age; but he became less miserly in many things, and he placed his establishment upon a more liberal footing, although retaining Mrs. Layburne at the head of affairs. For his daughter he spared nothing. He gave her toys, lap-dogs, and a pony, and never allowed a day to pass while he was at Fairmile without spending some portion of it in the little girl's society. For the rest he was as much a recluse as ever, shunning all his neighbours, and never sharing in any of those field-sports which are, and ever have been, the chief bond of union between country gentlemen.