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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPaul Faber, Surgeon - Chapter 53. My Lady's Chamber
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Paul Faber, Surgeon - Chapter 53. My Lady's Chamber Post by :dabell Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2801

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Paul Faber, Surgeon - Chapter 53. My Lady's Chamber


When Faber entered, a dim, rosy light from drawn window-curtains filled the air; he could see little more than his way to the bed. Dorothy was in terror lest the discovery he must presently make, should unnerve the husband for what might be required of the doctor. But Juliet kept her face turned aside, and a word from the nurse let him know at once what was necessary. He turned to Dorothy, and said,

"I must send my man home to fetch me something;" then to the nurse, and said, "Go on as you are doing;" then once more to Dorothy, saying, "Come with me, Miss Drake: I want writing things."

He led the way from the room, and Dorothy followed. But scarcely were they in the passage, when the little man rose and met them. Faber would have pushed past him, annoyed, but Polwarth held out a little phial to him.

"Perhaps that is what you want, sir," he said.

The doctor caught it hastily, almost angrily, from his hand, looked at it, uncorked it, and put it to his nose.

"Thank you," he said, "this is just what I wanted," and returned instantly to the chamber.

The little man resumed his patient seat on the side, breathing heavily. Ten minutes of utter silence followed. Then Dorothy passed him with a note in her hand, and hurried down the stair. The next instant Polwarth heard the sound of Niger's hoofs tearing up the slope behind the house.

"I have got some more medicines here, Miss Drake," he said, when she reappeared on the stair.

As he spoke he brought out phial after phial, as if his pockets widened out below into the mysterious recesses of the earth to which as a gnome he belonged. Dorothy, however, told him it was not a medicine the doctor wanted now, but something else, she did not know what. Her face was dreadfully white, but as calm as an icefield. She went back into the room, and Polwarth sat down again.

Not more than twenty minutes had passed when he heard again the soft thunder of Niger's hoofs upon the sward; and in a minute more up came Lisbeth, carrying a little morocco case, which she left at the door of the room.

Then an hour passed, during which he heard nothing. He sat motionless, and his troubled lungs grew quiet.

Suddenly he heard Dorothy's step behind him, and rose.

"You had better come down stairs with me," she said, in a voice he scarcely knew, and her face looked almost as if she had herself passed through a terrible illness.

"How is the poor lady?" he asked.

"The immediate danger is over, the doctor says, but he seems in great doubt. He has sent me away. Come with me: I want you to have a glass of wine."

"Has he recognized her?"

"I do not know. I haven't seen any sign of it yet. But the room is dark.--We can talk better below."

"I am in want of nothing, my dear lady," said Polwarth. "I should much prefer staying here--if you will permit me. There is no knowing when I might be of service. I am far from unused to sick chambers."

"Do as you please, Mr. Polwarth," said Dorothy, and going down the stair, went into the garden.

Once more Polwarth resumed his seat.

There came the noise of a heavy fall, which shook him where he sat. He started up, went to the door of the chamber, listened a moment, heard a hurried step and the sweeping of garments, and making no more scruple, opened it and looked in.

All was silent, and the room was so dark he could see nothing. Presently, however, he descried, in the middle of the floor, a prostrate figure that could only be the doctor, for plainly it was the nurse on her knees by him. He glanced toward the bed. There all was still.

"She is gone!" he thought with himself; "and the poor fellow has discovered who she was!"

He went in.

"Have you no brandy?" he said to the nurse.

"On that table," she answered.

"Lay his head down, and fetch it."

Notwithstanding his appearance, the nurse obeyed: she knew the doctor required brandy, but had lost her presence of mind.

Polwarth took his hand. The pulse had vanished--and no wonder! Once more, utterly careless of himself, had the healer drained his own life-spring to supply that of his patient--knowing as little now what that patient was to him as he knew then what she was going to be. A thrill had indeed shot to his heart at the touch of her hand, scarcely alive as it was, when first he felt her pulse; what he saw of her averted face through the folded shadows of pillows and curtains both of window and bed, woke wild suggestions; as he bared her arm, he almost gave a cry: it was fortunate that there was not light enough to show the scar of his own lancet; but, always at any critical moment self-possessed to coldness, he schooled himself now with sternest severity. He insisted to himself that he was in mortal danger of being fooled by his imagination--that a certain indelible imprint on his brain had begun to phosphoresce. If he did not banish the fancies crowding to overwhelm him, his patient's life, and probably his own reason as well, would be the penalty. Therefore, with will obstinately strained, he kept his eyes turned from the face of the woman, drawn to it as they were even by the terror of what his fancy might there show him, and held to his duty in spite of growing agony. His brain, he said to himself, was so fearfully excited, that he must not trust his senses: they would reflect from within, instead of transmitting from without. And victoriously did he rule, until, all the life he had in gift being exhausted, his brain, deserted by his heart, gave way, and when he turned from the bed, all but unconscious, he could only stagger a pace or two, and fell like one dead.

Polwarth got some brandy into his mouth with a teaspoon. In about a minute, his heart began to beat.

"I must open another vein," he murmured as if in a dream.

When he had swallowed a third teaspoonful, he lifted his eyelids in a dreary kind of way, saw Polwarth, and remembered that he had something to attend to--a patient at the moment on his hands, probably--he could not tell.

"Tut! give me a wine-glass of the stuff," he said.

Polwarth obeyed. The moment he swallowed it, he rose, rubbing his forehead as if trying to remember, and mechanically turned toward the bed. The nurse, afraid he might not yet know what he was about, stepped between, saying softly,

"She is asleep, sir, and breathing quietly."

"Thank God!" he whispered with a sigh, and turning to a couch, laid himself gently upon it.

The nurse looked at Polwarth, as much as to say: "Who is to take the command now?"

"I shall be outside, nurse: call me if I can be useful to you," he replied to the glance, and withdrew to his watch on the top of the stair.

After about a quarter of an hour, the nurse came out.

"Do you want me?" said Polwarth, rising hastily.

"No, sir," she answered. "The doctor says all immediate danger is over, and he requires nobody with him. I am going to look after my baby. And please, sir, nobody is to go in, for he says she must not be disturbed. The slightest noise might spoil every thing: she must sleep now all she can."

"Very well," said Polwarth, and sat down again.

The day went on; the sun went down; the shadows deepened; and not a sound came from the room. Again and again Dorothy came and peeped up the stair, but seeing the little man at his post, like Zacchaeus up the sycamore, was satisfied, and withdrew. But at length Polwarth bethought him that Ruth would be anxious, and rose reluctantly. The same instant the door opened, and Faber appeared. He looked very pale and worn, almost haggard.

"Would you call Miss Drake?" he said.

Polwarth went, and following Dorothy up the stair again, heard what Faber said.

"She is sleeping beautifully, but I dare not leave her. I must sit up with her to-night. Send my man to tell my assistant that I shall not be home. Could you let me have something to eat, and you take my place? And there is Polwarth! _he has earned his dinner, if any one has. I do believe we owe the poor lady's life to him."

Dorothy ran to give the message and her own orders. Polwarth begged she would tell the groom to say to Ruth as he passed that all was well; and when the meal was ready, joined Faber.

It was speedily over, for the doctor seemed anxious to be again with his patient. Then Dorothy went to Polwarth. Both were full of the same question: had Faber recognized his wife or not? Neither had come to a certain conclusion. Dorothy thought he had, but that he was too hard and proud to show it; Polwarth thought he had not, but had been powerfully reminded of her. He had been talking strangely, he said, during their dinner, and had drunk a good deal of wine in a hurried way.

Polwarth's conclusion was correct: it was with an excitement almost insane, and a pleasure the more sorrowful that he was aware of its transientness, a pleasure now mingling, now alternating with utter despair, that Faber returned to sit in the darkened chamber, watching the woman who with such sweet torture reminded him of her whom he had lost. What a strange, unfathomable thing is the pleasure given us by a likeness! It is one of the mysteries of our humanity. Now she had seemed more, now less like his Juliet; but all the time he could see her at best only very partially. Ever since his fall, his sight had been weak, especially in twilight, and even when, once or twice, he stood over her as she slept, and strained his eyes to their utmost, he could not tell what he saw. For, in the hope that, by the time it did come, its way would have been prepared by a host of foregone thoughts, Dorothy had schemed to delay as much as she could the discovery which she trusted in her heart must come at last; and had therefore contrived, not by drawn curtains merely, but by closed Venetian shutters as well, to darken the room greatly. And now he had no light but a small lamp, with a shade.

He had taken a book with him, but it was little he read that night. At almost regular intervals he rose to see how his patient fared. She was still floating in the twilight shallows of death, whether softly drifting on the ebb-tide of sleep, out into the open sea, or, on its flow, again up the river of life, he could not yet tell. Once the nurse entered the room to see if any thing were wanted. Faber lifted his head, and motioned her angrily away, making no ghost of a sound. The night wore on, and still she slept. In his sleepless and bloodless brain strangest thoughts and feelings went and came. The scents of old roses, the stings of old sins, awoke and vanished, like the pulsing of fire-flies. But even now he was the watcher of his own moods; and when among the rest the thought would come: "What if this _should be my own Juliet! Do not time and place agree with the possibility?" and for a moment life seemed as if it would burst into the very madness of delight, ever and again his common sense drove him to conclude that his imagination was fooling him. He dared not yield to the intoxicating idea. If he did, he would be like a man drinking poison, well knowing that every sip, in itself a delight, brought him a step nearer to agony and death! When she should wake, and he let the light fall upon her face, he knew--so he said to himself--he _knew the likeness would vanish in an appalling unlikeness, a mockery, a scoff of the whole night and its lovely dream--in a face which, if beautiful as that of an angel, not being Juliet's would be to him ugly, unnatural, a discord with the music of his memory. Still the night was checkered with moments of silvery bliss, in the indulgence of the mere, the known fancy of what it would be if it _were she, vanishing ever in the reviving rebuke, that he must nerve himself for the loss of that which the morning must dispel. Yet, like one in a dream, who knows it is but a dream, and scarce dares breathe lest he should break the mirrored ecstasy, he would not carry the lamp to the bedside: no act of his should disperse the airy flicker of the lovely doubt, not a movement, not a nearer glance, until stern necessity should command.

History knows well the tendency of things to repeat themselves. Similar circumstances falling together must incline to the production of similar consequent events.

Toward morning Juliet awoke from her long sleep, but she had the vessel of her brain too empty of the life of this world to recognize barely that which was presented to her bodily vision. Over the march of two worlds, that of her imagination, and that of fact, her soul hovered fluttering, and blended the presentment of the two in the power of its unity.

The only thing she saw was the face of her husband, sadly lighted by the dimmed lamp. It was some-distance away, near the middle of the room: it seemed to her miles away, yet near enough to be addressed. It was a more beautiful face now than ever before--than even then when first she took it for the face of the Son of Man--more beautiful, and more like Him, for it was more humane. Thin and pale with suffering, it was nowise feeble, but the former self-sufficiency had vanished, and a still sorrow had taken its place.

He sat sunk in dim thought. A sound came that shook him as with an ague fit. Even then he mastered his emotion, and sat still as a stone. Or was it delight unmastered, and awe indefinable, that paralyzed him? He dared not move lest he should break the spell. Were it fact, or were it but yet further phantom play on his senses, it should unfold itself; not with a sigh would he jar the unfolding, but, ear only, listen to the end. In the utter stillness of the room, of the sleeping house, of the dark, embracing night, he lay in famished wait for every word.

"O Jesus," said the voice, as of one struggling with weariness, or one who speaks her thoughts in a dream, imagining she reads from a book, a gentle, tired voice--"O Jesus! after all, Thou art there! They told me Thou wast dead, and gone nowhere! They said there never was such a One! And there Thou art! O Jesus, what _am I to do? Art Thou going to do any thing with me?--I wish I were a leper, or any thing that Thou wouldst make clean! But how couldst Thou, for I never quite believed in Thee, and never loved Thee before? And there was my Paul! oh, how I loved my Paul! and _he wouldn't do it. I begged and begged him, for he was my husband when I was alive--him to take me and make me clean, but he wouldn't: he was too pure to pardon me. He let me lie in the dirt! It was all right of him, but surely, Lord, Thou couldst afford to pity a poor girl that hardly knew what she was doing. My heart is very sore, and my whole body is ashamed, and I feel so stupid! Do help me if Thou canst. I denied Thee, I know; but then I cared for nothing but my husband; and the denial of a silly girl could not hurt Thee, if indeed Thou art Lord of all worlds!--I know Thou wilt forgive me for that. But, O Christ, please, if Thou canst any way do it, make me fit for Paul. Tell him to beat me and forgive me.--O my Saviour, do not look at me so, or I shall forget Paul himself, and die weeping for joy. Oh, my Lord! Oh, my Paul!"

For Paul had gently risen from his chair, and come one step nearer--where he stood looking on her with such a smile as seldom has been upon human face--a smile of unutterable sorrow, love, repentance, hope. She gazed, speechless now, her spirit drinking in the vision of that smile. It was like mountain air, like water, like wine, like eternal life! It was forgiveness and peace from the Lord of all. And had her brain been as clear as her heart, could she have taken it for less? If the sinner forgave her, what did the Perfect?

Paul dared not go nearer--partly from dread of the consequences of increased emotion. Her lips began to move again, and her voice to murmur, but he could distinguish only a word here and there. Slowly the eyelids fell over the great dark eyes, the words dissolved into syllables, the sounds ceased to be words at all, and vanished: her soul had slipped away into some silent dream.

Then at length he approached on tiptoe. For a few moments he stood and gazed on the sleeping countenance--then dropped on his knees, and cried,

"God, if Thou be anywhere, I thank Thee."

Reader, who knowest better, do not mock him. Gently excuse him. His brain was excited; there was a commotion in the particles of human cauliflower; a rush of chemical changes and interchanges was going on; the tide was setting for the vasty deep of marvel, which was nowhere but within itself. And then he was in love with his wife, therefore open to deceptions without end, for is not all love a longing after what never was and never can be?

He was beaten. But scorn him not for yielding. Think how he was beaten. Could he help it that the life in him proved too much for the death with which he had sided? Was it poltroonery to desert the cause of ruin for that of growth? of essential slavery for ordered freedom? of disintegration for vital and enlarging unity? He had "said to corruption, Thou art my father: to the worm, Thou art my mother, and my sister;" but a Mightier than he, the Life that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, had said, "O thou enemy, destruction shall have a perpetual end;" and he could not stand against the life by which he stood. When it comes to this, what can a man do? Remember he was a created being--or, if you will not allow that, then something greatly less. If not "loved into being" by a perfect Will, in his own image of life and law, he had but a mother whom he never could see, because she could never behold either herself or him: he was the offspring of the dead, and must be pardoned if he gave a foolish cry after a parent worth having.

Wait, thou who countest such a cry a weak submission, until, having refused to take thine hour with thee, thine hour overtakes thee: then see if thou wilt stand out. Another's battle is easy. God only knows with what earthquakes and thunders, that hour, on its way to find thee, may level the mountains and valleys between. If thou wouldst be perfect in the greatness of thy way, thou must learn to live in the fire of thy own divine nature turned against thy conscious self: learn to smile content in that, and thou wilt out-satan Satan in the putridity of essential meanness, yea, self-satisfied in very virtue of thy shame, thou wilt count it the throned apotheosis of inbred honor. But seeming is not being--least of all self-seeming. Dishonor will yet be dishonor, if all the fools in creation should be in love with it, and call it glory.

In an hour, Juliet woke again, vaguely remembering a heavenly dream, whose odorous air yet lingered, and made her happy, she knew not why. Then what a task would have been Faber's! For he must not go near her. The balance of her life trembled on a knife-edge, and a touch might incline it toward death. A sob might determine the doubt.

But as soon as he saw sign that her sleep was beginning to break, he all but extinguished the light, then having felt her pulse, listened to her breathing, and satisfied himself generally of her condition, crept from the room, and calling the nurse, told her to take his place. He would be either in the next room, he said, or within call in the park.

He threw himself on the bed, but could not rest: rose and had a bath; listened at Juliet's door, and hearing no sound, went to the stable. Niger greeted him with a neigh of pleasure. He made haste to saddle him, his hands trembling so that he could hardly get the straps into the girth buckles.

"That's Niger!" said Juliet, hearing his whinny. "Is he come?"

"Who, ma'am?" asked the nurse, a stranger to Glaston, of course.

"The doctor--is he come?"

"He's but just gone, ma'am. He's been sitting by you all night--would let no one else come near you. Rather peculiar, in my opinion!"

A soft flush, all the blood she could show, tinged her cheek. It was Hope's own color--the reflection of a red rose from a white.

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