Court Royal/Chapter XXX

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Palma was driven at once to the house in which she had secured lodgings; one of the ladies of the company attended her. She was in great pain. A couple of surgeons were promptly summoned. The rumour of what had occurred spread, and people collected in the streets and about the door. The medical men said the case was grave, and that a nurse must be in constant attendance.

‘Lord bless me!’ said the old woman whose lodgings were taken by Palma. ‘Where am I to get a nurse?’

‘Her relations must be telegraphed for.’

‘Blessings on me! What do I know about her relations?’

‘We will see about a nurse. Perhaps one can be spared from the hospital.’

A rap at the door, and ring of the bell.

The woman opened it and saw a girl standing outside in a plain stuff gown, and a shawl over her head.

‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘What do you please to want?’

‘I’m come to offer to nurse her,’ was the reply. ‘I’ve been sent; that is, I’ve come from him who stands highest and yet furthest from her in the world.’

‘Who is that?’

‘Her husband.’

‘If that be the case, come in. You are young. Can you nurse?’

‘I can do what the doctor orders, and I hope I have my wits about me.’

‘What is your name?’


‘Very well,’ said the lodging-house keeper. ‘I reckon you’ll do as well as another.—Please, sir,’ to the surgeon, ‘give the young woman orders what she is to do.’

When the accident had taken place Joanna had turned home and stripped off her grand dress and donned a plain one; then she came down into the kitchen, where Lazarus was crouching over the fire.

‘It is a judgment,’ said the Jew. ‘Heaven is just, and has cast its thunderbolt at her. I am glad of it. No one hurts me without suffering for it.’

Joanna turned on him. ‘I am going to her,’ she said. ‘I shall nurse her if they will let me. Shall I say you sent me?’

‘No,’ answered the Jew; ‘don’t mention my name.’ He had assumed a hardness which ill concealed his inward emotion. In his breast was a tumult of mingled feeling—old love revived, sorrow, revenge, hate,—so mixed that he did not himself know what he desired.

‘You may go, Joanna,’ he said. ‘If she needs anything—that is, in moderation—let me know, but I will not see her, I will not see her, remember that.’

So Joanna went. The girl was greatly affected. Tears came into her eyes, but she drove them back. She had made up her mind to be with Palma. She went first to the theatre to ascertain where the actress lived; the house was not far distant. She hastened thither. On her way down the street she passed Lord Saltcombe. His face was raised, he was looking at a window whence a yellow light shone through a drawn blind. Shadows passed over the surface of the blind. A gas lamp was near, and the face of Lord Saltcombe was illumined. It was full of agony—it was the face of a man in despair. She walked by, then turned and came back to him; his suffering face filled her with pity. She said in a low tone, ‘Lord Saltcombe, I am going in to nurse her. Ask no questions at the door. I will give you signs at the window: when I hold up my hands, have hope; when I hold them down, her case is very bad; when I hold them out, and you see against the blind the black shadow of a cross—she is dead.’

He nodded. He did not recognise her, he did not look at her. He did not wonder who she was that knew him by name. He tried to thank her. He could not.

Then she went on. If she had been refused admission she would have thrust herself in. Joanna was not one to take a refusal.

She was conducted to the room where lay the poor woman. Cotton-wool and oil covered her wounds. The face was uninjured. She moaned and tossed her head from side to side on the pillow. The paint was on the cheeks, the antimony darkened the eyes, but tears had washed the white powder away in long furrows. Beneath the paint the flame of fever burnt in her cheeks. Joanna took a sponge and washed her face. The cool water soothed the sufferer for a moment, then she began again to moan and turn her head with a mechanical regularity from side to side. She seemed imperfectly conscious. Her fellow-actress was at her side; the honest sympathetic tears had washed her face into a strange mottle. She had hold of Palma’s hand, and patted and kissed it, and spoke to her cheering words of promise of health.

‘You’ll be all right to-morrow. You know you are going to take the world by storm with your Lady of Lyons. There! don’t be down. It is only a trifle. You did Juliet regular splendid—first-class to-night.’

‘You may go,’ said Joanna. ‘You are out of place here, and do not understand the management of the sick. Leave her to me. I am sent to her.’

‘Are you experienced, girl?’ asked the surgeon.

‘I know what is what,’ answered Joanna, looking him full in the face.

‘You have plenty of natural cleverness, I can see,’ said the surgeon. ‘Now attend to me. I will give you instructions that must be closely followed.’

‘Hadn’t that lady better go first? she bothers me and Ra—— I mean the sick woman.’

‘I agree with you.’ The surgeon dismissed the actress.

‘Now,’ said Joanna, ‘say what you will, I will not go from it a hair’s-breadth.’

After receiving her instructions she said gravely, ‘Tell me frankly: is there hope?’

‘Where there is life there is hope,’ he answered.

She looked at him with her shrewd eyes, and standing between the light and the window, held up one arm.

Lord Saltcombe paced the street hour after hour throughout the night. He could not leave it. Rest was impossible. One by one the lights in the houses were extinguished, but the window of Palma’s room remained illumined. Within lay the woman—the sole woman—he had ever loved, and he had loved her with all the passion in his nature. Carried away by that passion he had committed a great wrong, a wrong which rankled in his heart. His conscience never acquitted him; it judged and condemned him daily. If he had loved innocently he might have shaken off his passion, or been spared by it to make himself a name, to become great and good among his fellow-men. But this guilty incident had morally maimed him. He had not the energy, the courage, after that, to face his fellow-men. There are some who rise after a fall, stronger than they were before. Their fall has taught them caution, has deepened their character, has inspired them with earnestness. There are others who, when once tripped up, lie prostrate the rest of their days. Such was Lord Saltcombe. He had not the moral vigour to efface the past by active well-doing.

The clock of St. Andrew’s Church chimed after the stroke of three, and still the Marquess was in the street. He was cold and tired. An icy perspiration covered his brow. He had seen the sign at the window three or four hours before; it had not given him much hope. A gnawing pain was at his heart. Was this the first manifestation in him of that disease which sapped the life and activity of his father? Had his present great emotion provoked it to warn him of its presence?

The chimes had scarce done playing ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ when the blind was drawn aside, and Lord Saltcombe saw the girl beckoning to him. In another moment the house door was opened gently, and she appeared at it. She held her finger to her lips, came outside, and said, ‘Rachel is conscious. Come, and see her, but promise to go when I give the word.’ He nodded. ‘Follow me softly, make no noise. Everyone else in the house is asleep.’

He obeyed. He was in his patent-leather boots, in his dress suit, with a light overcoat. He stepped softly after Joanna. If anyone heard the steps, that person supposed it was the footfall of the doctor, turned in bed, and slept again. Joanna thrust open the chamber door and let the Marquess in. She did not enter herself, she closed the door and stood on the landing with her hands to her ears that she might not hear what was said. As Lord Saltcombe passed her into the room she looked in his face: it was older by many years, white, lined, hollow about the eyes, and sunken at the cheeks. Her heart came into her mouth, she put her hands to her white apron, and raising it wiped her eyes, then shook her head defiantly, and clasped her hands over her ears.

Lord Saltcombe stepped up to the bed, looking with his whole soul into the burning face of the poor woman. Then he sobbed, sank on his knees by her side, and hid his face in the bedclothes.

‘Herbert!’ she said in a low tone, and put out her hand for his, ‘I wanted to see you—to say good-bye.’

‘Rachel!’ He could utter no more.

‘It is now seven years since—since Sicily.’

‘Rachel,’ he said, ‘God forgive me. If it were possible in any way to undo the past, if it were within my power to make compensation, to expiate the wrong done, I would do my utmost. Rachel, I ruined your life, and I destroyed the honour and happiness of another man’s home.’

She shook her head. ‘You do not know Lazarus.’

‘It matters nothing who or what he be; I wronged him past undoing, and the knowledge of this has lamed my life. You—you above all——'

‘Do not speak of me,’ she said. ‘I forgive you—but you were not in fault. I had set my heart on the stage, I ran away for the love of art—not for love of you.’

‘Is that true?’

She slightly moved her head. ‘The consciousness of power burned in me, and life with Lazarus and his sordid belongings was unendurable. I ran away; you know I forced myself on you, I asked you to free me. It was not that I cared for you—forgive me that I say so; if I pain you it is for your good—I used you but as a means of escape. I hungered for art; I knew that the stage was my proper sphere; and now—and now—I am consumed in the element I elected.’ Her head began to turn from side to side uneasily.

He did not speak, he watched her in silent remorse and agony. She had shut her eyes. He was not sure whether she were conscious. He held her hand; it was a hand of fire. Presently she stayed the rocking of her head, and opened her eyes. ‘It was I,’ she said—‘it was I who spoiled your life, not you mine. I have nothing to forgive. I must ask pardon of you.’

‘Of me! Oh, Rachel!’

‘I used you but as a means to an end. Who were you with in the stage-box to-night—yesterday—when was it?’

He told her.

‘You are not married?’ she asked, and looked at him.

He shook his head.

‘You must marry, and forget me,’ she said. ‘It was I—it was I who was in the wrong.’ Presently she added, ‘Beware of Lazarus; he will never forget, never forgive.’ Then she shut her eyes, and began again to sway her head and moan.

He watched her without speaking; she let go his hand, and held her fingers up as feeling for something in the air.

‘What do you want, Rachel?’

She turned her face and opened her eyes; the light of reason had gone from them. She put her arm out of the bed-clothes, and waved it:—

‘Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again,
 I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,
 That almost freezes up the heat of life.
 Nurse! what should she do here?
 My dismal scene I needs must act alone.’

She thought herself on the stage. She tried to rise, and moaned and fell back.

Joanna entered; she did not raise her eyes to the face of Lord Saltcombe. She signed to him to go; he stood a moment longer looking at the poor woman, now unconscious, and stole away.

Then Joanna seated herself by the bed, and watched the sufferer. Her face, generally brimming with intelligence and full of self-assurance, was now kindled with an expression of tenderness and pity such as it had not borne before. She knew the whole story of this dying woman. She had been brought to look upon a heart—a man’s heart—enduring unutterable agony. She put out her finger and touched the bedclothes where moistened; she knew what had moistened them—tears of contrition and humiliation wrung from the heart of an honourable man. She bent her head to the ear of Palma, and whispered, ‘Will you send a message to Emmanuel Lazarus?’

The eyes opened and looked dimly at her, but no answer came.

Lord Saltcombe lingered in the street. He would not leave the neighbourhood of the house. The night was cold, and the wind raw; a fog blew up from the sea, and stole in filmy coils along the street, drifting past the lamps and forming halos about them. He walked faster, up and down, up and down, turning his eyes ever at the lighted window. The clock struck four—it struck five, and he was still there. Before dawn the cold became keener, eating into the marrow. Then the chimes of St. Andrew’s played ‘Home, sweet Home,’ and as they played, against the lighted window appeared the shadow of a black cross.

Lord Saltcombe removed his hat, and stood with folded hands looking at the cross; then up, with dim eyes, through the fog above.