Twilight (Frankau)/Chapter III
I seem to be a long time coming to the story, but my own will intervene, my own dreadful tale of dependence and deepening illness. Benham was my day nurse. At ten o'clock that night she left me, considerably better and calm. Then Lakeby came on duty, a very inferior person who always talked to me as if I were a child to be humoured: "Now then be a dear good girl and drink it up" represents her fairly well. Then she would yawn in my face without apology or attempt to hide her fatigue or boredom. Nepenthe and I were no longer friends. It gave me no ease, yet I drank it to save argument. Lakeby took away the glass and then lay down at the foot of the bed. I thought again, as I had thought so many times, that no one ever sleeps so soundly as a night nurse. I could indulge my restlessness without any fear of disturbing her. Tomorrow's promised excitement would not let me sleep. Their letters, the very letters they had written to each other! I did not care so much about the diary. I had once kept a diary myself and knew how one leaves out all the essentials. I suppose I drowsed a little. Nepenthe was no longer my friend, but we were not enemies, only disappointed lovers, without reliance on each other. As I approached the borderland I wished Margaret were in her easy-chair by the fireside. I did not care whether she was in her grey, or with her plaits and peignoir. I watched for her in vain. I knew she would not come whilst nurse snored on the sofa. Ella would have to get rid of the nurse from my room. Surely now that I was better I could sleep alone, a bell could be fixed up. Two nurses were unnecessary, extravagant. I woke to cough and was conscious of a strange sensation. I turned on the light by my side, but then only roused the nurse (she had slept all day) with difficulty. I knew what had happened, although this was the first time it had happened to me, and wanted to reassure her or myself. Also to tell her what to do.
"Get ice. Call Benham; ring up the doctor." This was my first hæmorrhage, very profuse and alarming, and Lakeby although she was inferior was not inefficient. When she was really roused she carried out my instructions to the letter. Once Benham was in the room I knew at least I was in good hands. I begged them not to rouse the house more than necessary, not to call Ella.
"Don't you speak a word. Lie quite still. We know exactly what is to be done. Mrs. Lovegrove won't be disturbed, nor anybody if you will only do what you are told."
Benham's voice changed in an emergency; it was always a beautiful voice if a little hard; now it was gentle, soft, and her whole manner altered. She had me and the situation completely under her control, and that, of course, was what she always wanted. That night she was the perfect nurse. Lakeby obeyed her as if she had been a probationer. I often wonder I am not more grateful to Benham, failed to become quickly attached to her. I don't think perhaps that mine is a grateful nature, but I surely recognised already to-night, in this bad hour, her complete and wonderful competence. I was in high fever, very agitated, yet striving to keep command of my nerves.
"It looks bad, you know, but it is not really serious, it is only a symptom, not a disease. All you have to do is to keep very quiet. The doctor will soon be here."
"I'm not frightened."
"Hush! I'm sure you are not."
A hot bottle to my feet, little lumps of ice to suck; loose warm covering adjusted round me quickly, the blinds pulled up, and the window opened, there was nothing of which she did not think. And the little she said was all in the right key, not making light of my trouble, but explaining, minimizing it, helping me to calm my disordered nerves.
"I would give you a morphia injection only that Dr. Kennedy will be here any moment now."
I don't think it could have been long after that before he was in the room. In the meantime I was hating the sight of my own blood and kept begging the nurses or signing to them to remove basins and stained clothes.
Nurse Benham told him very quietly what had happened. He was looking at me and said encouragingly:
"You will soon be all right."
I was still coughing up blood and did not feel reassured. I heard him ask for hot water. Nurse and he were at the chest of drawers, whispering over something that might be cooking operations. Then nurse came back to the bed.
"Dr. Kennedy is going to give you a morphia injection that will stop the hæmorrhage at once."
She rolled up the sleeve of my nightgown, and I saw he was beside her.
"How much?" I got out.
"A quarter of a grain," he answered quietly.
"You'll find it will be quite enough. If not, you can have another."
I resented the prick of the needle, and that having hurt me he should rub the place with his finger, making it worse, I thought. I got reconciled to it however, and his presence there, very soon. He was still in tweeds and they smelt of gorse or peat, of something pleasant.
"Getting better?" There was no doubt the hæmorrhage was coming to an end, and I was no longer shivering and apprehensive. He felt my pulse and said it was "very good."
"The usual cackle!" I was able to smile.
"I shouldn't talk if I were you." He smiled too.
"You will be quite comfortable in half an hour."
"I am not uncomfortable now." He laughed, a low and pleasant laugh.
"She is wonderful, isn't she?" he said to Benham. Benham was clearing away every evidence of what had occurred, and I felt how competent they both were, and again that I was in good hands. I was glad Ella was asleep and knew nothing of what was happening.
Dr. Kennedy was over at the chest of drawers again.
"I'll leave you another dose," he said, and they talked together. Then he came to say "good-bye" to me.
"Can't I sleep by myself? I hate any one in the room with me." I wanted to add, "it spoils my dreams," but am not sure if I actually said the words.
"You'll find you will be all right, as right as rain. Nurse will fix you up. All you have to do is to go to sleep. If not she will give you another dose. I've left it measured out. You are not afraid, are you?"
"The good dreams will come. I am willing them to you." I found it difficult to concentrate.
"What did you promise me before?"
"Nothing I shan't perform. Good-night …"
He went away quickly.
I was wider awake than I wished to be, and soon a desire for action was racing in my disordered mind. I thought the hæmorrhage meant death, and I had left so many things undone. I could not recollect the provisions of my will, and felt sure it was unjust. I could have been kinder to so many people, the dead as well as the living. It is so easy to say sharp, clever things; so difficult to unsay them. I remembered one particular act of unkindness … even now I cannot bear to recall it. Alas! it was to one now dead. And Ella, Ella did not know I returned her love, full measure, pressed down, brimming over. Once, very many years ago, when she was in need and I supposed to be rich, she asked me to lend her five hundred pounds. Because I hadn't it, and was too proud to say so, I was ruder to her than seems possible now, asking why I should work to supply her extravagances. But she was never extravagant, except in giving. Oh, God! That five hundred pounds! How many times I have thought of it. What would I not give not to have said no, to have humbled my pride, admitted I could not put my hands on so large a sum? Now she lavishes her all on me. And if it were true that I was dying, already I was not sure, she would be lonely in her world. Without each other we were always lonely. Love of sisters is unlike all other love. We had slept in each other's bed from babyhood onward, told each other all our little secrets, been banded together against nurses and governesses, maintained our intimacy in changed and changing circumstances, through long and varied years. Ella would be lonely when I was dead. A hot tear or two oozed through my closed lids when I thought of Ella's loneliness without me. I wiped those tears away feebly with the sheet. The room was very strange and quiet, not quite steady when I opened my eyes. So I shut them. The morphia was beginning to act.
"Why are you crying?"
"How could you see me over there?" But I no longer wanted to cry and I had forgotten Ella. I opened my eyes when she spoke. The fire was low and the room dark, quite steady and ordinary. Margaret was sitting by the fireside, and I saw her more clearly than I had ever seen her before, a pale, clever, whimsical face, thin-featured and mobile, with grey eyes.
"It is absurd to cry," she said. "When I finished crying there were no tears in the world to shed. All the grief, all the unhappiness died with me."
"Why were you so unhappy?" I asked.
"Because I was a fool," she answered. "When you tell my story you must do it as sympathetically as possible, make people sorry for me. But that is the truth. I was unhappy because I was a fool."
"You still think I shall write your story. The critics will be pleased …" I began to remember all they would say, the flattering notices.
"Why were you crying?" she persisted. "Are you a fool too?"
"No. Only on Ella's account I don't want to die."
"You need not fear. Is Ella some one who loves you? If so she will keep you here. Gabriel did not love me enough. If some one needs us desperately and loves us completely, we don't die."
"Did no one love you like that?"
"I died," she answered concisely, and then gazed into the fire.
My limbs relaxed, I felt drowsy and convinced of great talent. I had never done myself justice, but with this story of Margaret Capel's I should come into my own. I wrote the opening sentence, a splendid sentence, arresting. And then I went on easily. I, who always wrote with infinite difficulty, slowly, and trying each phrase over again, weighing and appraising it, now found an amazing fluency come to me. I wrote and wrote.
De Quincey has not spoken the last word on morphia dreams. It is only a pity he spoke so well that lesser writers are chary of giving their experiences. The next few days, as I heard afterwards, I lay between life and death, the temperature never below 102 and the hæmorrhage recurring. I only know that they were calm and happy days. Ella was there and we understood each other perfectly, without words. The nurses came and went, and when it was Benham I was glad and she knew my needs, when I was thirsty, or wanted this or that. But when Lakeby replaced her she would talk and say silly soothing things, shake up my pillows when I wanted to be left alone, touch the bed when she passed it, coax me to what I would do willingly, intrude on my comfortable time. I liked best to be alone, for then I saw Margaret. She never spoke of anything but herself and the letters and diary she had left me, the rough notes. We had strange little absurd arguments. I told her not to doubt that I would write her story, because I loved writing, I lived to write, every day was empty that held no written word, that I only lived my fullest, my completest when I was at my desk, when there was wide horizon for my eyes and I saw the real true imagined people with whom I was more intimate than with any I met at receptions and crowded dinner-parties.
"The absurdity is that any one who feels what you describe should write so badly. It is incredible that you should have the temperament of the writer without the talent," she said to me once.
"What makes you say I write badly? I sell well! " I told her what I got for my books, and about my dear American public.
"Sell! sell! " She was quite contemptuous. "Hall Caine sells better than you do, and Marie Corelli, and Mrs. Barclay."
"Would you rather I gave one of them your MS.? " I asked pettishly. I was vexed with her now, but I did not want her to go. She used to vanish suddenly like a light blown out. I think that was when I fell asleep, but I did not want to keep awake always, or hear her talking. She was inclined to be melancholy, or cynical, and so jarred my mood, my sense of well-being.
Night and morning they gave me my injections of morphia, until the morning when I refused it, to Dr. Kennedy's surprise and against Benham's remonstrance.
"It is good for you, you are not going to set yourself against it?"
"I can have it again tonight. I don't need it in the daytime. The hæmorrhage has left off." Dr. Kennedy supported me in my refusal. I will admit the next few days were dreadful. I found myself utterly ill and helpless, and horribly conscious of all that was going on. The detail of desperate illness is almost unbearable to a thinking person of decent and reticent physical habits. The feeding cup and gurgling water bed, the lack of privacy, are hourly humiliations. All one's modesties are outraged. I improved, although as I heard afterwards it had not been expected that I would live. The consultants gave me up, and the nurses. Only Dr. Kennedy and Ella refused to admit the condition hopeless. When I continued to improve Ella was boastful and Benham contradictory. The one dressed me up, making pretty lace and ribbon caps, sending to London for wonderful dressing-jackets and nightgowns, pretending I was out of danger and on the road to convalescence, long before I even had a normal temperature. Benham fought against all the indulgences that Ella and I ordered and Dr. Kennedy never opposed. Seeing visitors, sitting up in bed, reading the newspapers, abandoning invalid diet in favour of caviare and foie gras, strange rich dishes. Benham despised Dr. Kennedy and said we could always get round him, make him say whatever we wished. More than once she threatened to throw up the case. I did not want her to go. I knew, if I did not admit it, that my convalescence was not established. I had no real confidence in myself, was much weaker than anybody but myself knew, with disquieting symptoms. It exhausted me to fight with her continually, one day I told her so, and that she was retarding my recovery. "I am older than you, and I hate to be ordered about or contradicted."
"But I am so much more experienced in illness. You know I only want to do what is best for you. You are not strong enough to do half the things you are doing. You turn Dr. Kennedy round your little finger, you and Mrs. Lovegrove. He knows well enough you ought not to be getting up and seeing people. You will want to go down next. And as for the things you eat!"
"I shall go down next week. I suppose I shall be exhausted before I get there, arguing with you whether I ought or ought not to go."
By this time I had got rid of the night nurse, Benham looked after me night and day devotedly. I was no longer indifferent to her. She angered me nevertheless, and we quarrelled bitterly. The least drawback, however, and I could not bear her out of the room. She did not reproach me, I must say that for her. When a horrible bilious attack followed an invalid dinner of melon and homard à l'américaine she stood by my side for hours trying every conceivable remedy. And without a word of reproach.
After my hæmorrhage I had a few weeks' rest from the neuritis and then it started again. I cried out for my forsaken nepenthe, but Peter Kennedy and Nurse Benham for once agreed, persuaded or forced me to codein. Dear half-sister to my beloved morphia, we became friends at once. Three or four days later the neuritis went suddenly, and has never returned. One night I took the nepenthe as well, and that night I saw Margaret Capel again.
"When are you going to begin?" she asked me at once.
"The very moment I can hold a pen. Now my hand shakes. And Ella or nurse is always here—I am never alone."
"You've forgotten all about me," she said with indescribable sadness. "You won't write it at all."
"No, I haven't. I shall. But when one has been so ill..." I pleaded.
"Other people write when they are ill. You remember Green, and Robert Louis Stevenson. As for me, I never felt well."
The next day, before Dr. Kennedy came, I asked Benham to leave us alone together. He still came daily, but she disapproved of his methods and told me that she only stayed in the room and gave him her report because she thought it her duty. They were temperamentally opposed. She had the scientific mind and believed in authority. His was imaginative, desultory, doubtful, but wide and enquiring. Both of them were interested in me, so at least Ella told me. She was satisfied now with my doctoring and nursing. At least a week had passed since she suggested a substitute for either.
Dr. Kennedy, when we were alone, said, as he did when nurse was standing there:
"Well! how are you getting on?"
"Splendidly." And then, without any circumlocution, although we had not spoken of the matter for weeks, and so much had occurred in the meantime, I asked him: "What did you do about that packet? I want it now. I am quite well enough."
"You have not seen her since?"
"Over and over again. She thinks I am shirking my responsibilities."
"Are you well enough to write?"
"I am well enough to read. When will you bring me the letters?"
"I brought them when I said I would, the day you were taken ill."
"Where are they?"
"In the first drawer, the right-hand drawer of the chest of drawers." He turned round to it. "That is, if they have not been moved. I put the packet there myself, told nurse it was something that was not to be touched. The morphia things are in the same place. I don't know what she thinks it is, some new and useless drug or apparatus; she has no opinion of me, you know. I used to see it night and morning, as long as you were having the injections."
"See if it is there now."
He went over and opened the drawer:
"It is there right enough."
"Oh! don't be like nurse," I said impatiently. "I am strong enough to look at the packet."
He gave it to me, into my hands, an ordinary brown paper parcel, tied with string and heavily, awkwardly, splotched and protected with sealingwax. I could have sworn to his handiwork.
"Why are you smiling?" he asked.
"Only at the neatness of your parcel." He smiled too.
"I tied it up in a hurry. I didn't want to be tempted to look inside."
"So you make me guardian and executrix..."
"Margaret herself said you were to have them," he answered seriously.
"She didn't tell you so. You have only my word for it," I retorted.
"Better evidence than that, although that would have been enough. How else did you know they were in existence? Why were you looking for them?"
The parcel lay on the quilt, and all sorts of difficulties rose in my mind. I would not open it unless I was alone, and I was never alone; literally never alone unless I was supposed to be asleep. And, thanks to codein, when I was supposed to be asleep the supposition was generally correct! Thinking aloud, I asked Dr. Kennedy:
"Am I out of danger?"
He answered lightly and evasively:
"No one is ever really out of danger. I take my life in my hands every time I go in my motor."
"Oh, yes! I've heard about your driving," I answered drily.
"I am supposed to be reckless, but really I am only unlucky. With luck now..."
"Yes, with luck?"
"You might go on for any time. I shouldn't worry about that if I were you. You are getting better."
"I am not worrying, only thinking about Mrs. Lovegrove. She has two children, a large house, literary and other engagements. Will you tell her I am well enough to be left alone?" He answered quickly and surprised:
"She does not want to go, she likes being with you. Not that I wonder at that."
He was a strange person. Sometimes I had an idea he was not "all there." He said whatever came into his mind, and had other divergencies from the ordinary type. I had to explain to him my need of solitude. If Ella went back to town, Benham would soon, I hoped, with a little encouragement, fall into the way of ordinary nurses. I had had them in London and knew their habits. Two or three hours in the morning for their so-called "constitutionals," two or three hours in the afternoon for sleep, whether they had been disturbed in the night or not; in the intervals there were the meals over which they lingered. Solitude would be easily secured if Ella went away and there was no one to watch or comment on the amount of attention purchased or purchasable for two guineas a week. I misread Benham, by the way, but that is a detail. She was not like the average nurse, and never behaved in the same way.
My first objective, once that brown paper parcel lay on the bed, was to persuade Ella to go back to home and children. Without hurting her feelings. She would not have left the house for five minutes before I should be longing for her back again. I knew that, but one cannot work and play. I have never had any other companion but Ella. Still... Work whilst ye have the light. One more book I must do, and here was one to my hand.
I made Dr. Kennedy put the parcel back in the drawer. Then I lay and made plans. I must talk to Ella of Violet and Tommy, make her homesick for them. Unfortunately Ella knew me so well. I started that very afternoon.
"How does Violet get on without you?"
"She is all right."
But soon afterwards Ella asked me quietly whether there was any one else I would like down.
"God forbid!" I answered in alarm, and she understood, understood without showing pang or offence, that I wanted to be alone. One thing Ella never quite realised, my wretched inability to live in two worlds at once, the real and the unreal. When I want to write there is no use giving me certain hours or times to myself. I want all the days and all the nights. I don't wish to be spoken to, nor torn away from my story and new friends. For this reason I have always had to leave London many months in the year, for the seaside or abroad. London meant Ella, almost daily, at the telephone if not personally.
"You don't write all day, do you? What are you pretending? Don't be so absurd, you must go out sometimes. I am fetching you in the car at..."
And then I was lured by her to theatres, dinners, lunches. She thought people liked to meet me, but I have rarely noticed any interest taken in a female novelist, however many editions she may run through. My strength was returning, if slowly. Ella of course had duties to those children of hers that sometimes I resented so unreasonably. I always wished her early widowhood had left her without ties. However, the call of them came in usefully now; it was not necessary for me to press it. I came first with her, I exulted in it. But since I was getting better...
I wished to be alone with that parcel. I did make a tentative effort before Ella left.
"I don't want to settle off to sleep just yet, nurse, I should like to read a little. There is a packet of letters..."
"No! No! I wouldn't hear of such a thing. Starting reading at ten o'clock. What will you be wanting to do next?"
"It would not do me any harm," I answered irritably. "I've told you before it does me more harm to be contradicted every time I make a suggestion."
"Well, you won't get me to help you to commit suicide. Night is the time for sleep, and you've had your codein."
"The codein does not send me to sleep, it only soothes and quiets me."
"All the more reason you should not wake yourself up by any old letters." She argued, and I... At the end I was too tired and out of humour to insist. I made up my mind to do without a nurse as soon as possible, and in the meantime not to argue but to circumvent her. At this time, before Ella went, I was getting up every day for a few hours, lying on the couch by the window. I tested my strength and found I could walk from bed to sofa, from sofa to easy-chair without nurse's arm, if I made the effort.
"You will take care of yourself?" were Ella's last words, and I promised impatiently.
"I don't so much mind leaving you alone now, you have your Peter, and nurse won't let you overdo things."
"You have your Peter." Can one imagine anything more ridiculous! My incurably frivolous sister imagined I had fallen in love, with that lout! I was unable to persuade her to the contrary. She argued, that at my worst and before, I would have no other attendant. And she pointed out that it could not possibly be Peter Kennedy's skill that attracted me. I defended him, feebly perhaps, for it was true that he had not shown any special aptitude or ability. I said he was quite as good as any of the others, and certainly less depressing.
"There is no good humbugging me, or trying to. You are in love with the man. Don't trouble to contradict it. And I am not a bit jealous. I only hope he will make you happy. Nurse told me you do not even like her to come into the room when he is here."
"Don't you know how old I am? It is really undignified, humiliating, to be talked to or of in that way..."
"Age has nothing to do with it. A woman is never too old to fall in love. And besides, what is thirty-nine?"
"In this case it is forty-two," I put in drily, my sense of humour not being entirely in abeyance.
"Well! or forty-two. Anyway you will admit I took a hint very quickly. I am going to leave you alone with your Corydon."
"He is not bad-looking really, it is only his clothes. And if anything comes of it you will send him to Poole's. Anyway his feet and hands are all right, and there is a certain grace about his ungainliness."
"Really, Ella, I can't bear any more. Love runs in your head; feeds your activities, agrees with you. But as for me, I've long outgrown it. I am tired, old, ill. Peter Kennedy is just not objectionable. Other doctors are. He is honest, simple..."
"I will hear all about his qualities next time I come. Only don't think you are deceiving me. God bless you, dear." She turned suddenly serious. "You know I would not go if you wanted me to stop or if I were uneasy about you any more. You know I will come down again at any moment you want me. I shall miss my train if I don't rush. Can I send you anything? I won't forget the sofa rug, and if you think of anything else..." Her maid knocked at the door and said the flyman had called up to say she must come at once. Her last words were: "Well, good-bye again, and tell him I give my consent. Tell him he gave the show away himself. I have known about it ever since the first night I was here when he told me what an interesting woman you were..."
"Good-bye.. thanks for everything. I'm sorry you've got that mad idea in your silly head..." She was gone. I heard her voice outside the window giving directions to the man and then the crunch of the fly wheels on the gravel as she was driven away.