TSW Chapter 6.2

 

Yellow Fever Nurse

Excerpt from “Beulah” 1859

By Augusa Evans Wilson

 

     “Do you know that the yellow fever has broke out here?”

     “Oh, you are mistaken, It can’t be possible!” cried Clara, turning pale.

     “I tell you, it is a fact. There are six cases now at the hospital, Hal was there this morning. I have lived here a good many years, and, from the signs, I think we are going to have dreadfully sickly times. You young ladies had better keep out of the sun, first thing you know, you will have it.”

     “Who told you there was yellow fever at the hospital?”

     “Dr. Asbury said so, and, what is more, Hal has had it himself, and nursed people who had it, and he says it is the worst sort of yellow fever.”

     “I am not afraid of it.” said Beulah, looking up for the first time.

     “I am dreadfully afraid of it.” answered Clara, with a nervous shudder.

     “Then you had better leave town as quick as possible, for folks who are easily scared always catch it soonest.”

     “Nonsense!” cried Beulah, noting the deepening pallor of Clara’s face.

     “Oh, I will warrant, if everybody else -- every man, woman, and child in the city -- takes it, you won’t! Miss Beulah, I should like to know what you are afraid of?” muttered Harriet, scanning the orphan’s countenance, and adding, in a louder tone: “Have you heard anything from master?”

     “No.” Beulah bit her lip to conceal her emotion.

     “Hal hears from him. He was in New York when he wrote the last letter.” She took a malicious pleasure in thus torturing her visitor, and, determined not to gratify her by any manifestation of interest or curiosity, Beulah took up a couple of volumes and turned to the door, saying;

     “Come, Clara, you must each have a bouquet, Harriet, where are the flower scissors? Dr, Hartwell, never objected to my carefully cutting even his choicest flowers. There! Clara, listen to the cool rippling of the fountain. How I have longed to hear its silvery murmur once more!”

     They went out into the front yard, Clara wandered about the flower beds gathering blossoms which were scattered in lavish profusion on all sides, and, leaning over the marble basin, Beulah bathed her brow in the crystal waters. There were bewitching beauty and serenity in the scene before her, and as Charon nestled his great head against her hand, she found it very difficult to realize the fact that she had left this lovely retreat for the small room at Mrs. Hoyt’s boarding house. It was not her habit, however, to indulge in repinings, and, though her ardent appreciation of beauty rendered the place incalculably dear to her, she resolutely gathered a cluster of flowers, bade adieu to Harriet, and descended the avenue. Charon walked soberly beside her, now and then looking up, as if to inquire the meaning of her long absence and wonder at her sudden departure. At the gate she patted him affectionately on the head and passed out, he made no attempt to follow her, but barked violently, and then lay down at the gate, whining mournfully.

     “Poor Charon, I wish I might have him.” said she sadly.

     “I dare say the doctor would give him to you.” answered Clara very simply.

     “I would just as soon think of asking him for his own head.” replied Beulah.

     “It is a mystery to me, Beulah, how you can feel so coldly toward Dr. Hartwell.”

     “I should very much like to know what you mean by that?” said Beulah, involuntarily crushing the flowers she held.

     “Why, you speak of him just as you would of anybody else.”

     “Well?”

     “You seem to be afraid of him.”

     “To a certain extent, I am, and so is everybody else who knows him intimately.”

     “This fear is unjust to him.”

     “How so, pray?”

     “Because he is too noble to do aught to inspire it.”

     “Certainly he is feared, nevertheless, by all who know him well.”

     “It seems to me that, situated as you have been, you would almost worship him!”

     “I am not addicted to worshiping anything but God!” answered Beulah shortly.

     “You are an odd compound, Beulah. Sometimes I think you must be utterly heartless.”

     “Thank you!”

     “Don’t be hurt. But you are so cold, so freezing, you chill me.”

     “Do I? Dr. Hartwell, (your Delphic oracle, it seems) says I’am as fierce as a tropical tornado.”

     “I do not understand how you can bear to give up such an enchanting home, and go to hard work, as if you were driven to it from necessity.”

     “Do not go over all that beaten track again, if you please. It is not my home! I can be just as happy, nay, happier, in my little room.”

     “I doubt it.” said Clara pertinaciously.

     Stopping suddenly, and fixing her eyes steadily on her companion, Beulah hastily asked:

     “Clara Sanders, why should you care if my guardian and I are separated?”

     A burning blush dyed cheek and brow, as Clara drooped her head, and answered:

     “Because he is my friend also, and I know that your departure will grieve him.”

     “You overestimate my worth and his interest. He is a man who lives in a world of his own and needs no society, save such as is afforded him it his tasteful and elegant home. He loves books, flowers, music, paintings, and his dog! He is a stern man, and shares his griefs and joys with no one. All this I have told you before.”

     There was a long silence, broken at last by an exclamation from Beulah:

     “Oh, how beautiful! How silent! How solemn -- look down the long dim aisles. It is an oratory where my soul comes to worship! Presently the breeze will rush up from the gulf, and sweep the green organ, and a melancholy chant will swell through these dusky arches. Oh, what are Gothic Cathedrals and Gilded Shrines in comparison with these grand forest temples, where the dome is a bending vault of God’s blue, and the columns are these everlasting pines!” She pointed to a thick clump of pines sloping down to a ravine.

     The setting sun threw long quivering rays through the clustering boughs, and the broken beams, piercing the gloom beyond, showed the long aisles as in a “Cathedral light”.

     As Clara looked down the dim glade, and then watched Beulah’s parted lips and sparkling eyes, as she stood bending forward with rapturous delight written on every feature, she thought-that she had indeed misjudged her in using the epithets “freezing and heartless”.

     “You are enthusiastic.” said she gently.

     “How can I help it? I love the grand and beautiful too well to offer a tribute of silent admiration. Oh, my homage is that of a whole heart!”

 

   They reached home in the gloaming, and each retired to her own room. For a mere trifle Beulah had procured the use of a melodeon, and now, after placing the drooping flowers in water, she sat down before the instrument and poured out the joy of her soul in song. Sad memories no longer floated like corpses on the sea of the past, grim forebodings crouched among the mist of the future, and she sang song after song, exulting in the gladness of her heart. An analysis of these occasional hours of delight was as impossible as their creation. Sometimes she was conscious of their approach, while gazing up at the-starry islets in the boundless lake of azure sky, or when a gorgeous sunset pageant was passing away, sometimes from hearing a solemn chant in church, or a witching strain from a favorite opera. Sometimes from viewing dim old pictures, sometimes from reading a sublime passage in some old English or German author. It was a serene elevation of feeling, an unbounded peace, and a chastened joyousness, which she was rarely able to analyze, but which isolated her for a time from all surrounding circumstances. How long she sang on the present occasion she knew not, and only paused on hearing a heavy sob behind her. Turning round, she saw Clara sitting near, with her face in her hands. Kneeling beside her, Beulah wound her arms around her, and asked earnestly:

     “What troubles you, my friend? May I not know?”

     Clara dropped her head on Beulah’s shoulder, and answered hesitatingly:

     “The tones of your voice always sadden me. They are like organ notes solemn and awful! Yes, awful, and yet very sweet -- -sweeter than any music I ever heard. Your singing fascinates me, yet, strange as it may seem, it very often makes me weep. There is an unearthliness, a spirituality that affects me singularly.”

     I am glad that is all. I was afraid you were distressed about something. Here, take my rocking chair, l am going to road, and if you like, you may have the benefit of my book.”

     “Beulah, do put away your books for one night, and let us have a quiet time. Don’t study now. Come, sit here, and talk to me.”

     “Flatterer, do you pretend that you prefer my chattering to the wonderful words of a man who ‘talked like an angel’? You must listen to the tale of that ‘Ancient Mariner with glittering eye’.”

     “Spare me that horrible ghostly story of vessels freighted with staring corpses. Ugh! It curdled the blood in my veins once, and I shut the book in disgust, don’t begin it now, for Heaven’s sake!”

     “Why Clara! It is the most thrilling poem in the English language. Each re-perusal fascinates me more and more. It requires a dozen readings to initiate you fully into its weird, supernatural realms.”

     “Yes, and it is precisely for that reason that I don’t choose to hear it. There is quite enough of the grim and hideous reality without hunting it up in pages of fiction. When I read I desire to relax my mind, not put it on the rack, as your favorite books invariably do. Absolutely, Beulah, after listening to some of your pet authors, I feel as if I had been standing on my head. You need not look so coolly incredulous, it is a positive fact. As for that ‘Ancient Mariner’ you are so fond of, I am disposed to take the author’s own opinion of it, as expressed in those lines addressed to himself.”

     “I suppose, then, you fancy ‘Christable’ as little as the others seeing that it is a tale of witchcraft. How would you relish that grand anthem to nature’s God, written in the Vale of Chamouni?”

     “I have never read it.” answered Clara very quietly.

     “What? Never read ‘Sibylline Leaves’? Why, I will wager my head that you have parsed from them a thousand times! Never read that magnificent hymn before sunrise, in the midst of glaciers and snow-crowned, cloud-piercing peaks? Listen, then, and if you don’t feel like falling on your knees, you have not a spark of poetry in your soul!”

     She drew the lamp close to her, and read aloud. Her finely modulated voice was peculiarly adapted to the task, and her expressive countenance faithfully depicted the contending emotions which filled her mind as she read. Clara listened with pleased interest, and, when the short poem was concluded, said:

     “Thank you, it is beautiful. I have often seen extracts from it. Still, there is a description of Mont Blanc in ‘Manfred’ which I believe I like quite as well.”

     “What? That witch fragment?”

     “Yes.”

     “I don’t understand ‘Manfred’. Here and there are passages in cipher.”

     I read and catch a glimpse of hidden meaning, I read again, and it vanishes in mists. It seems to me a poem of symbols, dimly adumbrating truths, which my clouded intellect clutches at in vain. I have a sort of shadowy belief that ‘Astarte’, as in its ancient mythological significance, symbolizes nature. There is a dusky vein of mystery surrounding her, which favors my idea of her as representing the universe. Manfred, with daring hand, tore away that ‘Veil of Isis’ which no mortal had ever pierced before, and, maddened by the mockery of the stony features, paid the penalty of his sacrilegious rashness, and fled from the temple, striving to shake off the curse. My guardian has a curious print of ‘Astarte’, taken from some European Byronic gallery. I have studied it until almost it seems to move and speak to me. She is clad in the ghostly drapery of the tomb, just as invoked by Nemesis, with trailing tresses, closed eyes, and folded hands. The features are dim, spectral, yet marvelously beautiful. Almost one might think the eyelids quivered; there is such an air of waking dreaminess. That this is a false and inadequate conception of Byron’s ‘Astarte’ I feel assured, and trust that I shall yet find the key to this enigma. It interests me greatly, and by some inexplicable process, whenever I sit pondering the mystery of ‘Astarte’, that wonderful creation in ‘Shirley’ presents itself. Astarte becomes in a trice that ‘Woman-Titan’ nature, kneeling before the red hills of the west, at her evening prayers. I see her prostrate in the great steps of her altar, praying for a fair night, for mariners at sea, for lambs in moors, and unfledged birds in woods. Her robe of blue air spreads to the outskirts of the heath. A veil, white as an avalanche, sweeps from her head to her feet, and arabesques of lightning flame on its borders. I see her zone, purple, like the horizon, through its blush-shines the star of evening. Her forehead has the expanse of a cloud, and is paler than the early moon, risen long before dark gathers. She reclines on the ridge of Still-Moor, her mighty hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face, ’Nature speaks with God.’ Oh! I would give twenty years of my life to have painted that Titan’s portrait. I would rather have been the author of this than have wielded the scepter of Zenobia, in the palmiest days of Palmyra!”

     She spoke rapidly, and with white lips that quivered. Clara looked at her wonderingly, and said hesitatingly:

     “I don’t understand the half of what you have been saying. It sounds to me very much as if you had stumbled into a lumber room of queer ideas, snatched up a handful, all on different subjects, and woven them into a speech as incongruous as Joseph’s variegated coat.” There was no reply. Beulah’s hands were clasped on the table before her, and she leaned forward with eyes steadily fixed on the floor. Clara waited a moment, and then continued:

     “I never notice any of the mysteries of ‘Manfred’ that seem to trouble you so much. I enjoy the fine passages, and never think of the hidden meanings, as you call them, whereas it seems you are always plunging about in the dark, hunting you know not what. I am content to glide on the surface, and --.”

     “And live in the midst of foam and bubbles!” cried Beulah, with a gesture of impatience.

     “Better than grope among subterranean caverns, black and icy, as you are forever doing. You are even getting a weird, unearthly look. Sometimes, when I come in and find you, book in hand, with that far-off expression in your eyes, I really dislike to speak to you. There is no more color in your face and hands than in that wall yonder. You will dig your grave among books, if you don’t take bare. There is such a thing as studying too much. Your mind is perpetually at work, all day you are thinking, thinking, thinking, and at night, since the warm weather has made me open the door between our rooms, I hear you talking earnestly and rapidly in your sleep, Last week I came in on tiptoe, and stood a few minutes beside your bed. The moon shone in through the window, and though you were fast asleep, I saw that you tossed your hands restlessly, while I stood you spoke aloud, in an incoherent manner, of the ‘Dream Fugue’ and ‘Vision of Sudden Death’, and now and then you frowned, and sighed heavily, as if you were in pain. Music is a relaxation to most people, but it seems to put your thoughts on the rack. You will wear yourself out prematurely if you don’t quit this constant studying.”

     She rose to go, and, glancing up at her, Beulah answered, musingly:

     “We are very unlike. The things I love you shrink from as dull and tiresome. I live in a different world. Books are to me what family, and friends and society are to other people. It may be that the isolation of my life necessitates this. Doubtless, you often find me abstracted. Are you going so soon? I had hoped we should spend a profitable evening, but it has slipped away, and I have done-nothing. Good-night.” She rose and gave the customary good-night kiss, and, as Clara retired to her own room, Beulah turned up the wick of her lamp and resumed her book. The gorgeous mazes of Coleridge no longer imprisoned her fancy, it wandered mid the silence, and desolation and the sand riverlets of the Thebian desert, through the date groves of the lonely Laura, through the museums of Alexandria. Over the cool crystal depths of “Hypatia” her thirsty spirit hung eagerly. In Philammon’s intellectual nature she found a startling resemblance to her own. Like him, she had entered a forbidden temple, and learned to question, and the same “insatiable craving to know the mysteries of learning” was impelling her, with irresistible force, out into the world of philosophic inquiry. Hours fled on unnoted; with nervous haste the leaves were turned. The town clock cried three. As she finished the book and laid it on the table she bowed her head upon her hands. She was bewildered. Was Kingsley his own Raphael-Aben-Ezra? Or did he heartily believe in the Christianity of which he had given so hideous a portraiture? Her brain whirled yet there was a great dissatisfaction. She could not contentedly go book to the Laura with Philammon, “Hypatia” was not sufficiently explicit. She was dissatisfied, there was more than this Alexandrian ecstasy to which “Hypatia” was driven, but where, and how should she find it? Who would guide her? Was not her guardian, in many respects, as skeptical as Raphael himself? Dare she enter, alone and unaided, this Cretan maze of investigation, where all the wonderful lore of the gifted “Hypatia” had availed nothing? What was her intellect given her for, if not to be thus employed? Her head ached with the intensity of thought, and, as she laid it on her pillow and closed her eyes, day looked out over the eastern sky.

     The ensuing week was one of anxious apprehension to all within the city. Harriet’s words seemed prophetic; there was every intimation of a sickly season. Yellow fever had made its appearance in several sections of the town in its most malignant type. The board of health devised various schemes for arresting the advancing evil. The streets were powdered with lime and huge fires of tar kept constantly burning, yet daily, hourly, the fatality increased, and, as colossal ruin strode on, the terrified citizens fled in all directions. In ten days the epidemic began to make fearful havoc, all classes and ages were assailed indiscriminately. Whole families were stricken down in a day, and not one member spared to aid the others. The exodus was only limited by impossibility, all who could abandon their homes and sought safety in flight. These were the fortunate minority, and, as if resolved to wreak its fury on the remainder, the contagion spread into every quarter of the city. Not even physicians were spared and those who escaped trembled in anticipation of the fell stroke. Many doubted that it was yellow fever, and conjectured that the veritable plague had crossed the ocean. Of all Mrs. Hoyt’s boarders, but half a dozen determined to hazard remaining in the infected region. There were Beulah, Clara and four gentlemen. Gladly would Clara have fled to a place of safety, had it been in her power, but there was no one to accompany or watch over her, and as she was forced to witness the horrors of the season a sort of despair seemed to nerve her trembling frame. Mrs. Watson had been among the first to leave the city. Madam St. Cymon had disbanded her school, and, as only her three daughters continued to take music lessons, Beulah had ample leisure to contemplate the distressing scenes which surrounded her. At noon, one September day, she stood at the open window of her room. The air was intensely hot, the drooping leaves of the China trees were motionless, there was not a breath of wind stirring, and the sable plumes of the hearses were still as their burdens. The brazen, glittering sky seemed a huge glowing furnace, breathing out only scorching heat. Beulah leaned out of the window and, wiping away the heavy drops that stood on her brow, looked down the almost deserted street. Many of the stores were closed, while busy haunts were silent, and very few persons were visible, save the drivers of two hearses and of a cart filled with coffins. The church bells tolled unceasingly, and the desolation, the horror, were indescribable, as the sable wings of the Destroyer hung over the doomed city. Out of her ten fellow-graduates four slept in the cemetery. The night before she had watched beside another and at dawn saw the limbs stiffen and the eyes grow sightless. Among her former schoolmates the contagion had been particularly fatal, and, fearless of danger, she had nursed two of them. As she stood fanning herself, Clara entered hurriedly, and, sinking into a chair, exclaimed, in accents of terror:

     “It has come! As I knew it would! Two of Mrs. Hoyt’s children have been taken, and, I believe, one of the waiters also! Merciful God! What will become of me?” Her teeth chattered, and she trembled from head to foot.

     “Don’t be alarmed, Clara! Your excessive terror is your greatest danger. If you would escape you must keep as quiet as possible.”

     She poured out a glass of water and made her drink, then asked:

     “Can Mrs. Hoyt get medical aid?”

     “No, she has sent for every doctor in town, and not one has come.”

     “Then I will go down and assist her.” Beulah turned toward the door but Clara caught her dress, and said hoasrely:

     “Are you mad, thus continually to put your life in jeopardy? Are you shod with immortality, that you thrust yourself into the very pit of destruction?”

     “I am not afraid of the fever and therefore think I shall not take it. And as long as I am able to be up I shall do all that I can to relieve the sick. Remember, Clara, nurses are not to be had now for any sum.” She glided down the steps, and found the terrified mother wringing her hands helplessly over the stricken ones. The children were crying on the bed, and with the energy which the danger demanded, Beulah speedily ordered the mustard baths, and administered the remedies she has seen prescribed on previous occasions. The fever rose rapidly, and, undaunted by thoughts of personal danger, she took her place beside the bed, It was past midnight when Dr. Asbury came, exhausted and haggard from unremitting toil and vigils, he looked several years older than when she had lest seen him. He started on perceiving her perilous post, and said anxiously:

     “Oh, you are rash! Very rash! What would Hartwell say? What will he think when he comes?”

     “Comes! Surely you have not urged him to come back now.” said she, grasping his arm convulsively.

     “Certainly. I telegraphed to him to come home by express. You need not look so troubled, he has had this Egyptian plague, will run no risk, and, even if he should, will return as soon as possible.”

     “Are you sure he has had the fever?”

     “Yes, sure. I nursed him myself, the summer after he came from Europe and thought he would die. That was the last sickly season we have had for years, but this caps the climax of all I ever saw or heard of in America. Thank God, my wife and children are far away, and free from apprehension on their account, I can do my duty.”

     All this was said in an undertone, and, after advising everything that could possibly be done, he left the room, beckoning Beulah after him. She followed, and he said earnestly:

     “Child, I tremble for you. Why did you leave Hartwell’s house and insure all this peril? Beulah, though it is nobly unselfish of you to devote yourself to the sick, as you are doing, it may cost you your life -- nay, most probably will.”

     “I have thought of it all, sir, and am determined to do my duty.”

     “The God preserve you. Those children have been taken violently, watch them closely, good nursing is worth all the apothecary shops. You need not send for me anymore, I am out constantly, whenever I can I will come, meantime, depend only on the nursing. Should you be taken yourself. Let me know at once, do not fail. A word more -- keep yourself well stimulated.”

     He hurried away, and she returned to the sickroom, to speculate on the probability of soon meeting her guardian. Who can tell how dreary were the nights that followed? Mrs. Hoyt took the fever, and mother and children moaned together. On the morning of the fourth day the eldest child, a girl of eight years, died, with Beulah’s hand grasped in hers. Happily, the mother was unconscious, and the little corpse was borne into an adjoining room. Beulah shrank from the task which she felt for the first time in life called upon to perform. She could nurse the living, but dreaded the thought of shrouding the dead. Still, there was no one else to do it, and she bravely conquered her repugnance, and clad the young sleeper for the tomb. The gentlemen boarders, who had luckily escaped, arranged the mournful particulars of the burial, and, after severing a sunny lock of hair for the mother, should she live, Beulah saw the cold form borne out to its last resting place. Another gloomy day passed slowly, and she was rewarded by the convalescence of the remaining sick child. Mrs. Hoyt still hung upon the confines of eternity and Beulah, who had not closed her eyes for many nights’ was leaning over the bed counting the racing pulse, when a rapid step caused her to look up, and, falling forward in her arms, Clara cried:

     “Save me! Save me! The chill is on me now!”

     It was too true, and as Beulah assisted her to her room and carefully bathed her feet, her heart was heavy with dire dread lest Clara’s horror of the disease augment its ravages. Dr. Asbury was summoned with all haste, but, as usual, seemed an age coming, and when at last he came could only prescribe what had already been done. It was pitiable to watch the agonized expression of Clara’s sweet face, as she looked from the countenance of the physician to that of her friend, striving to discover their opinion of her case.

     “Doctor, you must send Hal to me. He can nurse Mrs. Hoyt and little Willie while I watch Clara. I can’t possibly take care of all three, though little Willie is a great deal better now. Can you send him at once? He is a good nurse.”

     “Yes, he has been nursing poor Tom Hamil, but he died about an hour ago, and Hal is released. I look for Hartwell hourly, you do keep up amazingly! Bless you, Beulah!” Wringing her hand, he descended the stairs.

     Re-entering the room Beulah sat down beside Clara, and taking one burning hand in her cool palms, pressed it softly, shying in an encouraging tone:

     “I feel so much relieved about Willie, he is a great deal better, and I think Mrs. Hoyt’s fever is abating. You were not taken so severely as Willie, and if you will go to sleep quietly I believe you will only have a light attack.”

     “Did those downstairs have black vomit?” asked Clara shuddering.

     “Lizzie had it, the others did not. Try not to think about it. Go to sleep.”

     “That was what the doctor said about Dr. Hartwell? I could not hear very well, you talked so low. Ah, tell me, Beulah.”

     “Only that he is coming home soon -- that was all. Don’t talk anymore.”

     Clara closed her eyes, but tears stole from beneath the lashes and coursed rapidly down her glowing cheeks. The lips moved in prayer and her fingers closed tightly over those of her companion. Beulah felt that her continued vigils and exertions were exhausting her. Her limbs trembled when she walked, and there was a dull pain in her head which she could not banish. Her appetite had long since forsaken her, and it was only by the exertion of a determined will that she forced herself to eat. She was warmly attached to Clara, and the dread of losing this friend caused her to suffer keenly. Occasionally she stole away to see the other sufferers, fearing that when Mrs. Hoyt discovered Lizzie’s death the painful intelligence would seal her own fate. It was late at night. She had just returned from one of the hasty visits, and, finding that Hal was as attentive as anyone could be, she threw herself, weary and anxious, into an armchair beside Clara’s bed. The crimson face was turned toward her, the parched lips parted, the panting breath labored and irregular. The victim was delirious, the hazel eyes, inflamed and vacant, rested on Beulah’s countenance, and she murmured:

     “He will never know! Oh, no! How should he? The grave will soon shut me in, and I shall see him no more -- no more!” She shuddered and turned away, Beulah leaned her head against the bed, and, as a tear slid down her hand, she thought and said with bitter sorrow:

     “I would rather see her the victim of death than have her drag out an aimless, cheerless existence, rendered joyless by this hopeless attachment.”

     She wondered whether Dr. Hartwell suspected this love. He was remarkably quick-sighted, and men, as well as women, were very vain and wont to give even undue weight to every circumstance which flattered their self-love. She had long seen this partiality, would not the object of it be quite as penetrating? Clara was very pretty, nay, at times she was beautiful. If conscious of her attachment, could he ever suffer himself to be influenced by it? No, Impossible! There were utter antagonisms of taste and temperament which rendered it very certain that she would not suit him for a companion. Yet she was very lovable. Beulah walked softly across the room and leaned out of the window. An awful silence brooded over the city.

“The moving moon went up the sky,

And nowhere did abide:

Softly she was going up,

And a star or two beside.”

 

     The soft beams struggled to pierce the murky air, dense with smoke from the burning pitch. There was no tread on the pavement -- all was solemn as Death, who held such mad revel in the crowded graveyards. Through the shroud of smoke she could see the rippling waters of the bay, as the faint southern breeze swept its surface. It was a desolation realizing all the horrors of the “Masque of the Red Death”, and as she thought of the mourning hearts in that silent city, of Clara’s danger and her own, Beulah repeated sadly those solemn lines:

“‘Like clouds that rake the mountain summit,

Or waves that own’ no curbing hand,

Hew fast has brother followed brother,

From sunshine to the sunless land?’”

  

      Clasping her hands she added earnestly;

     “I thank thee, my Father that the Atlantic rolls between Eugene and this bosom of destruction’.”

     A touch on her shoulder caused her to look around, and her eyes rested upon her guardian. She started, but did not speak, and held out her hand. He looked at her long and searchingly, his lips trembled, and, instead of taking her offered hand, he passed his arm around her and drew her to his bosom. She looked up, with surprise, and, bending his haughty head, he kissed her pale brow for the first time. She felt then that she would like to throw her arms around his neck and tell him how very glad she was to see him again -- how unhappy his sudden departure had made her, but a feeling she could not pause to analyze prevented her from following the dictates of her heart, and, holding her off, so as to scan her countenance, Dr. Hartwell said;

     “How worn and haggard you look! Oh, child! Your rash obstinacy has tortured me beyond expression.”

     “I have but done my duty, It has been a horrible time, I am glad you have come. You will not let Clara die.”

     “Sit down, child, you are trembling from exhaustion.”

     He drew up a chair for her, and, taking her wrist in his hand, said, as he examined the slow pulses.

     “Was Clara taken violently? How is she?”

     “She is delirious, and so much alarmed at her danger that I feel very uneasy about her. Come and see her, perhaps she will know you.” She led the way to the bedside, but there was no recognition in the wild, restless eyes, and as she tossed from side to side, her incoherent muttering made Beulah dread lest she should discover to its object the adoring love which filled her pure heart. She told her guardian what had been prescribed. He offered no suggestion as to the treatment, but gave a potion which she informed him was due. As Clara swallowed the draught, she looked at him, and said eagerly;

     “Has he come? Did he say he would see me and save me? Did Dr, Hartwell send me this?”

     “She raves.” said Beulah hastily.

     A shadow fell upon his face, and, stooping over the pillow, he answered very gently;

     “Yes, he has come to save you. He is here.”

     She smiled and seemed satisfied for a moment, then moaned and muttered on indistinctly.

     “He knows it all? Oh, poor, poor Clara!” thought Beulah, shading her face to prevent his reading what passed in her mind.

     “How long have you been sitting up, Beulah?”

     She told him.

     “It is no wonder you look as if years had suddenly passed over your head! You have a room here, I believe. Go to it, and go to sleep, I will not leave Clara.”

     It was astonishing how his presence removed the dread weight of responsibility from her heart. Not until this moment had she felt as if she could possibly sleep.

     “I will sleep now, so as to be refreshed for to-morrow and to-morrow night. Here is a couch, I will sleep here, and if Clara grows worse you must wake me.” She crossed the room, threw herself on the couch, and laid her aching head on her arm. Dr. Hartwell placed a pillow under the head, once more his fingers sought her wrist, once more his lips touched her forehead, add as he returned to watch beside Clara and listen to her ravings, Beulah sank into a heavy, dreamless sleep of exhaustion.

     She was awakened by the cool pattering of raindrops, which beat through the shutters and fell upon her face. She sprang up with a thrill of delight and looked out. A leaden sky lowered over the city, and as the torrents came down in whitening sheets, the thunder rolled continuously overhead, and trailing wreaths of smoke from the dying fires dropped like banners over the roofs of the houses. Not the shower which gathered and fell around Seagirt Carmel was more gratefully received.

     “Thank God, it rains!” cried Beulah, and, turning toward Clara, she saw with pain that the sufferer was all unconscious of the tardy blessing. She kissed the hot, dry brow, but no token or recognition greeted her anxious gaze. The fever was at its height, the delicate features were strangely sharpened and distorted. Save the sound of her labored breathing, the room was silent, and sinking on her knees, Beulah prayed earnestly that the gentle sufferer might be spared. As she rose her guardian entered, and she started at the haggard, wasted, harassed look of the noble face, which she had not observed before. He bent down and coaxed Clara to take a spoonful of medicine and Beulah, asked earnestly:

     “Have you been ill, sir?”

     “No.”

     He did not even glance at her. The affectionate cordiality of the hour of meeting had utterly vanished. He looked as cold, stern, and impenetrable as some half-buried sphinx of the desert.

     “Have you seen the others this morning?” said she, making a strong effort to conceal the chagrin this revulsion of feeling occasioned.

     “Yes, Mrs. Hoyt will get well.”

     “Does she know of her child’s death?”

     “Yes.”

     “You are not going, surely.” she continued, as he took his hat and glanced at his watch.

     “I am needed elsewhere. Only nursing can new avail here. You know very well what is requisite. Either Dr. Asbury or I will be here again to-night to sit up with this gentle girl.”

     “You need neither of you come to sit up with her. I will do that myself I shall not sleep another moment until I know she is better.”

     “Very well.” He left the room immediately.

     “How he cases his volcanic nature in ice!” thought Beulah, sinking into the armchair. “Last night he seemed so kind, so cordial, so much my friend and guardian! Today there is a mighty barrier, as though he stood on some towering crag and talked to me across an infinite gulf! Well, well, even an Arctic night passes away, and I can afford to wait until his humor changes.”

     For many hours the rain fell unceasingly, but toward sunset the pall of clouds was scourged on by a brisk western breeze, and the clear canopy of heaven, not fiery as for days past, but cool and blue, bent serenely over the wet earth. The slanting rays of the swiftly sinking sun flashed through dripping boughs, creating myriads of diamond sprays, and over the sparkling waters of the bay sprang a brilliant bow, arching superbly along the eastern horizon, where a bank of clouds still lay. Verily, it seemed a new covenant that the destroying demon should no longer desolate the beautiful city, and to many an anxious, foreboding heart that glorious rainbow gave back hope and faith. A cool, quiet twilight followed. Beulah knew that hearses still bore the dead to their silent chambers, she could hear the rumbling, the melancholy solemn sound of the wheels, but firm trust reigned in her heart and with Clara’s hand in hers, she felt an intuitive assurance that the loved one would not yet be summoned from her earthly field of action. The sick in the other part of the house were much better, and, though one of the gentleman boarders had been taken since morning, she lighted the lamp and stole about the room with a calmer, happier spirit than she had known for many days. She fancied that her charge breathed more easily, and the wild stare of the inflamed eyes was concealed under the long lashes which lay on the cheeks. The sufferer slept, and the watcher augured favorably. About nine o’clock she heard steps on the stairs and soon after Drs. Asbury and Hartwell entered together. There was little to be told, and less to be advised, and while the latter attentively examined the pulse and looked down at the altered countenance, stamped with the signet of the dread disease, the former took Beulah’s hand in both his, and said kindly:

     “How do you do, my little heroine? By Nebros! You are worth your weight in medical treatises. How are you, little one?”

     “Quite well, thank you, sir, and I dare say I am much more able to sit up with the sick than you, who have had no respite whatever. Don’t stand up when you must be so weary, take this easy-chair.” Holding his hand firmly, she drew him down to it. There had always been a fatherly tenderness in his manner toward her, which visiting at her guardian’s, and she regarded him with reverence and affection. Though often blunt, he never chilled nor repelled her, as his partner so often did, and now she stood beside him, still holding one of his hands. He smoothed back the gray hair from his furrowed brow and with a twinkle in his blue eye, said:

     “How much will you take for your services? I want to engage you to teach my madcap daughters a little quiet bravery and uncomplaining endurance.”

     “I have none of the Shylock in my composition, only give me a few kind words and I shall be satisfied. Now, once for all, Dr. Asbury, if you treat me to any more barefaced flattery of this sort, I nurse no more of your patients.”

     Dr. Hartwell here directed his partner’s attention to Clara, and, thoroughly provoked at the pertinacity with which he avoided noticing her, she seized the brief opportunity to visit Mrs. Hoyt and little Willie. The mother welcomed her with a silent grasp of the hand and a gush of tears. But this was no time for acknowledgements, and Beulah strove, by a few encouraging remarks, to cheer the bereaved parent and interest Willie, who, like all other children under such circumstances, had grown fretful. She shook up their pillows, iced a fresh pitcher of water for them, and, promising to run down and see them often, now that Hal was forced to give his attention to the last victim, she noiselessly stole back to Clara’s room. Dr. Hartwell was walking up and down the floor, and his companion sat just where she had left him. He rose as she entered, and, putting on his hat, said kindly:

     “Are you able to sit up with Miss Sanders to-night? If not, say so candidly.”

     “I am able and determined to do so.”

     “Very well. After to-morrow it will not be needed.”

     “What do you mean?” cried Beulah, clutching his arm.

     “Don’t look so savage, child. She will either be convalescent or beyond all aid. I hope and believe the former. Watch her closely until I see you again, Good-night, dear child.” He stepped to the door, and, with a slight inclination of his head, Dr. Hartwell followed him.

     It was a vigil Beulah never forgot. The night seemed interminable, as if the car of time were driven backwards, and she longed inexpressibly for the dawning of day. Four o’clock came at last, silence brooded over the town. The western breeze had sung itself to rest, and there was a solemn hush, as though all nature stood still to watch the struggle between dusky Azrael and a human soul. Clara slept. The distant stars looked down encouragingly from their homes of blue, and once more the lonely orphan beat her knee in supplication before the throne of Jehovah. But a cloud seemed hovering between her heart and the presence-chamber of Deity. In vain she prayed, and tried to believe that life would be spared in answer to her petitions. Faith died in her soul, and she sat with her eyes riveted upon the face of her friend. The flush of consuming fever paled, the pulse was slow and feeble, and by the gray light of day Beulah saw that the face was strangely changed. For several hours longer she maintained her watch, still the doctors did not come, and while she sat with Clara’s fingers clasped in hers, the brown eyes opened, and looked dreamily at her. She leaned over and, kissing the wan cheek, asked eagerly:

     “How do you feel, darling?”

     “Perfectly weak and helpless. How long have I been sick?”

     “Only a few days. You are a great deal better now.” She tenderly smoothed the silky hair that clustered in disorder round the face. Clara seemed perplexed, she thought for a moment, and said feebly;

     “Have I been very ill?”

     “Well -- yes. You have been right sick. Had some fever, but it has left you.”

     Clara mused again. Memory came back slowly, and at length she asked:

     “Did they all die?”

     “Did who die?”

     “All those downstairs.” She shuddered violently.

     “Oh, No! Mrs. Hoyt and Willie are almost well. Try to go to sleep again Clara.”

     Several minutes glided by, the eyes closed, and, clasping Beulah’s fingers tightly, she asked again:

     “Have I had any physician?”

     “Yes. I thought it would do no harm to have Dr. Asbury see you.” answered Beulah carelessly. She saw an expression of disappointment pass sadly over the girl’s countenance, and thinking it might be as well to satisfy her at once, she continued, as if speaking on indifferent topics:

     “Dr. Hartwell came home since you were taken sick, and called to see you two or three time.”

     A faint glow tinged the sallow cheek, and while a tremor crept over her lips she said almost inaudibly:

     “When will he come again?”

     “Before long, I dare say. Indeed, there is his step now. Dr. Asbury is with him.”

     She had not time to say more, for they came in immediately, and, with a species of pity she noted the smile of pleasure which curved Clara’s mouth as her guardian bent down and spoke to her. While he took her thin hand and fixed his eyes on her face, Dr. Asbury looked over his shoulder, and said bluntly:

     “Hurrah for you! All right again, as I thought you would be! Does your head ache at all this morning? Feel like eating half a dozen partridges?”

     “She is not deaf.” said Dr. Hartwell rather shortly.

     “I am not sure of that, she has been to all my questions lately. I must see about Carter, below. Beulah, child, you look the worse for your apprenticeship to our profession.”

     “So do you, sir.” said she, smiling as her eyes wandered over his grim visage.

     “You may well say that, child, I snatched about two hours’ sleep this morning, and when I awoke I felt very much like Coleridge’s unlucky sailor:

“‘I moved, and could not feel my limbs,

I was so light -- almost,

I thought that l had died in sleep,

And was a blessed ghost.’”

 

     He hurried away to another part of the house, and Beulah went into her own apartment to arrange her hair, which she felt must need attention sadly.

     Looking into the glass she could not forbear smiling at the face which looked back at her, it was so thin and ghastly, even the lips were colorless and the large eyes sunken. She unbound her hair, and had only shaken it fully out, when a knock at her door called her from the glass. She tossed her hair all back, and it hung like an inky veil almost to the floor, as she opened the door and confronted her guardian.

     “Here is some medicine which must be mixed in a tumbler of water. I want a tablespoonful given every hour, unless Clara is asleep. Keep everything quiet.”

     “Is that all?” said Beulah coolly.

     “That is all.” He walked off, and she brushed and twisted up her hair, wondering how long he meant to keep up that freezing manner. It accorded very well with his treatment before his departure for the North, and she sighed as she recalled the brief hour of cordiality which followed his return. She began to perceive that this was the way they were to meet in the future, she had displeased him, and he intended that she should feel it. Tears gathered in her eyes, and she drove them scornfully back, and exclaimed indignantly:

     “He wants to rule me with a rod of iron, because I am indebted to him for an education and support for several years. As I hope for a peaceful rest hereafter, I will repay him every cent he has expended for music, drawing and clothing! I will economize until every picayune is returned.”

     The purse had not been touched, and, hastily counting the contents to see that all the bills were there, she relocked the drawer-and returned to the sickroom with anything but a calm face. Clara seemed to be asleep, and, picking up a book, Beulah began to read. A sickroom is always monotonous and dreary, and long confinement had rendered Beulah restless and uncomfortable. Her limbs ached -- so did her head, and continued loss of sleep made her nervous to an unusual degree. She longed to open her melodeon and play; this would have quieted her, but of course was not to be thought of, with four invalids in the house and death on almost every square in the city. She was no longer unhappy about Clara, for there was little doubt that, with care, she would soon be well, and thus drearily the hours wore on. Finally Clare evinced a disposition to talk. Her nurse discouraged it, with exceedingly brief replies, intimating that she would improve her condition by going to sleep. Toward evening Clara seemed much refreshed by a long nap, and took some food which had been prepared for her.

     “The sickness is abating, is it not, Beulah?”

     “Yes, very perceptibly; but more from lack of fresh victims than anything else. I hope we shall have a white frost soon.”

     “It has been very horrible! I shudder when I think of it.” said Clara.

     “Then don’t think of it.” answered her companion.

     “Oh, how can I help it? I did not expect to live through it. I was sure I should die when that chill came on. You have saved me, dear Beulah!” Tears glistened in her soft eyes.

     “No, God saved you.”

     “Through your instrumentality.” replied Clara, raising her friend’s hand to her lips.

     “Don’t talk any more, the doctor expressly enjoined quiet for you.”

     “I am glad to owe my recovery to him also. How noble and good he is -- how superior to everybody else!” murmured the sick girl.

     Beulah’s lips became singularly compact, but she offered no comment. She walked up and down the room, although so worn out that she could scarcely keep herself erect. When the doctor came she escaped unobserved to her room, hastily put on her bonnet, and ran down the steps for a short walk. It was perfect Elysium to get out once more under the pure sky and breathe the air, as it swept over the bay, cool, sweet, and invigorating. The streets were still quiet, but hearses and carts, filled with coffins, no longer greeted her on every side, and she walked for several squares. The sun went down and, too weary to extend her ramble, she slowly retraced her steps. The buggy no longer stood at the door, and after seeing Mrs. Hoyt and trying to chat pleasantly, she crept back to Clara.

     “Where have you been?” asked the latter.

     “To get a breath of fresh air and see the sun set.”

     “Dr, Hartwell asked for you. I did not know what had become of you.”

     “How do you feel tonight?” said Beulah, laying her hand softly on Clara’s forehead.

     “Better, but very weak. You have no idea how feeble l am. Beulah, I want to know whether --.”

     “You were told to keep quiet, so don’t ask any questions, for I will not answer one.”

     “You are not to sit up tonight, the doctor said I-would not require it.

     “Let the doctor go back to the North and theorize in his medical conventions! I shall sleep here by your bed, on this couch. If you feel worse, call me. Now, good-night, and don’t open your lips again.” she drew the couch close to the bed, and, shading the lamp, threw her weary frame down to rest, ere long she slept. The pestilential storm had spent its fury, daily the number of deaths diminished, gradually the pall of silence and desolation which had hung over the city vanished. The streets resumed their usual busy aspect, and the hum of life went forward once more. At length fugitive families ventured home again, and though bands of crape, grim badges of bereavement, met the eye on all sides, all rejoiced that Death had removed his court that his hideous carnival was over. Clara regained her strength very slowly, and when well enough to quit her room, walked with the slow, uncertain steps of feebleness.

 

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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