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!”

  


Continued with Scribbling Women ~ pt. 6.1.1


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

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