Scene VII-Aaron's Buildings-Chapter I
ON the seventh of June, the owners of the merchantman Deliverance received news that the ship had touched at Plymouth to land passengers, and had then continued her homeward voyage to the Port of London. Five days later, the vessel was in the river, and was towed into the East India Docks.
Having transacted the business on shore for which he was personally responsible, Captain Kirke made the necessary arrangements, by letter, for visiting his brother-in-law's parsonage in Suffolk, on the seventeenth of the month. As usual in such cases, he received a list of commissions to execute for his sister on the day before he left London. One of these commissions took him into the neighborhood of Camden Town. He drove to his destination from the Docks; and then, dismissing the vehicle, set forth to walk back southward, toward the New Road.
He was not well acquainted with the district; and his attention wandered further and further away from the scene around him as he went on. His thoughts, roused by the prospect of seeing his sister again, had led his memory back to the night when he had parted from her, leaving the house on foot. The spell so strangely laid on him, in that past time, had kept its hold through all after-events. The face that had haunted him on the lonely road had haunted him again on the lonely sea. The woman who had followed him, as in a dream, to his sister's door, had followed him -- thought of his thought, and spirit of his spirit -- to the deck of his ship. Through storm and calm on the voyage out, through storm and calm on the voyage home, she had been with him. In the ceaseless turmoil of the London streets, she was with him now. He knew what the first question on his lips would be, when he had seen his sister and her boys. "I shall try to talk of something else," he thought; "but when Lizzie and I am alone, it will come out in spite of me."
The necessity of waiting to let a string of carts pass at a turning before he crossed awakened him to present things. He looked about in a momentary confusion. The street was strange to him; he had lost his way.
The first foot passenger of whom he inquired appeared to have no time to waste in giving information. Hurriedly directing him to cross to the other side of the road, to turn down the first street he came to on his right hand, and then to ask again, the stranger unceremoniously hastened on without waiting to be thanked.
Kirke followed his directions and took the turning on his right. The street was short and narrow, and the houses on either side were of the poorer order. He looked up as he passed the corner to see what the name of the place might be. It was called "Aaron's Buildings."
Low down on the side of the "Buildings" along which he was walking, a little crowd of idlers was assembled round two cabs, both drawn up before the door of the same house. Kirke advanced to the crowd, to ask his way of any civil stranger among them who might not be in a hurry this time. On approaching the cabs, he found a woman disputing with the drivers; and heard enough to inform him that two vehicles had been sent for by mistake, where only one was wanted.
The house door was open; and when he turned that way next, he looked easily into the passage, over the heads of the people in front of him.
The sight that met his eyes should have been shielded in pity from the observation of the street. He saw a slatternly girl, with a frightened face, standing by an old chair placed in the middle of the passage, and holding a woman on the chair, too weak and helpless to support herself -- a woman apparently in the last stage of illness, who was about to be removed, when the dispute outside was ended, in one of the cabs. Her head was drooping when he first saw her, and an old shawl which covered it had fallen forward so as to hide the upper part of her face.
Before he could look away again, the girl in charge of her raised her head and restored the shawl to its place. The action disclosed her face to view, for an instant only, before her head drooped once more on her bosom. In that instant he saw the woman whose beauty was the haunting remembrance of his life -- whose image had been vivid in his mind not five minutes since.
The shock of the double recognition -- the recognition, at the same moment, of the face, and of the dreadful change in it -- struck him speechless and helpless. The steady presence of mind in all emergencies which had become a habit of his life, failed him for the first time. The poverty-stricken street, the squalid mob round the door, swam before his eyes. He staggered back and caught at the iron railings of the house behind him.
"Where are they taking her to?" he heard a woman ask, close at his side.
"To the hospital, if they will have her," was the reply. "And to the work-house, if they won't."
That horrible answer roused him. He pushed his way through the crowd and entered the house.
The misunderstanding on the pavement had been set right, and one of the cabs had driven off.
As he crossed the threshold of the door he confronted the people of the house at the moment when they were moving her. The cabman who had remained was on one side of the chair, a nd the woman who had been disputing with the two drivers was on the other. They were just lifting her, when Kirke's tall figure darkened the door.
"What are you doing with that lady?" he asked.
The cabman looked up with the insolence of his reply visible in his eyes, before his lips could utter it. But the woman, quicker than he, saw the suppressed agitation in Kirke's face, and dropped her hold of the chair in an instant.
"Do you know her, sir?" asked the woman, eagerly. "Are you one of her friends?"
"Yes," said Kirke, without hesitation.
"It's not my fault, sir," pleaded the woman, shirking under the look he fixed on her. "I would have waited patiently till her friends found her -- I would, indeed!"
Kirke made no reply. He turned, and spoke to the cabman.
"Go out," he said, "and close the door after you. I'll send you down your money directly. What room in the house did you take her from, when you brought her here?" he resumed, addressing himself to the woman again.
"The first floor back, sir."
"Show me the way to it."
He stooped, and lifted Magdalen in his arms. Her head rested gently on the sailor's breast; her eyes looked up wonderingly into the sailor's face. She smiled, and whispered to him vacantly. Her mind had wandered back to old days at home; and her few broken words showed that she fancied herself a child again in her father's arms. "Poor papa!" she said, softly. "Why do you look so sorry? Poor papa!"
The woman led the way into the back room on the first floor. It was very small; it was miserably furnished. But the little bed was clean, and the few things in the room were neatly kept. Kirke laid her tenderly on the bed. She caught one of his hands in her burning fingers. "Don't distress mamma about me," she said. "Send for Norah." Kirke tried gently to release his hand; but she only clasped it the more eagerly. He sat down by the bedside to wait until it pleased her to release him. The woman stood looking at them and crying, in a corner of the room. Kirke observed her attentively. "Speak," he said, after an interval, in low, quiet tones. "Speak in her presence; and tell me the truth."
With many words, with many tears, the woman spoke.
She had let her first floor to the lady a fortnight since. The lady had paid a week's rent, and had given the name of Gray. She had been out from morning till night, for the first three days, and had come home again, on every occasion, with a wretchedly weary, disappointed look. The woman of the house had suspected that she was in hiding from her friends, under a false name; and that she had been vainly trying to raise money, or to get some employment, on the three days when she was out for so long, and when she looked so disappointed on coming home. However that might be, on the fourth day she had fallen ill, with shivering fits and hot fits, turn and turn about. On the fifth day she was worse; and on the sixth, she was too sleepy at one time, and too light-headed at another, to be spoken to. The chemist (who did the doctoring in those parts) had come and looked at her, and had said he thought it was a bad fever. He had left a "saline draught," which the woman of the house had paid for out of her own pocket, and had administered without effect. She had ventured on searching the only box which the lady had brought with her; and had found nothing in it but a few necessary articles of linen -- no dresses, no ornaments, not so much as the fragment of a letter which might help in discovering her friends. Between the risk of keeping her under these circumstances, and the barbarity of turning a sick woman into the street, the landlady herself had not hesitated. She would willingly have kept her tenant, on the chance of the lady's recovery, and on the chance of her friends turning up. But not half an hour since, her husband -- who never came near the house, except to take her money -- had come to rob her of her little earnings, as usual. She had been obliged to tell him that no rent was in hand for the first floor, and that none was likely to be in hand until the lady recovered, or her friends found her. On hearing this, he had mercilessly insisted -- well or ill -- that the lady should go. There was the hospital to take her to; and if the hospital shut its doors, there was the workhouse to try next. If she was not out of the place in an hour's time, he threatened to come back and take her out himself. His wife knew but too well that he was brute enough to be as good as his word; and no other choice had been left her but to do as she had done, for the sake of the lady herself.
The woman told her shocking story, with every appearance of being honestly ashamed of it. Toward the end, Kirke felt the clasp of the burning fingers slackening round his hand. He looked back at the bed again. Her weary eyes were closing; and, with her face still turned toward the sailor, she was sinking into sleep.
"Is there any one in the front room?" said Kirke, in a whisper. "Come in there; I have something to say to you."
The woman followed him through the door of communication between the rooms.
"How much does she owe you?" he asked.
The landlady mentioned the sum. Kirke put it down before her on the table.
"Where is your husband?" was his next question.
"Waiting at the public-house, sir, till the hour is up."
"You can take him the money or not, as you think right," said Kirke, quietly. "I have only one thing to tell you, as far as your husband is concerned. If you want to see every bone in his skin broken, let him come to the house while I am in it. Stop! I have something more to say. Do you know of any doctor in the neighborhood who can be depended on?"
"Not in our neighborhood, sir. But I know of one within half an hour's walk of us."
"Take the cab at the door; and, if you find him at home, bring him back in it. Say I am waiting here for his opinion on a very serious case. He shall be well paid, and you shall be well paid. Make haste!"
The woman left the room.
Kirke sat down alone, to wait for her return. He hid his face in his hands, and tried to realize the strange and touching situation in which the accident of a moment had placed him.
Hidden in the squalid by-ways of London under a false name; cast, friendless and helpless, on the mercy of strangers, by illness which had struck her prostrate, mind and body alike -- so he met her again, the woman who had opened a new world of beauty to his mind; the woman who had called Love to life in him by a look! What horrible misfortune had struck her so cruelly, and struck her so low? What mysterious destiny had guided him to the last refuge of her poverty and despair, in the hour of her sorest need? "If it is ordered that I am to see her again, I shall see her." Those words came back to him now -- the memorable words that he had spoken to his sister at parting. With that thought in his heart, he had gone where his duty called him. Months and months had passed; thousands and thousands of miles, protracting their desolate length on the unresting waters had rolled between them. And through the lapse of time, and over the waste of oceans -- day after day, and night after night, as the winds of heaven blew, and the good ship toiled on before them -- he had advanced nearer and nearer to the end that was waiting for him; he had journeyed blindfold to the meeting on the threshold of that miserable door. "What has brought me here?" he said to himself in a whisper. "The mercy of chance? No. The mercy of God."
He waited, unregardful of the place, unconscious of the time, until the sound of footsteps on the stairs came suddenly between him and his thoughts. The door opened, and the doctor was shown into the room.
"Dr. Merrick," said the landlady, placing a chair for him.
"Mr. Merrick," said the visitor, smiling quietly as he took the chair. "I am not a physician -- I am a surgeon in general practice."
Physician or surgeon, there was something in his face and manner which told Kirke at a glance that he was a man to be relied on.
After a few preliminary words on either side, Mr. Merrick sent the landlady into the bedroom to see if his patient was awake or asleep. The woman returned, and said she was "betwixt the two, light in the head again, and burning hot." The doctor went at once into the bedroom, telling the landlady to follow him, and to close the door behind her.
A weary time passed before he came back into the front room. When he re-appeared, his face spoke for him, before any question could be asked.
"Is it a serious illness?" said Kirke his voice sinking low, his eyes anxiously fixed on the doctor's face.
"It is a dangerous illness," said Mr. Merrick, with an emphasis on the word.
He drew his chair nearer to Kirke and looked at him attentively.
"May I ask you some questions which are not strictly medical?" he inquired.
"Can you tell me what her life has been before she came into this house, and before she fell ill?"
"I have no means of knowing. I have just returned to England after a long absence."
"Did you know of her coming here?"
"I only discovered it by accident."
"Has she no female relations? No mother? no sister? no one to take care of her but yourself?"
"No one -- unless I can succeed in tracing her relations. No one but myself."
Mr. Merrick was silent. He looked at Kirke more attentively than ever. "Strange!" thought the doctor. "He is here, in sole charge of her -- and is this all he knows?"
Kirke saw the doubt in his face; and addressed himself straight to that doubt, before another word passed between them
"I see my position here surprises you," he said, simply. "Will you consider it the position of a relation -- the position of her brother or her father -- until her friends can be found?" His voice faltered, and he laid his hand earnestly on the doctor's arm. "I have taken this trust on myself," he said; "and as God shall judge me, I will not be unworthy of it!"
The poor weary head lay on his breast again, the poor fevered fingers clasped his hand once more, as he spoke those words.
"I believe you," said the doctor, warmly. "I believe you are an honest man. -Pardon me if I have seemed to intrude myself on your confidence. I respect your reserve -- from this moment it is sacred to me. In justice to both of us, let me say that the questions I have asked were not prompted by mere curiosity. No common cause will account for the illness which has laid my patient on that bed. She has suffered some long-continued mental trial, some wearing and terrible suspense -- and she has broken down under it. It might have helped me if I could have known what the nature of the trial was, and how long or how short a time elapsed before she sank under it. In that hope I spoke."
"When you told me she was dangerously ill," said Kirke, "did you mean danger to her reason or to her life?"
"To both," replied Mr. Merrick. "Her whole nervous system has given way; all the ordinary functions of her brain are in a state of collapse. I can give you no plainer explanation than that of the nature of the malady. The fever which frightens the people of the house is merely the effect. The cause is what I have told you. She may lie on that bed for weeks to come; passing alternately, without a gleam of consciousness, from a state of delirium to a state of repose. You must not be alarmed if you find her sleep lasting far beyond the natural time. That sleep is a better remedy than any I can give, and nothing must disturb it. All our art can accomplish is to watch her, to help her with stimulants from time to time, and to wait for what Nature will do."
"Must she remain here? Is there no hope of our being able to remove her to a better place?"
"No hope whatever, for the present. She has already been disturbed, as I understand, and she is seriously the worse for it. Even if she gets better, even if she comes to herself again, it would still be a dangerous experiment to move her too soon -- the least excitement or alarm would be fatal to her. You must make the best of this place as it is. The landlady has my directions; and I will send a good nurse to help her. There is nothing more to be done. So far as her life can be said to be in any human hands, it is as much in your hands now as in mine. Everything depends on the care that is taken of her, under your direction, in this house." With those farewell words he rose and quitted the room.
Left by himself, Kirke walked to the door of communication, and, knocking at it softly, told the landlady he wished to speak with her.
He was far more composed, far more like his own resolute self, after his interview with the doctor, than he had been before it. A man living in the artificial social atmosphere which this man had never breathed would have felt painfully the worldly side of the situation -- its novelty and strangeness; the serious present difficulty in which it placed him; the numberless misinterpretations in the future to which it might lead. Kirke never gave the situation a thought. He saw nothing but the duty it claimed from him -- a duty which the doctor's farewell words had put plainly before his mind. Everything depended on the care taken of her, under his direction, in that house. There was his responsibility, and he unconsciously acted under it, exactly as he would have acted in a case of emergency with women and children on board his own ship. He questioned the landlady in short, sharp sentences; the only change in him was in the lowered tone of his voice, and in the anxious looks which he cast, from time to time, at the room where she lay.
"Do you understand what the doctor has told you?"
"The house must be kept quiet. Who lives in the house?"
"Only me and my daughter, sir; we live in the parlors. Times have gone badly with us since Lady Day. Both the rooms above this are to let."
"I will take them both, and the two rooms down here as well. Do you know of any active trustworthy man who can run on errands for me?"
"Yes, sir. Shall I go -- ?"
"No; let your daughter go. You must not leave the house until the nurse comes. Don't send the messenger up here. Men of that sort tread heavily. I'll go down, and speak to him at the door."
He went down when the messenger came, and sent him first to purchase pen, ink, and paper. The man's next errand dispatched him to make inquiries for a person who could provide for deadening the sound of passing wheels in the street by laying down tan before the house in the usual way. This object accomplished, the messenger received two letters to post. The first was addressed to Kirke's brother-in-law. It told him, in few and plain words, what had happened; and left him to break the news to his wife as he thought best. The second letter was directed to the landlord of the Aldborough Hotel. Magdalen's assumed name at North Shingles was the only name by which Kirke knew her; and the one chance of tracing her relatives that he could discern was the chance of discovering her reputed uncle and aunt by means of inquiries starting from Aldborough.
Toward the close of the afternoon a decent middle-aged woman came to the house, with a letter from Mr. Merrick. She was well known to the doctor as a trustworthy and careful person, who had nursed his own wife; and she would be assisted, from time to time, by a lady who was a member of a religious Sisterhood in the district, and whose compassionate interest had been warmly aroused in the case. Toward eight o'clock that evening the doctor himself would call and see that his patient wanted for nothing.
The arrival of the nurse, and the relief of knowing that she was to be trusted, left Kirke free to think of himself. His luggage was ready packed for his contemplated journey to Suffolk the next day. It was merely necessary to transport it from the hotel to the house in Aaron's Buildings.
He stopped once only on his way to the hotel to look at a toyshop in one of the great thoroughfares. The miniature ships in the window reminded him of his nephew. "My little name-sake will be sadly disappointed at not seeing me to-morrow," he thought. "I must make it up to the boy by sending him somethi ng from his uncle." He went into the shop and bought one of the ships. It was secured in a box, and packed and directed in his presence. He put a ca rd on the deck of the miniature vessel before the cover of the box was nailed on, bearing this inscription: "A ship for the little sailor, with the big sailor's love." -"Children like to be written to, ma'am," he said, apologetically, to the woman behind the counter. "Send the box as soon as you can -- I am anxious the boy should get it to-morrow."
Toward the dusk of the evening he returned with his luggage to Aaron's Buildings. He took off his boots in the passage and carried his trunk upstairs himself; stopping, as he passed the first floor, to make his inquiries. Mr. Merrick was present to answer them.
"She was awake and wandering," said the doctor, "a few minutes since. But we have succeeded in composing her, and she is sleeping now."
"Have no words escaped her, sir, which might help us to find her friends?"
Mr. Merrick shook his head.
"Weeks and weeks may pass yet," he said, "and that poor girl's story may still be a sealed secret to all of us. We can only wait."
So the day ended -- the first of many days that were to come.Next