Read CHAPTER XXII - LADY ALICE’S PHILANTHROPY of Brooke's Daughter A Novel , free online book, by Adeline Sergeant, on

Meanwhile, Lady Alice Brooke, in pursuit of her new fancy for philanthropy and the sick poor, had wandered somewhat aimlessly into other wards beside those set apart for women and children at first the object of her search. She strayed I use the word “strayed” designedly, for she certainly did not do it of set purpose with one of the nurses into accident wards, into the men’s wards, where her flowers and fruits and gentle words made her welcome, and where the bearded masculine faces, worn sometimes by pain and privation of long standing, appealed to her sensibilities in a new and not altogether unpleasant way.

For Lady Alice was a very feminine creature, and liked, as most women do like, to be admired and adored. She had confessed as much when she told the story of her life to her daughter Lesley. And she had something less than her woman’s due in this respect. Caspar Brooke had very honestly loved and admired her, but in a protective and slightly “superior” way. The earl, her father, belonged to that conservative portion of the aristocratic class which treats its womankind with distinguished civility and profoundest contempt. In her father’s home Lady Alice felt herself of no account. As years increased upon her, the charm of her graceful manner was marred by advancing self-distrust. In losing (as she, at least, thought) her physical attractions, she lost all that entitled her to consideration amongst the men and women with whom she lived. She had no fixed position, no private fortune, nothing that would avail her in the least when her father died; and the gentle coldness of her manner did not encourage women to intimacy, or invite men to pay her attentions that she would scorn. In any other situation, her natural gifts and virtues would have fairer play. As a spinster, she would still have had lovers; as a widow, suitors by the dozen; as a happily married woman she would have been courted, complimented, flattered, by all the world. But, as a woman merely separated from a husband with whom she had in the first instance eloped, living on sufferance, as it were, in her father’s house, “neither maid, wife, nor widow,” she was in a situation which became more irksome and more untenable every year.

To a woman conscious of such a jar in her private life, it was really a new and delightful experience to find herself in a place where she could be of some real use, where she was admired and respected and flattered by that unconscious flattery given us sometimes by the preference of the sick and miserable. The men in one of the accident wards were greatly taken with Lady Alice. There was her title, to begin with; there were her gracious accents, her graceful figure, her gentle, beautiful face. The men liked to see her come in, liked to hear her talk although she was decidedly slow, and a little irresponsive in conversation. It soon leaked out, moreover, that material benefits followed in the wake of her visits. One man, who left the hospital, returned one day to inform his mates that, “the lady” had found work for him on her father’s estate, and that he considered himself a “made man for life.” The attentions of such men who were not too ill to be influenced by such matters were henceforth concentrated upon Lady Alice; and she, being after all a simple creature, believed their devotion to be genuine, and rejoiced in it.

With one patient, however, she did not for some time establish any friendly relations. He had been run over, while drunk, the nurses told her, and very seriously hurt. He lay so long in a semi-comatose condition that fears were entertained for his reason, and when the mist gradually cleared away from his brain, he was in too confused a state of mind for conversation to be possible.

Lady Alice went to look at him from time to time, and spoke to the nurse about him; but weeks elapsed before he seemed conscious of the presence of any visitor. The nursing sister told the visitor at last that the man had spoken and replied to certain questions: that he had seemed uncertain about his own name, and could not give any coherent account of himself. Later on, it transpired that the man had allowed his name to be entered as “John Smith.”

“Not his own name, I’m certain,” the nurse said, decidedly.

“Why not?” Lady Alice asked, with curiosity.

“It’s too common by half for his face and voice,” the Sister answered, shrewdly. “If you look at him or speak to him, you’ll find that that man’s a gentleman.”

“A gentleman picked up drunk in the street?”

“A gentleman by birth or former position, I mean,” said the Sister, rather dryly. “No doubt he has come down in the world; but he has been, at any rate, what people call an educated man.”

Lady Alice’s prejudices were, stirred in favor of the broken-down drunkard by this characterization; and she made his acquaintance as soon as he was able to talk. Her impression coincided with that of the Sister. The man had once been a gentleman a cultivated, well-bred man, from whom refinement had never quite departed. Over and above this fact there was something about him which utterly puzzled Lady Alice. His face recalled to her some one whom she had known, and she could not imagine who that some one might be. The features, the contour the face, the expression, were strangely familiar to her. For, by the refining forces which sickness often applies, the man’s face had lost all trace of former coarseness or commonness: it had become something like what it had been in the days of his first youth. And the likeness which puzzled Lady Alice was a very strong resemblance to the patient’s sister, Rosalind Romaine.

Lady Alice was attracted by him, visited his bedside very often, and tried to win his confidence. But “John Smith” had, at present, no confidence to give. Questions confused and bewildered him. His brain was in a very excitable condition, the doctor said, and he was not to be tormented with useless queries. By the time his other injuries had been cured, he might perhaps recover the full use of his mind, and could then give an account of himself if he liked. Till then he was to be let alone; and so Lady Alice contented herself with bringing him such gifts as the authorities allowed, and with talking or reading to him a little from time to time in soothing and friendly tones. It was to be noted that before long his eyes followed her with interest as she crossed the ward; that his brow cleared when she spoke to him, and that all her movements were watched by him with great intentness. In spite of this she could not get him to reply with anything but curtness to her inquiries after his health and general welfare; and it was quite a surprise to her when one day, on her visit to him, he accosted her of his own accord.

“Won’t you sit down?” he said suddenly.

“Thank you. Yes, I should like to sit and read to you a little if you are able

“It isn’t for that,” he said, interrupting her unceremoniously; “it’s because I have something special to say to you. If you’ll stoop down a moment I’ll say it I don’t want any one else to hear.”

In great surprise, Lady Alice bowed her head. “I want to tell you,” he said gruffly, “that you’re wasting your time and your money. These men in the ward are not really grateful to you one bit. They speculate before you come as to how much you are likely to give them, and when you are gone they compare notes and grumble if you have not given them enough.”

“I do not wish to hear this,” said Lady Alice, with dignity.

“I know you do not; but I think it is only right to tell you. Try them: give them nothing for a visit or two, and see whether they won’t sulk and look gloomy, although you may talk to them as kindly as ever

“And if they did,” said Lady Alice, with a sudden flash of energy and insight which amazed herself, “who could blame them, considering the pain they have suffered, and the brutal lives they lead? Why should they listen to my poor words, if I go to them without a gift in my hand?”

She spoke as she would have spoken to an equal an unconscious tribute to the refinement which stamped this man as of a higher calibre than his fellows.

“It is a convenient doctrine for them,” said John Smith, and buried his head in the bedclothes as if he wanted to hear nothing more.

For Lady Alice’s next two visits he would not look up, or respond when she came near him, which she never failed to do; but on the third occasion he lifted his head.

“Well, madam,” he said, “you have after all been trying my plan, I hear. Do you find that it works well?”

Lady Alice hesitated. The averted faces and puzzled, downcast sometimes sullen looks of the sick men and boys to whom she had of late given nothing but kind words, had grieved her sorely.

“I suppose it proves the truth, in part, of what you say,” she answered gently, “but on the other hand I find that my gifts have been judged excessive and unwise. It seems that I have a great deal to learn in the art of giving: it does not come by nature, as some suppose. I have consulted the doctors and nurses and I have to thank you for giving me a warning.”

A look of surprise passed across the man’s face.

“You’re better than some of them,” he said, curtly. “I thought you’d never look at me again. I don’t know why I should have interfered. But I did not like to see you cheated and laughed at.”

Lady Alice colored, but she felt no resentment against the man, although he had shown her that she had made herself ridiculous when she was bent on playing Lady Bountiful, and posing as an angel of light. She said after a moments pause

“I believe you meant kindly. Is there nothing that I can do for you?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so I can’t remember very well. The doctors say I shall remember by and by. Then I shall know.”

“And if I can, you will let me help you?”

“I suppose I ought to be only too glad,” said the patient, with a sort of sullenness, which Lady Alice felt that she could but dimly understand. “I suppose I’m the sort of man to be helped; and yet I can’t help fancying there’s a Past a Past behind me a life in which I once was proud of my independence. But it strikes me that this was very long ago.”

He drew the bedclothes over his head again, and made no further reply. Lady Alice came to see him after this conversation as often as the rules of the hospital would allow her; and, although she seemed to get little response from him, the fact really remained that she was establishing an ascendancy over the man such as no nurse or doctor in the place had yet maintained. Others noticed it beside herself; but she, disheartened a little by her disappointment in some of the other patients, did not recognize the reality of his attachment to her. And an event occurred about the time which put John Smith and hospital matters out of her head for a considerable time to come.

Old Lord Courtleroy died suddenly. He was an old man, but so hale and hearty that his death had not been expected in the least; but he was found dead in his bed one morning, and the doctors pronounced that his complaint had been heart disease. The heir to the title and estate was a distant cousin whom Lady Alice and her father had never liked; and when he entered upon his possessions, Lady Alice knew that the time had come for her to seek a home elsewhere. She had sufficient to live upon; indeed, for a single woman, she was almost rich; but the loneliness of her position once more forced itself upon her, especially as Lesley was not by her side to cheer her gradually darkening life.

She wrote the main facts concerning Lord Courtleroy’s death and the change in her circumstances in short, rather disjointed letters to Lesley, and received very tender replies; but even then she felt a vague dissatisfaction with the girl’s letters. They were full of a wistfulness which she could not understand: she felt that something remote had crept into them, some aloofness for which she could not account. And as Captain Harry Duchesne happened to come across her one day, and inquired very particularly after Miss Brooke, she induced him to promise to call on Lesley when he was in London, and to report to her all that Lesley did or said. If it was a somewhat underhand proceeding, she told herself that she was justified by her anxiety as a mother.

Lord Courtleroy had left a considerable sum to Lesley, and when mother and daughter were reunited, as Lady Alice hoped that they would shortly be, there was no question as to their having means enough and to spare. Lady Alice began to dream of a dear little country house in Sussex, with an occasional season in London, or a winter at Bagneres. She was recalled from her dreams to the realities of life by a letter from her husband. Caspar Brooke wrote to ask whether, under present circumstances, she would not return to him.