Read CHAPTER IX - THE CHRISTMAS GUEST of Doctor Luttrell's First Patient , free online book, by Rosa Nouchette Carey, on ReadCentral.com.

  “This life of ours is a wild Aeolian harp of many a joyous strain;
  But under them all there runs a loud perpetual wail, as of souls in
      pain.” Longfellow.

Olivia felt a little nervous as she sent in her name by Phoebe; the girl had looked at her dubiously.

“I am not sure whether master will see you, ma’am,” she said.  “He never sees anyone on Christmas Day; and Mrs. Crampton says he is but poorly;” nevertheless, at Olivia’s request, she had taken the message.

After a brief delay she returned.  Her master would see Mrs. Luttrell; but Olivia’s heart beat a little quickly as she entered the library.  For the first time she was not sure of her welcome.

The grand old room looked unusually gloomy.  The tall standard lamps were unlighted, and only the blazing fire and a small green reading-lamp made a spot of brightness.  Deep shadows lurked in the corners, and the heavy book-cases and window recesses only seemed to add to the gloom.

Mr. Gaythorne sat in his great ebony chair with its crimson cushions.  His face looked more cadaverous and sunken than usual; the fine features looked as if they were carved in old ivory, they were so fixed and rigid; as he held out his hand to Olivia there was no smile of welcome on his face the melancholy deep-set eyes were sombre and piercing.

“This is indeed a surprise, Mrs. Luttrell.”

“I hope you will not think it an intrusion,” she returned, a little breathlessly.  “I wanted so much to see you and give you Aunt Madge’s message.  Somehow I could not bear to think that we were so happy and that you were sitting alone and feeling sad.  Are you vexed with me for coming?” she continued, in her winning way; “I can see you are not a bit pleased to see me.”

“My dear Mrs. Luttrell,” he said, in his harsh, grating voice, “it is one of my bad days, and nothing on earth would yield me pleasure.  I gave you warning, did I not?  You are visiting a haunted man!  The Christmas ghosts have been holding high revel this evening; one of them has been pointing and gibing at me for ever so long:  ’You are reaping what you have sown,’ that was what it said.  ’Why do you grumble at your harvest there is no ripening without sunshine?  Young hearts must be won by love and not severity; it is your own fault, your own obstinacy, your own blindness’ that is what it has been saying over and over again.”

He shivered slightly as he said this, and held out his thin hands to the blaze.  He had not asked her to sit down, but Olivia drew a small chair forward and seated herself.

“Do not listen to them any longer,” she said, gently.  “You are ill and sad, and so everything looks black and hopeless let me talk to you instead; I want to tell you how we have spent our day.”

Olivia had a charming voice.  As she went on with her simple narrative the muscles of Mr. Gaythorne’s face insensibly relaxed; hesitation, nervousness, a touch of self-consciousness even, would have repelled him; but her gentleness and childlike directness seemed to soothe him in spite of himself.  And as she repeated Mrs. Broderick’s message, though he shrugged his shoulders and muttered “Pshaw,” she could see that he was gratified; and even his remark “that Mrs. Broderick must be a very emotional person” did not daunt her.

“If Aunt Madge is emotional, I am too,” she said, softly.  “Do you know what I said when I saw that picture of the old shepherd looking at the rainbow?  ‘I love him for this,’ and, dear Mr. Gaythorne, I meant it.”

“Tut, nonsense!” but as Olivia took his hand and held it in her firm grasp, there was a sudden moisture in the old man’s eyes.

“No one has loved me since my two Olives left me,” he muttered.  “If only one had been spared to me, only one; but I am left here alone with my sorrow and remorse.”

“You are not really alone,” she returned, soothingly.  “Why do you speak as if your wife and daughter had ceased to love you?  Do you imagine for one moment that they forget you?  It would do you good to talk to Aunt Madge; she has such wonderful ideas about all that.  Some people people like Mrs. Tolman, our vicar’s wife laugh at her and call her fanciful, but to me she is so real.  Why should it not be true?” she went on, with gathering excitement, “nothing that is good can die!  Love is eternal, and it is only pain and grief and sin that can come to an end.  That is what Aunt Madge says, and she does more than say it, she lives it.  Of course she misses her husband dreadfully they were everything to each other but he never seems dead like other women’s husbands, if you know what I mean by that.  She seems to keep step with him somehow, and think his thoughts.  I have heard her say once that it is just as though a high wall separated them.  ’I cannot see him or hear him, but I know he is just the other side of the wall; only he has all the sunshine, and I have to grope alone in the shadows.’”

“Oh, she is right there; I know what it is to grope among shadows.  My dear young lady,” laying his hand heavily on her arm, “Mrs. Broderick must be a wonderful woman, and I hope to see her some day; and I am not above caring for a good woman’s prayers, but our cases are not exactly similar.”

“I daresay not,” returned Olivia, hesitatingly.

“No, indeed” and Mr. Gaythorne’s heavy eyebrows drew together “look here, Mrs. Luttrell, what sort of comfort do you suppose a man can have in thinking of his wife, when he knows he has acted contrary to her desires, when he has failed to carry out even the wishes expressed on her deathbed.  What would you say to that man?”

“I would say that he must be very unhappy, and that no doubt circumstances were too hard for him.  Perhaps he did his best; but it is not always possible for dying people to judge rightly, they may make mistakes.”

“No, it was I who made all the mistakes,” and there was such anguish in the old man’s eyes as he said this, that Olivia almost started; “but God help me, if it were to come over again I should do the same.  Mrs. Luttrell, you do not know me; it is my whim to be generous now and then.  I like to give and it costs me nothing, but I am a hard, domineering man; when people oppose and anger me, I can be relentless; it is not easy for me to forgive, even when the offender is my own flesh and blood, and I am no hypocrite.  I must speak the truth at all costs.”

“And yet we expect our Father to forgive us,” returned Olivia, almost to herself, but Mr. Gaythorne heard her, and a strange expression crossed his face.

“That is what she always said my Olive, but it never seemed to make any difference to me.  Ah, well, it is no use talking, some spirits refuse to be laid, but this is poor entertainment, my dear, and on your birthday too!”

“Please do not say that.  I should love to stay, but I must not; it is late now, and Marcus will be waiting for me,” and Olivia rose as she spoke.  “And now before I go may I ring for the lamps to be lighted? there is something uncanny in this darkness, and the fire is getting hollow too.”

“Well, well, do as you like,” was the abrupt answer.  “I am going to have my dinner here tonight, it is warmer,” and so Olivia had her way.  As she bade him good-night, he said, a little wistfully, “You can come to-morrow afternoon if you like.  I have those views of Venice and Florence to show you.  I had an old Florentine palace for six months, the year before my little Olive died; that was our last happy year.”

“Of course I will come,” she replied, smiling at him.  But as she left the room she sighed; had she really exorcised those evil spirits? or would they return again, with tenfold force? “remorse;” that was the word he used, this was the canker-worm that was robbing him of peace.  “It is not easy for me to forgive even if the offender is my own flesh and blood.”  How sad it was to hear him say that.

“I think, after all, I did him some little good,” she thought, as she groped her way cautiously through the dark shrubbery.  “That hard, rigid look had quite disappeared before I left.  I have a feeling somehow that one day he will open his heart to me and tell me his trouble.  Every now and then he drops a word or two; perhaps this evening, if I had not been so hurried, he would have spoken out.”

Olivia’s warm heart was full of pity for the lonely man sitting beside his desolate hearth, but she was young, and as the heavy gate closed after her, and she hurried across the road, a sudden vision of her own bright little parlour with Marcus waiting for her rose blissfully before her.

Marcus would have returned long ago and would be wondering at her delay.  She knew what he was doing cutting the pages of Esmond for their evening reading.  How charmed he had been with her gift, although he had pretended to be angry at her extravagance.

A few particles of snow powdered her as she rang the bell.  Marcus answered it himself.

“Livy, my dear child,” he said, quickly, “what an age you have been!  Come into the kitchen a moment, I want to speak to you, and Martha is upstairs.  No, not there,” catching hold of her arm as she absently turned the handle of the parlour door.  “I said the kitchen.”

“Oh, Marcus, what is it?” in an alarmed voice, as she suddenly perceived his grave, preoccupied look, “there is something wrong with baby,” but his smile reassured her.

“Nothing is wrong, I am only a little perplexed.  Dot’s all right, and the house is not on fire, and Martha is enjoying her usual health, but we have got a Christmas guest, that’s all.”

“Marcus, what can you mean, when we know no one here?  Is it one of your old hospital friends?  And why may I not go in and see him?”

“So you shall, but I must explain matters first.  I have a poor fellow in there whom I picked up off a door-step.  At first I thought he was drunk, and I meant to call a policeman, but I very soon found out my mistake.  The poor wretch had fainted from cold and exhaustion, he was simply starving.”

“Oh, how dreadful!” exclaimed Olivia, much shocked at this.  “Have you given him some food?  But why is he not here instead of in the sitting-room?  Martha has a capital fire.”

“Yes, she has been making him some tea, and luckily there was some cold bacon.  He has had nothing but a penny roll and some coffee since yesterday morning.  Another night of exposure and want would have killed him.  I took him into the parlour because the couch was handy, but directly he spoke I saw he was a gentleman at least an educated man, but his clothes are threadbare.  He has parted with his waistcoat for food.  Now you know why I brought you in here, to save you a shock.”

“But, Marcus, what are we to do with him?”

“Ah, that is what puzzles me.  I have fed and warmed him, and could give him money for a night’s lodging, but he is not fit to move.  When he tried to sit up just now, he nearly fell back from exhaustion.  I should say from the look of him that he has been ill, perhaps in some hospital, and has not got up his strength.  And he is quite young too not more than five-and-twenty, I should say.”

“May I go and look at him first, and then we will think what is to be done.”

“Yes, dear, that will be best.  But, Livy, I really cannot wait just now.  All this has hindered me so that I have not been to the Traverses’.  I shall not be long not more than half an hour.”

Olivia looked rather troubled at this, but it was no use making a fuss.  Marcus must do his work, but her vision of a cosy evening was sadly marred.  Instead of listening to Esmond she had to interview a strange man.

Directly Marcus had gone she went into the sitting-room; the couch had been drawn near the fire and Marcus’s easy chair was pushed back, and there in the warmth and firelight, with an old plaid thrown over him, the forlorn wanderer lay sleeping as placidly as a child.

Olivia trod on tiptoe as she crossed the room and stood beside the couch, and studied him attentively.

Marcus was right; of course he was a gentleman; in spite of his emaciated appearance and poor, threadbare garments, this was evident; the features were well-cut and refined; the wasted hands bore no signs of manual labour, and the filbert nails were carefully attended.

Some poor prodigal fallen to low estate lay before her, and yet he looked so boyish and innocent in his sleep, that Olivia’s heart grew very pitiful over him.

Turn him out in the winter’s cold, and on Christmas night, too; when all the merciful angels were moving betwixt heaven and earth.  When the bond of brotherhood that linked human beings together was drawn closer, and the rich man’s gift and the widow’s mite were paid into the same treasury of love, it was impossible!

How soundly he was sleeping, poor fellow, lulled by the very fulness of comfort, his sick hunger appeased, and his bones no longer aching with cold.  A fair moustache covered his mouth, but Olivia, who prided herself on reading character, soon decided that the chin and lower part of the face showed signs of weakness, but as the thought passed through her mind a pair of deep blue eyes opened full on her face, and gazed at her in bewilderment.

“Where am I?” he said, feebly; “oh, I remember, I fainted on a doorstep, and some good Samaritan carried me in;” then in the same weak voice, “Forgive me, madam, but I am afraid to rise.”

“Lie still please lie still until my husband comes back,” returned Olivia, a little nervously.  How ill he looked the eyes looked preternaturally large in the wasted face.  “It is sad to see anyone in such distress,” she continued, gently, “and on Christmas night, too.”

“Yes, I am down on my luck,” returned the stranger; but even in his feebleness he spoke a little recklessly; “I was always ’Murad the Unlucky;’ it would have been all over with me in a few hours if the doctor had not found me.  I was just at the end of my tether,” but here a hard cough seemed to tear him to pieces.

“Lie still and try to sleep again,” returned Olivia, hurriedly; then she went out of the room and summoned Martha.

When Marcus returned and went in search of her, he found her airing some sheets at the kitchen fire.

“Marcus,” she said, “Martha has been lighting a fire in that little empty room, where the iron bedstead is; there are the mattress and the two blankets Aunt Madge lent me when I was ill; I am going to make up a bed there for to-night.”

“You think we ought to keep him, then,” returned her husband, looking at her questioningly.  “To be sure, I hardly know how we are to turn him out; but if he falls ill on our hands, eh, Livy?”

“If he be very ill, you would have to take him to a hospital,” she returned, quickly.  “We have not got the cruise of oil, remember, and, as Aunt Madge says, we must be just before we are generous but he has such a terrible cough, Marcus.”

“Oh, that is from cold and exhaustion, and, as I told you before, he has evidently recovered from some severe illness, probably pleurisy or pneumonia.  Well, Livy, I think you are about right; we must do our best for the poor beggar; now and then one must help ’lame dogs over stiles,’” and Marcus, whose bump of benevolence was largely developed, and who believed in practical religion, was sincerely grateful that his wife had fallen in with his views.

“I think you were sent to him to help him,” returned Olivia, softly.  “‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren.’  Oh, Marcus, you know how that finishes,” and Marcus smiled back at her as he left the room.