Read CHAPTER XX - REDCROSS AGAIN of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on

Tom Robinson’s subscription list attained the respectable sum-total of two thousand pounds. Many of the subscribers were not only patients of Dr. Millar, but creditors of the bank whose claims he had striven with sturdy honesty to satisfy, till the task proved too hard for his years.

The little Doctor received the token of how greatly his courage and staunchness in the fulfilment of his obligations had been respected, with half pained, half pleased gratitude, and this was very much the attitude of mind of his daughter Annie. The rest of his womankind, from Mrs. Millar to May, only felt a glad surprise, and a soft, proud thankfulness.

The relief from present difficulties was great, but of course the gift did not obviate the necessity for the girls seeking work and wages. Even May, when she ventured to hope that she might stay at home for a month or two and be coached by her father and Tom Robinson in anticipation of a more successful campaign at St. Ambrose’s, was eagerly speculating whether she might not become a coach in her turn. She was fain to earn a little money by helping the very youngest of the Grammar School boys to prepare their Latin grammar in the evenings, supposing she could get them to sit still, and give over wishing her to play with them.

Mr. Pemberton had not only himself called on the Miss Millar who was the artist, he had brought Lady Mary with him, and both husband and wife had turned out the refined, thoroughly unassuming, kindly disposed couple they had looked. They spoke warmly of Tom Robinson as their very good friend, and went so far as to express enthusiasm for his beautiful old shop. Mr. Pemberton did better than merely say a few words of languid, indiscriminating praise of Rose’s picture, and then bow himself out. He examined the picture closely, and looked at her thoughtfully and attentively out of the dark gray eyes, the only good feature in his face. The next moment, to Hester Jennings’s great edification, he addressed Rose seriously as a member of the Guild of St. Luke not an amateur, “one of ourselves, so that you must not mind what I say to you, Miss Millar.” He first displayed a generous capacity for discovering something good, whether it were to be found in the work of a tyro or of a veteran. Next he took the trouble of pointing out the faults, and urging their remedy, telling her the picture was worth the pains of making it as true as possible, until Rose hung her head in blended pride and humility.

What was more, he offered to enter into negotiations with a picture-dealer on her behalf, and brought them to a triumphant conclusion, making Rose happy with so fair a price as materially to lighten the millstone of her resigned office at the Misses Stone’s hanging round her neck.

It was settled that May should go home and profit by the coaching which awaited her at Redcross, taking the chance of finding some little boys whose Latin grammar would be the better of her supervision.

Next Mr. Pemberton wrote that Lady Mary had been so charmed with the neighbourhood of Redcross, and had spoken so highly of it to one of her cousins, who had a great liking for English landscape, and was just refurnishing his town house, that he wished to commission a set of water-colour sketches of such and such spots for his morning-room. It was Mr. Pemberton’s opinion that Miss Rose Millar could execute the commission to Sir John Neville’s satisfaction, if she cared to accept of it.

“It is to help me,” said Rose humbly, “for there are hundreds of good artists who would take the work and be thankful, and do it far better, though I will do my very best. Tom Robinson is at the bottom of it directly or indirectly, but he is like an old friend. I don’t know a man to whom I would sooner be obliged.”

In the third instance, a totally unforeseen application was made to Annie. A fever, in certain respects unfamiliar in its type, broke out at Stokeleigh, one of several suburban villages on the outskirts of Redcross. Some authorities called the fever Russian, and declared it had been imported they did not pretend to say how from that remote empire. Others insisted it was a slow fever, of English growth, with curious complications. It appeared doubtful whether it were infectious; but there was one thing which was unmistakable, that, whatever kind of malaria brooding in the summer air was at the root of the complaint, that malaria showed a disposition to spread extensively. It passed from Stokeleigh to the adjoining village of Woodleigh, whence it took a bend in the direction of the town, and proceeded to squat, as malarias can squat, and settle indefinitely on all the low-lying districts of Redcross. Neither did the epidemic improve in character with the change of locality. For, whereas on the higher, less encumbered ground the fever had been rarely fatal, the mortality increased with the transfer of the disease to the crowded, damp purlieus of the older part of the town, built more or less on the Dewes, and liable to be invaded by the river in flood.

A combined meeting of the Town Council and Vestry, with the Mayor, who happened to be a public-spirited man, and the Rector heading it, determined on taking prompt action to stop the mischief. The town had lately built a Corn Exchange in one of the highest, best-ventilated situations in Redcross. It was to be committed to the care of a town’s officer and his wife, who were to have the adjoining rooms rent-free for a domicile, together with certain perquisites, in return for sweeping, scrubbing, and looking after the hall. But the place was just finished, and had not yet been occupied in the manner intended. It was proposed to convert it, in the absence of other accommodation, into a temporary ward for the sufferers from fever. The doctors consulted, pledged themselves that there was every probability of the unwelcome visitor being thus stamped out, while the chances of recovery for the patients would be multiplied. It was also agreed to bring a trained nurse from some nursing institution, to mould the raw nursing materials which Redcross supplied on the emergency. Dr. Millar’s successor had a bright idea that it might be a graceful act on his part to mention the old Doctor’s daughter, who had gone in for nursing as a profession. She had already served nearly a year in a great London hospital, and was no doubt competent to undertake the duties required. It would be a compliment to her and her father to try and get her for the occasion, and there would be a certain eclat in her coming to the help of her native town in its need. Dr. Capes was right as to the popularity of his motion. It was received with unanimous approval. Annie, the matron, and the directors of St. Ebbe’s, were immediately applied to in proper form. Annie burned to go, if such a step were admissible at the present stage of her career. The favour she had won on all sides aided in the fulfilment of her wishes. She was promoted from the ranks of the probationers to those of the nurses while yet her year wanted a fraction of its complete round, and was officially sent down to represent the nurses of St. Ebbe’s at Redcross.

“Of course, Dora, you cannot be left behind to go on by yourself hunting for a situation with three-fourths of the great world out of town. I am afraid you would make a poor job of it at the best, Dora dear, and at the worst it is not to be thought of; it would be a waste of nerve-tissue and muscle, as well as of pounds, shillings, and pence. You will come too; we’ll be all together, or nearly together, again, for a holiday, after all.”

Dora, who had been waiting patiently for Annie’s decision, was nothing loth.

“Rose’s expenses and mine are more than paid,” calculated the practical Annie, “so that we shall be no drag on father and mother. I don’t know if Robarts’s accommodation will extend beyond the additional bedroom for Rose and May, but that can be easily managed. Oh! I have it, Dora, you will stay with me at the hospital the Corn Exchange I mean and save me from having a housekeeper for the short time one will be wanted. I’ll take care that no infection, if there be infection, will come near you. Oh, ‘won’t it be jolly,’ as Rose says, for you and me to keep house by ourselves at dear old Redcross, of all places in the world?”

It was arranged so, with only a little demur from Mrs. Millar, over-ruled by her husband.

There was another person, without right or power to enter his veto against the existing order of things, who nevertheless decidedly demurred at them. Tom Robinson showed that though he might be a humane man there were bounds to his humanity. “It is all very well for Annie Millar to come down and nurse the fever patients, it is in the way of her business, she does as much every day, she is well acquainted with all the precautions to take. But Dora is not a nurse, she never thinks of herself, she will forget to take the precautions if she has ever heard of them. She has not strong nerves, and she is used up with this preposterous stumping of London in July in search of a situation. What in the name of common sense and natural affection do they mean by lugging Dora into the risk!” he grumbled and worried. “Oh! yes, of course she would follow Annie or any of the rest of them fast enough if she had the opportunity, though she were to die at the end of it; but she ought never to have had the opportunity, it was preposterous to let her. The whole thing is monstrous. I never heard of such rashness. What can Dr. and Mrs. Millar be thinking of?”

It felt queer, to say the least of it, as well as “jolly,” to be at Redcross and not at the Old Doctor’s House, over which a bride of yesterday was presiding, for Dr. Capes’s marriage had taken place simultaneously with his purchase of Dr. Millar’s practice.

Annie used to look over from the opposite side of the street, as she was walking along, at the alterations which were being made in the garden, and the new arrangement of the window curtains, and try to criticize them impartially. Then she had to call and see Dr. Capes, and wait in the familiar consulting-room till he insisted on taking her to the drawing-room, in order to introduce her to his wife, who had come a stranger to Redcross. Annie felt as if she were a disembodied spirit, or a dreamer in a dream from which she could not awake, while she gazed on the changed yet well-known aspect of everything around her. But she had to think of Dr. and Mrs. Capes, in whose house she was, and talk civilly to them of their improvements(!). She had to emulate the submission of Dora, who had seen the transfer coming and taken part in it. She had to copy the mercurial spirits of Rose and May. They were so pleased to be with their father and mother again, and to take possession of Phyllis Carey’s every free moment, that they declared the Robarts’s apartments were the very nicest the girls had ever seen. They, the apartments, were delightfully cosy (which meant stuffy in July). They were more cheerful (noisier) than the Old Doctor’s House. It was great fun for the pair to stow themselves and their belongings within such narrow compass.

A serious vexation to Annie at the commencement of her enterprise was the arrival of Dr. Harry Ironside to diagnose and make what he could of the fever.

“What is he doing here? His coming at all is most impertinent,” cried Annie indignantly, sitting down on one of the still empty beds in the barrack-like hall, and as it were daring Rose and May, who had brought the news, and Dora who was listening to them, to contradict her.

“He is come in the pursuit of knowledge,” said Rose, with full command of her countenance. “He does not understand Russian fever, or whatever it is, and he thinks he had better make its acquaintance as a wind up to taking his degree. He is still a doctor at large; he has not fixed on where he is to go and what he is to do next, so his sister Kate writes to me.”

“Then he and his sister Kate had better make up their minds to go away together, somewhere else, and not trouble other people,” cried Annie quite illogically.

“Why, Annie, father thinks it is very praiseworthy of Dr. Ironside to seek to get all the information he can before settling down as a doctor,” remonstrated May in the guilelessness of her heart. “He has just been calling on father, who is delighted with him so is mother; and, for my part,” finished the speaker with unconscious emphasis, as if her opinion were of the utmost consequence, “I have thought him very nice since the first time I met him at Mrs. Jennings’s. He is so big and handsome, without being stuck up, or a swell, like what Cyril Carey used to be just frank and pleasant as a man should be. I cannot comprehend why you have such a dislike to him.”

“Upon my word!” exclaimed Annie, with a gasp. “But I don’t care,” she added vehemently; “he shall not come and carry on his investigations here. Dr. Capes and I, with father to appeal to, and Mr. Newton to call in and consult, if necessary, are more than sufficient for all the patients we are likely to get. I tell you, if he forces his way into my hospital I’ll have nothing more to do with it; I’ll throw it all up and go back to St. Ebbe’s at once.”

“But it is not your hospital, Annie,” said Rose with provoking matter-of-factness. “It is the town’s, or if it is under the control of any private person, it is under Dr. Capes’s orders. For the sake of his professional character, medical etiquette, and all that kind of thing, he will not refuse to allow a fellow-doctor to study the fever cases under his care. Dr. Harry was going to stay at the ‘Crown,’ but he met Tom Robinson, who said he should be his guest, and carried him off to his house.”

“Just like Tom Robinson!” declared Annie with amazing asperity.

“Come along, May.” Rose hurried away her sister and satellite, and then let loose her glee. “It is too funny, May; too preposterously funny. It is ever so much better than Dora and Tom Robinson. He was so easily rebuffed, and she was so reluctant to rebuff him. But here is Annie like one of the furies, and Harry Ironside is silly enough to mind her, so that he can hardly open his mouth before her, and looks as if he had lost his wits. Before Annie! What is our Annie, I should like to know, that she should daunt a clever, high-spirited young fellow such as he is? What strange glamour has she thrown over him? But he has plenty of mettle and determination for all that, and she will no more manage by her tirades to stop him from coming after her and laying siege to her ladyship, than she can keep the sun from shining or the rain from falling. For that matter, I believe the poor fellow cannot help himself; it is the case of the moth and the candle.”

“But what is it all about?” demanded May, in an utter confusion of ideas. “She speaks as if she hated him, and I thought he had come to Redcross to trace the course of the Russian fever.”

“To trace the course of his own fortunes. I beg your pardon, my dear, but you might have known enough of human nature to guess that there was a private personal motive at the bottom of his philanthropy.”

“Then it is the worse for him and a great pity,” said May, with the sweet seriousness into which one phase of her childishness was passing. “I wonder you can laugh, Rose. I am always affronted when I remember how we laughed at Tom Robinson and poor Dora, making game of what was no joke to them. And Dora was not half so much opposed to Tom as Annie is to this unfortunate, nice, pleasant young doctor. I could find it in my heart to be very sorry for him.”

“Oh! you are a simpleton apart from Latin and Greek. Don’t you see that Annie’s wrath is neither more nor less than fright? She is frightened out of her senses at him, because she wants to keep her independence and share our fortunes. As I do not remember to have seen her in such a scare before, I should say that she is paying him a high compliment.”

“I think it is rather a queer compliment,” objected May in much perplexity.

“’Though you should choose to dissemble your love,
Why need you kick me down-stairs?”

quoted Rose. “Oh! but the poet did not know the world, or pretended not to know it. I assure you there are many wise men who would much rather be kicked in this way than be civilly spoken to. Kate Ironside thought fit to confide to me how much interested she was in a suit which, if it ever succeeded, would make us all brothers and sisters. She was so good as to add that while she was aware Harry always knew best, and she had entire faith in his choice, still she was not entirely of his mind I don’t believe Annie has ever spoken to her, lest speech with the sister should be taken for encouragement to the brother. It is only natural perhaps that, as Kate ventured to admit, on the whole she would have preferred me.”

“And what did you say to that?” asked the deeply-interested May.

“No, thanks, though I was much obliged, or something like it. I added with some dignity, I flatter myself, though really such dignity is thrown away on Kate, that for the present I was wedded to my art, like Queen Elizabeth to her kingdom, and to my sister Maisie. Besides, nothing could, would, or should ever induce me to meddle with my sister Annie’s property, since, according to Kate’s own account, it was for love of Annie, and not of me, that Harry Ironside took up his residence under Mrs. Jennings’s roof.”

But Annie had to give way to some extent. She was compelled to grant an interview to the aggressor. Dr. Ironside arrived on a special errand to the hospital, and he took up the position that Miss Millar was entitled to be consulted. Tom Robinson had been attacked with every symptom of the fever. He and Tom had agreed, in view of the public character of “Robinson’s,” and with the idea that the step might do good, by serving as an example, that the patient should come to the hospital and be laid up there, where Dr. Harry Ironside was ready to devote himself to the case.

“I believe Tom Robinson has taken the fever on purpose,” said Annie to the shocked Dora. “But he shall not have much of my attendance; he may stick to his Dr. Ironside. Dr. Capes tells me he has induced a married woman, with a family, who has a brother and a nephew lodging with her, both of them down with fever, to send them here, so that I shall have them to look after. Now that there is a beginning made,” Annie smoothed her ruffled plumes, and waxed cheerful, “if the hot weather does not change, and the disease is not checked, we are likely to have plenty of patients on our hands, with the opportunity of showing what service we can render them and the town.”

Just as Annie predicted, the rows of beds began to fill, and she had no lack of occupation; but she changed her tale with regard to Tom Robinson when his case, among many which yielded readily to treatment, and proved triumphantly the gain to be got from a better locality and fresher air, was first grave, then dangerous, and at last verged on hopeless. Now she turned to the worst case on her list, and made it her chief care. She became totally unmindful of the fact that she was thus brought into constant contact with Harry Ironside, that it was he and she who were together fighting death, inch by inch, with desperate endeavour, for the prize which the last enemy threatened to snatch from their hands. Indeed, so entirely did Annie, like the excellent nurse and kind-hearted woman she was, lose sight of her own concerns in the interest of her patient, that she was heard to contradict herself, and record her sincere thankfulness for the strong support of Harry Ironside’s presence in the light of the valuable aid he could afford at such a time.

“He was thought very clever at St. Ebbe’s. He took his degree with high honours. He was held in much esteem by all the older doctors,” she explained to all who cared to hear. “He is in possession of all the latest light on his profession. Now, I have heard father say, and what I have seen confirms it, that though Dr. Capes is most painstaking, and has had a good deal of experience as a general practitioner, he has no great natural ability, and he was not in circumstances to pursue his studies longer than was absolutely necessary to enable him to pass as a medical man. After all I take back my word. I am very glad for poor Tom Robinson’s sake that Dr. Harry Ironside is here. No doubt we could have summoned a great specialist from London, but he would only have stayed a short time, and men like him have generally many critical cases on their minds. Now Dr. Harry Ironside is on the spot, and he can watch every turn of the disease which he came to master, and devote his whole attention to this example. I consider Tom Robinson is exceedingly fortunate in getting the chance of such scientific treatment.”

But in spite of the good fortune and the devotion spent on him; it looked as if Tom were going to slip through the hands so bent on detaining him, and to die as quietly as he had lived.

When Redcross realized how even the balance was, and how heavily he was swimming for his life, the whole town woke up to his good qualities as a citizen, to what a useful life his comparatively short one had been, to how many benefits he had conferred without the slightest assumption of patronage or superiority of any kind.

It is unnecessary to say that “Robinson’s” was figuratively in the deepest mourning, only rousing itself from its despair to proclaim his merits and those of his father before him, as masters. Men gravely pointed out the old servants he had pensioned; those in middle age whom he had kept on when their best days were past; the boys he had already taken in, fitted out, and launched on the world by judicious, unostentatious backing. Women tearfully reminded the listener how carefully he had provided for their comfort and well-being throughout his establishment, from the ample time allowed for their meals and the seats to which they could retire when not actually serving, to the early closing hours, which afforded them and the men who were their associates, some leisure for out-of-doors exercise and indoors recreation. As for mental and spiritual improvement, he was always ready to subscribe liberally to libraries, choral unions, friendly societies, Christian associations, missionary boxes every conceivable means of rational pleasure, culture, and true human elevation of which his people would avail themselves.

Mrs. Carey called at the Corn Exchange and offered her unprofessional services as a nurse, if further aid were wanted.

Mr. Pemberton, acquainted with the fact of Tom Robinson’s illness through communicating with Rose Millar on her commission, wrote that he could hardly keep Lady Mary from descending on Redcross to see after their friend, and if it would be the least good she would come down. It would be but a poor return for the aid Robinson had lent her when her husband lay desperately sick and she had nobody to appeal to, save the fat and fatuous padrone of a miserable little Italian inn.

May, who was at last prevented from coming to her sisters, presented herself when they went to their father’s, her eyes swollen with weeping for her “coach.”

Every time Annie left the transformed hall of the Exchange and repaired to the rooms which she and Dora occupied, she found a white face on the watch for her, and pale lips which could hardly form the syllables, “How is he now? Oh! Annie, must he die?” At least Dora was on the spot to hear each hour’s report, as if she had been his nearest relative, and without asking herself the reason why, that was a little bit of comfort to her. In the same manner Tom Robinson derived a dim satisfaction from the fact that he was lying there under the same roof with Dora Millar, as he would have been supposing she had listened to his suit eighteen months ago, and he had fallen ill in the early days of their marriage. He was afraid it was pure selfishness which made him cease to resent her presence in close proximity to the fever ward, as he had resented it when he did not imagine he might be one of its patients. Sometimes he had a dim fancy that he heard her soft voice through the closed doors, and that it soothed him, though he might be only dreaming, or it was possible that there were tones in Annie’s clear voice which under certain emotions of pity and tenderness answered to those of her sister.

Often Annie just shook her head sorrowfully as she warned Dora off till the nurse’s dress could be changed. Occasionally she cried out petulantly, “If he would only be impatient, and fret and grumble like other people; if he would not take things so quietly; if he would resist and struggle, I believe he might fight the battle and win it yet. I think he will get over the crisis, but what of that if there is no rallying? He is letting life go because he will not grasp it hard, I suppose for the reason that he has no strong ties to bind him to it. He has either such a poor opinion of his deserts, or such a trust in Providence, that he considers whatever is is best, and does not exert himself to alter the course of events so far as it is in his power. It is beautiful in theory, but it does not always answer in practice. I am not certain whether it does not proceed, after all, from constitutional indolence, or the want of ambition, of which I used to accuse him, or whether he is really too good to live. Anyhow, skill and nursing are wasted upon him.”

Dr. Hewett came to see Tom Robinson, and took the seat which Harry Ironside vacated for him, leaving the old friends together.

“Hallo, Rector! It is strange for me to meet you here,” said Tom’s feeble voice, while the ghost of his old shy smile passed over his haggard face.

“It is equally strange for me to meet you, Robinson,” said the Rector, with an inconvenient lump in his throat.

“What a deal of trouble I’m giving,” said Tom regretfully.

“Tut, man, nobody grudges the trouble, if you will but pick up and get well again,” said the clergyman, almost roughly.

“I can see that Ironside thinks badly of me,” said Tom in his quiet way, “and as far as feelings go, it seems to me I have reason to think badly of myself.”

“We are all in good hands, Tom,” said Dr. Hewett, seeing again the boy who used to play in the Rectory garden with Ned, and speaking to him in the old fashion.

“I know that,” answered Tom. “I have known it all along, which has been a blessing to me,” he added, a little as if he were speaking of a third person. Then he roused himself further. “I want to tell you where my will is. I don’t like to hurt a woman’s feelings by speaking of it to my kind, indefatigable nurse. Besides, the Millars will benefit by it.”

“The old man,” sighed the Rector, “always thinking of others before yourself.”

“‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’” was Tom’s testimony; “speak to me of Him, Rector, while I am able to hear,” said the sick man, in the tone of one whose ears were growing dull to earthly sounds.