Read CHAPTER XXII - A SHRED OF HOPE of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on ReadCentral.com.

Tom Robinson’s recovery continued a matter of fear and trembling for a week longer before it became merely a process of time. But no sooner was it clearly established to the initiated, and only likely to be endangered by some unforeseen accident, than Annie Millar, in her delight, lost sight of her former tactics, and called on Dr. Harry Ironside to rejoice with her on their success.

“We have been permitted to pull him through. Oh, isn’t it glorious? I know we ought, as we are miserable sinners, to go down on our knees and give God the thanks, and I hope we do with all my heart; but I also want to sing and dance don’t you, Dr. Ironside?”

Nobody could imagine that Dr. Harry Ironside was indifferent to the wonderful recovery, which was such a credit to his skill, of the man whom he had nursed as if Tom Robinson had been his brother; but Dr. Harry forgot all about his patient at that moment when he saw his opportunity and seized it.

He had never had a faint heart, young as he was, but he had been dealing with an exceedingly coy and high-spirited mistress. However, even she had not been able to defy the effect of the last month of incessant intercourse, of being engrossed in common with one object of interest, when both had hung, as it were, on a man’s failing breath, and were indissolubly linked while it lasted. In the light of its fitful rising and falling, its feeble fluttering, the terrible moments when it appeared to stop and die away, how small and vain was every other consideration! But their joint work was done by God’s help, as they had hardly dared to hope for a time, and now it was Harry’s innings.

“I have something to say to you, Miss Millar. I have wished to say it for a long time. You will not refuse to hear me?”

They were alone together in the little side-room, empty but for its hospital stores, where they had so often consulted, with and without Dr. Capes, on the condition of the ward. There was no longer any fluster of doubt and hesitation in his manner. He stood there in his young comely manhood, prepared to put his fate to the test, claiming his right to do so, and challenging her to deny his claim.

In a moment Annie saw what Rose had seen some time ago, but had not taken it upon her to put in so many words for Annie’s benefit. It was of this moment she had, by an unerring instinct, stood in mortal terror, from the first dawn of her acquaintance with Harry Ironside, to the afternoon when he had succeeded in getting an introduction to her in the matron’s room at St. Ebbe’s, soon after the scene in the operating theatre. Then he had bowed low, muttered a few words in confused greeting, and looked at her with all his man’s heart in his eyes; and she had felt by a sure, swift intuition, that, as she valued her dearly held personal freedom and her allegiance to her family, there must be war to the knife between her and this self-willed young man. She must, as discretion is the better part of valour, flee from him, while refusing to own, even to herself, any more humiliating reason for the flight than her duty, the honour of St. Ebbe’s, and the folly of Rose in playing into his hands.

Now Annie was caught, and had to listen to him whether she would or not, while she and not he quaked with fright and agitation. For he stood before her, like a conqueror already, in the little room with its shelves of phials, which they had all to themselves, where burly farmers and iron-gray corn-factors would soon be thronging in the course of transacting their every-day business.

But presently she forgot all about herself in the interest of the tale he had to tell, and told well in his newly-found courage and coolness, in his personal modesty and professional enthusiasm. He had just taken his degree as she knew. He and his sister Kate had inherited a competence from their parents. He might look about him till he found a lucrative and agreeable country practice in a choice neighbourhood, where he could command good society and a little hunting, shooting, and fishing in their seasons. Or he might be on the watch for a West End London practice, which, while affording him all the interests and amusements of town, ought to bring him speedily into notice, and raise him, step by step, to the height of his profession. He had begun his medical career by thinking of both these eventualities as desirable, each in its kind, and had gone on cherishing a leaning to the first, till he must say it her example and influence had inspired him with greater ardour in the cause of science and of humanity. He had made inquiries and had heard of a post in fact he had got the refusing of it in connection with a new settlement, a fresh attempt to plant a colony where the climate was favourable on one of the great African rivers. His income at first would be small, and he must take his share of the hardships and labours of those who aimed at being more than gold-diggers or miners in the diamond-fields that is, pioneers of civilization. The prospect, so far as it referred to scientific investigations, and to a large increase to accredited stores of knowledge, was simply splendid. Farther, he was assured of the sympathy and support of the leading men among the colonists, since they had already, to their credit, sought his co-operation. Those of them who were in the van on the spot had gone so far as to lay the foundation of an hospital, in addition to a church, to deal alike with black men and white, to labour for their spiritual and physical healing in common. He had almost made up his mind to take the post, but he wished to ask her opinion and advice first.

She was tempted to say she was no authority, but her truthfulness forbade the subterfuge. She could not meet his grave blue eyes and put him off with an evasive answer. She spoke bravely and wisely.

“I think it would be most right and honourable for you to go. With your ability and training you might furnish invaluable aid to a young colony; while it would be like another college course for you, with nature for your teacher. Any young man of spirit and philanthropy, with love for his calling, might well covet the chance. If the colony flourish, you and your profession, and the hospital you speak of, will flourish with it, and have as fine a future before you as you can desire. If the scheme fail, you can but return to England; and you will not have lost the time which a young man can well spare. For you will bring back all you have gained from a far wider sphere of usefulness, and from a fresher experience than you could ever hope to secure by staying at home. But if what you really want,” Annie corrected herself, with a twinkle in her eyes and a curl of her lips, in the midst of her earnestness, “is the shortest and safest road to growing well-to-do within the briefest space of time, you had better adopt the latter alternative. If I had been a man and a doctor, I should have tried the former.”

“That is enough,” he said with conviction.

“But what will your sister say?” she hastened to inquire, in order to turn the conversation from ominous personalities.

“Oh! it will be a blow to poor little Kate,” he owned regretfully, “because she is too young to go out with me at once, and set about keeping house for me as she has always proposed a rough, primitive style of housekeeping it will be out there for many a day. But she is not without pluck, and she is as true as steel, though I say it. She must learn some of your fearlessness and faith, and make the best of things. She must go to one of our aunts in the meantime, and when matters are smoother and easier, and the fate of the colony is decided, perhaps she may join me. I do not believe that there is any danger to speak of from the native tribes, only it will not be drawing-room work for some time to come. You see it is not the same with a girl like Kate as it would be with a woman like you,” he had the boldness to insinuate. “You would be a tower of strength in yourself from the beginning; you might be the making of a newly-founded hospital.”

“Poor Kate!” said Annie, hastily apostrophizing the girl she had been said to ignore, and speaking in accents of far deeper pity than she had any idea of.

“And what do you say?” he turned upon her.

“I?” she cried in much confusion. “I have said my say.”

“No,” he answered; “unless you mean to send me away to the ends of the earth without a shred of hope. You cannot do that.”

“I think you are taking advantage of me,” she protested, but quite meekly and diffidently for Annie. “I have never been even civil to you till Tom Robinson was in danger, and then I had to put all my private feelings aside on his account. Before that I was more than rude.”

“And you are a little sorry now? Confess it, Annie, when I am going off all alone, so far as old friends are concerned, to Central Africa, at your bidding.”

“Not at my bidding,” she declared hastily; “it is too bad of you to say so.”

“And you are going to be far kinder in the end than in the beginning,” he persisted. “You are going to say, ’Harry Ironside, if you ever come back, whether it is to stay or to go out again to your colony, you will find me waiting for you as your earthly reward.’”

“Of course you will come back,” she exclaimed vehemently, thrown off her guard; “but you had much better wait and look out for some more gracious person to welcome you.”

“I don’t care for gracious persons,” said the foolish fellow scornfully; “that is, for persons who are always gracious whether they like or dislike their company. But I say,” he went on, in an eager boyish way, which was not unbecoming or inharmonious where his young manhood was concerned, only natural and pleasant, “I should care for the best and brightest and bonniest woman in the world being gracious to me; I would give much to make her like me, though I know I am far behind her in cleverness and goodness.”

“Nonsense,” cried Annie, quite testily. “I shall be used up in hospital service by that time,” she remonstrated, keeping to the far future. “A faded woman with a sharp tongue would not be a great reward.”

“I ask nothing better than a woman whom I could love, and who might love me.”

“But you deserve something better,” she said, in a softer, lower tone.

“Never mind what I deserve, if I get what I have wished, longed, and prayed for since the first moment I saw you think of that, Annie.”

“I can’t,” she said, almost piteously, while she suffered him to take her hand. “I meant it all to be so different. I was so proud of my independence; and I never, never will forfeit it, remember, Harry Ironside, till all my sisters are started in the world, and father and mother are made more comfortable. Oh! it would be doubly a shame in me to fail them.”

“I am content to wait for my prize,” he said, daring to kiss her lovely cheek, and he was content for the moment.

“And you must not breathe a word of what has happened,” she charged him.

But here he grew restive. “I must, dearest. Why, it would be doubly dishonourable not to speak at once to Dr. Millar, confined as he is to his chair; you cannot fail to see that.”

“They will all laugh at me,” sighed the subdued Annie, with comical ruefulness. “Rose will laugh, and May. I believe even Dora and mother will laugh.”

“Let them.” He gave the permission with cheerful insensibility to the ordeal, even though Annie’s feelings were so much involved in it. “It may be a warning to some of them.” Then he was so callous as to add, “Who cares though the whole world, including Tom Robinson, were to join in the guffaw.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, looking up with bright sweetness, “I think I could bear it if I heard Tom’s voice in the chorus. He used to have rather a foolish, nervous laugh, for so sensible and brave a man. But I am sure I should not think it foolish, or anything save delightful, if I heard it again.”