A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 10.

To the true physician there is an inexpressible sanctity in the sick chamber. At its threshold the more human passions quit their hold on his heart. Love there would be profanation; even the grief permitted to others he must put aside. He must enter that room — a calm intelligence. He is disabled for his mission if he suffer aught to obscure the keen quiet glance of his science. Age or youth, beauty or deformity, innocence or guilt, merge their distinctions in one common attribute,-human suffering appealing to human skill.

Woe to the households in which the trusted Healer feels not on his conscience the solemn obligations of his glorious art! Reverently as in a temple, I stood in the virgin’s chamber. When her mother placed her hand in mine, and I felt the throb of its pulse, I was aware of no quicker beat of my own heart. I looked with a steady eye on the face more beautiful from the flush that deepened the delicate hues of the young cheek, and the lustre that brightened the dark blue of the wandering eyes. She did not at first heed me, did not seem aware of my presence; but kept murmuring to herself words which I could not distinguish.

At length, when I spoke to her, in that low, soothing tone which we learn at the sick-bed, the expression of her face altered suddenly; she passed the hand I did not hold over her forehead, turned round, looked at me full and long, with unmistakable surprise, yet not as if the surprise displeased her — less the surprise which recoils from the sight of a stranger than that which seems doubtfully to recognize an unexpected friend. Yet on the surprise there seemed to creep something of apprehension, of fear; her hand trembled, her voice quivered, as she said —

“Can it be, can it be? Am I awake? Mother, who is this?”

“Only a kind visitor, Dr. Fenwick, sent by Mrs. Poyntz, for I was uneasy about you, darling. How are you now?”

“Better. Strangely better.”

She removed her hand gently from mine, and with an involuntary modest shrinking turned towards Mrs. Ashleigh, drawing her mother towards herself, so that she became at once hidden from me.

Satisfied that there was here no delirium, nor even more than the slight and temporary fever which often accompanies a sudden nervous attack in constitutions peculiarly sensitive, I retired noiselessly from the room, and went, not into that which had been occupied by the ill-fated Naturalist, but down-stairs into the drawing-room, to write my prescription. I had already sent the servant off with it to the chemist’s before Mrs. Ashleigh joined me.

“She seems recovering surprisingly; her forehead is cooler; she is perfectly self-possessed, only she cannot account for her own seizure — cannot account either for the fainting or the agitation with which she awoke from sleep.”

“I think I can account for both. The first room in which she entered — that in which she fainted — had its window open; the sides of the window are overgrown with rank creeping plants in full blossom. Miss Ashleigh had already predisposed herself to injurious effects from the effluvia by fatigue, excitement, imprudence in sitting out at the fall of a heavy dew. The sleep after the fainting fit was the more disturbed, because Nature, always alert and active in subjects so young, was making its own effort to right itself from an injury. Nature has nearly succeeded. What I have prescribed will a little aid and accelerate that which Nature has yet to do, and in a day or two I do not doubt that your daughter will be perfectly restored. Only let me recommend care to avoid exposure to the open air during the close of the day. Let her avoid also the room in which she was first seized, for it is a strange phenomenon in nervous temperaments that a nervous attack may, without visible cause, be repeated in the same place where it was first experienced. You had better shut up the chamber for at least some weeks, burn fires in it, repaint and paper it, sprinkle chloroform. You are not, perhaps, aware that Dr. Lloyd died in that room after a prolonged illness. Suffer me to wait till your servant returns with the medicine, and let me employ the interval in asking you a few questions. Miss Ashleigh, you say, never had a fainting fit before. I should presume that she is not what we call strong. But has she ever had any illness that alarmed you?”

“Never.”

“No great liability to cold and cough, to attacks of the chest or lungs?”

“Certainly not. Still I have feared that she may have a tendency to consumption. Do you think so? Your questions alarm me!”

“I do not think so; but before I pronounce a positive opinion, one question more. You say you have feared a tendency to consumption. Is that disease in her family? She certainly did not inherit it from you. But on her father’s side?”

“Her father,” said Mrs. Ashleigh, with tears in her eyes, “died young, but of brain fever, which the medical men said was brought on by over study.”

“Enough, my dear madam. What you say confirms my belief that your daughter’s constitution is the very opposite to that in which the seeds of consumption lurk. It is rather that far nobler constitution, which the keenness of the nervous susceptibility renders delicate but elastic — as quick to recover as it is to suffer.”

“Thank you, thank you, Dr. Fenwick, for what you say. You take a load from my heart; for Mr. Vigors, I know, thinks Lilian consumptive, and Mrs. Poyntz has rather frightened me at times by hints to the same effect. But when you speak of nervous susceptibility, I do not quite understand you. My daughter is not what is commonly called nervous. Her temper is singularly even.”

“But if not excitable, should you also say that she is not impressionable? The things which do not disturb her temper may, perhaps, deject her spirits. Do I make myself understood?”

“Yes, I think I understand your distinction; but I am not quite sure if it applies. To most things that affect the spirits she is not more sensitive than other girls, perhaps less so; but she is certainly very impressionable in some things.”

“In what?”

“She is more moved than any one I ever knew by objects in external nature, rural scenery, rural sounds, by music, by the books that she reads — even books that are not works of imagination. Perhaps in all this she takes after her poor father, but in a more marked degree — at least, I observe it more in her; for he was very silent and reserved. And perhaps also her peculiarities have been fostered by the seclusion in which she has been brought up. It was with a view to make her a little more like girls of her own age that our friend, Mrs. Poyntz, induced me to come here. Lilian was reconciled to this change; but she shrank from the thoughts of London, which I should have preferred. Her poor father could not endure London.”

“Miss Ashleigh is fond of reading?”

“Yes, she is fond of reading, but more fond of musing. She will sit by herself for hours without book or work, and seem as abstracted as if in a dream. She was so even in her earliest childhood. Then she would tell me what she had been conjuring up to herself. She would say that she had seen — positively seen — beautiful lands far away from earth; flowers and trees not like ours. As she grew older this visionary talk displeased me, and I scolded her, and said that if others heard her, they would think that she was not only silly but very untruthful. So of late years she never ventures to tell me what, in such dreamy moments, she suffers herself to imagine; but the habit of musing continues still. Do you not agree with Mrs. Poyntz that the best cure would be a little cheerful society amongst other young people?”

“Certainly,” said I, honestly, though with a jealous pang. “But here comes the medicine. Will you take it up to her, and then sit with her half an hour or so? By that time I expect she will be asleep. I will wait here till you return. Oh, I can amuse myself with the newspapers and books on your table. Stay! one caution: be sure there are no flowers in Miss Ashleigh’s sleeping-room. I think I saw a treacherous rose-tree in a stand by the window. If so, banish it.”

Left alone, I examined the room in which, oh, thought of joy! I had surely now won the claim to become a privileged guest. I touched the books Lilian must have touched; in the articles of furniture, as yet so hastily disposed that the settled look of home was not about them, I still knew that I was gazing on things which her mind must associate with the history of her young life. That luteharp must be surely hers, and the scarf, with a girl’s favourite colours — pure white and pale blue — and the bird-cage, and the childish ivory work-case, with implements too pretty for use — all spoke of her.

It was a blissful, intoxicating revery, which Mrs. Ashleigh’s entrance disturbed.

Lilian was sleeping calmly. I had no excuse to linger there any longer.

“I leave you, I trust, with your mind quite at ease,” said I. “You will allow me to call tomorrow, in the afternoon?”

“Oh, yes, gratefully.”

Mrs. Ashleigh held out her hand as I made towards the door.

Is there a physician who has not felt at times how that ceremonious fee throws him back from the garden-land of humanity into the market-place of money — seems to put him out of the pale of equal friendship, and say, “True, you have given health and life. Adieu! there, you are paid for it!” With a poor person there would have been no dilemma, but Mrs. Ashleigh was affluent: to depart from custom here was almost impertinence. But had the penalty of my refusal been the doom of never again beholding Lilian, I could not have taken her mother’s gold. So I did not appear to notice the hand held out to me, and passed by with a quickened step.

“But, Dr. Fenwick, stop!”

“No, ma’am, no! Miss Ashleigh would have recovered as soon without me. Whenever my aid is really wanted, then — but Heaven grant that time may never come! We will talk again about her tomorrow.”

I was gone — now in the garden ground, odorous with blossoms; now in the lane, inclosed by the narrow walls; now in the deserted streets, over which the moon shone full as in that winter night when I hurried from the chamber of death. But the streets were not ghastly now, and the moon was no longer Hecate, that dreary goddess of awe and spectres, but the sweet, simple Lady of the Stars, on whose gentle face lovers have gazed ever since (if that guess of astronomers be true) she was parted from earth to rule the tides of its deeps from afar, even as love, from love divided, rules the heart that yearns towards it with mysterious law.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31