A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 14.

Mrs. Ashleigh received us in the dining-room. Her manner to me, at first, was a little confused and shy. But my companion soon communicated something of her own happy ease to her gentler friend. After a short conversation we all three went to Lilian, who was in a little room on the ground-floor, fitted up as her study. I was glad to perceive that my interdict of the deathchamber had been respected.

She reclined on a sofa near the window, which was, however, jealously closed; the light of the bright May-day obscured by blinds and curtains; a large fire on the hearth; the air of the room that of a hot-house — the ignorant, senseless, exploded system of nursing into consumption those who are confined on suspicion of it! She did not heed us as we entered noiselessly; her eyes were drooped languidly on the floor, and with difficulty I suppressed the exclamation that rose to my lips on seeing her. She seemed within the last few days so changed, and on the aspect of the countenance there was so profound a melancholy! But as she slowly turned at the sound of our footsteps, and her eyes met mine, a quick blush came into the wan cheek, and she half rose, but sank back as if the effort exhausted her. There was a struggle for breath, and a low hollow cough. Was it possible that I had been mistaken, and that in that cough was heard the warning knell of the most insidious enemy to youthful life?

I sat down by her side; I lured her on to talk of indifferent subjects — the weather, the gardens, the bird in the cage, which was placed on the table near her. Her voice, at first low and feeble, became gradually stronger, and her face lighted up with a child’s innocent, playful smile. No, I had not been mistaken! That was no lymphatic, nerveless temperament, on which consumption fastens as its lawful prey; here there was no hectic pulse, no hurried waste of the vital flame. Quietly and gently I made my observations, addressed my questions, applied my stethoscope; and when I turned my face towards her mother’s anxious, eager eyes, that face told my opinion; for her mother sprang forward, clasped my hand, and said, through her struggling tears —

“You smile! You see nothing to fear?”

“Fear! No, indeed! You will soon be again yourself, Miss Ashleigh, will you not?”

“Yes,” she said, with her sweet laugh, “I shall be well now very soon. But may I not have the window open; may I not go into the garden? I so long for fresh air.”

“No, no, darling,” exclaimed Mrs. Ashleigh, “not while the east winds last. Dr. Jones said on no account. On no account, Dr. Fenwick, eh?”

“Will you take my arm, Miss Ashleigh, for a few turns up and down the room?” said I. “We will then see how far we may rebel against Dr. Jones.”

She rose with some little effort, but there was no cough. At first her step was languid; it became lighter and more elastic after a few moments.

“Let her come out,” said I to Mrs. Ashleigh. “The wind is not in the east, and, while we are out, pray bid your servant lower to the last bar in the grate that fire — only fit for Christmas.”

“But —”

“Ah, no buts! He is a poor doctor who is not a stern despot.”

So the straw hat and mantle were sent for. Lilian was wrapped with unnecessary care, and we all went forth into the garden. Involuntarily we took the way to the Monk’s Well, and at every step Lilian seemed to revive under the bracing air and temperate sun. We paused by the well.

“You do not feel fatigued, Miss Ashleigh?”

“No.”

“But your face seems changed. It is grown sadder.”

“Not sadder.”

“Sadder than when I first saw it — saw it when you were seated here!” I said this in a whisper. I felt her hand tremble as it lay on my arm.

“You saw me seated here!”

“Yes. I will tell you how some day.”

Lilian lifted her eyes to mine, and there was in them that same surprise which I had noticed on my first visit — a surprise that perplexed me, blended with no displeasure, but yet with a something of vague alarm.

We soon returned to the house.

Mrs. Ashleigh made me a sign to follow her into the drawing-room, leaving Mrs. Poyntz with Lilian.

“Well?” said she, tremblingly.

“Permit me to see Dr. Jones’s prescriptions. Thank you. Ay, I thought so. My dear madam, the mistake here has been in depressing nature instead of strengthening; in narcotics instead of stimulants. The main stimulants which leave no reaction are air and light. Promise me that I may have my own way for a week — that all I recommend will be implicitly heeded?”

“I promise. But that cough — you noticed it?”

“Yes. The nervous system is terribly lowered, and nervous exhaustion is a strange impostor; it imitates all manner of complaints with which it has no connection. The cough will soon disappear! But pardon my question. Mrs. Poyntz tells me that you consulted a clairvoyants about your daughter. Does Miss Ashleigh know that you did so?”

“No; I did not tell her.”

“I am glad of that. And pray, for Heaven’s sake, guard her against all that may set her thinking on such subjects. Above all, guard her against concentring attention on any malady that your fears erroneously ascribe to her. It is amongst the phenomena of our organization that you cannot closely rivet your consciousness on any part of the frame, however healthy, but it will soon begin to exhibit morbid sensibility. Try to fix all your attention on your little finger for half an hour, and before the half hour is over the little finger will be uneasy, probably even painful. How serious, then, is the danger to a young girl, at the age in which imagination is most active, most intense, if you force upon her a belief that she is in danger of a mortal disease! It is a peculiarity of youth to brood over the thought of early death much more resignedly, much more complacently, than we do in maturer years. Impress on a young imaginative girl, as free from pulmonary tendencies as you and I are, the conviction that she must fade away into the grave, and though she may not actually die of consumption, you instil slow poison into her system. Hope is the natural aliment of youth. You impoverish nourishment where you discourage hope. As soon as this temporary illness is over, reject for your daughter the melancholy care which seems to her own mind to mark her out from others of her age. Rear her for the air, which is the kindest life-giver; to sleep with open windows: to be out at sunrise. Nature will do more for her than all our drugs can do. You have been hitherto fearing Nature; now trust to her.”

Here Mrs. Poyntz joined us, and having, while I had been speaking, written my prescription and some general injunctions, I closed my advice with an appeal to that powerful protectress.

“This, my dear madam, is a case in which I need your aid, and I ask it. Miss Ashleigh should not be left with no other companion than her mother. A change of faces is often as salutary as a change of air. If you could devote an hour or two this very evening to sit with Miss Ashleigh, to talk to her with your usual cheerfulness, and —”

“Annie,” interrupted Mrs. Poyntz, “I will come and drink tea with you at half-past seven, and bring my knitting; and perhaps, if you ask him, Dr. Fenwick will come too! He can be tolerably entertaining when he likes it.”

“It is too great a tax on his kindness, I fear,” said Mrs. Ashleigh. “But,” she added cordially, “I should be grateful indeed if he would spare us an hour of his time.”

I murmured an assent which I endeavoured to make not too joyous.

“So that matter is settled,” said Mrs. Poyntz; “and now I shall go to Mr. Vigors and prevent his further interference.”

“Oh, but, Margaret, pray don’t offend him — a connection of my poor dear Gilbert’s. And so tetchy! I am sure I do not know how you’ll manage to —”

“To get rid of him? Never fear. As I manage everything and everybody,” said Mrs. Poyntz, bluntly. So she kissed her friend on the forehead, gave me a gracious nod, and, declining the offer of my carriage, walked with her usual brisk, decided tread down the short path towards the town.

Mrs. Ashleigh timidly approached me, and again the furtive hand bashfully insinuated the hateful fee.

“Stay,” said I; “this is a case which needs the most constant watching. I wish to call so often that I should seem the most greedy of doctors if my visits were to be computed at guineas. Let me be at ease to effect my cure; my pride of science is involved in it. And when amongst all the young ladies of the Hill you can point to none with a fresher bloom, or a fairer promise of healthful life, than the patient you intrust to my care, why, then the fee and the dismissal. Nay, nay; I must refer you to our friend Mrs. Poyntz. It was so settled with her before she brought me here to displace Dr. Jones.” Therewith I escaped.

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