The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

Mrs. Jazeph.

IF, instead of hazarding the guess that a second death stood in the way of Mr. and Mrs. Frankland’s arrival at Porthgenna, the housekeeper had, by way of variety, surmised this time that a birth was the obstacle which delayed them, she might have established her character as a wise woman, by hitting at random on the actual truth. Her master and mistress had started from London on the ninth of May, and had got through the greater part of their railway journey, when they were suddenly obliged to stop, on Mrs. Frankland’s account, at the station of a small town in Somersetshire. The little visitor, who was destined to increase the domestic responsibilities of the young married couple, had chosen to enter on the scene, in the character of a robust boy-baby, a month earlier than he had been expected, and had modestly preferred to make his first appearance in a small Somersetshire inn, rather than wait to be ceremoniously welcomed to life in the great house of Porthgenna, which he was one day to inherit.

Very few events had ever produced a greater sensation in the town of West Winston than the one small event of the unexpected stoppage of Mr. and Mrs. Frankland’s journey at that place. Never since the last election had the landlord and landlady of the Tiger’s Head Hotel bustled about their house in such a fever of excitement as possessed them when Mr. Frankland’s servant and Mrs. Franklin’s maid drew up at the door in a fly from the station, to announce that their master and mistress were behind, and that the largest and quietest rooms in the hotel were wanted immediately, under the most unexpected circumstances. Never since he had triumphantly passed his examination had young Mr. Orridge, the new doctor, who had started in life by purchasing the West Winston practice, felt such a thrill of pleasurable agitation pervade him from top to toe as when he heard that the wife of a blind gentleman of great fortune had been taken ill on the railway journey from London to Devonshire, and required all that his skill and attention could do for her without a moment’s delay. Never since the last archery meeting and fancy fair had the ladies of the town been favored with such an all-absorbing subject for conversation as was now afforded to them by Mrs. Frankland’s mishap. Fabulous accounts of the wife’s beauty and the husband’s fortune poured from the original source of the Tiger’s Head, and trickled through the highways and byways of the little town. There were a dozen different reports, one more elaborately false than the other, about Mr. Frankland’s blindness, and the cause of it; about the lamentable condition in which his wife had arrived at the hotel; and about the painful sense of responsibility which had unnerved the inexperienced Mr. Orridge from the first moment when he set eyes on his patient. It was not till eight o’clock in the evening that the public mind was relieved at last from all suspense by an announcement that the child was born, and screaming lustily; that the mother was wonderfully well, considering all things; and that Mr. Orridge had covered himself with distinction by the skill, tenderness, and attention with which he had performed his duties.

On the next day, and the next, and for a week after that, the accounts were still favorable. But on the tenth day a catastrophe was reported. The nurse who was in attendance on Mrs. Frankland had been suddenly taken ill, and was rendered quite incapable of performing any further service for at least a week to come, and perhaps for a much longer period.

In a large town this misfortune might have been readily remedied, but in a place like West Winston it was not so easy to supply the loss of an experienced nurse at a few hours’ notice. When Mr. Orridge was consulted in the new emergency, he candidly acknowledged that he required a little time for consideration before he could undertake to find another professed nurse of sufficient character and experience to wait on a lady like Mrs. Frankland. Mr. Frankland suggested telegraphing to a medical friend in London for a nurse, but the doctor was unwilling for many reasons to adopt that plan, except as a last resource. It would take some time to find the right person, and to send her to West Winston and, moreover, he would infinitely prefer employing a woman with whose character and capacity he was himself acquainted. He therefore proposed that Mrs. Frankland should be trusted for a few hours to the care of her maid, under supervision of the landlady of the Tiger’s Head, while he made inquiries in the neighborhood. If the inquiries produced no satisfactory result, he should be ready, when he called in the evening, to adopt Mr. Frankland’s idea of telegraphing to London for a nurse.

On proceeding to make the investigation that he had proposed, Mr. Orridge, although he spared no trouble, met with no success. He found plenty of volunteers for the office of nurse, but they were all loud-voiced, clumsy-handed, heavy-footed countrywomen, kind and willing enough, but sadly awkward, blundering attendants to place at the bedside of such a lady as Mrs. Frankland. The morning hours passed away, and the afternoon came, and still Mr. Orridge had found no substitute for the invalided nurse whom he could venture to engage.

At two o’clock he had half an hour’s drive before him to a country house where he had a child-patient to see. “Perhaps I may remember somebody who may do, on the way out or on the way back again,” thought Mr. Orridge, as he got into his gig. “I have some hours at my disposal still, before the time comes for my evening visit at the inn.”

Puzzling his brains, with the best intention in the world, all along the road to the country house, Mr. Orridge reached his destination without having arrived at any other conclusion than that he might just as well state his difficulty to Mrs. Norbury, the lady whose child he was about to prescribe for. He had called on her when he bought the West Winston practice, and had found her one of those frank, good-humored, middle-aged women who are generally designated by the epithet “motherly.” Her husband was a country squire, famous for his old politics, his old stories, and his old wine. He had seconded his wife’s hearty reception of the new doctor, with all the usual jokes about never giving him any employment, and never letting any bottles into the house except the bottles that went down into the cellar. Mr. Orridge had been amused by the husband and pleased with the wife; and he thought it might be at least worth while, before he gave up all hope of finding a fit nurse, to ask Mrs. Norbury, as an old resident in the West Winston neighborhood, for a word of advice.

Accordingly, after seeing the child, and pronouncing that there were no symptoms about the little patient which need cause the slightest alarm to anybody, Mr. Orridge paved the way for a statement of the difficulty that beset him by asking Mrs. Norbury if she had heard of the “interesting event” that had happened at the Tiger’s Head.

“You mean,” answered Mrs. Norbury, who was a downright woman, and a resolute speaker of the plainest possible English — “You mean, have I heard about that poor unfortunate lady who was taken ill on her journey, and who had a child born at the inn? We have heard so much, and no more — living as we do (thank Heaven!) out of reach of the West Winston gossip. How is the lady? Who is she? Is the child well? Is she tolerably comfortable? poor thing! Can I send her anything, or do anything for her?”

“You would do a great thing for her, and render a great assistance to me,” said Mr. Orridge, “if your could tell me of any respectable woman in this neighborhood who would be a proper nurse for her.”

“You don’t mean to say that the poor creature has not got a nurse!” exclaimed Mrs. Norbury.

“She has had the best nurse in West Winston,” replied Mr. Orridge. “But, most unfortunately, the woman was taken ill this morning, and was obliged to go home. I am now at my wit’s end for somebody to supply her place. Mrs. Frankland has been used to the luxury of being well waited on; and where I am to find an attendant, who is likely to satisfy her, is more than I can tell.”

“Frankland, did you say her name was?” inquired Mrs. Norbury.

“Yes. She is, I understand, a daughter of that Captain Treverton who was lost with his ship a year ago in the West Indies. Perhaps your may remember the account of the disaster in the newspapers?”

“Of course I do! and I remember the Captain too. I was acquainted with him when he was a young man, at Portsmouth. His daughter and I ought not to be strangers, especially under such circumstances as the poor thing is placed in now. I will call at the inn, Mr. Orridge, as soon as you will allow me to introduce myself to her. But, in the meantime, what is to be done in this difficulty about the nurse? Who is with Mrs. Frankland now?”

“Her maid; but she is a very young woman, and doesn’t understand nursing duties. The landlady of the inn is ready to help when she can; but then she has constant demands on her time and attention. I suppose we shall have to telegraph to London and get somebody sent here by railway.”

“And that will take time, of course. And the new nurse may turn out to be a drunkard or a thief or both — when you have got her here,” said the outspoken Mrs. Norbury. “Dear, dear me! can’t we do something better than that? I am ready, I am sure, to take any trouble, or make any sacrifice, if I can be of use to Mrs. Frankland. Do you know, Mr. Orridge, I think it would be a good plan if we consulted my housekeeper, Mrs. Jazeph. She is an odd woman, with an odd name, you will say; but she has lived with me in this house more than five years, and she may know of somebody in our neighborhood who might suit you, though I don’t.” With those words, Mrs. Norbury rang the bell, and ordered the servant who answered it to tell Mrs. Jazeph that she was wanted upstairs immediately.

After the lapse of a minute or so a soft knock was heard at the door, and the housekeeper entered the room.

Mr. Orridge looked at her, the moment she appeared, with an interest and curiosity for which he was hardly able to account. He judged her, at a rough guess, to be a woman of about fifty years of age. At the first glance, his medical eye detected that some of the intricate machinery of the nervous system had gone wrong with Mrs. Jazeph. He noted the painful working of the muscles of her face, and the hectic flush that flew into her cheeks when she entered the room and found a visitor there. He observed a strangely scared look in her eyes, and remarked that it did not leave them when the rest of her face became gradually composed. “That woman has had some dreadful fright, some great grief, or some wasting complaint,” he thought to himself. “I wonder which it is?”

“This is Mr. Orridge, the medical gentleman who has lately settled at West Winston,” said Mrs. Norbury, addressing the housekeeper. “He is in attendance on a lady who was obliged to stop, on her journey westward, at our station, and who is now staying at the Tiger’s Head. You have heard something about it, have you not, Mrs. Jazeph?”

Mrs. Jazeph, standing just inside the door, looked respectfully toward the doctor, and answered in the affirmative. Although she only said the two common words, “Yes, ma’am,” in a quiet, uninterested way, Mr. Orridge was struck by the sweetness and tenderness of her voice. If he had not been looking at her, he would have supposed it to be the voice of a young woman. His eyes remained fixed on her after she had spoken, though he felt that they ought to have been looking toward her mistress. He, the most unobservant of men in such things, found himself noticing her dress, so that he remembered, long afterward, the form of the spotless muslin cap that primly covered her smooth gray hair, and the quiet brown color of the silk dress that fitted so neatly and hung around her in such spare and disciplined folds. The little confusion which she evidently felt at finding herself the object of the doctor’s attention did not betray her into the slightest awkwardness of gesture or manner. If there can be such a thing, physically speaking, as the grace of restraint, that was the grace which seemed to govern Mrs. Jazeph’s slightest movements; which led her feet smoothly over the carpet, as she advanced when her mistress next spoke to her; which governed the action of her wan right hand as it rested lightly on a table by her side, while she stopped to hear the next question that was addressed to her.

“Well,” continued Mrs. Norbury, “this poor lady was just getting on comfortably, when the nurse who was looking after her fell ill this morning; and there she is now, in a strange place, with a first child, and no proper attendance — no woman of age and experience to help her as she ought to be helped. We want somebody fit to wait on a delicate woman who has seen nothing of the rough side of humanity. Mr. Orridge can find nobody at a day’s notice, and I can tell him of nobody. Can you help us, Mrs. Jazeph? Are there any women down in the village, or among Mr. Norbury’s tenants, who understand nursing, and have some tact and tenderness to recommend them into the bargain?”

Mrs. Jazeph reflected for a little while, and then said, very respectfully, but very briefly also, and still without any appearance of interest in her manner, that she knew of no one whom she could recommend.

“Don’t make too sure of that till you have thought a little longer,” said Mrs. Norbury. “I have a particular interest in serving this lady, for Mr. Orridge told me just before you came in that she is the daughter of Captain Treverton, whose shipwreck — ”

The instant those words were spoken, Mrs. Jazeph turned round with a start, and looked at the doctor. Apparently forgetting that her right hand was on the table, she moved it so suddenly that it struck against a bronze statuette of a dog placed on some writing materials. The statuette fell to the ground, and Mrs. Jazeph stooped to pick it up with a cry of alarm which seemed strangely exaggerated by comparison with the trifling nature of the accident.

“Bless the woman! what is she frightened about?” exclaimed Mrs. Norbury. “The dog is not hurt — put it back again! This is the first time, Mrs. Jazeph, that I ever knew you do an awkward thing. You may take that as a compliment, I think. Well, as I was saying, this lady is the daughter of Captain Treverton, whose dreadful shipwreck we all read about in the papers. I knew her father in my early days, and on that account I am doubly anxious to be of service to her now. Do think again. Is there nobody within reach who can be trusted to nurse her?”

The doctor, still watching Mrs. Jazeph with that secret medical interest of his in her case, had seen her turn so deadly pale when she started and looked toward him that he would not have been surprised if she had fainted on the spot. He now observed that she changed color again when her mistress left off speaking. The hectic red tinged her checks once more with two bright spots. Her timid eyes wandered uneasily about the room; and her fingers, as she clasped her hands together, interlaced themselves mechanically. “That would be an interesting case to treat,” thought the doctor, following every nervous movement of the housekeeper’s hands with watchful eyes.

“Do think again,” repeated Mrs. Norbury. “I am so anxious to help this poor lady through her difficulty, if I can.”

“I am very sorry,” said Mrs. Jazeph, in faint, trembling tones, but still always with the same sweetness in her voice — “very sorry that I can think of no one who is fit; but — ”

She stopped. No shy child on its first introduction to the society of strangers could have looked more disconcerted than she looked now. Her eyes were on the ground; her color was deepening; the fingers of her clasped hands were working together faster and faster every moment.

“But what?” asked Mrs. Norbury.

“I was about to say, ma’am,” answered Mrs. Jazeph, speaking with the greatest difficulty and uneasiness, and never raising her eyes to her mistress’s face, “that, rather than this lady should want for a nurse, I would — considering the interest, ma’am, which you take in her — I would, if you thought you could spare me — ”

“What, nurse her yourself!” exclaimed Mrs. Norbury. “Upon my word, although you have got to it in rather a roundabout way, you have come to the point at last, in a manner which does infinite credit to your kindness of heart and your readiness to make yourself useful. As to sparing you, of course I am not so selfish, under the circumstances, as to think twice of the inconvenience of losing my housekeeper. But the question is, are you competent as well as willing? Have you ever had any practice in nursing?”

“Yes, ma’am,” answered Mrs. Jazeph, still without raising her eyes from the ground. “Shortly after my marriage” (the flush disappeared, and her face turned pale again as she said those words), “I had some practice in nursing, and continued it at intervals until the time of my husband’s death. I only presume to offer myself, Sir,” she went on, turning toward the doctor, and becoming more earnest and self-possessed in her manner as she did so — “I only presume to offer myself with my mistress’s permission, as a substitute for a nurse until some better qualified person can be found.”

“What do you say, Mr. Orridge?” asked Mrs. Norbury.

It had been the doctor’s turn to start when he first heard Mrs. Jazeph propose herself for the office of nurse. He hesitated before he answered Mrs. Norbury’s question, then said:

“I can have but one doubt about the propriety of thankfully accepting Mrs. Jazeph’s offer.”

Mrs. Jazeph’s timid eyes looked anxiously and perplexedly at him as he spoke. Mrs. Norbury, in her downright, abrupt way, asked immediately what the doubt was.

“I feel some uncertainty,” replied Mr. Orridge, “as to whether Mrs. Jazeph — she will pardon me, as a medical man, for mentioning it — as to whether Mrs. Jazeph is strong enough, and has her nerves sufficiently under control to perform the duties which she is so kindly ready to undertake.”

In spite of the politeness of the explanation, Mrs. Jazeph was evidently disconcerted and distressed by it. A certain quiet, uncomplaining sadness, which it was very touching to see, overspread her face as she turned away, without another word, and walked slowly to the door.

“Don’t go yet!” cried Mrs. Norbury, kindly, “or, at least, if you do go, come back again in five minutes. I am quite certain we shall have something more to say to you then.”

Mrs. Jazeph’s eyes expressed her thanks in one grateful glance. They looked so much brighter than usual while they rested on her mistress’s face, that Mrs. Norbury half doubted whether the tears were not just rising in them at that moment. Before she could look again, Mrs. Jazeph had courtesied to the doctor, and had noiselessly left the room.

“Now we are alone, Mr. Orridge,” said Mrs. Norbury, “I may tell you, with all submission to your medical judgment, that you are a little exaggerating Mrs. Jazeph’s nervous infirmities. She looks poorly enough, I own; but, after five years’ experience of her, I can tell you that she is stronger than she looks, and I honestly think you will be doing good service to Mrs. Frankland if you try our volunteer nurse, at least for a day or two. She is the gentlest, tenderest creature I ever met with, and conscientious to a fault in the performance of any duty that she undertakes. Don’t be under any delicacy about taking her away. I gave a dinner-party last week, and shall not give another for some time to come. I never could have spared my housekeeper more easily than I can spare her now.”

“I am sure I may offer Mrs. Frankland’s thanks to you as well as my own,” said Mr. Orridge. “After what you have said, it would be ungracious and ungrateful in me not to follow your advice. But will you excuse me if I ask one question? Did you ever hear that Mrs. Jazeph was subject to fits of any kind?”

“Never.”

“Not even to hysterical affections, now and then?”

“Never, since she has been in this house.”

“You surprise me, there is something in her look and manner — ”

“Yes, yes; everybody remarks that at first; but it simply means that she is in delicate health, and that she has not led a very happy life (as I suspect) in her younger days. The lady from whom I had her (with an excellent character) told me that she had married unhappily, when she was in a sadly poor, unprotected state. She never says anything about her married troubles herself; but I believe her husband ill-used her. However, it does not seem to me that this is our business. I can only tell you again that she has been an excellent servant here for the last five years, and that, in your place, poorly as she may look, I should consider her as the best nurse that Mrs. Frankland could possibly wish for, under the circumstances. There is no need for me to say any more. Take Mrs. Jazeph, or telegraph to London for a stranger — the decision of course rests with you.”

Mr. Orridge thought he detected a slight tone of irritability in Mrs. Norbury’s last sentence, he was a prudent man; and he suppressed any doubts he might still feel in reference to Mrs. Jazeph’s physical capacities for nursing, rather than risk offending the most important lady in the neighborhood at the outset of his practice in West Winston as a medical man.

“I cannot hesitate a moment after what you have been good enough to tell me,” he said. “Pray believe that I gratefully accept your kindness and your housekeeper’s offer.”

Mrs. Norbury rang the bell. It was answered on the instant by the housekeeper herself.

The doctor wondered whether she had been listening outside the door, and thought it rather strange, if she had, that she should be so anxious to learn his decision.

“Mr. Orridge accepts your offer with thanks,” said Mrs. Norbury, beckoning to Mrs. Jazeph to advance into the room. “I have persuaded him that you are not quite so weak and ill as you look.”

A gleam of joyful surprise broke over the housekeeper’s face. It looked suddenly younger by years and years, as she smiled and expressed her grateful sense of the trust that was about to be reposed in her. For the first time, also, since the doctor had seen her, she ventured on speaking before she was spoken to.

“When will my attendance be required, Sir?” she asked.

“As soon as possible,” replied Mr. Orridge. How quickly and brightly her dim eyes seemed to clear as she heard that answer! How much more hasty than her usual movements was the movement with which she now turned round and looked appealingly at her mistress!

“Go whenever Mr. Orridge wants you,” said Mrs. Norbury. “I know your accounts are always in order, and your keys always in their proper places. You never make confusion and you never leave confusion. Go, by all means, as soon as the doctor wants you.”

“I suppose you have some preparations to make?” said Mr. Orridge.

“None, Sir, that need delay me more than half an hour,” answered Mrs. Jazeph.

“This evening will be early enough,” said the doctor, taking his hat, and bowing to Mrs. Norbury. “Come to the Tiger’s Head, and ask for me. I shall he there between seven and eight. Many thanks again, Mrs. Norbury.”

“My best wishes and compliments to your patient, doctor.”

“At the Tiger’s Head, between seven and eight this evening,” reiterated Mr. Orridge, as the housekeeper opened the door for him.

“Between seven and eight, Sir,” repeated the soft, sweet voice, sounding younger than ever, now that there was an under-note of pleasure running through its tones.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/dead_secret/book3.3.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29