My Brothers Friend, Part 2
The Young Englishwoman, vol. Array (1867)
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When I returned to our little parlour, I found Raleigh eagerly desirous to join us, but Walter resolute in his decision that it would be better for him to keep his energies for the morrow; and he eventually prevailed, although my poor brother felt like a deserter from the field of battle. Walter and I set out. It was about nine o’ clock; the twilight of a summer’s night was still abroad, and the air felt fresh and pleasant; but we had no time for lingering. The house to which we were bound lay at so short a distance that we did not think it necessary to take a conveyance, and in a very few minutes we had reached the door. It was ajar, and as we hastened up the steps, opened hurriedly, and a servant, pale and terrified, gestured to us to enter; and whispering, as though the Angel of Death were indeed already on the threshold, she begged us to come with her at once upstairs; but before we could follow, the dining-room opened, and Mr. Hollis came out. O, what a change a few short days of anguish had wrought in him! When last I had seen him his robust frame and cheerful face had seemed to set care at defiance; now he was haggard and worn and aged, and as he grasped Walter’s hand and tried to speak, hoarse murmurs alone came from his lips; he strove to thank us for coming, and to tell us somewhat of his little daughter’s state; but he could scarcely gasp out that three doctors, the best in our neighbourhood, had left her, saying that they could do nothing more. She had been ill for several days, and at first hopes had been given that all would end well; but now that was over, and he could not bear to see his darling die; he groaned as he said that word, and tears, such as only strong men weep, ran down his cheeks; but would we take pity on them and help them in this agony? We promised to do all in our power; and as we followed the trembling servant up the stairs, the wretched father strode back into the room whence he had come, and shut the door, as though he would have barred out the great woe that he so dreaded.
Up those stately stairs and along the corridor we passed with our conductor, until she paused, and turning a door-handle noiselessly, admitted us to the sick chamber. Pomp and riches and luxury—what can they do when the King of Terrors is at hand? Everything that wealth could buy or love devise was gathered in that one apartment, as though its baby possessor could find pleasure in such things: soft carpets under foot, heavy velvet curtains drooping round the bed and before the windows, every appliance of a downy couch,—all were there; but little did these varieties minister to the fevered frame of the sufferer. Just as we entered, Mrs. Hollis, who had watched incessantly by the side of the child through its illness, had started up at some change in the panting breath, and placed the lamp so as to cast a faint light on its features; and truly it was a fearful sight that met our gaze: the seal of death seemed indeed impressed on that little brow, and both Walter and I at the moment despaired of the issue. A dying child! I had seen death again and again through all these past weeks; but never had its aspect sent such a thrill to my heart as now. But all these ideas passed through my mind in an instant; the next I was sickeningly conscious of a terrible weight in the air, an almost perceptible feeling of pestilence, such as many who have seen much illness can well realise. It almost deprived me of consciousness, coming, as I had just done, from the pure air outside; and I could scarcely command myself sufficiently to take hold of the bed-post and steady myself by its aid. Walter felt it too; for without speaking he went hastily over, and drawing aside the folds of the drapery, opened both windows without hesitation. How thankful I was when the first waft of clear fresh air entered that stifling room! Even Mrs. Hollis, accustomed gradually as she had been to it, and therefore unable to judge of its intensity, and besides startled and terrified by such a sudden change from plans to which she had all her life been taught to adhere, must have enjoyed the blessed relief.
The soft sweet night breeze gently swayed the bed-curtains, and stole in between them; and when Walter drew them also apart, and its coolness reached the brow of the sick child, all doubt that he had brought her the best boon in his power vanished. The change seemed electrical; she pushed the heavy clothes aside, and spreading out her little arms, appeared unconsciously to welcome the healing balm. We watched by her side for many an hour; there was small room for medical aid—nature was all too exhausted by the struggle of the past days—and we could only give grateful draughts and fresh air, and leave the issue prayerfully in the hands of her Heavenly Father. And He saw meet to send hope with the dawning day: sleep—not the heavy stupor that had heralded death, but slumber, such as to a child is a messenger of life—stilled the restlessness of disease; and in the gray of the morning, leaving such directions as were needed, Walter and I returned through the silent streets to our own home, bringing back with us the joyful tidings that little Bertha might still be counted amongst the living, and followed by the thanks and blessings of the whole household.
It was no unusual thing with any of us to spend the night as we have just done; an unbroken rest was scarcely ever enjoyed. Our plan was, therefore, for those who had been out to snatch a few hours of repose before entering on the business of the day; so, briefly detailing to Raleigh the case we had just quitted, and making a few needed domestic arrangements, I lay down and tried to sleep off my fatigue and alarm; but the events of the past night were too vivid. Strive as I might to banish them, they would return; and I rose at last, feeling far from comfortable, but hoping that before Walter and my brother should come in my strength and spirits would have rallied. The event answered my wish; by the time our evening circle had gathered, cheered as it was by the news of Bertha's approach to convalescence, almost all my unpleasant sensations had worn off, and I was able to greet the comers without difficulty.
Once more we drew together for an evening of happy social converse, and this season was unbroken; no summons from without came to disturb us, and the hours glided peacefully away. We did not talk— we never did at these moments—of our outside cares and anxieties; they were sufficient for our busy day; and it seemed understood amongst us that other and brighter topics were to occupy our thoughts in the intervals of relaxation; but I remember one incident, so slight at the instant as scarcely to arrest any attention, but vividly present to my after recollection. Something—I cannot recall what—reminded me of the scene of the previous evening, and I alluded to the stifling closeness that I had observed on entering the sick-room. Walter shuddered and turned pale, and hastily passing by the subject, precluded all further dwelling on it: for a moment I felt surprised, for he, of our trio, had always hitherto appeared least to dread any allusion to the scenes of danger through which we had gone; but I quickly explained it to myself, for did not a thrill pass through me at the recollection? No wonder, then, that he too should turn away from the thought.
Our conversation that night was, strangely enough, of our homes. A letter had arrived that morning for ours—that is, from Raleigh’s and mine—earnestly urging an oft-repeated entreaty that we would consult our own safety, and hasten into the country away from the peril that surrounded us; but no motive that it could bring forward could have induced us, I believe, to alter our plans. It had always seemed so necessary for us to remain at our posts, that from the first we had separately decided on so doing, and then strengthened each other in the determination; and the event had so proved the correctness of our belief, that the constantly-recurring admonitions of our anxious friends did not make us waver for an instant: hence it was not from any thought of this kind that the morning's letter was discussed; but the pleasant home pictures it brought up, and the welcome glimpses it afforded of the quiet and peace of the country were too grateful to be disregarded, and we indulged ourselves with gazing down vistas of autumn excursions into the cool green glades and pure healthful air of our native county.
Walter joined us in all our schemes; we could not separate him from our future. His home was more one of the past than of the present. His father and mother had died, and no brothers or sisters remained to greet him; all lay at rest in the little churchyard in Cumberland, which he had so often described to me that I half fancied that I had seen it in reality, or, it may be, in a dream, and I have seen it since, and stood beside the quiet graves, and thought heavily of one far away which ought to have been numbered amongst them. But lovingly still he looked back to the old homestead, and often and often had he recurred to it, and spoken of his hope of one day welcoming us to the familiar scenes; and we had discussed plans in reference to it, and made it a kind of holiday scheme that was some time to be carried out; but this evening he dwelt on it more earnestly than ever, and painted its beauties in all their fairest colours, as though some long-sealed book had been opened before the eye of his memory, making the past as vivid and actual as the present.
Have I said that Walter had never spoken to me of love? Our lives had been too busy hitherto—first during his and Raleigh’s student days, and since then while they had been both striving to gain vantage-ground amongst their fellows, for us to have much time for such things; and besides, we were neither of us in a position to sanction such ideas; but it may be the thought, unwhispered even to our own hearts, was there, nevertheless, and many months before this the secret of his silent long-pent-up affections had come to me.1Maybe changed to may be because of misuse of an adverb instead of a verb to increase textual clarity. It boots not to tell how the knowledge first dawned on me—I scarce know myself; it is enough that I learned that I was beloved, and the cup, which I had fancied was so filled to the very brim with passionate brotherly devotion that no other earthly attachment could find place therein, received a wealth of priceless affection besides, and sparkled to my lips as surely none ever did to those of feeble mortal before. But this evening words were said, and glances met, that told yet more than words, and sweet strange visions of coming bliss were summoned forth. O young, trusting hearts, with sorrow and death around in every shape of horror, how could we speak of love? How could we touch each other's hand and not feel the chilly finger of the angel severing our warm clasp?
And we parted, as so many have parted, undreaming of what was before us, seeing alone the future that we pictured for ourselves on the dark background, which, alas, alas, was the sole reality there. We laid our plans for the morrow, much less arduous ones than they had been for many preceding weeks; for the sickness was most undoubtedly on the decrease; and we knelt once more together to seek for mercy and aid—for aid to bear humbly and trustfully our different lots, whatever they might be—and then we bade each other farewell in the light of that radiant hope that was shining so brightly upon our paths,—on Raleigh’s as on ours, for the desire had long been a cherished one with him.
The next morning broke peacefully on the great city, rejoicing in the sheathing of the destroyer's sword; and we, my brother and I, laboured in our respective works, and thanked God—O, how fervently!—that the long-prayed-for boon of healing was indeed being poured out on the awe-stricken multitude; and through the day, amidst the narrow streets and amongst the toils and cares of our ways—for as yet these were many—the angel Hope walked with us both, and pointed to glad hours to come. But evening arrived, and brought no Walter. Where could he be? My brother had seen him in the morning, and he had appeared well, but rather fatigued; perhaps he was resting, and would be with us presently; but as the minutes went on, I could not bear the suspense, and Raleigh went to seek him. He returned with the tidings that he had been so weary all day that he had decided on sending a messenger to excuse him to us for this one evening; one real night’s rest would perfectly restore him; and my brother had himself seen him, and been the bearer of the note which he had written to beg my forgiveness for his unwilling absence. Here it is, all yellow with age, with its dim, faded ink traced in those familiar characters, telling me not to be surprised or uneasy; he was quite well, only tired out, and in no state to be an amusing companion; “but to-morrow, dearest Janet, I trust all will be right. Rest yourself well, darling, and then I shall less regret my own privation; for you know that you never will confess to being weary when Raleigh or I am taxing all your powers to entertain our selfish selves.” Well, we had to be content, and Raleigh assured me there was nothing to be alarmed about. Walter himself said so too, and I strove to be calm and hopeful.
That night! O, how shall I tell the rest! I had fallen asleep late; for I could not help a vague feeling of anxiety, despite all my brother's soothing prophecies, and I had lain long awake, wishing for the morning to come and bring us tidings; but at last I had closed my eyes, and exchanged realities for troubled dreams, when a ring at the night-bell struck on my ear and roused me in a moment. I scarcely knew whether it was fact or fancy, and I sat up to listen, when another and more decided peal fell cold on my very heart; and I sprang up, scarce knowing what I was doing, and opening my bed-room door, heard the servant in muffled colloquy with some messenger. I recognised the voice,—I had heard it often before; the son of Walter's landlady had come, and what was his errand? I knew it well; I knew what it must be; our friend was down with the fever, and we must hasten to him immediately.
And we did hasten, but what availed it? What availed it for us, with our love all turned to agony now, to stand beside that silent couch and feel how powerless any human aid was to bring relief to the beloved one—to watch and pray through heavy days and nights, and note no change, no lightening of the stupor that seemed so like death? Disease was paralysing the overwrought frame; those kind hands, that ready brain, which had so untiringly laboured on even beyond their powers in the behalf of others, were soon to be “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and as yet the unvarying repose, which was not rest, had been broken by no word or sign to tell us that the sufferer knew who ministered to him.2“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”: A phrase from the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. Gradually the flame of life grew fainter and fainter; there was no strength left for fever; a failing of all the vital powers was the herald of the grave; and as the silver cord was loosened and the golden bowl gently broken, all hope that the brightness of the mind would return seemed taken away; and when at last we knelt to crave a peaceful parting from earth for our friend and brother, we mingled with our petitions no longer the entreaty that a sign of recognition might be permitted,—rather that strength and grace might be vouchsafed to us to bear our bereavement without a murmur.
But the last bitterness was not to be added to our cup. As the end drew nigh a change was perceptible; not a change for hope—that had long faded into nothing—but that latest flicker of the parting mind which so often precedes death broke through the heavy clouds of stupor; and I thank God that its faint rays fell on us to brighten for ever that dim and lonely path which stretched before us in the future.
I cannot tell how long we had watched, in suspense first, then in despair, beside that bed. All reckoning of the days was over with me; Raleigh alone counted the tides of disease, and knew the hours of their ebb and flow; but in mercy he kept silence, for well he knew that they but told of successive stages towards the end of the journey. And now that journey was well-nigh finished, and, unspoken by each to the other, the knowledge struck its dumb horror on us both; for there is a clinging to hope in the inmost soul which never wholly ceases, unknowing as we imagine ourselves to be of it, until the fearful seal is set which bids it flee away for ever.
Raleigh and I sat together beside our unconscious friend, lying there voiceless and motionless, as he had been from the first moment of our presence in that room; but as the evening drew on a slight tremor in the pallid face sent the bloody faintly rushing to my heart. What did it betide? I started to my feet, and Raleigh was at my side in an instant. A few minutes passed, and the lips moved with an indistinct sound, and then more clearly came words and names grown familiar to us in many a long past hour. Walter fancied himself in his distant home, and the loved of old times were round him; the present was hidden from his view; and as we hung over him, thanking God even for the blessing of listening to that voice, which we had believed was hushed for ever, we heard him recalling many vanished scenes, and speaking tenderly to those who had once mingled their love with his. But ere long later memories returned also. “Mother, dear mother, where is Janet? Is she not coming? O, mother, call her; call her quickly! Or is she ill! Has she got the fever? Let me go to her; I must go to her and Raleigh.” And then I spoke to him, and told him that I was by him; that we both were there, and besought him to speak to us, to look at us again. And the clouds rolled away gradually from his poor brain, and he knew us—knew us both, and blessed and thanked us for our watchfulness and care.
How can I tell what words were said, what farewells spoken, in that last holy hour of love and friendship! Peace, such as the world may not give, hovered round that dying bed, and our chastened hearts in all their agony were stilled and strengthened. How often through my long life has the memory of that time come back to me with cheering power! and that feeble voice, so feeble at first that it scarce seemed able to convey the words it uttered, but gradually rising, until in its clearness and sweetness days of health and vigor were brought to mind, has sounded upon my listening ear and taught its lesson of faith and submission again and again to my rebellious soul, again and again thrilled my whole being with the earnestness of its passionate love. And in the dreams of night, when things of the past come back upon the human soul in all their vivid colouring, how often have I knelt again beside that bed and watched the light fade out of those beloved eyes, seen the shadow of death pass over that noble brow and draw the curtain for ever between it and life, and felt the last faint pressure of that cold hand, and when—O, friend! O, husband!—I parted from you in that hour so long ago, so far divided from me now by many a weary year!
What remains for me to tell? Raleigh and I are yet one, as in our childish days; we have clung together all through our lives, and the memories of the past are alike to us both in joy and grief. And ever present to both, whether spoken of or living but in thought, there walks one remembered form, which hallows and glorifies our united lives, and beckons us ever on to the mansions of rest and peace.
- Christian literature
- Girls’ fiction
- Love story/Marriage plot
- Unrequited love
- Women’s literature
- Working-class literature
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