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CHAPTER XLII IN THE BALLROOM
Though Dunstan village was cut off, by its misfortune, from its usual intercourse with its neighbours, in some mystic manner villages even at twenty miles' distance learned all it did and suffered, feared or hoped. It did not hope greatly, the rustic habit of mind tending towards a discouraged outlook, and cherishing the drama of impending calamity. As far as Yangford and Marling inmates of cottages and farmhouses were inclined to think it probable that Dunstan would be "swep away," and rumours of spreading death and disaster were popular. Tread, the advanced blacksmith at Stornham, having heard in his by-gone, better days of the Great Plague of London, was greatly in demand as a narrator of illuminating anecdotes at The Clock Inn.
Among the parties gathered at the large houses Mount Dunstan himself was much talked of. If he had been a popular man, he might have become a sort of hero; as he was not popular, he was merely a subject for discussion. The fever-stricken patients had been carried in carts to the Mount and given beds in the ballroom, which had been made into a temporary ward. Nurses and supplies had been sent for from London, and two energetic young doctors had taken the place of old Dr. Fenwick, who had been frightened and overworked into an attack of bronchitis which confined him to his bed. Where the money came from, which must be spent every day under such circumstances, it was difficult to say. To the simply conservative of mind, the idea of filling one's house with dirty East End hop pickers infected with typhoid seemed too radical. Surely he could have done something less extraordinary. Would everybody be expected to turn their houses into hospitals in case of village epidemics, now that he had established a precedent? But there were people who approved, and were warm in their sympathy with him. At the first dinner party where the matter was made the subject of argument, the beautiful Miss Vanderpoel, who was present, listened silently to the talk with such brilliant eyes that Lord Dunholm, who was in an elderly way her staunch admirer, spoke to her across the table:
"Tell us what YOU think of it, Miss Vanderpoel," he suggested.
She did not hesitate at all.
"I like it," she answered, in her clear, well-heard voice. "I like it better than anything I have ever heard."
"So do I," said old Lady Alanby shortly. "I should never have done it myself - but I like it just as you do."
"I knew you would, Lady Alanby," said the girl. "And you, too, Lord Dunholm."
"I like it so much that I shall write and ask if I cannot be of assistance," Lord Dunholm answered.
Betty was glad to hear this. Only quickness of thought prevented her from the error of saying, "Thank you," as if the matter were personal to herself. If Mount Dunstan was restive under the obviousness of the fact that help was so sorely needed, he might feel less so if her offer was only one among others.
"It seems rather the duty of the neighbourhood to show some interest," put in Lady Alanby. "I shall write to him myself. He is evidently of a new order of Mount Dunstan. It's to be hoped he won't take the fever himself, and die of it He ought to marry some handsome, well-behaved girl, and refound the family."
Nigel Anstruthers spoke from his side of the table, leaning slightly forward.
"He won't if he does not take better care of himself. He passed me on the road two days ago, riding like a lunatic. He looks frightfully ill - yellow and drawn and lined. He has not lived the life to prepare him for settling down to a fight with typhoid fever. He would be done for if he caught the infection."
"I beg your pardon," said Lord Dunholm, with quiet decision. "Unprejudiced inquiry proves that his life has been entirely respectable. As Lady Alanby says, he seems to be of a new order of Mount Dunstan."
"No doubt you are right," said Sir Nigel suavely. "He looked ill, notwithstanding."
"As to looking ill," remarked Lady Alanby to Lord Dunholm, who sat near her, "that man looks as if he was going to pieces pretty rapidly himself, and unprejudiced inquiry would not prove that his past had nothing to do with it."
Betty wondered if her brother-in-law were lying. It was generally safest to argue that he was. But the fever burned high at Mount Dunstan, and she knew by instinct what its owner was giving of the strength of his body and brain. A young, unmarried woman cannot go about, however, making anxious inquiries concerning the welfare of a man who has made no advance towards her. She must wait for the chance which brings news.
. . . . .
The fever, having ill-cared for and habitually ill fed bodies to work upon, wrought fiercely, despite the energy of the two young doctors and the trained nurses. There were many dark hours in the ballroom ward, hours filled with groans and wild ravings. The floating Terpsichorean goddesses upon the lofty ceiling gazed down with wondering eyes at haggard faces and plucking hands which sometimes, behind the screen drawn round their beds, ceased to look feverish, and grew paler and stiller, until they moved no more. But, at least, none had died through want of shelter and care. The supplies needed came from London each day. Lord Dunholm had sent a generous cheque to the aid of the sufferers, and so, also, had old Lady Alanby, but Miss Vanderpoel, consulting medical authorities and hospitals, learned exactly what was required, and necessities were forwarded daily in their most easily utilisable form.
"You generously told me to ask you for anything we found we required," Mr. Penzance wrote to her in his note of thanks. "My dear and kind young lady, you leave nothing to ask for. Our doctors, who are young and enthusiastic, are filled with delight in the completeness of the resources placed in their hands."
She had, in fact, gone to London to consult an eminent physician, who was an authority of world-wide reputation. Like the head of the legal firm of Townlinson & Sheppard, he had experienced a new sensation in the visit paid him by an indubitably modern young beauty, who wasted no word, and whose eyes, while he answered her amazingly clear questions, were as intelligently intent as those of an ardent and serious young medical student. What a surgical nurse she would have made! It seemed almost a pity that she evidently belonged to a class the members of which are rich enough to undertake the charge of entire epidemics, but who do not usually give themselves to such work, especially when they are young and astonishing in the matter of looks.
In addition to the work they did in the ballroom ward, Mount Dunstan and the vicar found much to do among the villagers. Ignorance and alarm combined to create dangers, even where they might not have been feared. Daily instruction and inspection of the cottages and their inmates was required. The knowledge that they were under control and supervision was a support to the frightened people and prevented their lapsing into careless habits. Also, there began to develop among them a secret dependence upon, and desire to please "his lordship," as the existing circumstances drew him nearer to them, and unconsciously they were attracted and dominated by his strength. The strong man carries his power with him, and, when Mount Dunstan entered a cottage and talked to its inmates, the anxious wife or surlily depressed husband was conscious of feeling a certain sense of security. It had been a queer enough thing, this he had done - bundling the infected hoppers out of their leaking huts and carrying them up to the Mount itself for shelter and care. At the most, gentlefolk generally gave soup or blankets or hospital tickets, and left the rest to luck, but, "gentry-way" or not, a man who did a thing like that would be likely to do other things, if they were needed, and gave folk a feeling of being safer than ordinary soup and blankets and hospital tickets could make them.
But "where did the money come from?" was asked during the first days. Beds and doctors, nurses and medicine, fine brandy and unlimited fowls for broth did not come up from London without being paid for. Pounds and pounds a day must be paid out to get the things that were delivered "regular" in hampers and boxes. The women talked to one another over their garden palings, the men argued together over their beer at the public house. Was he running into more debt? But even the village knew that Mount Dunstan credit had been exhausted long ago, and there had been no money at the Mount within the memory of man, so to speak.
One morning the matron with the sharp temper found out the truth, though the outburst of gratitude to Mount Dunstan which resulted in her enlightenment, was entirely spontaneous and without intention. Her doubt of his Mount Dunstan blood had grown into a sturdy liking even for his short speech and his often drawn-down brows.
"We've got more to thank your lordship for than common help," she said. "God Almighty knows where we'd all ha' been but for what you've done. Those poor souls you've nursed and fed - - "
"I've not done it," he broke in promptly. "You're mistaken; I could not have done it. How could I?"
"Well," exclaimed the matron frankly, "we WAS wondering where things came from."
"You might well wonder. Have any of you seen Lady Anstruthers' sister, Miss Vanderpoel, ride through the village? She used sometimes to ride this way. If you saw her you will remember it.'
"The 'Merican young lady!" in ejaculatory delight. "My word, yes! A fine young woman with black hair? That rich, they say, as millions won't cover it."
"They won't," grimly. "Lord Dunholm and Lady Alanby of Dole kindly sent cheques to help us, but the American young lady was first on the field. She sent both doctors and nurses, and has supplied us with food and medicine every day. As you say, Mrs. Brown, God Almighty knows what would have become of us, but for what she has done."
Mrs. Brown had listened with rather open mouth. She caught her breath heartily, as a sort of approving exclamation.
"God bless her!" she broke out. "Girls isn't generally like that. Their heads is too full of finery. God bless her, 'Merican or no 'Merican! That's what I say."
Mount Dunstan's red-brown eyes looked as if she had pleased him.
"That's what I say, too," he answered. "God bless her!"
There was not a day which passed in which he did not involuntarily say the words to himself again and again. She had been wrong when she had said in her musings that they were as far apart as if worlds rolled between them. Something stronger than sight or speech drew them together. The thread which wove itself through his thoughts grew stronger and stronger. The first day her gifts arrived and he walked about the ballroom ward directing the placing of hospital cots and hospital aids and comforts, the spirit of her thought and intelligence, the individuality and cleverness of all her methods, brought her so vividly before him that it was almost as if she walked by his side, as if they spoke together, as if she said, "I have tried to think of everything. I want you to miss nothing. Have I helped you? Tell me if there is anything more." The thing which moved and stirred him was his knowledge that when he had thought of her she had also been thinking of him, or of what deeply concerned him. When he had said to himself, tossing on his pillow, "What would she DO?" she had been planning in such a way as answered his question. Each morning, when the day's supplies arrived, it was as if he had received a message from her.
As the people in the cottages felt the power of his temperament and depended upon him, so, also, did the patients in the ballroom ward. The feeling had existed from the outset and increased daily. The doctors and nurses told one another that his passing through the room was like the administering of a tonic. Patients who were weak and making no effort, were lifted upon the strong wave of his will and carried onward towards the shore of greater courage and strength.
Young Doctor Thwaite met him when he came in one morning, and spoke in a low voice:
"There is a young man behind the screen there who is very low," he said. "He had an internal haemorrhage towards morning, and has lost his pluck. He has a wife and three children. We have been doing our best for him with hotwater bottles and stimulants, but he has not the courage to help us. You have an extraordinary effect on them all, Lord Mount Dunstan. When they are depressed, they always ask when you are coming in, and this man - Patton, his name is-has asked for you several times. Upon my word, I believe you might set him going again."
Mount Dunstan walked to the bed, and, going behind the screen, stood looking down at the young fellow lying breathing pantingly. His eyes were closed as he laboured, and his pinched white nostrils drew themselves in and puffed out at each breath. A nurse on the other side of the cot had just surrounded him with fresh hot-water bottles.
Suddenly the sunken eyelids flew open, and the eyes met Mount Dunstan's in imploring anxiousness.
"Here I am, Patton," Mount Dunstan said. "You need not speak."
But he must speak. Here was the strength his sinking soul had longed for.
"Cruel bad - goin' fast - m' lord," he panted.
Mount Dunstan made a sign to the nurse, who gave him a chair. He sat down close to the bed, and took the bloodless hand in his own.
"No," he said, "you are not going. You'll stay here. I will see to that."
The poor fellow smiled wanly. Vague yearnings had led him sometimes, in the past, to wander into chapels or stop and listen to street preachers, and orthodox platitudes came back to him.
"God's - will," he trailed out.
"It's nothing of the sort. It's God's will that you pull yourself together. A man with a wife and three children has no right to slip out."
A yearning look flickered in the lad's eyes - he was scarcely more than a lad, having married at seventeen, and had a child each year.
"She's - a good - girl."
"Keep that in your mind while you fight this out," said Mount Dunstan. "Say it over to yourself each time you feel yourself letting go. Hold on to it. I am going to fight it out with you. I shall sit here and take care of you all day - all night, if necessary. The doctor and the nurse will tell me what to do. Your hand is warmer already. Shut your eyes."
He did not leave the bedside until the middle of the night.
By that time the worst was over. He had acted throughout the hours under the direction of nurse and doctor. No one but himself had touched the patient. When Patton's eyes were open, they rested on him with a weird growing belief. He begged his lordship to hold his hand, and was uneasy when he laid it down.
"Keeps - me - up," he whispered.
"He pours something into them - vigour - magnetic power - life. He's like a charged battery," Dr. Thwaite said to his co-workers. "He sat down by Patton just in time. It sets one to thinking."
Having saved Patton, he must save others. When a man or woman sank, or had increased fever, they believed that he alone could give them help. In delirium patients cried out for him. He found himself doing hard work, but he did not flinch from it. The adoration for him became a sort of passion. Haggard faces lighted up into life at the sound of his footstep, and heavy heads turned longingly on their pillows as he passed by. In the winter days to come there would be many an hour's talk in East End courts and alleys of the queer time when a score or more of them had lain in the great room with the dancing and floating goddesses looking down at them from the high, painted ceiling, and the swell, who was a lord, walking about among them, working for them as the nurses did, and sitting by some of them through awful hours, sometimes holding burning or slackening and chilling hands with a grip whose steadiness seemed to hold them back from the brink of the abyss they were slipping into. The mere ignorantly childish desire to do his prowess credit and to play him fair saved more than one man and woman from going out with the tide.
"It is the first time in my life that I have fairly counted among men. It's the first time I have known human affection, other than yours, Penzance. They want me, these people; they are better for the sight of me. It is a new experience, and it is good for a man's soul," he said.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XLIII HIS CHANCE