Walter had passed a very troubled night, and was worse, though he thought himself better. His friend looked in to see him before going to the office, and told him that he would come again in the evening. He did not tell him that he had written to his father.
Walter slept and woke and slept again. All the afternoon he was restless, as one who dreams without sleeping. The things presented to his mind, and seeming with him, were not those about him. Late in the afternoon, the fever abated a little, and he felt as one who wakes out of a dream. For a few minutes he lay staring into the room, then rose and with difficulty dressed himself, one moment shivering, the next burning. He knew perfectly what he was doing; his mind was possessed with an unappeasable longing and absolute determination to go home. The longing had been there all the night and all the day, except when it was quieted by the shadowy assuagement of his visions; and now with the first return of his consciousness to present conditions, came resolve. Better die at home, he said to himself, than recover in such a horrible place! On he went with his preparations, mechanical but methodical, till at last he put on his great-coat, took his rug, searched his purse, found enough to pay a cab to the railway station, went softly down the stair, and was in the street, a man lonely and feeble, but with a great joy of escape. Happily a cab was just passing, and he was borne in safety, half asleep again after his exertions, to the station. There he sought the station-master, and telling him his condition, prevailed upon him to take his watch as a pledge that he would send him the price of his ticket.
It was a wet night, but not very cold, and he did not suffer at first--was in fact more comfortable than he had been in bed. He seemed to himself perfectly sane when he started, but of the latter half of his journey he remembered nothing connectedly. What fragments of it returned to his recollection appeared as the remnants of a feverish dream.
The train arrived late in the dark night, at an hour when a conveyance was rarely to be had. He remembered nothing, however, of setting out to walk home, and nothing clearly as to how he fared on the way. His dreaming memory gave him but a sense of climbing, climbing, with a cold wind buffeting him back, and bits of paper, which must have been snow-flakes, beating in his face: he thought they were the shreds of the unsold copies of his book, torn to pieces by the angry publisher, and sent swirling about his face in clouds to annoy him. After that came a great blank.
The same train had taken up Mr. Colman at a junction. The moment he got out of it, the porter to whom Molly had spoken in the morning, addressed him, with the message Molly had left for him. Surprised and uneasy, he was putting some anxious questions to the man, when his son passed him. The night was still dark, and cloudy with snow, the wind was coming in gusts, now and then fiercely, and the lamps were wildly struggling against being blown out: neither saw the other. Walter staggered away, and Richard set out for the inn, to drive home as fast as possible: there only could he get light on Molly's sudden departure for London! In her haste she had not left message enough. But he knew his son must be ill; nothing else could have caused it! He met with some delay at the inn, but at length was driving home as fast as he dared through the thick darkness of the rough ascent.
He had not driven far, before one of those little accidents occurred to his harness which, small in themselves, have so often serious results: the strap of the hames gave way, and the traces dropped by the horse's sides. Mr. Colman never went unprovided for accidents, but in a dark night, in the middle of the road, with a horse fresh and eager to get home, it takes time to rectify anything.
At length he arrived in safety, and having roused the man, hastened into the house. There he speedily learned the truth of his conjecture, and it was a great comfort to him that Molly had acted so promptly. But he bethought himself that, by driving to another station some miles further off, at which a luggage train stopped in the night, he could reach town a few hours earlier. He went again to the stable, and gave orders to have the horse well fed and ready in an hour. Then he tried to eat the supper his sister-in-law had prepared for him, but with small success. Every few minutes he rose, opened the door, and looked out. It was a very dark morning, full of wind and snow.
By and by he could bear it no longer, and though he knew there was much time to spare, got up to go to the stable. The wind met him with an angry blast as he opened the door, and sharp pellets of keen snow stung him in the face. He had taken a lantern in his hand, but, going with his head bent against the wind, he all but stumbled over a stone seat, where they would sit by the door of a summer evening. As he recovered himself, the light of his lantern fell upon a figure huddled crouching upon the seat, but in the very act of tumbling forward from off it. He caught it with one arm, set down the light, raised its head, and in the wild, worn, death-pale features and wandering eyes, knew the face of his son. He uttered one wailing groan, which seemed to spend his life, gathered him to his bosom, and taking him up like a child, almost ran to the house with him. As he went he heard at his ear the murmured word,
"Father, I have sinned--not worthy--"
His heart gave a great heave, but he uttered no second cry.
Aunt Ann, however, had heard the first. She ran, and, opening the door, met him with the youth in his arms.
"I'm afraid he's dead!" gasped Richard. "He is cold as a stone!"
Aunt Ann darted to the kitchen, made a blazing fire, set the kettle on it and bricks around it, then ran to see if she could help.
Richard had got his boy into his own bed, had put off his own clothes, and was lying with him in his arms to warm him. Aunt Ann went about like a steam-engine, but noiseless. She got the hot bricks, then hot bottles, and more blankets. The father thought he would die before the heat got to him. As soon as he was a little warm, he mounted his horse, and rode to fetch the doctor. It was terrible to him to think that he must have passed his boy on the way, and left him to struggle home without help.
Ere he returned, Walter had begun to show a little more life. He moaned, and murmured, and seemed going through a succession of painful events. Now he would utter a cry of disgust, now call for his father; then he would be fighting the storm with a wild despair of ever reaching his father.
The doctor came, examined him, said they were doing quite right, but looked solemn over him.
Had it not been for that glimpse she had at the station where last the train stopped, Molly would have been in misery indeed when, on arriving at Walter's lodging, and being told that he was ill in bed, she went up to his room, and could find him nowhere. It was like a bad dream. She almost doubted whether she might not be asleep. The landlady had never heard him go out, and until she had searched the whole house, would not believe he was not somewhere in it. Rather unwillingly, she allowed Molly to occupy his room for the night; and Molly, that she might start by the first train, stretched herself in her clothes on the miserable little horse-hair sofa. She could not sleep, and was not a little anxious about Walter's traveling in such a condition; but for all that, she could not help laughing more than once or twice to think how Aunt Ann would be crowing over her: basely deserted, left standing in the yard in her Sunday clothes, it was to her care after all that Walter was given, not Molly's! But Molly could well enough afford to join in her aunt's laugh: she had done her duty, and did not need to be told that we have nothing to do with consequences, only with what is right. So she waited patiently for the morning.
But how was she to do when she got home? Aunt Ann would have installed herself as nurse! It would not matter much while Walter was really ill; so long Aunt Ann would be good to him! but when he began to be himself again--for that time Molly must look out and be ready!
When she reached home, she was received at the door by her father who had been watching for her, and learned all he had to tell her. Aunt Ann spoke to her as if she had but the minute before left the room, vouchsafing not a single remark concerning Walter, and yielding her a position of service as narrow as she could contrive to make it. Molly did everything she desired without complaint, fetching and carrying for her as usual. She received no recognition from the half-unconscious Walter.
If it had not been that Aunt Ann must, like other nurses, have rest, Molly's ministering soul would have been sorely pinched and hampered; but when her aunt retired, she could do her part for the patient's peace. In a few days he had come to himself enough to know who were about him, and seemed to manifest a preference for Molly's nursing. To Aunt Ann this seemed very hard--and hard it would have been, but that, through all her kindness, Walter could not help foreseeing how she would treat him in the health to which she was doing her best to bring him back. He sorely dreaded the time when, strong enough to be tormented, but not able to lock his door against her, he would be at her mercy. But he cherished a hope that his father would interfere. If necessary he would appeal to him, and beg him to depose Aunt Ann, and put sweet Molly in her stead!
One morning--Molly had been sitting up the night with the invalid--she found Aunt Ann alone at the breakfast-table.
"His father is with him now," said Molly. "I think he is a little better; he slept more quietly."
"He'll do well enough!" grunted Aunt Ann. "There's no fear of him! he's not of the sort to die early! This is what comes of letting young people have their own way! My brother will be wiser now! and so, I hope, will Walter! It shall not be my fault if he's not made to understand! Old or young wouldn't listen to me! Now perhaps, while they are smarting from the rod, it may be of use to speak!"
"Aunt," said Molly, with her heart in her throat, but determined, "please do not say anything to him for a long time yet; you might make him ill again! You do not know how he hates being talked at!"
"Don't you be afraid! I won't talk at him! He shall be well talked to, and straight!"
"He won't stand it any more, auntie! He's a man now, you know! And when a mere boy, he used to complain that you were always finding fault with him!"
"Highty, tighty! What next! The gentleman has the choice, has he, when to be found fault with, and when not!"
"I give you fair warning," said Molly, hurriedly, "that I will do what I can to prevent you!"
Aunt Ann was indignant.
"You dare to tell me, in my own"--she was going to say house, but corrected herself--"in my own home, where you live on the charity of--"
Molly interrupted her.
"I shall ask my father," she said, "whether he wishes me to have such words from you. If he does, you shall say what you please to me. But as to Walter, I will ask nobody. Till he is able to take care of himself, I shall not let you plague him. I will fight you first! There now!"
The flashing eyes and determined mouth of Molly, who had risen, and stood regarding her aunt in a flame of honest anger, cowed her. She shut her jaws close, and looked the picture of postponement.
That instant came the voice of Mr. Colman:
"Yes, Richard!" answered Miss Hancock, rising.
But Molly was out of the door, almost before her aunt was out of her chair.
Walter had asked where she was, and wanted to see her. It was the first wish of any sort he had expressed!