She had reached the little iron gate, which hung on one hinge only, and was lifting it from the ground to push it open, when sudden through the stillness came a frightful cry. Had they found him already? Was it a life-and-death struggle going on within? For one moment she stood rooted; the next she flew to the door. When she entered the hall, however, the place was silent as a crypt. Could it have been her imagination? Again, curdling her blood with horror, came the tearing cry, a sort of shout of agony. All in the dark, she flew up the stair, calling him by name, fell twice, rose as if on wings, and flew again until she reached the room. There all was silence and darkness. With trembling hands she found her match-box and struck a light, uttering all the time every soothing word she could think of, while her heart quavered in momentary terror of another shriek. It came just as the match flamed up in her fingers, and an answering shriek from her bosom tore its way through her clenched teeth, and she shuddered like one in an ague. There sat her brother on the edge of the bedstead staring before him with fixed eyes and terror-stricken countenance. He had not heard her enter, and saw neither the light nor her who held it. She made haste to light the candle, with mighty effort talking to him still, in gasps and chokings, but in vain; the ghastly face continued unchanged, and the wide-open eyes remained fixed. She seated herself beside him, and threw her arms around him. It was like embracing a marble statue, so moveless, so irresponsive was he. But presently he gave a kind of shudder, the tension of his frame relaxed, and the soul which had been absorbed in its own visions, came forward to its windows, cast from them a fleeting glance, then dropped the curtains.
"Is it you, Helen?" he said, shuddering, as he closed his eyes and laid his head on her shoulder. His breath was like that of a furnace. His skin seemed on fire. She felt his pulse: it was galloping. He was in a fever--brain-fever, probably, and what was she to do? A thought came to her. Yes, it was the only possible thing. She would take him home. There, with the help of the household, she might have a chance of concealing him--a poor one, certainly! but here, how was she even to keep him to the house in his raving fits?
"Poldie, dear!" she said, "you must come with me. I am going to take you to my own room, where I can nurse you properly, and need not leave you. Do you think you could walk as far?"
"Walk! Yes--quite well: why not?"
"I am afraid you are going to be ill, Poldie; but, however ill you may feel, you must promise me to try and make as little noise as you can, and never cry out if you can help it. When I do like this," she went on, laying her finger on his lips, "you must be silent altogether."
"I will do whatever you tell me, Helen, if you will only promise not to leave me, and, when they come for me, to give me poison."
She promised, and made haste to obliterate every sign that the room had been occupied. She then took his arm and led him out. He was very quiet--too quiet and submissive, she thought--seemed sleepy, revived a little when they reached the open air, presently grew terrified, and kept starting and looking about him as they crossed the park, but never spoke a word. By the door in the sunk fence they reached the garden, and were soon in Helen's chamber, where she left him to get into bed while she went to acquaint her aunt of his presence in the house. Hard and unreasonable, like most human beings, where her prejudices were concerned, she had, like all other women, sympathy with those kinds of suffering which by experience she understood. Mental distress was beyond her, but for the solace of another's pain she would even have endured a portion herself. When therefore, she heard Helen's story, how her brother had come to her window, that he was ill with brain-fever, as she thought, and talked wildly, she quite approved of her having put him to bed in her own room, and would have got up to help in nursing him. But Helen persuaded her to have her night's rest, and begged her to join with her in warning the servants not to mention his presence in the house, on the ground that it might get abroad that he was out of his mind. They were all old and tolerably faithful, and Leopold had been from childhood such a favourite, that she hoped thus to secure their silence.
"But, child, he must have the doctor," said her aunt.
"Yes, but I will manage him. What a good thing old Mr. Bird is gone! He was such a gossip! We must call in the new doctor, Mr. Faber. I shall see that he understands. He has his practice to make, and will mind what I say."
"Why, child, you are as cunning as an old witch!" said her aunt. "It is very awkward," she went on. "What miserable creatures men are--from first to last! Out of one scrape into another from babies to old men! Would you believe it, my dear?--your uncle, one of the best of men, and most exemplary of clergymen--why, I had to put on his stockings for him every day he got up! Not that my services stopped there either, I can tell you! Latterly I wrote more than half his sermons for him. He never would preach the same sermon twice, you see. He made that a point of honour; and the consequence was that at last he had to come to me. His sermons were nothing the losers, I trust, or our congregation either. I used the same commentaries he did, and you would hardly believe how much I enjoyed the work.--Poor dear boy! we must do what we can for him."
"I will call you if I find it necessary, aunt. I must go to him now, for he cannot bear me out of his sight. Don't please send for the doctor till I see you again."
When she got back to her room, to her great relief she found Leopold asleep. The comfort of the bed after his terrible exhaustion and the hardships he had undergone, had combined with the drug under whose influences he had more or less been ever since first he appeared at Helen's window, and he slept soundly.
But when he woke, he was in a high fever, and Mr. Faber was summoned. He found the state of his patient such that no amount of wild utterance could have surprised him. His brain was burning and his mind all abroad: he tossed from side to side and talked vehemently--but even to Helen unintelligibly.
Mr. Faber had not attended medical classes and walked the hospitals without undergoing the influences of the unbelief prevailing in those regions, where, on the strength of a little knowledge of the human frame, cartloads of puerile ignorance and anile vulgarity, not to mention obscenity, are uttered in the name of truth by men who know nothing whatever of the things that belong to the deeper nature believed in by the devout and simple, and professed also by many who are perhaps yet farther from a knowledge of its affairs than those who thus treat them with contempt. When therefore he came to practise in Glaston, he brought his quota of yeast into the old bottle of that ancient and slumberous town. But as he had to gain for himself a practice, he was prudent enough to make no display of the cherished emptiness of his swept and garnished rooms. I do not mean to blame him. He did not fancy himself the holder of any Mephistophelean commission for the general annihilation of belief like George Bascombe, only one from nature's bureau of ways and means for the cure of the ailing body--which, indeed, to him, comprised all there was of humanity. He had a cold, hard, business-like manner, which, however admirable on some grounds, destroyed any hope Helen had cherished of finding in him one to whom she might disclose her situation.
He proved himself both wise and skilful, yet it was weeks before Leopold began to mend. By the time the fever left him, he was in such a prostrate condition, that it was very doubtful whether yet he could live, and Helen had had to draw largely even upon her fine stock of health.
Her ministration continued most exhausting. Yet now she thought of her life as she had never thought of it before, namely as a thing of worth. It had grown precious to her since it had become the stay of Leopold's. Notwithstanding the terrible state of suspense and horror in which she now lived, seeming to herself at times an actual sharer in her brother's guilt, she would yet occasionally find herself exulting in the thought of being the guardian angel he called her. Now that by his bedside hour plodded after hour in something of sameness and much of weariness, she yet looked back on her past as on the history of a slug.
During all the time she scarcely saw her cousin George, and indeed, she could hardly tell why, shrunk from him. In the cold, bright, shadowless, north-windy day of his presence, there was little consolation to be gathered, and for strength--to face him made a fresh demand upon the little she had. Her physical being had certainly lost. But the countenance which, after a long interval of absence, the curate at length one morning descried in the midst of the congregation, had, along with its pallor and look of hidden and suppressed trouble, gathered the expression of a higher order of existence. Not that she had drawn a single consoling draught from any one of the wells of religion, or now sought the church for the sake of any reminder of something found precious: the great quiet place drew her merely with the offer of its two hours' restful stillness. The thing which had elevated her was simply the fact that, without any thought, not to say knowledge of him, she had yet been doing the will of the Heart of the world. True she had been but following her instinct, and ministering--not to humanity from an enlarged affection, but only to the one being she best loved in the world--a small merit surely!--yet was it the beginning of the way of God, the lovely way, and therefore the face of the maiden had begun to shine with a light which no splendour of physical health, no consciousness of beauty, however just, could have kindled there.