Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

In The Valley Of The Shadow, Page 2

Josephine Daskam Bacon

is impossible to say," shereturned gravely. "Your sister is a very brave, self-possessed woman,and seems to have a good constitution. That is, of course, half thebattle. But her case is very complicated, and until the operation, noone can tell. You may have every confidence in Dr. Jameson. He is amagnificent surgeon."

  Before her non-committal eyes his own fell baffled. He was moreirritated than he cared to own. Could she not see that he was preparedfor anything, that his self-control was as great as her own? She treatedhim like a child; those professional reserves, necessary, doubtless,in the case of Peter and his excitable sister, were wasted on him. Whycould she not see it?

  "I am quite aware of Dr. Jameson's skill," he said coldly, "but Ihad hoped that you would find yourself able to break through theprofessional attitude sufficiently to give me your real opinion, which,of course, you must have formed."

  She threw him a quick glance. "Ah, my friend," he thought exultingly,"you have a temper, then!" But in an instant it was gone.

  "I have told you all I was able to tell," she said evenly. "I have beenhere but a short time, you know."

  She turned and left the hall, and he, chafing under a sense of meritedrebuke, conscious of a foolish petulance, went discontentedly into thelibrary. He seemed to be continually at fault with Miss Strong, butunable to resist the effort to master her.

  The evening was very lonely and still. Peter had gone to his room early,and the children had effaced themselves: Susy was with them. Aunt Luciaread the "Imitation of Christ," by the fire. Bel-den's mind turnedunconsciously to the old days when Caddy and he dreamed out their futurein the nursery. It had all come out just as she had planned, exceptthis. Poor little Caddy--a fighting chance!

  The next morning seemed to fly by them: it was nine o'clock, ten,eleven.

  At this hour a feverish activity suddenly spread through the house. Theymet and passed each other, hurrying, troubled, secretive; the servantsstumbled and quarrelled in their purposeless haste. To Belden, quietingwhen he could, sternly optimistic everywhere, at heart heavy anduncertain, it seemed that the one anchor of their hopes was this calm,clear-eyed woman in her uniform of authority!

  Peter hung pathetically on her lightest word; the children, dazed andterrified, ate and exercised at her command; his own boy, a strangehard look in his furtive eyes, followed her like a dog, and Aunt Luciasubmitted with unprecedented meekness to an abrupt curtailment of herinterview with Clarice. He himself went into the bedroom for a moment,half uncertain of the reality of the experience. It was absurd toremember that he might never see her, conscious, again--his own littleCaddy.

  He sat awkwardly on the side of the bed.

  "Well, little woman, how goes it?"

  "Queen's taste, Will!"

  "Good for you! I'm proud of the Beldens, Caddy--Billy acts like adrum-major."

  Her eyes softened.

  "The dear boy," she murmured. Their eyes met. "_Look after him_," herssaid, and his, "_As long as I live!_" He stooped and kissed her lightly."Mind you look as well as this to-morrow!"

  "Oh, I shall be all right. Miss Strong will take care of me. When Ithink how I have the best of everything--such care--I've been a veryhappy woman, Will dear."

  His eyes filled. He threw her a kiss and went out blindly.

  A hand touched his arm. "You've done her good," said the nurse softly."You stayed just long enough. She'll take her nap now."

  He went heavily into his own room. Below him a little porch led out fromthe smoking-room, and as he sat lost in a miserable reverie, voices rosefrom it to his window.

  "Nobody knows what she's been to me. As much like a mother as I'd lether. I did everything but the cigarettes, and I meant to tell her I'd dothat too, next month--that's her birthday."

  Was this his boy, that pleading, shaken voice? He looked out: the ladwas fingering Miss Strong's white apron nervously. She leaned over therailing of the little porch, her hand on his shoulder.

  "You tell her about it--I'll never smoke another one. It was the lastthing she asked me."

  "I'll tell her--she will be so pleased, I know. She asked about youyesterday. I'll let you know as soon as I can."

  Belden, a little later, hurried downstairs, with a confused idea ofthanking her. On the threshold of the library he paused, amazed.Dr. Hitchcock sat before a small green baize table, studying fiveplaying-cards held fan-shape in his left hand. Opposite him sat MissStrong, holding the pack expectantly.

  "You can give me two, my dear, I think," he said as Belden entered.Looking up, he smiled apologetically.

  "I dare say you are surprised," he suggested, "but I have been muchexasperated, Mr. Belden, and a long experience has taught me thatnothing so quickly clears the mind as throwing a few hands of poker.Miss Strong--an invaluable person--is kindly assisting me. Did I saythree? Yes, of course. Thank you. We are playing for beans only, yousee."

  Belden watched them curiously. She sat as imperturbably as by Caddy'sbedside, her eyes fixed thoughtfully on her cards.

  "--And raise you three," she said.

  "Five more. You will excuse me, Belden, but your aunt, Mrs. Wetherly, isa somewhat unusually irritating woman. I'll see you, Miss Strong--ah,yes, two pair, queens up."

  "What has she done?"

  "She insists that Mrs. Moore shall not only see Mr. Burchard, to whichI have not the least objection, but that he shall hold a communionservice, directly, there. Now, if your sister had asked for thisherself, it would be another matter, but unless this is the case Ialways regard it as a depressing agent. It is a strain, in any case."

  "I think Mrs. Moore will go through with it very easily, doctor," MissStrong interposed, slipping the cards into their leather envelope andgathering up the beans. "She will be fresh from her nap, and it willbe very short. She has promised Mrs. Wetherly, you know, and it woulddistress her more to break it--"

  "All right, all right. Have it your way. Much obliged."

  He took the cards from her and went out.

  "My aunt is very trying," Belden began.

  "Oh, many people feel so about it," she assured him, "especially HighChurch people. She only did what she thought right."

  He drew a breath of relief.

  "You'll see she's not too tired?" he asked; and as he went to luncheonhe wondered at the comfort he derived from her mute nod.

  He was roused from the table, where the dishes left by them wereuntouched for the most part, by a disturbance in the hall.

  "It's the priest," the waitress murmured, and with a frown he checkedher rising tears.

  Aunt Lucia bustled through the room.

  "You must come, Wilmot," she whispered eagerly, "she asked for you.Peter is locked into his room, and neither of the children has beenconfirmed. Susy, of course, is a Presbyterian. Not that dear Mr.Burchard would object--he is so broad. But you have no excuse. Oh, it isbeautiful, Wilmot! She looks so lovely!"

  He followed her wearily. What did it matter? It seemed to him ominous,terrible--but it would please Caddy. She sat propped up in the bed.Her cheeks were crimson, her eyes bright. White chrysanthemums stoodin silver vases, candles burned softly on the white-draped dresser. Mr.Burchard, in the hall just beyond, was slipping his surplice over hishead. A faint odor of wine mingled with the flowers.

  Belden dared not look at her. She was to him, in that moment, mystic,holy, a thing apart. He dropped on his knees beside a silvery whiteapron, his eyes on the floor, his heart beating hard.

  The clergyman entered slowly, the service began. It was all a murmuredmaze to him. Aunt Lucia sobbed quietly beside him, but as he glancedat her he caught a light on her wet, uplifted face that thrilled himstrangely. Her deep responses spoke a faith and surety that swallowedfor the moment all her little sillinesses and obstinacies.

  The solemn words grew in intensity, the candles flickered audibly in thesacred hush. The clergyman moved toward the bed, and they heard Caddy'sbreath draw out in a deep, shuddering sob; her teeth chattered againstthe cup.

  Belden set his jaw; it was cru
el, brutal! They were killing her. Hisclinched fist moved blindly toward his neighbor: he touched her hand andgripped it fiercely.

  In front of him on the wall hung a large photograph of Billy's base-ballnine in full uniform. He could have drawn it from memory, afterwards.Billy, he remembered, was a great catcher. He held hard to that cool,firm hand.

  "--be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen." There was a littlestir. The hand was drawn from his.

  "Come, now," whispered Aunt Lucia, and he walked, stumbling and stifffrom kneeling, from the room. At the door he glanced a second backward,but only Dr. Hitchcock was to be seen, bending over the bed. Miss Stronghad already taken away candles and flowers, and