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The Woman in White, Page 41

Wilkie Collins

  The Count was away from Blackwater Park, as nearly as I remember, aweek.

  Sir Percival seemed to feel the loss of his lordship in various ways,and appeared also, I thought, much depressed and altered by thesickness and sorrow in the house. Occasionally he was so very restlessthat I could not help noticing it, coming and going, and wandering hereand there and everywhere in the grounds. His inquiries about MissHalcombe, and about his lady (whose failing health seemed to cause himsincere anxiety), were most attentive. I think his heart was muchsoftened. If some kind clerical friend--some such friend as he mighthave found in my late excellent husband--had been near him at thistime, cheering moral progress might have been made with Sir Percival.I seldom find myself mistaken on a point of this sort, having hadexperience to guide me in my happy married days.

  Her ladyship the Countess, who was now the only company for SirPercival downstairs, rather neglected him, as I considered--or,perhaps, it might have been that he neglected her. A stranger mightalmost have supposed that they were bent, now they were left togetheralone, on actually avoiding one another. This, of course, could notbe. But it did so happen, nevertheless, that the Countess made herdinner at luncheon-time, and that she always came upstairs towardsevening, although Mrs. Rubelle had taken the nursing duties entirelyoff her hands. Sir Percival dined by himself, and William (the man outof livery) make the remark, in my hearing, that his master had puthimself on half rations of food and on a double allowance of drink. Iattach no importance to such an insolent observation as this on thepart of a servant. I reprobated it at the time, and I wish to beunderstood as reprobating it once more on this occasion.

  In the course of the next few days Miss Halcombe did certainly seem toall of us to be mending a little. Our faith in Mr. Dawson revived. Heappeared to be very confident about the case, and he assured LadyGlyde, when she spoke to him on the subject, that he would himselfpropose to send for a physician the moment he felt so much as theshadow of a doubt crossing his own mind.

  The only person among us who did not appear to be relieved by thesewords was the Countess. She said to me privately, that she could notfeel easy about Miss Halcombe on Mr. Dawson's authority, and that sheshould wait anxiously for her husband's opinion on his return. Thatreturn, his letters informed her, would take place in three days' time.The Count and Countess corresponded regularly every morning during hislordship's absence. They were in that respect, as in all others, apattern to married people.

  On the evening of the third day I noticed a change in Miss Halcombe,which caused me serious apprehension. Mrs. Rubelle noticed it too. Wesaid nothing on the subject to Lady Glyde, who was then lying asleep,completely overpowered by exhaustion, on the sofa in the sitting-room.

  Mr. Dawson did not pay his evening visit till later than usual. As soonas he set eyes on his patient I saw his face alter. He tried to hideit, but he looked both confused and alarmed. A messenger was sent tohis residence for his medicine-chest, disinfecting preparations wereused in the room, and a bed was made up for him in the house by his owndirections. "Has the fever turned to infection?" I whispered to him."I am afraid it has," he answered; "we shall know better to-morrowmorning."

  By Mr. Dawson's own directions Lady Glyde was kept in ignorance of thischange for the worse. He himself absolutely forbade her, on account ofher health, to join us in the bedroom that night. She tried toresist--there was a sad scene--but he had his medical authority tosupport him, and he carried his point.

  The next morning one of the men-servants was sent to London at eleveno'clock, with a letter to a physician in town, and with orders to bringthe new doctor back with him by the earliest possible train. Half anhour after the messenger had gone the Count returned to Blackwater Park.

  The Countess, on her own responsibility, immediately brought him in tosee the patient. There was no impropriety that I could discover in hertaking this course. His lordship was a married man, he was old enoughto be Miss Halcombe's father, and he saw her in the presence of afemale relative, Lady Glyde's aunt. Mr. Dawson nevertheless protestedagainst his presence in the room, but I could plainly remark the doctorwas too much alarmed to make any serious resistance on this occasion.

  The poor suffering lady was past knowing any one about her. She seemedto take her friends for enemies. When the Count approached her bedsideher eyes, which had been wandering incessantly round and round the roombefore, settled on his face with a dreadful stare of terror, which Ishall remember to my dying day. The Count sat down by her, felt herpulse and her temples, looked at her very attentively, and then turnedround upon the doctor with such an expression of indignation andcontempt in his face, that the words failed on Mr. Dawson's lips, andhe stood for a moment, pale with anger and alarm--pale and perfectlyspeechless.

  His lordship looked next at me.

  "When did the change happen?" he asked.

  I told him the time.

  "Has Lady Glyde been in the room since?"

  I replied that she had not. The doctor had absolutely forbidden her tocome into the room on the evening before, and had repeated the orderagain in the morning.

  "Have you and Mrs. Rubelle been made aware of the full extent of themischief?" was his next question.

  We were aware, I answered, that the malady was considered infectious.He stopped me before I could add anything more.

  "It is typhus fever," he said.

  In the minute that passed, while these questions and answers were goingon, Mr. Dawson recovered himself, and addressed the Count with hiscustomary firmness.

  "It is NOT typhus fever," he remarked sharply. "I protest against thisintrusion, sir. No one has a right to put questions here but me. Ihave done my duty to the best of my ability--"

  The Count interrupted him--not by words, but only by pointing to thebed. Mr. Dawson seemed to feel that silent contradiction to hisassertion of his own ability, and to grow only the more angry under it.

  "I say I have done my duty," he reiterated. "A physician has been sentfor from London. I will consult on the nature of the fever with him,and with no one else. I insist on your leaving the room."

  "I entered this room, sir, in the sacred interests of humanity," saidthe Count. "And in the same interests, if the coming of the physicianis delayed, I will enter it again. I warn you once more that the feverhas turned to typhus, and that your treatment is responsible for thislamentable change. If that unhappy lady dies, I will give my testimonyin a court of justice that your ignorance and obstinacy have been thecause of her death."

  Before Mr. Dawson could answer, before the Count could leave us, thedoor was opened from the sitting-room, and we saw Lady Glyde on thethreshold.

  "I MUST and WILL come in," she said, with extraordinary firmness.

  Instead of stopping her, the Count moved into the sitting-room, andmade way for her to go in. On all other occasions he was the last manin the world to forget anything, but in the surprise of the moment heapparently forgot the danger of infection from typhus, and the urgentnecessity of forcing Lady Glyde to take proper care of herself.

  To my astonishment Mr. Dawson showed more presence of mind. He stoppedher ladyship at the first step she took towards the bedside. "I amsincerely sorry, I am sincerely grieved," he said. "The fever may, Ifear, be infectious. Until I am certain that it is not, I entreat youto keep out of the room."

  She struggled for a moment, then suddenly dropped her arms and sankforward. She had fainted. The Countess and I took her from the doctorand carried her into her own room. The Count preceded us, and waitedin the passage till I came out and told him that we had recovered herfrom the swoon.

  I went back to the doctor to tell him, by Lady Glyde's desire, that sheinsisted on speaking to him immediately. He withdrew at once to quiether ladyship's agitation, and to assure her of the physician's arrivalin the course of a few hours. Those hours passed very slowly. SirPercival and the Count were together downstairs, and sent up from timeto time to make their inquiries. At last, b
etween five and six o'clock,to our great relief, the physician came.

  He was a younger man than Mr. Dawson, very serious and very decided.What he thought of the previous treatment I cannot say, but it struckme as curious that he put many more questions to myself and to Mrs.Rubelle than he put to the doctor, and that he did not appear to listenwith much interest to what Mr. Dawson said, while he was examining Mr.Dawson's patient. I began to suspect, from what I observed in thisway, that the Count had been right about the illness all the waythrough, and I was naturally confirmed in that idea when Mr. Dawson,after some little delay, asked the one important question which theLondon doctor had been sent for to set at rest.

  "What is your opinion of the fever?" he inquired.

  "Typhus," replied the physician "Typhus fever beyond all doubt."

  That quiet foreign person, Mrs. Rubelle, crossed her thin brown handsin front of her, and looked at me with a very significant smile. TheCount himself could hardly have appeared more gratified if he had beenpresent in the room and had heard the confirmation of his own opinion.

  After giving us some useful directions about the management of thepatient, and mentioning that he would come again in five days' time,the physician withdrew to consult in private with Mr. Dawson. He wouldoffer no opinion on Miss Halcombe's chances of recovery--he said it wasimpossible at that stage of the illness to pronounce one way or theother.