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- A SIMPLETON - 50/84 -
the thought that, ere long, he must hurl this fair creature into the dust of affliction; must, with a word, take the ruby from her lips, the rose from her cheeks, the sparkle from her glorious eyes-- eyes that beamed on him with sweet affection, and a mouth that never opened, but to show some simplicity of mind, or some pretty burst of the sensitive heart.
He put off, and put off, and at last cowardice began to whisper, "Why tell her the whole truth at all? Why not take her through stages of doubt, alarm, and, after all, leave a grain of hope till her child gets so rooted in her heart that"-- But conscience and good sense interrupted this temporary thought, and made him see to what a horrible life of suspense he should condemn a human creature, and live a perpetual lie, and be always at the edge of some pitfall or other.
One day, while he sat looking at her, with all these thoughts, and many more, coursing through his mind, she looked up at him, and surprised him. "Ah!" said she gravely.
"What is the matter, my dear?"
"Oh, nothing," said she cunningly.
"Uncle, dear," said she presently, "when do we go to Herne Bay?"
Now, Dr. Philip had given that up. He had got the servants at Kent Villa on his side, and he felt safer here than in any strange place: so he said, "I don't know: that all depends. There is plenty of time."
"No, uncle," said Rosa gravely. "I wish to leave this house. I can hardly breathe in it."
"What! your native air?"
"Mystery is not my native air; and this house is full of mystery. Voices whisper at my door, and the people don't come in. The maids cast strange looks at me, and hurry away. I scolded that pert girl Jane, and she answered me as meek as Moses. I catch you looking at me, with love, and something else. What is that something--? It is Pity: that is what it is. Do you think, because I am called a simpleton, that I have no eyes, nor ears, nor sense? What is this secret which you are all hiding from one person, and that is me? Ah! Christopher has not written these five weeks. Tell me the truth, for I will know it," and she started up in wild excitement.
Then Dr. Philip saw the hour was come.
He said, "My poor girl, you have read us right. I am anxious about Christopher, and all the servants know it."
"Anxious, and not tell ME; his wife; the woman whose life is bound up in his."
"Was it for us to retard your convalescence, and set you fretting, and perhaps destroy your child? Rosa, my darling, think what a treasure Heaven has sent you, to love and care for."
"Yes," said she, trembling, "Heaven has been good to me; I hope Heaven will always be as good to me. I don't deserve it; but then I tell God so. I am very grateful, and very penitent. I never forget that, if I had been a good wife, my husband--five weeks is a long time. Why do you tremble so? Why are you so pale--a strong man like you? CALAMITY! CALAMITY!"
Dr. Philip hung his head.
She looked at him, started wildly up, then sank back into her chair. So the stricken deer leaps, then falls. Yet even now she put on a deceitful calm, and said, "Tell me the truth. I have a right to know."
He stammered out, "There is a report of an accident at sea."
She kept silence.
"Of a passenger drowned--out of that ship. This, coupled with his silence, fills our hearts with fear."
"It is worse--you are breaking it to me--you have gone too far to stop. One word: is he alive? Oh, say he is alive!"
Philip rang the bell hard, and said in a troubled voice, "Rosa, think of your child."
"Not when my husband-- Is he alive or dead?"
"It is hard to say, with such a terrible report about, and no letters," faltered the old man, his courage failing him.
"What are you afraid of? Do you think I can't die, and go to him? Alive, or dead?" and she stood before him, raging and quivering in every limb.
The nurse came in.
"Fetch her child," he cried; "God have mercy on her."
"Ah, then he is dead," said she, with stony calmness. "I drove him to sea, and he is dead."
The nurse rushed in, and held the child to her.
She would not look at it.
"Yes, our poor Christie is gone--but his child is here--the image of him. Do not forget the mother. Have pity on his child and yours."
"Take it out of my sight!" she screamed. "Away with it, or I shall murder it, as I have murdered its father. My dear Christie, before all that live! I have killed him. I shall die for him. I shall go to him." She raved and tore her hair. Servants rushed in. Rosa was carried to her bed, screaming and raving, and her black hair all down on both sides, a piteous sight.
Swoon followed swoon, and that very night brain fever set in with all its sad accompaniments; a poor bereaved creature, tossing and moaning; pale, anxious, but resolute faces of the nurse and the kitchen-maid watching: on one table a pail of ice, and on another the long, thick raven hair of our poor Simpleton, lying on clean silver paper. Dr. Philip had cut it all off with his own hand, and he was now folding it up, and crying over it; for he thought to himself, "Perhaps in a few days more only this will be left of her on earth."
Staines fell head-foremost into the sea with a heavy plunge. Being an excellent swimmer, he struck out the moment he touched the water, and that arrested his dive, and brought him up with a slant, shocked and panting, drenched and confused. The next moment he saw, as through a fog--his eyes being full of water--something fall from the ship. He breasted the big waves, and swam towards it: it rose on the top of a wave, and he saw it was a life-buoy. Encumbered with wet clothes, he seemed impotent in the big waves; they threw him up so high, and down so low.
Almost exhausted, he got to the life-buoy, and clutched it with a fierce grasp and a wild cry of delight. He got it over his head, and, placing his arms round the buoyant circle, stood with his breast and head out of water, gasping.
He now drew a long breath, and got his wet hair out of his eyes, already smarting with salt water, and, raising himself on the buoy, looked out for help.
He saw, to his great concern, the ship already at a distance. She seemed to have flown, and she was still drifting fast away from him.
He saw no signs of help. His heart began to turn as cold as his drenched body. A horrible fear crossed him.
But presently he saw the weather-boat filled, and fall into the water; and then a wave rolled between him and the ship, and he only saw her topmast.
The next time he rose on a mighty wave he saw the boats together astern of the vessel, but not coming his way; and the gloom was thickening, the ship becoming indistinct, and all was doubt and horror.
A life of agony passed in a few minutes.
He rose and fell like a cork on the buoyant waves--rose and fell, and saw nothing but the ship's lights, now terribly distant.
But at last, as he rose and fell, he caught a few fitful glimpses of a smaller light rising and falling like himself. "A boat!" he cried, and raising himself as high as he could, shouted, cried, implored for help. He stretched his hands across the water. "This way! this way!"
The light kept moving, but it came no nearer. They had greatly underrated the drift. The other boat had no light.
Minutes passed of suspense, hope, doubt, dismay, terror. Those minutes seemed hours.
In the agony of suspense the quaking heart sent beads of sweat to the brow, though the body was immersed.
And the gloom deepened, and the cold waves flung him up to heaven with their giant arms, and then down again to hell: and still that light, his only hope, was several hundred yards from him.
Only for a moment at a time could his eyeballs, straining with agony, catch this will-o'-the-wisp, the boat's light. It groped the sea up and down, but came no near.
When what seemed days of agony had passed, suddenly a rocket rose in the horizon--so it seemed to him.
The lost man gave a shriek of joy; so prone are we to interpret
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