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- Stray Pearls - 50/67 -


Hollanders, whose language I could not speak, and who despised French too much to learn it. So, as we paced along, I endeavoured to say something trivial of the Prince's christening and the like, which might begin the conversation; and I was too sorry for her to speak with the frigidity with which my sister thought she ought to be treated. Then gradually she took courage to reply, and I found that she had come in attendance on her stepdaughter Cornelia, who was extremely devoted to these sleighing parties. The other daughter, Veronica, was at home, indisposed, having, as well as her father, caught a feverish cold on a late expedition into the country, and Madame would fain have given up the party, as she thought Cornelia likewise to be unwell, but her father would not hear of his favourite Keetje being disappointed. I gather that the Yung-vrow Cornelia had all the true Dutch obstinacy of nature. By and by she ventured timidly, trying to make her voice sound as if she were only fulfilling an ordinary call of politeness, to hope that my Lord Walwyn was in better health. I told her a little of his condition, and she replied with a few soft half-utterance; but before we had gone far in our conversation there was a sudden commotion among the sleighing party--an accident, as we supposed--and we both hurried forward in anxiety for our charges. My sister was well, I was at once reassured by seeing her gray and ermine hood, which I knew well, for it was Mademoiselle van Hunker who lay insensible. It was not from a fall, but the cold had perhaps struck her, they said, for after her second descent she had complained of giddiness, and had almost immediately swooned away. She was lying on the sledge, quite unconscious, and no one seemed to know what to do. Her stepmother and I came to her; I raised her head and put essences to her nose, and Madame van Hunker took off her gloves and rubbed her hands, while my Lady Newcastle, hurrying up, bade them carry her into the house, and revive her by the fire; but Madame van Hunker insisted and implored that she should not be taken indoors, but carried home at once, showing a passion and vehemence quite unlike one so gentle, and which our good host and hostess withstood till she hinted that she feared it might be more than a swoon, since her father and sister were already indisposed. Then, indeed, all were ready enough to stand aloof; a coach was procured, I know not how, and poor Cornelia was lifted into it, still unconscious, or only moaning a little. I could not let the poor young stepmother go with her alone, and no one else would make the offer, the dread of contagion keeping all at a distance, after what had passed. At first I think Madame van Hunker hardly perceived who was with her, but as I spoke a word or two in English, as we tried to accommodate the inanimate form between us, she looked up and said: 'Ah! I should not have let you come, Madame! I do everything wrong. I pray you to leave me!' Then, as I of course refused, she added: 'Ah, you know not---' and then whispered in my ear, though the poor senseless girl would scarce have caught the sound, the dreadful word 'smallpox.' I could answer at once that I had had it--long, long ago, in my childish days, when my grandmother nursed me and both my brothers through it, and she breathed freely, I asked her why she apprehended it, and she told me that some weeks ago her husband had taken the whole party down to his pleasure-house in the country, to superintend some arrangement in his garden, which he wished to make before the frost set in.

He and his daughter Veronica had been ailing for some days, but it was only on that very morning that tidings had come to the Hague that the smallpox had, on the very day of their visit, declared itself in the family of the gardener who kept the house, and that two of his children were since dead. Poor Millicent had always had a feeble will, which yielded against her judgment and wishes. She had not had the malady herself, 'But oh! my child,' she said, 'my little Emilia!' And when I found that the child had not been on the expedition to Hunderslust, and had not seen her father or sister since they had been sickening, I ventured to promise that I would take her home, and the young mother clasped my hand in fervent gratitude.

But we were not prepared for the scene that met us when we drove into the porte cochere. The place seemed deserted, not a servant was to be seen but one old wrinkled hag, who hobbled up to the door saying something in Dutch that made Madame van Hunker clasp her hands and exclaim: 'All fled! Oh, what shall we do?'

At that moment, however, Dr. Dirkius appeared at the door. He spoke French, and he explained that he had been sent for about an hour ago, and no sooner had he detected smallpox than Mynheer's valet had fled from his master's room and spread the panic throughout the household, so that every servant, except one scullion and this old woman, had deserted it. The Dutch have more good qualities than the French, their opposites, are inclined to believe, but they have also a headstrong selfishness that seems almost beyond reach. Nor perhaps had poor Mynheer van Hunker been a master who would win much affection.

I know not what we should have done if Dr. Dirkius had not helped me to carry Cornelia to her chamber. The good man had also locked the little Emilia into her room, intending, after having taken the first measures for the care of his patients, to take or send her to the ladies at Lord Newcastle's, warning them not to return. Madame van Hunker looked deadly pale, but she was a true wife, and said nothing should induce her to forsake her husband and his daughters; besides, it must be too late for her to take precautions. Dirkius looked her all over in her pure delicate beauty, muttering what I think was: 'Pity! pity!' and then agreed that so it was. As we stood by the bed where we had laid Cornelia, we could hear at one end old Hunker's voice shouting--almost howling--for his vrow; and likewise the poor little Emilia thumping wildly against the door, and screaming for her mother to let her out. Millicent's face worked, but she said: 'She must not touch me! She had best not see me! Madame, God sent in you an angle of mercy. Take her; I must go to my husband!'

And at a renewed shout she ran down the corridor to hide her tears. The doctor and I looked at one another. I asked if a nurse was coming. Perchance, he said; he must go and find some old woman, and old Trudje must suffice meantime. There would as yet be no risk in my taking the child away, if I held her fast, and made her breathe essences all through the house.

It was a strange capture, and a dreadful terror for the poor little girl. By his advice I sprinkled strong essences all over the poor little girl's head, snatched her up in my arms, and before she had breath to scream hurried down stairs with her. She was about three years old, and it was not till I was almost at the outer door that she began to kick and struggle. My mind was made up to return as soon as she was safe. It was impossible to leave that poor woman to deal alone with three such cases, and I knew what my brother would feel about it. And all fell out better than I could have hoped, for under the porte cochere was the coach in which we had come to Lady Newcastle's. My sister, learning that I had gone home with Madame van Hunker, had driven thither to fetch me, and Nicolas was vainly trying to find some one to tell me that she was waiting. I carried the child, now sobbing and calling for her mother, to the carriage, and explained the state of affairs as well as I could while trying to hush her. Annora was quick to understand, and not slow to approve. 'The brutes!' she said. 'Have they abandoned them? Yes, Meg, you are safe, and you cannot help staying. Give me the poor child! I will do my best for her. O yes! I will take care of Eustace, and I'll send you your clothes. I wish it was any one else, but he will be glad. So adieu, and take care of yourself! Come, little one, do not be afraid. We are going to see a kind gentleman.'

But as poor little Emilia knew no English, this must have failed to console her, and they drove away amid her sobs and cries, while I returned to my strange task. I was not altogether cut off from home, for my faithful Nicolas, though uncertain whether he had been secured from the contagion, declared that where his mistress went he went. Tryphena would have come too, but like a true old nurse she had no confidence in Mistress Nan's care of my brother, or of the child, and it was far better as it was, for the old women whom the doctor found for us were good for nothing but to drink and to sleep; whereas Nicolas, like a true French laquais, had infinite resources in time of need. He was poor Madame's only assistant in the terrible nursing of her husband; he made the most excellent tisanes and bouillons for the patients, and kept us nurses constantly supported with good meats and wines, without which we never could have gone through the fatigue; he was always at hand, and seemed to sleep, if he slept at all, with one ear and one eye open during that terrible fifteen days during which neither Madame van Hunker, he, nor I, ever took off our clothes. Moreover, he managed our communication with my family. Every day in early morning he carried a billet from me which he placed in a pan of vinegar at their door; and, at his whistle, Annora looked out and threw down a billet for me, which, to my joy and comfort, generally told me that my brother was no worse, and that the little maid was quite well, and a great amusement to him. He was the only one who could speak any Dutch, so that he had been able to do more with her than the others at her first arrival; and though she very soon picked up English enough to understand everything, and to make herself understood in a droll, broken baby tongue, she continued to be devoted to him. She was a pretty, fair child of three years old, with enough of Dutch serenity and gravity not to be troublesome after the first shock was over, and she beguiled many of his weary hours of confinement by the games in which he joined her. He sent out to by for her a jointed baby, which Annora dressed for her, and, as she wrote, my lord was as much interested about the Lady Belphoebe's robes (for so had he named her) as was Emilia, and he was her most devoted knight, daily contriving fresh feasts and pageants for her ladyship. Nan declared that she was sometimes quite jealous of Belphoebe and her little mistress; but, on the whole, I think she enjoyed the months when she had Eustace practically to herself.

For we were separated for months. Poor Cornelia's illness was very short, the chill taken at the sleighing party had been fatal to her at the beginning of the complaint, and she expired on the third day, with hardly any interval of consciousness.

Her sister, Veronica, was my chief charge. I had to keep her constantly rolled in red cloth in a dark room, while the fever ran very high, and she suffered much. I think she was too ill to feel greatly the discomfort of being tended by a person who could not speak her language, and indeed necessity enabled me to understand a tongue so much like English, which indeed she could herself readily speak when her brain began to clear. This, however, was not for full a fortnight, and in the meantime Mynheer van Hunker was growing worse and worse, and he died on the sixteenth day of his illness. His wife had watched over him day and night with unspeakable tenderness and devotion, though I fear he never showed her much gratitude in return; he had been too much used to think of woman as mere housewifely slaves.

She had called me in to help in her terror at the last symptoms of approaching death, and I heard him mutter to her: 'Thou hast come to be a tolerable housewife. I have taken care thou dost not lavish all on beggarly stranger.'

At least so the words came back on me afterwards; but we were absorbed in our attendance on him in his extremity, and when death had come at last I had to lead her away drooping and utterly spent. Alas! it was not exhaustion alone, she had imbibed the dreadful disease, and for another three weeks she hung between life and death. Her stepdaughter left her bed, and was sent away to the country-house


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