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- What Can She Do? - 60/72 -
"What's the matter?"
"I'm sick," said Zell, faintly.
He muttered an oath.
She arose from the sofa and tottered to his easy-chair, knelt, and clasped his knees.
"Guilliam," she pleaded, "I am very sick. I have a feeling that I shall die. Won't you marry me? Won't you take care of your poor little Zell, that loved you so well as to leave all for you? Perhaps I sha'n't burden you much longer, but, if I do get well, I will be your patient slave, if you will only marry me;" and the tears poured over the hot, feverish cheeks, that they could not cool.
His only reply was to ask, with some irritation:
"How do you feel?"
"Oh, my head aches, my bones ache, every part of my body aches, but my heart aches worst of all. You can ease that, Guilliam. In the name of God's mercy, won't you?"
A sudden thought caused the coward's face to grow white with fear. "I must have a doctor see you," was his only reply to her appeal, and he passed hastily out.
Zell felt that a blow would have been better than his indifference, and she crawled back to her couch. A little later, she was conscious that a physician was feeling her pulse, and examining her symptoms. After he was gone she had strength enough to take off her jewelry and rings--all, save one solitaire diamond, that her father had given her. The rest seemed to oppress her with their weight. She then threw herself on the bed.
She was next conscious that some one was lifting her up. She roused for a moment, and stared around. There were several strange faces.
"What do you want? What are you going to do with me?" she asked, in a thick voice, and in vague terror.
"I am sorry, miss," said one of the men, in an official tone; "but you have the smallpox, and we must take you to the hospital."
She gave one shriek of horror. A hand was placed over her mouth. She murmured faintly:
"Guilliam--help!" and then, under the effects of disease and fear, became partially unconscious; but her hand clenched, and with some instinct hard to understand, remained so, over the diamond ring that was her father's gift.
She was conscious of riding in something hard over the stony street, for the jolting hurt her cruelly. She was conscious of the sound of water, for she tried to throw herself into it, that it might cool her fever. She was conscious of reaching some place, and then she felt as if she had no rest for many days, and yet was not awake. But through it all she kept her hand closed on her father's gift. At times it seemed to her that some one was trying to take it off, but she instinctively struggled and cried out, and the hand was withdrawn.
At last one night she seemed to wake and come to herself. She opened her eyes and looked timidly around the dim ward. All was strange and unaccountable. She feared that she was in another world. But as she raised her hand to her head, as if to clear away the mist of uncertainty, a sparkle from the diamond caught her eye. For a long time she stared vacantly at it, with the weak, vague feeling that in some sense it might be a clew. Its faint lustre was like the glimmer of a star through a rift in the clouds to a lost traveller. Its familiar light and position remind him of home, and by its ray he guesses in what direction to move; so the crystallized light upon her finger threw its faint glimmer into the past, and by its help Zell's weak mind groped its way down from the hour it was given to the moment when she became partially unconscious in Van Dam's apartments. But the word smallpox was burned into her brain, and she surmised that she was in a hospital.
At last a woman passed. Zell feebly called her.
"What do you want?" said a rather gruff voice.
"I want to write a letter."
"You can't. It's against the rules."
"I must," pleaded Zell. "Oh, as you are a woman, and hope in God's mercy, don't refuse me."
"Can't break the rules," said the woman, and she was about to pass on.
"Stop!" said Zell, in a whisper. "See there," and she flashed the diamond upon her. "I'll give you that if you'll promise before God to send a letter for me. It would take you many months to earn the value of that."
The woman was a part of the city government, so she acted characteristically. She brought Zell writing materials and a bit of candle, saying:
With her poor, stiff, diseased hand, Zell wrote:
"Guilliam--You cannot know where I am. You cannot know what has happened. You could not be such a fiend as to cast me off and send me here to die--and die I shall. The edge of the grave seems crumbling under me as I write. If you have a spark of love for me, come and see me before I die. Oh, Guilliam, Guilliam! what a heaven of a home I would have made you, if you had only married me! It would have been my whole life to make you happy. I said bitter words to you--forgive them. We both have sinned--can God forgive us? I will not believe you know what has happened. You are grieving for me--looking for me. They took me away while you were gone. Come and see me before I die. Good- by, I'm writing in the dark--I'm dying in the dark--my soul is in the dark--I'm going away in the dark--where, O God, where? "Your poor little Zell. "Smallpox Hospital (I don't know date)."
Poor, poor Zell! As in the case of a tempest-tossed one of old, "sun, moon, and stars" had long been hidden.
Almost fainting with weakness, she sealed and directed the letter, drew off the ring, pressed it to her lips, and then turned her eyes, unnaturally large and bright, on the woman waiting at her side, and said:
"Look at me! Promise me you will see that this letter is delivered. Remember, I am going to die. If you ever hope for an hour's peace, promise!"
"I promise," said the woman solemnly, for she was as superstitious as avaricious, and though she had no hesitancy in breaking the rules and taking a bribe, she would not have dared for her life to have risked treachery to a girl whom she believed dying.
Zell gave her the ring and the letter, and sank back for the time unconscious.
The woman had her means of communication with the city, and before many hours elapsed the letter was on its way.
Van Dam was in a state of nervous fear till the fourteen days passed, and then he felt that he was safe. He had his rooms thoroughly fumigated, and was reassured by his physicians saying daily: "There was not much danger of her giving you the disease in its first stage. She is probably dead by this time."
But the wheels of life seemed to grow heavier and more clogged every day. He was fast getting down to the dregs, and now almost every pleasure palled upon his jaded taste. At one time it seemed that Zell might so infuse her vigorous young life and vivacity into his waning years that his last days would be his best. And this might have been the case, if he had reformed his evil life and dealt with her as a true man. In her strong and exceptional love, considering their difference in age, there were great possibilities of good for both. But he had foully perverted the last best gift of his life, and even his blunted moral sense was awakening to the truth.
"Curse it all," he muttered, late one morning, "perhaps I had better have married her. I hoped so much from her, and she has been nothing but a source of trouble and danger. I wonder if she is dead."
He had been out very late the night before, and had played heavily, but not with his usual skill. He had kept muttering grim oaths against his luck, and drinking deeper and deeper till a friend had half forced him away. And now, much shaken by the night's debauch, depressed by his heavy losses, conscience, that crouches like a tiger in every bad man's soul, and waits to rush from its lair and rend, in the long hours--the long _eternity_ of weakness and memory--already had its fangs in his guilty heart.
Long and bitterly he thought, with a frown resting like night on his heavy brow. The servant brought him a dainty breakfast, but he sullenly motioned it away. He had wronged his digestive powers so greatly the night before that even brandy was repugnant to him, and he leaned heavily and wearily back in his chair, a prey to remorse.
He was in just the right physical condition to take a contagious disease.
There was a knock at the door, and the servant entered, bringing him a letter, saying, "This was just left here for ye, sir."
"A dun," thought he, languidly, and he laid it unopened on the stand beside him.
It was; and from one whom he owed a reparation he could never make, though he paid with his life.
With his eyes closed, he still leaned back in a dull, painful lethargy. A faint, disagreeable odor gradually pervaded the room, and at last attracted his attention. The luxurious sybarite could not help the stings of conscience, the odor he might. He grew restless, and looked around.
Zell's letter caught his attention. "Might as well see who it's from," he muttered. Weakness, pain, and emotion had so changed Zell's familiar hand, that he did not recognize it.
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