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- A Knight Of The Nineteenth Century - 70/79 -


"MISS ROMEYN--I have received from Michael the letter with the draft. Say to Mrs. Arnot I shall obey both the letter and spirit of her instructions. Let me add for myself that my best hopes are more than fulfilled. That you, who know all my past, could write such words seems like a heavenly dream. But I assure you that you overestimate both the character of my action and the danger. It is all plain, simple duty, which hundreds of men would perform as a matter of course. I ask but one favor, please look after Mr. Growther. He is growing old and feeble; I owe him so much--Mrs. Arnot will tell you. Yours--"

"He couldn't write a word more, Miss, the train was a movin' when he jumped on," said Michael when he delivered the note.

But that final word had for Laura no conventional meaning. She had long known that Haldane was, in truth, hers, and she had deeply regretted the fact, and would at any time have willingly broken the chain that bound him, had it been in her power. Would she break it to-night? Yes, unhesitatingly; but it would now cost her a pain to do so, which, at first, she would not understand. On that stormy July evening when she gave Haldane a little private concert she had obtained a glimpse of a manhood unknown to her before, and it was full of pleasing suggestion. To-night that same manhood which is at once so strong, and yet so unselfish and gentle, had stood out before her distinct and luminous in the light of a knightly deed, and she saw with the absoluteness of irresistible conviction that such a manhood was above and beyond all surface polish, all mere aesthetic culture, all earthly rank--that it was something that belonged to God, and partook of the eternity of his greatness and permanence.

By the kindred and noble possibilities of her own womanly nature, she was of necessity deeply interested in such a man, having once recognized him; and now for weeks she must think of him as consciously serving her in the most knightly way and at the hourly risk of his life, and yet hoping for no greater reward than her esteem and respect. While she knew that he would have gone eagerly for her aunt's sake, and might have gone from a mere sense of duty, she had been clearly shown that the thought of serving her had turned his dangerous task into a privilege and a joy. Could she follow such a man daily and hourly with her thoughts, could she in vivid imagination watch his self-sacrificing efforts to minister to, and save those she loved, with only the cool, decorous interest that Mr. Beaumont would deem proper in the woman betrothed to himself? The future must answer this question.

When Haldane had asked for a ticket to the southern city to which he was destined, the agent stared at him a moment and said:

"Don't you know yellow fever is epidemic there?"

"Yes," replied Haldane with such cold reserve of manner that no further questions were asked; but the fact that he, a medical student, had bought a ticket for the plague-stricken city was stated in the "Courier" the following morning. His old friend Mr. Ivison soon informed himself of the whole affair, and in a glowing letter of eulogy made it impossible for any one to charge that Mrs. Arnot had asked the young man to go to the aid of her relatives at such tremendous personal risk. Indeed it was clearly stated, with the unimpeachable Mr. Beaumont as authority, that she had entreated him not to go, and had not the slightest expectation of his going until he surprised her by his unalterable decision.

After reading and talking over this letter, sustained as it had been by years of straightforward duty, even good society concluded that it could socially recognize and receive this man; and yet, as the old lady had remarked, there was still an excellent prospect that he would enter heaven before he found a welcome to the exclusive circles of Hillaton.

CHAPTER L

"O DREADED DEATH!"

Haldane found time in the enforced pauses of his journey to write a long and affectionate letter to his mother, explaining all, and asking her forgiveness again, as he often had before. He also wrote to Mrs. Arnot a cheerful note, in which he tried to put his course in the most ordinary and matter-of-fact light possible, saying that as a medical student it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do.

As he approached the infected city he had the train chiefly to himself, and he saw that the outgoing trains were full, and when at last he walked its streets it reminded him of a household of which some member is very ill, or dead, and the few who were moving about walked as if under a sad constraint and gloom. On most faces were seen evidences of anxiety and trouble, while a few were reckless.

Having obtained a carriage, he was driven to Mr. Poland's residence in a suburb. He dismissed the carriage at the gate, preferring to quietly announce himself. The sultry day was drawing to a close as he walked up the gravelled drive that led to the house. Not even the faintest zephyr stirred the luxuriant tropical foliage that here and there shadowed his path, and yet the stillness and quiet of nature did not suggest peace and repose so much as it did death. The motionless air, heavily laden with a certain dead sweetness of flowers from the neighboring garden, might well bring to mind the breathless silence and the heavy atmosphere of the chamber in which the lifeless form and the fading funeral wreath are perishing together.

So oppressed was Haldane he found himself walking softly and mounting the steps of the piazza with a silent tread, as if he were in truth approaching the majesty of death. Before he could ring the bell there came from the parlor a low, sad prelude, played on a small reed organ that had been built in the room, and then a contralto voice of peculiar sweetness sang the following words with such depth of feeling that one felt that they revealed the innermost emotion of the heart:

O priceless life! warm, throbbing life, With thought and love and passion rife, I cling to thee. Thou art an isle in the ocean wide; Thou art a barque above the tide; How vague and void is all beside! I cling to thee.

O dreaded death! cold, pallid death, Despair is in thy icy breath; I shrink from thee. What victims wilt thou next enroll? Thou hast a terror for my soul Which will nor reason can control; I shrink from thee.

Then followed a sound that was like a low sob. This surely was Amy, Laura's cousin-friend, and already she had won the whole sympathy of his heart.

After ringing the bell he heard her step, and then she paused, as he rightly surmised, to wipe away the thickly falling tears. He was almost startled when she appeared before him, for the maiden had inherited the peculiar and striking beauty of her mother. Sorrow and watching had brought unusual pallor to her cheeks; but her eyes were so large, so dark and intense, that they suggested spirit rather than flesh and blood.

"I think that this is Miss Poland," commenced Haldane in a manner that was marked by both sympathy and respect, and he was about to hand her his card of introduction, when she stepped eagerly forward and took his hand, saying: "You are Mr. Haldane. I know it at a glance."

"Yes, and wholly at your service."

Still retaining his hand, she looked for a second into his face, as if she would read his soul and gauge the compass of his nature; so intent and penetrating was her gaze, that Haldane felt that if there had been any wavering or weakness on his part she would have known it as truly as himself.

Her face suddenly lighted up with gratitude and friendliness, and she said, earnestly:

"I _do_ thank you for coming. I had purposed asking you not to take so great a risk for us, but to return; for, to be frank with you, our physician has told me that your risk is terribly great; but I see that you are one that would not turn back."

"You are right, Miss Poland." Then he added, with a frank smile, "There is nothing terrible to me in the risk you speak of. I honestly feel it a privilege to come to your aid, and I have but one request to make: that you will let me serve you in any way and every way possible. By any hesitancy and undue delicacy in this respect you will greatly pain me."

"Oh!" she exclaimed in a low and almost passionate tone, "I am so glad you have come, for I was almost desperate."

"Your father?" asked Haldane very gravely.

"He is more quiet, and I try to think he is better, but doctor won't say that he is. Ah, there he is coming now."

A carriage drove rapidly to the door, and the physician sprang up the steps as if the hours were short for the increasing pressure of his work.

"Miss Amy, why are you here yet? I hoped that you and your little sister were on your way to the mountains," he said, taking her hand.

"Please do not speak of it again," she replied. "I cannot leave father and mother, and Bertha, you know, is too young and nervous a child to be forced to go away alone. We must all remain together, and hope the best from your skill."

"God knows I'm doing all in my power to save my dear old friend Poland," said the physician huskily, and then he shook his head as if he had little hope. "How is he now?"

"Better, I think. Dr. Orton, this is the friend of whom I spoke, Mr. Haldane."

"You have always lived at the North?" asked the physician, looking the young man over with a quick glance.

"Yes, sir."

"Do you realize the probable consequences of this exposure to one not acclimated?"

"Dr. Orton, I am a medical student, and I have come to do my duty, which here will be to carry out strictly your directions. I have only one deep cause for anxiety, and that is that I may be taken with the disease before I can be of much use. So please give me work at once."

"Give me your hand, old fellow. You do our profession credit, if not fully fledged. You are right, we must all do what we can while we can, for the Lord only knows how many hours are left to any of us. But, Amy,


A Knight Of The Nineteenth Century - 70/79

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