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- Hilda Wade - 20/52 -
"Splendid work! Yes, splendid! (Two lumps, I believe?) He has done more, I admit, for medical science than any other man I ever met."
I gazed at her with a curious glance. "Then why, dear lady, do you keep telling me he is cruel?" I inquired, toasting my feet on the fender. "It seems contradictory."
She passed me the muffins, and smiled her restrained smile.
"Does the desire to do good to humanity in itself imply a benevolent disposition?" she answered, obliquely.
"Now you are talking in paradox. Surely, if a man works all his life long for the good of mankind, that shows he is devoured by sympathy for his species."
"And when your friend Mr. Bates works all his life long at observing, and classifying lady-birds, I suppose that shows he is devoured by sympathy for the race of beetles!"
I laughed at her comical face, she looked at me so quizzically. "But then," I objected, "the cases are not parallel. Bates kills and collects his lady-birds; Sebastian cures and benefits humanity."
Hilda smiled her wise smile once more, and fingered her apron. "Are the cases so different as you suppose?" she went on, with her quick glance. "Is it not partly accident? A man of science, you see, early in life, takes up, half by chance, this, that, or the other particular form of study. But what the study is in itself, I fancy, does not greatly matter; do not mere circumstances as often as not determine it? Surely it is the temperament, on the whole, that tells: the temperament that is or is not scientific."
"How do you mean? You ARE so enigmatic!"
"Well, in a family of the scientific temperament, it seems to me, one brother may happen to go in for butterflies--may he not?--and another for geology, or for submarine telegraphs. Now, the man who happens to take up butterflies does not make a fortune out of his hobby--there is no money in butterflies; so we say, accordingly, he is an unpractical person, who cares nothing for business, and who is only happy when he is out in the fields with a net, chasing emperors and tortoise-shells. But the man who happens to fancy submarine telegraphy most likely invents a lot of new improvements, takes out dozens of patents, finds money flow in upon him as he sits in his study, and becomes at last a peer and a millionaire; so then we say, What a splendid business head he has got, to be sure, and how immensely he differs from his poor wool-gathering brother, the entomologist, who can only invent new ways of hatching out wire-worms! Yet all may really depend on the first chance direction which led one brother as a boy to buy a butterfly net, and sent the other into the school laboratory to dabble with an electric wheel and a cheap battery."
"Then you mean to say it is chance that has made Sebastian?"
Hilda shook her pretty head. "By no means. Don't be so stupid. We both know Sebastian has a wonderful brain. Whatever was the work he undertook with that brain in science, he would carry it out consummately. He is a born thinker. It is like this, don't you know." She tried to arrange her thoughts. "The particular branch of science to which Mr. Hiram Maxim's mind happens to have been directed was the making of machine-guns--and he slays his thousands. The particular branch to which Sebastian's mind happens to have been directed was medicine--and he cures as many as Mr. Maxim kills. It is a turn of the hand that makes all the difference."
"I see," I said. "The aim of medicine happens to be a benevolent one."
"Quite so; that's just what I mean. The aim is benevolent; and Sebastian pursues that aim with the single-minded energy of a lofty, gifted, and devoted nature--but not a good one!'
"Oh, no. To be quite frank, he seems to me to pursue it ruthlessly, cruelly, unscrupulously. He is a man of high ideals, but without principle. In that respect he reminds one of the great spirits of the Italian Renaissance--Benvenuto Cellini and so forth--men who could pore for hours with conscientious artistic care over the detail of a hem in a sculptured robe, yet could steal out in the midst of their disinterested toil to plunge a knife in the back of a rival."
"Sebastian would not do that," I cried. "He is wholly free from the mean spirit of jealousy."
"No, Sebastian would not do that. You are quite right there; there is no tinge of meanness in the man's nature. He likes to be first in the field; but he would acclaim with delight another man's scientific triumph--if another anticipated him; for would it not mean a triumph for universal science?--and is not the advancement of science Sebastian's religion? But . . . he would do almost as much, or more. He would stab a man without remorse, if he thought that by stabbing him he could advance knowledge."
I recognised at once the truth of her diagnosis. "Nurse Wade," I cried, "you are a wonderful woman! I believe you are right; but-- how did you come to think of it?"
A cloud passed over her brow. "I have reason to know it," she answered, slowly. Then her voice changed. "Take another muffin."
I helped myself and paused. I laid down my cup, and gazed at her. What a beautiful, tender, sympathetic face! And yet, how able! She stirred the fire uneasily. I looked and hesitated. I had often wondered why I never dared ask Hilda Wade one question that was nearest my heart. I think it must have been because I respected her so profoundly. The deeper your admiration and respect for a woman, the harder you find it in the end to ask her. At last I ALMOST made up my mind. "I cannot think," I began, "what can have induced a girl like you, with means and friends, with brains and"--I drew back, then I plumped it out--"beauty, to take to such a life as this--a life which seems, in many ways, so unworthy of you!"
She stirred the fire more pensively than ever, and rearranged the muffin-dish on the little wrought-iron stand in font of the grate. "And yet," she murmured, looking down, "what life can be better than the service of one's kind? You think it a great life for Sebastian!"
"Sebastian! He is a man. That is different; quite different. But a woman! Especially YOU, dear lady, for whom one feels that nothing is quite high enough, quite pure enough, quite good enough. I cannot imagine how--"
She checked me with one wave of her gracious hand. Her movements were always slow and dignified. "I have a Plan in my life," she answered earnestly, her eyes meeting mine with a sincere, frank gaze; "a Plan to which I have resolved to sacrifice everything. It absorbs my being. Till that Plan is fulfilled--" I saw the tears were gathering fast on her lashes. She suppressed them with an effort. "Say no more," she added, faltering. "Infirm of purpose! I WILL not listen."
I leant forward eagerly, pressing my advantage. The air was electric. Waves of emotion passed to and fro. "But surely," I cried, "you do not mean to say--"
She waved me aside once more. "I will not put my hand to the plough, and then look back," she answered, firmly. "Dr. Cumberledge, spare me. I came to Nathaniel's for a purpose. I told you at the time what that purpose was--in part: to be near Sebastian. I want to be near him . . . for an object I have at heart. Do not ask me to reveal it; do not ask me to forego it. I am a woman, therefore weak. But I need your aid. Help me, instead of hindering me."
"Hilda," I cried, leaning forward, with quiverings of my heart, "I will help you in whatever way you will allow me. But let me at any rate help you with the feeling that I am helping one who means in time--"
At that moment, as unkindly fate would have it, the door opened, and Sebastian entered.
"Nurse Wade," he began, in his iron voice, glancing about him with stern eyes, "where are those needles I ordered for that operation? We must be ready in time before Nielsen comes. . . . Cumberledge, I shall want you."
The golden opportunity had come and gone. It was long before I found a similar occasion for speaking to Hilda.
Every day after that the feeling deepened upon me that Hilda was there to watch Sebastian. WHY, I did not know; but it was growing certain that a life-long duel was in progress between these two--a duel of some strange and mysterious import.
The first approach to a solution of the problem which I obtained came a week or two later. Sebastian was engaged in observing a case where certain unusual symptoms had suddenly supervened. It was a case of some obscure affection of the heart. I will not trouble you here with the particular details. We all suspected a tendency to aneurism. Hilda Wade was in attendance, as she always was on Sebastian's observation cases. We crowded round, watching. The Professor himself leaned over the cot with some medicine for external application in a basin. He gave it to Hilda to hold. I noticed that as she held it her fingers trembled, and that her eyes were fixed harder than ever upon Sebastian. He turned round to his students. "Now this," he began, in a very unconcerned voice, as if the patient were a toad, "is a most unwonted turn for the disease to take. It occurs very seldom. In point of fact, I have only observed the symptom once before; and then it was fatal. The patient in that instance"--he paused dramatically--"was the notorious poisoner, Dr. Yorke-Bannerman."
As he uttered the words, Hilda Wade's hands trembled more than ever, and with a little scream she let the basin fall, breaking it into fragments.
Sebastian's keen eyes had transfixed her in a second. "How did you manage to do that?" he asked, with quiet sarcasm, but in a tone full of meaning.
"The basin was heavy," Hilda faltered. "My hands were trembling--
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