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- Hilda Wade - 40/52 -
"Almost all of them."
"You don't tell your patients stories when they're ill about your other cases who died, do you?" Lady Meadowcroft went on, with a quick little shudder.
Hilda's face by this time was genuinely sympathetic. "Oh, never!" she answered, with truth. "That would be very bad nursing! One's object in treating a case is to make one's patient well; so one naturally avoids any sort of subject that might be distressing or alarming."
"You really mean it?" Her face was pleading.
"Why, of course. I try to make my patients my friends; I talk to them cheerfully; I amuse them and distract them; I get them away, as far as I can, from themselves and their symptoms."
"Oh, what a lovely person to have about one when one's ill!" the languid lady exclaimed, ecstatically. "I SHOULD like to send for you if I wanted nursing! But there--it's always so, of course, with a real lady; common nurses frighten one so. I wish I could always have a lady to nurse me!"
"A person who sympathises--that is the really important thing," Hilda answered, in her quiet voice. "One must find out first one's patient's temperament. YOU are nervous, I can see." She laid one hand on her new friend's arm. "You need to be kept amused and engaged when you are ill; what YOU require most is--insight--and sympathy."
The little fist doubled up again; the vacant face grew positively sweet. "That's just it! You have hit it! How clever you are! I want all that. I suppose, Miss Wade, YOU never go out for private nursing?"
"Never," Hilda answered. "You see, Lady Meadowcroft, I don't nurse for a livelihood. I have means of my own; I took up this work as an occupation and a sphere in life. I haven't done anything yet but hospital nursing."
Lady Meadowcroft drew a slight sigh. "What a pity!" she murmured, slowly. "It does seem hard that your sympathies should all be thrown away, so to speak, on a horrid lot of wretched poor people, instead of being spent on your own equals--who would so greatly appreciate them."
"I think I can venture to say the poor appreciate them, too," Hilda answered, bridling up a little--for there was nothing she hated so much as class-prejudices. "Besides, they need sympathy more; they have fewer comforts. I should not care to give up attending my poor people for the sake of the idle rich."
The set phraseology of the country rectory recurred to Lady Meadowcroft--"our poorer brethren," and so forth. "Oh, of course," she answered, with the mechanical acquiescence such women always give to moral platitudes. "One must do one's best for the poor, I know--for conscience' sake and all that; it's our duty, and we all try hard to do it. But they're so terribly ungrateful! Don't you think so? Do you know, Miss Wade, in my father's parish--"
Hilda cut her short with a sunny smile--half contemptuous toleration, half genuine pity. "We are all ungrateful," she said; "but the poor, I think, the least so. I'm sure the gratitude I've often had from my poor women at St. Nathaniel's has made me sometimes feel really ashamed of myself. I had done so little--and they thanked me so much for it."
"Which only shows," Lady Meadowcroft broke in, "that one ought always to have a LADY to nurse one."
"Ca marche!" Hilda said to me, with a quiet smile, a few minutes after, when her ladyship had disappeared in her fluffy robe down the companion-ladder.
"Yes, ca marche," I answered. "In an hour or two you will have succeeded in landing your chaperon. And what is most amusing, landed her, too, Hilda, just by being yourself--letting her see frankly the actual truth of what you think and feel about her and about everyone!"
"I could not do otherwise," Hilda answered, growing grave. "I must be myself, or die for it. My method of angling consists in showing myself just as I am. You call me an actress, but I am not really one; I am only a woman who can use her personality for her own purposes. If I go with Lady Meadowcroft, it will be a mutual advantage. I shall really sympathise with her for I can see the poor thing is devoured with nervousness."
"But do you think you will be able to stand her?" I asked.
"Oh, dear, yes. She's not a bad little thing, au fond, when you get to know her. It is society that has spoilt her. She would have made a nice, helpful, motherly body if she'd married the curate."
As we neared Bombay, conversation grew gradually more and more Indian; it always does under similar circumstances. A sea voyage is half retrospect, half prospect; it has no personal identity. You leave Liverpool for New York at the English standpoint, and are full of what you did in London or Manchester; half-way over, you begin to discuss American custom-houses and New York hotels; by the time you reach Sandy Hook, the talk is all of quick trains west and the shortest route from Philadelphia to New Orleans. You grow by slow stages into the new attitude; at Malta you are still regretting Europe; after Aden, your mind dwells most on the hire of punkah-wallahs and the proverbial toughness of the dak-bungalow chicken.
"How's the plague at Bombay now?" an inquisitive passenger inquired of the Captain at dinner our last night out. "Getting any better?"
Lady Meadowcroft's thumb dived between her fingers again. "What! is there plague in Bombay?" she asked, innocently, in her nervous fashion.
"Plague in Bombay!" the Captain burst out, his burly voice resounding down the saloon. "Why, bless your soul, ma'am, where else would you expect it? Plague in Bombay! It's been there these five years. Better? Not quite. Going ahead like mad. They're dying by thousands."
"A microbe, I believe, Dr. Boyell," the inquisitive passenger observed deferentially, with due respect for medical science.
"Yes," the ship's doctor answered, helping himself to an olive. "Forty million microbes to each square inch of the Bombay atmosphere."
"And we are going to Bombay!" Lady Meadowcroft exclaimed, aghast.
"You must have known there was plague there, my dear," Sir Ivor put in, soothingly, with a deprecating glance. "It's been in all the papers. But only the natives get it."
The thumb uncovered itself a little. "Oh, only the natives!" Lady Meadowcroft echoed, relieved; as if a few thousand Hindus more or less would hardly be missed among the blessings of British rule in India. "You know, Ivor, I never read those DREADFUL things in the papers. _I_ read the Society news, and Our Social Diary, and columns that are headed 'Mainly About People.' I don't care for anything but the Morning Post and the World and Truth. I hate horrors. . . . But it's a blessing to think it's only the natives."
"Plenty of Europeans, too, bless your heart," the Captain thundered out unfeelingly. "Why, last time I was in port, a nurse died at the hospital."
"Oh, only a nurse--" Lady Meadowcroft began, and then coloured up deeply, with a side glance at Hilda.
"And lots besides nurses," the Captain continued, positively delighted at the terror he was inspiring. "Pucka Englishmen and Englishwomen. Bad business this plague, Dr. Cumberledge! Catches particularly those who are most afraid of it."
"But it's only in Bombay?" Lady Meadowcroft cried, clutching at the last straw. I could see she was registering a mental determination to go straight up-country the moment she landed.
"Not a bit of it!" the Captain answered, with provoking cheerfulness. "Rampaging about like a roaring lion all over India!"
Lady Meadowcroft's thumb must have suffered severely. The nails dug into it as if it were someone else's.
Half an hour later, as we were on deck in the cool of the evening, the thing was settled. "My wife," Sir Ivor said, coming up to us with a serious face, "has delivered her ultimatum. Positively her ultimatum. I've had a mort o' trouble with her, and now she's settled. EITHER, she goes back from Bombay by the return steamer; OR ELSE--you and Miss Wade must name your own terms to accompany us on our tour, in case of emergencies." He glanced wistfully at Hilda. "DO you think you can help us?"
Hilda made no hypocritical pretence of hanging back. Her nature was transparent. "If you wish it, yes," she answered, shaking hands upon the bargain. "I only want to go about and see India; I can see it quite as well with Lady Meadowcroft as without her--and even better. It is unpleasant for a woman to travel unattached. I require a chaperon, and am glad to find one. I will join your party, paying my own hotel and travelling expenses, and considering myself as engaged in case your wife should need my services. For that, you can pay me, if you like, some nominal retaining fee--five pounds or anything. The money is immaterial to me. I like to be useful, and I sympathise with nerves; but it may make your wife feel she is really keeping a hold over me if we put the arrangement on a business basis. As a matter of fact, whatever sum she chooses to pay, I shall hand it over at once to the Bombay Plague Hospital."
Sir Ivor looked relieved. "Thank you ever so much!" he said, wringing her hand warmly. "I thowt you were a brick, and now I know it. My wife says your face inspires confidence, and your voice sympathy. She MUST have you with her. And you, Dr. Cumberledge?"
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