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- Hilda Wade - 50/52 -
beat, and sometimes I could hardly feel it thrill under my finger. He became delirious, and murmured much about Yorke-Bannerman's daughter. Sometimes he forgot all, and spoke to me in the friendly terms of our old acquaintance at Nathaniel's, giving me directions and advice about imaginary operations. Hour after hour we watched for a sail, and no sail appeared. One could hardly believe we could toss about so long in the main highway of traffic without seeing a ship or spying more than the smoke-trail of some passing steamer.
As far as I could judge, during those days and nights, the wind veered from south-west to south-east, and carried us steadily and surely towards the open Atlantic. On the third evening out, about five o'clock, I saw a dark object on the horizon. Was it moving towards us? We strained our eyes in breathless suspense. A minute passed, and then another. Yes, there could be no doubt. It grew larger and larger. It was a ship--a steamer. We made all the signs of distress we could manage. I stood up and waved Hilda's white shawl frantically in the air. There was half an hour of suspense, and our hearts sank as we thought that they were about to pass us. Then the steamer hove to a little and seemed to notice us. Next instant we dropped upon our knees, for we saw they were lowering a boat. They were coming to our aid. They would be in time to save us.
Hilda watched our rescuers with parted lips and agonised eyes. Then she felt Sebastian's pulse. "Thank Heaven," she cried, "he still lives! They will be here before he is quite past confession."
Sebastian opened his eyes dreamily. "A boat?" he asked.
"Yes, a boat!"
"Then you have gained your point, child. I am able to collect myself. Give me a few hours' more life, and what I can do to make amends to you shall be done."
I don't know why, but it seemed longer between the time when the boat was lowered and the moment when it reached us than it had seemed during the three days and nights we lay tossing about helplessly on the open Atlantic. There were times when we could hardly believe it was really moving. At last, however, it reached us, and we saw the kindly faces and outstretched hands of our rescuers. Hilda clung to Sebastian with a wild clasp as the men reached out for her.
"No, take HIM first!" she cried, when the sailors, after the custom of men, tried to help her into the gig before attempting to save us; "his life is worth more to me than my own. Take him--and for God's sake lift him gently, for he is nearly gone!"
They took him aboard and laid him down in the stern. Then, and then only, Hilda stepped into the boat, and I staggered after her. The officer in charge, a kind young Irishman, had had the foresight to bring brandy and a little beef essence. We ate and drank what we dared as they rowed us back to the steamer. Sebastian lay back, with his white eyelashes closed over the lids, and the livid hue of death upon his emaciated cheeks; but he drank a teaspoonful or two of brandy, and swallowed the beef essence with which Hilda fed him.
"Your father is the most exhausted of the party," the officer said, in a low undertone. "Poor fellow, he is too old for such adventures. He seems to have hardly a spark of life left in him."
Hilda shuddered with evident horror. "He is not my father--thank Heaven!" she cried, leaning over him and supporting his drooping head, in spite of her own fatigue and the cold that chilled our very bones. "But I think he will live. I mean him to live. He is my best friend now--and my bitterest enemy!"
The officer looked at her in surprise, and then touched his forehead, inquiringly, with a quick glance at me. He evidently thought cold and hunger had affected her reason. I shook my head. "It is a peculiar case," I whispered. "What the lady says is right. Everything depends for us upon our keeping him alive till we reach England."
They rowed us to the boat, and we were handed tenderly up the side. There, the ship's surgeon and everybody else on board did their best to restore us after our terrible experience. The ship was the Don, of the Royal Mail Steamship Company's West Indian line; and nothing could exceed the kindness with which we were treated by every soul on board, from the captain to the stewardess and the junior cabin-boy. Sebastian's great name carried weight even here. As soon as it was generally understood on board that we had brought with us the famous physiologist and pathologist, the man whose name was famous throughout Europe, we might have asked for anything that the ship contained without fear of a refusal. But, indeed, Hilda's sweet face was enough in itself to win the interest and sympathy of all who saw it.
By eleven next morning we were off Plymouth Sound; and by midday we had landed at the Mill Bay Docks, and were on our way to a comfortable hotel in the neighbourhood.
Hilda was too good a nurse to bother Sebastian at once about his implied promise. She had him put to bed, and kept him there carefully.
"What do you think of his condition?" she asked me, after the second day was over. I could see by her own grave face that she had already formed her own conclusions.
"He cannot recover," I answered. "His constitution, shattered by the plague and by his incessant exertions, has received too severe a shock in this shipwreck. He is doomed."
"So I think. The change is but temporary. He will not last out three days more, I fancy."
"He has rallied wonderfully to-day," I said; "but 'tis a passing rally; a flicker--no more. If you wish to do anything, now is the moment. If you delay, you will be too late."
"I will go in and see him," Hilda answered. "I have said nothing more to him, but I think he is moved. I think he means to keep his promise. He has shown a strange tenderness to me these last few days. I almost believe he is at last remorseful, and ready to undo the evil which he has done."
She stole softly into the sick room. I followed her on tip-toe, and stood near the door behind the screen which shut off the draught from the patient. Sebastian stretched his arms out to her. "Ah, Maisie, my child," he cried, addressing her by the name she had borne in her childhood--both were her own--"don't leave me any more! Stay with me always, Maisie! I can't get on without you."
"But you hated once to see me!"
"Because I have so wronged you."
"And now? Will you do nothing to repair the wrong?"
"My child, I can never undo that wrong. It is irreparable, for the past can never be recalled; but I will try my best to minimise it. Call Cumberledge in. I am quite sensible now, quite conscious. You will be my witness, Cumberledge, that my pulse is normal and that my brain is clear. I will confess it all. Maisie, your constancy and your firmness have conquered me. And your devotion to your father. If only I had had a daughter like you, my girl, one whom I could have loved and trusted, I might have been a better man. I might even have done better work for science--though on that side, at least, I have little with which to reproach myself."
Hilda bent over him. "Hubert and I are here," she said, slowly, in a strangely calm voice; "but that is not enough. I want a public, an attested, confession. It must be given before witnesses, and signed and sworn to. Somebody might throw doubt upon my word and Hubert's."
Sebastian shrank back. "Given before witnesses, and signed and sworn to! Maisie, is this humiliation necessary; do you exact it?"
Hilda was inexorable. "You know yourself how you are situated. You have only a day or two to live," she said, in an impressive voice. "You must do it at once, or never. You have postponed it all your life. Now, at this last moment, you must make up for it. Will you die with an act of injustice unconfessed on your conscience?"
He paused and struggled. "I could--if it were not for you," he answered.
"Then do it for me," Hilda cried. "Do it for me! I ask it of you not as a favour, but as a right. I DEMAND it!" She stood, white, stern, inexorable, by his couch, and laid her hand upon his shoulder.
He paused once more. Then he murmured feebly, in a querulous tone, "What witnesses? Whom do you wish to be present?"
Hilda spoke clearly and distinctly. She had thought it all out with herself beforehand. "Such witnesses as will carry absolute conviction to the mind of all the world; irreproachable, disinterested witnesses; official witnesses. In the first place, a commissioner of oaths. Then a Plymouth doctor, to show that you are in a fit state of mind to make a confession. Next, Mr. Horace Mayfield, who defended my father. Lastly, Dr. Blake Crawford, who watched the case on your behalf at the trial."
"But, Hilda," I interposed, "we may possibly find that they cannot come away from London just now. They are busy men, and likely to be engaged."
"They will come if I pay their fees. I do not mind how much this costs me. What is money compared to this one great object of my life?"
"And then--the delay! Suppose that we are too late?"
"He will live some days yet. I can telegraph up at once. I want no hole-and-corner confession, which may afterwards be useless, but an open avowal before the most approved witnesses. If he will make it, well and good; if not, my life-work will have failed. But I had rather it failed than draw back one inch from the course which I have laid down for myself."
I looked at the worn face of Sebastian. He nodded his head slowly. "She has conquered," he answered, turning upon the pillow. "Let her have her own way. I hid it for years, for science' sake. That
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