A BUNDLE OF CLOTHES.
Barbara Jordan sat by the sick man with her knitting on her lap, and her eyes fixed on his face. He was asleep, and the sun would have shone full on him had she not drawn a red curtain across the window, which subdued the light, and diffused a warm glow over the bed. He was breathing calmly; danger was over.
On the morning after the eventful night, Mr. Jordan had returned to Morwell, and had been told what had happened—at least, the major part—and had seen the sick man. He, Jasper, was then still unconscious. The doctor from Tavistock had not arrived. The family awaited him all day, and Barbara at last suspected that Martin had not taken the trouble to deliver her message. She did not like to send again, expecting him hourly. Then a doubt rose in her mind whether Doctor Crooke might not have refused to come. Her father had made some slighting remarks about him in company lately. It was possible that these had been repeated and the doctor had taken umbrage.
The day passed, and as he did not arrive, and as the sick man remained unconscious, on the second morning Barbara sent a foot messenger to Beer Alston, where was a certain Mr. James Coyshe, surgeon, a young man, reputed to be able, not long settled there. The gig was broken,
and the cob in trying to escape from the upset vehicle had cut himself about the legs, and was unfit for a journey. The Jordans had but one carriage horse. The gig lay wrecked in the lane; the boy had driven it against a gate-post of granite, and smashed the axle and the splashboard and a wheel.
Coyshe arrived; he was a tall young man, with hair cut very short, very large light whiskers, prominent eyes, and big protruding ears. ‘He is suffering from congestion of the brain,’ said the surgeon; ‘if he does not awake to-morrow, order his grave to be dug.’
‘Can you do nothing for him?’ asked Miss Jordan.
‘Nothing better than leave him in your hands,’ said Coyshe with a bow.
This was all that had passed between Barbara and the doctor. Now the third day was gone, and the man’s brain had recovered from the pressure on it.
As Barbara knitted, she stole many a glance at Jasper’s face; presently, finding that she had dropped stitches and made false counts, she laid her knitting in her lap, and watched the sleeper with undivided attention and with a face full of perplexity, as though trying to read the answer to a question which puzzled her, and not finding the answer where she sought it, or finding it different from what she anticipated.
In appearance Barbara was very different from her sister. Her face was round, her complexion olive, her eyes very dark. She was strongly built, without grace of form, a sound, hearty girl, hale to her heart’s core. She was not beautiful, her features were without chiselling, but her abundant hair, her dark eyes, and the sensible, honest expression of her face redeemed it from plainness. She had practical common sense; Eve had beauty. Barbara was content with the distribution; perfectly satisfied to believe herself destitute of personal charms, and ready to excuse every act of thoughtlessness committed by her sister. Barbara rose from her seat, laid aside the knitting, and went to a carved oak box that stood against the wall, ornamented with the figure of a man in trunk hose, with a pair of eagles’ heads in the place of a human face. She raised the lid and looked in. There lay, neatly folded, the contents of Jasper’s bundle, a coarse grey and yellow suit—a suit so peculiar in cut and colour that there was no mistaking whence it had come, and what he was who had worn it. Barbara shut the chest and returned to her place, and her look was troubled. Her eyes were again fixed on the sleeper. His face was noble. It was pale from loss of blood. The hair was black, the eyes were closed, but the lashes were long and dark. His nose was aquiline without being over-strongly characterised, his lips were thin and well moulded. The face, even in sleep, bore an expression of gravity, dignity, and integrity. Barbara
found it hard to associate such a face with crime, and yet how else could she account for that convict garb she had found rolled up and strapped to his saddle, and which she had laid in the trunk?
Prisoners escaped now and again from the great jail on Dartmoor. This was one of them. As she sat watching him, puzzling her mind over this, his eyes opened, and he smiled. The smile was remarkably sweet. His eyes were large, dark and soft, and from being sunken through sickness, appeared to fill his face. Barbara rose hastily, and, going to the fireplace, brought from it some beef-tea that had been warming at the small fire. She put it to his lips; he thanked her, sighed, and lay back. She said not a word, but resumed her knitting.
From this moment their positions were reversed. It was now she who was watched by him. When she looked up, she encountered his dark eyes. She coloured a little, and impatiently turned her chair on one side, so as to conceal her face. A couple of minutes after, sensible in every nerve that she was being observed, unable to keep her eyes away, spell-drawn, she glanced at him again. He was still watching her. Then she moved to her former position, bit her lip, frowned, and said, ‘Are you in want of anything?’
He shook his head.
‘You are sufficiently yourself to remain alone for a few minutes,’ she said, stood up, and left the room. She had the management of the house, and, indeed, of the farm on her hands; her usual assistant in setting the labourers their work, old Christopher Davy, was ill with rheumatism. This affair had happened at an untoward moment, but is it not always so? A full hour had elapsed before Miss Jordan returned. Then she saw that the convalescent’s eyes were closed. He was probably again asleep, and sleep was the best thing for him. She reseated herself by his bedside, and resumed her knitting. A moment after she was again aware that his eyes were on her. She had herself watched him so intently whilst he was asleep that a smile came involuntarily to
her lips. She was being repaid in her own coin. The smile encouraged him to speak.
‘How long have I been here?’
‘Have I been very ill?’
‘Yes, insensible, sometimes rambling.’
‘What made me ill? What ails my head?’ He put his hand to the bandages.
‘You have had a fall from your horse.’
He did not speak for a moment or two. His thoughts moved slowly. After a while he asked, ‘Where did I fall?’
‘On the moor—Morwell Down.’
‘I can remember nothing. When was it?’
‘Four days ago.’
‘Yes—you have told me so. I forgot. My head is not clear, there is singing and spinning in it. To-day is——?’
‘To-day is Monday.’
‘What day was that—four days ago?’
‘Yes, Thursday. I cannot think to reckon backwards. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I can go on, but not backward. It pains me. I can recall Thursday.’ He sighed and turned his head to the wall. ‘Thursday night—yes. I remember no more.’
After a while he turned his head round to Barbara and asked, ‘Where am I now?’
‘At Morwell House.’
He asked no more questions for a quarter of an hour. He was taking in and turning over the information he had received. He lay on his back and closed his eyes. His face was very pale, like marble, but not like marble in this, that across it travelled changes of expression that stirred the muscles. Do what she would Barbara could not keep her eyes off him. The horrible mystery about the man, the lie given to her thoughts of him by his face, forced her to observe him.
Presently he opened his eyes, and met hers; she recoiled as if smitten with a guilty feeling at her heart.
‘You have always been with me whilst I was unconscious and rambling,’ he said earnestly.
‘I have been a great deal with you, but not always. The maid, Jane, and an old woman who comes in occasionally to char, have shared with me the task. You have not been neglected.’
‘I know well when you have been by me—and when you have been away. Sometimes I have felt as if I lay on a bank with wild thyme under me——’
‘That is because we put thyme with our linen,’ said the practical Barbara.
He did not notice the explanation, but went on, ‘And the sun shone on my face, but a pleasant air fanned me. At other times all was dark and hot and miserable.’
‘That was according to the stages of your illness.’
‘No, I think I was content when you were in the room, and distressed when you were away. Some persons exert a mesmeric power of soothing.’
‘Sick men get strange fancies,’ said Barbara.
He rose on his elbow, and held out his hand.
‘I know that I owe my life to you, young lady. Allow me to thank you. My life is of no value to any but myself. I have not hitherto regarded it much. Now I shall esteem it, as saved by you. I thank you. May I touch your hand?’
He took her fingers and put them to his lips.
‘This hand is firm and strong,’ he said, ‘but gentle as the wing of a dove.’
She coldly withdrew her fingers.
‘Enough of thanks,’ she said bluntly. ‘I did but my duty.’
‘Was there——’ he hesitated—’anyone with me when I was found, or was I alone?’
‘There were two—a man and a boy.’
His face became troubled. He began a question, then let it die in his mouth, began another, but could not bring it to an end.
‘And they—where are they?’ he asked at length.
‘That one called Martin brought you here.’
‘He did!’ exclaimed Jasper, eagerly.
‘That is—he assisted in bringing you here.’ Barbara was so precise and scrupulous about truth, that she felt herself obliged to modify her first assertion. ‘Then, when he saw you safe in our hands, he left you.’
‘Did he—did he say anything about me?’
‘Once—but that I suppose was by a slip, he called you brother. Afterwards he asserted that you were nothing to him, nor he to you.’
Jasper’s face was moved with painful emotions, but it soon cleared, and he said, ‘Yes, I am nothing to him—nothing. He is gone. He did well. I was, as he said—and he spoke the truth—nothing to him.’
Then, hastily, to turn the subject, ‘Excuse me. Where am I now? And, young lady, if you will not think it rude of me to inquire, who are you to whom I owe my poor life?’
‘This, as I have already said, is Morwell, and I am the daughter of the gentleman who resides in it, Mr. Ignatius Jordan.’
He fell back on the bed, a deadly greyness came over his face, he raised his hands: ‘My God! my God! this is most wonderful. Thy ways are past finding out.’
‘What is wonderful?’ asked Barbara.
He did not answer, but partially raised himself again in bed.
‘Where are my clothes?’ he asked.
‘Which clothes?’ inquired Barbara, and her voice was hard, and her expression became stern. She hesitated for a moment, then went to the chest and drew forth the suit that had been rolled up on the pommel of the saddle; also that which he had worn when he met with the accident.
She held one in each hand, and returned to the bed. ‘Which?’ she asked gravely, fixing her eyes on him.
He looked from one to the other, and his pale face turned a chalky white. Then he said in a low tremulous tone, ‘I want my waistcoat.’
She gave it him. He felt eagerly about it, drew the pocket-book from the breast-pocket, opened it and fell back.
‘Gone!’ he moaned, ‘gone!’
The garment dropped from his fingers upon the floor, his eyes became glassy and fixed, and scarlet spots of colour formed in his cheeks.
After this he became feverish, and tossed in his bed, put his hand to his brow, plucked at the bandages, asked for water, and his pulse quickened.
Towards evening he seemed conscious that his senses were slipping beyond control. He called repeatedly for the young lady, and Jane, who attended him then, was obliged to fetch Barbara.
The sun was setting when she came into the room. She despatched Jane about some task that had to be done, and, coming to the side of the bed, said in a constrained voice, ‘Yes, what do you require? I am here.’
He lifted himself. His eyes were glowing with fever; he put out his hand and clasped her wrist; his hand was burning. His lips quivered; his face was full of a fiery eagerness.
‘I entreat you! you are so good, so kind! You have surprised a secret. I beseech you let no one else into it—no one have a suspicion of it. I am hot. I am in a fever. I am afraid what I may say when others are by me. I would go on my knees to you could I rise. I pray you, I pray you——’ he put his hands together, ‘do not leave me if I become delirious. It is a hard thing to ask. I have no claim on you; but I fear. I would have none but you know what I say, and I may say strange things if my mind becomes deranged with fever. You feel my hand, is it not like a red-hot-coal? You know that I am likely to wander. Stay by me—in pity—in mercy—for the love of God—for the love of God!’
His hand, a fiery hand, grasped her wrist convulsively. She stood by his bed, greatly moved, much stung with self-reproach. It was cruel of her to act as she had done, to show him that convict suit, and let him see that she knew his vileness. It was heartless, wicked of her, when the poor fellow was just returned to consciousness, to cast him back into his misery and shame by the sight of that degrading garment.
Spots of colour came into her cheeks almost as deep as those which burnt in the sick man’s face.
‘I should have considered he was ill, that he was under my charge,’ she said, and laid her left hand on his to intimate that she sought to disengage her wrist from his grasp.
At the touch his eyes, less wild, looked pleadingly at her.
‘Yes, Mr. Jasper,’ she said, ‘I——’
‘Why do you call me Mr. Jasper?’
‘That other man gave you the name.’
‘Yes, my name is Jasper. And yours?’
‘Barbara. I am Miss Barbara Jordan.’
‘Will you promise what I asked?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I will stay by you all night, and whatever passes your lips shall never pass mine.’
He smiled, and gave a sigh of relief.
‘How good you are! How good! Barbara Jordan.’
He did not call her Miss, and she felt slightly piqued. He, a convict, to speak of her thus! But she pacified her wounded pride with the consideration that his mind was disturbed by fever.