Barbara had passed her word to remain all night with the sick man, should he prove delirious; she was scrupulously conscientious, and in spite of her father’s remonstrance and assurance that old Betty Westlake could look after the fellow well enough, she remained in the sick room after the rest had gone to bed.
That Jasper was fevered was indubitable; he was hot and restless, tossing his head from side to side on the pillow, and it was not safe to leave him, lest he should disarrange his bandage, lest, in an access of fever, he should leap from his bed and do himself an injury.
After everyone had retired the house became very still. Barbara poked and made up the fire. It must not become too large, as the nights were not cold, and it must not be allowed to go out.
Jasper did not speak, but he opened his eyes occasionally, and looked at his nurse with a strange light in his eyes that alarmed her. What if he were to become frantic? What—worse—were he to die? He was only half conscious, he did not seem to know who she was. His lips twitched and moved, but no voice came. Then he clasped both hands over his brow, and moaned, and plucked at the bandages. ‘You must not do that,’ said Barbara Jordan, rising from her chair and going beside him. He glared at her from his burning eyes without intelligence. Then she laid her cool hand on his strapped brow, and he let his arms fall, and lay still, and the twitching of his mouth ceased. The pressure of her hand eased, soothed him. Directly she withdrew her hand he began to murmur and move, and cry out, ‘O Martin! Martin!’
Then he put forth his hand and opened it wide, and closed it again, in a wild, restless, unmeaning manner. Next he waved it excitedly, as if in vehement conversation or earnest protest. Barbara spoke to him, but he did not hear her. She urged him to lie quiet and not excite himself, but her words, if they entered his ear, conveyed no message to the brain. He snatched at his bandage.
‘You shall not do that,’ she said, and caught his hand, and held it down firmly on the coverlet. Then, at once, he was quiet. He continued turning his head on the pillow, but he did not stir his arm. When she attempted to withdraw her hand he would not suffer her. Once, when almost by main force, she plucked her hand away, he became excited and tried to rise in his bed. In terror, to pacify him, she gave him her hand again. She moved her chair close to the bed, where she could sit facing him, and let him hold her left hand with his left. He was quiet at once. It seemed to her that her cool, calmly flowing blood poured its healing influence through her hand up his arm to his tossing, troubled head. Thus she was obliged to sit all night, hand in hand with the man she was constrained to pity, but whom, for his guilt, she loathed.
He became cooler, his pulse beat less fiercely, his hand was less burning and dry. She saw him pass from vexing dreams into placid sleep. She was unable to knit, to do any work all night. She could do nothing other than sit, hour after hour, with her eyes on his face, trying to unravel the riddle, to reconcile that noble countenance with an evil life. And when she could not solve it, she closed her eyes and prayed, and her prayer was concerned, like her thoughts, with the man who lay in fever and pain, and who clasped her so resolutely. Towards dawn his eyes opened, and there was no more vacancy and fire in them. Then she went to the little casement and opened it. The fresh, sweet air of early morning rushed in, and with the air came the song of awakening thrushes, the spiral twitter of the lark. One fading star was still shining in a sky that was laying aside its sables.
She went back to the bedside and said gently, ‘You are better.’
‘Thank you,’ he answered. ‘I have given you much trouble.’
She shook her head, she did not speak. Something rose in her throat. She had extinguished the lamp. In the grey dawn the face on the bed looked death-like, and a gush of tenderness, of pity for the patient, filled Barbara’s heart. She brought a basin and a sponge, and, leaning over him, washed his face. He thanked her with his sweet smile, a smile that told of pain. It affected Barbara strangely. She drew a long breath. She could not speak. If she had attempted to do so she would have sobbed; for she was tired with her continued watching. To be a nurse to the weak, whether to a babe or a wounded man, brings out all the sweet springs in a woman’s soul; and poor Barbara, against her judgment, felt that every gentle vein in her heart was oozing with pity, love, solicitude, mercy, faith and hope. What eyes that Jasper had! so gentle, soft, and truthful. Could treachery, cruelty, dishonesty lurk beneath them?
A question trembled on Barbara’s lips. She longed to ask him something about himself, to know the truth, to have that horrible enigma solved. She leaned her hand on the back of the chair, and put the other to her lips.
‘What is it?’ he asked suddenly.
She started. He had read her thoughts. Her eyes met his, and, as they met, her eyes answered and said, ‘Yes, there is a certain matter. I cannot rest till I know.’
‘I am sure,’ he said, ‘there is something you wish to say, but are afraid lest you should excite me.’
She was silent.
‘I am better now; the wind blows cool over me, and the morning light refreshes me. Do not be afraid. Speak.’
‘Speak,’ he said. ‘I am fully conscious and self-possessed now.’
‘Yes,’ she said slowly. ‘It is right that I should know for certain what you are.’ She halted. She shrank from the question. He remained waiting. Then she asked with a trembling voice, ‘Is that convict garment yours?’
He turned away his face sharply.
She waited for the answer. He did not reply. His breast heaved and his whole body shook, the very bed quivered with suppressed emotion.
‘Do not be afraid,’ she said, in measured tones. ‘I will not betray you. I have nursed you and fed you, and bathed your head. No, never! never! whatever your crime may have been, will I betray you. No one in the house suspects. No eyes but mine have seen that garment. Do not mistrust me; not by word or look will I divulge the secret, but I must know all.’
Still he did not reply. His face was turned away, but she saw the working of the muscles of his cheek-bone, and the throb of the great vein in his temple. Barbara felt a flutter of compunction in her heart. She had again overagitated this unhappy man when he was not in a condition to bear it. She knew she had acted precipitately, unfairly, but the suspense had become to her unendurable.
‘I have done wrong to ask the question,’ she said.
‘No,’ he answered, and looked at her. His large eyes, sunken and lustrous with sickness, met hers, and he saw that tears were trembling on her lids.
‘No,’ he said, ‘you did right to ask;’ then paused. ‘The garment—the prison garment is mine.’
A catch in Barbara’s breath; she turned her head hastily and walked towards the door. Near the door stood the oak chest carved with the eagle-headed man. She stooped, threw it open, caught up the convict clothes, rolled them together, and ran up into the attic, where she secreted them in a place none but herself would be likely to look into.
A moment after she reappeared, composed.
‘A packman came this way with his wares yesterday,’ said Miss Jordan gravely. ‘Amongst other news he brought was this, that a convict had recently broken out from the prison at Prince’s Town on Dartmoor, and was thought to have escaped off the moor.’ He listened and made no answer, but sighed heavily. ‘You are safe here,’ she said; ‘your secret remains here’—she touched her breast. ‘My father, my sister, none of the maids suspect anything. Never let us allude to this matter again, and I hope that as soon as you are sufficiently recovered you will go
The door opened gently and Eve appeared, fresh and lovely as a May blossom.
‘Bab, dear sister,’ said the young girl, ‘let me sit by him now. You must have a nap. You take everything upon you—you are tired. Why, Barbara, surely you have been crying?’
‘I——crying!’ exclaimed the elder angrily. ‘What have I had to make me cry? No; I am tired, and my eyes burn.’
‘Then close them and sleep for a couple of hours.’
Barbara left the room and shut the door behind her. In the early morning none of the servants could be spared to sit with the sick man.
Eve went to the table and arranged a bunch of oxlips, dripping with dew, in a glass of water.
‘How sweet they are!’ she said, smiling. ‘Smell them, they will do you good. These are of the old monks’ planting; they grow in abundance in the orchard, but nowhere else. The oxlips and the orchis suit together perfectly. If the oxlip had been a little more yellow and the orchis a little more purple, they would have made an ill-assorted posy.’
Jasper looked at the flowers, then at her.
‘Are you her sister?’
‘What, Barbara’s sister?’
‘Yes, her name is Barbara.’
‘Of course I am.’
He looked at Eve. He could trace in her no likeness to her sister. Involuntarily he said, ‘You are very beautiful.’
She coloured—with pleasure. Twice within a few days the same compliment had been paid her.
‘What is your name, young lady?’
‘My name is Eve.’
‘Eve!’ repeated Jasper. ‘How strange!’
Twice also, within a few days, had this remark been passed on her name.
‘Why should it be strange?’
‘Because that was also the name of my mother and of my sister.’
‘Is your mother alive?’
He shook his head.
‘And your sister?’
‘I do not know. I remember her only faintly, and my father never speaks of her.’ Then he changed the subject. ‘You are very unlike Miss Barbara. I should not have supposed you were sisters.’
‘We are half-sisters. We had not the same mother.’
He was exhausted with speaking, and turned towards the wall. Eve seated herself in the chair vacated by Barbara. She occupied her fingers with making a cowslip ball, and when it was made she tossed it. Then, as he moved, she feared that she disturbed him, so she put the ball on the
table, from which, however, it rolled off.
Jasper turned as she was groping for it.
‘Do I trouble you?’ she said. ‘Honour bright, I will sit quiet.’
How beautiful she looked with her chestnut hair; how delicate and pearly was her lovely neck; what sweet eyes were hers, blue as a heaven full of sunshine!
‘Have you sat much with me, Miss Eve, whilst I have been ill?’
‘Not much; my sister would not suffer me. I am such a fidget that she thought I might irritate you; such a giddypate that I might forget your draughts and compresses. Barbara is one of those people who do all things themselves, and rely on no one else.’
‘I must have given Miss Barbara much trouble. How good she has been!’
‘Oh, Barbara is good to everyone! She can’t help it. Some people are born good-tempered and practical, and others are born pretty and poetical; some to be good needlewomen, others to wear smart clothes.’
‘Tell me, Miss Eve, did anyone come near me when I met with my accident?’
‘Your friend Martin and Barbara brought you here.’
‘And when I was here who had to do with my clothes?’
‘Martin undressed you whilst my sister and I got ready what was necessary for you.’
‘And my clothes—who touched them?’
‘After your friend Martin, only Barbara; she folded them and put them away. Why do you ask?’
Jasper sighed and put his hand to his head. Silence ensued for some time; had not he held his hand to the wound Eve would have supposed he was asleep. Now, all at once, Eve saw the cowslip ball; it was under the table, and with the point of her little foot she could touch it and
roll it to her. So she played with the ball, rolling it with her feet, but so lightly that she made no noise.
All at once he looked round at her. Startled, she kicked the cowslip ball away. He turned his head away again.
About five minutes later she was on tiptoe, stealing across the room to where the ball had rolled. She picked it up and laid it on the pillow near Jasper’s face. He opened his eyes. They had been closed.
‘I thought,’ explained Eve, ‘that the scent of the flowers might do you good. They are somewhat bruised and so smell the stronger.’
He half nodded and closed his eyes again.
Presently she plucked timidly at the sheet. As he paid no attention she plucked again. He looked at her. The bright face, like an opening wild rose, was bending over him.
‘Will it disturb you greatly if I ask you a question?’
He shook his head.
‘Who was that young man whom you called Martin?’
He looked earnestly into her eyes, and the colour mounted under the transparent skin of her throat, cheeks, and brow.
‘Eve,’ he said gravely, ‘have you ever been ill—cut, wounded’—he put out his hand and lightly indicated her heart—’there?’
She shook her pretty head with a smile.
‘Then think and ask no more about Martin. He came to you out of darkness, he went from you into darkness. Put him utterly and for ever out of your thoughts as you value your happiness.’