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  ― 297 ―

Vesper

THE fringed blinds flap gently in the evening breeze, which steals through the aperture of the raised window. Fearful that the sound, though it is as soft as the murmur passing through lovers’ lips to lure their lovers, may disturb the patient, the snowy-capped nurse moves to fasten the drapery. She touches it lightly and the blind, being but lately hung on its window, answers to the spring, and flies with a rustle, to coil itself around its roller. Vexed with herself, for what she considers her carelessness, the nurse, while reaching her hand to the tassel to pull down the blind once more, turns her eyes towards the bed, to see if the sick man has been awakened. He needs sleep so much; sleep, if he is to be saved from death, will be his salvation; and—ah, the noise has awakened him. He makes with his head that half-turn on his pillow which is all the movement his strength—his weakness, rather—


  ― 298 ―
will permit. And his eyes stare pitifully from the sockets into whose hollowness melt a thousand fine wrinkles, each one the impress of a separate pang. Six weeks before, those wrinkles had no place on the full, rounded cheeks, that curved only in laughter or in smiles. And now the contour has subsided into sharp angularities, and the flesh has been burnt away underneath the skin, which hangs so loosely on the bones. Six weeks ago, he was a man for whom women might hunger,—and now? So gaunt and hideous a thing is he, that he dreads, in his occasional lapses into consciousness, that he is repellent even to the “Sister” of the ward. But the good nurse sees only the patient, not the man. There is no sex in sickness.

“Nurse!” The lips shape, though they cannot be said to utter, the syllable.

She pulls the blind to the sill and hastens to his side, stooping over him to hear his words. He moves his head again in a fashion that would be deemed to be petulant were he in health, and makes her understand that he wishes the blind to remain up, not down. She returns to the window and eases the cord, so that the tassel presses noiselessly against, and rebounds from the upper frame. And she steps aside, so that he shall gaze


  ― 299 ―
out into the realm of the falling night. She would raise him on his pillow, but she dare not. So near is he to the verge, the movement might push him over.

The distressed brain that is as yet not fully certain that the thing it sees is of this nether world, and not an appanage of some other sphere, strives valiantly to settle the doubt by endeavouring to identify the mountain peak that thrusts itself sombrely into the gold of the western sky. But the forehead puckers yet more numerously as the name eludes the weakened memory, and the lips seek an utterance which will not come.

Then the glory of the sun-setting passes suddenly, and the ruddiness and the gold, and the streaks of amethyst, and the puff-balls of fleecy cloudlets that seem to have wandered from

The place where white dreams dwell
 And wreathe an unseen shrine,

lose their splendour in a moment, for over their magnificence drops a purple shadow. It is as though some artist, of a genius so lofty as to make him worthy to emblazon the walls of heaven itself, had wrought a work too marvellous for human sight to bear, and in sudden contempt for the poor mortal intelligence, drapes his great achievement


  ― 300 ―
with a velvet pall. As the light goes out of the sky, and the black peak merges its outline in the mass of purple, a chill enters the room. The nurse feels it, and instantly, fearing for her patient, lowers the under-sash, which had been raised.

The top frame of the sash had stretched a black bar across the upper pane. The window lowered, the bar disappears, and—

A sorrowing cry, which was not all sorrow, but held a note of joy, like that which rings a cadence through a new mother's agony, startles the house.

“Vesper! O Vesper! My darling—come!”

He had risen in his bed and held out his arms towards the west. There, gleaming lucidly above the points of deepest darkness, which marked the mountain peak, shone the evening star. Virginal in the beauty which bore witness to the death of the day. She flashed into the room and carried him thence.

The door of the ward is opened carefully. It is the night-nurse come to relieve the day one. But the latter will not go. He had called her mercenary, had the man who now lay dead, when


  ― 301 ―
the fever had begun to work fiercely upon him. “Begone!” he had exclaimed, “I will have no mercenary hands to touch me—give me those sanctified by love or none at all!” And then in the next breath he would tell her that he was but a wastrel, and his people had cast him off, and it had come to this, that in the battle for life he should have no ally but the hired nurse. Mercenary, in that she rendered the offices of tenderness for money, she was; but not otherwise. Else she had not given her hard-won evening leisure to preparing him for his coffin.

“If you do not mind, nurse,” said the “day-duty” to the “night-relief,” “I will lay him out.” And the “night-relief” was but too willing, for the final service to the dead clay was repugnant to her.

“Have you reported the death?” she asks.

“No—not yet!” replies the other. “Will you do it for me?”

The “night-relief” takes the patient's card from the mantel (it is a private ward, therefore the card is not suspended from the head of the bed), and passes to the door to inform the matron and the doctor. The matron, however, meets her in the corridor. She carries a paper in her hand.

“How is private ward's temperature to-night?


  ― 302 ―
I have a telegram for him, but do not think I shall give it to him.”

“A telegram—oh! He's gone!”

“Ah! Poor girl!” and the matron hurries to the room.

A candle has been lit and the flame flickers in the draught of her entrance. A beam falls aslant on his face, and as the cheeks are already witnessing that resurrection of colour which so often lights the pyre of death with the fire of youth, the three women fancy, for the moment, he is not dead but sleeping, and smiling in his sleep. For the moment only.

Then the matron reads out to the nurses, who had seen many deaths, but were touched by this one peculiarly because of the life that was now speeding on its way to the chamber, the telegram—

“Arrived, beloved. Fast as love can bring me, I come—VESPER.”

And when the day-nurse had clad him in his cere-clothes, she places between the crossed palms the bit of official paper. And the regulations of the institution are violated, for the hospital morgue will not receive its tenant this night. And the night-nurses steal out into the midnight, and


  ― 303 ―
strip the marguerite bushes of their snow-stars, and weave in the still hours a tiny cross and a great wreath. And Vesper comes, with the dawn, with the dust of long travel upon her garments, but in her eyes the quenchless light of a fathomless love. Quenchless! But dimmed then, and while life endures.

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