NOT DEATH, BUT LIFE
It was the dull and sullen daybreak of a snowy March morning more than a year after Ione's marriage. She had lain long awake leaning upon her elbow, looking down through the chill grey dawn of a London morning at her sleeping husband. Sobs, half suppressed, convulsed her frame.
"Oh, my lad! my lad!" she whispered over and over to herself. " How will you bear it?"
Keith Harford slumbered peacefully, with a happy smile on his lips, his dark hair falling across his brow.
"I can't tell him! I can't! I can't! At least, I will let him sleep a little while first. There is no use going to the doctor so early. Besides, he must have worked very late last night to have finished all that copy."
And, slipping into her dressing-gown, with the quick expert method of the private secretary she arranged the tumbled pile of manuscript, which lay about the floor as it had dropped, sheet by sheet, from her husband's hands. She went on to correct slips in spelling, and to insert synonyms in place of duplicated verbs and adjectives. She examined the tops and bottoms of the pages for connecting words. And when at last she had got the whole to her mind, she ran a brass clip through the left-hand top corner before finally numbering the sheets and putting them into one of the long blue envelopes used by the literary contributors of all self-respecting magazines.
Then, after a long look at the sleeping man, she stole on tiptoe to the bedside and kissed his forehead softly. Keith stirred, moaned a little contentedly, half opened his eyes, murmured "Ione," and then went back to sleep again like a child.
The tears stole warm and soft down the girl's cheek as she looked at her husband, but she had stilled her sobbing at the first unconscious movement.
"It will be very hard for him," she said, low to herself. "It will almost kill my lad, if it is to be as the doctor said. Dear Keith, at least I have guided him through the worst, past the Slough of Despond. He has made his reputation, and even jealousy cannot take that away from him now. His position is secured. And I — well, I think he will not forget me. He will go on loving me, his wife, to the end.
"He is not the man to love twice. And besides — why should I mourn? Have I not lived through such a year of perfect happiness as no woman ever had. Gladly and proudly would I barter my life for it, were it all to do over again! We have known love and poverty and the beginning of success together, he and I. It is not given to men and women to be happier than that. And no one helped him in his trouble, but I alone. Is not that enough?"
With a glance at the clock she bent to awake the sleeper, but again refrained, retracting her hand after it had touched his shoulder.
"My bairn," she murmured very pityingly, "you can walk alone now. And though you will miss me — sorely, sadly, in dreary days and lonely nights, I think you will not be quite broken down. The memory of our love will uphold you!"
Keith turned on the pillow and murmured some lightest tendernesses, smiling as he did so. Hearing his voice Ione stole farther away and drew the curtains closer. Noiselessly she placed a tea-making apparatus, a box of matches, a plate of bread and butter, fresh cut and covered with a napkin, all on a little round table by his bedside. Then, sitting down at his desk, she scribbled a hasty note.
''Dearest" (she wrote) "I am going out for an hour, and you were sleeping so soundly that I had not the heart to disturb you after your hard work. Be sure you make your tea when you wake. The bread is under the cloth to keep it moist. I have corrected the copy and shall post it on m y way to Town. So that is all right. I kissed you before I went. — IONE."
Then by the bedside the young girl kneeled down for full five minutes with her brow against the pillow, and the tired man's regular breathing faintly stirred her hair.
After that she stole out on tiptoe, closing the door behind her.
She took her way to Brook Street, where she had made a second appointment with Sir Everard Torrance. In a little while her allotted span of fifteen months would be ended, and though it was hard to part with life just when it had grown so dear, yet she felt that in a measure she had made a bargain at barter or exchange with God. She had accepted a year of happiness for herself, crowned with success for her beloved — in exchange for her life. And Ione was far too brave a girl to draw back from suffering, or even death.
Yet she could not convince herself that she felt conspicuously worse. Indeed, some of the old dizzy symptoms came to her far less frequently, and though she tired more easily, it seemed strange and impossible that she should be going about under sentence of death, when she was looking only a little paler than the crowd of healthy people about her. Indeed, the ivory transparent pallor of her skin of a year ago had disappeared and left only a clear and living brown in its place, so that her husband often called her his Nut-Brown Maid — and she named herself "Massa Keith's Niggah Lady."
In the great formal house in Brook Street, Sir Everard was waiting to receive her. Ione had never visited him in the interval, and had contented herself with taking the arsenic which he had prescribed at less and less frequent intervals, for there had grown up within her a firm conviction of the uselessness of medicine. So it was no wonder that the busy, harassed physician did not recognise the daughter of his old friend Governor March, under the unknown style and title of Mrs. Keith Harford. For she had sent up one of her husband's cards with only the addition of an "s" added in manuscript.
But when Sir Everard recognised her he came forward with a grave face and looked into her eyes.
"My poor girl," he said, "why did you never come back to see me?"
"Because I did not wish to trouble you when I knew you could do nothing for me!"
"You are married?" he said, touching the card and looking fixedly at her.
"I was married three or four days after I saw you!" she answered.
"And you told your husband what I told you?"
Ione shook her head, smiling a strange pale smile, which left her eyes dead and sorrowful.
"Not even this morning when I was coming back to see you. I have had my year of joy. I have done my appointed work. And now — now — well, there remains no more than just to say, 'Goodnight.'"
But in the meantime Sir Everard had been attentively observing Ione's complexion, the red that went and came through the clear brown of her cheek. Gently he turned her face about, and examined the white of her eye in the pale winter sunlight. As he looked he seemed to grow more and more astonished.
"The colour is natural — the adipose tissue healthy!" he murmured, as after a pause for examination, he settled once more the tell-tale speck of liquid red under his microscope. Ione watched him a little languidly, waiting quietly for the form to be over. The sentence had long been pronounced. She had acquiesced in her fate, and now she was ready. After five minutes the Doctor rose from his observing stool by the window. He appeared to be labouring under great excitement. He paced the room with his hands behind him, muttering to himself.
"What if my diagnosis were wrong? What if it were not 'Pernicious Anӕmia' after all? Yet I was never wrong in my judgment of a case before. Pray God, I may be this time!"
He faced his patient again, almost fiercely.
"Take off your jacket!" he commanded abruptly; "I must go thoroughly into this!"
* * * * *
The smooth professional hand of Sir Everard Torrance trembled and his eyes were suffused with joy, as, this time of his own accord, he helped Ione on with her coat. And as he pushed home the last rebellious shoulder flounce, he bent quickly and kissed her on the brow.
"My dear," he said, "I am an old man. I have seen much sorrow in this world, and some joy. But I never was happier in fifty years of practice than I am to tell you to-day that Love has conquered Science — yes, beaten it clean off the field. At the end of the span of time which I, in my ignorance, set for you, you may confidently look not for Death — but for Life — for the sacred mystery of another new Life to be born into the world!"
* * * * *
When Ione came in, her husband rose to greet her from the table at which he had been writing. But Keith Harford stood transfixed as Ione appeared in the doorway, fairly transfigured by the sudden mighty joy within her soul. Her eyes were misty and glorious, shining by their own inner light. Her lips were red and parted. Her bosom heaved, and her whole slight figure seemed suddenly to have grown fuller, riper, more womanly. And, indeed, this might well be, for the yearlong dread had been removed, and she who had been under sentence of death, was now beating from head to heel with the passionate pulse of a new and more perfect Womanhood.
"What has happened, Ione? What have you been doing?" said Keith, speaking anxiously and tenderly, as he flung down his pen and came quickly towards her.
She spread out her arms gropingly as if she could not see him clearly, for indeed his image seemed to waver before her. He caught her just in time to keep her from falling.
"My husband, my husband," she sobbed, through burning tears, "I went out to bring you back sorrow and Death. And instead I have brought you back Life and Joy! — Yes — and God's own promise to men and women who love one another!"
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.