Hilda : a Story of Calcutta
Copyright© 2011 by Sara Jeannette Duncan
Doctor Livingstone's concern was personal, that was plain in the way he stood looking at the floor of the corridor with his hands in his pockets, before Hilda reached him. Regret was written all over the lines of his pausing figure, with the compressed irritation which saved that feeling, in the Englishman's way, from being too obvious.
"This is a bad business, Miss Howe."
"I've just come over—I haven't heard. Who is it?"
"It's my cousin, poor chap—Arnold, the padre. He's been badly knifed in the bazaar."
The news passed over her and left her looking with a curious face at chance. It was lifted a little, with composed lips, and eyes which refused to be taken by surprise. There was inquiry in them, also a defence, a retreat. Chance looking back saw an invincible silent readiness and a pallor which might be that of any woman. But the doctor was also looking, so she said, "That is very sad," and moved near enough to the wall to put her hand against it. She was not faint, but the wall was a fact on which one could, for the moment, rely.
"They've got the man—one of those Cabuli moneylenders. The police had no trouble with him. He said it was the order of Allah—the brute. Stray case of fanaticism, I suppose. It seems Arnold was walking along as usual, without a notion, and the fellow sprang on him and in two seconds the thing was done. Hadn't a chance, poor beggar."
"Where is it?"
"Root of the left lung. About five inches deep. The artery pretty well cut through, I fancy."
"Oh no—we can't do anything. The hæmorrhage must be tremendous. But he may live through the night. Are you going to Sister Margaret?"
His nod took it for granted and he went on. Hilda walked slowly forward, her head bent, with absorbed, uncertain steps. A bar of evening sunlight came before her, she looked up and stepped outside the open door. She was handling this thing that had happened, taking possession of it. It lay in her mind in the midst of a suddenly stricken and tenderly saddened consciousness. It lay there passively; it did not rise and grapple with her, it was a thing that had happened—in Bura Bazaar. The pity of it assailed her. Tears came into her eyes, and an infinite grieved solicitude gathered about her heart. "So?" she said to herself, thinking that he was young and loved his work, and that now his hand would be stayed from the use it had found. One of the ugly outrages of life, leaving nothing on the mouth but that brief acceptance. It came to her with a note of the profound and of the supreme. "So," she said, and pressed her lips till they stopped trembling, and went into the hospital.
She asked a question or two, in search of Sister Margaret and the new case. It was "located," an assistant surgeon told her, in Private Ward Number 2. She went more and more slowly toward Private Ward Number 2.
The door was open. She stood in it for an instant with eyes nerved to receive the tragedy. The room seemed curiously empty of any such thing. A door opposite was also open, with an arched verandah outside; the low sun streamed through this upon the floor with its usual tranquillity. Beyond the arches, netted to keep the crows away, it made pictures with the tops of the trees. There was the small iron bed with the confused outline under the bedclothes, very quiet, and the Sister—the whitewashed wall rose sharp behind her black draperies—sitting with a book in her hands. Some scraps of lint were on the floor beside the bed and hardly anything else, except the silence, which had almost a presence, and a faint smell of carbolic acid, and a certain feeling of impotence and abandonment and waiting which seemed to be in the air. Arnold moved on the pillow and saw her standing in the door. The bars of the bed's foot were in the way. He tried to lift his head to surmount the obstruction, and the Sister perceived her too.
"I think absolutely still was our order, wasn't it, Mr. Arnold?" she said, with her little pink smile. "And I'm afraid Miss Howe isn't in time to be of much use to us, is she?" It was the bedside pleasantry that expected no reply, that indeed forbade one.
"I'm sorry," Hilda said. As she moved into the room she detached her eyes from Arnold's, feeling as she did so that it was like tearing something.
"There was so little to do," Sister Margaret said. "Surgeon-Major Wills saw at once where the mischief lay. Nothing disagreeable was necessary, was it, Mr. Arnold? Perfect quiet, perfect rest—that's an easy prescription to take." She had rather prominent, very blue eyes, and an aquiline nose and a small firm mouth, and her pink cheeks were beginning to be a little pendulous with age. Hilda gazed at her silently, noting about her authority and her flowing draperies something classical. Was she like one of the Fates? She approached the bed to do something to the pillow—Hilda had an impulse to push her away with the cry, "It is not time yet—Atropos!"
"I must go now for an hour or so," the Sister went on. "That poor creature in Number 6 needs me; they daren't give her any more morphia. You don't need it—happy boy!" she said to Stephen, and at the look he sent her for answer she turned rather quickly to the door. Dear Sister, she was none of the Fates. She was obliged to give directions to Hilda, standing in the door with her back turned. Happily for a deserved reputation for self-command they were few. It was chief and absolute that no one should be admitted. A bulletin had been put up at the hospital door for the information of inquiries; later on, when the doctor came again, there would be another.
She went away and they were left alone. The sun on the floor had vanished; a yellowness stood in its place with a grey background, the background gaining, coming on. Always his eyes were upon her, she had given hers back to him and he seemed satisfied. She moved closer to the bed and stood beside him. Since there was nothing to do there was nothing to say. Stephen put out his hand and touched a fold of her dress.
The room filled itself with something that had not been there before. In obedience to it Hilda knelt down beside the bed and pressed her forehead against the hand upon the covering, the hand that had so little more to do. Then Arnold spoke.
"You dear woman!" he said. "You dear woman!"
She kept her head bowed like that and did not answer. It was his happiest moment. One might say he had lived for this. Her tears fell upon his hand, a kind of baptism for his heart. He spoke again.
"We must bear this," he panted. "It is—less cruel—than it seems. You don't know how much it is for the best."
She lifted her wet face. "You mustn't talk," she faltered.
"What difference—" he did not finish the sentence. His words were too few to waste. He paused and made another effort.
"If this had not happened I would have been—counted—among the unfaithful," he said. "I know now. I would have abandoned—my post. And gladly—without regret—for you."
"Ah!" Hilda cried with a vivid note of pain, "I am sorry! I am sorry!"
She gazed with a face of real tragedy at the form of her captive, delivered to her in the bonds of death. A fresh pang visited her with the thought that in the mystery of the ordering of things she might have had to do with the forging of those shackles.
"My God is a jealous God," Arnold said. "He has delivered me—into His own hands—for the honour of His name. I acknowledge—I am content."
"No, indeed no! It was a wicked, horrible chance! Don't charge your God with it."
His smile was very sweet, but it paid the least possible attention. "You did love me," he said. He spoke as if he were already dead.
"I did indeed," Hilda replied, and bent her shamed head upon her hands again in the confession. It is not strange that he heard only the affirmation in it.
He stroked her hair. "It is good to know that," he said, "very good. I should have married you." He went on with sudden boldness and a new note of strength in his voice. "Think of that! You would have been mine—to protect and work for. We should have gone together to England—where I could easily have got a curacy—easily."
Hilda looked-up. "Would you like to marry me now?" she asked eagerly, but he shook his head. "You don't understand," he said. "It is the dear sin God has turned my back upon."
Then it came to her that he had asked for no caress. He was going unassoiled to his God, with the divine indifference of the dying. Only his imagination looked backward and forward. And she thought, "It is a little light flame that I have lit with my own taper that has gone out, and presently the grave will extinguish that." She sat quiet and sombre in the growing darkness and presently Arnold slept.
He slept through the bringing of a lamp, the arrival of flowers, subdued knocks of inquirers who would not be stayed by the bulletin—the visit of Surgeon-Major Wills, who felt his pulse without wakening him. "Holding out wonderfully," the doctor said. "Don't rouse him for the soup. He'll go out in about six hours without any pain. May not wake at all."
The door opened again to admit the probationer come to relieve Miss Howe. Hilda beckoned her into the corridor. "You can go back," she said; "I will take your turn."
"But the Sister Superior—you know how particular about the rules—"
"Say nothing about it. Go to bed. I am not coming."
"Then, Miss Howe, I shall be obliged to report it."