MoboReader> Literature > Westways

   Chapter 32 No.32

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 19942

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A half hour later John sat alone in the library. He had much to disturb a young man trained to obey and at need command, and was feeling the responsibility of an unusual position. At last he wrote a note to his aunt and sent it up to her by a maid. In a few minutes Ann Penhallow appeared.

"What is it, John? I cannot leave James alone long." She sat down. "Now don't keep me."

"I need not detain you long, but I feel that you ought to know, Aunt Ann, that I have had a talk with Tom McGregor and have sent a telegram to Dr. Askew desiring him to come at once and see my uncle. I ought to hear to-morrow."

She rose to her feet. "You did this, John, without a word to me and knowing that your uncle has over and over said he would not listen to anything of the kind. You have taken a great liberty-I shall telegraph for your doctor not to come. James is always better after these attacks."

Much surprised, he said, "These attacks-has he had them before?"

"Oh, twice-very slight."

"But, aunt, do you not understand how serious this one was?"

"He is better already-much better. There should not be any need to remind you that you are not the head of this house. I shall telegraph at once, in the morning, and stop him."

"It will be too late, aunt."

"Then your doctor may go back. I will not see this doctor if in spite of my telegram he should come. You will understand, John, that this ends it. I certainly will not have James constantly irritated. I shall telegraph now-at once."

"You will do, aunt, as it seems best to you." He saw the telegram written and heard her order to send it to the Westways office.

His aunt, having settled the matter, went upstairs, an angry and indignant woman, leaving in the library a man resolute not to accept defeat.

He wrote a second message: "Disregard Mrs. Penhallow's telegram. Come at once. Fee at discretion. Will meet you at Westways Crossing."

He roused up Josiah and gave his order. "Ride to the mills and get this despatch sent to-night or early to-morrow-oh, to-night, somehow. It is important. Pay some one-only get it sent. Here are five dollars."

He was of no mind to meet either Leila or his aunt, and to escape them breakfasted early next morning, and riding to the mills was pleased to avoid another painful interview. On his return at evening the dinner at Grey Pine was made rather less uncomfortable by the presence of Rivers who talked to Ann Penhallow while the Colonel dozed in his armchair. Accustomed to have her decisions obeyed in her home, Ann Penhallow had now dismissed the question of a consultation as settled, and had quite lightly mentioned to Leila that John had revived the subject and that she had once for all put an end to it.

She was sorry to have had to be so positive, but was pleased to be done with the matter in dispute. She little knew the young soldier. When he was certain that the consultant would come, he began to consider what he would do if his aunt did simply refuse to see Dr. Askew. She might, in fact, be as resolute as her nephew.

In her trouble about her husband's mishap, Ann Penhallow hardly regarded her niece's unpleasant share in the sad ending of the rummage-sale-it was relatively of no moment. Nor would the girl herself have been willing to discuss it. John Penhallow should have held his tongue, and now all Westways must be laughing-and she would never-never-forgive him. Evidently her aunt had scolded him about that consultation. She had a little curiosity to know how he had taken it and how he looked when he came to match the will of his young manhood against the unreasonable obstinacy of the woman he had been taught to obey. She observed next day at breakfast that John was more than usually gay, as he asked if there were any errands. There were none. He loitered about waiting and at last went out to the back porch where he stood a minute looking over the box hedge which bounded the garden. Leila was busy taking tribute from the first roses of the summer days. As she bent over, she let them fall one by one into the basket at her feet. Now and then she drew up her tall figure, and seemed to John as she paused to be deep in thought. When she became aware of his approach, she fell again to harvesting roses.

He said, "Leila, before I go to the mills, I want to talk with you about what is troubling me. In fact-"

Without looking up she broke into his attempt to explain himself, "I am in no mood to discuss anything, John Penhallow."

He was frankly puzzled. Of the many Leilas, this was a new acquaintance, but he said quietly, "It is necessary to make a statement-I want first to explain."

She refreshed her rising anger with words. "I do not want any explanation-there are things no woman can pardon. I was insulted."

"My dear Leila, upon my honour I do not know what you mean."

She was near to saying, "I am not yours, or dear." Something in the look of the attentive face and the calmness of his manner put her on guard, and she said only, "That is, I presume, because you are not a woman."

He said, "I do not regret that, but you clearly are thinking of one thing and I of another. It must be the rummage-sale. I have no desire to discuss that sorrowful business, Miss Grey. You have quite misapprehended me. It is of Uncle Jim I want to talk-in fact, to ask advice."

"I did not understand," she said, flushing a little. His formal manner was very unpleasant, and to be called Miss Grey was ridiculous. If he had shown anger or even annoyance it would have eased the situation. He went on to explain himself, rather aware of her embarrassment and not altogether sorry for her mishap.

"I said I want help-advice. I have sent for Prof. Askew. Aunt Ann has telegraphed him not to come. I wired him to disregard her message. He has answered me that he will be here at the house, if the train is on time, about six to-day. It is our last hope, but it is a hope. Aunt Ann must see this gentleman-I say she must. Now, how can it be managed?"

Leila let fall a handful of roses into the basket and faced him. "Take time," he said. "I do really need help-how can I make Aunt Ann see this famous surgeon? Take time," he repeated.

Here was for Leila a rather astonishing revelation of resolute aggressive manhood-a new John Penhallow. Relieved to have been taken out of her angry mood, she stood still a moment while he waited on her counsel. "There is but one way," she said, "it is the only way. I do not like it-whether you will be willing to accept it, I do not know."

"And still you advise it?"

"I do not."

"Well, what is it?"

"At about six every afternoon, when Uncle Jim is asleep, Aunt Ann is almost certain to be in her little library-room. Take Dr. Askew in, present him, and walk out. She will hate it, but she is sure to be what she is always to a guest. He will have his chance."

"Thank you, Miss Grey."-How she hated that!-"You have helped me." He touched his army cap in salute and left her alone. At the garden gate he looked back-Miss Grey was also looking back, and vexed at being thus caught bent down again and cut buds and roses with sharp nips of the scissors.

It was not in the nature or breeding of John Penhallow to like Leila's plan for securing to the surgeon a chance to impose on a reluctant woman a clearly stated opinion which otherwise she might have the courage to disregard. But what else could he do? A little after six he met the carriage far down the avenue and walked slowly to the house with the younger McGregor and the surgeon.

"You are most welcome," said John. "Dr. McGregor has, I trust, told you of our difficulties with my aunt?"

Askew smiled. "Yes; it is no uncommon case. I may add that Dr. McGregor's letters have satisfied me that an immediate operation offers the only and too long delayed chance of success. I must, of course, see Mrs. Penhallow-the sooner the better."

"Yes-pray follow me." He led the way across the hall, opened the library door, and said to the astonished lady, "Prof. Askew, Aunt Ann." Then he went out.

Well aware of being trapped, Mrs. Penhallow stood up and apparently at perfect ease said, "You must have had a very tiresome journey."

"Not very," he returned, as he accepted a seat.

Then the little lady sat up and said, "You must pardon me if I say that this consultation has been brought about by my nephew against my husband's wishes."

"And your own?"

"Yes, my own."

"I so understand it. May I say in my defence that I missed your telegram and only saw it when it was sent after me on the train, but now I am here." She had not the courage to say what she would have liked to say, and he went on. "General Hancock saw me a day or two back. What he said of your husband gave me at once a personal interest in him. Isn't it odd how one is brought to realize what a small place our world is? I was at Port Delaware before the war ended and saw there-I was on inspection duty-a Confederate Colonel, Henry Grey-a prisoner. Is he not a relation of the handsome Miss Grey we met on the avenue?"

"My niece. He is my brother."

"Indeed! I gave some advice about his wound-it was not serious. May I talk to you a little about your husband?"

She felt herself cornered, and could not escape without discourtesy, of which she was quite incapable; "Or," he added, "may I not rather talk first to Colonel Penhallow, and later to you? It is, I take it, his view of this very grave matter which naturally influences you."

For the briefest of moments she made no reply. Then she stood up and felt the force conveyed in the personality of George Askew, as he towered over her, a man of unusual height. She looked up at the large kind face the long sad wards knew so well. The lines of thought were deeply graven below a broad forehead thinly crowned with yellow hair now fast greying. He showed no sign of impatience. "Yes," she said, "that will be better-you mu

st see Mr. Penhallow before you talk to me. If he consents to do what you want to do-I-Well, Dr. Askew, I am just now too angry to reason. Have the kindness to follow me."

She was unwilling to give her husband any more choice than John Penhallow had given her. If the Colonel became irritable and declined to accept the visit of this impressive personage as a surgeon, well, that must of course end the matter. But as he went upstairs behind her, there arose in her mind a storm-battered hope.

The surgeon was smiling and so far pleased. He was greatly interested in the case he was about to see. It had excited some discussion as unusual, and the unusual in surgery or medicine has many times been the guide to broad highways of usefulness where the daring of the one has made easy the way for the many. Now he meant to win the confidence of the man, if he proved sane enough to reason. He might also have to make more complete his conquest of this coldly civil hostess. It was for him an old game, and he played it with tact and skill.

She paused at the door. "Pray wait a moment, Doctor. No-he has wakened,

I hear him." He stopped her.

"Before we see the Colonel-before I see him-I want you to be heartily in accord with any decision we may reach. There are but two courses which seem to me possible, and I do want you to feel sure that either you will have to watch a mind crumble hopelessly or, if we succeed, see one of those amazing recoveries which are like the dawning of day. I say this most earnestly, because your hearty help may be wanted. If he says no to our decision, his fate may really rest with your will to stand by me."

This was pretty hard, and no time was given for discussion. She looked up at the kind pleading face, and while feeling that she must yield, hesitated-so distinctly hesitated that the surgeon's brow became severely grave as the furrows between the eyes deepened in growing wonder. He took her hand as if to get into some personal touch with a woman whose opposition he could not understand. "You will help me? In this man's condition a word may win or lose a game in which the stake is a life-oh, that is little-or the restoration of a noble, useful mind. I know you will help me."

She looked down, and said faintly, "Yes."

"Thank you." He smiled-"Bless me! what a little hand," he said, as he let it fall.

She opened the door and as he followed her, stepped aside, saying bravely, "Here is a friend, James. You will like to see Dr. Askew."

He took the chair she set at the bedside, while the Colonel regarded him suspiciously, saying, "I think I heard of you after Gettysburg."

"Yes, I took care of General Hancock. A lot of us went down to help. Curious case his-a ball hit the pommel of his saddle and drove a nail into his leg."

"Yes, I heard of it. It was thought they were firing nails-queer that!"

Askew seized on the moment of illumined intelligence, wondering what dull surgeon had set in this man's mind an obsession which forbade all other opinion. "Hancock will suffer long-but now, about you-did no one think you could be relieved by an operation? Take your time to answer me."

Penhallow, groping in the confusion of remote memories, returned, "I seem to recall-yes-it was talked of-"

"But not done? Some one is responsible for these years of pain. You do suffer?"

"Oh, my God! yes. I try to bear it." His eyes filled. "Is it too late?"

"No," said Askew, "it is not." What doubt he had he put aside.

"Then we will see to-morrow."

"An operation!" said Ann, alarmed. A look conquered her. "You will do,

James, whatever Dr. Askew wishes?"

"I will-but don't make me talk any more, Ann-my head aches."

Askew rose. "Please to send up the Drs. McGregor. May I make use of another room?"

"Yes, of course."

Ann Penhallow found Dr. Tom and his father on the porch with Leila and John. She said, "Take the doctors up to my own room, Leila, and I want to talk with John-there are some arrangements to make."

Leila, guiltily conscious of her share in securing the surgeon's interview with her aunt, was glad to accept the hint and the chance to escape.

Ann sat down beside John, and said, "John, why did you trick me into a talk with Dr. Askew?"

"Because, aunt, you said you would not see him-and it was necessary."

"You took me too literally."

"I took you at your word-something had to be done. If it fails, we are no worse off."

"But it may fail-oh! what if it does, John."

"Aunt Ann, I am in despair. Listen to me; no, I must talk it out. The agreement with uncle's old partners ended with the war. Things at the mills are in confusion-what is to be done? I asked Uncle Jim to give me a power of attorney to act for him. He refused. You supported him. Delay is ruinous, and yet we can do nothing. You are vexed with me-Yes-you have not given me my morning kiss for days. Leila is unreasonably angry with me because that dreadful night I did the only thing possible in my power to stop my uncle. I am most unhappy. I sometimes think I had better go away and look for work as an engineer, and-you did love me once." He rose and walked up and down the porch silent; he had emptied mind and heart. Then he paused before her. She was crying, as she said, "Don't reproach me, John-I can't bear it-I have had to bear too much to-day-and you were so naughty." He leaned over and kissed her forehead. "John," she said, "there is to be an operation to-morrow. It is terrible. May the good God be kind to him and us. Now go away-I want to be alone. See that Dr. Askew is well cared for."

"Certainly, Aunt Ann." He had won his battle.

At dinner the doctor was at pains to dispel the gloom which, as he well knew, falls on those who love when one of the critical hours of life approaches. When they left the table he went into the library with the doctors and John, where they smoked many pipes and talked war.

At breakfast next day Askew's account of his early morning drew a smile even from Ann Penhallow. "Sleep! Yes, I suppose I slept. There was a blank of some hours. I am apt to waken early. At dawn there was a bright red-eyed sky, then it clouded as if the eyes had shut. A little later Miss Grey rode away on a chestnut horse. I walked through your garden and an unseen lady gave me this rose-bud. I had a joyful swim. As I came back I saw Captain Penhallow ride away-and why not with you, Miss Grey? You may perceive that I am a dangerous man to entertain. If you do not prefer better society, may I ask to ride with you to-morrow?"

"What better society?" asked Leila.

"Oh, Miss Grey, alone-by herself."

The two young people understood the charitable gaiety of his talk, but although one of them at least was feeling a sudden access of relief the quick jesting chat and laughter became distressing to Ann Penhallow. At last she rose and excused herself, saying, "Another cup? My niece will give it to you."

"One moment," he returned-his face became grave. "I shall operate early this morning. You must go out-of-doors-the porch-I suggest the porch. I shall send down Dr. McGregor to tell you frankly the result of my operation. I want Captain Penhallow, and with him and the two McGregors we shall care for my patient. I hope the doctors will let you see the Colonel in a week. I shall trespass on your hospitality for two days more."

"I could wish it were a week. I shall do precisely what you desire."

John Penhallow caught some signal of amused surprise in Leila's looks. He checked his own smile of partnership in mirth at Ann Penhallow's sudden subjugation, feeling that with Leila the intimacies of mirth were at an end.

Ann took her knitting and went out upon the back porch. "How many rows can I knit until I hear? No, Leila-I want to be alone. Here is a note from Mr. Rivers. The Bishop met him at Harrisburg and carried him off to Philadelphia. I hope there is no scheme to take him away. Now go, dear." She heard the voices of the McGregors as they went upstairs. She sat alone and waited.

Among the friends who know me only through my summer-born books, there must be many who can recall such hours of suspense as Ann Penhallow endured. The clock in the hall struck ten. A little later her keen sense made her aware of the faint odour of ether from the open windows on the second floor. She let fall her work, went down the garden path, and walked with quick steps among the firstlings of June. Then came Tom McGregor swiftly, and in his smiling face she read good news.

"It is all right," he said; "it is over. There was a fracture of the fragile inner layer of the bone-a piece was pressing on the brain-it was easily removed. The doctor is very much pleased. Oh, my dear Mrs. Penhallow, there are better days ahead for you and him. Now, I must go back."

"Thank God!" she said, "and-and you-and-John. God forgive me, I have been a fool!"

The next two days went by without incident. Askew rode, walked, and had no news for her except, "He is doing well." He would say no more. What hours of doubt, of watchful fear, he had, she never knew. On the morning of the third day, while the carriage waited to carry him away, Mrs. Penhallow led him into her library.

"Now," she said, with her cheque-book open before her, "we owe you a debt none can pay, but let me offer you my most humble apologies for my behaviour when you came."

"Please, don't," he returned.

"But I had to. And now, let me know what is our lesser and more material debt?"

He rose, smiling. "It has been my happy, unbroken rule to take nothing from any soldier who served in this sad war-oh! on either side. I have made, I hope, some friends. The Colonel asked to-day about a horse Dixy-I think-and when could he ride. You may imagine my pleasure. He will get well, but you must be patient. I leave him in competent hands, and in the fall I mean to come back and shoot your woodcocks. Good-bye." He was gone.

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