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   Chapter 14 No.14

Tales of the Five Towns By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9555

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


'And them just off their honeymoon!'

The inconsolable tones of the lady's-maid came from the kitchen to the open door of the bedroom, where May was giving instructions to the elderly cook.

'Send that girl out of the flat this moment!' May said.

'Yes, ma'am.'

'Make the beef-tea in case it's wanted, and let me have some more warm water. There's John and the doctor!'

She started at a knock.

'No, it's only the postman, ma'am.'

Some letters danced on the hall floor and on her nerves.

'Oh dear!' May whispered. 'I thought it was the doctor at last.'

'John's bound to be back with one in a minute, ma'am. Do bear up,' urged the cook, hurrying to the kitchen.

She could have destroyed the woman for those last words.

With the proud certainty of being equal to the dreadful crisis, she turned abruptly into the bedroom, where her husband lay insensible on one of the new beds. Assisted by the policemen and the cook, she had done everything that could be done: cut away the coats and the waistcoat, removed the boots, straightened the limbs, washed the face and neck-especially the neck-which had to be sponged continually, and scattered messengers, including John, over the vicinity in search of medical aid. And now the policemen had gone, the general emotion on the staircase had subsided, the front-door of the flat was shut. The great ocean of the life of the mansions had closed smoothly upon her little episode. She was alone with the shattered organism.

She bent fondly over the bed, and her Paris frock, and the black scarf which she had not removed, touched its ruinous burden. Her right hand directed the sponge with ineffable tenderness, and then the long thin fingers tightened to a frenzied clutch to squeeze it over the basin. The whole of her being was absorbed in a deep passion of pity and an intolerable hunger for the doctor.

Through the wall came once more the faint sound of the Hungarian Rhapsody, astonishingly rapid and brilliant. She set her teeth to endure its unconscious message of the vast indifference of life to death.

The organism stirred, and May watched the deathly face for a sign. The eyes opened and stared at her in agonized bewilderment. The lips tried to speak, and failed.

'It's all right, darling,' she said softly. 'You're in your own bed. The doctor will be here directly. Drink this.'

She gave him some brandy-and-water, and they looked at each other. He was no longer Edward Norris, the finely regulated intelligence, the masterful volition, the conqueror of the world and of a woman; but merely the embodiment of a frightened, despairing, flickering, hysterical will-to-live, which glanced in terror at the corners of the room as though it saw fate there. And beneath her intense solicitude was the instinctive feeling, which hurt her, but which she could not dismiss, of her measureless, dominating superiority. With what glad relief would she have changed places with him!

'I'm dying, May,' he murmured at length, with a sigh. 'Why doesn't the doctor come?'

'He is coming,' she replied soothingly. 'You'll be better soon.'

But his effort in speaking obliged her to use the sponge again, and he saw it, and drew another sigh, more mortal than the first.

'Oh! I'm dying,' he repeated.

'Not you, Ted!' And her smile cost her an awful pang.

'I am. I know it.' This time he spoke with sad resignation. 'You must face it. And-listen.'

'What, dear?'

A physical sensation of sickness came over her. She could not disguise from herself the fact that he was dying. The warped and pallid face, the panic-struck eyes, the sweat, the wound in the neck, the damp hands nervously pulling the hem of the sheet-these indications were not to be gainsaid. The truth was too horrible to grasp; she wanted to put it away from her. 'This calamity cannot happen to me!' she thought urgently, and all the while she knew that it was happening to her.

He collected the feeble remnant of his powers by an immense effort, and began to speak, slowly and fragmentarily, and with such weakness that she could only catch his words by putting her ear to his mouth. The restless hands dropped the sheet and took the end of the black scarf.

'You'll be comfortable-for money,' he said. 'Will made.... It's not that. It's ... I must tell you. It's--'

'Yes?' she encouraged him. 'Tell me. I can hear.'

'It's about your father. I didn't treat him quite right ... once.... Week after I first met you, May.... No, not quite right. He was holding Hull and Barnsley shares ... you know, railway ... great gambling stock, then, Hull and Barn-Barnsley. Holding them on cover; for the rise.... They dropped too much-dropped to 23.... He couldn't hold any longer ... wired to me to sell and cut

the loss. Understand?'

'Yes,' she said, trembling. 'I quite understand.'

'Well ... I wired back, "Sold at 23." ... But some mistake. Shares not sold. Clerk's mistake.... Clerk didn't sell.... Next day rise began.... I didn't wire him shares not sold. Somehow, I couldn't.... Put it off.... Rise went on.... I took over shares myself ... you see-myself.... Made nearly five thousand clear.... I wanted money then.... I think I would have told him, perhaps, later ... made it right ... but he died ... sudden ... I wasn't going to let his creditors have that five thou.... No, he'd meant to sell ... and, look here, May, if those shares had dropped lower ... 'stead of rising ... I should have had to stand the racket ... with your father, for my clerk's mistake.... See?... He'd meant to sell.... Hard lines on him, but he'd meant to sell.... He'd meant--'

'Don't say any more, dear.'

'Must explain this, May. Why didn't I give the money to you ... when he was dead?... Because I knew you'd only ... give it ... to creditors.... I knew you.... That's straight.... I've told you now.'

He lost consciousness again, but for an instant May did not notice it. She was crying, and her tears fell on his face.

Then came a doctor, a little dark man, who explained with calm politeness that he had been out when the messenger first arrived. He took off his coat, hung it up, opened his bag, and proceeded to a minute examination of the patient. His movements were so methodical, and he gave orders to May in a tone so quiet, casual, and ordinary, that she almost lost her sense of the reality of the scene.

'Yes, yes,' he said, from time to time, as if to himself; nothing else; not a single enlightening word to May.

'I'm dying,' moaned Edward, opening his eyes.

The doctor glanced round at May and winked. That wink, deliberate and humorous, was like an electric shock to her. She could actually feel her heart leap in her breast. If she had not been afraid of the doctor, she would have fainted.

'You all think you're dying,' the doctor remarked in a low, amused tone to the ceiling, as he wiped a pair of scissors, 'when you've been knocked silly, especially if there's a lot of blood about.'

The door opened.

'Here's John, ma'am,' said the cook, 'with two more doctors. What am I to do?'

May involuntarily turned towards the door.

'Don't you go, Mrs. Norris,' the little dark man commanded. 'I want you.' Then he carelessly scrutinized the elderly servant. 'Tell 'em they're too late,' he said. 'It's generally like that when there's an accident,' he continued after the housekeeper had gone. 'First you can't get a doctor anywhere, and then in half an hour or so we come in crowds. I've known seven doctors turn up one after another. But in that affair the man happened to have been killed outright.'

He smiled grimly. In a little while he was snapping his bag.

'I'll come in the morning, of course,' he said, as he wrote on a piece of paper. 'Have this made up, and give it him in the night if he is wakeful. Keep him warm. You might put a couple of hot-water bags, one on either side of him. You've got beef-tea made, you say? That's right. Let him have as much as he wants. Mr. Norris, you'll sleep like a top.'

'But, doctor,' May inquired the next morning in the hall, after Edward had smiled at a joke, and been informed that he must run down to Bournemouth in a week, 'have we nothing to fear?'

'I think not,' was the measured answer. 'These affairs nearly always seem much worse than they are. Of course, the immediate upset is tremendous-the disorganization, and all that sort of thing. But Nature's pretty wonderful. You'll find your husband will soon get over it. I should say he had a good constitution.'

'And there will be no permanent effects?'

'Yes,' said the doctor, with genial cynicism. 'There'll be one permanent effect. Nobody will ever persuade him to ride in a hansom again. If he can't find a four-wheeler, he'll walk in future.'

She returned to the bedroom. The man on the bed was Edward Norris once more, in control of himself, risen out of his humiliation. A feeling of thankfulness overwhelmed her for a moment, and she sat down.

'Well, May?' he murmured.

'Well, dear.'

They both realized that what they had been through was a common, daily street accident. The smile of each was self-conscious, apprehensive, insincere.

'Quite a concert going on next door,' he said with an affectation of lightness.

It was the Hungarian Rhapsody, impetuous and brilliant as ever. How she hated it now-this symbol of the hurried, unheeding, relentless, hollow gaiety of the world! Yet she longed for the magic fingers of the player, that she, too, might smother grief in such glittering veils!

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