The Captain's face was so grave, that instinctively the passengers exchanged anxious glances. He had given out that he had something to say to them, and they had assembled in the large saloon in full force.
When he came amongst them the look on his face was different from anything they had seen before. The cheery expression was replaced by one of clouded anxiety; and the infection of it spread quickly amongst the group in the saloon.
It was not a very large number of passengers that this steamer carried. This was before the day of pleasure trips to and from India. Those who went to that land or returned from it, only did so when necessity compelled them. The voyage was not the speedy matter it has now become, and there were far more hindrances and hardships than since the days of the Suez Canal. Still there was a fair gathering to hear what the Captain wanted of them, and it was plain that the matter in his mind was a grave one.
"Oh, Captain, is there danger?" asked a lady, cowering upon one of the fixed seats, and holding a little boy clasped in her arms.
The keen blue eyes of the Captain turned upon her for a moment, and glanced away to the circle of strained eyes fixed upon him; he seemed to understand what it was that all these people were thinking, and hastened to reassure them.
"Danger? Nonsense! What put that into your head? The ship is right enough—nothing wrong there. It is quite a different matter from anything you are thinking of."
There was a distinct look of relief in the faces turned towards him, and yet the expression of care upon the Captain's did not sensibly lighten.
"I have in the first place one unwelcome piece of information to give you," he said, "although I do not think that any of you need apprehend personal danger or inconvenience. Perhaps some of you remember the delicate-looking lady who was brought on board by her husband at Bombay, and whom you have none of you seen since?"
"Young Mrs. Varden?" queried a passenger who had just known the name of the lady before starting. "I asked the stewardess about her once, and heard that she was prostrated by sea-sickness. Some people never get over it all the voyage."
"Exactly; and that is what, until a couple of days back, we believed about her. She was always ill and ailing, quite unfit to sit up or leave her berth; but though the doctor saw her every day, he suspected nothing till a couple of days back,—when the stewardess, who was taking care of her, and luckily looked after nobody else, the ship not being very full, was taken with a sudden attack like convulsions, and died within two hours. That aroused his suspicions. He made a careful examination of Mrs. Varden's condition, and his suspicions were strongly aroused. On the following morning there would have been no room for doubt in any case. The small-pox erruption was out all over her. To-day she is almost black with it."
There was a shudder of horror through the assembled passengers. The thought that the ship was infected by that terrible disease was fearful indeed. The Captain spoke on doing his best to reassure them.
"Fortunately the lady has been kept very carefully isolated. She was so delicate when her husband brought her on board, that everything was done to ensure perfect quiet for her. She has occupied one of a little nest of cabins, all the rest of which were empty. The husband bespoke the sole attendance of one of the two stewardesses, and as my ship's doctor is a cautious man, and was rather anxious about Mrs. Varden's condition, he has used every precaution himself; though he suspected as little as the patient or her husband, that she carried in her the seeds of so dire a disease. I can assure you with good conscience that I do not believe any of you have run any greater risk of contracting the disease, than you might do by walking the street of any Oriental city."
Passengers on shipboard come to trust their captains in a way which is creditable to that calling. Captain Donaldson's words carried weight, and a sigh as of relief passed through the group gathered to hear him. But one gentleman put the question that was rising in each mind.
"And what is to be done now?"
The grave, anxious look returned to the Captain's face. His eyes instinctively scanned those turned towards him.
"There is only one thing I can possibly do, compatible with my duty to my ship and its company and passengers," he said; "Mrs. Varden must be put ashore at dawn to-morrow morning."
"Where?—How? Is it possible to do it?"
Quite a little hubbub of questions arose; and the Captain made shift to answer them all.
"It will have to be done," he said; "I know the place where it must be done. We shall touch in, and send a boat ashore. I have had to leave a sick sailor there before this. There is an old leper-house standing near to the margin of the sea. For a long time now it has been used in the fashion in which I purpose to use it. Fever-stricken sailors are left behind, and there are certain conditions they have to observe before they can be picked up again if they recover. But when a sailor is so left, some messmate remains with him to care for him, and submits to the loneliness and danger and discomfort, out of compassion for a comrade's need. The thing is not so difficult when it is one of one's own men who is the victim of disease."
He paused, and glances were exchanged by the bystanders; and one tall, rather rough-looking Irishman, who had come from Australia, and whose loud voice and hearty ways had made him something of a power on board, exclaimed eagerly:
"But look here, Captain, there is somebody there to look after the sick surely! You don't mean they are just dumped down in an empty leper-house, and left to live or die as they can? There is somebody there to look after them, and give them food and medicine and all that? Why, one wouldn't treat a dog so—to throw him ashore and leave him to his fate!"
"It is like this," answered the Captain gravely: "There is no trouble about food and water and a supply of such simple drugs as may be ordered beforehand. I can make certain arrangements as to that; and the food and fresh water and so forth will all be duly left each day at the leper-house by an Arab, who will be told off for the service. But as for getting help in nursing, that is simply impossible. I know what I am saying. Money would not purchase it; and it would be such service, even if attainable, as I think an English lady would sooner die than receive. No; this brings me to the question which I have to put to her fellow-passengers. Is there any lady on board willing to face the awful peril of taking the malignant disease, the awful loneliness of the leper-house upon the sandy shore, with only Arabs near, the awful doom of dying alone there, or of seeing her companion and patient die, and of being in that case quite alone during the necessary period of quarantine which must elapse before she can be taken off in another ship? Whatever man can do for making these conditions bearable, I will do. But none know better than I do the terrible nature of such a task as the one I ask from one of you. Nay, I do not dare to ask it! I feel that it is more than flesh and blood can stand; but yet the thought of putting ashore, alone and unconscious, that poor young wife, just to die, without the presence of a human creature near her—that seems an equal impossibility. Ladies, I do not ask an answer yet. I would not take an offer were it given. It must not be an act of impulsive generosity, should one of your number be able to face the terrible thought of such a sacrifice. It must only be undertaken after much careful and deliberate thought."
The Captain with that turned on his heel and went his way, leaving the passengers gazing mutely one at the other with pale faces and anxious eye. Just before he reached the companion, he turned round to say:
"Before putting the case to you, ladies, I have individually interviewed every woman in the steerage company, to see if it would be possible to procure the services of one of them as nurse. But all of them have husbands and children. I have failed entirely there, and I may not spare my one stewardess, even would she go, which I greatly doubt, knowing the fate of her companion only a few hours ago."
Amongst the passengers who had listened to this pitiful and terrible tale was one young girl, travelling from India quite alone. Her name was Ursula Pendrill. She had stood rather apart during the Captain's speech, and now, slipping away from the excited hubbub of talk that arose on all sides, she fled to her cabin almost as though some grisly phantom were at her heels, and, sinking down upon her knees on the floor, buried her head in her hands and rocked herself to and fro in a sort of agony.
"Must I do it? Must I do it? O my God help me to see my way!" were the words that fell brokenly from her lips. "How can I? How can any one? But oh that poor, poor creature—that awful death for her; for death it must be without any to care for her! O God help me!—help me! There is nobody else—only me—to do it. All the rest have children, friends, husbands, brothers. I am quite alone. O God help me! Help me!"
The broken words were merged in sobs, as the tears gushed forth, bringing a measure of ease to the overcharged heart. Ursula sat crouched up on the floor of her little cabin, with her face buried in her hands, and her loosened hair falling around her, but the sense of storm and strife was merging in one of a strange and settled peace. Down in the depths of her spiritual being it seemed to her as though a hand had been laid upon her, and as though a voice had spoken in her ear:
"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."
Ursula Pendrill was a girl of good family who had been left a year or two ago an orphan, and with very narrow means. She was, however, a girl of high spirit and brave heart, and instead of asking a home with any of her kinsfolk, she preferred to supplement her small resources by working in various ways herself.
The field of woman's work in those days was much narrower than it has since become; but Ursula knew a lady who had been a nurse under Miss Nightingale in the Crimean War, and had since then given much of her time to the service of the sick. She was then in charge of a hospital, and welcomed Ursula on a long visit, where she learned considerable skill in nursing, and made herself acquainted with the right treatment of most ailments.
After that she had often nursed private patients in their own houses, and had travelled a good deal with invalids going to Madeira and other places in search of health. So that she was no timid, helpless girl, but a rather experienced and resourceful woman, who would not easily be frightened or nonplussed in ordinary cases of sickness, or in the ordinary circumstances of travel. But there was nothing ordinary in the charge which she felt had been laid upon her to-day!
Yet no one expected this thing of her. Probably she would be the last person the Captain would think of for such a service. Ursula was young, and she looked younger than her years. She had not talked about herself to her fellow-passengers. She had not told how she had been taken to India by a delicate lady to look after her and her fragile children. She had not supposed that anybody would be interested in her private affairs. She was surmised to be one of those growing-up girls sent home from the perils of the hot season to their friends in England. Nobody would expect a young thing like herself to volunteer for such a deadly and terrible service.
But the more Ursula thought of it, the more resolved she was to make this sacrifice. It seemed to her that she had received a message from on high; that she had been shown it was for her to take up the cross and carry it, and that if she did so in fearless faith and obedience, she would receive help and blessing and strength for the task.
At dusk she left her cabin and went on deck, and asked where she could find the Captain. The officer she addressed looked at her keenly for a moment, and then pointed to where the Captain was standing alone, save for the presence of the big Irish-Australian with whom he was often in company.
Ursula slowly approached, and the two men stopped talking and looked at her. The Captain stepped forward.
"Did you wish to speak to me, Miss Pendrill?"
"Just for a minute, please," answered Ursula, with a beating heart, but with outward self-possession. "I came to say that I will go ashore to-morrow with Mrs. Varden, and take care of her."
"You, child?" ejaculated the Captain incredulously.
"I am not a child," answered Ursula steadily, "I am older than I look, and I know a great deal about nursing. Once I lived in a hospital for a year. I have often taken care of sick people since. I understand about fevers, though I was only once with a small-pox case, and that only for a little while, as she was taken away when the symptoms declared themselves. But I have been vaccinated quite recently. I have never taken anything from a patient yet. I am not afraid. I will go with poor Mrs. Varden—if there is nobody more suitable and more efficient."
The Captain paced once or twice up and down the space between the rails, and came back to where Ursula was standing.
"There is nobody else at all. I have had the husbands one after the other—or the relations and friends. Nobody can bear to face the awful task—or be spared to do it——"
"Yes, I understand. Other people have ties—so many to cling to them—to miss them, so many depending on them. If it were so with me perhaps I could not offer. But it is not. I have no very near relations. I have no parents or brothers and sisters. If anything happened there would be a few to be sorry; but nobody would feel life to be shadowed. I am the sort of person who can do this thing."
"You are the sort of person from whom the world's saints and heroines are made!" cried Captain Donaldson, with a most unwonted outbreak of emotion. "My dear young lady, I do not know how to accept the sacrifice, nor yet how to decline it. God will bless and reward you, I truly believe; for He only can reward such a deed as the one you are about to do."
"I do not want any reward," answered Ursula simply; "I only want to do what is right. Suppose it were somebody very dear to me, it would be no sacrifice; and Mrs. Varden is very near and dear to somebody—to her poor young husband. I saw him as he went off the vessel."
"Poor fellow—yes. I fear——" but the Captain pulled up short, and kept the fear to himself. Ursula moved away towards her own cabin.
"I have a few preparations to make; but I shall be ready to-morrow when you send for me. I think I shall not come up any more till then."
She disappeared in the gathering gloom, and the Captain stood looking after her, till a hand was laid upon his arm, and the deep voice of his Australian passenger said in his ear:
"Is that girl going ashore with Mrs. Varden?"
"Yes; she has volunteered, she has all the qualifications for the task; but I don't know now how to let her,—that lonely leper-house,—that awful fear before her eyes. Mrs. Varden will not live the week out. But I dare not keep her on board. My duty to my passengers and to the company prevents it. But those two frail young creatures—set down alone——"
"Look here, Captain, you may make your mind easy there. They won't be alone. I shall get off there too. I shall see them through!"
"You, Mr. Kelly? Why, man, what do you mean? There is no accommodation in the Arab settlement—nothing but the squalid place, and the leper-house beyond. You cannot be in there——"
"No; I shall pitch my tent just beyond, but within sight and sound. Jehoshaphat, man! Do you think I have never roughed it in a tent before this? Do you think I can't speak the primitive language, common to all races, enough to get those dirty Arabs to do all I want of them? Do you think British gold will ever fail to work the will of its master in any quarter of the globe? You go and make all your palaver with the heathen Chinee, or blackguard Arab, or whatever he may be. I'll pitch my tent, and I'll be there as long as any British woman is, and I'll see the thing through. As a nurse I'm no good, even if a rough fellow could volunteer for the task where a lady is in the case. But I'll be hanged, Captain, if Brian Kelly will stand by and see that brave young girl and that poor dying wife left alone in a place like that without a countryman near them. I've nobody specially waiting me in the old country. They've done without me all these years; they can do without me a few weeks longer. I'll see this bit of business through. If those poor creatures die there, I'll stop and give them such Christian burial as is possible; if they live through it, I'll be there to bring them home—one or both. Confound it all, Captain, d'ye think I'd ever know another night's sleep in my bed if I looked on at a bit of heroic devotion like that—and walked on with me hands in me pockets!"
The Captain put out his horny hand and wrung that of his Irish passenger. He had liked Kelly from the first; now he felt a new and warmer feeling towards him.
"Heaven bless you!" he said rather hoarsely; "you've rolled a ton's burden from my heart to-day."
Before sunrise next morning, but while the sky was beginning to lighten in that wonderful way one sees in desert countries, a tap came at Ursula's cabin door. She was quite ready: dressed in her cool, linen garb, with her white apron concealed by the folds of the long cloak. The things she wanted to take with her were ready in a modest valise. The rest were to go on to England under the care of the Captain.
Her face was quite calm and serene as she came up on deck; a few gentlemen passengers were about to see her off and wish her well. The Captain made his way towards her and took her hand.
"Mrs. Varden has been carried to the boat already. We are ready for you. Mr. Brian Kelly is going ashore too. He is, in fact, there already with my steward, bargaining about a tent in which he means to live for a time within hail of the leper-house. So you will have a friend at hand in case of need. He, like you, is one of the lonely ones of the earth, who can do these things. I am very thankful not to leave you quite alone with your patient! There yonder you see your future home—or prison. You will be quite safe there,—you would have been safe even without Kelly,—but I am thankful he remains too. I shall leave word at the nearest station what has happened. You will have friends looking after you, in a sense, whom you will never see. But Mr. Kelly will be at your beck and call. Now we must be going."
It was all like a dream to Ursula: the confused sound of voices, the earnest pressure of farewell hand-clasps, the words of praise and blessing lavished upon her; then the sight of the swathed white figure in the bottom of the boat that looked almost like a corpse in its graveclothes, the vivid golden glow over sea and land, the stretches of yellow sand, the white domes of the Arab settlement, and the square stone walls of the place to which she was bound.
She only seemed to awaken to the realities of life when the Captain held her hands in a last farewell, and just stooped and touched her forehead with his lips.
"I have a little girl at home—about your age!" he said huskily, as if in explanation. "Pray God she may be as brave a girl as you—though may she never be so sorely tried!"
Then he was gone,—they were all gone,—and Ursula was left alone in this strange, silent place, with that sad sight before her eyes—poor Mrs. Varden, stricken down with that most terrible malady, and in its most malignant and deadly form.
The patient was quite unconscious, and lay upon the narrow bed which Ursula found already neatly made up, muttering in the delirium that knew no lucid intervals. She was not violent—had never been violent, the doctor told her—and there was little enough to be done for her. But the thirst was constant, and Ursula seldom left her side for long. Although there was something so terrible in the poor young wife's disfigured face, yet it seemed to Ursula that she was the one link between her and the unknown. She did not shrink from her. She was as tender as though it had been her mother or sister. She shrank from no task that would bring relief or ease. She knew what to do and she did it unflinchingly.
And then as the day went by and the shadows of evening began to steal over her, she went to the door, to look at the sea and the sands, and see whether it was a dream what the Captain had said of that big Mr. Kelly staying behind too.
No, it was no dream: there was the stalwart figure pacing to and fro; there was the tent, picturesque and cheerful, with its fire close beside it, and a couple of turbaned Arabs cooking something over the red glow.
"Miss Pendrill, I have been hoping you would come out for a mouthful of fresh air. And how goes your patient?"
"Very, very ill; but always in a stupor. I can leave her for a few minutes sometimes——"
"Ah, good; then we will have supper together out here on the sand; it will eat better to you than in there, and——"
"Oh, but, Mr. Kelly, I am infectious——"
"Stuff and nonsense!—as though I cared for that! We are in the same boat as to that, for I helped to carry her ashore. But we needn't be more doleful than circumstances make us. I am peckish, if you are not. Do let us have supper here together!"
That was the first of many such meals, taken just in those moments when Ursula could leave her patient, and run out into the fresh air. It seemed as though those Arabs must be cooking all day long, for there was always some appetising dish ready; and oh, the blessed relief of those odd minutes spent with one who could give word for word, and whose eyes shone with friendly sympathy and kindly concern! Ursula said in her heart every day as it went by, that but for this she must have died or gone mad.
The Captain had been right in his prognostication. Mrs. Varden sank gradually, and by the end of the week passed away in her sleep; and it was Ursula and Mr. Kelly who bore her to her narrow grave upon those spreading sands; and it was he who filled up the grave that he had dug, and, bringing out a well-worn Prayer-book from his pocket, read over that lonely resting-place those words of hope and promise that have been the consolation of Christian mourners for all time.
Ursula did not take the fell disease. She was unnerved and unstrung for a time; but the quiet days went by one by one, and the consciousness of that watchful presence without kept her from any of those fears and tremors which must otherwise have made this period of waiting an agony to her.
They met every day. They took their meals together, and walked up and down beside the margin of the sea in company. They had to wait till the time of quarantine had gone by; but at last there came the blessed day when a steamer stopped and dropped its boat to fetch them; and the two exiles from humanity looked one at the other, and then at the great vessel awaiting them, and they knew that their time of trial was over.
The passengers on that vessel were disposed to make much of them, and laud the girl's heroism to the skies; but she shrank from praise, and kept herself quietly aloof from the little world of the ship, till at last the day came when they steamed slowly into the beautiful harbour at Southampton, and dropped anchor there.
Ursula's few possessions were quickly gathered together; she stepped alone into the bustle of the great world, where welcomes were being bandied about on every side, and every passenger seemed to have some loving friend or relative to greet him.
Not quite every one. A tall figure pushed its way towards Ursula. A strong hand possessed itself of her bag.
"I'll put you into your train," said Mr. Kelly; and she gave a little sigh of relief.
He stood at the window holding her little fingers in his big hand. He looked straight into her eyes.
"I'm glad you've got some people to go to—even if they are only cousins. I hope they'll appreciate what they have got. I'm off to Ireland. I must see the Ould Counthry first of all. But I shall be back in England before very long. When I come back, may I come and see you?"
She looked him full in the eyes. Her colour rose.
"I have never tried to thank you all this time——" she began.
His big voice cut her short.
"The train is just off. I want my answer. May I come and see you by-and-by?"
There was a dew on her eyelashes, and her lips quivered; but the smile won the day as it beamed out over her face. The soft voice was quite steady, except for a little glad catch in it, as she answered: