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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter XVI. A Flood from the Alleghany Mountains

Chapter XVI. A Flood from the Alleghany Mountains.

The first few days after Marvel's arrival in her new home were busy days for the much-honoured bride. Theatrical snow-storms of cards drifted page 100into the drawing-room, and carriages huddled together as if the wedding ceremonies were to be gone through again, while the mother bustled about the house and attended to the door as lady-in-waiting announcing the visitors. The little piebald pony with the water-melon leg was there and had brought Mrs. Downward, the mother of Carrie—an old friend of the doctor's, and a lady greatly respected in Augusta. The mother-in-law filled up the waiting-room with visitors, while the bride entertained Mrs. Downward in the drawing-room. Her demeanour was as strict and stern as if she were the archangel of the fiery-sworded cherubim guarding the battlements of the inhibited walls of Paradise. She appeared to think that her daughter was examining them and prescribing for them, as she only let in one at a time. The others had to wait their turn for admission into Paradise, but growing disgusted at being kept waiting so long they withdrew en masse, leaving their cards on the hall table, while the mother-in-law scowled them out, and ordered them to be sure and call some other time. It never occurred to her to let them all into the reception-room together.

Shortly after her arrival, Marvel hauled down the blue colours of the peacock, and startled some of the fin de siécle circles of Augusta, and especially the socially-experienced Madame, who, on referring to her work on etiquette after-the-wedding, found it was diametrically opposed to the rules for the bride to be seen in the streets seven days after her return home swathed in a large and loose cerise-coloured carriage cloak.

The wedding excursion of Eugene and his bride had, as far as the clemency of the weather was contributory to its enjoyment, ended just in time. During the journey home the clouds changed from mysterious indefinite billows of mist into defined purple bars, through which at evening shone the depths of golden radiance from behind, and the moon paled from a pearly lamp illuminating the dark into a silvery cresent sailing over a silvery sea. The day after their arrival there was not a glimpse to be seen of the sun in the leaden sky. Daylight was dimmed by the heavy veil of threatening darkness, and a far-reaching bank of lowering surcharged thunder-clouds loomed in the thickening extremes of the horizon.

"It's going to rain to-day, Marvel," said Eugene as he rose early in the morning at the call of the groom, "and I wanted to see the horse do his gallop this morning; we can't take him out very safely this sort of weather, so I think I'll just go down to the stable and tell Paddy to leave him where he is for the day." Paddy was already preparing to send Moss Rose out, when, as the doctor accosted him, a few big drops fell on the horse's neck and decided the question of his staying in the loose-box during the inclemency of the weather.

During breakfast three sharp loud claps of thunder and flashes of sheet lightning, illuminating the room, heralded the approaching storm, and he went down to the hospital in his great-coat to relieve the locum tenens who had been in charge during his absence and to visit the patients in the wards. Nothing unusual had occurred during his absence, and all the working of the famous institution seemed to be nice and smooth.

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Since relinquishing the practice of the late Dr. Downward, which for eighteen months he had carried on for the benefit of the impoverished widow and orphan children, monthly reckonings of moneys received in connection with the abandoned practice for the foregoing months by Whitworth himself were made in the presence of a broken-down, old accountant by the name of Twigg. Twigg was an exceedingly corpulent man, familiarly known as "old Swing-belly." who had at one time been a bank manager, but through the downfall of the Bank of Louisiana he had been cashiered and obliged to retire, with a wife and a family of thirteen children to support by any little odds and ends of employment which he could procure from the tradespeople and others; such as keeping books, writing letters, making out and delivering accounts, collecting debts at one per cent. commission, and acting as sexton in the little chapel of the likewise adipose but reverend Father O'Hara. The white waistcoats of the venerable man were an admirable fit for old "Swing-belly," and he had an irrepressible habit of displaying them and indicating to people that they were gifts from the church, as a quiet hint that they might be the fore-runners of gifts from others whose Sunday mornings were spent in the divine service of the public-houses. His biggest contract on hand at the time of the ill-omened storm was to make out the accounts of the widow's flickering business, because the doctor himself was otherwise engaged, and to arrange about the drafting of an advertisement threatening all the pains and penalties of a summons to be issued against every defaulter—and their name was legion—at the end of the current month. The place of meeting for the three was the widow's house, a low-lying, damp, large, weatherboard tenement, where for nearly two years she had struggled with penury in the support of herself and twelve children and the liquidation of the legacy of debts bequeathed to her by her departing protector, so that now she was at her wit's end to keep the wolf from the door.

For three days without any positive or prospective intermission the rain fell in torrents for the whole of the seventy-two hours—not in light showers by any means, but ever since the peals of the thunder and the flashes of sheet lightning had occurred it settled down to and maintained a vehement and unmitigating downpour of water from a sky as black as ink. It swept the streets and flushed the channels at the sides of the thoroughfares, while the channel waters overflowed their banks and rushed over the pavements and the floors of the shops. From the amphitheatre of hills impromptu cascades and rushing tributaries poured into the river. The Alabama roared with the swelling tide, and its highest banks were already dipping underneath the impetuous flood as the doctor ventured to leave the hospital to meet the book-keeper and the widow in the evening.

Encased in a large waterproof, he arrived at the rendezvous, looking as if he had just escaped death by drowning. Pulling it off with the assistance of the widow and the accountant, he sat down with them in the dining-room to pay in the score of twenty dollars received since he had been there a month before. In dire distress at the paltry return, the widow was page 102encouraged by Twigg to advertise the aforesaid notice of legal proceedings in the next issue of the local paper other than the "Evening Star," which indeed would have served the purpose ever so much better. Then proceeding to read the minutes of the previous meeting, to confirm them, and pass accounts for payment with no money to pay them, the portly man blowed like an eighty-barrel whale for about an hour compiling a list of the defaulters, to be arraigned in the court of weekly sessions, while the doctor sat most of the time smoking a cigar at the end of the table, now and then helping old "Swing-belly" to some whisky supplied by the disconsolate widow.

Suddenly, as if an armed cruiser had rammed the front door, in it was stove by a huge volume of water, which in the twinkling of an eye rushed down the passage and swashed into the rooms at the side to make estuaries.

"There's a flood!" cried Twigg: "get out as quick as you can or be drowned." The words were barely out of his mouth when in mad turmoil the unpropitious flood lifted the massive mahogany table off its feet, and floated it round about the room, tossing it like a leaf on a whirlpool. Wading through water up to the middle of his waistcoat, Twigg struggled desperately out through the door, and stemming the impetus of the fast-flowing tide he reached a higher level on the road. There he was comparatively safe.

Non-plussed, horrified, maddened, with a ghastly white pallor on her face, she clambered upon the top of the raft-like table and screamed in terror—"My God, my God, what will I do?"

"Come out." called Eugene: "it will be safer outside, and better on the roof than to be drowned like a rat in a sewer."

Deafened with the shock of the concussion and flood, she stared and cried out to God, and screamed as if she had suddenly gone stark staring mad. Appealing to her was wasting precious time; so fastening his arms around her he lifted her bodily off the table and carried her through the rising waters safely out through the door. Round the corner of the house, he lifted her to the side, where, meeting a ladder leaning against the chimney wall, he climbed it with the woman in his arm and placed her on the top of the corrugated iron roof. Following her there, they stood watching the engulfing, overwhelming flood covering the country flats for miles. It was then about eleven o'clock, and, saving the light on the hill-supported house of the hospital, not a glimmer could be found in the all-pervading darkness.

Raising her face and clasped hands heavenward, she cried out—"Thank God my children are not at home." There had been a children's party at Madame's house, and they had all left about eight o'clock in cabs, in charge of their step-sister Caroline.

All through the night in the all-embracing black mantle of the dark, and in the brunt of the torrential rain on the roof they stood, watching for possible rescue and wondering if ever they would be saved. The débris of page 103wrecked houses, drowning cattle, sheep, pigs and cats were buoyed along by the swelling flood, and at the mid-day dawn they saw something like a human body floating in the distance upon a raft, and near at hand, in the direction of the river, a light cockle-shell boat that belonged to the architect named Cosgrove, who had of late been rather amorously disposed towards Carrie. It appeared to have carried away from its moorings, and slowly floated in the direction of the house. It was only about two hundred yards away when Eugene noticed it first, and as it floated on at a somewhat oblique angle, he determined to try and intercept it. As a boy he had been a strong swimmer.

"If you stand here I'll get that boat," he said suddenly to the terrified woman, who was now more composed and collected.

"Oh no! for God's sake no! don't attempt that; for God's sake don't drown yourself," she frantically cried.

Leading her over to the chimney, he placed her in shelter behind it, and pulling off his boots and coat, he re-descended the ladder to the surface of the water. Plunging into it he swam the smooth waters, away in the direction of the boat adrift on the immense water-plain. She anxiously watched his strenuous efforts, as with lungs and every muscle taxed to its utmost tension, he forged his way through the waste of waters, and she prayed fervently for him, till he heard her frantic yell as he caught at the gunwale. It heeled over to one side and forced him to board her astern. The Providence that had watched over the lives of her children had also been not unmindful of herself, for the paddles had not been carried away, though the bottom-boards of the boat were under the water. He placed them in the row-locks, and with the skill of a practised oar, which he had acquired at the university, he sculled her back whence he swam, and tied her painter to an iron stanchion in the wall. Re-descending the ladder, he lifted the thankful woman into the centre of the cockle-shell, and pushing the boat off with one of the paddles from the wall he paddled her home to the hospital. Shivering and faint with the all-night exposure to the storm, she was carried up the green bank of the hospital by the nurses and placed in a small ward to herself.

Mooring the plish-plashing boat to the garden gate, he followed them into the hospital, relating the experiences of the night, and drawing a stethoscope from the inside pocket of his coat he listened to the front and sides of her chest, and wrote for the dispenser a prescription. She had shown signs of the development of croupous1 pneumonia, a rapid and fiery inflammation of the lungs that was able to cut down the strongest man in the world in twenty-four hours. Placing among the blankets long cans of hot water, the nurses poured brandy into a feeding-cup and thence between her lips, while they sat beside her, alarmed at the rapidly-increasing hurry of her shallowing respiration, and at intervals taking her temperature with a clinical thermometer.

After seeing that his horses were safe, he walked up to the house on the higher hill, and upon relating the case to his new-fangled relations, they page 104one and all seemed inclined to disbelieve him, treating the escapade in the coolest manner possible, while his mother-in-law went so far as to say that it would have served her right if she had been drowned. The long-suffering auntie expressed her opinion that it would have been much nicer and would have looked much better if he had come home early that night, instead of staying out till morning; while the bird of the sun affected to treat the matter as of no great consequence, tossing her head and telling her husband, as she performed a short pirouette on the carpet, that it did not signify that (with a snap of her finger) to her. Rather annoyed at the cold-blooded manner in which the serious case of his old friend was discussed, he returned to the hospital, and had his breakfast that morning with Hemlock, whose "Ha-Ha-Ha" expressed her gratitude at his providential escape, passed her opinion on the serious condition of the lady, upbraided the treacherous attributes of those who had stolen him away, and cordially welcomed him back to her fostering care.

For three days and three nights the life of Mrs. Downward was poised in the precarious balance of an appalling disease of the lungs; it wavered in agonising suspense on a frail and brittle thread. With fomentations of steaming hot spongio-piline2, a medicated steaming apparatus to regulate and warm the temperature of the ward, supporting delicacies, frequent changes of medicaments, and close attendance by night and by day, not a stone was left unturned in their efforts to save her life. Messages came from Madame every few hours to the hospital, but not one of them was answered by the resident surgeon himself. He had heard of the traversations and aspersions cast by her on his wife's character, and he deliberately spurned her inquiries, forbidding her personal visits to the ward and the visits of Carrie and the children. Hypodermic injections of morphia were given every night to induce sleep, and the surgeon, as was usual in such cases, spent most of his time in the ward, and slept at night in the little spare bedroom of the hospital.

A week had passed when the patient showed signs of recovery. The temperature had fallen to its normal altitude; the respiration and pulse had become reduced to their relative frequency; all pain in the side and chest disappeared, and the prognosis was that she would be convalescent within a week. So she was. During the first week of her illness, nearly all his time had been spent in the ward of the hospital, and he had never once slept at home. On the last day of the week, when the first signs of her recovery set in, he was making preparations for returning to sleep at the house, when his frowning scowling mother-in-law accorded him a visit in the little breakfast room, near the ward where the sick lady lay.

"I'm taking Birdie home the day," began the irate mother-in-law; "when ye make up yer mine to stay ben yer ane hoose, and give over trying to break her heyart, she can come back; but a few days holyday whiles will do her nae harm."

"If I neglected this case," returned the doctor, "and she died, I would have a hornet's nest about my ears, and might as well leave the house and page 105the hospital myself. Let Marvel alone; let her stay where she is; she will soon learn to put up with my being away here, and I candidly tell you that it is my opinion that she would he better off if she was left alone by a pair——"

Here Lilliecrap entered the little room and asked for the report for the month to hand over to the committee, and the seditious mother-in-law steamed checkmated but stormily away. Unknown to Eugene they had telegraphed for their own buggy to Maconville, and it was waiting at the door at the time Mrs. Gould entered the hospital. They drove the old auntie to Sunnyside, and without returning to the hospital hied them away to "the auld house at hame."

When he walked up to his residence in the evening, the bird of Heaven had floated away to higher regions, and the sole occupant of the house was the ugly slip-shod servant, who sheepishly gave him notice that she wished to leave.

"I give Mrs. Whitworth notice," she said, "five days ago. Me and that old dawg couldn't live in the same house another week, or else I would have been glad to stay. I know a lady when I see one, but that is the most cantankerous old bounce I ever met. Her daughter is not much better, and I told her so this morning. If you can manage without me, I would like to leave to-night, and I'll take two dollars ten cents instead of three."

Eugene replied that he was sorry she intended to go so soon, and gave her the week's wages. She seized upon her belongings and took her indignant departure, carrying her duds and her ugliness away. For the first time the barque of his matrimonial life was deserted, and he stood alone at the helm, for the waves had swept his paradisal mate away.

1 With the characteristics of croup; which is an inflammatory disease of the larynx and trachea. OED Online. See 'croup', n.2.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 An alternative to a poultice. Made of small pieces of sponge and wool, or cloth, felted together, on an impermeable back.OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]