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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter VIII. The Gardens of Georgia. The Chronic Broncho-Asthmatical Auntie

Chapter VIII. The Gardens of Georgia. The Chronic Broncho-Asthmatical Auntie.

Smoking his solitary way home to the hospital, Eugene improvised for himself a bed in one of the rooms of the main building, used in cases of emergency when the resident surgeon was likely to be required during the night. He lay down to dream of empyreal angels floating through sapphire-blue and diamond-bespecked skies in the glorious domes of the universe, and singing to him "Sleep no more, sleep no more," as they beckoned him away to some unknown scene.

Arising early, he wandered through the garden to a large aviary of canaries, and like little fluffy yellow balls, cold from exposure in the chilly page 45night, they fluttered down and fed from his hand. Tiny automatons of gold they seemed to him to be; the blue sky above him the brightest sapphire, the trees, the lawn and the green knolls to be emerald. For him the birds trilled their sweetest melodies; the cattle lowed in the meadows, the brooklet prattled merrily; fauns and wood-nymphs peeped from amongst the boughs of the myrtle, the laurel and the arbutus; the leaves and the breezes whispered together through the tall pines. The stilled waters of his unfathomed affection were troubled and he felt the transition stealing over his soul.

Going in a perfunctory sort of way around the wards, the rest of the cloudless morning was frittered away with the lumbering, loitering Lilliecrap, who related every little episode of the ball to every one of the patients, and went about humming the refrain of "Tausend und einer nacht." Forgetting about dinner, he wandered abstractedly in the afternoon to the horticultural reserve of the State. There, at the border of the translucent lake, its island stocked with arboreal and ornithological rarities, mosses and ferns, he lounged on one of the seats and threw berries into the water for the paradise ducks and white swans. Musing still over the benign Guinevere, he blamed his long stay at the university and the verse which he had written in the book for her loss. Groups of lilacs with their feathery purple blossoms made a deep cool shade, and lilac stars floated on the water. Suddenly turning his head where a few old-fashioned flowers were sparsely blooming surrounded by spacious beds of the rich soft grass over which played the moving shadows of elm-trees in interlacing tangles, coming through the rear entrance gate of the gardens, and passing him a short distance away, her opened, sky-blue parasol thrown over her shoulders and shading her face from view, she passed out of the gate he had shortly before entered. The swans glided towards him in dozens, and the nimble little paradise ducks navigated their passages hither and thither among the broad leaves of the water-lilies and the trailing lotus, when, back again by the same gate, appeared the face and the blue robed form of Marvel. Arch, daintily trimmed, prim, pretty and piquant she looked, tripping along the emerald lawn, and, as he heard her dress rustling nearer and nearer, he stood captivated by her graceful movements and the negligé carriage of her azure parasol. Silver bells of memory!1

All her auxiliaries to fascination in full play, "I've been thinking about you," she said. "Not many books about here, are there? How many cart-loads of books have you read? I've only read four myself: one with a yellow back, one with a green back, and two with a peacock-blue."

He had never read any with such pretty colours as those, and walked with her along the shaven sward to the opposite entrance.

"I suppose you and Mrs. Payne were very friendly at the university when she was there," continued Marvel.

"Oh I yes," returned Eugene. "Guinevere is an old friend of mine, and I often called her my sister at the university. Her husband and I are old friends too. We occupied the same room at University College for page 46twelve months, and his then fiancée was inordinately kind to me when I was ill there. I am very glad they are coming to live at Augusta. I shall have somewhere to spend the evenings, for there is nothing at the hospital but old Hemlock in an otherwise empty home."

On and listlessly on they walked together, stopping here and there admiring the flowers and passing through the rear entrance gate which the uncouth Eugene had let her open for herself. She banged it after her, and told him he could have opened it just as well for her as himself. Another stumbling apology from Eugene, and they walked on to a small orchard which Marvel called "Sunnyside."

"My aunt lives here; come in and see her, will you?" said Marvel, as archly she opened the little broken paling gate that hung on one hinge. He followed. Crossing a little foot-bridge over a small creek, her uncle appeared—a man of remarkably short stature, but very broad and plain-looking. He was busily employed feeding, out of a wheat bag, a motley, crowing, clucking, quacking, and gobbling collection of fowls, ducks and turkeys. Eugene, mentally making a note of it, thought of bringing Brosie there when he came from Chicago. A big peacock perched screeching upon the roof of the brick cottage, and a few pea-hens strutted about on the ground, as Marvel led Eugene into the dainty parlour and asked him to take a seat. She then marshalled into the room her aunt, Mrs. Hornblower, a lady with her skin as close fitting on her bones as the paper on the walls. She had a stooping gait, a cadaverous, pain-sick face, and a red shawl thrown over her head and pinned together at the neck with a safety-pin. She was Marvel's father's sister. She leaned on one crutch like a caryatid and showed a very uncommon peculiarity—varicose veins on her arm.

At first blush she looked like an Indian hawker without a bundle; and without waiting for her niece to introduce her, "My trouble," she began, "is with my chest. My distressing malady is so far advanced that I am obliged to stay at home all the winter." Here she took a long inspiration and proceeded to expire the carbonic acid gas as follows—"I can never get out at all scarcely in the winter, and most of the time I am confined to my room. I have been a martyr to asthma for ten years (long breath). Dr. Leghorn has been very good to me, and has tried all the latest remedies, but with no apparent effect. This clay pipe which I have in my pocket (dive for a black cutty like that smoked by the Flying Dutchman), I have smoked (long breath) Datura tatula2 with so long that it is now so strong that it makes me quite sick, and I must get (long breath) Augustus to bring me a new one. I have heard of you before, Dr, Whitworth, as being very (long breath) clever. The Wesleyan minister was here only yesterday, and praised you very highly. He said he could highly (long breath) recommend me to ask you if you knew of anything good, as you come from a newer medical (long breath) school than poor old Dr. Leghorn, kind and good as he always (long breath) was to me,—kind and good to me." She uttered every word with the slowness peculiar to long sickness page 47and she appeared to be trying to hear herself speak. "I am always sick and weak and unhealthy," she concluded: "just look at my tongue." It was as rough as a gooseberry-bush and as red as a lobster.

Eugene replied that he thought the place, situated as the house was low upon the creek and adjoining a marsh, was not suitable for anybody, let alone one suffering from asthma; whereupon she rejoined that Augustus would not leave it, as it was quiet and suitable for poultry breeding. When the irritating particulars of the old auntie's troubles had been fully gone through, Marvel played, with masterly execution and with remarkably evident control over the key-board, the exquisite music of the Myosotis and Blue Danube waltzes, Beethoven's C minor symphonies and Weber's "L'invitation à la Valse."

While Eugene listened to the music, the old Indian hawker broke in with three long breaths—"My niece is the best pianiste in the country. Nobody could ever have heard a sweeter musician than my niece, Marvel, the dear Bird of Paradise, beauteous Marvel. Heigho (sighing long breath.) She won six medals at the Ladies' College for harmony and composition. She is a perfect genius in dance measures. Wont you stay to tea?" He thanked her, and stayed.

When the cream-cakes, tea-cakes, lettuce, radish, water-cress and tea were gone the big kerosene lamp was introduced—lo! the vase and shade of the lamp, woe betide him! were peacock green. A pack of cards was furnished by Mrs. Hornblower, and they all sat around the little oval table to spend the evening at games of chance. Napoleon was played. A roulette-table was brought in, with a painted disc and an indicator spinning round segments painted red, blue, orange, faded-green, yellow, indigo, violet, white, peacock-green, and peacock-blue. The last two colours were pointed at as the indicator stopped, and Eugene, thinking that the apparatus could not lie, handed over a twenty-dollar bill to the Indian hawker, who still affected the red shawl. With varying chances the games had flitted past till the kitchen clock sharply struck twelve, and the asthma wouldn't stand it any longer. Eugene rose to leave, promising to call back the following Friday evening, and walked home to the hospital, to dream again of peacocks and birds of Paradise. Fairy pictures and airy castles brought phantasmal colours before his view, but the one pervading hue ever grew clearer and more defined.

While he lived in the hospital building and slept in the spare bedroom on the left wing his chief attendant and valet was the elongated living and breathing skeleton of an old—a very old—maid. Her name was Emma. The wardsman called her Hemma, and Eugene called her Hemlock. Emu-like she stalked on her hind legs into his bedroom and roused him up in the mornings; stalked into the breakfast room with coffee on a tray, and stalked out again without saying a word. Not a tooth in her head, she never opened her mouth if she could keep it closed. The skirt of her wincey frock reached to within a foot of her ankles, and she wore long white stockings and a pair of men's boots. Her long bony fingers, in page 48accord with her lanky frame, looked like eagle's talons, and on her billiardball head she wore and slept in a greasy black-beaded cap. The few sounds which she uttered strongly resembled the cawing of a crow, and if she was addressed or questioned her only vociferation was a cough and a sound like Ha-Ha-Ha. The cawing had many meanings, according to the gesture and the tone in which it was uttered. It might mean a reproval, an approval, an affirmation, or a positive denial; an assent, a dissent, good morning or good night; an announcement or a request, a positive, a comparative, or a superlative; but it invariably conveyed to the initiated into the cypher code of Hemlock a whole conglomeration of words and sentences.

Hemlock was the full-blown matron of the hospital. Her elbow had a long spinous process like an abortive thumb. She made good use of it in spreading the table-cloths, which for fully five-and-forty years she had spread thrice daily in that room. Two long smoothing and flattening movements she adopted, and the thing was done. She would put the sugar into the coffee and taste it with the spoon to see if it was sweet enough for Eugene; and she chipped the top off the shells of his boiled eggs herself. She had been disappointed in love, and aspired to make herself his mother and Eugene her little boy. She watched over him with the most tender solicitude, and if ever he stayed out late at night, the next morning she would confront him with her reprimanding Ha-Ha-Ha.

In this manner he encountered her disapproval on the morning after the Nap and roulette party, and he thought it incumbent upon him to make some explanation.

"Do you know Miss Marvel Gould, Emma?" he enquired.

"Ha-Ha-Ha," replied Hemlock. It was plain enough to convince him that she did know a good deal about Miss Marvel Gould, and then, again, he fancied she was mocking the peacock.

The fussy little wife of the hospital wardsman proved a much more tractable medium of exchanges—indeed, few were better posted up in the pedigree and all the inns and outs of every family in the district. She knew the exact age, christening, and birthday of every baby, and could give a good off-handed rough guess at the state of every man's banking account. Every new arrival in the town was discussed with the neighbours till his ears warmed, over the back fence of the hospital, where she lived and helped in the nursing. All over the town she was generally known as "The Evening Star." Not satisfied with this, she would put her bonnet on and deliver herself at the houses in the highways and byeways of the town. In this indirect way Eugene was well primed up in the interesting news by Lilliecrap himself, who, remembering that he had been put on the scent on the night of the ball, ferreted it all out of "The Evening Star," and communicated it to the resident surgeon.

She was the only daughter, according to the wardsman, of Julian Gould, a coal-mine owner and colossal speculator – a man who had knocked down fortune after fortune, and who, at that time, was comparatively down on page 49his luck; but from his stolid perseverance in boring for coal no one could tell when he might reach an El Dorado in coal again, and pile up a kingly fortune. Lilliecrap himself knew a man then living in Augusta who had been, years before, an unlucky promoter in one of Gould's companies to the extent of two shares of four dollars each, and after paying seventythree dollars ten cents in calls3 he had surrendered and forfeited the lot, which were sold by public auction at his expense. "Miss Marvel is the pet of the old bloke's family, my missus says," he remarked, washing out medicine bottles at the sink. "and the best flower in the bunch. They call her Birdie at home, and some of them call her the bird of Paradise. She was born on the twenty-third of May, 1821; she was christened, my missus thinks—but she can find out for certain–on the twenty-sixth of July, 1821."

One Patrick Flynn, living on charity under the rose of his duties as groom to the doctor, no sooner read the first edition of "The Evening Star" containing the description of the coal-mine owner and speculator than he proclaimed that she was a "blatherin' idyut, and knowed no more of the man than the mare standin' forninst him." He declared that he knew more about the coal-mine owner and rock-borer than all the evening stars in the sky, the "Evening Star" of the hospital included.

"I carted for him," he said, "for two weeks, and I supploied him some of the foinest missmate timmer in the Alleghany4 forests, and as good as any in the Rocky Mountains. He bate me down, the blackguard, till the profit I had of it was three cents a ton, the ould grab-all; and by the holy Mary I carted for him no moore. I've stood perishin', me and that ould harse, for hours in the rain while he prated and pitched his dollars about in the bar of The Old Spade Bone betune a drunken lot of ould loafers that called themselves mimbers of the Boord o' Thrade. It's meself that knows him, and bad scran to his big scabby nose. He'd smell a bit of coal if it was a mile at the bottom of the sea, and expeck a man to fetch it to him for a dollar a day." Patrick wiped his nose with his hand, spat in the sink full of medicine bottles, changed his quid from the right cheek to the left, gave a hitch to his trousers and walked away, singing the songs of "Tatter Jack Walsh" and what a broth of a boy was "Ould Larry McHale."

While the pros and cons of the great mining speculator were being instilled into the ears of the resident surgeon, whose only thoughts were of the dark girl dressed in blue, the afternoon mail arrived, and a telegram came from Guinevere to say her little boy Cyril was very ill, and asking Eugene to go and see him without delay.

Telling the wardsman that he might come instead of Flynn, as he had such a prejudice against Mr. Gould, at whose house Cyril lay, Lilliecrap put Rosie in the buggy, and in half-an-hour they set out for the township of Maconville, while Flynn requested the wardsman to taunt "the ould blackguard" with the query as to the lowest price for firewood.

1 Traditional song. For a contemporary (to Dutton) account of its performance, see the Maitland Mercury 1881.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 A medicinal plant, possibly originally from Malta. McVeigh 1863

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

3 Call option - money paid for the right to claim stock at a point in the future, the price being fixed at the time the money is paid. See 'call', n., OED Online,n., sense 11b.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

4 Alleghany - referring to all or part of the Appalachian region.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]