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The Two Destinies

19. The Cats
MISS DUNROSS had so completely perplexed me, that I was at a loss what to say next.
To ask her plainly why it was necessary to keep the room in darkness while she remained
in it, might prove (for all I knew to the contrary) to be an act of positive rudeness. To
venture on any general expression of sympathy with her, knowing absolutely nothing of
the circumstances, might place us both in an embarrassing position at the outset of our
acquaintance. The one thing I could do was to beg that the present arrangement of the
room might not be disturbed, and to leave her to decide as to whether she should admit
me to her confidence or exclude me from it, at her own sole discretion.
She perfectly understood what was going on in my mind. Taking a chair at the foot of the
bed, she told me simply and unreservedly the sad secret of the darkened room.
"If you wish to see much of me, Mr. Germaine," she began, "you must accustom yourself
to the world of shadows in which it is my lot to live. Some time since, a dreadful illness
raged among the people in our part of this island; and I was so unfortunate as to catch the
infection. When I recovered--no! 'Recovery' is not the right word to use--let me say,
when I escaped death, I found myself afflicted by a nervous malady which has defied
medical help from that time to this. I am suffering (as the doctors explain it to me) from a
morbidly sensitive condition of the nerves near the surface to the action of light. If I were
to draw the curtains, and look out of that window, I should feel the acutest pain all over
my face. If I covered my face, and drew the curtains with my bare hands, I should feel the
same pain in my hands. You can just see, perhaps, that I have a very large and very thick
veil on my head. I let it fall over my face and neck and hands, when I have occasion to
pass along the corridors or to enter my father's study--and I find it protection enough.
Don't be too ready to deplore my sad condition, sir! I have got so used to living in the
dark that I can see quite well enough for all the purposes of my poor existence. I can read
and write in these shadows--I can see you, and be of use to you in many little ways, if
you will let me. There is really nothing to be distressed about. My life will not be a long
one--I know and feel that. But I hope to be spared long enough to be my father's
companion through the closing years of his life. Beyond that, I have no prospect. In the
meanwhile, I have my pleasures; and I mean to add to my scanty little stack the pleasure
of attending on you. You are quite an event in my life. I look forward to reading to you
and writing for you, as some girls look forward to a new dress, or a first ball. Do you
think it very strange of me to tell you so openly just what I have in my mind? I can't help
it! I say what I think to my father and to our poor neighbors hereabouts--and I can't alter
my ways at a moment's notice. I own it when I like people; and I own it when I don't. I
have been looking at you while you were asleep; and I have read your face as I might
read a book. There are signs of sorrow on your forehead and your lips which it is strange
to see in so young a face as yours. I am afraid I shall trouble you with many questions
about yourself when we become better acquainted with each other. Let me begin with a
question, in my capacity as nurse. Are your pillows comfortable? I can see they want
shaking up. Shall I send for Peter to raise you? I am unhappily not strong enough to be
 
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