Shirley HTML version
24. The Valley of the Shadow of Death
The future sometimes seems to sob a low warning of the events it is bringing us,
like some gathering though yet remote storm, which, in tones of the wind, in
flushings of the firmament, in clouds strangely torn, announces a blast strong to
strew the sea with wrecks; or commissioned to bring in fog the yellow taint of
pestilence, covering white Western isles with the poisoned exhalations of the
East, dimming the lattices of English homes with the breath of Indian plague. At
other times this Future bursts suddenly, as if a rock had rent, and in it a grave
had opened, whence issues the body of one that slept. Ere you are aware you
stand face to face with a shrouded and unthought-of Calamity - a new Lazarus.
Caroline Helstone went home from Hollow's Cottage in good health, as she
imagined. On waking the next morning she felt oppressed with unwonted
languor: at breakfast, at each meal of the following day, she missed all sense of
appetite: palatable food was as ashes and sawdust to her.
'Am I ill?' she asked, and looked at herself in the glass. Her eyes were bright,
their pupils dilated, her cheeks seemed rosier and fuller than usual. 'I look well;
why can I not eat?'
She felt a pulse beat fast in her temples: she felt, too, her brain in strange
activity: her spirits were raised; hundreds of busy and broken, but brilliant
thoughts engaged her mind: a glow rested on them, such as tinged her
Now followed a hot, parched, thirsty, restless night. Towards morning one terrible
dream seized her like a tiger: when she woke, she felt and knew she was ill.
How she had caught the fever (fever it was), she could not tell. Probably in her
late walk home, some sweet, poisoned breeze, redolent of honey-dew and
miasma, had passed into her lungs and veins, and finding there already a fever
of mental excitement, and a languor of long conflict and habitual sadness, had
fanned the spark of flame, and left a well-lit fire behind it.
It seemed, however, but a gentle fire: after two hot days and worried nights, there
was no violence in the symptoms, and neither her uncle, nor Fanny, nor the
doctor, nor Miss Keeldar, when she called, had any fear for her: a few days
would restore her, every one believed.
The few days passed, and - though it was still thought it could not long delay -
the revival had not begun. Mrs. Pryor, who had visited her daily - being present in
her chamber one morning when she had been ill a fortnight - watched her very
narrowly for some minutes: she took her hand, and placed her finger on her wrist;
then, quietly leaving the chamber, she went to Mr. Helstone's study. With him she
remained closeted a long time - half the morning. On returning to her sick young
friend, she laid aside shawl and bonnet: she stood a while at the bedside, one
hand placed in the other, gently rocking herself to and fro, in an attitude and with
a movement habitual to her. At last she said - 'I have sent Fanny to Fieldhead to
fetch a few things for me, such as I shall want during a short stay here: it is my
wish to remain with you till you are better. Your uncle kindly permits my
attendance: will it to yourself be acceptable, Caroline?'