THE one man of all men who could have told this tale and lived has long since gone to his place; and there is no apology for those that would follow in the footsteps of Laurence Sterne.
In a nameless city of a land that shall be nameless, a rich man lived alone. His wealth had bought him a luxurious flat on the fifth floor of a red-brick mansion, whose grilles were of hammered iron, and whose halls were of inlaid marble. When he needed attendance, coals, his letters, a meal, a messenger or a carriage, he pressed an electric button and his wants were satisfied almost as swiftly as even perpetual wealth could expect. An exceedingly swift lift bore him to and from his rooms, and in his rooms he had gathered about him all that his eyes desired - books in rich cases with felted hinges, ivories from all the world, rugs, lamps, cushions, couches, engravings and rings with engravings upon them, miniatures of pretty women, scientific toys and china from Persia. He had friends and acquaintances as many as he could befriend or know; and some said that more than one woman had given him her whole love. Therefore, he could have lacked nothing whatever.
One day, a hot sickness touched him with its finger, and he became no more than a sick man alone among his possessions, the sport of dreams and devils and shadows; sometimes a log and sometimes a lunatic crying in delirium. Before his friends forsook him altogether, as healthy brutes will forsake the wounded, they saw that he was efficiently doctored, and the expensive physician who called upon him at first three times a day, and later only once, caused him to be nursed by a nun. 'Science is good,' said the physician, 'but for steady, continuous nursing, with no science in it, Religion is better - and I know Sister Ursula.'
So this sick man was nursed by a nun, young and fairly pretty, but, above all, skilful. When he got better he would give the convent, and not Sister Ursula, a thank offering which would be spent among the poor whom Sister Ursula chiefly attended. At first the man knew nothing of the nun's existence - he was in the country beyond all creeds - but later a white coifed face came and went across his visions, and at last, spent and broken, he woke to see a very quiet young woman in black moving about his room. He was too weak to speak: too weak almost to cling to life any more. In despair he thought that it was not worth clinging to; but the woman was at least a woman and alive. The touch of her fingers in his as she gave him the medicine was warm. She testified to the existence of a world full of women also alive - the world he was beginning to disbelieve in. He watched her sitting in the sunshine by the window, and counted the light creeping down from bead to bead of the rosary at her waist. They then moved his bed to the window that he might look down upon the stately avenue that ran by the flat-house, and watch the people going to and fro about their business. But the change, instead of cheering, cast him into a deeper melancholy. It was nearly a hundred feet, sheer drop, to those healthy people walking so fast, and the mere distance depressed him unutterably.
One morning, he turned his face away from the sunlight and took no interest in anything, while the shadow swung back upon the dial so swiftly that it almost alarmed the doctor. He said to himself: 'Bored, eh? Yes. You're just the kind of over-educated, over-refined man that would drop his hold on life through sheer boredom. You've been a most interesting case so far, and I won't lose you.' He told Sister Ursula that he would send an entirely new prescription by his boy and that Sister Ursula must give it to the invalid every twenty minutes without fail. Also, if the man responded to the medicine, it might be well to talk to him a little. 'He needs cheering up. There is nothing the matter with him now, but he won't pick up.'
There can be few points of sympathy between a man born, bred, trained, and sold for and to the world and a good nun made for the service of other things. Sister Ursula's voice was very sweet, but the matter of her speech did not interest. The invalid lay still, looking out of the window upon the street all dressed in its Sunday afternoon emptiness. Then he shut his eyes. The doctor's boy rang at the door. Sister Ursula stepped out into the hall, not to disturb the sleeper, and took the medicine from the boy's hand. Then the lift shot down again, and even as she turned the wind of its descent puffed up and blew to the spring-lock door of the invalid's rooms with a click only a little more loud than the leap of her terrified heart.
Sister Ursula tried the door softly, but rich men with many hundred pounds' worth of bric-à-brac buy themselves very well made doors that fasten with singularly cunning locks. Then the lift returned with the boy in charge, and, so soon as his Sunday and rather distracted attention was drawn to the state of affairs, he suggested that Sister Ursula should go down to the basement and speak to the caretaker, who doubtless had a duplicate key. To the basement, therefore, Sister Ursula went with the medicine bottle clasped to her breast, and there, among mops and brooms and sinks and heating-pipes, and the termini of all the electric communications of that many storied warren, she found, not the caretaker, but his wife, reading a paper, with her feet on a box of soap. The caretaker's wife was Irish, and a Catholic, reverencing the Church in all its manifestations. She was not only sympathetic, but polite. Her husband had gone out, and, being a prudent guardian of the interests confided to him, had locked up all the duplicate keys.
'An' the saints only know whin Mike'll be back av a Sunday,' she concluded cheerfully, after a history of Mike's peculiarities. 'He'll be afther havin' his supper wid friends.' 'The medicine!' said Sister Ursula, looking at the inscription on the bottle. 'It must begin at twenty minutes past five. There are only ten minutes now. There must - oh! there must be a way!'
'Give him a double dose next time. The docther won't know the differ.' The convent of Sister Ursula is not modeled on Irish ideals, and the present duty before its nun was to return to the locked room with the medicine. Meantime the minutes flew bridleless, and Sister Ursula's eyes were full of tears. 'I must get to the room,' she insisted. 'Oh, surely, there is a way, any way!'
'There's wan way,' said the caretaker's wife, stung to profitable thought by the other's distress. 'And that's the way the tenants would go in case av fire. To be sure now I might send the liftboy.'
'It would frighten him to death. He must not see strangers. What is the way?'
'If we wint into the cellar an' out into the area, we'll find the ground-ends av the fire-eshcapes that take to all the rooms. Go aisy, dear.'
Sister Ursula had gone down the basement steps through the cellar into the area, and with clenched teeth was looking up the monstrous sheer of red-brick wall cut into long strips by the lessening perspective of perpendicular iron ladders. Under each window each ladder opened out into a little, a very little, balcony. The rest was straighter than a ship's mast. The caretaker's wife followed, panting; came out into the sunshine, and, shading her eyes, took stock of the ground. 'He'll be Number 42 on the Fifth. Thin this ladder goes up to it. They've the eshcapes front an' back. Glory be to God, the avenue's empty!'
Two children were playing in the gutter. But for these the avenue was deserted, and the hush of a Sabbath afternoon hung over it all. Sister Ursula put the medicine bottle carefully into the pocket of her gown. Her face was as white as her coif.
'Tis not for me,' said the caretaker's wife, shaking her head sadly. 'I'm so's to be round, or I'd go wid ye. Those ladders do be runnin' powerful straight up an' down. 'Tis scandalous to think - but in a fire, an' runnin' in their nighties,' they'd not stop to think. Go away, ye two little imps, there! The bottle's in your pocket? You'll not lose good hold av the irons. What is ut? - Oh!'
Sister Ursula retreated into the cellar, dropped on her knees, and was praying - praying as Lady Godiva prayed before she mounted her palfrey. The caretaker's wife had barely time to cross herself and follow her example when she was on her feet again, and her feet were on the lowest rungs of the ladder.
'Hould tight,' said the caretaker's wife. 'Oh, darlint, wait till Mike comes! Come down, now! - the good angels be wid yo. There should have been a way at the back. Walk tinderly and hould tight. Heaven above sind there'll be no wind! Oh, why wasn't his ugly rooms at the back, where 'tis only yards and bedroom windows!.
The voice grew fainter and stopped. Sister Ursula was at the level of the first-floor windows when the two children caught sight of her, raising together a shrill shout. The devil that delights in torturing good nuns inspired them next to separate and run the one up and the other down the avenue, yelling, 'O-oh! There's a nun on the fire-escape! A nun on the fire-escape!' and, since one word at least was familiar, a score of heads came to windows in the avenue, and were much interested.
In spite of her prayers, Sister Ursula was not happy. The medicine-bottle banged and bumped in her pocket as she gripped the iron bars hand over hand and toiled aloft. 'It is for the sake of a life,' she panted to herself. 'It is a good work. He might die if I did not come. Ah! it is terrible.' A flake of rust from the long disused irons had fallen on her nose. The rungs were chafing her hands, and the minutes were flying. The round, red face of the caretaker's wife grew smaller and smaller below her, and there was a rumbling of wheels in the avenue. An idle coachman, drawn by the shouts of the children, had turned the corner to see what was to be seen. And Sister Ursula climbed in agony of spirit, the heelless black cloth shoes that nuns wear slipping on the rungs of the ladder, and all earth reeling a hundred thousand feet below. She passed one set of apartments, and they were empty of people, but the fire, the books on the table, and the child's toy cast on the hearth-rug showed it was deserted only for a minute. Sister Ursula drew breath on the balcony, and then hurried upward. There was iron rust red on both her hands, the front of her gown was speckled with it, and a reflection in the stately double window showed a stainless stiff fold of her headgear battered down over her eye. Her shoe, yes, the mended one, had burst at the side near the toe in a generous bulge of white stockings. She climbed on wearily, for the bottle was swinging again, and in her ears there came unbidden the nursery refrain that she used to sing to the little sick children in the hospital at Quebec:
'This is the cow with the crumpled horn.'
Between earth and heaven, it is said, the soul on its upward journey must pass the buffeting of many evil spirits. There flashed into Sister Ursula's mind the remembrance of a picture of a man gazing from the leads down the side of a house - a wonderful piece of foreshortening that made one dizzy to see. Where had she seen that picture? Memory, that works indifferently on earth or in vacuo, told her of a book read by stealth in her novitiate, such a book as perils body and soul, and Sister Ursula blushed redder than the brickwork a foot before her nose. Everything that she had read in or thought about that book raced through her mind as all his past life does not race through the soul of a drowning man. It was horrible, most horrible. Then rose a fierce wave of rage and indignation that she, a sister of irreproachable life and demeanor (the book had been an indiscretion, long since bitterly repented of), should be singled out for these humiliating exercises. There were other nuns of her acquaintance, proud, haughty, and overbearing (her foot slipped here as a reminder against the sin of hasty judgments, and she felt that it was a small and niggling Justice that counted offences at such a crisis), and - and thinking too much of their holiness, to whom this mortification, with all the rust flakes in bosom and kerchief, would have been salutary and wholesome. But that she, Sister Ursula, who only desired a quiet life, should climb fire-escapes in the face of the shameless sun and a watching population! It was too terrible. None the less she did not come down. Praying to be delivered from evil thoughts, praying that the swinging bottle would not smash itself against the iron ladders, she toiled on. The second and third flats were empty, and she heard a murmur in the street; a hum of encouraging tumult, cheerful outcries bidding her go up higher, and crisp inquiries as to whether this were the end of the performance. Her Saint - she that had not prevailed against the Huns - would not help Sister Ursula, and it came over her, as cold water slides down the spine, that at her journey's end she would have to-go-through-the window. There is no vestibule, portico, or robing-room at the upper end of a fire-escape. It is designed for such as move in a hurry, being for the most part not over-dressed, and yet seeking publicity - that publicity that came to Sister Ursula unsought. She must go through that window in order to give her invalid his medicine. Her head must go first, and her foot, with the bursten shoe, must go last. It was the very breaking point in the strain, and here her Saint, mistaking the needs of the case, sent her a companion. Her head was level with the window of the fourth story, and she was rejoicing to find that that also was empty when the door opened, and there entered a man something elderly, of prominent figure, and dressed according to the most rigid canons laid down for afternoon visits. He was millions of leagues removed from Sister Ursula's world - this person with the tall silk hat, the long frock-coat, the light gray trousers, and tiny yellow buttonhole rose, and the marvelous puffed cravat anchored about with black pearl-headed pins. But an imperative need for justification was upon her. Her own mission, the absolute rightness of her own mission, were so clear to herself that she never doubted anyone might misunderstand when she pointed upward to the skies, and the flat above.
The man, who was in the act of laying his tall hat absently upon the table, looked up as the shadow took the light, saw the gesture, and stared. Then his jaw dropped, and his face became ashy gray. Sister Ursula had never seen Terror in the flesh, well-dressed and fresh from a round of calls. She gathered herself up to climb on, but the man within uttered a cry that even the double windows could not altogether stifle, and ran round the room in circles as a dog runs seeking a lost glove.
'He is mad,' thought Sister Ursula. 'Oh, heavens, and that is what has driven him mad.' He was stooping fondly over something that seemed like the coffin of a little child. Then he rushed directly at the window open-mouthed. Sister Ursula went upward and onward, none the less swiftly because she had heard a muffled oath, the crash of broken glass, and the tinkling of the broken splinters on the pavestones below. For the second time only in her career, she looked down - down between the ladder and the wall. A silk hat was bobbing wildly, as a fishing-float on a troubled stream, not a dozen rungs beneath, and a voice - the voice of fear - cried hoarsely: 'Where is it? Where is it?' Then went up to the roofs the roaring and the laughter of a great crowd; yells, cat-calls, ki-yis, and hootings many times multiplied. Her Saint had heard her at last, and caused Sister Ursula to disregard the pains of going through the window. Her one desire now was to reach that haven, to jump, dive, leap-frog through it if necessary, and shut out the unfortunate maniac. It was a short race, but swift, and Saint Ursula took care of the bottle. A long course of afternoon calls, with refreshments at clubs, in the intervals, is not such good training as the care of the sick in all weathers for sprinting over a course laid at ninety degrees. Nor again can the best of athletes go swiftly up a ladder if he carries a priceless violin in one hand and its equally priceless bow in his teeth, and handicaps himself with varnished leather buttoned boots. They climbed, the one below the other. The window at the foot of the invalid's bed was open. At the next window was the white face of the invalid. Sister Ursula reached the sash, threw it up, went through - let no man ask how - shut it gently but with amazing quickness, and sank panting at the foot of the bed, one hand on the bottle.
'There was no other way,' she panted. 'The door was locked. I could not help. Oh! He is here!'
The face of Terror in the top hat rose to the window-level inch by inch. The violin-bow was between his teeth, and his hat hung over one eye in the fashion of early dawn. 'It's Cott van Cott,' said the invalid, slowly and critically. 'He looks quite an old man. Cott and his Strad. How very bad for the Strad!'
'Open the window. Where is it? Is there a way? Open the window!' roared Cott, without removing the violin-bow. Sister Ursula held up one hand warningly as she stooped over the invalid.
For the second time did Cott misinterpret the gesture and heaved himself upward, the violin and bow clicking and rattling at every stride. He was fleeing to the leads to save his life and his violin from death by fire - fire in the basement - and the crowd in the street roared below him with the roar of a full-fed conflagration.
The invalid fell back on the pillows and wiped his eyes. The hands of the clock were on the hour appointed for the medicine, lacking only the thirty seconds necessary for pouring it into a wineglass. He took it from Sister Ursula's hand, still shaking with helpless laughter. 'God bless you, Sister Ursula,' he said. 'You've saved my life.'
'The medicine was to be given,' she answered simply. 'I - I could not help coming that way.' 'If you only knew,' said the invalid. 'If you only knew! I saw it from out of the windows. Good heavens! the dear old world is just the same as ever. I must get back to it. I must positively get well and get back. And, Sister Ursula, do you mind telling me when you're quite composed everything that happened between the time the door shut and - and you came in that way?'
After a little Sister Ursula told, and the invalid laughed himself faint once more. When Sister Ursula resettled the pillows, her hand fell on the butt of a revolver that had come from the desk by the head of the bed. She did not understand what it was, but the sight pained her. 'Wait a minute,' said the invalid, and he took one cartridge from its inside. 'I - I wanted to use it for something before you went out, but I saw you come up, and I don't want it any more. I must certainly get back to the world again. Dear old world! Nice old world! And Mrs. Cassidy prayed with you in the cellar, did she? And Van Cott thought it was a fire? Do you know, Sister Ursula, that all those things would have been impossible on any other planet? I'm going to get well, Sister Ursula.'
In the long night, Sister Ursula, blushing all over under the eyes of the night-light, heard him laughing softly in his sleep.