A great fire was burning in the hearth, and all that could be done to lessen the evil had been accomplished. There was one attendant in this room, which was set apart for men, and he was just now bending over a delirious youth, striving to restrain his wild ravings and to induce him to remain in his bed. This attendant had his back to Joan, but she saw by his actions and his calm self possession that he was no novice to his task; and she walked softly through the pestilential place, feeling that she should not appeal to him for help in vain.
As the sound of the light, firm tread sounded upon the bare boards of the floor, the attendant suddenly lifted himself and turned round. Joan uttered a quick exclamation of surprise, which was echoed by the person in question.
“Raymond!” she exclaimed breathlessly.
“Joan! Thou here, and at such a time as this!”
And then they both stood motionless for a few long moments, feeling that despite the terrible scenes around and about them, the very gates of Paradise had opened before them, turning everything around them to gold.
CHAPTER XXI. THE OLD, OLD STORY
The scourge had passed. It had swept over the length and breadth of the region of which Guildford formed the centre, and had done its terrible work of destruction there, leaving homes desolated and villages almost depopulated. It was still raging in London, and was hurrying northward and eastward with all its relentless energy and deadliness; but in most of the places thus left behind its work seemed to be fully accomplished, and there were no fresh cases.
People began to go about their business as of old. Those who had fled returned to their homes, and strove to take up the scattered threads of life as best they might. In many cases whole families had been swept out of existence; in others (more truly melancholy cases), one member had escaped when all the rest had perished. The religious houses were crowded with the helpless orphans of the sufferers in the epidemic, and the summer crops lay rotting in the fields for want of labourers to get them in.
John’s house in Guildford had by this time reassumed its normal aspect. The last of the sick who had not been carried to the grave, but had recovered to return home, had now departed, with many a blessing upon the master, whose act of piety and charity had doubtless saved so many lives at this crisis. The work the young man had set himself to do had been nobly accomplished; but the task had been one beyond his feeble strength, and he now lay upon a couch of sickness, knowing well, if others did not, that his days were numbered.
He had fallen down in a faint upon the very day that the last patient had been able to leave his doors. For a moment it was feared that the poison of the distemper had fastened upon him; but it was not so. The attack was but due to the failure of the heart’s action — nature, tried beyond her powers of endurance, asserting herself at last — and they laid him down in his old favourite haunt, with his books around him, having made the place look like it did before the house had been turned into a veritable hospital and mortuary.