Gifts of Oblivion

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Gifts of Oblivion

BY DOROTHY CANFIELD


HIS was not one of the usual cases of failure of memory, written up picturesquely in the newspapers. After his sojourn in chaos he did not return to life as an unrecognized bit of wreckage, to be sent finally from the hospital without a label. Every one knew all the details of the accident, and knew him to be Matthew Warren. And yet when the doctor, the well-known James Farquhar, M.D., who was the closest friend of the injured man and his wife, pronounced the acute danger past and said that he might be allowed to see his family for a moment, Matthew Warren looked dully at the handsome woman and the two blooming children who, showing a frightened tendency to tears, came to the private room at the hospital to stand by his bedside. "Who are those people?" he asked his nurse, with the weak curiosity of a sick man, losing interest as he spoke. His wife drew back quickly. Dr. Farquhar motioned the visitors away. He did not seem surprised. From that time he was constantly in the sick man's room.

It was not until several days later that the slowly rising tide of Matthew Warren's vitality reached the point where he felt the significance of his condition. He woke from sleep with a scream which brought the watchful doctor to him in a bound. "Who am I? Who am I?" he called, wildly; and then, controlling himself with an effort, clutching at the doctor's arm, his teeth chattering loudly, he added, "I'm very s-s-sorry to trouble you, b-b-but I seem to have h-h-had a nightmare of some s-s-sort, and I can't—I can't remember who I am."

Two months later, when he seemed quite himself again physically, the doctor, having exhausted all other devices, resolved to try taking the sick man home. Perhaps, he argued dubiously, the utter familiarity of his surroundings might speak to his clouded brain. The experiment was tried. Matthew Warren, to all appearances restored to perfect health, went along docilely with his old friend, whom he continued to treat as a new acquaintance. He stepped into the train with no surprise, looked about him quietly, opened a window en route with a practised commuter's knowledge of the catch, and talked, as he had ever since his recovery, calmly and simply of the every-day objects before him. He was especially interested in the first signs of spring in the early April landscape, pointing out to his companion with great pleasure the gray sheen of pussy willows and, as the train approached the prosperous suburban region, stretches of brilliantly green lawns.

As he walked up the well-raked gravel of the driveway toward his own expensive house he might have been the old Matthew Warren returning, as usual, after his day in the city; and coming to meet him, as usual, was Mrs. Matthew Warren, looking very picturesque in a dress he had always especially admired.

She advanced slowly, shrinking a little, very pale. She had never recovered from the shock of meeting those blankly unresponsive eyes at the hospital. It had wounded and withered something deep in her. Dr. Farquhar looked at her keenly, noting with disapproval the signs of suppressed agitation. He regretted having undertaken the risk of the experiment.

Matthew Warren lifted his hat as she drew near. "I hope you will pardon our trespassing upon your beautiful grounds," he said. She winced at the distant courtesy of the gesture and his accent. He went on, "My friend has, I believe, some errand bringing him here." He put on his hat, stepped a little to one side, to allow his wife and the doctor to walk together, and in an instant was absorbed in the green spears of the daffodils thrusting their vigorous, glistening shafts through the earth.

The woman questioned the doctor with a mute gaze in which was offended pride, as well as grief and bewilderment. She had been the handsomest girl in her set and unreservedly indulged by her husband throughout her married life. Until now she had been always a perfectly satisfied woman, and something in her heart had grown great and exacting, which now revolted angrily against this grotesque trial put upon her by fate.

"Let us try the house," said the specialist.

She walked beside him in silence. Matthew Warren followed them slowly, gazing about him at the newly green lustrous grass and at the trees swinging swollen buds in the warm, damp air. He looked curiously young, not so old, by ten years at least, as the man who, three months before, throwing a reckless wager over his shoulders to those in the tonneau, had clamped down the brake which did not work.

"Jim, I thought best not to have the children here," whispered his wife to the doctor.

He nodded assent. "One can never tell how it will affect him. It has been an especially hard case, because the mere mention of his lost identity throws him into a fever. Otherwise he has been quite reasonable. You must remember that it is absolutely essential to keep perfectly calm yourself. He is a very, very sick man."

Mrs. Warren glanced at her husband and shivered throughout all her big, handsome, healthy body. She seemed to herself to be in a nightmare. It was all incredible. That she, of all people, should be in such a situation!

The owner of the house stepped up on the broad piazza and looked admiringly at the view of the Hudson, the view which he had discovered, and for the sake of which the house had been located where it stood.

"What a splendid stretch of the river your piazza commands!" he said, pleasantly, to his hostess, as the three stood expectantly before the door. She looked at the doctor and opened the door without speaking, motioning her guests into the big living-room, all in leather shades of brown and tan, with coals shimmering in the fireplace Matthew Warren had designed. Again he broke their silence with a pleasant comment:

"How superb those tulips are! They are more like fire than the fire itself." He glanced casually, indifferently, into his wife's face, then at the doctor, evidently with a moment's wonder that he did not introduce the object of their call, and then away, absently, out of the window. A lilac bush grew near it, and with an exclamation of delight he sprang up to examine it more closely. "Some of those buds are opening!" he announced joyfully to the two who watched him so narrowly. "I see a real little leaf—oh, and another!"

He was answered by an hysteric scream from his wife, and whirled about in astonishment to see the doctor motioning her sternly to silence. She clapped her shaking hand over her mouth, but she could not repress another scream as she met her husband's politely concerned, questioning eyes. And then suddenly she took matters in her own hands. She flung aside the doctor's detaining arm and rushed toward the sick man, crying out:

"Matt! Matt! come to yourself! Look at me! Why, I'm Molly! I'm Molly!" She threw her arms around his neck, sobbing furiously.

Almost instantly she recoiled from his rigid, unresponsive body as violently as she had flung herself upon it. Matthew Warren did not seem aware of her at all. He stood quite still, his eyes turning with a sick slowness upon the doctor.

"Who am I?" he asked, solemnly. His face and neck were of a dull, congested red, and the veins stood out visibly.

Dr. Farquhar, making the best of a bad turn of events, decided to risk all on a bold stroke. He advanced and said, clearly and masterfully, "You are my dear old friend Matthew Warren, and I am Jim Farquhar, and this is your home and your wife."

The other stood motionless. His eyes were fixed on a point in space incalculably distant. After a moment he turned stiffly and walked toward the door.

"There is some mistake," he said, fumbling at the latch. "I cannot for the moment remember who I am, but I have never been in this house before, and this is the first time I ever saw that lady." His trembling hands failed to open the door at once, and the trifling delay seemed the match touched to the tinder of his disordered fancies, for he began to beat on the lock and to scream: "I don't know who I am! Why doesn't somebody tell me who I am! I can't remember who—" Before the doctor could reach him he had gone down in so horridly dislocated and inhuman a heap that his wife ran shrieking from the room and from the house.

His prostration after this second shock was so great that he could not be moved back to the hospital, and he spent the slow month of collapse and utter weakness which followed in his own bed in his own room under the care of two men nurses. His wife had insisted upon men, having a panic fear of a return of his violence. The doctor advised her to keep out of the sick-room, counsel which she seemed not eager to disregard. The children she sent quite away, out of town. In her lonely and frightened days and nights she frequently asked herself with passion what wicked thing she could have done to be so unhappy now! She had a horror of her husband's presence, although she made a gallant effort to conceal this from the doctor, whom she suspected of watching her jealously for a sign of it; and as the master of the house grew stronger, so that he was reported to her up and dressed, she looked forward to the future with unspeakable dread.

And yet, on the day when, evading his nurses with an insane man's cunning, he crept from the house and disappeared, she led the search for him with unwearied faithfulness, following out every clue suggested to her, setting every possible agency in action, and going unflinchingly with the doctor to look at a corpse recovered from the river. After ten days of this sort of bad dream, Matthew Warren was discovered, not a mile from his own house. He was spading up a bed in the garden of old Timothy O'Donovan, the truck-farmer who supplied the prosperous suburb with green vegetables. As the lost man spaded, he whistled loudly, like a plowboy. The truck-farmer had not dreamed that the battered, muddy, half-witted wayfarer who had asked for work a week before, and who had set himself so vigorously and cheerfully at the tasks given him, could be the wealthy, influential Mr. Warren who owned the fine house at the other end of town.

There was a consultation of brain specialists, Dr. Farquhar, and Mrs. Warren herself. She was questioned minutely as to her husband's mental habits and tendencies, and finally succeeded in unearthing from her memory, never very vivid about other people's preferences, the fact (perhaps significant, the doctors thought) that after she and Matthew were first married, when they were quite poor, Matthew had seemed to enjoy working the bit of land about their first small home.

"But of course," she explained, "as his business grew so rapidly and took more of his time he did less and less of it. We have had a gardener ever since we lived in this house."

It was agreed that in the break-up of his higher faculties he might have returned with a blind instinct to a youthful latent inclination, and that for a while it was best to leave him where he was and trust to the slow healing influence of time and improved physical health, since all other curative means had failed. If Mrs. Warren felt an involuntary relief at this decision, she hid it deep in her heart, and throughout the discussion she showed herself loyally willing to do whatever seemed best for the man who had been her husband. And so began the anomalous situation which was to last so long that even village tongues stopped gossiping of it.

Mrs. Warren's first distracted impulse had been to take the children and go away—abroad, perhaps. That had seemed to her the only endurable future. But she gave up this plan when the doctor showed a disappointed and sternly disapproving surprise that she "abandon" a man who might be in desperate need at almost any time.

"I see, Jim—yes, of course, I see," she had submissively assented. She cared intensely that those who knew of this crisis in her life should approve her action.

As a matter of fact, her acquiescence to his opinion cost her far less than she feared. The miraculous capacity of life to renew itself under any and all circumstances came brilliantly to the rescue of a nature normal above everything else. It was not long before she and the children had reorganized an existence which was tolerable at first, and then, as time slid smoothly by without change, not without its great compensations. There was plenty of money, since Matthew's business had been disposed of at a good profit, and there was very little care. The children, ten and twelve respectively, enjoyed perfect health, grew fast, were not troublesome to their vigorous mother, and had absorbing youthful interests of their own. They adapted themselves with great tact and good sense to their peculiar situation. Like their mother, they were large and comely, with a healthfully ready ability to be satisfied with life. It was hard to connect the well-groomed, trimly attired, prepossessing trio, riding and driving about the "residential portion" of the suburb, with the shabby, half-daft hired man in overalls who rarely left the truck-farm at the other end of town. In a surprisingly short time even those who knew of the unprecedented circumstances came almost involuntarily to regard Mrs. Warren as a highly ornamental widow, and the children as half-orphans.

Not that they themselves had the bad taste to make a mystery of the affair. The sad story was told with a frank sadness to their intimates, and roused among the young friends of the children a sort of romantic admiration for their extraordinary situation. From the first they had all three followed to the letter the doctor's recommendation to keep away from the region of the truck-farm. They depended for news of the sick man upon the doctor himself, who took care to go past the O'Donovan place at not infrequent intervals to inquire particulars of the new "help."

There, too, as frequently happens with busy people absorbed in their own difficult affairs, O'Donovan and his wife adjusted themselves to the singular state of things with a rapidity which astonished them. The half-fearful curiosity they had felt toward the new laborer when they first learned his identity gave way little by little to an unsurprised acquiescence in his kindly, simple presence and his peculiarities. For the second shock, which had come to him during his wife's wild appeal, had, it seemed, been even more violent than the first. He had seemed only to forget his identity before. Now he had lost it. He could not now have opened automatically the window in the commuter's train. That second month of oblivion had left him with practically no memory of any kind. He not only did not know who he was, but he could not remember from one day to the next. From morning till night he was like other men; but at every dawn he rose up singing, with a mind as blank of past experiences as a little child's.

This was, of course, until a way had been invented to obviate it, the cause of the greatest practical inconvenience, since he could not remember instructions given him the day before, nor even to continue a task half completed. The trucker and his wife had several highly irritating experiences with him, as on the occasion when, having been set to plow a patch in the garden, he went on plowing because nobody told him to stop and he had forgotten orders given him the day before, until he had turned under all the sod of the O'Donovans' only meadow. Finally, applying their Celtic wits to the problem, they took advantage of the capacity of their new servant for fluent reading and writing. They gave him a standing order to carry about with him a pad of paper and a pencil, to set down in black and white every instruction given him, and to consult it at every step. He obeyed this command with a smiling, absent docility, giving, as always at this period of his life, the strange impression of one wrought upon by sweet and secret thoughts. The O'Donovans said that to see him walk across the barnyard you would know he was fey.

After this device was in working order, O'Donovan boasted that no man could wish for better help than this stalwart, cheerful, deft-handed laborer, who loved every plant in the long rows of the truck-farm, worked, whistling and singing, all day long, and never asked for a holiday. For a long time his only excursions away from the farm were on Sundays, when he went with his employer and Mrs. O'Donovan to the little Roman Catholic church set in the midst of the poorer quarter of the suburb. He could not follow the mass, but it gave him obvious pleasure to listen to the music and to look at the priest's robes and the red and white of the acolytes' garb.

Two years after his arrival at the farm he could scarcely have been recognized by his wife and children if they had seen him. Like his employer, he had allowed his beard to grow, a thick mass of brown, without a gray hair in it, although Dr. Farquhar knew him to be nearly fifty. Above this, his tanned, ruddy face and quiet eyes gave no hint of the keen animation and the piercingly satirical look which had been Matthew Warren's.

Timothy O'Donovan and his wife, childless, solitary old people, came to love the kindly "innocent," whom they regarded as a child, almost as though he had been of their own blood. Old Mrs. O'Donovan especially petted him and cherished him, and lavished on him the affection which she had been so ready to give the son Heaven had never granted her. As she and her husband grew older, and as this adopted member of their family began to seem more "like other people," read books, studied farming and trucking seriously, and recovered something of his shattered memory for every-day events, he was trusted with more and more of the farming and the business. The slow clearing of his mind brought out traces of his superior education, and this, together with a considerable native aptitude for the business, was a great asset to the primitive older farmer. They started tentatively some hot-beds for early vegetables which later grew by degrees to a greenhouse. The younger man, after several years of experimenting, developed a new variety of tomato, especially suited to their conditions. He called it, after Mrs. O'Donovan, the "Aileen," a tribute which pleased her greatly. Not having a name of his own, the assistant took that of his employer, and the newer people of the town thought them father and son. Sometimes he drove the delivery wagon into town to the market, early in the morning, and later, so little vivid did his past seem to the O'Donovans, was sent once in a while to the Warren house to deliver at the tradesman's door their daily supply of fresh salads.

When Mrs. O'Donovan died he mourned her with sorrow so sincere that her bereaved old husband felt him to be the one link which still bound him to life, and seven years later, when old Timothy himself passed away in the arms of his faithful servitor, it was found that he had left the farm and house to the wanderer who, twelve years before, haggard and nameless, had stumbled desperately up his garden path.

The new farmer was not long to lead a solitary life. A great-nephew of O'Donovan's, a boy of fourteen, left orphaned in Ireland before his uncle's death, had already started out to the States, and four or five days after the funeral he arrived at the house, horribly frightened at everything so strange and different, horribly homesick, horribly alone, and more than willing to accept the instantly offered home thrown open to him by his uncle's successor, whom he thought his own blood relative. When he had recovered from his first panic he proved himself very useful to the solitary man. He was of the shrinking, shy, fawn-eyed type of Irish boy, very handy about the house, "as good as a girl," his dead mother had often said of him, and he took over the domestic end of the new partnership. He proved to have a taste for music, and his guardian arranged for a weekly lesson from a violinist in town. He himself sat in the evenings on the porch, smoking, reading, and listening with a pleased smile to the singing of the fiddle in the room behind him. They were both always in bed by nine o'clock.

Sometimes, for an outing, he took the lad with him on his trips to town, pointing out, among other objects of interest, the fine houses of the wealthy residents and, on the rare occasions when they were detained so long as to witness the awakening of the suburb, the miraculously well-tailored people who inhabited them. His daughter, after a very successful young-ladyhood competently managed by her mother, was married now to a prosperous, hard-working, commuting banker, considerably older than herself, and lived in a house a little more expensive and very much more in accord with the latest fashions in domestic architecture than her mother's, which was now, in the swiftly advancing American town, one of the "older residences." His son still lived at home, a famous tennis-player and athlete, who occasionally, flanneled to perfection, walked past on his way to the tennis-courts, or, his smooth yellow hair tossed back from his healthy, unexcited face, galloped on his well-groomed hunter past his father's vegetable cart. Mrs. Warren too was to be seen not infrequently, as handsome, though not as slender, as formerly, the image of good comfort and good fortune, hurrying from one engagement to another, consulting her watch and tapping a well-dressed foot in impatience at the slowness of her car, as in years gone by. She had never thought, apparently, of seeking a divorce from her husband. Among her numerous friends this constancy was much admired.

These swept by the burly, elderly gardener without a look, quite sincerely unaware of his identity. They relied on the doctor to let them know if the now quite unlooked-for "change" should ever take place, and they all of them led absorbing lives of the greatest interest to themselves.

Dr. Farquhar, whom the gardener had come to know again in his new existence through his visits to the two O'Donovans, always nodded as he passed, and received in return a respectful tradesman's salute.

Of all those concerned he alone continued to be desperately nreconciled to the state of things. His physician's pride had been stung by his professional defeat, which had, moreover, involved the ruin of his dearest friend. In spite of the friendly cordiality of Mrs. Warren, he could never rid himself of an unworthy and unfair tendency to blame her for her own untroubled good fortune. He was frequently called to the Warren house professionally and could not enter that dignified home of ease without thinking bitterly of the man exiled from it and from all his natural birthright, to poverty and obscurity, and grinding daily manual labor. He compared Mrs. Warren's smooth, aristocratic, significant hands with the work-worn claws of the ignorant old Irishwoman who had furnished so long poor Warren's only contact with the refinements of the world of women. He thought of Warren's own hands, which he had known so sensitive and nervously active, now thickened and calloused, lying half open on his knees, in the dull passivity of the laboring-man. Once or twice the doctor had been compelled to take a meal en famille with the Warrens, and the delicately served food had choked him. He remembered that Warren usually nowadays sat down to a single coarse dish of stew, prepared by the little Irish lout whom he had adopted. He looked about him at the tasteful elegance of the spacious interior and thought of the bare four-roomed cabin which now sheltered the master of this house. The faithful friend, feeling Warren's grotesque and tragic fate as though it were his own, had never been able to stay all through one of Mrs. Warren's evening entertainments. The well-to-do atmosphere of expansive ease and affluence in those handsome rooms formed too embittering a contrast in his loyal mind with the imprisoning round of toil of his friend and the rustic companionship which was the only break in the solitude of his life.

Once, as the doctor fled desperately away from a cotillion, and came out shivering into the cold dawn, shrugging on his overcoat and frowning, he caught sight of the O'Donovan vegetable cart making its early start for the market. He stood still in front of the Warren house, the chilly morning air whipping streaks of red up into his pale reveler's face. The horses jogged by, Warren holding the reins loosely, his powerful body lounging on the seat, his coarse shirt open at the throat. Dr. Farquhar gazed at his weather-beaten face and raged inwardly. As the cart passed the entrance to the driveway the driver glanced up at the Warren house, saw the lighted windows yellow in the clear, blue dawn, and then caught sight of the doctor hugging his Inverness about him. He nodded cheerfully.

"It's a fine morning, Doctor," he called, and passed on.

The doctor heard him begin a moment later to whistle loudly, the sweet, shrill treble piercing the air like a bird's note.

Dr. Farquhar clenched his fists angrily. He thought of the brilliant future which had lain open before his friend, he remembered his absorbing, crowded life of varied intellectual interests, his first promising success in politics, the beginning of his reputation as an after-dinner speaker, his growing influence in financial circles, his notable social gifts, and then his beautiful, faithful wife, his creditable, highly successful children—and then—ah, what a professional triumph to effect such a cure after so long! The doctor said aloud:

"I will go to see that man in Vienna. There's no harm in watching him operate."


Four months later he was back again, and went straight from the station, where he landed at dusk, to the O'Donovan farmhouse. It was early autumn and, although not yet eight o'clock, the first stars were already emerging from a pure, quiet sky. He heard the singing of the violin as he went up the walk, and in answer to his knock young Tim came to the door, the echo of the music on his still dreaming face.

"He's in the garden, sir, the master is, but if you'll kindly take a seat I'll step an' call him. He likes to take one look around before we go to bed. They say around here that he can't sleep unless he's tucked the plants up and given them a pat like."

Dr. Farquhar sat down and crossed his legs. The hanging foot jerked nervously. It was extremely quiet there on the side road. He could hear the distant murmur of the boy's voice and the man's answer. He could count every step of their return as though they were the beats of his own heart—across the soft ground of the field, the dusty road, the hard- beaten path. The big, roughly dressed man stood there before him, looking up at him with a quiet smile.

"Were you wanting to see me, Doctor?" said the gardener.

The doctor rose, breathing quickly, facing the other's kindly, patient eyes with some nervous irritation.

"Yes, yes—I have a great deal to say to you, Mr.—" He hesitated, balked over the name, used his hesitation as a desperately seized opening, and said, impatiently, "Of course you know that your name is not really O'Donovan."

The gardener turned to the slim figure loitering at the gate and called, "Tim, 'tis time you were in bed." The lad moved obediently up the path, humming under his breath the slow melody he had been playing on his violin.

"All right, Uncle," he said, good-humoredly, and disappeared.

The gardener sat down on the edge of the tiny porch. "I take it it is something very particular you have to say, Doctor?" he asked, not without a touch of apprehension in his voice.

The doctor nodded and began to speak rapidly, violently. He had not gone far before the gardener stood up in evident agitation. He shook his head, frowning, and motioned the other to silence.

"I'm all right as I am," he said, curtly. "What is the good of prying into what's long past and nobody knows about, anyhow. Such things oughtn't to be stirred up—they only—" The doctor beginning to talk again, he raised 'his voice to cry angrily: "I don't want to hear any more such talk! 'Tis better to take things as they are. Nobody is the better for prying into secrets that—"

Dr. Farquhar flew at him in a passion of intensity which beat down his opposition. "Will you listen to me!" he commanded in a voice of fury. "Just listen to what I have to say! Almost your life and death are at stake. You shall listen!"

The gardener gave a gesture of impatience, but he sat down and did not again interrupt the doctor's vehement monologue. Occasionally he rubbed his big palms on his knees stiffly. The crickets sang loudly. From up-stairs Tim's window threw a square of yellow light on the flower-beds in the front yard. His clear alto dropped down to them in snatches of his slowly moving adagio. The stars came out, one by one, and then in clusters, until an innumerable radiant company shone down on the two figures on the porch. The doctor's harangue drew to a close.

"I have followed your case from the beginning; and although one can never be absolutely sure of the results of so grave an operation, I am so certain that I cannot but insist that you place yourself in my hands. When you have come to yourself and realize your lost identity, you will fully understand and share the intensity of my feeling on this point—" He stopped to draw breath, leaning forward toward the man he was addressing, his brows drawn together as he tried to read the other man's expression. The faint light of the stars allowed him to see that the other's face showed emotion. It seemed a good moment for a pause.

The light went out in the room above them. The crickets had stopped chirping. It was in an intense silence that the man in the rough clothes turned his head and looked strangely at the doctor. He drew a long breath and said, gravely, "Why, Jim, my memory came back more than eight years ago."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1958, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.