The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/The Great Doctor
THE GREAT DOCTOR.
A STORY IN TWO PARTS.
Five or six years of the life of our hero we must now pass over in silence, saying of them, simply, that Fancy had not cheated much in her promises concerning them. The first rude cabin had given place to a whitewashed cottage; the chimney-corner was bright and warm; the easy-chair was in it, and the Widow Walker often sat there with her grandson on her knee, getting much comfort from the reflection that he looked just as her own Johnny did when he was a baby!
The garden smiled at the doorside, and the village had sprung up just as Fancy promised; and Hobert and Jenny walked to church of a Sunday, and after service shook hands with their neighbors,—for everybody delighted to take their strong, willing hands, and look into their honest, cheerful faces,—they were amongst the first settlers of the place, and held an honored position in society. Jenny was grown a little more stout, and her cheek a little more ruddy, than it used to be; but the new country seemed not so well suited to Hobert, and the well-wishing neighbor often said when he met him, "You mustn't be too ambitious, and overdo! Your shoulders ain't so straight as they was when you come here! Be careful in time; nothing like that, Walker, nothing like that." And Hobert laughed at these suggestions, saying he was as strong as the rest of them; and that, though his cheek was pale, and his chest hollow, he was a better man than he seemed.
The summer had been one of the wildest luxuriance ever known in the valley of the Wabash; for it was in that beautiful valley that our friend Hobert had settled. The woods cast their leaves early, and the drifts lay rotting knee-deep in places. Then came the long, hot, soaking rains, with hotter sunshine between. Chills and fever prevailed, and half the people of the neighborhood were shivering and burning at once. It was a healthy region, everybody said, but the weather had been unusually trying; as soon as the frost came, the ague would vanish; the water was the best in the world, to be sure, and the air the purest.
Hobert was ploughing a piece of low ground for wheat, cutting a black snake in two now and then, and his furrow behind him fast filling with water that looked almost as black as the soil. Often he stopped to frighten from the quivering flank of the brown mare before him the voracious horse-flies, colored like the scum of the stagnant pools, and clinging and sucking like leeches. She was his favorite, the pride of his farm,—for had she not, years before, brought Jenny on her faithful shoulder to the new, happy home? Many a fond caress her neck had had from his arm; and the fine bridle with the silver bit, hanging on the wall at home, would not have been afforded for any other creature in the world. Hobert often said he would never sell her as long as he lived; and in the seasons of hard work he favored her more than he did himself. She had been named Fleetfoot, in honor of her successful achievement when her master had intrusted to her carrying the treasure of his life; but that name proving too formal, she was usually called Fleety. She would put down her forehead to the white hands of little Jenny, four years old and upward now, and tread so slow and so carefully when she had her on her back! Even the white dress of Johnny Hobert had swept down her silken side more than once, while his dimpled hands clutched her mane, and his rosy feet paddled against her. He was going to be her master after a while, and take care of her in her old age, when the time of her rest was come; he knew her name as well as he knew his own, and went wild with delight when he saw her taking clover from the tiny hand of his sister or drinking water from the bucket at the well.
"She grows handsomer every year," Hobert often said; "and with a little training I would not be afraid to match her against the speediest racer they can bring." And this remark was always intended as in some sort a compliment to Jenny, and was always so received by her.
On this special day he had stopped oftener in the furrow than common; and as often as he stopped Fleety twisted round her neck, bent her soft eyes upon him, and twitched her little ears as though she would say, "Is not all right, my master?" And then he would walk round to her head, and pass his hand along her throat and through her foretop, calling her by her pet name, and pulling for her handfuls of fresh grass, and while she ate it resting himself against her, and feeling in her nearness almost a sense of human protection. His feet seemed to drag under him, and there was a dull aching in all his limbs; the world appeared to be receding from him, and at times he could hardly tell whether he stood upon solid ground. Then he accused himself of being lazy and good for nothing, and with fictitious energy took up the reins and started the plough.
He looked at the sun again and again. He was not used to leaving off work while the sun shone, and the clear waters of the Wabash held as yet no faintest evening flush. There were yet two good hours of working time before him, when the quick shooting of a pain, like the running of a knife through his heart, caused him to stagger in the furrow. Fleety stopped of her own accord, and looked pityingly back. He sat down beside the plough to gather up his courage a little. A strange sensation that he could not explain had taken possession of him, a feeling as if the hope of his life was cut off. The pain was gone, but the feeling of helpless surrender remained. He opened his shirt and passed his hand along his breast. He could feel nothing,—could see nothing; but he had, for all that, a clearly defined consciousness as of some deadly thing hold of him that he would fain be rid of.
He had chanced to stop his plough under an elm-tree, and, looking up, he perceived that from the fork upward one half of it was dead; mistletoe had sucked the life out of it, and lower and lower to the main body, deeper and deeper to the vital heart of it, the sap was being drawn away. An irresistible impulse impelled him to take the jack-knife from his pocket, and as far as he could reach cut away this alien and deadly growth. The sympathy into which he was come with the dying tree was positively painful to him, and yet he was withheld from moving on by a sort of fascination,—he was that tree, and the mistletoe was rooted in his bosom!
The last yellow leaves fluttered down and lodged on his head and shoulders and in his bosom,—he did not lift his hand to brush them away; the blue lizard slid across his bare ankle and silently vanished out of sight, but he did not move a muscle. The brown mare bent her side round like a bow, and stretched her slender neck out more and more, and at last her nose touched his cheek, and then he roused himself and shook the dead leaves from his head and shoulders, and stood up. "Come, Fleety," he said, "we won't leave the plough in the middle of the furrow." She did not move. "Come, come!" he repeated, "it seems like a bad sign to stop here";—and then he put his hand suddenly to his heart, and an involuntary shudder passed over him. Fleety had not unbent her side, and her dumb, beseeching eyes were still upon him. He looked at the sun, low, but still shining out bright, and almost as hot as ever; he looked at his shadow stretching so far over the rough, weedy ground, and it appeared to him strange and fantastic. Then he loosed the traces, and, winding up the long rein, hung it over the harness; the plough dropped aslant, and Fleety turned herself about and walked slowly homeward,—her master following, his head down and his hands locked together behind him.
The chimney was sending up its hospitable smoke, and Jenny was at the well with the teakettle in her hand when he came into the dooryard.
"What in the world is going to happen?" she exclaimed, cheerfully. "I never knew you to leave work before while the sun shone. I am glad you have, for once. But what is the matter?"
He had come nearer now, and she saw that something of light and hope had gone out of his face. And then Hobert made twenty excuses,—there wasn't anything the matter, he said, but the plough was dull, and the ground wet and heavy, and full of green roots; besides, the flies were bad, and the mare tired.
"But you look so worn out, I am afraid you are sick, yourself!" interposed the good wife; and she went close to him, and pushed the hair, growing thinner now, away from his forehead, and looked anxiously in his face,—so anxiously, so tenderly, that he felt constrained to relieve her fears, even at some expense of the truth.
"Not to look well in your eyes is bad enough," he answered, with forced cheerfulness, "but I feel all right; never better, never better, Jenny!" And stooping to his little daughter, who was holding his knees, he caught her up, and tossed her high in the air, but put her down at once, seeming almost to let her fall out of his hands, and, catching for breath, leaned against the well-curb.
"What is it, Hobert? what is it?" and Jenny had her arm about him, and was drawing him toward the house.
"Nothing, nothing,—a touch of rheumatism, I guess,—no, no! I must take care of the mare first." And as she drank the water from the full bucket he held poised on the curb for her, he thought of the elm-tree in the field he had left, of the mistletoe sucking the life out of it, and of the unfinished furrow. "Never mind, Fleety," he said, as he led her away to the stable, "we'll be up betimes to-morrow, and make amends, won't we?"
"I believe, mother, I'll put on the new teacups!" Jenny said, as she set a chair before the cupboard, and climbed on it so as to reach the upper shelf. She had already spread the best table-cloth.
"Why, what for?" asked the provident mother, looking up from the sock she was knitting.
"O, I don't know; I want to make things look nice, that's all."
But she did know, though the feeling was only half defined. It seemed to her as if Hobert were some visitor coming,—not her husband. A shadowy feeling of insecurity had touched her; the commonness of custom was gone, and she looked from the window often, as the preparation for supper went on, with all the sweetness of solicitude with which she used to watch for his coming from under the grape-vines. Little Jenny was ready with the towel when he came with his face dripping, and the easy-chair was set by the door that looked out on the garden. "I don't want it," the good grandmother said, as he hesitated; "I have been sitting in it all day, and am tired of it!"
And as he sat there with his boy on his knee, and his little girl, who had climbed up behind him, combing his hair with her slender white fingers,—his own fields before him, and his busy wife making music about the house with her cheerful, hopeful talk,—he looked like a man to be envied; and so just then he was.
The next morning he did not fulfil his promise to himself by rising early; he had been restless and feverish all night, and now was chilly. If he lay till breakfast was ready, he would feel better, Jenny said; she could milk, to be sure, and do all the rest of the work, and so he was persuaded. But when the breakfast was ready the chilliness had become a downright chill, so that the blankets that were over him shook like leaves in a strong wind.
Jenny had a little money of her own hidden away in the bottom of the new cream-pitcher. She had saved it, unknown to Hobert, from the sale of eggs and other trifles, and had meant to surprise him by appearing in a new dress some morning when the church-bell rang; but now she turned the silver into her hand and counted it, thinking what nice warm flannel it would buy to make shirts for Hobert. Of course he had them, and Jenny had not made any sacrifice that she knew of,—indeed, that is a word of which love knows not the meaning.
"We will have him up in a day or two," the women said, one to the other, as they busied themselves about the house, or sat at the bedside, doing those things that only the blessed hands of women can do, making those plans that only the loving hearts of women can make. But the day or two went by, and they didn't have Hobert up. Then they said to one another, "We must set to work in earnest; we have really done nothing for him as yet." And they plied their skill of nursing with new hope and new energy. Every morning he told them he was better, but in the afternoon it happened that he didn't feel quite like stirring about; he was still better, but he had a little headache, and was afraid of bringing on a chill.
"To be sure! you need rest and quiet; you have been working too hard, and it's only a wonder you didn't give out sooner!" So the two women said to him; and then they told him he looked better than he did yesterday, and, with much tender little caressing of neck and arms and hands, assured him that his flesh felt as healthy and nice as could be. Nevertheless, his eyes settled deeper and deeper, and gathered more and more of a leaden color about them; his skin grew yellow, and fell into wrinkles that were almost rigid, and that beseeching, yearning expression, made up of confidence in you, and terror of some nameless thing,—that look, as of a soul calling and crying to you, which follows you when you go farther than common from a sick-pillow,—all that terrible appealing was in his face; and often Jenny paused with her eyes away from him, when she saw that look,—paused, and steadied up her heart, before she could turn back and meet him with a smile.
And friendly neighbors came in of an evening, and told of the sick wife or boy at home; of the mildewed crop, and the lamed horse; of the brackish well, and of the clock bought from the pedler that wouldn't go, and wouldn't strike when it did go;—dwelling, in short, on all the darker incidents and accidents of life, and thus establishing a nearness and equality of relation to the sick man, that somehow soothed and cheered him. At these times he would be propped up in bed, and listen with sad satisfaction, sometimes himself entering with a sort of melancholy animation into the subject.
He would not as yet accept any offers of assistance. The wood-pile was getting low, certainly, and the plough still lying slantwise in the furrow; the corn-crop was to be gathered, and the potatoes to be got out of the ground,—but there was time enough yet! He didn't mean to indulge his laziness much longer,—not he!
And then the neighbor who had offered to serve him would laugh, and answer that he had not been altogether disinterested: he had only proposed to lend a helping hand, expecting to need the like himself some day. "Trouble comes to us all, Mr. Walker, and we don't know whose turn it will be next. I want to take out a little insurance,—that's all!"
"Well, another day, if I don't get better!"
And the long hot rains were over at last; the clouds drew themselves off, and the sharp frosts, of a morning, were glistening far and near; the pumpkin-vines lay black along the ground, and the ungathered ears of corn hung black on the stalk.
Hobert was no better. But still the two women told each other they didn't think he was any worse. His disease was only an ague, common to the time of year and to the new country. It had come on so late it was not likely now that he would get the better of it before spring; making some little sacrifices for the present, they must all be patient and wait; and the nursing went on, till every device of nursing was exhausted, and one remedy after another was tried, and one after another utterly failed, and the fond hearts almost gave out. But there was the winter coming on, cold and long, and there was little Hobert, only beginning to stand alone, and prattling Jenny, with the toes coming through her shoes, and her shoulder showing flat and thin above her summer dress. Ah! there could be no giving out; the mother's petticoat must be turned into aprons for the pinched shoulders, and the knit-wool stockings must make amends for the worn-out shoes. So they worked, and work was their greatest blessing. A good many things were done without consulting Hobert at all, and he was led to believe that all went easily and comfortably; the neighbors, from time to time, lent the helping hand, without so much as asking leave; and by these means there were a few potatoes in the cellar, a little corn in the barn, and a load of wood under the snow at the door.
The table was not spread in the sickroom any more, as it had been for a while. They had thought it would amuse Hobert to see the little household ceremonies going on; but now they said it was better to avoid all unnecessary stir. Perhaps they thought it better that he should not see their scantier fare. Still they came into his presence very cheerfully, never hinting of hardship, never breathing the apprehension that began to trouble their hearts.
It was during these long winter evenings, when the neighbors sat by the fire and did what they could to cheer the sick man and the sad women, that the wonderful merits of the great Doctor Killmany began to be frequently discussed. Marvellous stories were told of his almost superhuman skill. He had brought back from the very gate of death scores of men and women who had been given up to die by their physicians,—so it was said; and special instances of cures were related that were certainly calculated to inspire hope and confidence. None of these good people could of their own knowledge attest these wonderful cures; but there were many circumstances that added weight to the force of the general rumor.
Dr. Killmany lived a great way off, and he charged a great price. He would not look at a man for less than a hundred dollars, so report said, and that was much in his favor. He had a very short way with patients,—asked no questions, and never listened to explanations,—but could tie down a man and take off his leg or arm, as the case might be, in an incredibly short space of time, paying as little heed to the cries and groans as to the buzzing of the flies. If anything further had been needed to establish his fame, it would have been found in the fact that he was very rich, wearing diamonds in his shirt-bosom, driving fine horses, and being, in fact, surrounded with all the luxuries that money can procure. Of course, he was a great doctor. How could it be otherwise? And it was enough to know that a Mr. A had seen a Mr. B who knew a Mr. C whose wife's mother was cured by him!
At first these things were talked of in hearing of the sick man; then there began to be whispers about the fire as to the possibility of persuading him to sell all that he had and go to the great Doctor; for it was now pretty generally felt that the ague was only the accompaniment of a more terrible disease.
Then at last it was suggested, as a wild pleasantry, by some daring visitor, "Suppose, Hobert, we should send you off one of these days, and have you back after a few weeks, sound and vigorous as a young colt! What should you say to that, my boy?"
To the surprise of everybody, Hobert replied that he only wished it were possible.
"Possible! Why, of course it's possible! Where there's a will, you know!" And then it began to be talked of less as an insane dream.
One morning, as Jenny came into the sick man's room, she found him sitting up in bed with his shirt open and his hand on his breast.
"What is it, Hobert?" she said; for there was a look in his eyes that made her tremble.
"I don't know, Jenny; but whatever it is, it will be my death," he answered, and, falling upon her shoulder,—for she had come close to him and had her arm about his neck,—he sobbed like a child.
The little hand was slipped under his, but Jenny said she could feel nothing; and I think she will be forgiven for that falsehood. He was sick, she said, worn out, and it was no wonder that strange fancies should take possession of him. She had neglected him too much; but now, though everything should go to pieces, he should have her first care, and her last care, and all her care; he should not be left alone any more to conjure up horrors; and when he said he was weak and foolish and ashamed of his tears, she pacified him with petting and with praises. He was everything that was right, everything that was strong and manly. A little more patience, and then it would be spring, and the sunshine would make him well. She put the hair away from his forehead, and told him how fair in the face he was grown; and then she shoved his sleeve to his elbow, and told him that his arms were almost as plump as they ever were; and so he was comforted, cheered even, and they talked over the plans and prospects of years to come. At last he fell asleep with a bright smile of hope in his face, and Jenny stooped softly and kissed him, and, stealing away on tiptoe, hid herself from her good old mother and from the eyes of her children, and wept long and bitterly.
And the spring came, and Hobert crept out into the sunshine; but his cheek was pale, and his chest hollow, and there was more than the old listlessness upon him. As a tree that is dying will sometimes put forth sickly leaves and blossoms, and still be dying all the while, so it was with him. His hand was often on his breast, and his look often said, "This will be the death of me." The bees hummed in the flowers about his feet, the birds built their nests in the boughs above his head, and his children played about his knees; but his thoughts were otherwhere,—away beyond the dark river, away in that beautiful country where the inhabitants never say, "I am sick."
It was about midsummer that one Mrs. Brown, well known to Mrs. Walker's family, and to all the people of the neighborhood, as having suffered for many years with some strange malady which none of the doctors understood, sold the remnant of her property, having previously wasted nearly all she had upon physicians, and betook herself to the great Dr. Killmany. What her condition had actually been is not material to my story, nor is it necessary to say anything about the treatment she received at the hands of the great doctor. It is enough to say that it cost her her last dollar,—that she worked her slow way home as best she could, arriving there at last with shoes nearly off her feet and gown torn and faded, but with health considerably improved. That she had sold her last cow, and her feather-bed, and her teakettle, and her sheep-shears, and her grandfather's musket, all added wonderfully to the great doctor's reputation.
"You can't go to him if you don't go full-handed," said one to another; and he that heard it, and he that said it, laughed as though it were a good joke.
Some said he could see right through a man: there was no need of words with him! And others, that he could take the brains out of the skull, or the bones out of the ankles, and leave the patient all the better for it. In short, there was nothing too extravagant to be said of him; and as for Mrs. Brown, the person who had seen her became semi-distinguished. She was invited all over the neighborhood, and her conversation was the most delightful of entertainments. Amongst the rest, she visited Mr. Walker; and through her instrumentality, his strong desire to see the great Dr. Killmany was shaped into purpose.
Two of the cows were sold, most of the farming implements, and such articles of household furniture as could be spared; and with all this the money realized was but a hundred and fifty dollars. Then Jenny proposed to sell her side-saddle; and when that was gone, she said Fleety might as well go with it. "If you only come home well, Hobert," she said, "we will soon be able to buy her back again; and if you don't—but you will!"
So Fleetfoot went with the rest; and when for the last time she was led up before the door, and ate grass from the lap of little Jenny, and put her neck down to the caressing hands of young Hobert, it was a sore trial to them all. She seemed half conscious herself, indeed, and exhibited none of her accustomed playfulness with the children, but stood in a drooping attitude, with her eye intent upon her master; and when they would have taken her away, she hung back, and, stretching her neck till it reached his knees, licked his hands with a tenderness that was pitiful to see.
"Don't, Hobert, don't take on about it," Jenny said, putting back the heart that was in her mouth; "we will have her back again, you know!"—and she gave Fleetfoot a little box on the ear that was half approval and half reproach, and so led Hobert back into the house.
And that day was the saddest they had yet seen. And that night, when the sick man was asleep, the two women talked together and cried together, and in the end got such comfort as women get out of great sacrifices and bitter tears.
They counted their little hoard. They had gathered three hundred dollars now, and there required to be yet as much more; and then they made plans as to what yet remained to be done. "We must mortgage the land," Jenny said, "that is all,—don't mind, mother. I don't mind anything, so that we only have Hobert well again." And then they talked of what they would do another year when they should be all together once more, and all well. "Think what Dr. Killmany has done for Mrs. Brown!" they said.
And now came busy days; and in the earnestness of the preparation the sorrow of the coming parting was in some sort dissipated. Hobert's wearing-apparel was all brought out, and turned and overturned, and the most and the best made of everything. The wedding coat and the wedding shirt were almost as good as ever, Jenny said; and when the one had been brushed and pressed, and the other done up, she held them up before them all, and commented upon them with pride and admiration. The fashions had changed a little, to be sure, but what of that? The new fashions were not so nice as the old ones, to her thinking. Hobert would look smart in the old garments, at any rate, and perhaps nobody would notice. She was only desirous that he should make a good impression on the Doctor. And all that could be done to that end was done, many friends contributing, by way of little presents, to the comfort and respectability of the invalid. "Here is a leather pouch," said one, "that I bought of a pedler the other day. I don't want it; but as you are going to travel, may be you can make use of it, Walker; take it, any how."
"I have got a new pair of saddle-bags," said the circuit-rider, "but I believe I like the old ones best. So, Brother Walker, you will oblige me by taking these off my hands. I find extra things more trouble to take care of than they are worth."
It was not proposed that Hobert should travel with a trunk, so the saddle-bags were just what was required.
"Here is a pair of shoes," said another. "Try them on, Walker, and see if you can wear them: they are too small for my clumsy feet!" They had been made by the village shoemaker to Mr. Walker's measure. Of course they fitted him, and of course he had them.
"I'll bet you a new hat," said another, "that I come to see you ag'in, day after to-morrer, fur off as I live."
The day after the morrow he did not come: he was "onaccountably hendered," he said; but when he did come he brought the new hat. He thought he would be as good as his word in one thing if not in another, and redeem his bet at any rate.
"I'll bring my team: I want to go to town anyhow; and we'll all see you off together!" This was the offer of the farmer whose land adjoined Mr. Walker's; and the day of departure was fixed, and the morning of the day saw everything in readiness.
"Hobert looks a'most like a storekeeper or a schoolmaster, don't he, mother?" Jenny said, looking upon him proudly, when he was arrayed in the new hat and the wedding coat.
"Why, you are as spry as a boy!" exclaimed the farmer who was to drive them to town, seeing that Hobert managed to climb into the wagon without assistance. "I don't believe there is any need of Dr. Killmany, after all!" And the neighbors, as one after another they leaned over the sideboard of the wagon, and shook hands with Mr. Walker, made some cheerful and light-hearted remark, calculated to convey the impression that the leave-taking was a mere matter of form, and only for a day.
As Jenny looked back at the homestead, and thought of the possibilities, the tears would come; but the owner of the team, determined to carry it bravely through, immediately gathered up the slack reins, and, with a lively crack of his whip, started the horses upon a brisk trot.
"Don't spare the money," Jenny entreated, as she put the pocket-book in Hobert's hand; but she thought in her heart that Dr. Killmany would be touched when he saw her husband, and knew how far he had travelled to see him, and what sacrifices he had made to do so. "He must be good, if he is so great as they say," she argued; "and perhaps Hobert may even bring home enough to buy back Fleety." This was a wild dream. And the last parting words were said, the last promises exacted and given; the silent tears and the lingering looks all were past, and the farmer's wagon, with an empty chair by the side of Jenny's, rattled home again.
It was perhaps a month after this that a pale, sickly-looking man, with a pair of saddle-bags over his arm, went ashore from the steamboat Arrow of Light, just landed at New Orleans, and made his slow way along the wharf, crowded with barrels, boxes, and cotton-bales, and thence to the open streets. The sun was oppressively hot, and the new fur hat became almost intolerable, so that the sick man stopped more than once in the shade of some friendly tree, and, placing the saddle-bags on the ground, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and looked wistfully at the strange faces that passed him by.
"Can you tell me, my friend," he said at last, addressing a slave-woman who was passing by with a great bundle on her head,—"Can you tell me where to find Doctor Killmany, who lives somewhere here?"
The woman put her bundle on the ground, and, resting her hands on her hips, looked pitifully upon the stranger. "No, masser, cante say, not for sure," she answered. "I knows dar's sich a doctor somewhars 'bout, but just whars I cante say, an' he's a poor doctor fur the likes o' you,—don't have noffen to do with him, nohow."
"A poor doctor!" exclaimed the stranger. "Why, I understood he was the greatest doctor in the world; and I've come all the way from the Wabash country to see him."
"Warbash! whar's dat? Norf, reckon; well you jes be gwine back Norf de fus boat, an dat's de bery bes' advice dis yere nigger can guv."
"But what do you know about Dr. Killmany."
"I knows dis yere, masser: he mos'ly sends dem ar' as ar' doctored by him to dar homes in a box!"
Mr. Walker shuddered. "I don't want your advice," he said directly; "I only want to know where Dr. Killmany lives."
"Cante say, masser, not percisely, as to dat ar'; kind o' seems to me he's done gone from hur, clar an' all; but jes over thar's a mighty good doctor; you can see his name afore the door if you'll step this yere way a bit. He doctors all de pour, an' dem dat ar' halt, and dem dat ar' struck with paralasy, jes for de love ob de ark and de covenant; an' he's jes de purtiest man to look at dat you ever sot eyes onto. Go in dar whar ye sees de white bline at de winder an' ax for Dr. Shepard, an' when you's once seen him, I reckon you won't want to find de udder man; but if you does, why he can pint de way. An' de Lord bless you and hab mercy on your soul."
The sick man felt a good deal discouraged by what the old slave had said, and her last words impressed him with feelings of especial discomfort. He knew not which way to turn; and, in fact, found himself growing dizzy and blind, and was only able, with great effort, to stand at all. He must ask his way somewhere, however, and it might as well be there as another place.
Dr. Shepard, who happened to be in his office, answered the inquiry promptly. Dr. Killmany was in quite another part of the city. "You don't look able to walk there, my good friend," he said; "but if you will sit here and wait for an hour, I shall be driving that way, and will take you with pleasure."
Mr. Walker gratefully accepted the proffered chair, as indeed he was almost obliged to do; for within a few minutes the partial blindness had become total darkness, and the whole world seemed, as it were, slipping away from him.
When he came to himself he was lying on a sofa in an inner room, and Dr. Shepard, who had just administered some cordial, was bending over him in the most kindly and sympathetic manner. It seemed not so much what he said, not so much what he did, but as though he carried about him an atmosphere of sweetness and healing that comforted and assured without words and without medicine. He made no pretence and no noise, but his smile was sunshine to the heart, and the touch of his hand imparted strength and courage to the despairing soul. It was as if good spirits went with him, and his very silence was pleasant company. Mr. Walker was in no haste to be gone. All his anxious cares seemed to fall away, and a peaceful sense of comfort and security came over him; his eyes followed Dr. Shepard as he moved about, and when a door interposed between them he felt lost and homesick. "If this were the man I had come to see, I should be happy." That was his thought all the while. Perhaps—who shall say not?—it was the blessings of the poor, to whom he most generously ministered, which gave to his manner that graciousness and charm which no words can convey, and to his touch that magnetism which is at once life-giving and love-inspiring.
How it was Mr. Walker could not tell, and indeed wiser men than he could not have told, but he presently found himself opening his heart to this new doctor, as he had never opened it to anybody in all his life,—how he had married Jenny, how they had gone to the new country, the birth of the boy and the girl, the slow coming on of disease, the selling of Fleety, and the mortgaging of the farm. Doctor Shepard knew it all, and, more than this, he knew how much money had been accumulated, and how much of it was still left. He had examined the tumor in the breast, and knew that it could end in but one way. He had told Mr. Walker that he could be made more comfortable, and might live for years, perhaps, but that he must not hope to be cured, and that to get home to his family with all possible speed was the best advice he could give him. His words carried with them the weight of conviction, and the sick man was almost persuaded; but the thought of what would be said at home if he should come back without having seen the great Dr. Killmany urged him to try one last experiment.
"What do you suppose he will charge me to look at this?" he inquired of Dr. Shepard, laying his hand on his breast.
"Half you have, my friend."
"And if he cuts it out?"
"The other half."
"O, dear me!"—and the sick man fell back upon the sofa, and for a good while thought to himself. Then came one of those wild suggestions of a vain hope. "Perhaps this man is the impostor, and not the other!" it said. "And what do I owe you for all you have done for me to-day?" he inquired.
"Why, nothing, my good friend. I have done nothing for you; and my advice has certainly been disinterested. I don't want pay for that."
"And suppose you should operate?"
And then the doctor told him that he could not do that on any terms,—that no surgeon under the sun could perform a successful operation,—that all his hope was in quiet and care. "I will keep you here a few days," he said, "and build you up all I can, and when the Arrow of Light goes back again, I will see you aboard, and bespeak the kind attentions of the captain for you on the journey." That was not much like an impostor, and in his heart the sick man knew it was the right course to take,—the only course; and then he thought of Mrs. Brown and her wonderful cure, and of the great hopes they were entertaining at home, and he became silent, and again thought to himself.
Three days he remained with Dr. Shepard, undecided, and resting and improving a little all the while. On the morning of the fourth day he said, placing his hand on his breast, "If I were only rid of this, I believe I should get quite well again." He could not give up the great Dr. Killmany. "I do not intend to put myself in his hands,—indeed, I am almost resolved that I will not do so," he said to Dr. Shepard; "but I will just call at his office, so that I can tell my folks I have seen him."
"I must not say more to discourage you," replied Dr. Shepard; "perhaps I have already said too much,—certainly I have said much more than it is my habit to say, more than in any ordinary circumstances I would permit myself to say; but in your case I have felt constrained to acquit myself to my conscience";—and he turned away with a shadow of the tenderest and saddest gloom upon his face.
"Are you, sir, going to Dr. Killmany?" asked an old man, who had been sitting by, eying Mr. Walker with deep concern; and on receiving an affirmative nod, he went on with zeal, if not with discretion: "Then, sir, you might as well knock your own brains out! I regard him, sir, as worse than a highway robber,—a good deal worse! The robber will sometimes spare your life, if he can as well as not, but Dr. Killmany has no more regard for human life than you have for that of a fly. He has a skilful hand to be sure, but his heart is as hard as flint. In short, sir, he is utterly without conscience, without humanity, without principle. Gain is his first object, his last object, his sole object; and if he ever did any good, it was simply incidental. Don't put yourself in his hands, whatever you do,—certainly not without first making your will!" And the old man, with a flushed and angry countenance, went away.
Presently the sick man, relapsing into silent thought, drowsed into sleep, and a strange dream came to him. He seemed at home, sitting under the tree with the mistletoe in its boughs; he was tired and hungry, and there came to him a raven with food in its mouth, and the shadow of its wings was pleasant. He thought, at first, the food was for him; but the bird, perching on his shoulder, devoured the food, and afterward pecked at his breast until it opened a way to his heart, and with that in its claws flew away; and when it was gone, he knew it was not a bird, but that it was Dr. Killmany who had thus taken out his heart. "I will go home," he thought, "and tell Jenny"; and when he arose and put his hand on the neck of Fleety, who had been standing in the furrow close by, she became a shadow, and instantly vanished out of sight. He then strove to walk, and, lo! the strength was gone out of his limbs, and, as he sank down, the roots of the mistletoe struck in his bosom, ran through and through him, and fastened themselves in the earth beneath, and he became as one dead, only with the consciousness of being dead.
When he awoke, he related the dream, having given it, as it appeared, a melancholy interpretation, for he expressed himself determined to return home immediately. "I will take passage on the Arrow," he said to Dr. Shepard; and then he counted up the number of days that must go by before he could have his own green fields beneath his eyes, and his little ones climbing about his knees.
"I wish I had never left my home," he said; "I wish I had never heard of Dr. Killmany!" and then he returned to his dream and repeated portions of it; and then he said, seeming to be thinking aloud, "My good old mother! my dear, poor Jenny!"
"The sick man's brain is liable to strange fancies," says Dr. Shepard; "you must not think too seriously of it, but your resolve is very wise." He then said he would see the captain of the Arrow, as he had promised, and went away with a smile on his face, and a great weight lifted off his heart.
A few minutes after this, Hobert Walker was again in the street, the heavy fur hat on his head, and the well-filled saddle-bags across his arm.
Perhaps sickness is in some sort insanity. At any rate, he no sooner found himself alone than the desire to see the great Dr. Killmany came upon him with all the force of insanity; his intention probably being to go and return within an hour, and keep his little secret to himself. Perhaps, too, he wished to have it to say at home that he had seen the great man for himself, and decided against him of his own knowledge.
Dr. Killmany was found without much difficulty; but his rooms were crowded with patients, and there was no possibility of access to him for hours.
"It cannot be that so many are deceived," thought Hobert. "I will wait with the rest." Then came the encouraging hope, "What if I should go home cured, after all!" He felt almost as if Dr. Shepard had defrauded him out of two or three days, and talked eagerly with one and another, as patient after patient came forth from consultation with Dr. Killmany, all aglow with hope and animation. It was near sunset when his turn came. He had waited five hours, but it was come at last; and with his heart in his mouth, and his knees shaking under him, he stood face to face with the arbitrator of his destiny. There was no smile on the face of the man, no sweetness in his voice as he said, looking at Hobert from under scowling brows, "What brings you, sir? Tell it, and be brief: time with me is money."
Then Hobert, catching at a chair to sustain himself, for he was not asked to sit, explained his condition as well as fright and awkwardness would permit him to do; going back to the commencement of his disease, and entering unnecessarily into many particulars, as well as making superfluous mention of wife and mother. "It isn't with your wife and mother that I have to deal," interposed Dr. Killmany;—"dear to you, I dare say, but nothing to me, sir,—nothing at all. I have no time to devote to your relatives. Open your shirt, sir! there, that'll do! A mere trifle, sir, but it is well you have come in time."
"Do you mean to say you can cure me?" inquired Hobert, all his heart a-flutter with the excitement of hope.
"Exactly so. I can remove that difficulty of yours in five minutes, and have you on your feet again,—operation neglected, death certain within a year, perhaps sooner. Done with you sir. You now have your choice, make way!"
Hobert went staggering out of the room, feeling as if the raven of his dream already had its beak in his heart, when a pert official reached out his hand with the demand, "Consultation fee, if you please, sir."
"How much?" asked Hobert, leaning against the wall, and searching for his pocket-book.
"Fifty dollars, sir,"—and the official spoke as though that were a trifle scarcely worth mentioning. The hands of the sick man trembled, and his eyes grew blind as he sought to count up the sum; and as his entire treasure was formed out of the smallest notes, the process was a slow one, and before it was accomplished it seemed to him that not only Fleety was turning to a shadow, but the whole world as well.
Somehow, he hardly knew how, he found himself in the fresh air, and the official still at his elbow. "You are not going to leave us this way?" he said. "You will only have thrown your money away." And he pocketed the sum Hobert had just put in his hand.
"Better that than more," Hobert answered, and was turning sadly away.
"Allow me to detain you, sir, one moment, only just one moment!" And the official, or rather decoy, whispered in his ear tales of such wonderful cures as almost dissuaded him from his purpose.
"But I am resolved to go home on the Arrow," he said, making a last stand, "and I must have something to leave my poor Jenny."
And then the official told him that he could go home aboard the Arrow, if he chose, and go a well man, or the same as a well man; and what could he bring to his wife so acceptable as himself, safe and sound! And then he told other tales of sick men who had been carried to Dr. Killmany on their beds, and within a few hours walked away on their feet, blessing his name, and publishing his fame far and wide.
Hobert began to waver, nor is it strange; for what will not a man give for his life? The world had not loosened its hold upon him much as yet; the grass under his feet and the sunshine over his head were pleasant things to him, and his love for his good little wife was still invested with all the old romance; and to die and go he knew not where, there was a terror about that which his faith was not strong enough to dissipate. The decoy watched and waited. He contrasted the husband returning home with haggard cheek and listless step and the shadow of dark doom all about him, having a few hundred dollars in his pocket, with a husband empty-handed, but with bright cheeks, and cheerful spirits, and with strong legs under him! Then Hobert repeated the story he had told to Dr. Shepard,—all about the little treasure with which he had set out, how hardly it had been gathered together, what had been already fruitlessly expended, and just how much remained,—he told it all as he had told it in the first instance, but with what different effect!
Dr. Killmany never touched any case for a sum like that! Indeed, his services were in such requisition, it was almost impossible to obtain them on any terms; but he, the decoy, for reasons which he did not state, would exert to the utmost his own personal influence in Hobert's favor. "I cannot promise you a favorable answer," he said; "there is just a possibility, and that is all. A man like Dr. Killmany, sir, can't be haggling about dollars and cents!" And then he intimated that such things might be well enough for Dr. Shepard and his sort of practice.
There was some further talk, and the time ran by, and it was night. Against his will almost, Hobert had been persuaded. He was to sleep in the Doctor's office that night, and his case was to be the first attended to in the morning. "You can rest very well on the floor, I suppose," the decoy had said, "taking your saddle-bags for a pillow. The whole thing will be over in half an hour, and I myself will see you aboard the Arrow before ten o'clock, and so you need take no more thought for yourself."
That night, when at last Hobert made a pillow of his saddle-bags and coiled himself together, he felt as if a circle of fire were narrowing around him, and yet utter inability to escape.
"You need take no more thought for yourself." These words kept ringing in his ears like a knell, and the mistletoe striking through his bosom, and the beak of the raven in his heart,—these were the sensations with which, long after midnight, he drowsed into sleep.
When he awoke, there was a rough hand on his shoulder and a harsh voice in his ear. The room was light with the light of morning, but dark with the shadow of coming doom. There came upon him a strange and great calmness when he found himself in the operating-room. There were all the frightful preparations,—the water, the sponges, the cloths and bandages, the Doctor with his case of instruments before him, and looking more like a murderer than a surgeon. Almost his heart misgave him as he looked around, and remembered Jenny and the little ones at home; but the carriage that was to take him aboard the Arrow already waited at the door, and the sight of it reassured him.
"You will hardly know where you are till you find yourself safe in your berth," said Dr. Killmany; "and to avoid any delay after the operation, from which you will necessarily be somewhat weak, you had perhaps better pay me now." And these were the most civil words he had yet spoken.
So Hobert paid into his hand the last dollar he had.
"Now, sir," he said; and Hobert laid himself down on the table. A minute, and of what befell him after that he was quite unconscious. It was as the doctor had told him; he knew not where he was until he found himself in his berth aboard the Arrow. "Where am I?" was his first inquiry, feeling a sense of strangeness,—feeling, indeed, as though he were a stranger to himself.
"You are going home, my poor friend,—going home a little sooner than you expected,—that is all."
Then the sick man opened his eyes; for he had recognized the tender voice, and saw Dr. Shepard bending over him, and he knew where he was, and what had happened; for he was shivering from head to foot. The sleeve of his right arm was red and wet, and there was a dull, slow aching in his bosom. "Ay, Doctor," he answered, pressing faintly the hand that held his, "I am going home,—home to a better country. 'T is all like a shadow about me now, and I am cold,—so cold!" He never came out of that chill, and these were the last words he ever spoke.
"That man has been just the same as murdered, I take it!" exclaimed the captain of the Arrow, meeting Dr. Shepard as he turned away from the bedside.
"I must not say that," replied the Doctor; "but if I had performed the operation, under the circumstances, I should think myself his murderer."
"And if you had taken his money, you would perhaps think yourself a thief, too! At any rate, I should think you one," was the answer of the captain. And he then related to Dr. Shepard how the man, in an almost dying condition, had been brought aboard the Arrow by one of Dr. Killmany's menials, hustled into bed, and so left to his fate; and he concluded by saying, "And what are we to do now, Doctor?"
What the Doctor's reply was need not be reported at length. Suffice it to say, that the departure of the Arrow was deferred for an hour, and when she sailed the state-room in which Hobert had breathed his last was occupied by a lively little lady and two gayly-dressed children, and on the wall from which the fur hat and the saddle-bags had been removed fluttered a variety of rainbow-hued scarfs and ribbons, and in the window where the shadow had been a golden-winged bird was singing in the sunshine.
Some two or three weeks went by, and the farmer who had driven to town when Hobert was about to set out on his long journey, starting so smartly, and making so light of the farewells, drove thither again, and this time his wagon-bed was empty, except for the deep cushion of straw. He drove slowly and with downcast looks; and as he returned, a dozen men met him at the entrance of the village, and at sober pace followed to the meeting-house, the door of which stood wide.
A little low talk as they all gathered round, and then four of them lifted from the wagon the long box it contained, and bore it on their shoulders reverently and tenderly within the open gate, through the wide door, along the solemn aisle and close beneath the pulpit, where they placed it very softly, and then stood back with uncovered heads, while a troop of little girls, who waited, with aprons full of flowers, drew near and emptied them on the ground, so that nothing was to be seen but a great heap of flowers; and beneath them was the body of Hobert Walker.