The Folly of Wisdom

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1246553The Tangled Threads — The Folly of WisdomEleanor H. Porter


Until his fiftieth year Jason Hartsorn knew nothing whatever about the position of his liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, spleen, and stomach except that they must be somewhere inside of him; then he attended the auction of old Doctor Hemenway's household effects and bid off for twenty-five cents a dilapidated clothes basket, filled with books and pamphlets. Jason's education as to his anatomy began almost at once then, for on the way home he fished out a coverless volume from the basket and became lost in awed wonder over a pictured human form covered from scalp to the toes with scarlet, vine-like tracings.

"For the land's sake, Jason!" ejaculated Mrs. Hartsorn, as her husband came puffing into the kitchen with his burden an hour later. "Now, what trash have you been buyin'?"

"'Trash'!" panted Jason, carefully setting the basket down. "I guess you won't call it no 'trash' when you see what 't is! It's books—learnin', Hitty. I been readin' one of 'em, too. Look a-here," and he pulled up his shirt sleeve and bared a brawny arm; "that's all full of teeny little pipes an' cords. Why, if I could only skin it—"


"Jason!" screamed his wife, backing away.

"Pooh! 'T ain't nothin' to fret over," retorted Jason airily. "Besides, you've got 'em too—ev'ry one has; see!" He finished by snatching up the book and spreading before her horrified eyes the pictured figure with its scarlet, vine-like tracings.

"Oh-h!" shivered the woman, and fled from the room.

Shivers and shudders became almost second nature to Mehitable Hartsorn during the days that followed. The highly colored, carefully explained illustrations of the kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs which the books displayed were to her only a little less terrifying than the thought that her own body contained the fearsome things in reality; while to her husband these same illustrations were but the delightful means to a still more delightful end—finding in his own sturdy frame the position of every organ shown.

For a month Jason was happy. Then it was suddenly borne in upon him that not always were these fascinating new acquaintances of his in a healthy condition. At once he began to pinch and pummel himself, and to watch for pains, being careful, meanwhile, to study the books unceasingly, so that he might know just where to look for the pains when they should come. He counted his pulse daily—hourly, if he apprehended trouble; and his tongue he examined critically every morning, being particular to notice whether or not it were pale, moist, coated, red, raw, cracked, or tremulous.

Jason was not at all well that spring. He was threatened successively with typhoid fever, appendicitis, consumption, and cholera, and only escaped a serious illness in each case by the prompt application of remedies prescribed in his books. His wife ran the whole gamut of emotions from terror, worry, and sympathy down to indifference and good-natured tolerance, reaching the last only after the repeated failure of Jason's diseases to materialize.

It was about a week after Jason had mercifully escaped an attack of the cholera that he came into the kitchen one morning and dropped heavily into the nearest chair.

"I tell ye, my heart ain't right," he announced to his wife. "It's goin' jest like Jehu—'palpitation,' they call it; an' I've got 'shortness of breath,' too," he finished triumphantly.

"Hm-m; did ye catch her at last?" asked Mehitable with mild interest.

Jason looked up sharply.

"'Catch her'! Catch who?" he demanded.

"Why, the colt, of course! How long did ye have ter chase her?" Mrs. Hartsorn's carefully modulated voice expressed curiosity, and that was all.

Jason flushed angrily.

"Oh, I know what ye mean," he snapped. "Ye think thar don't nothin' ail me, an' that jest fetchin' Dolly from the pasture did it all. But I know what them symptoms means; they mean heart disease, woman,—'cardiac failure,'—that's what 't is." Jason leaned back in his chair and drew a long breath. When he could remember his "book-learnin'" and give a high-sounding name to his complaint, his gratification was enhanced.

"Hm-m; mebbe 't is, Jason," retorted his wife; "but I'm a-thinkin' that when a man of your heft and years goes kitin' 'round a ten-acre lot at the tail of a fly-away colt, he'll have all that kind of heart disease he wants, an' still live ter die of somethin' else!" And Mehitable cheerfully banged the oven door after making sure that her biscuits were not getting too brown.

As it happened, however, there was really no chance for Jason's heart disease to develop, for that night he scratched his finger, which brought about the much more imminent danger of blood-poisoning—"toxemia," Jason said it was. For a time the whole household was upset, and Mehitable was kept trotting from morning till night with sponges, cloths, cotton, and bowls of curious-smelling liquids, while Jason discoursed on antiseptics, germs, bacteria, microbes, and bacilli.

The finger was nearly well when he suddenly discovered that, after all, the trouble might have been lock-jaw instead of blood-poisoning. He at once began studying the subject so that he might be prepared should the thing occur again. He was glad, later, that he had done so, for the Fourth of July and a toy pistol brought all his recently acquired knowledge into instant requisition.

"If it does come, it's 'most likely ter be fatal," he said excitedly to his wife, who was calmly bathing a slight graze on his hand. "An' ye want ter watch me," he added, catching up a book with his uninjured hand and turning to a much-thumbed page for reference. "Now, listen. Thar's diff'rent kinds of it. They're all 'te-ta-nus,' but ye got to watch out ter find out which kind 't is. If I shut my jaws up tight, it's 'lock-jaw.' If I bend backwards, it's 'o-pis-tho-to-nos.' If I bend forwards, it's 'em-pros-tho-to-nos'; an' if I bend ter one side, it's 'pleu-ro-tho-to-nos,'" he explained, pronouncing the long words after a fashion of his own. "Now, remember," he finished. "Like enough I shan't know enough ter tell which kind 't is myself, nor which way I am a-leanin'."

"No, of course not, dear," agreed Mehitable cheerfully; "an' I'll remember," she promised, as she trotted away with her salves and bowls and bandages.

For some days Jason "tried" his jaw at regular intervals, coming to the conclusion at last that fate once more was kind, and that "te-ta-nus" was to pass him by.

The summer ended and autumn came. Jason was glad that the cold weather was approaching. The heat had been trying. He had almost suffered a sunstroke, and twice a mosquito bite had given him much trouble—he had feared that he would die of malignant pustule. His relief at the coming of cool weather was short-lived, however, for one of the neighboring towns developed a smallpox scare, and as he discovered a slight rash soon after passing through the place, he thought best to submit to vaccination. He caught a bad cold, too, and was sure pneumonia was setting in—that is, he would have been sure, only his throat was so sore that he could not help thinking it might be diphtheria.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, and determining to settle once for all the vexed question, he pored over his books in an exhaustive search for symptoms. It was then that he rushed into the presence of his wife one morning, his face drawn, his eyes wildly staring, and an open book in his shaking hand.

"Hitty, Hitty," he cried; "jest listen ter this! How 'm I goin' ter tell what ails me, I should like ter know, if I don't ache where I'm sick? Why, Hitty, I can't never tell! Jest listen:

The location of pain is not always at the seat of disease. In hip disease the pain is not first felt in the hip, but in the knee-joint. In chronic inflammation of the liver the pain is generally most severe in the right shoulder and arm.

"Only think, Hitty, 'In the right shoulder and arm'! Why, I had a pain right in that spot only yesterday. So that's what I've got—'hip-disease'! an'—oh, no," he broke off suddenly, consulting his book, "’t ain't hip-disease when the shoulder aches—it's the liver, then."

"Well, well, Jason, I don't think I should fret," soothed Mehitable. "If ye don't know, where's the diff'rence? Now I've got a pain right now in my little toe. Like enough that means I'm comin' down with the mumps; eh?"

"Hitty!" Jason's voice was agonized. He had been paying no attention to his wife's words, but had been reading on down the page. "Hitty, listen! It says—'Absence of pain in any disease where ordinarily it should be present is an unfavorable sign.' An', Hitty, I hain't got an ache—not a single ache, this minute!"

There was no possibility of quieting Jason after that, and the days that followed were hard for all concerned. If he had an ache he was terrified; if he did not have one, he was more so. He began, also, to distrust his own powers of diagnosis, and to study all the patent medicine advertisements he could lay his hands on. He was half comforted, half appalled, to read them. Far from being able to pick out his own particular malady from among the lot, he was forced to admit that as near as he could make out he had one or more symptoms of each and every disease that was mentioned.

"Now, Hitty, I'll leave it to you," he submitted plaintively. "Here's 'Dread of impending evil.' Now I've got that, sure; ye know I'm always thinkin' somethin' dreadful's goin' ter happen. 'Sparks before the eyes.' There! I had them only jest ter-day. I was sweepin' out the barn, an' I see 'em hoppin' up an' down in a streak of sunshine that come through a crack. 'Variable appetite.' Now, Hitty, don't ye remember? Yesterday I wanted pie awful, an' I ate a whole one; well, this mornin' seems as if I never wanted ter see an apple pie again. Now, if that ain't 'variable,' I don't know what is. 'Inquietude.'"

"Humph! You've got that all right," cut in Mehitable.

"'Weakness.' I hain't got a mite o' strength, Hitty," he complained. "An' thar's dizziness, too,—I can't chase the calf three times round the barnyard but what my head is jest swimmin'! An' Hitty,"—his voice grew impressive,—"Hitty, I've got ev'ry one of them six symptoms, ev'ry blamed one of 'em, an' I picked 'em out of six diff'rent advertisements—six! Now, Hitty, which disease is it I've got? That's what I want ter know—which?"

His wife could not tell him; in fact, no one could tell him, and in sheer desperation Jason answered all six of the advertisements, determined to find out for a certainty what ailed him.

In due course the answers came. Jason read one, then another, then another, until the contents of the entire six had been mastered. Then he raised his head and gazed straight into his wife's eyes.

"Hitty," he gasped. "I've got 'em all! An' I've got ter take the whole six medicines ter cure me!"

Even Mehitable was stirred then. For one long minute she was silent, then she squared her shoulders, and placed her hands on her hips.

"Jason Hartsorn," she began determinedly, "this thing has gone jest as fur as I'm goin' to stand it. Do you bundle yourself off ter Boston an' hunt up the biggest doctor you can find. If he says somethin' ails ye, I 'll believe him, an' nuss ye ter the best of my ability; but as fur nussin' ye through six things—an' them all ter once—I won't! So there."

Twenty-four hours later Jason faced a square-jawed, smooth-shaven man who looked sharply into his eyes with a curt, "Well, sir?"

Jason cleared his throat.

"Well, ye see, doctor," he began, "somethin' ails me, an' I ain't quite sure what 't is. I've been poorly since last spring, but it's been kind of puzzlin'. Now, fur instance: I had a pain in my knee, so I felt sure 'twas hip-disease, but it jumped ter my shoulder, so 'course then I knew 't was my liver."

The doctor made a sudden movement. He swung squarely around in his office chair and faced Jason.

Jason was pleased—his learning had already made an impression! He raised his chin and went on with renewed confidence.

"Ye see I was afraid my liver, or mebbe one o' my kidneys, was hardenin' or floatin' round loose, or doin' somethin' else they had n't orter. Lately, thar's been days, lots of 'em, when I hain't had no pain—not a mite, an' 'course that's the worst symptom of all. Then sometimes thar's been such shootin' pains that I kind o' worried fur fear 'twas locomotive ataxia; but mebbe the very next day it would change so's I did n't know but 'twas appendicitis, an' that my vermi-er-vermicelli appendix was the trouble."

The doctor coughed—he not only coughed, but he choked, so that Jason had to pause for a moment; but it was only for a moment.

"I 'most had diphtheria, an' pneumonia, an' smallpox this fall," he resumed complacently; "an' thar's six other diseases that I got symptoms of—that is, partly, you know:—'Variable appetite,' an' 'Inquietude,' an' all that."

"Hm-m," said the doctor, slowly, his eyes averted. "Well, we'll—make an examination. Come in here, please," he added, leading the way to an inner room.

"Gorry!" ejaculated Jason some minutes later, when he was once more back in his chair, "I should think you might know what ails me now—after all that thumpin' an' poundin' an' listenin'!"

"I do," said the doctor.

"Well, 't ain't six of 'em; is it?" There was mingled hope and fear in Jason's voice. If it were six—he could see Hitty's face!

"Any physicians in your family?" asked the doctor, ignoring Jason's question.

Jason shook his head.

"Hm-m," commented the doctor. "Ever been any?"

"Why, not as I know of, sir," murmured Jason wonderingly.

"No? Where did you get them, then,—those medical books?"

Jason stared.

"Why, how in thunder did you know—" he began.

But the doctor interrupted him.

"Never mind that. You have them, have n't you?"

"Why, yes; I bought 'em at an auction. I bought 'em last—"

"Spring—eh?" supplied the doctor.

Jason's mouth fell open.

"Never mind," laughed the doctor again, his hand upraised. "Now to business!" And his face grew suddenly grave. "You're in a bad way, my friend."

"B-bad way?" stammered Jason. "It—it is n't six that ails me?"

It was all fear this time in Jason's voice; some way the doctor's face had carried conviction.

"No; you are threatened with more than six."

"Wha-at?" Jason almost sprang from his seat. "But, doctor, they ain't—dangerous!"

"But they are, very!"

"All of them? Why, doctor, how—how many are thar?"

The doctor shook his head.

"I could not count them," he replied, not meeting Jason's eyes.

"Oh-h!" gasped Jason, and shook in his shoes. There was a long silence. "An' will I—die?" he almost whispered.

"We all must—sometime," returned the doctor, slowly, as if weighing his words; "but you will die long before your time—unless you do one thing."

"I'll do it, doctor, I'll do it—if I have ter mortgage the farm," chattered Jason frenziedly. "I'll do anythin'—anythin'; only tell me what it is."

"I will tell you," declared the doctor briskly, with a sudden change of manner, whisking about in his chair. "Go home and burn those medical books—every single one of them."

"Burn them! Why, doctor, them's the very things that made me know I was sick. I should n't 'a' come ter you at all if it had n't been fur them."

"Exactly!" agreed the doctor, rubbing his hands together. "That's just what I thought. You were well before, were n't you?"

"Why, yes,—that is, I did n't know I was sick," corrected Jason.

"Hm-m; well, you won't know it now if you'll go home and burn those books. If you don't burn them you'll have every disease there is in them, and some one of them will be the death of you. As it is now, you're a well man, but I would n't trust one organ of your anatomy within a rod of those books an hour longer!"

He said more—much more; and that his words were not without effect was shown no later than that same evening when Jason burst into the kitchen at home.

"Hitty, Hitty, thar ain't six, thar ain't one, thar ain't nothin' that ails me," he cried jubilantly, still under the sway of the joy that had been his when the great doctor had told him there was yet one chance for his life. "Thar ain't a single thing!"

"Well, now, ain't that nice?" murmured Hitty, as she drew up the chairs. "Come, Jason, supper's ready."

"An' Hitty, I'm goin' ter burn 'em up—them books of Hemenway's," continued Jason confidentially. "They ain't very good readin', after all, an' like enough they're kind of out of date, bein' so old. I guess I'll go fetch 'em now," he added as he left the room. "Why, Hitty, they're—gone!" he cried a minute later from the doorway.

"Gone? Books?" repeated Mehitable innocently. "Oh, yes, I remember now. I must 'a' burned 'em this mornin'. Ye see, they cluttered up so. Come, Jason, set down."

And Jason sat down. But all the evening he wondered. "Was it possible, after all, that Hitty—knew?"

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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