The Lane that had No Turning/An Upset Price

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
 

AN UPSET PRICE

ONCE Secord was as fine a man to look at as you would care to see: with a large intelligent eye, a clear, healthy skin, and a full, brown beard. He walked with a spring, had a gift of conversation, and took life as he found it, never too seriously, yet never carelessly. That was before he left the village of Pontiac in Quebec to offer himself as a surgeon to the American Army. When he came back there was a change in him. He was still handsome, but something of the spring had gone from his walk, the quick light of his eyes had given place to a dark, dreamy expression, his skin became a little dulled, and his talk slower, though not less musical or pleasant. Indeed, his conversation had distinctly improved. Previously there was an undercurrent of self-consciousness; it was all gone now. He talked as one knowing his audience. His office became again, as it had been before, a rendezvous for the few interesting men of the place, including the Avocat, the Curé, the Little Chemist, and Medallion. They played chess and écarté for certain hours of certain evenings in the week at Secord’s house. Medallion was the first to notice that the wife—whom Secord had married soon after he came back from the war—occasionally put down her work and looked with a curious inquiring expression at her husband as he talked. It struck Medallion that she was puzzled by some change in Secord.

Secord was a brilliant surgeon and physician. With the knife or beside a sick-bed, he was admirable. His intuitive perception, so necessary in his work, was very fine: he appeared to get at the core of a patient’s trouble, and to decide upon necessary action with instant and absolute confidence. Some delicate operation performed by him was recorded and praised in the Lancet; and he was offered a responsible post in a medical college, and, at the same time, the good-will of a valuable practice. He declined both, to the lasting astonishment, yet personal joy, of the Curé and the Avocat; but, as time went on, not so much to the surprise of the Little Chemist and Medallion. After three years, the sleepy Little Chemist waked up suddenly in his chair one day, and said: "Parbleu! God bless me!" (he loved to mix his native language with English) got up and went over to Secord’s office, adjusted his glasses, looked at Secord closely, caught his hand with both of his own, shook it with shy abruptness, came back to his shop, sat down, and said: "God bless my soul! Regardez ça!"

Medallion made his discovery sooner. Watching closely he had seen a pronounced deliberation infused through all Secord’s indolence of manner, and noticed that often, before doing anything, the big eyes debated steadfastly, and the long, slender fingers ran down the beard softly. At times there was a deep meditativeness in the eye, again a dusky fire. But there was a certain charm through it all—a languid precision, a slumbering look in the face, a vague undercurrent in the voice, a fantastical flavour to the thought. The change had come so gradually that only Medallion and the wife had a real conception of how great it was. Medallion had studied Secord from every standpoint. At the very first he wondered if there was a woman in it. Much thinking on a woman, whose influence on his life was evil or disturbing, might account somewhat for the change in Secord. But, seeing how fond the man was of his wife, Medallion gave up that idea. It was not liquor, for Secord never touched it. One day, however, when Medallion was selling the furniture of a house, he put up a feather bed, and, as was his custom—for he was a whimsical fellow—let his humour have play. He used many metaphors as to the virtue of the bed, crowning them with the statement that you slept in it dreaming as delicious dreams as though you had eaten poppy, or mandragora, or—— He stopped short, said, “By jingo, that’s it!” knocked the bed down instantly, and was an utter failure for the rest of the day.

The wife was longer in discovering the truth, but a certain morning, as her husband lay sleeping after an all-night sitting with a patient, she saw lying beside him—it had dropped from his waistcoat pocket—a little bottle full of a dark liquid. She knew that he always carried his medicine-phials in a pocket-case. She got the case, and saw that none was missing. She noticed that the cork of the phial was well worn. She took it out and smelled the liquid. Then she understood. She waited and watched. She saw him after he waked look watchfully round, quietly take a wineglass, and let the liquid come drop by drop into it from the point of his forefinger. Henceforth she read with understanding the changes in his manner, and saw behind the mingled abstraction and fanciful meditation of his talk.

She had not yet made up her mind what to do. She saw that he hid it from her assiduously. He did so more because he wished not to pain her than from furtiveness. By nature he was open and brave, and had always had a reputation for plainness and sincerity. She was in no sense his equal in intelligence or judgment, nor even in instinct. She was a woman of more impulse and constitutional good-nature than depth. It is probable that he knew that, and refrained from letting her into the knowledge of this vice, contracted in the war when, seriously ill, he was able to drag himself about from patient to patient only by the help of opium. He was alive to his position and its consequences, and faced it. He had no children, and he was glad of this for one reason. He could do nothing now without the drug; it was as necessary as light to him. The little bottle had been his friend so long, that, with his finger on its smooth-edged cork, it was as though he held the tap of life.

The Little Chemist and Medallion kept the thing to themselves, but they understood each other in the matter, and wondered what they could do to cure him. The Little Chemist only shrank back, and said, “No, no, pardon, my friend!” when Medallion suggested that he should speak to Secord. But the Little Chemist was greatly concerned—for had not Secord saved his beloved wife by a clever operation? and was it not her custom to devote a certain hour every week to the welfare of Secord’s soul and body, before the shrine of the Virgin? Her husband told her now that Secord was in trouble, and though he was far from being devout himself, he had a shy faith in the great sincerity of his wife. She did her best, and increased her offerings of flowers to the shrine; also, in her simplicity, she sent Secord’s wife little jars of jam to comfort him.

One evening the little coterie met by arrangement at the doctor’s house. After waiting an hour or two for Secord, who had been called away to a critical case, the Avocat and the Curé went home, leaving polite old-fashioned messages for their absent host; but the Little Chemist and Medallion remained. For a time Mrs. Secord remained with them, then retired, begging them to await her husband, who, she knew, would be grateful if they stayed. The Little Chemist, with timid courtesy, showed her out of the room, then came back and sat down. They were very silent. The Little Chemist took off his glasses a half-dozen times, wiped them, and put them back. Then suddenly turned on Medallion. "You mean to speak to-night?"

"Yes, that’s what I intend, just here."

"Regardez ça—well, well!"

Medallion never smoked harder than he did then. The Little Chemist looked at him nervously again and again, listened towards the door, fingered with his tumbler, and at last hearing the sound of sleigh-bells, suddenly came to his feet, and said: "Voilà, I will go to my wife." And catching up his cap, and forgetting his overcoat, he trotted away home in a fright.

What Medallion did or said to Secord that night neither ever told. But it must have been a singular scene, for when the humourist pleads or prays there is no pathos like it; and certainly Medallion’s eyes were red when he rapped up the Little Chemist at dawn, caught him by the shoulders, turned him round several times, thumped him on the back, and called him a bully old boy; and then, seeing the old wife in her quaint padded nightgown, suddenly hugged her, threw himself into a chair, and almost shouted for a cup of coffee.

At the same time Mrs. Secord was alternately crying and laughing in her husband’s arms, and he was saying to her: "I’ll make a fight for it, Lesley, a big fight; but you must be patient, for I expect I’ll be a devil sometimes without it. Why, I’ve eaten a drachm a day of the stuff, or drunk its equivalent in the tincture. No, never mind praying; be a brick and fight with me: that’s the game, my girl."

He did make a fight for it, such an one as few men have made and come out safely. For those who dwell in the Pit never suffer as do they who struggle with this appetite. He was too wise to give it up all at once. He diminished the dose gradually, but still very perceptibly. As it was, it made a marked change in him. The necessary effort of the will gave a kind of hard coldness to his face, and he used to walk his garden for hours at night in conflict with his enemy. His nerves were uncertain, but, strange to say, when (it was not often) any serious case of illness came under his hands, he was somehow able to pull himself together and do his task gallantly enough. But he had had no important surgical case since he began his cure. In his heart he lived in fear of one; for he was not quite sure of himself. In spite of effort to the contrary he became irritable, and his old pleasant fantasies changed to gloomy and bizarre imaginings.

The wife never knew what it cost her husband thus, day by day, to take a foe by the throat and hold him in check. She did not guess that he knew if he dropped back even once he could not regain himself: this was his idiosyncrasy. He did not find her a great help to him in his trouble. She was affectionate, but she had not much penetration even where he was concerned, and she did not grasp how much was at stake. She thought indeed that he should be able to give it up all at once. He was tender with her, but he wished often that she could understand him without explanation on his part. Many a time he took out the little bottle with a reckless hand, but conquered himself. He got most help, perhaps, from the honest, cheerful eye of Medallion and the stumbling timorous affection of the Little Chemist. They were perfectly disinterested friends—his wife at times made him aware that he had done her a wrong, for he had married her with thus appetite on him. He did not defend himself, but he wished she would—even if she had to act it—make him believe in himself more. One morning against his will he was irritable with her, and she said something that burnt like caustic. He smiled ironically, and pushed his newspaper over to her, pointing to a paragraph. It was the announcement that an old admirer of hers whom she had passed by for her husband, had come into a fortune. "Perhaps you’ve made a mistake," he said.

She answered nothing, but the look she gave was unfortunate for both. He muffled his mouth in his long silken beard as if to smother what he felt impelled to say, then suddenly rose and left the table.

At this time he had reduced his dose of the drug to eight drops twice a day. With a grim courage he resolved to make it five all at once. He did so, and held to it. Medallion was much with him in these days. One morning in the spring he got up, went out in his garden, drew in the fresh, sweet air with a great gulp, picked some lovely crab-apple blossoms, and, with a strange glowing look in his eyes, came in to his wife, put them into her hands, and kissed her. It was the anniversary of their wedding-day. Then, without a word, he took from his pocket the little phial that he had carried so long, rolled it for an instant in his palm, felt its worn, discoloured cork musingly, and threw it out of the window.

"Now, my dear," he whispered, "we will be happy again."

He held to his determination with a stern anxiety. He took a month’s vacation, and came back better. He was not so happy as he hoped to be; yet he would not whisper to himself the reason why. He felt that something had failed him somewhere.

One day a man came riding swiftly up to his door to say that his wife’s father had met with a bad accident in his great mill. Secord told his wife. A peculiar troubled look came into his face as he glanced carefully over his instruments and through his medicine case.

"God! I must do it alone!" he said.

The old man’s injury was a dangerous one: a skilful operation was necessary. As Secord stood beside the sufferer, he felt his nerves suddenly go—just as they did in the war before he first took the drug. His wife was in the next room—he could hear her; he wished she would make no sound at all. Unless this operation was performed successfully the sufferer would die—he might die anyhow. Secord tried to gather himself up to his task, but he felt it was of no use. A month later when he was more recovered physically he would be able to perform the operation, but the old man was dying now, while he stood helplessly stroking his big brown beard. He took up his pocket medicine-case, and went out where his wife was.

Excited and tearful, she started up to meet him, painfully inquiring. "Can you save him?" she said. "Oh, James, what is the matter? You are trembling."

"It’s just this way, Lesley: my nerve is broken; I can’t perform the operation as I am, and he will die in an hour if I don’t."

She caught him by the arm. "Can you not be strong? You have a will. Will you not try to save my father, James? Is there no way?"

"Yes, there is one way," he said. He opened the pocket-case and took out a phial of laudanum. "This is the way. I can pull myself together with it. It will save his life." There was a dogged look in his face.

"Well? well?" she said. "Oh, my dear father!—will you not keep him here?"

A peculiar cold smile hovered about his lips. "But there is danger to me in this … and remember, he is very old!"

"Oh," she cried, "how can you be so shocking, so cruel!" She rocked herself to and fro. "If it will save him—and you need not take it again, ever!"

"But, I tell you——"

"Do you not hear him—he is dying!" She was mad with grief; she hardly knew what she said.

Without a word he dropped the tincture swiftly in a wineglass of water, drank it off, shivered, drew himself up with a start, gave a sigh as if some huge struggle was over, and went in to where the old man was. Three hours after he told his wife that her father was safe.

When, after a hasty kiss, she left him and went into the room of sickness, and the door closed after her, standing where she had left him he laughed a hard crackling laugh, and said between his teeth:

"An upset price!"

Then he poured out another portion of the dark tincture—the largest he had ever taken—and tossed it off.

That night he might have been seen feeling about the grass in a moon-lit garden. At last he put something in his pocket with a quick, harsh chuckle of satisfaction. It was a little black bottle with a well-worn cork.