HotFreeBooks.com
Stories by American Authors, Volume 8
Author: Various
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"What! you don't mean to say that you are going to drift, Dodd?" inquired Armstrong.

"Drift? Well, no; not exactly. I shall keep my steering apparatus well in hand, but I haven't decided yet what port to run for. There's no hurry. I have an uncle in the Northwest in the lumber business, who would give me a chance. I may go out there and look about awhile at first. If it doesn't promise much, there is the law to fall back upon. My father has a fruit farm at Byzantium in western New York,—where I come from, you know,—and he is part owner of the Byzantium weekly 'Bugle.' I've no doubt I could get on as editor, and go to the Legislature. Or I might do worse than begin on the farm; farming is looking up in that section. I may try several things till I find the right one."

"That's queer," said Armstrong. "I thought you had made up your mind to enter the Columbia Law School."

"Hardly," answered Doddridge, "though I may, after all. The main point is to keep yourself in readiness for any work, and take the best thing that turns up—like Berkeley here," he added, drily.

Armstrong looked at his watch and remarked that it was nearly midnight.

"Boys," said I, "in fifteen years from to-night let's have a supper here and see how each man of us has worked out his theory of life, and how he likes it as far as he has got."

"Oh, give us twenty," said Doddridge, laughing, as we all arose and prepared to break up. "No one accomplishes anything in this latitude before he is forty."

* * * * *

It was in effect just fifteen years from the summer of our graduation that I started out to look up systematically my quondam classmates and compare notes with them. The course of my own life had been quite other than I had planned. For one thing, I had lived in New Orleans and not in New York, and my occasions had led me seldom to the North. The first visit I paid was to Berkeley. I had heard that he was still unmarried, and that he had been for years settled, as minister, over a small Episcopal parish on the Hudson. The steamer landed me one summer afternoon at a little dock on the west bank; and after obtaining from the dock-keeper precise directions for finding the parsonage, I set out on foot. After a walk of a mile along a road skirted by handsome country seats, but contrasting strangely in its loneliness with the broad thoroughfare of the river constantly occupied by long tows of barges and rafts, I came to the rectory gate. The house was a stone cottage, covered with trailers, and standing well back from the road. In the same inclosure, surrounded by a grove of firs, was a little stone chapel with high pitched roof and rustic belfry. In front of the house I spied a figure which I recognized as Berkeley. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and was pecking away with a hoe at the gravel walk, whistling meanwhile his old favorite "Bonny Doon." He turned as I came up the driveway, and regarded me at first without recognition. He, for his part, was little changed by time. There was the same tall, narrow-shouldered, slightly stooping figure; the face, smooth-shaved, with a spot of wintry red in the cheek, and the old humorous cast in the small blue eyes.

"You don't know me from Adam," I said, pausing in front of him.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, directly. "Polisson, old man, upon my conscience I'm glad to see you, but I didn't know you till you spoke. You've been having the yellow fever, haven't you? Come in—come into the house."

We passed in through the porch, which was covered with sweet-pea vines trained on strings, and entered the library, where Berkeley resumed his coat. The room was lined with book-shelves loaded to the ceiling, while piles of literature had overflowed the cases and stood about on the floor in bachelor freedom. After the first greetings and inquiries, Berkeley carried my valise upstairs, and then returning, said:

"I'm a methodical though not methodistical person, or rather parson (excuse the Fullerism); and as you have got to stay with me till I let you go, that is, several days at the least (don't interrupt), I'll keep a little appointment for the next hour, if you will excuse me. A boy comes three times a week to blow the bellows for my organ practice. Perhaps you would like to step into the church and hear me."

I assented, and we went out into the yard and found the boy already waiting in the church porch. Berkeley and his assistant climbed into the organ loft, while I seated myself in the chancel to listen. The instrument was small but sweet, and Berkeley really played very well. The interior of the little church was plain to bareness; but the sun, which had fallen low, threw red lights on the upper part of the undecorated walls, and rich shadows darkened the lower half. Through the white, pointed windows I saw the trembling branches of the firs. I had been hurrying for a fortnight past over heated railways, treading fiery pavements, and lodging in red-hot city hotels. But now the music and the day's decline filled me with a sense of religious calm, and for a moment I envied Berkeley. After his practicing was over the organist locked the chapel door, and we paced up and down in the fir-grove on the matting of dark red needles, and watched the river, whose eastern half still shone in the evening light. After supper we sat out on the piazza, which commanded a view of the Hudson. Berkeley opened a bottle of Chablis and produced some very old and dry Manilla cheroots, and, leaning back in our wicker chairs, we proceeded to "talk Cosmos."

"You are very comfortably fixed here," I began; "but this is not precisely what I expected to find you doing, after your declaration of principles, fifteen years ago, you may remember, on our Commencement night."

"Fifteen years! So it is—so it is," he answered, with a sigh. "Well, l'homme propose, you know. I don't quite remember what it was that I said on that occasion: dreadful nonsense, no doubt. As Thackeray says, a boy is an ass. Whatever it was, it proceeded, I suppose, from some temporary mood rather than from any permanent conviction; though, to be sure, I slipped into this way of life almost by accident at first. But, being in, I have found it easy to continue. I am rather too apt, perhaps, to stay where I am put. I am a quietist by constitution." He paused, and I waited for him to enter upon a fuller and more formal apology. Finally, he went on much as follows:

"Just after I left college I made application through some parties at Washington for a foreign consulate. While I was waiting for the application to be passed on (it was finally unsuccessful), I came up here to visit my uncle, who was the rector of this parish. He was a widower, without any children, and the church was his hobby. It is a queer little affair, something like the old field-kirks or chapels of ease in some parts of England. It was built partly by my uncle and partly by a few New York families who have country places here, and who use it in the summer. This is all glebe land," he said, indicating, with a sweep of his hand, the twilight fields below the house sloping down toward the faintly glimmering river. "My uncle had a sort of prescription or lien by courtesy on the place. There's not much salary to speak of, but he had a nice plum of his own, and lived inexpensively. Well, that first summer I moped about here, got acquainted with the summer residents, read a good deal of the time, took long walks into the interior,—a rough, aboriginal country, where they still talk Dutch,—and waited for an answer to my application. When it came at last, I fretted about it considerably, and was for starting off in search of something else. I had an idea of getting a place as botanist on Coprolite's survey of the Nth parallel, and I wrote to New Haven for letters. I thought it would be a good outdoor, horseback sort of life, and might lead to something better. But that fell through, and meanwhile the dominie kept saying: 'My dear fellow, don't be in too much of a hurry to begin. Young America goes so fast nowadays that it is like the dog in the hunting story,—a leetle bit ahead of the hare. Why not stay here for awhile and ripen—ripen?' The dominie had a good library,—all my old college favorites, old Burton, old Fuller, and Browne, etc., and it seemed the wisest course to follow his advice for the present. But in the fall my uncle had a slight stroke of paralysis, and really needed my help for awhile; so that what had been a somewhat aimless life, considered as loafing, became all at once a duty. At first he had a theological student, from somewhere across the river, come to stay in the house and read service for him on Sundays. But he was a ridiculous animal, whose main idea of a minister's duties was to intone the responses in a sonorous manner. He used to practice this on week days in his surplice, and I remember especially the cadence with which he delivered the sentence: 'Yea, like a broken wall shall ye be and as a ruined hedge.'

"He got the huckleberry, as we used to say in college, on that particular text, and it has stuck by me ever since. The dominie fired him out after a fortnight, and one day said to me: 'Jack, why don't you study for orders and take up the succession here? You are a bookworm, and the life seems to be to your liking.' Of course, I declined very vigorously in the beginning, though offering to stay on so long as the dominie needed my help. I used to do lay reading on Sundays when he was too feeble. Gradually, 'the idea of the life did sweetly creep into my study of imagination.' The quaintness of the place appealed to me. And here was a future all cut out for me: no preliminary struggle, no contact with vulgar people, no cut-throat competition, but everything gentlemanly and independent about it. I had strong doubts touching my theology, and used to discuss them with my uncle; but he said,—and said rightly, I now think,—'You young fellows in college fancy that it's a mighty fine, bold thing to effect radicalism and atheism, and the Lord knows what all; but it won't stick to you when you get older. Experience will soften your heart, and you'll find after awhile that belief and doubt are not matters of the pure reason, but of the will. It is a question of attitude. Besides, the church is broad enough to cover a good many private differences in opinion. It isn't as if you were going to be a blue-nosed Presbyterian. You can stay here and make your studies with me, instead of going into a seminary, and when you are ready to go before the bishop I'll see that you get the right send-off.' In short, here I am! My uncle died two years after, when I was already in orders, and I've been here ever since."

"I should think you would get lonely sometimes, and make a strike for a city parish," I suggested.

"Why—no, I don't think I should care for ordinary parish work. The beauty of my position here is its uniqueness. In winter I keep the church open for the Aborigines till they get snowed up and stop coming, and then I put down to New York for a month or two of work at the Astor Library. Last winter I held service for two Sundays running with one boy for congregation. Finally I announced to him that the church would be closed until spring."

"What in the——: well, what do you find to do all alone up here?"

"Oh, there's always plenty to do, if you'll only do it. I've been cultivating some virtuosities, among other things. Remind me to show you my etchings when we go in. Did you notice, perhaps, that little head over the table, on the north wall? No? Then I smatter botany some. I'll let you look over my hortus siccus before you go. It has some very rare ferns; one of them is a new species, and Fungus—who exchanges with me—swore that he was going to have it named after me. I sent the first specimen to have it described in his forthcoming report. But doubtless all this sort of thing is a bore to you. Well, lately I have been going into genealogy, and I find it more and more absorbing. Those piles of blank-books and manuscripts on the floor at the south end are all crammed with genealogical notes and material."

"I should think you would find it pretty dry fodder," I said.

"That is because you take an outside, unsympathetic view of it. Now, to an amateur it's anything but dry. There is as much excitement in hunting down a missing link in a pedigree that you have been on the trail of for a long time, as there is in the chase of any other kind of game."

"Do you ever get across the water? Travel, if I remember right, played a large part in your scheme of life once."

"Yes; I've been over once, for a few months. But my income, though very comfortable for the statics of existence, is rather short for the dynamics, and so I mostly stay at home."

"Did you meet any interesting people over there? Any of the crowned heads, famous wits, etc., whom you once proposed to cultivate?"

"No; nobody in particular. I went in a very quiet way. I had some good letters to people in England, but I didn't present them. The idea of introductions became a bore as I got nearer to it."

"And, of course, you didn't elope with the marquise?"

"Was that in my scheme? Well—no, I did not."

"You might have done worse, old man. You ought to have a wife, to keep you from getting rusty up here. And, besides, a fellow that goes so much into genealogy should take some interest in posterity. You ought to cultivate the science practically."

"Oh, I'm past all danger of matrimony now," said Berkeley, with a laugh. "There was a girl that I was rather sweet on a few years ago. I was looking up a pedigree for her papa, and I found that I was related to her myself, in eight different ways, though none of them very near. I explained it to her one evening. It took me an hour to do it, and I fancy she thought it a little slow. At all events, when I afterward hinted that we might make the eight ways nine, she answered that our relationship was so intricate already that she couldn't think of complicating it any further. No, you may put me down as safe."

After this, we sat listening in silence to the distant beat of paddle-wheels where a steamer was moving up river.

"The river is a deal of company," resumed my host. "Thirty-six steamers pass here every twenty-four hours. That now is the Mary Powell."

"Well," I said, answering not so much to his last remark as to the whole trend of his autobiography, "I suppose you are happy in this way of life, since you seem to prefer it. But it would be terribly monotonous to me."

"Happy?" replied Berkeley, doubtfully. "I don't know. Happiness is a subjective matter. You are happy if you think yourself so. As for me, I cultivate an obsolete mood—the old-fashioned humor of melancholy. I don't suppose now that a light-hearted, French kind of chap like you can understand, in the least, what those fine, crusty old Elizabethans meant when they wrote,

'There's naught in this life sweet, If man were wise to see't, But only melancholy.'

This noisy generation has lost their secret. As for me, I am content with the grays and drabs. I think the brighter colors would disturb my mood. I know it's not a large life, but it is a safe one."

I did not at the moment remember that this had been Armstrong's very saying fifteen years ago, but some unconscious association led me to mention him.

"Armstrong and you have changed places in one respect, I should think," said I. "He is keeping a boarding-school somewhere in Connecticut. And instead of leading a Tulkinghorny existence in the New York University building, as he firmly intended, he has married and produced a numerous offspring, I hear."

"Yes, poor fellow!" said Berkeley; "I fancy that he is dreadfully overrun and hard up. There always was something absurdly domestic about Armstrong. They say he has grown red, fat, and bald. Think of a man with Armstrong's education—and he had some talent, too—keeping a sort of Dotheboys Hall! I haven't seen him for eight or nine years. The last time was at Jersey City, and I had just time to shake hands with him. He was with a lot of other pedagogues, all going up to a teachers' convention, or some such dreary thing, at Albany."

I had an opportunity for verifying Berkeley's account of Armstrong a few days after my conversation with the former. The Pestalozzian Institute, in the pleasant little village of Thimbleville, was situated, as its prospectus informed the public, on "one of the most elegant residence streets, in one of the healthiest and most beautiful rural towns of Eastern Connecticut." Over the entrance gate was a Roman arch bearing the inscription "Pestalozzian Institute" in large gilt letters. The temple of learning itself was a big, bare, white house at some distance from the street, with an orchard and kitchen garden on one side, and a roomy play-ground on the other. The latter was in possession of some small boys, who were kicking a broken-winded foot-ball about the field with an amount of noise greatly in excess of its occasion. To my question where I could find Mr. Armstrong, they answered eagerly: "Mr. Armstrong? Yes, sir. You go right into the hall, and knock on the first door to the right, and he'll come—or some one."

The door to the large square entry stood wide open, and through another door opposite, which was ajar, I saw long tables, and heard the clatter of dishes being removed, while a strong smell of dinner filled the air. I knocked at the door on the right, but no one appeared. Finally, a chubby girl of about ten summers came running round the corner of the house and into the front door. She was eating an apple, and gazed at me wonderingly.

"Is Mr. Armstrong in?" I asked.

"Yes, sir; he's about somewhere. Walk into the parlor, please, and sit down, and I'll find him."

I entered the room on the right, which was a bleak and official-looking apartment,—apparently the reception-room where parents held interviews with the instructor of youth, or tore themselves from the parting embraces of homesick sons at the beginning of a new term. There is always something depressing about the parlor of an "institution" of any kind, and I could not help feeling sorry for Armstrong, as I waited for him, seated on a sofa covered with faded rep. At length the door of an inner room opened, and the principal of the Pestalozzian Institute waddled across the floor with his hand held out, crying:

"Franky Polisson, how are you?"

He certainly had grown stout, and his light hair had retreated from the forehead. He wore glasses and was dressed in a suit of rusty black, with a high vest which gave him a ministerial look—a much more ministerial look than Berkeley had. His pantaloons presented that appearance which tailors describe as "kneeing out." He sat down and we chatted for half an hour. The little girl had followed him into the room, and behind her came another three or four years her junior. The older one stood by his side, and he kept his arm around her, while he held the younger on his knee. They were both pretty, healthy-looking children, and kept their eyes fixed on "the man."

"Are those your own kids?" I inquired presently.

"Yes, two of them. I have six, you know," he answered, with a fond sigh: "five girls and one boy. The lasses are rather in the majority."

"I heard you were quite a paterfamilias," I said. "Won't you come and kiss me, little girl?"

To this proposal the elder answered by burying her head bashfully in her father's shoulder, while the smaller one simply opened her eyes wider and stared with more fixed intensity.

"Oh, by the way," exclaimed Armstrong, "of course you'll take tea with us and spend the evening. I wish I could offer to sleep you here; but the fact is, Mrs. Armstrong's sister is with us for a few days, and the parents of one of my boys, who is sick, are also staying here; so that my guest chambers are full."

"Don't mention it," I said. "I couldn't stay over night. I've got to be in New York in the morning, and must take the nine-o'clock train. But I'll stay to supper and much obliged, if you are sure I sha'n't take up too much of your time."

"Not the least—not the least. This is a half holiday, and nothing in particular to do." He bustled to the door and called out loudly, "Mother! Mother!"

There was no response.

"Nelly," he commanded, "run and find your mamma, and tell her that Mr. Polisson—from New Orleans—an old classmate of papa's, will be here to tea. That's a good girl. Polisson, put on your hat and let's go round the place. I want to show you what an establishment I've got here."

We accordingly made the tour of the premises, Armstrong doing the cicerone impressively, and every now and then urging me with emphatic hospitality to come and spend a week—a fortnight—longer, if I chose, during the summer vacation.

"Bring Mrs. Polisson and the kids. Bring 'em all," he said. "It will do them good; the air here is fine; eleven hundred feet above the sea. No malaria—no typhoid. I laid out four hundred dollars last year on sewerage."

It being a half holiday, most of the big boys had gone to a pond in the neighborhood for a swim, under the conduct of the classical master,—a Yale graduate, Armstrong explained, who had stood fourth in his class, "and a very able fellow,—very able."

But while we sat at tea in Armstrong's family dining-room, which adjoined the school commons, we were made aware of the return of the swimming party by the constant shuffle and tramp of feet through the hall and the noise of feeding in the next room. At our table were present Mrs. Armstrong, her sister (who had a frightened air when addressed and conversed in monosyllables), the parents of the sick pupil, and Armstrong's two eldest children. I surmised that the younger children had been in the habit of sharing in the social meal, and had been crowded out on this occasion by the number of guests; for I heard them fremunting in carcere behind a door through which the waitress passed out and in, bringing plates of waffles. The remonstrances of the waitress were also audible, and, when the wailing rose high, my hostess's face had a distrait expression, as of one prepared at any moment for an irruption of infant Goths.

Mrs. Armstrong was a vivacious little woman, who, I conjectured, had once been a village belle, with some pretensions to espieglerie and the fragile prettiness common among New England country girls. But the bearing and rearing of a family of children, and the matronizing of a houseful of hungry school-boys in such a way as to make ends meet, had substituted a faded and worried look for her natural liveliness of expression. She bore up bravely, however, against the embarrassments of the occasion. In particular, it pleased her to take a facetious view of college life.

"Oh, Mr. Polisson," she cried, "I am afraid that you and my husband were very gay young men when you were at college together. Oh, don't tell me; I know—I know. I've heard of some of your scrapes."

I protested feebly against this impeachment, but Armstrong winked at me with the air of a sly dog, and said:

"It's no use, Polisson. You can't fool Mrs. A. Buckingham and one or two of the fellows have been here to dinner occasionally, and I'm afraid they've given us away."

"Yes," she affirmed, "Mr. Buckingham was one of you too, I guess, though he is the Rev. Mr. Buckingham now. Oh, he has told me."

"You remember old Buck?" put in Armstrong. "He is preaching near here—settled over a church at Bobtown."

"Yes," I answered, "I remember there was such a man in the class, but really I didn't know that he was—ah—such a character as you seem to infer, Mrs. Armstrong."

"Oh, he has quieted down now, I assure you," said the lady. "He is as prim and proper as a Methodist meeting-house. Why, he has to be, you know."

This amusing fiction of the wildness of Armstrong's youth had evidently become a family tradition, and even, by a familiar process, an article of belief in his own mind. It reminded me grotesquely of Justice Shallow's reminiscences with Sir John Falstaff: "Ha, Cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that, that this knight and I have seen.... Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent!"

The resemblance became still stronger when, as we rose from the table, the good fellow beckoned me into a closet which opened off the dining-room, saying, in a hoarse whisper:

"Here, Polisson, come in here."

He was uncorking a large bottle half-filled with some red liquid, and as he poured a portion of this into two glasses he explained:

"I don't have this sort of thing on the table, you understand, on account of the children and my—ah—position. It would make talk. But I tell you this is some of the real old stuff. How!" And he held his glass up to the light, regarding it with the one eye of a connoisseur, and then drank down its contents with a smack. I was considerably astonished, on doing the same, to discover that this dark beverage—which, from Armstrong's manner, I had been prepared to find something at least as wicked as absinthe—was simply and solely Bordeaux of a mild quality. After this Bacchanalian proceeding we went out into the orchard, which was reserved for family use, and sat on a bench under an apple-tree. Armstrong called his little boy who had been at supper with us and gave him a whispered message, together with some small change. The messenger disappeared, and after a short absence returned with two very domestic cigars, transparently bought for the nonce from some neighboring grocer. "Have a smoke," commanded my host, and we solemnly kindled the rolls of yellow leaf, Armstrong puffing away at his with the air of a man who, though intrusted by destiny with the responsibility of molding the characters of youth, has not forgotten how to be a man of the world on occasion.

"Well, Charley," I began, after a few preliminary draughts, "you seem to have a good thing of it. Your school is prosperous, I understand; the work suits you; you have a mighty pretty family of children growing up, and your health appears to be perfect."

"Yes," he admitted; "I suppose I ought to be thankful. I certainly enjoy great mercies. It's a warm, crowded kind of life; plenty of affection,—plenty of anxiety too, to be sure. I like to have the boys around me; it keeps one's heart fresh, though in a way it's sometimes wearing to the nerves. Yes, I like the young rascals—I like them. But, of course, it has its drawbacks. Most careers have," he added, in a burst of commonplace.

"It is not exactly the career that you had cut out for yourself," I suggested, "when we talked our plans over, you remember, that last evening at New Haven."

"No, it's not," he acknowledged; "but perhaps it is a better one. What was it I said then? I really don't recall it. Something very silly, no doubt."

"Oh, you said, in a general way, that you were going in for money and celibacy and selfishness,—just as you have not done."

"Yes, yes; I know, I remember now," he said, laughing. "Boys are great fools with their brag of what they are going to do and be. Life knocks it out of them fast enough; they learn to do what they must."

"Do you ever write any poetry nowadays?"

"No, no; not I. The muse has given me the go-by completely. Except for some occasional verses for a school festival or something of the kind, which I grind out now and then, I've sunk my rhyming dictionary deeper than ever plummet sounded. The chief disadvantage of running a big school like this," he continued, with a sigh, "is the want of leisure and retirement to enable a man to keep up his studies. Sometimes I actually ache for solitude—for a few weeks or months of absolute loneliness and silence. Mrs. Armstrong has fixed me up a nice little private study,—remind me to take you in there before you go,—where I keep my books, etc. But the children will find their way in, and then I'm seldom undisturbed anywhere for more than an hour at a time; there's always some call on me,—something wanted that no one else can see to."

"You ought to swap places with Berkeley for awhile. He's got more leisure than he knows what to do with."

"Berkeley! Well, what's he up to now? Philately? Arboriculture? What's his last fad? You've seen him lately, you said. I met him for a minute in New York, a few years ago, and he told me he was going to an old book auction."

"He's got genealogy at present," I explained.

"Genealogy! What hay! What sawdust! Aren't there enough live people to take an interest in, without grubbing up dead ones from tombstones and town clerks' records? Berkeley must be a regular old bachelor antiquary by this time, with all human sympathy dried out of him. No, I wouldn't change with him. Would we, fatty?" he said, appealing to a small offspring of uncertain sex which had just toddled out the door and across the gangway to kiss its papa good-night.

I took leave of Armstrong and his interesting family with a sense of increased liking. His worldliness, good nature, and simple little enthusiasms and self-satisfactions had somehow kept him young, and he seemed quite the old Armstrong of college days. I afterward learned that the excellent fellow had just finished his law studies, and was preparing to enter upon practice, when his father's health failed, forcing him to give up his parish, and leaving a number of younger brothers and sisters partly dependent on Armstrong. He had accordingly taken the first situation that promised a fair salary, and, having got started upon the work of teaching, had been unable to let go until it was too late; had, indeed, got deeper and deeper in, by falling in love and impulsively marrying at the first opportunity, and finally setting up for himself at the Pestalozzian Institute. Poor fellow! Good fellow! Amico mio, non della fortuna.

My next call was upon Clay, who had rooms in the Babel building in New York, and was reported to be something of a Bohemian. He received me in a smoking jacket and slippers. He had grown a full beard which hid his finely cut features. His black eyes had the old fire, but his skin was sallower, and I thought that his manner had a touch of listlessness mingled with irritability and defiance. He was glad to see me; but inclined to be at first, not precisely distant, yet by no means confidential. After awhile, however, he thawed out and became more like the Clay whom I remembered—our college genius, the brilliant, the admired, in those days of eager hero-worship. I told him of my visits to Berkeley and Armstrong.

"Berkeley I see now and then in town," said Clay. "It was rather queer of him to turn parson, but I guess he doesn't let his theology bother him much. He has a really superior collection of etchings, I am told. Armstrong I haven't seen for years. I knew he was a pedagogue somewhere in Connecticut."

"Don't you ever go to the class reunions?" I asked.

"Class reunions? Well, hardly."

"I should think you would; you are so near New Haven."

"How charmingly provincial you are—you Southern chaps! Don't you know that, to a man who lives in New York, nothing is near? Besides, as to my classmates at old Yale and all that, I would go round a corner to avoid meeting most of them."

I expressed myself as duly shocked by this sentiment, and presently I inquired:

"Well, Clay, how are you getting on, anyway?"

"That's a d—— general question. How do you want me to answer it?"

"Oh, not at all, if you don't like."

"Well, don't get miffed. Suppose I answer, 'Pretty well, I thank you, sir.' How will that do?"

"Are you writing anything now?"

"I'm always scribbling something or other. At present, I've got the position of dramatic critic on the 'Daily Boreas,' which is not a very bad bore, and keeps the pot boiling. And I do more or less work of a hack kind for the magazines and cyclopedias, etc."

"I thought you were on the 'Weekly Prig.' Berkeley or somebody told me so."

"So I was at one time, but I got out of it. The work was drying me up too fast. The concern is run by a lot of cusses who have failed in various branches of literature themselves, and undertake, in consequence, to make it unpleasant for every one else who tries to write anything. I got so that I could sling as cynical a quill as the rest of them. But the trick is an easy one and hardly worth learning. It's a great fraud, this business of reviewing. Here's a man of learning, for instance, who has spent years of research on a particular work. He has collected a large library, perhaps, on his subject; knows more about it than any one else living. Then along comes some insolent little whipper-snapper,—like me,—whose sole knowledge of the matter in hand is drawn from the very book that he pretends to criticise, and patronizes the learned author in a book notice. No, I got out of it; I hadn't the cheek."

"I bought your book,"[A] said I, "as soon as it came out."

[Footnote A: Dialogues and Romances. By E. Clay. New York: Pater & Sons, 1874.]

"That's more than the public did."

"Yes, and I read it, too."

"No! Did you, now? That's true friendship. Well, how did you like it? Did you get your money's worth?"

I hesitated a moment and then answered:

"It was clever, of course. Anything that you write would be sure to be that. But it didn't appear to get down to hard-pan or to take a firm grip on life—did it?"

"Ah, that's what the critics said,—only they've got a set of phrases for expressing it. They said it was amateurish, that it was in a falsetto key, etc."

"Well, how does it strike you, yourself? You know that it didn't come out of the deep places of your nature, don't you? You feel that you've got better behind?"

"Oh, I don't know. A man does what he can. I rather think it's the best I can do at present."

"Why don't you go at some more serious work; some magnum opus that would bring your whole strength into play?"

"A magnum opus, my dear fellow!" replied Clay, with a shade of irritation in his voice. "You talk as if a magnum opus could be done for the wishing. Why don't you do a magnum opus, then?"

"Why don't I? Oh, I'm not a literary fellow—never professed to be. What a question!"

"Well, no more am I, perhaps. I don't think any better of the stuff that I scribble than you do. It's all an experiment with me. I'm trying my brushes—trying my brushes. Perhaps I may be able to do something stronger some day, and perhaps not. But at all events I sha'n't force my mood. I shall wait for my inspiration. One thing I've noticed, that as a man grows older he loses his spontaneity and gets more critical with himself. I could do more, no doubt, if I would only let myself go. But I'm like this meerschaum here,—a hard piece and slow in coloring."

"Well, meanwhile you might do something in the line of scholarship, a history or a volume of critical essays—'Hours with the Poets,' or something of that kind, that would bring in the results of your reading. Have you seen Brainard's book? It seemed to me work that was worth doing. But you could do something of the same kind, only much better, without taking your hands out of your pockets."

Brainard was a painstaking classmate of ours, who had been for some years Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, English Literature, and European History, in a Western university, and had recently published a volume entitled "Theism and Pantheism in the Literature of the English Renaissance," which was well spoken of, and was already in its third edition.

"Yes, I've seen the stuff," said Clay. "My unhappy country swarms with that sort of thing: books about books, and books about other books about books—like the big fleas and little fleas. It's not literature; it's a parasitic growth that infests literature. I always say to myself, with the melancholy Jaques, whenever I have to look over a book by Brainard or any such fellow, 'I think of as many matters as he; but I give Heaven thanks and make no boast of them.' No, I don't care to add anything to that particular rubbish heap. You know Emerson said that the worst poem is better than the best criticism of it. The trouble with me is that what I want to do I can't do—at present; what I can do I don't think it worth while to do—worth my while, at least. Some one else may do it and get the credit and welcome."

"But you do a good deal of work that you don't care about, as it is," I objected.

"Of course. A man must live, and so I do the nearest thing and the one that pays quickest. I got eighty dollars, now, for that last screed in 'The Reservoir.'"

"But," I persisted, "I thought that money-making had no part in your scheme. You could make more money in a dozen other businesses."

"So I could," he answered; "but they all involve some form of slavery. Now, I am my own master. After all, every profession has its drudgery, and literary drudgery is not the worst."

"Well," I conceded, "independent of what you accomplish, I suppose your way of life furnishes as many daily satisfactions as any. I sometimes envy you and Berkeley your freedom from business cares and your opportunities for study. What becomes of most men's college training, for example? By Jove! I picked up a Greek book the other day, and I couldn't read three words running. Now, I take it, you manage to keep up your classics, among other things."

"Oh, my way of life has its compensations," he answered. "But Sydney Smith—wasn't it?—said that life was a middling affair, anyway. As for the classics, etc., I find that reading and study lose much of their stimulus unless they get an issue in action,—unless one can apply them directly toward his own work. I often think that, if I were fifteen or even ten years younger, I would go into some branch of natural science. A scientific man always seems to me peculiarly happy in the healthy character of his work. He can keep himself apart from it. It is objective, impersonal, makes no demand on his emotions. Now a writing man has to put himself into his work. He has to keep looking out all the time for impressions, material; to keep trying to enlarge and deepen his own experience, and he gets self-conscious and loses his freshness in the process."

"I am surprised to find you in New York," said I, by way of changing the subject. "I thought you had laid out to live in the country. Do you remember that pretty little word-picture of a winter afternoon that you drew us—something in the style of an Il Penseroso landscape? I expected to find you domesticated in a Berkshire farm-house."

"Yes, I remember. I tried it. But I find it necessary, for my work, to be in New York. The newspapers—confound 'em!—won't move into the woods. But, after all, place is indifferent. See here; this isn't bad."

He drew aside the window curtain, and I looked out over a wilderness of roofs to the North River and the Palisades tinged with a purple light. The ferry boats and tugs plying over the water in every direction, the noise of the steam whistles, and the clouds of white vapor floating on the clear air, made an inspiriting scene.

"I'm up among the architects here," continued Clay; "nothing but the janitor's family between me and the roof."

We talked awhile longer, and on taking leave, I said:

"I shall be on the lookout for something big from you one of these days. You know what we always expected of you. So don't lose your grip, old man."

"Who knows?" he replied. "It doesn't rest with me, but with the daimon."

I was unable to visit Doddridge, the remaining member of our group. He lived in the thriving town of Wahee, Minnesota, and I had heard of him, in a general way, as highly prosperous. He was a prominent lawyer and successful politician, and had lately been appointed United States district judge, after representing his section in the State Senate for a term or two. I wrote to him, congratulating him on his success and asking for details. I mentioned also my visits to Berkeley, Armstrong, and Clay. I got a prompt reply from Doddridge, from which I extract such portions as are material to this narrative:

"The first few months after I left college I traveled pretty extensively through the West, making contracts with the farmers as agent for a nursery and seed-farm in my part of the country, but really with the object of spying out the land and choosing a place to settle in. Finally I lit on Wahee, and made up my mind that it was a town with a future. It was bound to be a railroad center. It had a first-rate agricultural country around it, and a rich timber region a little further back; and it already had an enterprising little pop. growing rapidly. To-day Wahee is as smart a city of its inches as there is in the Northwest. I squatted right down here, got a little raise from the old man, and put it all into building lots. I made a good thing of it, and paid it all back in six years with eight per cent. interest. Meanwhile, I went into Judge Pratt's law office and made my salt by fitting his boy for college—till I learned enough law to earn a salary. The judge was an old Waheer—belonged to the time-honored aristocracy of the place, having been here at least fifteen years before I came. He got into railroads after awhile (is president now of the Wahee and Heliopolis Bee-line), and left his law practice to me. I married his daughter Alice in 1875. She is a Western girl, but she was educated at Vassar. We have two boys. If you ever come out our way, Polisson, you must put up with us for as long as you can stay. I would like to show you the country about here and have you ride after my team. I've got a pair that can do it inside three minutes. Do you remember Liddell of our class? He is an architect, you know. I got him to come to Wahee, and he has all he can do putting up business blocks. We have got some here equal to anything in Chicago....

"Yes, I am United States judge for this district. There is not much money in it, but it will help me professionally by and by. I shall not keep it long. Do I go into politics much, you ask. I used to, but I've got through for the present. The folks about here wanted to run me for Congress last term, but I hadn't any use for it. As to what you are kind enough to say about my 'success,' etc., whatever success I have had is owing to nothing but a capacity for hard work, which is the only talent that I lay claim to. They want a man out here who will do the work that comes to hand, and keep on doing it till something better turns up....

"So Berkeley has turned out a dilettante instead of an African explorer. I heard he was a minister. He does not seem to have much ambition even in that line of life. I should think Armstrong had got the right kind of place for him. He was a good fellow, but never had much practical ability. You say very little about Clay. How is old 'Sweetness and Light,' any way? I saw some fluff of his in one of the magazines,—a 'romance' I think he called it. This is not an age for scribbling romances. The country wants something solider. I never took much stock in philosophers like Berkeley and Clay. There is the same thing the trouble with them both: they don't want to do any hard work, and they conceal their laziness under fine names,—culture, transcendentalism, and what not? 'Feeble and restless youths, born to inglorious days.'"

This letter may be supplemented by another,—say Exhibit B,—which I received from Clay not long after:

"MY DEAR POLISSON: It occurs to me that your question the other day, as to how I was 'getting on,' did not receive as candid an answer as it deserved. I am afraid that you carried away an impression of me as of a man who suspected himself to be a failure, but had not the manliness to acknowledge it. You will say, perhaps, that there are all degrees of half success short of absolute failure. But I say no. In the career which I have chosen, to miss of success—pronounced, unquestionable success—is to fail; and I am not weak enough to hide from myself on which side of the line I fall. The line is a very distinct one, after all. The fact is, I took the wrong turning, and it is too late to go back. I am a case of arrested development—a common enough case. I might give plenty of excellent excuses to my friends for not having accomplished what they expected me to. But the world doesn't want apologies; it wants performance.

"You will think this letter a most extraordinary outburst of morbid vanity. But while I can afford to have you think me a failure, I couldn't let you go on thinking me a fraud. That must be my excuse for writing.

"Yours, as ever, E. CLAY."

This letter moved me deeply by its characteristic mingling of egotism with elevation of feeling. As I held it open in my hand, and thought over my classmates' fortunes, I was led to make a few reflections. From the fact that Armstrong and Berkeley were leading lives that squarely contradicted their announced ideas and intentions, it was an obvious but not therefore a true inference that circumstance is usually stronger than will. Say, rather, that the species of necessity which consists in character and inborn tendency is stronger than any resolution to run counter to it.

Both Armstrong and Berkeley, on our Commencement night, had spoken from a sense of their own limitations, and in violent momentary rebellion against them. But, in talking with them fifteen years later, I could not discover that the lack of correspondence between their ideal future and their actual present troubled them much. It is matter of common note that it is impossible to make one man realize another's experience; but it is often quite as hard to make him recover a past stage of his own consciousness.

These, then, had bent to the force of chance or temperament. But Clay had shaped his life according to his programme, and had the result been happier? He who gets his wish often suffers a sharper disappointment than he who loses it. "So taeuscht uns also bald die Hoffnung, bald das Gehoffte," says the great pessimist, and Fate is never more ironical than when she humors our whim. Doddridge alone, who had thrown himself confidingly into the arms of the Destinies, had obtained their capricious favors.

I cannot say that I drew any counsel, civil or moral, from these comparisons. Life is deeper and wider than any particular lesson to be learned from it; and just when we think that we have at last guessed its best meanings, it laughs in our face with some paradox which turns our solution into a new riddle.



ZERVIAH HOPE.

BY ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS.

Scribner's Monthly, November, 1880.

PRELUDE.

In the month of August, in the year 1878, the steamer Mercy, of the New York and Savannah line, cast anchor down the channel, off a little town in South Carolina which bore the name of Calhoun. It was not a regular part of her "run" for the Mercy to make a landing at this place. She had departed from her course by special permit to leave three passengers, two men and one woman, who had business of a grave nature in Calhoun.

A man, himself a passenger for Savannah, came upon deck as the steamship hove to, to inquire the reason of the delay. He was a short man, thin, with a nervous hand and neck. His eyes were black, his hair was black, and closely cut. He had an inscrutable mouth, and a forehead well-plowed rather by experience than years. He was not an old man. He was cleanly dressed in new, cheap clothes. He had been commented upon as a reticent passenger. He had no friends on board the Mercy. This was the first time upon the voyage that he had been observed to speak. He came forward and stood among the others, and abruptly said:

"What's this for?"

He addressed the mate, who answered with a sidelong look, and none too cordially:

"We land passengers by the Company's order."

"Those three?"

"Yes, the men and the lady."

"Who are they?"

"Physicians from New York."

"Ah-h!" said the man, slowly, making a sighing noise between his teeth. "That means—that means—"

"Volunteers to the fever district," said the mate, shortly, "as you might have known before now. You're not of a sociable cast, I see."

"I have made no acquaintances," said the short passenger. "I know nothing of the news of the ship. Is the lady a nurse?"

"She's a she-doctor. Doctors, the whole of 'em. There ain't a nurse aboard."

"Plenty to be found, I suppose, in this place you speak of?"

"How should I know?" replied the mate, with another sidelong look.

One of the physicians, it seemed, overheard this last question and reply. It was the woman. She stepped forward without hesitation, and, regarding the short passenger closely, said:

"There are not nurses. This place is perishing. Savannah and the larger towns have been looked after first—as is natural and right," added the physician, in a business-like tone. She had a quick and clear-cut, but not ungentle voice.

The man nodded at her curtly, as he would to another man; he made no answer; then with a slight flush his eye returned to her dress and figure; he lifted his hat and stood uncovered till she had passed and turned from him. His face, under the influence of this fluctuation of color, changed exceedingly, and improved in proportion as it changed.

"Who is that glum fellow, Doctor?"

One of the men physicians followed and asked the lady; he spoke to her with an air of camaraderie, at once frank and deferential; they had been classmates at college for a course of lectures; he had theories averse to the medical education of women in general, but this woman in particular, having outranked him at graduation, he had made up his mind to her as a marked exception to a wise rule, entitled to a candid fellow's respect. Besides, despite her diploma, Marian Dare was a lady—he knew the family.

"Is he glum, Dr. Frank?" replied Dr. Dare.

But the other young man stood silent. He never consulted with doctresses.

Dr. Dare went below for her luggage. A lonely dory, black of complexion and skittish of gait, had wandered out and hung in the shadow of the steamer, awaiting the passengers. The dory was manned by one negro, who sat with his oars crossed, perfectly silent.

There is a kind of terror for which we find that animals, as well as men, instinctively refrain from seeking expression. The face and figure of the negro boatman presented a dull form of this species of fear. Dr. Dare wondered if all the people in Calhoun would have that look. The negro regarded the Mercy and her passengers apathetically.

It was a hot day, and the water seemed to be blistering about the dory. So, too, the stretching sand of the shore, as one raised the eyes painfully against the direct noon-light, was as if it smoked. The low, gray palmetto leaves were curled and faint. Scanty spots of shade beneath sickly trees seemed to gasp upon the hot ground, like creatures that had thrown themselves down to get cool. The outlines of the town beyond had a certain horrible distinctness, as if of a sight that should but could not be veiled. Overhead, and clean to the flat horizon, flashed a sky of blue and blazing fire.

"Passengers for Calhoun!"

The three physicians descended into the dory. The other passengers—what there were of them—gathered to see the little group depart. Dr. Frank offered Dr. Dare a hand, which she accepted, like a lady, not needing it in the least. She was a climber, with firm, lithe ankles. No one spoke, as these people got in with the negro, and prepared to drift down with the scorching tide. The woman looked from the steamer to the shore, once, and back again, northwards. The men did not look at all. There was an oppression in the scene which no one was ready to run the risk of increasing by the wrong word.

"Land me here, too," said a low voice, suddenly appearing. It was the glum passenger. No one noticed him, except, perhaps, the mate (looking on with the air of a man who would feel an individual grievance in anything this person would be likely to do) and the lady.

"There is room for you," said Dr. Dare. The man let himself into the boat at a light bound, and the negro rowed them away. The Mercy, heading outwards, seemed to shrug her shoulders, as if she had thrown them off. The strip of burning water between them and the town narrowed rapidly, and the group set their faces firmly landwards. Once, upon the little voyage, Dr. Frank took up an idle pair of oars, with some vaguely humane intent of helping the negro—he looked so.

"I wouldn't, Frank," said the other gentleman.

"Now, Remane—why, for instance?"

"I wouldn't begin by getting overheated."

No other word was spoken. They landed in silence. In silence, and somewhat weakly, the negro pulled the dory high upon the beach. The four passengers stood for a moment upon the hot, white sands, moved toward one another, before they separated, by a blind sense of human fellowship. Even Remane found himself touching his hat. Dr. Frank asked Dr. Dare if he could serve her in any way; but she thanked him, and, holding out her firm, white hand, said, "Good-bye."

This was, perhaps, the first moment when the consciousness of her sex had made itself oppressive to her since she ventured upon this undertaking. She would have minded presenting herself to the Relief Committee of Calhoun, accompanied by gentlemen upon whom she had no claim. She walked on alone, in her gray dress and white straw hat, with her luggage in her own sufficient hand.

The reticent passenger had fallen behind with the negro boatman, with whom he walked slowly, closing the line.

After a few moments, he advanced and hesitatingly joined the lady, beginning to say:

"May I ask you—"

"Ah," interrupted Dr. Dare, cordially, "it is you."

"Will you tell me, madam, the best way of going to work to offer myself as a fever nurse in this place? I want the best way. I want real work."

"Yes, yes," she said, nodding; "I knew you would do it."

"I came from the North for this purpose, but I meant to go on to Savannah."

"Yes, I know. This is better; they need everything in this place."

She looked toward the gasping little town through the relentless noon. Her merciful blue eyes filled, but the man's look followed with a dry, exultant light.

"There is no porter," he said, abruptly, glancing at her heavy bag and shawl-strap. "Would you permit me to help you?"

"Oh, thank you!" replied Dr. Dare, heartily, relinquishing her burden.

Plainly, this poor fellow was not a gentleman. The lady could afford to be kind to him.

"I know nothing how we shall find it," she chatted, affably, "but I go to work to-night. I presume I shall need nurses before morning. I'll have your address."

She took from her gray sacque pocket a physician's note-book, and stood, pencil in hand.

"My name," he said, "is Hope—Zerviah Hope."

She wrote without comment, walking as she wrote; he made no other attempt to converse with her. The two physicians followed, exchanging now and then a subdued word. The negro dragged himself wearily over the scorching sand, and thus the little procession of pity entered the town of Calhoun.

My story does not deal with love or ladies. I have to relate no tender passages between the fever-physicians, volunteers from New York, for the afflicted region of Calhoun. Dr. Marian Dare came South to do a brave work, and I have no doubt she did it bravely, as a woman should. She came in pursuit of science, and I have no doubt she found it, as a woman will. Our chief interest in her at this time lies in the fact that certain missing fragments in the history of the person known as Zerviah Hope we owe to her. She hovers over the tale with a distant and beautiful influence, pervading as womanly compassion and alert as a woman's eye.

I have nothing further to say about the story before I tell it, except that it is true.

* * * * *

That night, after the physicians had gone about their business, Zerviah Hope wandered, a little forlornly, through the wretched town. Scip, the negro boatman, found him a corner to spend the night. It was a passable place, but Hope could not sleep; he had already seen too much. His soul was parched with the thirst of sympathy. He walked his hot attic till the dawn came. As it grew brighter he grew calmer; and, when the unkindly sun burst burning upon the land, he knelt by his window and looked over the doomed town, and watched the dead-carts slinking away toward the everglades in the splendid color of the sky and air, and thought his own thoughts in his own way about this which he had come to do. We should not suppose that they were remarkable thoughts; he had not the look of a remarkable man. Yet, as he knelt there,—a sleepless, haggard figure blotted against the sunrise, with folded hands and moving lips,—an artist, with a high type of imagination and capable of spiritual discernment, would have found in him a design for a lofty subject, to which perhaps he would have given the name of "Consecration" rather than of "Renunciation," or of "Exultance" rather than of "Dread."

A common observer would have simply said: "I should not have taken him for a praying man."

He was still upon his knees when Dr. Dare's order came, "Nurse wanted for a bad case!" and he went from his prayer to his first patient. The day was already deep, and a reflection, not of the sunrise, moved with him as light moves.

Doctor Dare, in her gray dress, herself a little pale, met him with keen eyes. She said:

"It is a very bad case. An old man—much neglected. No one will go. Are you willing?"

The nurse answered:

"I am glad."

She watched him as he walked away—a plain, clean, common man, with unheroic carriage. The physician's fine eyes fired.

To Doctor Frank, who had happened in, she said:

"He will do the work of ten."

"His strength was as the strength of ten, Because his heart was pure,"

quoted the young man, laughing lightly. "I don't know that I should have thought it, in this case. You've taken a fancy to the fellow."

"I always respect an unmixed motive when I see it," she replied, shortly. "But I've been in practice too long to take sudden fancies. There is no profession like ours, Doctor, for putting the sympathies under double picket guard."

She stiffened a little in her manner. She did not like to be thought an over-enthusiastic woman—womanish, unused to the world.

The weather, soon after the arrival of the Mercy, took a terrible mood, and a prolonged drought settled upon Calhoun. The days dawned lurid and long. The nights fell dewless and deadly. Fatal and beautiful colors lurked in the swamps, and in the sifting dust, fine and hard, blown by siroccos across the glare of noon, like sands on the shores of the Lake of Fire. The pestilence walked in darkness, and the destruction wasted at midday. Men died, in that little town of a few thousand souls, at the rate of a score a day—black and white, poor and rich, clean and foul, saint and sinner. The quarantine laws tightened. Vessels fled by the harbor mouth under full sail, and melted like helpless compassion upon the fiery horizon. Trains upon the Shore Line shot through and thundered past the station; they crowded on steam; the fireman and his stoker averted their faces as they whirled by. The world turned her back upon Calhoun, and the dying town was shut in with her dead. Only, at long intervals, the Mercy, casting anchor far down the channel, sent up by Scip, the weak, black boatman, the signs of human fellowship—food, physician, purse, medicine—that spoke from the heart of the North to the heart of the South, and upheld her in those well-remembered days.

Zerviah Hope, volunteer nurse, became quickly enough a marked man in Calhoun. He more than verified Doctor Dare's prognosis. Where the deadliest work was to be done, this man, it was observed, asked to be sent. Where no one else would go, he went. What no one else would do, he did. He sought the neglected, and the negroes. He braved the unclean, and the unburied. With the readiness of all incisive character acting on emergencies, he stamped himself upon the place and time. He went to his task as the soldier goes to the front under raking fire, with gleaming eyes and iron muscles. The fever of the fight was on him. He seemed to wrestle with disease for his patients, and to trample death beneath his feet. He glowed over his cures with a positive physical dilation, and writhed over his dead as if he had killed them. He seemed built of endurance more than mortal. It was not known when he slept, scarcely if he ate. His weariness sat upon him like a halo. He grew thin, refined, radiant. In short, he presented an example of that rare spectacle which never fails to command spectators—a common man possessed by an uncommon enthusiasm.

What passed with him at this time in that undiscovered sea which we call a man's inner life, it would not be easy to assert. So far as we can judge, all the currents of his nature had swelled into the great, pulsing tide of self-surrender, which swept him along. Weakness, wrong, memory, regret, fear, grief, pleasure, hope,—all the little channels of personal life,—ran dry. He was that most blessed of human creatures, a man without a past and without a future, and living in a present nobler than the one could have been or the other could become. He continued to be a silent man, speaking little, excepting to his patients, and now and then, very gently, to the lady, Dr. Dare. He was always pliable to the influence of a woman's voice or to womanly manner. He had, in the presence of women, the quick responsiveness and sudden change of color and sensitiveness of intonation which bespeak the man whose highest graces and lowest faults are likely to be owing to feminine power.

This was a quality which gave him remarkable success as a nurse. He was found to be infinitely tender, and of fine, brave patience. It was found that he shrank from no task because it was too small, as he had shrunk from no danger because it was too great. He became a favorite with the sick and with physicians. The convalescent clung to him, the dying heard of him and sent for him, the Relief Committee leaned upon him, as in such crises the leader leans upon the led. By degrees, he became greatly trusted in Calhoun; this is to say, that he became greatly loved.

I have been told that, to this day, many people personally unknown to him, whose fate it was to be imprisoned in that beleaguered town at that time, and who were familiar with the nervous figure and plain, intense countenance of the Northern nurse, as he passed, terrible day after terrible day, to his post, cannot hear of him, even now, without that suffusion of look by which we hold back tears; and that, when his name took on, as it did, a more than local reputation, they were unable to speak it because of choking voices. I have often wished that he knew this.

It was the custom in Calhoun to pay the nurses at short, stated intervals,—I think once a week, on Saturday nights. The first time that Hope was summoned to receive his wages, he evinced marked emotion, too genuine not to be one of surprise and repugnance.

"I had not thought,—" he began, and stood, coloring violently.

"You earn your five dollars a day, if anybody in Calhoun does," urged the official, with kindly brusqueness.

"It is not right; I do not wish to take the money," said the nurse, with agitation. "I do not wish to be paid for—saving—human life. I did not come to the fever district to make money; I came to save life—to save life!" he added, in a quick whisper. He had not slept for four nights, and seemed, they noticed, more than usually nervous in his manner.

"The money is yours," insisted the treasurer.

"Very well," said Hope, after a long silence; and no more was said about it. He took his wages and walked away up the street, absorbed in thought.

One morning, he went to his lodgings to seek a little rest. It was about six o'clock, and people were already moving in the hot, thirsty streets. The apothecaries' doors were open, and their clerks were astir. The physicians drove or walked hastily, with the haggard look of men whose days and nights are too short for their work, and whose hope, and heart as well, have grown almost too small. Zerviah noticed those young Northern fellows among them, Frank and Remane, and saw how they had aged since they came South,—brave boys, both of them, and had done a man's brave deed. Through her office window, as he walked past, he caught a glimpse of Dr. Dare's gray dress and blonde, womanly head of abundant hair. She was mixing medicines, and patients stood waiting. She looked up and nodded as he went by; she was too busy to smile. At the door of the Relief Committee, gaunt groups hung, clamoring. At the telegraph office, knots of men and women gathered, duly inspiring the heroic young operator,—a slight girl,—who had not left her post for now many days and nights. Her chief had the fever last week,—was taken at the wires,—lived to get home. She was the only person alive in the town who knew how to communicate with the outer world. She had begun to teach a little brother of hers the Morse alphabet,—"That somebody may know, Bobby, if I—can't come some day." She, too, knew Zerviah Hope, and looked up; but her pretty face was clouded with the awful shadow of her own responsibility.

"We all have about as much as we can bear," thought Zerviah, as he went by. His own burden was lightened a little that morning, and he was going home to get a real rest. He had just saved his last patient—the doctor gave him up. It was a young man, the father of five very little children, and their mother had died the week before. The nurse had looked at the orphans, and said: "He's got to live." This man had blessed him this morning, and called the love of heaven on his head and its tender mercy on his whole long life. Zerviah walked with quick step. He lifted his head, with its short, black, coarse hair. His eyes, staring for sleep, flashed, fed with a food the body knows not of. He felt almost happy, as he turned to climb the stairs that led to the attic shelter where he had knelt and watched the dawn come on that first day, and given himself to God and to the dying of Calhoun. He had always kept that attic, partly because he had made that prayer there. He thought it helped him to make others since. He had not always been a man who prayed. The habit was new, and required culture. He had guarded it rigidly since he came South, as he had his diet and regimen of bathing, air, and other physical needs.

On this morning that I speak of, standing with his almost happy face and lifted head, with his foot upon the stairs, he turned, for no reason that he could have given, and looked over his shoulder. A man behind him, stepping softly, stopped, changed color, and crossed the street.

"I am followed," said the nurse.

He spoke aloud, but there was no one to hear him. A visible change came over his face. He stood uncertain for a moment; then shut the door and crawled upstairs. At intervals he stopped on the stairs to rest, and sat with his head in his hands, thinking. By and by he reached his room, and threw himself heavily upon his bed. All the radiance had departed from his tired face, as if a fog had crept over it. He hid it in his long, thin, humane hands, and lay there for a little while. He was perplexed—not surprised. He was not shocked—only disappointed. Dully he wished that he could get five minutes' nap; but he could not sleep. Not knowing what else to do, he got upon his knees presently, in that place by the window he liked to pray in, and said aloud:

"Lord, I didn't expect it; I wasn't ready. I should like to sleep long enough to decide what to do."

After this, he went back to bed and lay still again, and in a little while he truly slept. Not long; but to those who perish for rest, a moment of unconsciousness may do the work of a cup of water to one perishing of thirst. He started, strengthened, with lines of decision forming about his mouth and chin; and, having bathed and cleanly dressed, went out.

He went out beyond the town to the hut where Scip the boatman lived. Scip was at home. He lived quite alone. His father, his mother and four brothers had died of the plague since June. He started when he saw Hope, and his habitual look of fear deepened to a craven terror; he would rather have had the yellow fever than to have seen the Northern nurse just then. But Zerviah sat down by him on the hot sand, beside a rather ghastly palmetto that grew there, and spoke to him very gently. He said:

"The Mercy came in last night, Scip.—I know. And you rowed down for the supplies. You heard something about me on board the Mercy. Tell me, Scip."

"He's a durn fool," said Scip, with a dull show of passion.

"Who is a durn fool?"

"That dem mate."

"So it was the mate? Yes. What did he say, Scip?"

"I never done believe it," urged Scip, with an air of suddenly recollected virtue.

"But you told of it, Scip."

"I never told nobody but Jupiter, the durn fool!" persisted Scip.

"Who is Jupiter?"

"Doctor Remane's Jupiter, him that holds his hoss, that he brung up from the fever. He said he wouldn't tell. I never done believe it, never!"

"It seems to me, Scip," said Zerviah, in a low, kind voice, "that I wouldn't have told if I'd been you. But never mind."

"I never done mean to hurt you!" cried Scip, following him into the road. "Jupiter the durn, he said he'd never tell. I never told nobody else."

"You have told the whole town," said Zerviah Hope, patiently. "I'm sorry, but never mind."

He stood for a moment looking across the stark palmetto, over the dusty stretch of road, across the glare, to the town. His eyes blinded and filled.

"It wouldn't have been a great while," he said. "I wish you hadn't, Scip, but never mind!"

He shook the negro gently off, as if he had been a child. There was nothing more to say. He would go back to his work. As he walked along, he suddenly said to himself:

"She did not smile this morning! Nor the lady at the telegraph office, either. Nor—a good many other folks. I remember now.... Lord!" he added aloud, thought breaking into one of his half-unconscious prayers, which had the more pathos because it began with the rude abruptness of an apparent oath,—"Lord! what in the name of heaven am I going to do about it?"

Now, as he was coming into the little city, with bowed head and broken face, he met Doctor Dare. She was riding on her rounds upon a patient, Southern tackey, and she was riding fast. But she reined up and confronted him.

"Mr. Hope! There is a hateful rumor brought from New York about you. I am going to tell you immediately. It is said—"

"Wait a minute!" he pleaded, holding out both hands. "Now. Go on."

"It is said that you are an escaped convict," continued the lady, distinctly.

"It is false!" cried the nurse, in a ringing voice.

The doctor regarded him for a moment.

"I may be wrong. Perhaps it was not so bad. I was in a cruel hurry, and so was Doctor Frank. Perhaps they said a discharged convict."

"What else?" asked Zerviah, lifting his eyes to hers.

"They said you were just out of a seven years' imprisonment for manslaughter. They said you killed a man—for jealousy, I believe; something about a woman."

"What else?" repeated the nurse, steadily.

"I told them I did not believe one word of it!" cried Marian Dare.

"Thank you, madam," said Zerviah Hope, after a scarcely perceptible pause; "but it is true."

He drew one fierce breath.

"She was beautiful," he said. "I loved her; he ruined her; I stabbed him!"

He had grown painfully pale. He wanted to go on speaking to this woman, not to defend or excuse himself, not to say anything weak or wrong, only to make her understand that he did not want to excuse himself; in some way, just because she was a woman, to make her feel that he was man enough to bear the burden of his deed. He wanted to cry out to her, "You are a woman! Oh, be gentle, and understand how sorry a man can be for a deadly sin!" but his lips were parched. He moved them dryly; he could not talk.

She was silent at first. She was a prudent woman; she thought before she spoke.

"Poor fellow!" she said, suddenly. Her clear blue eyes overflowed. She held out her hand, lifted his, wrung it, dropped it, and softly added, "Well, never mind!" much as if he had been a child or a patient,—much as he himself had said, "Never mind!" to Scip.

Then Zerviah Hope broke down.

"I haven't got a murderer's heart!" he cried. "It has been taken away from me. I ain't so bad—now. I meant to be—I wanted to do—"

"Hush!" she said. "You have, and you shall. God is fair."

"Yes," said the penitent convict, in a dull voice, "God is fair, and so he let 'em tell of me. I've got no fault to find with Him. So nigh as I can understand Almighty God, He means well.... I guess He'll pull me through some way.... But I wish Scip hadn't told just now. I can't help being sorry. It wasn't that I wanted to cheat, but"—he choked—"the sick folks used to like me. Now, do you think I'd ought to go on nursing, Doctor? Do you think I'd ought to stop?"

"You are already an hour late," replied the woman of science, in her usual business-like voice. "Your substitute will be sleepy and restless; that affects the patient. Go back to your work as fast as you can. Ask me no more foolish questions."

She drew her veil; there was unprofessional moisture on her long, feminine lashes. She held out her hearty hand-grasp to him, touched the tackey, and galloped away.

"She is a good woman," said Zerviah, half aloud, looking down at his cold fingers. "She touched me, and she knew! Lord, I should like to have you bless her!"

He looked after her. She sat her horse finely; her gray veil drifted in the hot wind. His sensitive color came. He watched her as if he had known that he should never see her again on earth.

A ruined character may be as callous as a paralyzed limb. A ruined and repentant one is in itself an independent system of sensitive and tortured nerves.

Zerviah Hope returned to his work, shrinking under the foreknowledge of his fate. He felt as if he knew what kind of people would remind him that they had become acquainted with his history, and what ways they would select to do it.

He was not taken by surprise when men who had lifted their hats to the popular nurse last week, passed him on the street to-day with a cold nod or curious stare. When women who had reverenced the self-sacrifice and gentleness of his life as only women do or can reverence the quality of tenderness in a man, shrank from him as if he were something infectious, like the plague,—he knew it was just, though he felt it hard.

His patients heard of what had happened, sometimes, and indicated a feeling of recoil. That was the worst. One said:

"I am sorry to hear you are not the man we thought you," and died in his arms that night.

Zerviah remembered that these things must be. He reasoned with himself. He went into his attic, and prayed it all over. He said:

"Lord, I can't expect to be treated as if I'd never been in prison. I'm sorry I mind it so. Perhaps I'd ought not to. I'll try not to care too much."

More than once he was sure of being followed again, suspiciously or curiously. It occurred to him at last that this was most likely to happen on pay-days. That puzzled him. But when he turned, it was usually some idler, and the fellow shrank and took to his heels, as if the nurse had the fever.

In point of fact, even in that death-stricken town, to be alive was to be as able to gossip as well people, and rumor, wearied of the monotonous fever symptom, found a diverting zest in this shattered reputation.

Zerviah Hope was very much talked about in Calhoun; so much, that the Relief Committee heard, questioned, and experienced official anxiety. It seemed a mistake to lose so valuable a man. It seemed a severity to disturb so noble a career. Yet who knew what sinister countenance the murderer might be capable of shielding beneath his mask of pity? The official mind was perplexed. Was it humane to trust the lives of our perishing citizens to the ministrations of a felon who had so skillfully deceived the most intelligent guardians of the public weal? There was, in particular, a chairman of a sub-committee (on the water supply) who was burdened with uneasiness.

"It's clear enough what brought him to Calhoun," said this man. "What do you suppose the fellow does with his five dollars a day?"

The Committee on the Water Supply promptly divided into a Sub-Vigilance, and to the Sub-Vigilance Committee Zerviah Hope's case was referred. The result was, that he was followed on pay-day.

One Saturday night, just as the red-hot sun was going down, the sub-committee returned to the Relief Office in a state of high official excitement, and reported to the chief as follows:

"We've done it. We've got him. We've found out what the fellow does with his money. He puts it—"

"Well?" for the sub-committee hesitated.

"Into the relief contribution-boxes on the corners of the street."

"What!"

"Every dollar. We stood and watched him count it out—his week's wages. Every mortal cent that Yankee's turned over to the fund for the sufferers. He never kept back a red. He poured it all in."

"Follow him next week. Report again."

They followed, and reported still again. They consulted, and accepted the astounding truth. The murderer, the convict, the miserable, the mystery, Zerviah Hope,—volunteer nurse, poor, friendless, discharged from Sing Sing, was proved to have surrendered to the public charities of Calhoun, every dollar which he had earned in the service of her sick and dying.

The Committee on the Water Supply, and the Sub-Vigilance Committee stood, much depressed, before their superior officer. He, being a just man, flushed red with a noble rage.

"Where is he? Where is Zerviah Hope? The man should be sent for. He should receive the thanks of the committee. He should receive the acknowledgments of the city. And we've set on him like detectives! hunted him down! Zounds! The city is disgraced. Find him for me!"

"We have already done our best," replied the sub-committee, sadly. "We have searched for the man. He cannot be found."

"Where is the woman-doctor?" persisted the excited chief. "She recommended the fellow. She'd be apt to know. Can't some of you find her?"

At this moment, young Dr. Frank looked haggardly into the Relief Office.

"I am taking her cases," he said. "She is down with the fever."

* * * * *

It was the morning after his last pay-day—Sunday morning, the first in October; a dry, deadly, glittering day. Zerviah had been to his attic to rest and bathe; he had been there some hours since sunrise, in the old place by the window, and watched the red sun kindle, and watched the dead-carts slink away into the color, and kneeled and prayed for frost. Now, being strengthened in mind and spirit, he was descending to his Sabbath's work, when a message met him at the door. The messenger was a negro boy, who thrust a slip of paper into his hand, and, seeming to be seized with superstitious fright, ran rapidly up the street and disappeared.

The message was a triumphal result of the education of the freedmen's evening school, and succinctly said:

"ive Gut IT. Nobuddy Wunt Nuss me. Norr no Docter nEther.

"P. S. Joopiter the Durn hee sed he'd kerry This i dont Serpose youd kum. SCIP."

The sun went down that night as red as it had risen. There were no clouds. There was no wind. There was no frost. The hot dust curdled in the shadow that coiled beneath the stark palmetto. That palmetto always looked like a corpse, though there was life in it yet. Zerviah came to the door of Scip's hovel for air, and looked at the thing. It seemed like something that ought to be buried. There were no other trees. The everglades were miles away. The sand and the scant, starved grass stretched all around. Scip's hut stood quite by itself. No one passed by. Often no one passed for a week, or even more. Zerviah looked from the door of the hut to the little city. The red light lay between him and it, like a great pool. He felt less lonely to see the town, and the smoke now and then from chimneys. He thought how many people loved and cared for one another in the suffering place. He thought how much love and care suffering gave birth to, in human hearts. He began to think a little of his own suffering; then Scip called him, sobbing wretchedly. Scip was very sick. Hope had sent for Dr. Dare. She had not come. Scip was too sick to be left. The nurse found his duty with the negro. Scip was growing worse.

By and by, when the patient could be left for a moment again, Zerviah came to the air once more. He drew in great breaths of the now cooler night. The red pool was gone. All the world was filled with the fatal beauty of the purple colors that he had learned to know so well. The swamps seemed to be asleep, and to exhale in the slow, regular pulsations of sleep. In the town, lamps were lighted. From a hundred windows, fair, fine sparks shone like stars as the nurse looked over. There, a hundred watchers tended their sick or dead, or their healing, dearly loved, and guarded ones. Dying eyes looked their last at eyes that would have died to save them; strengthening hands clasped hands that had girded them with the iron of love's tenderness, through the valley of the shadow, and up the heights of life and light. Over there, in some happy home, tremulous lips that the plague had parted met to-night in their first kiss of thanksgiving.

Zerviah thought of these things. He had never felt so lonely before. It seemed a hard place for a man to die in. Poor Scip!

Zerviah clasped his thin hands and looked up at the purple sky.

"Lord," he said, "it is my duty. I came South to do my duty. Because he told of me, had I ought to turn against him? It is a lonesome place; he's got it hard, but I'll stand by him.... Lord!"—his worn face became suddenly suffused, and flashed, transfigured, as he lifted it—"Lord God Almighty! You stood by me! I couldn't have been a pleasant fellow to look after. You stood by me in my scrape! I hadn't treated You any too well.... You needn't be afraid I'll leave the creetur."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse