The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/The Surgeon's Assistant
THE SURGEON'S ASSISTANT.
The sickness of the nation not being unto death, we now begin to number its advantages. They will not all be numbered by this generation; and as for story-tellers, essayists, letter-writers, historians, and philosophers, if their "genius" flags in half a century with such material as hearts, homes, and battle-fields beyond counting afford them, they deserve to be drummed out of their respective regiments, and banished into the dominion of silence and darkness, forever to sit on the borders of unfathomable ink-pools, minus pen and paper, with fool's-caps on their heads.
I know of a place which you may call Dalton, if it must have a name. At the beginning of our war,—for which some true spirits thank Almighty God,—a family as wretched as Satan wandering up and down the earth could wish to find lived there, close beside the borders of a lake which the Indians once called—but why should not your fancy build the lowly cottage on whatsoever green and sloping bank it will? Fair as you please the outside world may be,—waters pure as those of Lake St. Sacrament, with islands on their bosom like those of Horicon, and shores beautifully wooded as those of Lake George,—but what delight will you find in all the heavenly mansions, if love be not there?
"I'll enlist," said the master of this mansion of misery in the midst of the garden of delight, one day.
"I would," replied his wife.
They spoke with equal vigor, but neither believed in the other. The instant the man dropped the book he had been reading, he was like Samson with his hair shorn, for his wife couldn't tell one letter from another; and when she saw him sit down on the stone wall which surrounded their potato-field, overgrown with weeds, she marched out boldly to the corner of the wood-shed, where never any wood was, and attacked him thus:—
"S'pose you show fight awhile in that potato-patch afore you go to fight Ribils. Gov'ment don't need you any more than I do. May be it'll find out getting ain't gaining! She had no answer. The man was thinking, when she interrupted him, as she was always doing, that, if he could secure the State and town bounty, that would be some provision for the woman and child. As for himself, he was indifferent as to where he was sent, or how soon. But if he went away, they might look for him to come again. Gabriel's trumpet, he thought, would be a more welcome sound than his wife's voice.
He enlisted. The bounties paid him were left in the hands of a trusty neighbor, and were to be appropriated to the supply of his family's needs; and he went away along with a boat-load of recruits,—his own man no longer. Even his wife noticed the change in him, from the morning when he put on his uniform and began to obey orders, for she had time to notice. Several days elapsed after enlistment before the company's ranks were complete, and the captain would not report at head-quarters, he said, until his own townsfolk had supplied the number requisite.
Even his wife noticed the change, I said; for, contrary to what is usual and expected, she was not the first to perceive that the slow and heavy step had now a spring in it, and that there was a light in his clouded eyes. She supposed the new clothes made the difference.
Nearly a year had passed away, and this woman was leaning over the rail fence which surrounded a barren field, and listening, while she leaned, to the story of Ezra Cramer, just home from the war. She listened well, even eagerly, to what he had to tell, and seemed moved by the account in ways various as pride and indignation.
"I wish I had him here!" she said, when he had come to the end of his story,—the story of her husband's promotion.
Ezra looked at her, and thought of the pretty girl she used to be, and wondered how it happened that such a one could grow into a woman like this. The vindictiveness of her voice accorded well with her person,—expressed it. Where were her red cheeks? What had become of her brown hair? She was once a free one at joking with, and rallying the young men about; but now how like a virago she looked! and her tongue was sharp as a two-edged sword.
Ezra was sorry that he had taken the trouble to ascertain in the village where Nancy Elkins lived. Poor fellow! While enduring the hardships of the past year, his imagination had transformed all the Dalton women into angels, and the circuit of that small hamlet had become to his loving thought as the circuit of Paradise.
Some degree of comprehension seemed to break upon him while he stood gazing upon her, and he said: "O well, Miss Nancy, he's got his hands full, and besides he didn't know I was coming home so quick. I didn't know it myself till the last minute. He would 'a' sent some message,—course he would!"
"I guess there ain't anything to hender his writing home to his folks," she answered, unappeased and unconvinced. "Other people hear from the war. There's Mynders always a-writing and sending money to the old folks, and that's the difference."
"We've been slow to get our pay down where we was," said Ezra. "It's been a trouble to me all the while, having nothing to show for the time I was taking from father."
The woman looked at the young fellow who had spoken so seriously, and her eyes and her voice softened.
"Nobody would mind about your not sending money hum, Ezra. They'd know you was all right. Such a hard-working set as you belong to! You're looking as if you wondered what I was doing here 'n this lot. I'm living in that shanty! Like as not I'll have its pictur' taken, and sent to my man. Old Uncle Torry said we might have it for the summer; and I expect the town was glad enough to turn me and my girl out anywhere. They won't do a thing towards fixing the old hut up. Say 't ain't worth it. We can't stay there in cold weather. Roof leaks like a sieve. If he don't send me some money pretty quick, I'll list myself, and serve long enough to find him out, see 'f I don't."
At this threat, the soldier, who knew something about war, straightened himself, and with a cheery laugh limped off towards the road. "I'll see ye ag'in, Miss Nancy, afore you start," said he, looking back and nodding gayly at her. Things weren't so bad as they seemed about her, he guessed. He was going home, and his heart was soft. Happiness is very kind; but let it do its best it cannot come very near to misery.
Nancy stood and watched the young man as he went, commenting thus: "Well, he's made a good deal out of 'listing, any way." His pale face and his hurt did not make him sacred in her sight.
She was speaking to herself, and not to her little daughter, who, when she saw her mother talking to a soldier, ran up to hear the conversation. A change that was wonderful to see had passed over the child's face, when she heard that her father had been promoted from the ranks. The bald fact, unilluminated by a single particular, seemed to satisfy her. She hadn't a question to ask. Her first thought was to run down to the village and tell Miss Ellen Holmes, who told her, not long ago, so proud and wonderful a story about her brother's promotion.
If it were not for this Jenny, my story would be short. Is it not for the future we live? For the children the world goes on.
Does this little girl—she might be styled a beauty by a true catholic taste, but oh! I fear that the Boston Convention "Orthodox," lately convened to settle all great questions concerning the past, present, and future, would never recognize her, on any showing, as a babe of grace!—does she, as she runs down the hill and along the crooked street of Dalton, look anything like a messenger of Heaven to your eyes? Must, the angels show their wings before they shall have recognition?
Going past the blacksmith's shop she was hailed by the blacksmith's self, with the blacksmith's own authority. "See here, Jenny!" At the call, she stood at bay like a fair little fawn in the woods.
"I'm writing a letter to my boy," he continued. "Step in here. Did you know Ezra Cramer had come back?"
"I saw him just now," she answered. "He told us about father." She said it with a pride that made her young face shine.
"So! what about him, I wonder?" asked the blacksmith.
And that he really did wonder, Jenny could not doubt. She heard more in his words than she liked to hear, and answered with a tremulous voice, in spite of pride, "O, he's been promoted."
"The deuse! what's he permoted to?"
"I don't know," she said, and for the first time she wondered.
"Where is he, though?" asked the blacksmith.
"I don't know,—in the war."
"That's 'cute. Well, see here, sis, we'll find that out,—you and me will." The angry voice of the blacksmith became tender. "You sit down there and write him a letter. My son, he'll find out if your pa is alive. As for Ezra, he don't know any more 'n he did when he went away; but, poor fellow, he's been mostually in the hospertal, instead of fighting Ribils, so p'r'aps he ain't to blame. You write to yer pa, and I'll wage you get an answer back, and he'll tell you all about his permotion quick enough."
Jenny stood looking at the blacksmith for a moment, with mouth and eyes wide open, so much astonished by the proposition as not to know what answer should be made to it. She had never written a line in her life, except in her old copy-book. If her hand could be made to express what she was thinking of, it would be the greatest work and wonder in the world. But then, it never could!
That decisive never seemed to settle the point. She turned forthwith to the blacksmith, smiling very seriously. At the same time she took three decided steps, which led her into his dingy shop, as awed as though she were about to have some wonderful exhibition there. But she must be her own astrologer.
The blacksmith, elated by his own success that morning in the very difficult business of letter-writing, was mightily pleased to have under direction this little disciple in the work of love, and forthwith laid his strong hands on the bench and brought it out into the light, setting it down with a force that said something for the earnestness of his purpose in regard to Miss Jenny.
When he wrote his own letter, he did it in retirement and solitude, having sought out the darkest corner of his shop for the purpose. A mighty man in the shoeing of horses and the handling of hammers, he shrank from exposing his incompetence in the management of a miserable pen, even to the daylight and himself.
His big account-book placed against his forge, with a small sheet of paper spread thereon, his pen in Jenny's hands, and the inkstand near by, there was nothing for him to do but to go away and let her do her work.
"Give him a tall letter!" said he. "And you must be spry about it. He'll be glad to hear from his little girl, I reckon. See, the stage 'll be along by four o'clock, and now it's—"—he stepped to the door and looked out on the tall pine-tree across the road,—that was his sun-dial,—"it's just two o'clock now, Jenny. Work away!" So saying, he went off as tired, after the exertion he had made, as if he had shod all the Dalton horses since daybreak.
She had just two hours for doing the greatest piece of work she had done in her short life. And consciously it was the greatest work. Every stroke of that pen, every straight line and curve and capital, seemed to require as much deliberation as the building of a house; and how her brain worked! Fly to and fro, O swallows, from your homes beneath the eaves of the blacksmith's old stone shop in the shade of the far-spreading walnut,—stretch forth your importunate necks and lift aloft your greedy voices, O young ones in the nests!—the little girl who has so often stood to watch you is sitting in the shadow within there, blind and deaf to you, and unaware of everything in the great world except the promotion of her father "in the war," and the letter he will be sure to get, because the blacksmith is going to send it along with his letter to his son.
She was doing her work well. Any one who had ever seen the girl before must have asked with wonder what had happened to her,—it was so evident that something had happened which stirred heart and soul to the depths.
So, even so, unconsciously, love sometimes works out the work of a lifetime, touches the key-note of an anthem of everlasting praise,—does it with as little ostentation as the son of science draws yellow gold from the quartz rock which tells no tale on the face of it concerning its "hid treasure." So, wisely and without ostentation, work the true agents, the apostles of liberty in this world.
"O dear papa! my dear papa!" she wrote, "Ezra has come home, and he says you are promoted! But he couldn't tell for what it was, or where you were, or anything. And O, it seems as if I couldn't wait a minute, I want to hear so all about it." When she had written thus far the spirit of the mother seemed to stir in the child. She sat and mused for a moment. Her eyes flashed. Her right hand moved nervously. Strange that her father had not sent some word by Ezra; but then he didn't know, of course, that Ezra was coming. Ay! that was a lucky thought. What she had written seemed to imply some blame. So, with many a blot and erasure, her loving belief that all was right must make itself evident.
At the end of the two hours she found herself at the bottom of the page the blacksmith had spread before her. Twice he had come into the shop and assured himself that the work was going on, and smiled to see the progress she was making. The third time he came he was under considerable excitement.
"Ready!" he shouted. "The stage 'll be along now in ten minutes."
She did not answer, she was so busy, and so hard at work, signing her name to the sheet that was covered with what looked like hieroglyphics.
When she had made the last emphatic pen-stroke, she turned towards him, flushed and smiling. "There!" she said.
He looked over her shoulder.
"Good!" said he. "But you haven't writ his name out. Give me the pen here, quick!" Then he took the quill and wrote her father's name up in one blank corner, and dried the ink with a little sand, and put the note into the envelope containing his own, and the great work was done.
Do you know how great a work, you dingy old Dalton blacksmith?
Do you know, fair child,—who must fight till the day of your death with alien, opposite forces, because the blood-vessels of Nancy Elkins, as they sail through the grand canals of the city of your life, so often hang out piratical banners, and bear down on better craft as they near the dangerous places, or put out, like wreckers after a storm, seeking for treasure the owners somehow lost the power to hold?
In a few minutes after the letter was inscribed and sealed, the stage came rattling along, and Jenny stood by and saw the blacksmith give it to the driver, and heard him say: "Now be kerful about that ere letter. It's got two inside. One's my boy's, as ye'll see by the facing on it; t' other's this little girl's. She's been writin' to her pa. So be kerful."
They stood together watching the stage till it was out of sight, then the blacksmith nodded at Jenny as if they had done a good day's work, and proceeded to light his pipe. That was not her way of celebrating the event. She remembered now that she had promised a little girl, Miss Ellen Holmes indeed, that she would some time show her where the red-caps and fairy-cups grew, and there was yet time, before sunset, for a long walk in the woods.
The little town-bred lady happened to come along just then, while Jenny stood hesitating whether to go home first and tell her mother of this great thing she had done. The question was therefore settled; and now let them go seeking red-caps. Good luck attend the children! Jenny will be sure to say something about promotions before they separate. She will say that something with a genuine human pride; and the end of the hunt for red-caps may be, conspicuously, success in finding them; but still more to the purpose, it will be the child's establishment on a better basis—a securer basis of equality—than she has occupied before. She forgets about Dalton and poverty. She thinks about camps and honor. She has something to claim of all the world. She is the citizen of a great nation. She bears the name of one who is fighting for the Union, who has fought, and fought so well that those in authority have beckoned him up higher. Why, it is as though a crown were placed on her dear father's head.
Going out of quiet and beautiful green Dalton, and into the hospital of Frere's Landing, 't is a wonderful change we make.
The silence of one place is as remarkable as the silence of the other, perhaps. That of the hospital does not resemble that of the hamlet, however. At times it grows oppressive and appalling, being the silence of anguish or of death. A stranger reaching Dalton in the night might wonder in the morning if there were in reality any passage out of it, for there the lake, on one of whose western slopes is the "neighborhood," seems locked in completely by the hills, and an ascent towards heaven is apparently the only way of egress. Yet there's another way; for I am not writing this true story among celestial altitudes for you. I returned from Dalton by a mundane road.
Out of Frere's Hospital, however, its silence and seclusion, many a stranger never found his way except by the high mountains of transfiguration, in the chariots of fire, driven by the horsemen of Heaven, covered with whose glory they departed.
Through the wards of this well-ordered hospital a lady passed one night, and, entering a small apartment separated from the others, advanced with noiseless step to a bedside, and there sat down. You may guess if her heart was beating fast, and whether it was with difficulty that she kept her gray eyes clear of tears. There were about her traces of long and hurried journeying.
Under no limitations of caution had she passed so noiselessly through the wards. Involuntary was that noiselessness,—involuntary also the surprise with which one and another of the more wakeful patients turned to follow her, with hopeless, weary eyes, as she passed on. Now and then some feeble effort was made to attract her attention and arrest her progress, but she went, absorbed beyond observation by the errand that constrained her steps and thoughts.
When she reached the door of the apartment to which the surgeon had directed her, she seemed for an instant to hesitate; then she pushed the door open and passed into the room. The next instant she sank into a chair by the bedside of a man who was lying there asleep. It seemed as if the silent room had a profounder stillness added to it since she entered.
It was Colonel Ames whom she saw lying on the cot before her with a bandage round his forehead, so evidently asleep. He was smiling in a dream. He was not going to give up the ghost, it seemed, though he had given up so much—how much!—with that passion of giving which possessed this nation, North and South, during four awful, glorious years. He had given up the splendor and the beauty of this world. All its radiance was blotted out in that moment of fury and of death when the shot struck him, and left him blind upon the field.
Never on earth would it be said to him, "Receive thy sight." The lady knew this who sat down by his bedside to wait for his awaking. The surgeon had told her this, when at last, after having searched for her brother long among the dead, she came to Frere's Hospital and found him alive.
She sat so close beside him it seemed that he could not remain a moment unconscious of her immediate presence after waking. Her hand lay just where his hand, moving when he wakened, must touch it. She had rightly calculated the chances; he did touch it, and started and said: "Who's here? Doctor!" Then with a firmer grasp he seized the unresisting fingers, and exclaimed, "My God, am I dreaming? it ought to be Lizzie's hand."
"The doctor told me I should find you here, and might come," she answered; and, disguised as the voice was by the feeling that tore her heart, the Colonel, poor young fellow, listening as if for life, knew it, and said, "O Lizzie, my child, I don't know about this,—why couldn't you wait?"
"I waited and waited forever," she answered. "You're not sorry that I've found you out after such a hunt? Of course you'll make believe, but then—you needn't; I'm here, any way!"
Just then the surgeon came in. The Colonel knew his step, and said, "Doctor, look here; is this Lizzie?"
"I believe you're right," said the doctor. "She said she had a hero for a brother, and I have no doubt about that myself."
"O Dan, we had given you up! Though I knew all the time we shouldn't. I could not believe—"
"Must come to that Lizzie,—do it over again; for what you have here isn't your old Dan."
"My old Dan!" she exclaimed, and then there was a little break in the conversation the two heroes were endeavoring to maintain.
Meanwhile the surgeon had seated himself on the edge of the bed waiting the moment when there should be a positive need of him. He saw when it arrived.
"Colonel," said he, in his hearty, cheery voice, which alone had lifted many a poor fellow from the slough of misery, and put new heart and soul in him, since his ministrations began in the hospital,—"Colonel, your aids are in waiting."
The soldier smiled; his face flushed. "My aids can wait," said he.
"That is a fine thing to say. Here he has been bothering me, madam, not to say browbeating me, and I've been moving heaven and earth for my part, and at last have secured the aids, and now hear him dismiss them!"
"Bring them round here," said the patient suddenly.
The surgeon quietly lifted from the floor a pair of crutches, and placed them in his patient's hands.
"How many years must I rely on my aids?" he asked quietly.
"Perhaps three months. By that time you will be as good as ever."
A change passed over the young man's face at this. Whatever the emotion so expressed, it had otherwise no demonstration. He turned now abruptly toward his sister, and said: "They can wait. I've got another kind of aid now. Come, Lizzie, say something."
A sudden radiance flashed across his face when he ceased to speak, and waited for that voice.
"I shall be round again in an hour," said the surgeon.
He could well be spared. The brother and sister had now neither eye nor thought except for each other.
The surgeon's face changed as he closed the door. Every one of their faces changed. As for the gentleman whose duty took him now from ward to ward, from one sick-bed to another, it was only by an effort that he gave his cheerful words and courageous looks to the men who had found day after day a tonic in his presence.
The brother and sister clasped each other's hands. Few were the words they spoke. He was looking forward to the years before him, endeavoring to steady himself, in a moment of weakness, by the remembrance of past months of active service.
She was thinking of the days when she walked with her hero out of delightsomeness and ease into danger and anxiety, all for the nation's succor, in the nation's time of need. Some had deemed it a needless sacrifice. Of old, when sacrifice was to be offered, it was not the worthless and the worst men dared or cared to bring. The spotless, the pure, the beautiful, these were no vain oblations. These two said in solemn conference, "We will make an offering of our all." And their all they offered. See how much had been accepted!
Having offered, having sacrificed, it was not in either of these to repent the doing, or despise the honor that was put upon them. No going back for them! No looking back! No secret repining! The Colonel had done his work. As for the Colonel's sister, there was no place on earth where she would not find work to do.
And here in this hospital, in her brother's room, she found a sphere. Going and coming through the various wards, singing hymns of heavenly love and purest patriotism, scattering comforts with ministering hands, which found brothers on all those beds of languishing, how many learned to look for her appearing, and to bless her when she came! But concerning her work there, and that of other women, some of whom will go crippled to the grave from their service,—soldiers and veterans of the army of the Union,—enough has everywhere been said.
Among all these patients there was one, a sick man, to whom her coming and her going, her speech and her silence, became most notable events. Living within the influence of such manner and degree of social life as her presence in the hospital established, he was like a returned exile, who, yet under ban, felt all the awkwardness, constraint, and danger of his position. This man, who discovered in himself merely helplessness, was not accounted helpless, but the helper of many. He was, in short, the surgeon of the hospital.
One day the Colonel said to him, "You don't like to have my sister here. Are the hired nurses making a row?"
The surgeon's face betrayed so much interest in this subject, and so much embarrassment, it seemed probable he would come out with an absolute "Yes"; but his speech contradicted him, for he said with indifference, "Where did you get that pretty notion?"
"Out of you, and nowhere else. What puzzles me, though, is, she seems to think she is doing some good here. And didn't you say you'd no objection to her visiting the wards?"
"I should think it a positive loss if she were called or sent away from the hospital," said the surgeon, speaking now seriously enough. "She is of the greatest service, out of this room as well as in it."
"Why do I feel then as if something had happened,—something disagreeable? We don't have such good times as we used to have when you sat here and told stories, and let me run on like a school-boy."
"You have better company, that's all. I'm not such a fool that I can't see it. You have better times, lad,—if I don't."
"Then all you did for me before she came was for pity's sake! Who's in the ditch now, getting all the favor you used to show to me?"
The voice and manner with which these words were spoken produced an effect not readily yielded to, though the surgeon was perfectly aware that his emotion was unperceived and unguessed by the man on the bed there, who was investigating a difficulty which had puzzled him.
So we have come to this point. Away down at Frere's Landing, amid scenes of anguish, tribulation, and death, where elect souls did minister, there was found ministration by these elect souls in their own behalf.
They had gained a "Landing-Place" that was sacred ground, and if Philosophy and Science would also stand there they must put their shoes from off their feet, for the ground was holy. Priests whose right it was to stand within the veil were servants there; and day by day, as they discerned each other's work, it was not required of them always to dwell upon the nature of sacrifice.
Each, in such work as now was occupying the doctor and Miss Ames, had need of the other's strengthening sympathy, day by day, and of all the consolations of friendship, such as royal souls are permitted to bestow on one another.
With the surgeon, not a young man in anything except happiness, it was as if there were broad openings, not rents, in the heavy leaden skies. Pure, bright lights shone along the horizon, warmth overspread the cold.
With her, perpetual and sufficient are the compensations of love. To him who plants of this it is returned out of earth, and out of heaven, in good measure, pressed down, and running over. Nay, let us not argue.
The sick man lying on his cot, the convalescent guided by her to balcony or garden, the crippled and the dying, had all to give her of their hearts' best bloom. And if it proved that there was one among these who, to her apprehension, walked in white, like an angel, of whom she asked no thanks, no praise, only aid and sympathy, what mortal should look surprise? The constant, the pure, the alive through all generations, the Alive Forever, will not. And the rest may apologize for overhearing a story not intended for their ears.
It happened one evening that the surgeon and Miss Ames met outside the hospital doors, near the old sea-wall. They were walking in no haste, watching, it seemed, the flight of the brave little sea-birds, as they made their way now above and now among the breakers. After the heart-trying labors of the day, an hour like this was full of balm to those who were now entered on its rest. But it was not secure from invasion. Even now a voice was shouting to the surgeon, and he heard it, though he walked on as if he were determined not to hear. He had taken to himself this hour; he had earned it, he needed it; surely the world could go on for one hour without him!
But the importunity of the call was not to be resisted. So, because the irresistible must be met, the surgeon stood still and looked around. A poor little fellow was making toward him with all speed.
"Mail for you, sir," he said, as he came nearer, and he gave a package of newspapers, and one little letter, into the surgeon's hands.
So Miss Ames and he sat down on the stone wall to scan those newspapers, and the surgeon opened his note.
Obviously a scrawl from some poor fellow who had obtained a discharge on account of sickness, and gone home. It was not rare for the surgeon to receive such missives from the men who had been under his charge. Wonderful was the influence he gained over the majority of his patients. Wonderful? No. The man of meanest talents, who gives himself body and spirit to a noble work, can no more fail of his great reward, than the seasons of their glory. Never man on this Landing thought meanly of the hospital surgeon's skill, or questioned his right to rank among the ablest of his tribe,—no man, and certainly not the woman who was making a hero out of him, to her heart's great content.
While Miss Ames looked at the papers, he proceeded, without much interest in the business, to open and read his note.
One glance down the blurred and blotted page served to arrest his attention, in a way that letters could not always do. Here was not a cup of cold water to sip and put aside. He glanced at Miss Ames. She was absorbed in a report of "the situation," getting items of renown out of one column and another, which should ease many an aching body, smooth many a sick man's pillow, ere the night-lamps were lighted in the wards.
If she had chanced to look up at him just then, while he, with scared, astonished eyes, was glancing at her, it is impossible to say what words might have escaped him, or what might have forever been prevented utterance. But she was not looking. What heavenly angel turned her eyes away?
And now, before him whose prerogative was Victory, what vision did arise? An apocalyptic vision: blackness of darkness forever, and side by side with chaos, fair fields of living green, through which a young girl walked towards a womanhood as fair as hers who sat beside him. Unconscious of wrong that child, and yet how deeply, how variously wronged! If he had meditated a great robbery, he could not have quailed in the light of the discovered enormity as he did now before the vision of his Janet.
Years upon years of struggle and of conquest could hardly give to the surgeon of Frere's a more notable victory, one which could fill his soul with a serener sense of triumph, than this hour gave, when he sat on the old stone wall that guarded shore from sea, with the child's letter in his hands, which had not miscarried, but had moved straight, straight—do not Divine providences always?—as an arrow to its mark.
Out of the secret place of strength he came, and he held that letter open towards Miss Ames.
"Here's something to be thought of," said he, endeavoring to speak in a natural and easy tone of voice. "I don't know that I could ask for better counsel than yours. My little girl has written me a letter. I didn't know that she could write. See what work she has made of it. But what sort of parents can she have, do you think, twelve years old, and writing a thing like that?"
Miss Ames laid aside, or rather, to speak correctly, she dropped the newspapers. There was nothing in all their printed columns to compare with this item of intelligence,—that the surgeon had a living wife and a living daughter. She took the letter he was holding towards her, and said, "Indeed, Doctor," quite as naturally as he had spoken. But she did not look at him. She read the letter,—every misspelled word of it,—then she said: "Perhaps it doesn't say much for the parents. But something—I should think a great deal—for the child. Strange you didn't tell me about her before. But I like to have her introduce herself."
"Promotion, eh!" she was looking the scrawl over again.
The word, as she pronounced it, was not an interrogation. Miss Ames seemed to be musing, yet with no activity of curiosity, on the one idea which had evidently possessed the child's mind in writing.
There was silence for a moment after this ejaculation; then the surgeon spoke.
"I enlisted as a private," said he, speaking with a difficulty that might not have been manifest to any ordinary hearer. "My daughter did not know that I had a profession; but my diploma satisfied the Department when my promotion was spoken of. When I became a live man in the service, I wished to serve where I could bring the most to pass, and it was not in camp, or on the field,—except as a healer." He looked at his watch as he uttered these last words, and arose as if his hour of rest had expired; but then, instead of taking one step forward, he turned and looked at Miss Ames, and she seemed to hear him saying, "Is this a time for flight?"
He answered that question, for he had asked it of himself, by sitting down again.
"I ought to take a few minutes to myself," he said, with grave deliberation, "I shall have no time like this to speak of my child,—for her, I mean"; and if, while he spoke thus, he lacked perfect composure, the hour was his, and he knew it. "More than a dozen years ago," he continued, "I went to Dalton. I was sick and dying, as I thought. Janet's mother nursed me through a fever, and was the means of saving my life. I married her. I was grateful for the care she had taken of me; and while regaining my strength, during that September and October, I fell into the mistake of thinking that it was she who made the world seem beautiful to me again, and life worth keeping. But you have seen enough since you have been in this hospital to understand that this war has been salvation to a good many men, as it will prove to the nation. I enlisted as much as anything to get away from—where I was. The Devil himself couldn't hold me there any longer. He had managed things long enough. The child is capable of love, you see. Can you help us? I don't know, but I think you were sent from above to do it, somehow. I see—I must live for Janet. When I think that she might live in the same world where you do, that I have no right to surround her with any other conditions—does God take me for a robber? No! for he managed to get this letter to me when—" He stopped speaking,—it seemed as if he were about to look at his watch again; but instead of that, he said "Good evening" to Miss Ames, and bowed, and walked back towards the hospital.
His assistant gathered up the newspapers, and then sat down again and looked out towards the sea. The tide was coming in. She sat awhile and watched the great waves lift aloft the graceful branches of green and purple sea-weed, and saw the stormy petrels going to and fro, and listened to the ocean's roar. She was sounding deeper depths than those awful caverns which were hidden by the green and shining water from her eyes.
If Janet Saunders, child of Nancy Elkins, at that moment felt a thrill of joy, and broke forth into singing, would you deem the fact inconsequent, not to be classed among the wonders of telegraphic achievement?
I think her little cold, pinched, meagre life—nay, lot—was brightened consciously on that great day of being,—that the sun felt warmer, and the skies looked fairer than they ever had before. The destiny which had seemed to be in the hands or charge of no one on earth was in the hands of two as capable as any in this world for services of love.
But now what was to be done by Dr. Saunders? Every man and woman sees the "situation." For the present, of course, he was sufficiently occupied; he was in the service of his country. But when these urgent demands on his time, patience, and humanity, which were now incessant, should no longer be made, because the country had need of him no longer,—what then? Men mustered out of service generally went home; family and neighborhood claimed them. What family, what neighborhood, claimed him? His very soul abhorred the thought of Dalton, where he had died to life; where he had buried his manhood. The very thought that the neighbors would not be able to recognize him was a thought which made him say to himself they never should recognize him. He would not be identified as the poor creature who went out of Dalton with one hope, and only one,—that the first day's engagement might see him lying among the unnamed and unknown dead. But if the neighbors and his wife exposed to him relations which he swore he would not degrade himself so far as to resume, what was to become of his daughter? That was more easily managed. He could send her away from home to school, if he could find a lady in the land who would compassionate that neglected little girl, and teach her, and train her, and be a mother to her.
Miss Ames knew such a one. Let the little girl be sent to Charlestown to Miss Hall, Miss Ames's dear friend, and no better training than she would have in her school could be found for her throughout the land. Miss Ames gave this advice the day she went away from Frere's, for she had decided, for her brother, that he never would recover his strength until he was removed to a cooler climate. So they were going on a government transport, which would sail for Charlestown direct. This little business in regard to Janet Saunders could be managed by her immediately on arrival home. And so the surgeon wrote a letter, which he sent by his assistant, to Miss Hall, and another to the minister of Dalton, and another still to Janet and her mother. And all these concerned little Jenny; and all this grew out of the letter written in the blacksmith's shop, and the doctor's recovered integrity.
But the question yet remained, What could be done for Nancy? If education in that direction were possible,—to what purpose? That she might become his equal when the strength of his hope that he had done with her was lying merely in this, that they were unequal? But hope,—what had he to do with hope, especially with such a hope as this? What had he to do with hope, who had come forth from Dalton as from a pit of despair? There were no foes like those of his own household; he was hoping that for all time he had rid himself of them. That would have been desertion, in point of fact. Well; but all that a man hath will he give for his life. He was safely distant from that place of disaster and death; but he must recognize his home duties, at least by the maintenance of his family. Yes, that he would do. He began to consider how much was due to him for services rendered to the government,—for the first time to consider.
So, long before winter came, Nancy Saunders found herself on intimate terms with the minister and his wife,—for the minister had received his letters from the surgeon, and promptly accepted his commission, securing comfortable winter quarters for Nancy, and escorting Janet to Charlestown, after his wife had aided the doctor's wife in preparing the child for boarding-school. All these changes and transactions excited talk in Dalton. Every kind of rumor went abroad that you can imagine; and it was currently believed at last that the doctor had made a fortune by some army contract. So well persuaded of this fact was his wife, that, as time wore on, she began to think, and to say, that, if such was the case, she didn't know why she should be kept on short allowance, and to inquire among the neighbors the easiest and the shortest route from Dalton to Frere's Landing. Nobody seemed able to answer the question so well as Ezra Cramer; and he assured her that she would lose her head before she got half through the army lines which stretched between her and the hospital. But then Ezra was a born know-nothing, said Nancy,—that everybody knew.
Walking up and down the sea-wall, night after night, during the hour of rest he appropriated to himself,—knowing that these things were accomplished, for in due time letters came informing him of the fulfilment of his wishes,—the surgeon had ample leisure for considering and reconsidering this case. It was one that would not stay disposed of. What adjournments were made! what exceptions were taken! and what appeals to higher courts were constantly being made!
As often as a scrawl came from Colonel Ames reporting progress, and the plans he and his sister were making, the deeds they were doing, the grand-jury was sworn and the surgeon arraigned before it; the chief justice came into court, and all the witnesses, and the accusation was read. Then the counsel for the defendant and the counsel for the plaintiff appeared. But, with every new trial of the case, new charges and new specifications were brought forward and made, and it was equal to being in chancery. If the war lasted through a generation, it was likely that the surgeon's suit would last as long.
This was as notable a divorce case as ever was made public.
On the plaintiff's behalf the argument ran thus: Here was a man, a gentleman by birth, education, and profession, legally united to a woman low-born, low-bred, and so ignorant that she could neither read nor write. He had come to the neighborhood where she lived, to the door of the very house she occupied, sick in body and in mind. Disappointments and ill-health had reduced him to the shadow of himself in person, and his mind, of course, shared his body's disaffection.
A sick person, as all experience in practice has proved over and over again, is hardly to be called a responsible being. Invalids love and hate without reason,—which is contrary, he said, as he stood in the presence of the court,—contrary to what is done among persons in sound health.
Under the shelter of her uncle's roof he had lain for weeks, sick of a fever. He was saved alive, but so as by fire. This girl waited on him through that time as a servant. He was thrown chiefly on her hands,—no other person could be spared to wait on the poor stranger. She comforted him. Her ways were not refined and gentle as if she had been taught refinement and tenderness by precept or example. She had strong good-sense. So far as she understood his orders, she obeyed them. When he could not give any, she made use of her own judgment, and sought first of all his comfort. She was kind. In her rough honesty and unwearied attention he found cause for gratitude.
Rising for the first time from his bed of sickness, he would have fallen if she had not lifted him and laid him back upon his bed. When he became strong enough to stand, but not without support, she gave him that support. She assisted him from the little room, and the little house when the walls became intolerable to him, and it happened to be in the early morning of a day so magnificent that it seemed another could never be made like it. He could not forget how the world looked that morning; how the waters shone; how the islands stood about; how the surrounding hills were arrayed in purple glory; how the birds sang. This land to which he was a stranger, which he had seen before only on that night when he came in the dark to her uncle's door, looked like Paradise to him; he gazed and gazed, and silent tears ran down his pale face through the furrows of his wasted cheeks. She saw them shining in his beard, and said something to soothe him in a comforting way, as any woman would have spoken who saw any creature in weakness and pain. The manner or the word, whatever it was, expressed a superiority of health, if of no other kind, and he was in no condition to investigate either its quality or its degree.
When, with voice feeble and broken as a sick child's, he thanked her for all she had done, and she answered that it was nothing but a pleasure, and he need not thank her, he did not forthwith forget that she had watched day and night over him for nearly two months; that many a time weariness so overpowered her that she sat and slept in the broad daylight, and looked paler than when he lay like a dead weight on her hands.
He remembered in court, and could not deny it, that when, believing that this was destiny as it was also pleasure, he asked the girl to marry him, she answered, "No,"—as if she did not trust what he said, that she was necessary to his happiness. She told him that he did not belong in Dalton, and that he would not be happy there with her and her people. He answered that all he desired to know was whether she loved him. By and by he was able to gather from the answers she gave, as well as failed to give, all he desired to know, and they were married.
And, since he was beginning life anew, it was shown in court, nothing of the old life should enter into this of Dalton. He buried his profession in the past, and undertook other labors,—labors like those of Uncle Elkins; he would abide on that level where he found himself on his recovery, and make no effort to lift his wife to that he had renounced. She was a child of Nature. He would learn life anew of her; but he failed of success in all his undertakings. Shall a man attempt to extenuate his failures? It seemed new to him; he acknowledged it in open court, that from the day of his entrance into Dalton to the day he left it, he was under some enchantment there. And if an insane man is not to be held responsible in law for his offences, he had the amplest title to a quitclaim deed from that which had grown out of the Dalton experience.
So the lower courts disposed of the case. He was free. But after a time the suit was carried up before superior powers, and thus the advocate for the defendant showed cause on the new trial.
She was living among the people of whom she had been born. In person she was attractive as any girl to be found on all the lake or hillside; a rosy-cheeked, fair-faced, fair-haired blue-eyed girl, with a frank voice and easy address. She had a "Hail fellow! well met!" for every man, woman, and child of the vicinity. She had lovers, all the way up from her childhood, rustic admirers, and one who looked at her from a not far distance, who dressed himself in his best and went to her uncle's house on Sundays and other holidays, and who was courting Nancy after his fashion, with all plans for their future marked out fully in his mind,—and these would have fulfilment if his suit were only successful; and in regard to that he had no fears or doubts.
Until this stranger came to Uncle Elkins's house! During his long sickness the young lover was helpful in many ways to Nancy. But he began to be suspicious by and by of the results of this much waiting. At last, before he was himself ready to do it, he asked Nancy to be his wife; but he was too late. She had "given her word" to the poor fellow whom she had lured back from Death's door.
The court was admonished to take cognizance of this fact, that, if Nancy had married the man in whom her heart had been interested up to the time when the stranger came, she would have married in her own sphere, a man of her own rank, and would have loved him as he did her, with an equal love; they would have lived out their lives, animating them with skirmishes and small warfare, and winning victories over each other, which would have proved disastrous as defeats to neither.
It would have been no high crime to such a man that Nancy was ignorant up and down through the range of knowledge; he would not have turned away in disgust from his endeavors to teach her, if she took it into her head to learn, though she dropped and regained the ambition through every winter of her life. He would have plodded on in his accustomed ways, would have protected his wife and child from starvation and cold, without imagining that a husband and father could retire from his position as such, or abrogate his duties. No vague expectations in regard to herself, no bitter disappointment in regard to him, would have attended her. The very changes in her character, which had made her not to be endured,—how far was he whose name she bore responsible for them? She had been accustomed to thrift and labor, she saw in him idleness and waste of power and life. She had exhausted the resources readiest to her hand in vain, and had only then given up her expectation.
It was not be denied that it was humiliation and wrath to live with her; but her husband had sought her,—she had not sought him! If he could plead for himself the force and constraint of circumstances, should not the same defence be set up for her? And what might not patience, and better management, and gentler and more noble demeanor towards her, have done for her? Was he the same man he was when he went away from Dalton? Was he the same man in Dalton that he had been in his youth? Was it not out of the pit that he himself had been digged? It became evident that the arguments for the defendant were producing a result in court. The judge on his throne, as well as the grand-jury, listened to the argument in favor of the woman. And at last the case was decided; for the judge charged the jury, that, if it could be shown that there was mere incompatibility, it was the business of the superior mind to make straight a highway for the Lord across those lives. Let every valley be exalted, every hill be brought low.
Dr. Saunders acquiesced in this verdict, and wrote a letter to his wife. He knew she could not read it, but he knew also that she could procure it to be read to her. He filled it with accounts of his situation, occupation, expectation; and he sent her money. He said that, if he could get a furlough, he might run up North for a few days, as other men went home who could get leave of absence, to see that those whom he had left behind him were doing well; and they would both perhaps be able to go and see their daughter Jenny, or else they might have her home for a holiday. He wrote a letter saying these things and others, and any wife might have been proud to receive such from her husband, "in the war."
And when he had sent it, he looked for no answer. This was a kind of giving which must look for no return. And yet an answer was sent him. He did not receive it, however, it was sent at so late a date; he was then on his way to Dalton.
When the whistle of the miniature boat which plied the lake sent a warning along the hillside that a passenger was on board who wished to land, or that mail was to be sent ashore, a small boat was rowed from the Point by a lad who was lingering about, waiting to know if any such signal were to come, and one passenger stood at the head of the ladder, waiting for him to come alongside. This was Dr. Saunders, who, having been rowed ashore, walked three miles down the road, and up along the mountain, to the Dalton neighborhood.
The first man whom he met as he walked on was the blacksmith, who had been instrumental in getting Jenny's letter written. He was sitting in front of his shop, alone. There was nothing about this man who was walking into Dalton to excite a suspicion in the mind of the shrewdest old inhabitant who should meet him that his personality was familiar to Dalton eyes. He might safely ask what questions he would, and pursue his way if he chose to do it. Nobody would recognize him.
The doctor lingered as he went past the shop; but the blacksmith did not speak, and he walked on; and he passed others, his old neighbors, as he went. This was hardly pleasant, though it might be the thing he desired.
He walked on until he came to the red farm-gate of Farmer Elkins, Nancy's uncle. There he stopped. Under the chestnut-trees, before the door, the farmer sat. The doctor walked in, and towards him like a man at home, and said, "Good evening, Uncle."
The wrinkled old farmer looked up from his drowse. He had hardly heard the words spoken; but the voice that spoke had in it a tone that was familiar, were it not for the cheeriness of it; and—but no! one glance at the figure before him assured him of anything rather than Saunders! Yet the old man, either because of his vague expectation or because of the confusion of his half-awake condition, said something audibly, of which the name of Nancy, and her name alone, was intelligible.
"Well, where is Nancy," said the other, laying his hand on the farmer's shoulder in a manner calculated to dissipate his dream.
The old man looked at the doctor with serious, suspicious eyes, scanned him from head to foot, and there was a dash of anger, of unbelief, of awe, and of deference in the spirit with which he said, "If you're Saunders, I'm glad you've come, but you might 'a' come sooner."
"You're right, and you're wrong, Uncle. I'm Saunders, true enough. But I couldn't come before,—this is my first furlough."
"Did you get the letter?"
"No, what letter? Who wrote to me?"
The judge and the jury looked down from the awful circle, in the midst of which stood Saunders, and surveyed the little hard-faced, yellow-haired farmer, with eyes which seemed intent on searching him through all his shadowy ambiguity. If only he would make such answer as any other man in all the land might expect,—thought the prisoner,—"Why, your wife, of course." The doctor was prepared to believe in a miracle. Since he went away his wife might have been spurred on by the ambition to rival her daughter, who was being educated. She perhaps had learned to write, and in her pride had written to her husband!
The answer Elkins gave was the only one of which the doctor's mind had taken no thought.
"Nancy died a month ago." There the old man paused. But as the doctor made no answer, merely stood looking at him, he went on. "She got your letter first, though, Nancy did. I think, if anything could a-hindered her dying, that would. She came out here to read your letter," (he did not say to hear it read, and Saunders noticed that,) "and my folks, she found, was busy, and nobody was round to talk it over with her, so nothing could stop her, but she put right in and worked till night, and on top o' that she would go back to the village, and it was raining, and so dark you could scurce see the road; but she'd made up her mind to go South and find you, and so we couldn't persuade her to stop over night. But the next day, when she come back to tell us when she was going to start for Dixie, she was took down right here, that suddin. There's been a good deal of that sickness round here sense, and fatalish, most always. But I tell 'em it took the smartest of the lot off first, when it took Nancy."
The doctor stood there when the teller of this story had stopped speaking. He was not looking at him,—of that the old man was certain. He seemed to be looking nowhere, and to see nothing that was near or visible.
"Come into the house and take something," said Uncle Elkins, for he began to be alarmed.
"Was Janet here?" asked the doctor, as if he had not heard the invitation.
"We had to send for her. Nancy was calling for her all the time," said Farmer Elkins, as if he doubted how far this story ought to be continued, for he did not understand the man before him. He only knew that once he had fallen down on his door-step, and lain helpless beneath his roof hard on to two months; and he watched him now as if he anticipated some renewal of that old attack,—and there was no Nancy now to nurse, and watch, and slave herself to death for him; for that was the way folk in the house were talking about Nancy and her husband in these days.
"Did she get here in time? Who went after her?"
"The minister went. We had 'em here a fortnight,—well on to 't."
"What, the minister, too?"
"No, I mean the young woman who come from Charlestown with Jenny. Her name was—" He paused long, endeavoring to recall that name. It trembled on the doctor's lips, but he did not utter it. At last said Farmer Elkins, "There! it was Miss Amey,—Amey? Yes. She took the little girl back hum with her. It was right in there, in the room where you had that spell of fever of yourn. She got you well through that! Ef anything could 'a' brought her through that turn, your letter would. It came across my mind once that, as she'd saved your life, may be you was going to save hern by that are letter! And she was so determined to get to your hospital!"
"Thank God she got the letter, any way!" exclaimed the doctor.
At that the old man walked into the house to set its best cheer before Nancy's husband, who looked so much like a mourner as he stood there under the trees, with the bitter recollections of the past overwhelming every other thought and feeling of the present.
Because it seemed to him that he could not sleep under old Elkins's roof that night, he remained there and slept there,—in the room where his fever ran its course,—in the room where Nancy died.
Because this story of the last months of her life was as gall and wormwood to him, he refused it not, but went over it with his wife's relations, and helped them spread a decent pall, according to the custom of mourners; over what had been.
Was he endeavoring to deceive himself and others into the belief that he was a mourning man? He was but accepting the varied humiliations of death; for they do not all pertain to the surrendering life. He was not thinking at all of his loss through her, nor of his gain by her. He was thinking, as he stood above the grave of fifteen years, how high Disgrace and Misery had heaped the mound. So bitterly he was thinking of the past, it was without desire that he at last arose and faced the future.
When he went to Charlestown—for a man on furlough had no time to lose—and saw his Janet in the Colonel's house,—Miss Ames took Janet home with her after that death and funeral,—when he saw how fair and beautiful a promise of girlhood was budding on the poor neglected branch, he said to his assistant, "Will you keep this child with you until the war is over? I am afraid to touch her, or interfere with her destiny. It has been so easy for me to mar, so hard to mend."
Miss Ames kept the child; the war ended. The surgeon then, like other men, returned home; his regiments were disbanded, and now, one duty, to mankind and the ages, well discharged, another, less conspicuous, but as urgent, claimed him. There was Janet, and Janet's mother,—she who had risen, not from the grave indeed, but from the midst of dangers, sacredly to guard and guide the child.
On his way to them he asked himself this question, "How many times must a man be born before he is fit to live?"
He did not answer that question; neither can I.
He informed his assistant of the court's decision in reference to the plea of "incompatibility," and she said that the justice of the sentence was not to be controverted with success by any counsellor on earth; but the reader may smile, and say that it was not difficult to come to this decision under the circumstances.
We will not argue that point. I had only the story to tell, and have told it.