A Simpleton by Charles Reade
In his quality of attendant on the sick, Staines sometimes conducted a weak but convalescent patient into the open air; and he was always pleased to do this, for the air of the Cape carries health and vigor on its wings. He had seen its fine recreative properties, and he divined, somehow, that the minds of convalescents ought to be amused, and so he often begged the doctor to let him take a convalescent abroad. Sooner than not, he would draw the patient several miles in a Bath chair. He rather liked this; for he was a Hercules, and had no egotism or false pride where the sick were concerned.
Now, these open-air walks exerted a beneficial influence on his own darkened mind. It is one thing to struggle from idea to idea; it is another when material objects mingle with the retrospect; they seem to supply stepping-stones in the gradual resuscitation of memory and reason.
The ships going out of port were such a steppingstone to him, and a vague consciousness came back to him of having been in a ship.
Unfortunately, along with this reminiscence came a desire to go in one again; and this sowed discontent in his mind, and the more that mind enlarged, the more he began to dislike the hospital and its confinement. The feeling grew, and bade fair to disqualify him for his humble office. The authorities could not fail to hear of this, and they had a little discussion about parting with him; but they hesitated to turn him adrift, and they still doubted the propriety of trusting him with money and jewels.
While matters were in this state a remarkable event occurred. He drew a sick patient down to the quay one morning, and watched the business of the port with the keenest interest. A ship at anchor was unloading, and a great heavy boat was sticking to her side like a black leech. Presently this boat came away, and moved sluggishly towards the shore, rather by help of the tide than of the two men who went through the form of propelling her with two monstrous sweeps, while a third steered her. She contained English goods: agricultural implements, some cases, four horses, and a buxom young woman with a thorough English face. The woman seemed a little excited, and as she neared the landing-place, she called out in jocund tones to a young man on the shore, "It is all right, Dick; they are beauties," and she patted the beasts as people do who are fond of them.
She stepped lightly ashore, and then came the slower work of landing her imports. She bustled about, like a hen over her brood, and wasn't always talking, but put in her word every now and then, never crossly, and always to the point.
Staines listened to her, and examined her with a sort of puzzled look; but she took no notice of him; her whole soul was in the cattle.
They got the things on board well enough; but the horses were frightened at the gangway, and jibbed. Then a man was for driving them, and poked one of them in the quarter; he snorted and reared directly.
"Man alive!" cried the young woman, "that is not the way. They are docile enough, but frightened. Encourage 'em, and let 'em look at it. Give 'em time. More haste less speed, with timorous cattle."
"That is a very pleasant voice," said poor Staines, rather more dictatorially than became the present state of his intellect. He added softly, "a true woman's voice;" then gloomily, "a voice of the past--the dark, dark past."
At this speech intruding itself upon the short sentences of business, there was a roar of laughter, and Phoebe Falcon turned sharply round to look at the speaker. She stared at him; she cried "Oh!" and clasped her hands, and colored all over. "Why, sure," said she, "I can't be mistook. Those eyes--'tis you, doctor, isn't it?"
"Doctor?" said Staines, with a puzzled look. "Yes; I think they called me doctor once. I'm an attendant in the hospital now."
"Dick!" cried Phoebe, in no little agitation. "Come here this minute."
"What, afore I get the horses ashore?"
"Ay, before you do another thing, or say another word. Come here, now." So he came, and she told him to take a good look at the man. "Now," said she, "who is that?"
"Blest if I know," said he.
"What, not know the man who saved your own life! Oh, Dick, what are your eyes worth?"
This discourse brought the few persons within hearing into one band of excited starers.
Dick took a good look, and said, "I'm blest if I don't, though; it is the doctor that cut my throat."
This strange statement drew forth quite a shout of ejaculations.
"Oh, better breathe through a slit than not at all," said Dick. "Saved my life with that cut, he did, didn't he, Pheeb?"
"That he did, Dick. Dear heart, I hardly know whether I am in my senses or not, seeing him a-looking so blank. You try him."
Dick came forward. "Sure you remember me, sir. Dick Dale. You cut my throat, and saved my life."
"Cut your throat! why, that would kill you."
"Not the way you done it. Well, sir, you ain't the man you was, that is clear; but you was a good friend to me, and there's my hand."
"Thank you, Dick," said Staines, and took his hand. "I don't remember you. Perhaps you are one of the past. The past is dead wall to me--a dark dead wall," and he put his hands to his head with a look of distress.
Everybody there now suspected the truth, and some pointed mysteriously to their own heads.
Phoebe whispered an inquiry to the sick person.
He said a little pettishly, "All I know is, he is the kindest attendant in the ward, and very attentive."
"Oh, then, he is in the public hospital."
"Of course he is."
The invalid, with the selfishness of his class, then begged Staines to take him out of all this bustle down to the beach. Staines complied at once, with the utmost meekness, and said, "Good-by, old friends; forgive me for not remembering you. It is my great affliction that the past is gone from me--gone, gone." And he went sadly away, drawing his sick charge like a patient mule.
Phoebe Falcon looked after him, and began to cry.
"Nay, nay, Phoebe," said Dick; "don't ye take on about it."
"I wonder at you," sobbed Phoebe. "Good people, I'm fonder of my brother than he is of himself, it seems; for I can't take it so easy. Well, the world is full of trouble. Let us do what we are here for. But I shall pray for the poor soul every night, that his mind may be given back to him."
So then she bustled, and gave herself to getting the cattle on shore, and the things put on board her wagon.
But when this was done, she said to her brother, "Dick, I did not think anything on earth could take my heart off the cattle and the things we have got from home; but I can't leave this without going to the hospital about our poor dear doctor: and it is late for making a start, any way--and you mustn't forget the newspapers for Reginald--he is so fond of them--and you must contrive to have one sent out regular after this, and I'll go to the hospital."
She went, and saw the head doctor, and told him he had got an attendant there she had known in England in a very different condition, and she had come to see if there was anything she could do for him--for she felt very grateful to him, and grieved to see him so.
The doctor was pleased and surprised, and put several questions.
Then she gave him a clear statement of what he had done for Dick in England.
"Well," said the doctor, "I believe it is the same man; for, now you tell me this--yes, one of the nurses told me he knew more about medicine than she did. His name, if you please."
"His name, sir?"
"Yes, his name. Of course you know his name. Is it Christie?"
"Doctor," said Phoebe, blushing, "I don't know what you will think of me, but I don't know his name. Laws forgive me, I never had the sense to ask it."
A shade of suspicion crossed the doctor's face.
Phoebe saw it, and colored to the temples. "Oh, sir," she cried piteously, "don't go for to think I have told you a lie! why should I? and indeed I am not of that sort, nor Dick neither. Sir, I'll bring him to you, and he will say the same. Well, we were all in terror and confusion, and I met him accidentally in the street. He was only a customer till then, and paid ready money, so that is how I never knew his name, but if I hadn't been the greatest fool in England, I should have asked his wife."
"What! he has a wife?"
"Ay, sir, the loveliest lady you ever clapped eyes on, and he is almost as handsome; has eyes in his head like jewels; 'twas by them I knew him on the quay, and I think he knew my voice again, said as good as he had heard it in past times."
"Did he? Then we have got him," cried the doctor energetically.
"Yes; if he knows your voice, you will be able in time to lead his memory back; at least, I think so. Do you live in Cape Town?"
"Dear heart, no. I live at my own farm, a hundred and eighty miles from this."
"What a pity!"
"Oh, if you think I could do the poor doctor good by having him with me, you have only to say the word, and out he goes with Dick and me to-morrow morning. We should have started for home to- night, but for this."
"Are you in earnest, madam?" said the doctor, opening his eyes. "Would you really encumber yourself with a person whose reason is in suspense, and may never return?"
"But that is not his fault, sir. Why, if a dog had saved my brother's life, I'd take it home, and keep it all its days; and this is a man, and a worthy man. Oh, sir, when I saw him brought down so, and his beautiful eyes clouded like, my very bosom yearned over the poor soul; a kind act done in dear old England, who can see the man in trouble here, and not repay it--ay, if it cost one's blood. But indeed he is strong and healthy, and hands are always scarce our way, and the odds are he will earn his meat one way or t'other; and if he doesn't, why, all the better for me; I shall have the pleasure of serving him for nought that once served me for neither money nor reward."
"You are a good woman," said the doctor warmly.
"There's better, and there's worse," said Phoebe quietly, and even a little coldly.
"More of the latter," said the doctor dryly. "Well, Mrs.--?"
"We shall hand him over to your care: but first--just for form--if you are a married woman, we should like to see Dick here: he is your husband, I presume."
Ploebe laughed merrily. "Dick is my brother; and he can't be spared to come here. Dick! he'd say black was white if I told him to."
"Then let us see your husband about it--just for form."
"My husband is at the farm. I could not venture so far away, and not leave him in charge." If she had said, "I will not bring him into temptation," that would have been nearer the truth. "Let that fly stick on the wall, sir. What I do, my husband will approve."
"I see how it is. You rule the roost."
Phoebe did not reply point-blank to that; she merely said, "All my chickens are happy, great and small," and an expression of lofty, womanly, innocent pride illuminated her face and made it superb for a moment.
In short, it was settled that Staines should accompany her next morning to Dale's Kloof Farm, if he chose. On inquiry, it appeared that he had just returned to the hospital with his patient. He was sent for, and Phoebe asked him sweetly if he would go with her to her house, one hundred and eighty miles away, and she would be kind to him.
"On the water?"
"Nay, by land; but 'tis a fine country, and you will see beautiful deer and things running across the plains, and"--
"Shall I find the past again, the past again?"
"Ay, poor soul, that we shall, God willing. You and I, we will hunt it together."
He looked at her, and gave her his hand. "I will go with you. Your face belongs to the past, so does your voice."
He then inquired, rather abruptly, had she any children. She smiled.
"Ay, that I have, the loveliest little boy you ever saw. When you are as you used to be, you will be his doctor, won't you?"
"Yes, I will nurse him, and you will help me find the past."
Phoebe then begged Staines to be ready to start at six in the morning. She and Dick would take him up on their way.
While she was talking to him the doctor slipped out, and to tell the truth he went to consult with another authority, whether he should take this opportunity of telling Staines that he had money and jewels at the bank: he himself was half inclined to do so; but the other, who had not seen Phoebe's face, advised him to do nothing of the kind. "They are always short of money, these colonial farmers," said he; "she would get every shilling out of him."
"Most would; but this is such an honest face."
"Well, but she is a mother, you say."
"Well, what mother could be just to a lunatic, with her own sweet angel babes to provide for?"
"That is true," said Dr. ----. "Maternal love is apt to modify the conscience."
"What I would do,--I would take her address, and make her promise to write if he gets well, and if he does get well then write to him, and tell him all about it."
Dr. ---- acted on this shrewd advice, and ordered a bundle to be made up for the traveller out of the hospital stores: it contained a nice light summer suit and two changes of linen.