The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XIII. Dr. Harry's Case
"'Whatever or whoever is responsible for the existence of such people and such conditions is a problem for the age to solve. The fact is, they are here.'"
The meeting of the Ladies' Aid adjourned and its members, with sighs and exclamations of satisfaction over work well done, separated to go to their homes--where there were suppers to prepare for hungry husbands, and children of the flesh.
Thus always in the scheme of things as they are, the duties of life conflict with the duties of religion. The faithful members of Memorial Church were always being interrupted in their work for the Lord by the demands of the world. And as they saw it, there was nothing for them to do but to bear their crosses bravely. What a blessed thought it is that God understands many things that are beyond our ken!
The whistles blew for quitting time. The six o'clock train from the West pulled into the yards, stopped--puffing a few moments at the water tank--and thundered on its way again. On the street, business men and those who labored with their hands hurried from the scenes of their daily toil, while the country folk untied their teams and saddle-horses from the hitch-racks to return to their waiting families and stock on the distant farms.
A few miles out on the main road leading northward the home-going farmers passed a tired horse hitched to a dusty, mud-stained top-buggy, plodding steadily toward the village. Without exception they hailed the driver of the single rig heartily. It was Dr. Harry returning from a case in the backwoods country beyond Hebron.
The deep-chested, long-limbed bay, known to every child for miles around, was picking her own way over the country roads, for the lines hung slack. Without a hint from her driver the good horse slowed to a walk on the rough places and quickened her pace again when the road was good, and of her own accord, turned out for the passing teams. The man in the buggy returned the greetings of his friends mechanically, scarcely noticing who they were.
It was Jo Mason's wife this time. Jo was a good fellow but wholly incapable of grasping, single-handed, the problem of daily life for himself and brood. There were ten children in almost as many years. Understanding so little of life's responsibilities the man's dependence upon his wife was pitiful, if not criminal. With tears streaming down his lean, hungry face he had begged, "Do somethin', Doc! My God Almighty, you jest got to do some-thin'!"
For hours Dr. Harry had been trying to do something. Out there in the woods, in that wretched, poverty-stricken home, with only a neighbor woman of the same class to help he had been fighting a losing fight.
And now while the bay mare was making her tired way home he was still fighting--still trying to do something. His professional knowledge and experience told him that he could not win; that, at best, he could do no more than delay his defeat a few days, and his common sense urged him to dismiss the case from his mind. But there was something in Dr. Harry stronger than his common sense; something greater than his professional skill. And so he must go on fighting until the very end.
It was nearly twilight when he reached the edge of the hill on the farther side of the valley. He could see the lights of the town twinkling against the dark mass of tree and hill and building, while on the faintly-glowing sky the steeple of Memorial Church, the cupola of the old Academy building, and the court-house tower were cut in black. Down into the dusk of the valley the bay picked her way, and when they had gained the hill on the edge of town it was dark. Now the tired horse quickened her pace, for the home barn and Uncle George were not far away. But as they drew near the big brown house of Judge Strong, she felt the first touch of the reins and came to a walk, turning in to the familiar hitching post with reluctance.
At that moment a tall figure left the Judge's gate to pass swiftly down the street in the dusk.
Before the bay quite came to a stop at the post her master's hand turned her head into the street again, and his familiar voice bade her, somewhat sharply, to "go on!" In mild surprise she broke into a quick trot. How was the good horse to know that her driver's impatience was all with himself, and was caused by seeing his friend, the minister coming--as he thought--from the Strong mansion? Or how was Dr. Harry to know that Dan had only paused at the gate as if to enter, and had passed on when he saw the physician turning in?
Farther down the street at the little white cottage near the monument, the bay mare was pulled again to a walk, and this time she was permitted to turn in to the curb and stop.
The old Doctor was sitting on the porch. "Hello!" he called cheerily, "Come in."
"Not tonight, thank you Doctor, I can't stop," answered the younger man. At his words the old physician left his chair and came stiffly down the walk to the buggy. When he was quite close, with one hand grasping the seat, Dr. Harry said in a low tone, "I'm just in from Mason's."
"Ah huh," grunted the other. Then inquiringly--"Well?"
"It's--it's pretty bad Doctor."
The old man's voice rumbled up from the depth of his chest, "Nothing to do, eh? You know I told you it was there. Been in her family way back. Seen it ever since she was a girl."
"Yes I knew it was of no use, of course. But you know how it is, Doctor."
The white head nodded understandingly as Dr. Harry's hand was slowly raised to his eyes.
"Yes I know Harry. Jo take it pretty bad?"
"Couldn't do anything with, him, poor fellow, and those children, too--"
Both men were silent. Slowly the younger man took up the reins. "I just stopped to tell you, Doctor."
"Ah huh. Well, you go home and rest. Get a good night whatever you do. You'll have to go out again, I suppose. Call me if anything turns up; I'm good for a little yet. You've got to get some rest, Harry, do you hear?" he spoke roughly.
"Thank you, Doctor. I don't think I will need to disturb you, though; everybody else is doing nicely. I can't think of anything that is likely to call me out."
"Well, go to bed anyway."
"I will, good night, Doctor."
"Good night, Harry."
The mare trotted on down the dark street, past the twinkling lights. The Doctor stood by the curb until he heard the buggy wheels rattle over the railroad tracks, then turned to walk stiffly back to his seat on the porch.
Soon the tired horse was in the hands of old Uncle George, while Mam Liz ministered to the weary doctor. The old black woman lingered in the dining room after serving his dinner, hovering about the table, calling his attention to various dishes, watching his face the while with an expression of anxiety upon her own wrinkled countenance. At last Harry looked up at her with a smile.
"Well Mam Liz, what is it? Haven't I been good today?"
"No sah. Mars Harry yo ain't. Yo been plumb bad, an' I feel jest like I uster when yo was er little trick an' I tuk yo 'cross my knee an' walloped yo good."
"Why, Mammy, what have I done now? Wasn't that new dress what you wanted? You can change it, you know, for anything you like."
"Law, chile, 'tain't me. Yo ole Mammy mighty proud o' them dress goods--they's too fine fo ole nigger like me. 'Tain't nothin' yo done to other folks, Mars Harry. Hit's what yo all's doin' to yoself." A tear stole down the dusky cheek. "Think I can't see how yo--yo plumb tuckered out? Yo ain't slep in yo bed fo three nights 'ceptin' jest fo a hour one mo'nin' when other folks was er gettin' up, an' only the Good Lawd knows when yo eats."
The doctor laughed. "There, there Mammy, you can see me eating now all right can't you?" But the old woman shook her head mournfully.
Harry continued, "One of your dinners, you know, is worth at least six of other folks' cooking. Fact--" he added grimly, "I believe I might safely say a dozen." Then he gave her a laughing description of his attempt to cook breakfast for himself and the ten children at the Masons that morning.
The old woman was proudly indignant, "Dem po'r triflin' white trash! To think o' yo' doin' that to sech as them! Ain't no sense 'tall in sech doin's, no how, Mars Harry. What right dey got to ax yo', any how? Dey shore ain't got no claim on yo'--an' yo' ain't got no call to jump every time sech as them crooks they fingers."
Dr. Harry shook his head solemnly.
"Now Mam Liz, I'm afraid you're an aristocrat."
"Cos I's a 'ristocrat. Ain't I a Abbott? Ain't I bo'n in de fambly in yo' grandaddy's time--ain't I nuss yo' Pa an' yo? 'Ristocrat! Huh! Deed I is. No sah, Mars Harry, yo' ought to know, yo ain't got no call to sarve sech as them!"
"I don't know," he returned slowly, "I'm afraid I have."
"A call to serve such as them." He repeated her words slowly. "I don't know why they are, or how they came to be. Whatever or whoever is responsible for the existence of such people and such conditions is a problem for the age to solve. The fact is, they are here. And while the age is solving the problem, I am sure that we as individuals have a call to personally minister to their immediate needs." The doctor had spoken half to himself, following a thought that was often in his mind.
It was a little too much for the old servant. She watched him with a puzzled expression on her face.
"Talkin' 'bout ministers, de Pa'son was here to see yo' yest'day evenin'."
"Brother Matthews? I am sorry I was not at home."
"Yes sah, I was sorry too; he's a right pious-lookin' man, he sho is. I don tole him de Lawd only knowed whar yo' was or when yo'd git back. He laughed an' says he sho de Lawd wasn't far away wherever yo' was, an' that I mus' tell yo' hit was only a little call, nothin' of impo'tance--so's yo wouldn't bother 'bout it, I reckon."
Dr. Harry rose from the table. "Perhaps he will run in this evening. No, this is prayer meeting night. Heigh-ho!" He stretched his tired body--"I ought--"
The old woman interrupted him. "Now look a here Mars Harry, yo' ain't goin' to leave this yer house tonight. Yo' goin' jest put on yo' slippa's an' jacket an' set down in thar an' smoke yo' pipe a lille an' then yo' goin' to bed. Yo' ain't et 'nough to keep er chicken 'live, an' yo' eyes like two holes burned in er blanket. Won't yo' stop home an' res', honey?" she coaxed, following him into the hall. "Yo' plumb tuckered."
The weary physician looked through the door into the library where the lamp threw a soft light over the big table. The magazines and papers lay unopened, just as they had been brought from the office by Uncle George. A book that for a month, Harry had been trying to read, was lying where he had dropped it to answer a call. While he hesitated, the old negro came shuffling in with the doctor's smoking jacket and slippers.
"Yes sah, here dey is--an' de mare's all right--ain't hurted a bit--takin' her feed like er good one. Oh, I tell yo' der ain't no betta on de road dan her."
Dr. Harry laughed. "Uncle George, I give you my honest professional opinion--Mother Eve was sure a brunette." As he spoke he slipped out of his coat and Mam Liz took it from his hand, while Uncle George helped him into the comfortable jacket.
"He--he--he--" chuckled the old servant. "A brunette, he--he. That air's yo Liz, ol' 'oman, yo' sho brunette. Yes sah, 'pon my word, Mars Harry, I believe yo'. He--he--"
And the black woman's deep voice rolled out--"Yo' go on now--yo' two, 'tain't so--'cause Adam he sho po'r white trash. Ain't no decent colored body goin' to have no truck wid sech as him."
With the doctor's shoes in his hand the old servant stood up, "Anythin' else, sah? No? Good night, sah! Good night, Mars Harry!" They slipped noiselessly from the room.
Is there, after all, anything more beautiful in life than the ministry of such humble ones, whose service is the only expression of their love?
Many of the Master's truths have been shamefully neglected by those into whose hands they were committed. Many of His grandest lessons are ignored by His disciples, who ambitious for place and power--quarrel among themselves. Many of His noblest laws have been twisted out of all resemblance to His spirit by those who interpret them to meet the demands of their own particular sects and systems. But of all the truths the Master has given to men, none, perhaps, has been more neglected, or abused than the simple truth He illustrated so vividly when He washed His disciples' feet.
Left alone Dr. Harry picked up one magazine after another, only to turn the leaves impatiently and--after a moment--toss them aside. He glanced at his medical journal and found it dull. He took up his book only to lay it down again. Decidedly he could not read. The house with its empty rooms was so big and still. He seated himself at his piano but had scarcely touched the keys, when he rose again to go to the window.
"After all," he thought, "it would have been better to have gone to prayer meeting. I am not fit to be alone tonight. If I could only go to bed and sleep, but I feel as if I had forgotten how. Those Masons certainly got on my nerves." Indeed, the strain was plainly visible, for his face was worn and haggard. In his ears poor Jo's prayer was ringing, "Do somethin' Doc! My God Almighty, you jest got to do somethin'!"
Turning from the window the doctor's eyes fell on his medicine case, which Uncle George had brought in from the buggy and placed near the hall door.
"Why not?" he thought.
Picking up the case he went to the table, where he opened it hesitatingly.
"After all, why not?" he repeated half-aloud. "I would give it to a patient in my condition."
"But the patient wouldn't know what it was," a voice within himself answered.
"I need something. I--" his hand went out toward the case--"I have never done it before."
"You have seen others who have," said the voice again.
"This is an exceptionally trying time," he argued.
"There will be many more such times in your practice."
"But I must get some rest!" he cried, "I must!" He reached again for the open case but paused--startled by the ringing of the door-bell.
Obeying the impulse of the moment he dropped into his chair and caught up a paper.
Mam Liz's voice, in guarded tones came from the hall, "Yes marm, he's to home, but he's plumb tuckered out. Is yo' got to see him? Yo' ain't wantin' him to go out agin is yo'?"
Another voice answered, but the listening doctor could not distinguish the reply.
"Oh sho mam. Come in, come in. He's in the library."
A moment the nurse stood, hesitating, in the doorway.
Dr. Harry sprang to his feet. "Miss Farwell! I'm glad to see you. I--" Then he stopped looking at her in astonishment.
Very softly she closed the door behind her, and--going to the table--closed the medicine case. Then lifting her eyes to him with a meaning look she said simply, "I am glad, too."
He turned his face away. "You--you saw?"
"The window shades were up. I could not help it."
He dropped into the chair. "I'm a weak fool, Miss Farwell. No man in my profession has a right to be so weak."
"Yes, that's it," she said gently. "Your profession--those who depend upon you for their own lives and the lives of their dear ones--you must remember that always. Your ministry."
He raised his face and looked at her squarely. "I never did this before. You believe me, Miss Farwell, that this is the first time?"
She returned his look frankly. "Yes," she said. "I believe you, and I believe it will be the last."
And it was.
For there was something in that voice, something in the calm still depth of those gray eyes that remained with Dr. Harry Abbott and whenever afterwards he reached the limit of his strength, whenever he gave so much of himself in the service of others that there was nothing left for himself--this incident came back to him, that something held him--kept him strong.
Very quickly the nurse changed the subject and led the physician's mind away from the sadness and horror of his work that had so nearly wrought such havoc. The big empty house no longer seemed so big and empty. She made him light his pipe again and soon the man felt his tired nerves relax while the weary brain ceased to hammer away at the problems it could not solve.
Then at last she told him why she had come--to bid him good-bye.
"But I thought you were going to stay!" he cried.
"I had thought of doing so," she admitted. "But something--something makes it necessary for me to go."
His arguments and pleadings were in vain. Her only answer was, "I cannot, Dr. Abbott, truly I cannot." Nor would she tell him more than that it was necessary for her to go.
"But we need you so. I need you; there is no one can take your place--Hope--" Then he stopped.
She was frankly permitting him to look deep into her eyes. "I am sorry, Doctor, but I must go." And the strength of her held him and made him strong.
"Just one thing, Miss Farwell. You are not going because of--because of me?"
She held out her hand. "No indeed, Doctor. Whatever you think, please don't think that."
He would have accompanied her home but she would not permit it and insisted so strongly that he retire at once, that he was forced to yield. But he would not say good-bye, declaring that he would be at the depot in the morning to see her off.
Mrs. Oldham, coming home from prayer meeting, found her husband still sitting on the porch. When she could not force him to listen to reason and go to bed, she left him to his thoughts. A little later the old Doctor saw the tall form of the minister turn in at the gate opposite. Then the light in the corner window flashed brightly. A few moments more, and he saw a woman coming down the street, going toward Judge Strong's. Nearing the house across the way, she slackened her pace, walking very slowly. Under the corner window she almost stopped. As she went on she turned once to look back, then disappeared under the trees in the dusk.
It was almost morning when Miss Farwell was awakened by a loud knocking at the front door. Then Mrs. Strong came quickly up stairs to the nurse's room. The young woman was on her feet instantly.
"That old negro of Dr. Abbott is here asking for you," explained Mrs. Strong. "He says Dr. Harry sent him and that he must see you. What in the world can it mean?"