The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XIV. That Girl of Conner's
"'You will tell the people that this poor child wanted to kill herself, and the people will call it suicide. But, by God--it's murder! Murder--I tell you!'"
Slipping into her clothing the nurse went down to the front door where Uncle George was waiting. A horse and buggy stood at the front gate.
"Evenin' mam, is yo' de nurse?" said the old negro, lifting his cap.
"Yes, I am the nurse, Miss Farwell. Dr. Abbott sent you for me?"
"'Deed he did, mam, 'deed he did--said I was to fetch yo' wid big Jim out dar. Tol' me to say hit was er'mergency case. I dunno what dat is, but dey sho needs yo' powerful bad over in Old Town--'deed dey does."
The latter part of this speech was delivered to the empty doorway. The nurse was already back in her room.
The old negro rubbed his chin with a trembling hand, as he turned with a puzzled look on his black face from the open door to the horse and buggy and back to the door again.
"Dat young 'oman run lak a scared rabbit," he muttered. "What de ole scratch I do now?"
Before he could decide upon any course of action, Miss Farwell, fully dressed was by his side again, and half way to the gate before he could get under way.
"Come," she said, "you should have been in the buggy ready to start."
"Yas'm, yas'm, comin' comin'," he answered, breaking into a trot for the rig, and climbing in by her side. "Come Jim, git! Yo' black villen, don' yo' know, dis here's er'mergency case? Yo' sho got to lay yo' laigs to de groun' dis night er yo' goin' to git left sartin! 'Mergency case!" he chuckled. "Dat mak him go, Miss. Funny I nebber knowed dat 'fore."
Sure enough, the black horse was covering the ground at a pace that fairly took Miss Farwell's breath. The quick steady beat of the iron-shod feet and the rattle of the buggy wheels echoed loudly in the gray stillness. Above the tops of the giant maples that lined the road, the nurse saw the stars paling in the first faint glow of the coming day, while here and there in the homes of some early-rising workers the lights flashed out, and the people--with the name of Dr. Harry on their lips--paused to listen to the hurried passing of big Jim.
"Can you tell me something of the case?" asked the nurse.
"Case? Oh you mean de po'r gal what tried to kill herse'f. Yes, Miss, I sho can. Yo' see hit's dis away. Hit's dat po'r Conner gal, her whose Daddy done killed Jack Mulhall, de town marshal yo' know. De Conners used to be nice folks, all 'ceptin' Jim. He drink a little sometimes, an' den he was plumb bad. Seems lak he got worse dat way. An' since dey took him off an' Mrs. Conner died de gal, she don't git 'long somehow. Since she left de hotel she's been livin' over in Old Town along some colored folks, upstairs in de old town-hall building. I knows 'bout hit 'y see, coz Liz an' me we all got friends, Jake Smith an' his folks, livin' in de same buildin', yo see. Wal, lately de gal don't 'pear to be doin' even as well as usual, an' de folks dey got plumb scared she ac' so queer like. Sometime in de night, Jake an' Mandy dey waked up hearin' a moanin' an' a cryin' in de po'r gal's room. Dey call at de door but dey ain't no answer an' so dey stan 'round for 'while 'thout knowin' what to do, till de cryin' an' screechin' gits worse, an' things 'pears to be smashin' round lak. Den Mandy say to de folks what's been waked up an' is standin' 'round de door she ain't goin' to stan dare doin' nothin' no mo', an' she fo'ce open de door an' goes in.
"Yes sah, Miss Nurse, Mandy say dat gal jest throwin' herself 'round de room an' screechin', an' Mandy grab her jest as she 'bout to jump out de winder. She won't say nothin' but how she's burnin' up an' Mandy she send Jake to me quick. I sho don' want to wake Dr. Harry, Miss coz he's done tuckered out, but I'se scared not to, coz once 'fore I didn't wake him when somebody want him an' I ain't nebber done hit no more. Go on dar, Jim. Yes sah, Mars Harry Abbott he's a debbil, Miss, when he's mad, 'deed he is, jest lak de old Mars--he's daddy. So I calls him easy-like but Lawd--he's up an' dress 'fore I can hook up big Jim here, an' we come fer Old Town on de run. Quick as he get in de room he calls out de winder fo' me to drive quick's I can to de Judge's an' fotch yo. An' dat's all I know--'ceptin' Dr. Harry say hit's a'mergency case. We most dare now. Go on Jim--go on sah!"
While the old negro was speaking the big horse was whirling them through the quiet streets of the village. As Uncle George finished they reached the top of Academy Hill, where Miss Farwell saw the old school building--ghostly and still in the mists that hung about it like a shroud, the tumble-down fence with the gap leading into the weed-grown yard, the grassy knoll and the oak--all wet and sodden now, and--below, the valley--with its homes and fields hidden in the thick fog, suggestive of hidden and mysterious depths.
"Is yo' cold, Miss? We's mos dar, now." The nurse had shivered as with a sudden chill.
Turning sharply to the north a minute later they entered the square of Old Town where a herd of lean cows were just getting up from their beds to pick a scanty breakfast from the grass that grew where once the farmer folk had tied their teams, and in front of the ruined structure that had once been the principal store of the village, a mother sow grunted to her squealing brood.
Long without touch of painter's brush, the few wretched buildings that remained were the color of the mist. To the nurse--like the fog that hid the valley--they suggested cold mysterious depths of life, untouched by any ray of promised sun. And out of that dull gray abyss a woman's voice broke sharply, on the stillness, in a scream of pain.
"Dat's her, dat's de po'r gal, now, nurse. Up dare where yo' sees dat light."
Uncle George brought the big black to a stand in front of the ancient town-hall and court-house, a two-story, frame building with the stairway on the outside. A group of negroes huddled--with awed faces--at the foot of the stairs drew back as the nurse sprang from the buggy and ran lightly up the shaky old steps. The narrow, dirty hallway was crowded with more negroes. The odor of the place was sickening.
Miss Farwell pushed her way through and entered the room where Dr. Harry, assisted by a big black woman, was holding his struggling patient on the bed. The walls and ceiling of the room--stained by the accumulated smoke of years, the rough bare floor, the window--without shade or curtain, the only furniture--a rude table and a chair or two, a little stove set on broken bricks, a handful of battered dishes and cooking utensils, a trunk, and the bed with its ragged quilts and comforts, all cried aloud the old, old familiar cry of bitter poverty.
Dr. Harry glanced up as the nurse entered.
"Carbolic acid," he said quietly, "but she didn't get quite enough. I managed to give her the antidote and a hypodermic. We better repeat the hypodermic I think."
Without a word the nurse took her place at the bedside. When the patient, under the influence of the drug, had grown more quiet, Dr. Harry dismissed the negro woman with a few kind words, and the promise that he would send for her if she could help them in any way. Then when he had sent the others away from the room and the hallway he turned to the nurse.
"Miss Farwell, I am sorry that I was forced to send for you, but you can see that there was nothing else to do. I knew you would come without loss of time, and I dared not leave her without a white woman in the room." He paused and went to the bedside. "Poor, poor little girl. She tried so hard to die, nurse; she will try again the moment she regains consciousness. These good colored people would do anything for her, but she must see one of her own race when she opens her eyes." He paused seemingly at a loss for words.
Miss Farwell spoke for the first time, "She is a good girl, Doctor? Not that it matters you know, but--"
Dr. Harry spoke positively, "Yes, she is a good girl; it is not that, nurse."
"Then how--" Miss Farwell glanced around the room. "Then why is she here?"
No one ever heard Dr. Harry Abbott speak a bitter word, but there was a strange note in his voice as he answered slowly, "She is here because there seems to be no other place for her to go. She did this because there seemed to be nothing else for her to do."
Then briefly he related the sad history of this good girl with a bad reputation. "Dr. Oldham and I tried to help her," he said, "but some ugly stories got started and somehow Grace heard them. After that she avoided us."
For a little while there was silence in the room. When Dr. Harry again turned from his patient to the nurse, Miss Farwell was busily writing upon his tablet of prescription blanks with a stub of a pencil which she had taken from her pocket. The doctor watched her curiously for a moment, then arose, and taking his hat, said briskly: "I will not keep you longer than an hour Miss Farwell. I think I know of a woman whom I can get for today at least, and perhaps by tonight we can find someone else, or arrange it somehow. I'll be back in plenty of time, so don't worry. Your train does not go until ten-thirty, you know. If the woman can't come at once, I'll ask Dr. Oldham to relieve you."
The nurse looked at him with smiling eyes, "I am very sorry, Dr. Abbott, if I am not giving satisfaction," she said.
The physician returned her look with amazement, "Not giving satisfaction! What in the world do you mean?"
"Why you seem to be dismissing me," she answered demurely. "I understood that you sent for me to take this case."
At the light that broke over his face she dropped her eyes and wrote another line on the paper before her.
"Do you mean--" he began, then he stopped.
"I mean," she answered, "that unless you send me away I shall stay on duty."
"But Dr. Miles--that case in Chicago. I understood from you that it was very important."
She smiled at him again. "There is nothing so important as the thing that needs doing now," she answered. "And," she finished slowly, turning her eyes toward the unconscious girl on the bed--"I do seem to be needed here."
"And you understand there will be no--no fees in this case?" he asked.
The color mounted to her face. "Is our work always a question of fees, Doctor? I am surprised, cannot I collect my bill when you receive yours?"
He held out his hand impulsively.
"Forgive me, Miss Farwell, but it is too good to be true. I can't say any more now. You are needed here--you cannot know how badly. I--we all need you." She gently released her hand, and he continued in a more matter-of-fact tone, "I will go now to make a call or two so that I can be with you later. Your patient will be all right for at least three hours. I'll send Uncle George with your breakfast."
"Never mind the breakfast," she said. "If you will have your man bring these things, I will get along nicely." She handed him a prescription blank. "Here is a list that Mrs. Strong will give him from my room. And here--" she gave him another blank, "is a list he may get at the grocery. And here--" she handed him the third blank, "is a list he may get at some dry goods store. I have not my purse with me so he will need to bring the bills. The merchants will know him of course--" Dr. Harry looked from the slips in his hand to the young woman.
"You must not do that, Miss Farwell. Really--"
She interrupted, "Doctor, this is my case, you know."
"It was mine first," he answered grimly.
"Shall I send you my bill, too?" he asked.
A few moments later she heard the quick step of big Jim and the rattle of the wheels.
Two hours had passed when in response to a low knock, the nurse opened the door to find Dr. Oldham standing in the narrow hall. The old physician was breathing heavily from his effort in climbing the rickety stairs. His arms were full of roses.
Miss Farwell exclaimed with delight, "Oh Doctor, just what I was wishing for!"
"Uh huh," he grunted. "I thought so. They'll do her good. Harry told me what you were up to. Thought I better come along in case you should need any help."
He drew a chair to the bedside, while the nurse with her sleeves rolled up returned to the work which his knock at the door had interrupted.
Clean, white sheets, pillows and coverings had replaced the tattered quilt on the bed. The floor was swept. The litter about the stove was gone, and in its place was a big armful of wood neatly piled, the personal offering of Uncle George, who had returned quickly with the things for which the nurse had sent. The dirt and dust had vanished from the windows. The glaring light was softened by some sort of curtain material, that the young woman had managed to fix in place. The bare old cupboard shelves covered with fresh paper were filled with provisions, and the nurse, washing the last of the dishes and utensils, was placing them carefully in order. She finished as Dr. Oldham turned from the patient, and--throwing over the rough table a cloth of bright colors--began deftly arranging in such dishes as the place afforded, the flowers he had brought. Already the perfume of the roses was driving from the chamber that peculiar, sickening odor of poverty.
The old physician, trained by long years of service to habits of close observation, noted every detail in the changed room. Silently he watched the strong, beautifully formed young woman in the nurse's uniform, bending over his flowers, handling them with the touch of love while on her face, and in the clear gray eyes, shone the light that a few truly great painters have succeeded in giving to their pictures of the Mother Mary.
The keen old eyes under their white brows filled and the Doctor turned hastily back to the figure on the bed. A worn figure it was--thin and looking old--with lines of care and anxiety, of constant pain and ceaseless fear, of dread and hopelessness. Only a faint suggestion of youth was there, only a hint of the beauty of young womanhood that might have been; nay that would have been--that should have been.
Miss Farwell started as the old man with a sudden exclamation--stood erect. He faced the young woman with blazing eyes and quivering face--his voice shaken with passion, as he said: "Nurse, you and Harry tell me this is suicide." He made a gesture toward the still form on the bed. "You will tell the people that this poor child wanted to kill herself, and the people will call it suicide. But, by God--it's murder! Murder--I tell you! She did not want to kill herself. She wanted to live, to be strong and beautiful like you. But this community with its churches and Sunday schools and prayer meetings wouldn't let her. They denied her the poor privilege of working for the food she needed. They refused even a word of real sympathy. They hounded her into this stinking hole to live with the negroes. She may die, nurse, and if she does--as truly as there is a Creator, who loves his creatures--her death will be upon the unspeakably cruel, pious, self-worshiping, churchified, spiritually-rotten people in this town! It's murder! I tell you, by God--it's murder!" The old man dropped into his chair exhausted by his passionate outburst.
For a few moments there was no sound in the room save the heavy breathing of the physician. The nurse stood gazing at him--a look of mingled sadness and horror on her face.
Then the figure on the bed stirred. The sick girl's eyes opened to stare wildly--wonderingly, about the room. With a low word to the Doctor, Miss Farwell went quickly to her patient.