The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XVI. Dan Sees the Other Side
"'What right have you, Mr. Matthews, to say that you do not understand--that you do not know? It is your business to understand--to know.'"
Miss Farwell was alone with her patient. Dr. Harry, who had returned soon after the girl regained consciousness, had gone out into the country, promising to look in again during the evening on his way home, and the old Doctor finding that there was no need for him to remain had left a few moments later.
Except to answer their direct questions the sick girl had spoken no word, but lay motionless--her face turned toward the wall. Several times the nurse tried gently to arouse her, but save for a puzzled, half-frightened, half-defiant look in the wide-open eyes, there was no response, though she took her medicine obediently. But when Miss Farwell after bathing the girl's face, and brushing and braiding her hair, dressed her in a clean, white gown, the frightened defiant look gave place to one of wondering gratitude, and a little later she seemed to sleep.
She was still sleeping when Miss Farwell, who was standing by the window watching a group of negro children playing ball in the square, saw a man approaching the group from the direction of the village. The young woman's face flushed as she recognized the unmistakable figure of the minister.
Then an angry light shone in the gray eyes, and she drew back with a low exclamation. As in evident answer to his question, a half dozen hands were pointed toward the window where she stood. Watching, she saw him coming toward the building.
His purpose was clear. What should she do? Her first angry impulse was to refuse to admit him. What right had he to attempt to see her after her so positive dismissal? Then she thought--perhaps he was coming to see the sick girl. What right had she to refuse to admit him, when it could in no way harm her patient? The room, after all, was the home of the young woman on the bed--the nurse was only there in her professional capacity.
Miss Farwell began to feel that she was playing a part in a mighty drama; that the cue had been given for the entrance of another actor. She had nothing to do with the play save to act well her part. It was not for her to arrange the lines or manage the parts of the other players. The feeling possessed her that, indeed, she had somewhere rehearsed the scene many times before. Stepping quickly to the bed she saw that her patient was still apparently sleeping. Then she stood trembling, listening to the step in the hall as Dan approached.
He knocked the second time before she could summon strength to cross the room and open the door.
"May I come in?" he asked hat in hand.
At his words--the same that he had spoken a few hours before in the garden--the nurse's face grew crimson. She made no answer, but in the eyes that looked straight into his, Dan read a question and his own face grew red as he said, "I called to see your patient. Dr. Oldham asked me to come."
"Certainly; come in." She stepped aside and the minister entered the sick-room. Mechanically, without a word she placed a chair for him near the bed, then crossed the room to stand by the window. But he did not sit down.
Presently Dan turned to the nurse. "She is asleep?" he asked in a low tone.
Miss Farwell's answer was calmly--unmistakably professional. Looking at her watch she answered, "She has been sleeping nearly two hours."
"Is there--will she recover?"
"Dr. Abbott says there is no reason why she should not if we can turn her from her determination to die."
Always Dan had been intensely in love with life. He had a strong, full-blooded young man's horror of death. He could think of it only as a fitting close to a long, useful life, or as a possible release from months of sickness and pain. That anyone young, and in good health, with the world of beauty and years of usefulness before them, with the opportunities and duties of life calling, should willfully seek to die, was a monstrous thought. After all the boy knew so little. He was only beginning to sense vaguely the great forces that make and mar humankind.
At the calm words of the nurse he turned quickly toward the bed with a shudder. "Her determination to die!" he repeated in an awed whisper.
Miss Farwell was watching him curiously.
He whispered half to himself, wonderingly, "Why should she wish to die?"
"Why should she wish to live?" The nurse's cold tones startled him.
He turned to her perplexed, wondering, speechless.
"I--I--do not understand," he said at last.
"I don't suppose you do," she answered grimly. "How could you? Your ministry is a matter of schools and theories, of doctrines and beliefs. This is a matter of life."
"My church--" he began, remembering his sermon.
But she interrupted him, "Your church does not understand, either; it is so busy earning money to pay its ministers that it has no time for such things as this."
"But they do not know," he faltered. "I did not dream that such a thing as this could be." He looked about the room and then at the still form on the bed, with a shudder.
"You a minister of Christ's gospel and ignorant of these things? And yet this is not an uncommon case, sir. I could tell you of many similar cases that have come under my own observation, though not all of them have chosen to die. This girl could have made a living; I suppose you understand. But she is a good girl; so there was nothing for her but this. All she asked was a chance--only a chance."
The minister was silent. He could not answer.
The nurse continued, "What right have you, Mr. Matthews, to say that you do not understand--that you do not know? It is your business to understand--to know. And your church--what right has it to plead ignorance of the life about its very doors? If such things are not its business what business has this institution that professes to exist for the salvation of men; that hires men like you--as you yourself told me--to minister to the world? What right I say, have you or your church to be ignorant of these everyday conditions of life? Dr. Abbott must know his work. I must know mine. Our teachers, our legal and professional men, our public officers, our mechanics and laborers, must all know and understand their work. The world demands it of us, and the world is beginning to demand that you and your church know your business." As the nurse spoke in low tones her voice was filled with sorrowful, passionate earnestness.
And Dan, Big Dan, sat like a child before her--his face white, his brown eyes wide with that questioning look. His own voice trembled as he answered, "But the people are not beasts. They do not realize. At heart they--we are kind; we do not mean to be carelessly cruel. Do you believe this, Miss Farwell?"
She turned from him wearily, as if in despair at trying to make him understand.
"Of course I believe it," she answered. "But how does that affect the situation? The same thing could be said, I suppose, of those who crucified the Christ, and burned the martyrs at the stake. It is this system, that has enslaved the people, that feeds itself upon the strength that should be given to their fellow men. They give so much time and thought and love to their churches and creeds, that they have nothing left--nothing for girls like these." Her voice broke and she went to the window.
In the silence Dan gazed at the form on the bed--gazed as if fascinated. From without came the shouts of the negro boys at their game of ball, and the sound of the people moving about in other parts of the building.
"Is there--is there no one who cares?" Dan said, at last in a hoarse whisper.
"No one has made her feel that they care," the nurse answered, turning back to him, and her manner and tone were cold again.
"But you" he persisted, "surely you care."
At this the gray eyes filled and the full voice trembled as she answered, "Yes, yes I care. How could I help it? Oh, if we can only make her feel that we--that someone wants her, that there is a place for her, that there are those who need her!" She went to the bedside and stood looking down at the still form. "I can't--I won't--I won't let her go."
"Let us help you, Miss Farwell," said Dan. "Dr. Oldham suggested that I ask you if the church could not do something. I am sure they would gladly help if I were to present the case."
The nurse wheeled on him with indignant, scornful eyes.
He faltered, "This is the churches' work, you know."
"Yes," she returned, and her words stung. "You are quite right, this is the churches' work."
He gazed at her in amazement as she continued hotly, "You have made it very evident Mr. Matthews, that you know nothing of this matter. I have no doubt that your church members would respond with a liberal collection if you were to picture what you have seen here this afternoon in an eloquent public appeal. Some in the fullness of their emotions would offer their personal service. Others I am sure would send flowers. But I suggest that for your sake, before you present this matter to your church you ask Dr. Oldham to give you a full history of the case. Ask him to tell you why Grace Conner is trying to die. And now you will pardon me, but in consideration of my patient, who may waken at any moment, I dare not take the responsibility of permitting you to prolong this call."
Too bewildered and hurt to attempt any reply, he left the room and she stood listening to his steps as he went slowly down the hall and out of the building.
From the window she watched as he crossed the old square, watched as he passed from sight up the weed-grown street. The cruel words had leaped from her lips unbidden. Already she regretted them deeply. She knew instinctively that the minister had come from a genuine desire to be helpful. She should have been more kind, but his unfortunate words had brought to her mind in a flash, the whole hideous picture of the poor girl's broken life. And the suggestion of such help as the church would give now, came with such biting irony, that she was almost beside herself.
The situation was not at all new to Miss Farwell. Her profession placed her constantly in touch with such ministries. She remembered a saloonkeeper who had contributed liberally to the funeral expenses of a child who had been killed by its drunken father. The young woman had never before spoken, in such cruel anger. Was she growing bitter? She wondered. All at once her cheeks were wet with scalding tears.
Dan found the Doctor sitting on the porch just as he had left him. Was it only an hour before?