The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter II. A Revelation
"And because of these things, to the keen old physician and student of life, the boy was a revelation of that best part of himself--that best part of the race."
It happened on the Doctor's first trip to the Ozarks.
Martha says that everything with the Doctor begins and ends with fishing. Martha has a way of saying such things as that. In this case she is more than half right for the Doctor does so begin and end most things.
Whenever there were grave cases to think out, knotty problems to solve, or important decisions to make, it was his habit to steal away to a shady nook by the side of some quiet, familiar stream. And he confidently asserts that to this practice more than to anything else he owes his professional success, and his reputation for sound, thoughtful judgment on all matters of moment.
"And why not?" he will argue when in the mood. "It is your impulsive, erratic, thoughtless fellow who goes smashing, trashing and banging about the field and woods with dogs and gun. Your true thinker slips quietly away with rod and line, and while his hook is down in the deep, still waters, or his fly is dancing over the foaming rapids and swiftly swirling eddies, his mind searches the true depths of the matter and every possible phase of the question passes before him."
For years the Doctor had heard much of the fishing to be had in the more unsettled parts of the Ozarks, but with his growing practice he could find leisure for no more than an occasional visit to nearby streams. But about the time that Martha began telling him that he was too old to stay out all day on the wet bank of a river, and Dr. Harry had come to relieve him of the heavier and more burdensome part of his practice, a railroad pushed its way across the mountain wilderness. The first season after the road was finished the Doctor went to cast his hook in new waters.
In all these after years those days so full of mystic beauty have lived in the old man's memory, the brightest days of all his life. For it was there he met the Boy--there in the Ozark hills, with their great ridges clothed from base to crest with trees all quivering and nodding in the summer breeze, with their quiet valleys, their cool hollows and lovely glades, and their deep and solemn woods. And the streams! Those Ozark streams! The Doctor wonders often if there can flow anywhere else such waters as run through that land of dreams.
The Doctor left the train at a little station where the railroad crosses White River, and two days later he was fishing near the mouth of Fall Creek. It was late in the afternoon. The Boy was passing on his way home from a point farther up the stream. Not more than twelve, but tall and strong for his age, he came along the rough path at the foot of the bluff with the easy movement and grace of a young deer. He checked a moment when he saw the Doctor, as a creature of the forest would pause at first sight of a human being. Then he came on again, his manner and bearing showing frank interest, and the clear, sunny face of him flushing a bit at the presence of a stranger.
"Hello," said the Doctor, with gruff kindness, "any luck?"
The boy's quick smile showed a set of teeth--the most perfect the physician had ever seen, and his young voice was tuned to the music of the woods, as he answered, "I have caught no fish, sir."
By these words and the light in his brown eyes the philosopher knew him instantly for a true fisherman. He noted wonderingly that the lad's speech was not the rude dialect of the backwoods, while he marveled at the depth of wisdom in one so young. How incidental after all is the catching of fish, to the one who fishes with true understanding. The boy's answer was both an explanation and a question. It explained that he did not go fishing for fish alone; and it asked of the stranger a declaration of his standing--why did he go fishing? What did he mean by fisherman's luck?
The Doctor deliberated over his reply, while slowly drawing in his line to examine the bait. Meanwhile the boy stood quietly by regarding him with a wide, questioning look. The man realized that much depended upon his next word.
Then the lad's youth betrayed him into eagerness. "Have you been farther up the river just around the bend, where the giant cottonwoods are, and the bluffs with the pines above, and the willows along the shore? Oh, but it's fine there! Much better than this."
He had given the stranger his chance. If the Doctor was to be admitted into this boy's world he must now prove his right to citizenship. Looking straight into the boy's brown eyes, the older fisherman asked, "A better place to catch fish?"
He laughed aloud--a clear, clean, boyish laugh of understanding, and throwing himself to the ground with the easy air of one entirely at home, returned, "No, sir, a better place to fish." So it was settled, each understanding the other.
An hour later when the shadow of the mountain came over the water, the boy sprang to his feet with an exclamation, "It's time that I was going, mother likes for me to be home for supper. I can just make it."
But the Doctor was loth to let him go. "Where do you live?" he asked. "Is it far?"
"Oh, no, only about six miles, but the trail is rough until you strike the top of Wolf Ridge."
"Humph! You can't walk six miles before dark."
"My horse is only a little way up the creek," he answered, "or at least he should be." Putting his fingers to his lips he blew a shrill whistle, which echoed and re-echoed from shore to shore along the river, and was answered by a loud neigh from somewhere in the ravine through which Fall Creek reaches the larger stream. Again the boy whistled, and a black pony came trotting out of the brush, the bridle hanging from the saddle horn. "Tramp and I can make it all right, can't we old fellow?" said the boy, patting the glossy neck, as the little horse rubbed a soft muzzle against his young master's shoulder.
While his companion was making ready for his ride the Doctor selected four of the largest of his catch--black bass they were--beauties. "Here," he said, when the lad was mounted, "take these along."
He accepted graciously without hesitation, and by this the Doctor knew that their fellowship was firmly established. "Oh, thank you! Mother is so fond of bass, and so are father and all of us. This is plenty for a good meal." Then, with another smile, "Mother likes to fish, too; she taught me."
The Doctor looked at him wistfully as he gathered up the reins, then burst forth eagerly with, "Look here, why can't you come back tomorrow? We'll have a bully time. What do you say?"
He lowered his hand. "Oh, I would like to." Then for a moment he considered, gravely, saying at last, "I think I can meet you here day after tomorrow. I am quite sure father and mother will be glad for me to come when I tell them about you."
Was ever a fat old Doctor so flattered? It was not so much the boy's words as his gracious manner and the meaning he unconsciously put into his exquisitely toned voice.
He had turned his pony's head when the old man shouted after him once more. "Hold on, wait a moment, you have not told me your name. I am Dr. Oldham from Corinth. I am staying at the Thompson's down the river."
"My name is Daniel Howitt Matthews," he answered. "My home is the old Matthews place on the ridge above Mutton Hollow."
Then he rode away up the winding Fall Creek trail.
The Doctor spent the whole of the next day near the spot where he had met the boy, fearing lest the lad might come again and not find him. He even went a mile or so up the little creek half expecting to meet his young friend, wondering at himself the while, that he could not break the spell the lad had cast over him. Who was he? He had told the Doctor his name, but that did not satisfy. Nor, indeed, did the question itself ask what the old man really wished to know. The words persistently shaped themselves--What is he? To this the physician's brain made answer clearly enough--a boy, a backwoods boy, with unusual beauty and strength of body, and uncommon fineness of mind; yet with all this, a boy.
But that something that sits in judgment upon the findings of our brain, and, in lofty disregard of us, accepts or rejects our most profound conclusions, refused this answer. It was too superficial. It was not, in short, an answer. It did not in any way explain the strange power that this lad had exerted over the Doctor.
"Me," he said to himself, "a hard old man calloused by years of professional contact with mankind and consequent knowledge of their general cussedness! Huh! I have helped too many hundreds of children into this world, and have carried too many of them through the measles, whooping-cough, chicken-pox and the like to be so moved by a mere boy."
The Thompsons could have told him about the lad and his people, but the Doctor instinctively shrank from asking them. He felt that he did not care to be told about the boy--that in truth no one could tell him about the boy, because he already knew the lad as well as he knew himself. Indeed the feeling that he already knew the boy was what troubled the Doctor; more, that he had always lived with him; but that he had never before met him face to face. He felt as a blind man might feel if, after living all his life in closest intimacy with someone, he were suddenly to receive his sight and, for the first time, actually look upon his companion's face.
In the years that have passed since that day the Doctor has learned that the lad was to him, not so much a mystery as a revelation--the revelation of an unspoken ideal, of a truth that he had always known but never fully confessed even to himself, and that lies at last too deeply buried beneath the accumulated rubbish of his life to be of any use to him or to others. In the boy he met this hidden, secret, unacknowledged part of himself, that he knows to be the truest, most precious and most sacred part, and that he has always persistently ignored even while always conscious that he can no more escape it than he can escape his own life. In short, Dan Matthews is to the Doctor that which the old man feels he ought to have been; that which he might have been, but never now can be.
It was still early in the forenoon of the following day when the Doctor heard a cheery hail, and the boy came riding out of the brush of the little ravine to meet his friend who was waiting on the river bank. As the lad sprang lightly to the ground, and, with quick fingers, took some things from the saddle, loosed the girths and removed the pony's bridle, the physician watched him with a slight feeling of--was it envy or regret? "You are early," he said.
The boy laughed. "I would have come earlier if I could," Then, dismissing the little horse, he turned eagerly, "Have you been there yet--to that place up the river?"
"Indeed I have not," said the Doctor, "I have been waiting for you to show me."
He was delighted at this, and very soon was leading the way along the foot of the bluff to his favorite fishing ground.
It is too much to attempt the telling of that day: how they lay on the ground beneath the giant-limbed cottonwoods, and listened to the waters going past; how they talked of the wild woodland life about them, of flower and tree, and moss and vine, and the creatures that nested and denned and lived therein; how they caught a goodly catch of bass and perch, and the Doctor, pulling off his boots, waded in the water like another boy, while the hills echoed with their laughter; and how, when they had their lunch on a great rock, an eagle watched hungrily from his perch on a dead pine, high up on the top of the bluff.
When the shadow of the mountain was come once more and in answer to the boy's whistle the black pony had trotted from the brush to be made ready for the evening ride, the Doctor again watched his young companion wistfully.
When he was ready, the boy said, "Father and mother asked me to tell you, sir, that they--that we would be glad to have you come to see us before you leave the hills." Seeing the surprise and hesitation of the Doctor, he continued with fine tact, "You see I told them all about you, and they would like to know you too. Won't you come? I'm sure you would like my father and mother, and we would be so glad to have you. I'll drive over after you tomorrow if you'll come."
Would he go! Why the Doctor would have gone to China, or Africa, or where would he not have gone, if the boy had asked him.
That visit to the Matthews' place was the beginning of a friendship that has never been broken. Every year since, the Doctor has gone to them for several weeks and always with increasing delight. Among the many households that, in his professional career, he has been privileged to know intimately, this home stands like a beautiful temple in a world of shacks and hovels. But it was not until the philosopher had heard from Mrs. Matthews the story of Dad Howitt that he understood the reason. In the characters of Young Matt and Sammy, in their home life and in their children, the physician found the teaching of the old Shepherd of the Hills bearing its legitimate fruit. Most clearly did he find it in Dan--the first born of this true mating of a man and woman who had never been touched by those forces in our civilization which so dwarf and cripple the race, but who had been taught to find in their natural environment those things that alone have the power to truly refine and glorify life.
Understanding this, the Doctor understood Dan. The boy was well born; he was natural. He was what a man-child ought to be. He did not carry the handicap that most of us stagger under so early in the race. And because of these things, to the keen old physician and student of life, the boy was a revelation of that best part of himself--that best part of the race. With the years this feeling of the Doctor's toward the boy has grown even as their fellowship. But Dan has never understood; how indeed could he?
It was always Dan who met the Doctor at the little wilderness station, and who said the last good-bye when the visit was over. Always they were together, roaming about the hills, on fishing trips to the river, exploring the country for new delights, or revisiting their familiar haunts. Dan seemed, in his quiet way, to claim his old friend by right of discovery and the others laughingly yielded, giving the Doctor--as Young Matt, the father, put it--"a third interest in the boy."
And so, with the companionship of the yearly visits, and frequent letters in the intervening months, the Doctor watched the development of his young friend, and dreamed of the part that Dan would play in life when he became a man. And often as he watched the boy there was, on the face of the old physician, that look of half envy, half regret.
In addition to his training at the little country school, Dan's mother was his constant teacher, passing on to her son as only a mother could, the truths she had received from her old master, the Shepherd. But when the time came for more advanced intellectual training the choice of a college was left to their friend. The Doctor hesitated. He shrank from sending the lad out into the world. He foolishly could not bear the thought of that splendid nature coming in touch with the filth of life as he knew it. "You can see," he argued gruffly, "what it has done for me."
But Sammy answered, "Why, Doctor, what is the boy for?" And Young Matt, looking away over Garber where an express train thundered over the trestles and around the curves, said in his slow way, "The brush is about all cleared, Doctor. The wilderness is going fast. The boy must live in his own age and do his own work." When their friend urged that they develop or sell the mine in the cave on Dewey Bald, and go with the boy, they both shook their heads emphatically, saying, "No, Doctor, we belong to the hills."
When the boy finally left his mountain home for a school in the distant city, he had grown to be a man to fill the heart of every lover of his race with pride. With his father's powerful frame and close-knit muscles, and the healthy life of the woods and hills leaping in his veins, his splendid body and physical strength were refined and dominated by the mind and spirit of his mother. His shaggy, red-brown hair was like his father's but his eyes were his mother's eyes, with that same trick of expression, that wide questioning gaze, that seemed to demand every vital truth in whatever came under his consideration. He had, too, his mother's quick way of grasping your thoughts almost before you yourself were fully conscious of them, with that same saving sense of humor that made Sammy Lane the life and sunshine of the countryside.
"Big Dan," the people of the hills had come to call him and "Big Dan" they called him in the school. For, in the young life of the schools, as in the country, there is a spirit that names men with names that fit.
Secretly the Doctor had hoped that Dan would choose the profession so dear to him. What an ideal physician he would make, with that clean, powerful, well balanced nature; and above all with that love for his race, and his passion to serve mankind that was the dominant note in his character. The boy would be the kind of a physician that the old Doctor had hoped to be. So he planned and dreamed for Dan as he had planned and dreamed for himself, thinking to see the dreams that he had failed to live, realized in the boy.
It was a severe shock to the Doctor when that letter came telling him of Dan's choice of a profession. For the first time the boy had disappointed him, disappointed him bitterly.
Seizing his fishing tackle the old man fled to the nearest stream. And there gazing into the deep, still waters, where he had cast his hook, he came to understand. It was that same dominant note in the boy's life, that inborn passion to serve, that fixed principle in his character that his life must be of the greatest possible worth to the world, that had led him to make his choice. With that instinct born in him, coming from the influence of the old Shepherd upon his father and mother, the boy could no more escape it than he could change the color of his brown eyes.
"But," said the Doctor to his cork, that floated on the surface in a patch of shadow, "what does he know about it, what does he really know? He's been reading history--that's what's the matter with him. He sees things as they were, not as they are. He should have come to me, I could have--" Just then the cork went under. The Doctor had a bite. "I could have told him," repeated the fisherman softly, "I--" The cork bobbed up again--it was only a nibble. "He'll find out the truth of course. He's that kind. But when he finds it!" The cork bobbed again--"He'll need me, he'll need me bad!" The cork went under for good this time. Zip--and the Doctor had a big one!
With fresh bait and his hook once more well down toward the bottom the Doctor saw the whole thing clearly, and so planned a way by which, as he put it, he might, when Dan needed him, "stand by."