A Country Doctor - IV: Life and Death
The sick woman had refused to stay in the bedroom after she had come to her senses. She had insisted that she could not breathe, and that she was cold and must go back to the kitchen. Her mother and Mrs. Jake had wrapped her in blankets and drawn the high-backed wooden rocking chair close to the stove, and here she was just established when Mrs. Martin opened the outer door. Any one of less reliable nerves would have betrayed the shock which the sight of such desperate illness must have given. The pallor, the suffering, the desperate agony of the eyes, were far worse than the calmness of death, but Mrs. Martin spoke cheerfully, and even when her sister whispered that their patient had been attacked by a hæmorrhage, she manifested no concern.
"How long has this be'n a-goin' on, Ad'line? Why didn't you come home before and get doctored up? You're all run down." Mrs. Thacher looked frightened when this questioning began, but turned her face toward her daughter, eager to hear the answer.
"I've been sick off and on all summer," said the young woman, as if it were almost impossible to make the effort of speaking. "See if the baby's covered up warm, will you, Aunt 'Liza?"
"Yes, dear," said the kind-hearted woman, the tears starting to her eyes at the sound of the familiar affectionate fashion of speech which Adeline had used in her childhood. "Don't you worry one mite; we're going to take care of you and the little gal too;" and then nobody spoke, while the only sound was the difficult breathing of the poor creature by the fire. She seemed like one dying, there was so little life left in her after her piteous homeward journey. The mother watched her eagerly with a mingled feeling of despair and comfort; it was terrible to have a child return in such sad plight, but it was a blessing to have her safe at home, and to be able to minister to her wants while life lasted.
They all listened eagerly for the sound of wheels, but it seemed a long time before Martin Dyer returned with the doctor. He had been met just as he was coming in from the other direction, and the two men had only paused while the tired horse was made comfortable, and a sleepy boy dispatched with the medicine for which he had long been waiting. The doctor's housekeeper had besought him to wait long enough to eat the supper which she had kept waiting, but he laughed at her and shook his head gravely, as if he already understood that there should be no delay. When he was fairly inside the Thacher kitchen, the benefaction of his presence was felt by every one. It was most touching to see the patient's face lose its worried look, and grow quiet and comfortable as if here were some one on whom she could entirely depend. The doctor's greeting was an every-day cheerful response to the women's welcome, and he stood for a minute warming his hands at the fire as if he had come upon a commonplace errand. There was something singularly self-reliant and composed about him; one felt that he was the wielder of great powers over the enemies, disease and pain, and that his brave hazel eyes showed a rare thoughtfulness and foresight. The rough driving coat which he had thrown off revealed a slender figure with the bowed shoulders of an untiring scholar. His head was finely set and scholarly, and there was that about him which gave certainty, not only of his sagacity and skill, but of his true manhood, his mastery of himself. Not only in this farm-house kitchen, but wherever one might place him, he instinctively took command, while from his great knowledge of human nature he could understand and help many of his patients whose ailments were not wholly physical. He seemed to read at a glance the shame and sorrow of the young woman who had fled to the home of her childhood, dying and worse than defeated, from the battle-field of life. And in this first moment he recognized with dismay the effects of that passion for strong drink which had been the curse of more than one of her ancestors. Even the pallor and the purifying influence of her mortal illness could not disguise these unmistakable signs.
"You can't do me any good, doctor," she whispered. "I shouldn't have let you come if it had been only that. I don't care how soon I am out of this world. But I want you should look after my little girl," and the poor soul watched the physician's face with keen anxiety as if she feared to see a shadow of unwillingness, but none came.
"I will do the best I can," and he still held her wrist, apparently thinking more of the fluttering pulse than of what poor Adeline was saying.
"That was what made me willing to come back," she continued, "you don't know how close I came to not doing it either. John will be good to her, but she will need somebody that knows the world better by and by. I wonder if you couldn't show me how to make out a paper giving you the right over her till she is of age? She must stay here with mother, long as she wants her. 'Tis what I wish I had kept sense enough to do; life hasn't been all play to me;" and the tears began to roll quickly down the poor creature's thin cheeks. "The only thing I care about is leaving the baby well placed, and I want her to have a good chance to grow up a useful woman. And most of all to keep her out of their hands, I mean her father's folks. I hate 'em, and he cared more for 'em than he did for me, long at the last of it.... I could tell you stories!"—
"But not to-night, Addy," said the doctor gravely, as if he were speaking to a child. "We must put you to bed and to sleep, and you can talk about all these troublesome things in the morning. You shall see about the papers too, if you think best. Be a good girl now, and let your mother help you to bed." For the resolute spirit had summoned the few poor fragments of vitality that were left, and the sick woman was growing more and more excited. "You may have all the pillows you wish for, and sit up in bed if you like, but you mustn't stay here any longer," and he gathered her in his arms and quickly carried her to the next room. She made no resistance, and took the medicine which Mrs. Martin brought, without a word. There was a blazing fire now in the bedroom fire-place, and, as she lay still, her face took on a satisfied, rested look. Her mother sat beside her, tearful, and yet contented and glad to have her near, and the others whispered together in the kitchen. It might have been the last night of a long illness instead of the sudden, startling entrance of sorrow in human shape. "No," said the doctor, "she cannot last much longer with such a cough as that, Mrs. Dyer. She has almost reached the end of it. I only hope that she will go quickly."
And sure enough; whether the fatal illness had run its natural course, or whether the excitement and the forced strength of the evening before had exhausted the small portion of strength that was left, when the late dawn lighted again those who watched, it found them sleeping, and one was never to wake again in the world she had found so disappointing to her ambitions, and so untrue to its fancied promises.
The doctor had promised to return early, but it was hardly daylight before there was another visitor in advance of him. Old Mrs. Meeker, a neighbor whom nobody liked, but whose favor everybody for some reason or other was anxious to keep, came knocking at the door, and was let in somewhat reluctantly by Mrs. Jake, who was just preparing to go home in order to send one or both the brothers to the village and to acquaint John Thacher with the sad news of his sister's death. He was older than Adeline, and a silent man, already growing to be elderly in his appearance. The women had told themselves and each other that he would take this sorrow very hard, and Mrs. Thacher had said sorrowfully that she must hide her daughter's poor worn clothes, since it would break John's heart to know she had come home so beggarly. The shock of so much trouble was stunning the mother; she did not understand yet, she kept telling the kind friends who sorrowed with her, as she busied herself with the preparations for the funeral. "It don't seem as if 'twas Addy," she said over and over again, "but I feel safe about her now, to what I did," and Mrs. Jake and Mrs. Martin, good helpful souls and brimful of compassion, went to and fro with their usual diligence almost as if this were nothing out of the common course of events.
Mrs. Meeker had heard the wagon go by and had caught the sound of the doctor's voice, her house being close by the road, and she had also watched the unusual lights. It was annoying to the Dyers to have to answer questions, and to be called upon to grieve outwardly just then, and it seemed disloyal to the dead woman in the next room to enter upon any discussion of her affairs. But presently the little child, whom nobody had thought of except to see that she still slept, waked and got down from the old settle where she had spent the night, and walked with unsteady short footsteps toward her grandmother, who caught her quickly and held her fast in her arms. The little thing looked puzzled, and frowned, and seemed for a moment unhappy, and then the sunshine of her good nature drove away the clouds and she clapped her hands and laughed aloud, while Mrs. Meeker began to cry again at the sight of this unconscious orphan.
"I'm sure I'm glad she can laugh," said Mrs. Martin. "She'll find enough to cry about later on; I foresee she'll be a great deal o' company to you, Mis' Thacher."
"Though 't ain't every one that has the strength to fetch up a child after they reach your years," said Mrs. Meeker, mournfully. "It's anxious work, but I don't doubt strength will be given you. I s'pose likely her father's folks will do a good deal for her,"—and the three women looked at each other, but neither took it upon herself to answer.
All that day the neighbors and acquaintances came and went in the lane that led to the farm-house. The brothers Jake and Martin made journeys to and from the village. At night John Thacher came home from court with as little to say as ever, but, as everybody observed, looking years older. Young Mrs. Prince's return and sudden death were the only subjects worth talking about in all the country side, and the doctor had to run the usual gauntlet of questions from all his outlying patients and their families. Old Mrs. Thacher looked pale and excited, and insisted upon seeing every one who came to the house, with evident intention to play her part in this strange drama with exactness and courtesy. A funeral in the country is always an era in a family's life; events date from it and centre in it. There are so few circumstances that have in the least a public nature that these conspicuous days receive all the more attention.
But while death seems far more astonishing and unnatural in a city, where the great tide of life rises and falls with little apparent regard to the sinking wrecks, in the country it is not so. The neighbors themselves are those who dig the grave and carry the dead, whom they or their friends have made ready, to the last resting-place. With all nature looking on,—the leaves that must fall, and the grass of the field that must wither and be gone when the wind passes over,—living closer to life and in plainer sight of death, they have a different sense of the mysteries of existence. They pay homage to Death rather than to the dead; they gather from the lonely farms by scores because there is a funeral, and not because their friend is dead; and the day of Adeline Prince's burial, the marvelous circumstances, with which the whole town was already familiar, brought a great company together to follow her on her last journey.
The day was warm and the sunshine fell caressingly over the pastures as if it were trying to call back the flowers. By afternoon there was a tinge of greenness on the slopes and under the gnarled apple-trees, that had been lost for days before, and the distant hills and mountains, which could be seen in a circle from the high land where the Thacher farmhouse stood, were dim and blue through the Indian summer haze. The old men who came to the funeral wore their faded winter overcoats and clumsy caps all ready to be pulled down over their ears if the wind should change; and their wives were also warmly wrapped, with great shawls over their rounded, hard-worked shoulders; yet they took the best warmth and pleasantness into their hearts, and watched the sad proceedings of the afternoon with deepest interest. The doctor came hurrying toward home just as the long procession was going down the pasture, and he saw it crossing a low hill; a dark and slender column with here and there a child walking beside one of the elder mourners. The bearers went first with the bier; the track was uneven, and the procession was lost to sight now and then behind the slopes. It was forever a mystery; these people might have been a company of Druid worshipers, or of strange northern priests and their people, and the doctor checked his impatient horse as he watched the retreating figures at their simple ceremony. He could not help thinking what strange ways this child of the old farm had followed, and what a quiet ending it was to her wandering life. "And I have promised to look after the little girl," he said to himself as he drove away up the road.
It was a long walk for the elderly people from the house near the main highway to the little burying-ground. In the earliest days of the farm the dwelling-place was nearer the river, which was then the chief thoroughfare; and those of the family who had died then were buried on the level bit of upland ground high above the river itself. There was a wide outlook over the country, and the young pine trees that fringed the shore sang in the south wind, while some great birds swung to and fro overhead, watching the water and the strange company of people who had come so slowly over the land. A flock of sheep had ventured to the nearest hillock of the next pasture, and stood there fearfully, with upraised heads, as if they looked for danger.
John Thacher had brought his sister's child all the way in his arms, and she had clapped her hands and laughed aloud and tried to talk a great deal with the few words she had learned to say. She was very gay in her baby fashion; she was amused with the little crowd so long as it did not trouble her. She fretted only when the grave, kind man, for whom she had instantly felt a great affection, stayed too long by that deep hole in the ground and wept as he saw a strange thing that the people had carried all the way, put down into it out of sight. When he walked on again, she laughed and played; but after they had reached the empty gray house, which somehow looked that day as if it were a mourner also, she shrank from all the strangers, and seemed dismayed and perplexed, and called her mother eagerly again and again. This touched many a heart. The dead woman had been more or less unfamiliar of late years to all of them; and there were few who had really grieved for her until her little child had reminded them of its own loneliness and loss.
That night, after the house was still, John Thacher wrote to acquaint Miss Prince, of Dunport, with his sister's death and to say that it was her wish that the child should remain with them during its minority. They should formally appoint the guardian whom she had selected; they would do their best by the little girl. And when Mrs. Thacher asked if he had blamed Miss Prince, he replied that he had left that to her own conscience.
In the answer which was quickly returned, there was a plea for the custody of the child, her mother's and her own namesake, but this was indignantly refused. There was no love lost between the town and the country household, and for many years all intercourse was at an end. Before twelve months were past, John Thacher himself was carried down to the pasture burying-ground, and his old mother and the little child were left to comfort and take care of each other as best they could in the lonely farm-house.