Stories by American Authors, Volume 8 online

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* * * * *

It was Monday, but no one came. It was Tuesday, but the nurse and the
plague still battled alone together over the negro. Zerviah's stock
of remedies was as ample as his skill. He had thought he should save
Scip. He worked without sleep, and the food was not clean. He lavished
himself like a lover over this black boatman; he leaned like a mother
over this man who had betrayed him.

But on Tuesday night, a little before midnight, Scip rose, struggling
on his wretched bed, and held up his hands and cried out:

"Mr. Hope! Mr. Hope! I never done mean to harm ye!"

"You have not harmed me," said Zerviah, solemnly. "Nobody ever harmed
me but myself. Don't mind me, Scip."

Scip put up his feeble hand; Zerviah took it; Scip spoke no more. The
nurse held the negro's hand a long time; the lamp went out; they sat
on in the dark. Through the flapping wooden shutter the stars looked

Suddenly, Zerviah perceived that Scip's hand was quite cold.

* * * * *

He carried him out by starlight, and buried him under the palmetto. It
was hard work digging alone. He could not make a very deep grave, and
he had no coffin. When the earth was stamped down, he felt extremely
weary and weak. He fell down beside his shovel and pick to rest, and
lay there in the night till he felt stronger. It was damp and dark.
Shadows like clouds hung over the distant outline of the swamp.

The Sunday bells in the town had ceased. There were no sounds but the
cries of a few lonely birds and wild creatures of the night, whose
names he did not know. This little fact added to his sense of

He thought at first he would get up and walk back to the city in the
dark. An intense and passionate longing seized him to be among living
men. He took a few steps down the road. The unwholesome dust blew up
through the dark against his face. He found himself so tired that he
concluded to go back to the hut. He would sleep, and start in the
morning with the break of the dawn. He should be glad to see the faces
of his kind again, even though the stir of welcome and the light of
trust were gone out of them for him. They lived, they breathed, they
spoke. He was tired of death and solitude.

He groped back into the hut. The oil was low, and he could not relight
the lamp. He threw himself in the dark upon his bed.

He slept until late in the morning, heavily. When he waked, the birds
were shrill in the hot air, and the sun glared in.

"I will go now," he said, aloud. "I am glad I can go," and crept to
his feet.

He took two steps - staggered - and fell back. He lay for some moments,
stricken more with astonishment than alarm. His first words were:

"Lord God! After all - after all I've gone through - Lord God Almighty,
if You'll believe it - I've _got it_!"

This was on Wednesday morning. Night fell, but no one came.
Thursday - but outside the hut no step stirred the parched, white dust.
Friday - Saturday - no voice but his own moaning broke upon the sick
man's straining ear.

His professional experience gave him an excruciating foresight of his
symptoms, and their result presented itself to him with horrible
distinctness. As one by one he passed through the familiar conditions
whose phases he had watched in other men a hundred times, he would
have given his life for a temporary ignorance. His trained imagination
had little mercy on him. He weighed his chances, and watched his fate
with the sad exactness of knowledge.

As the days passed, and no one came to him, he was aware of not being
able to reason with himself clearly about his solitude. Growing weak,
he remembered the averted faces of the people for whom he had labored,
and whom he had loved. In the stress of his pain their estranged eyes
gazed at him. He felt that he was deserted because he was distrusted.
Patient as he was, this seemed hard.

"They did not care enough for me to miss me," he said, aloud, gently.
"I suppose I was not worth it. I had been in prison. I was a wicked
man. I must not blame them."

And again:

"They would have come if they had known. They would not have let me
_die_ alone. I don't think _she_ would have done that. I wonder where
she is? Nobody has missed me - that is all. I must not mind."

Growing weaker, he thought less and prayed more. He prayed, at last,
almost all his time. When he did not pray, he slept. When he could not
sleep, he prayed. He addressed God with that sublime familiarity of
his, which fell from his lips with no more irreverence than the kiss
of a child falling upon its mother's hand or neck.

The murderer, the felon, the outcast, talked with the Almighty
Holiness, as a man talketh with his friends. The deserted, distrusted,
dying creature believed himself to be trusted by the Being who had
bestowed on him the awful gift of life.

"Lord," he said, softly, "I guess I can bear it. I'd like to see
somebody - but I'll make out to get along.... Lord! I'm pretty weak. I
know all about these spasms. You get delirious next thing, you know.
Then you either get better or you never do. It'll be decided by Sunday
night. Lord! Dear Lord!" he added, with a tender pause, "don't _You_
forget me! I hope _You'll_ miss me enough to hunt me up."

It grew dark early on Saturday night. The sun sank under a thin,
deceptive web of cloud. The shadow beneath the palmetto grew long over
Scip's fresh grave. The stars were dim and few. The wind rose, and the
lights in the city, where watchers wept over their sick, trembled on
the frail breeze, and seemed to be multiplied, like objects seen
through tears.

Through the wooden shutter, Zerviah could see the lights, and the
lonely palmetto, and the grave. He could see those few cold stars.

He thought, while his thoughts remained his own, most tenderly and
longingly of those for whom he had given his life. He remembered how
many keen cares of their own they had to carry, how many ghastly deeds
and sights to do and bear. It was not strange that he should not be
missed. Who was he? - a disgraced, unfamiliar man, among their kin and
neighborhood. Why should they think of him? he said.

Yet he was glad that he could remember them. He wished his living or
his dying could help them any. Things that his patients had said to
him, looks that healing eyes had turned on him, little signs of human
love and leaning, came back to him as he lay there, and stood around
his bed, like people, in the dark hut.

"_They loved me_," he said: "Lord, as true as I'm alive, they did!
I'm glad I lived long enough to save life, _to save life_! I'm much
obliged to You for that! I wish there was something else I could do
for them.... Lord! I'd be willing to die if it would help them any. If
I thought I could do anything that way, toward sending them a frost -

"No," he added, "that ain't reasonable. A frost and a human life ain't
convertible coin. He don't do unreasonable things. May be I've lost
my head already. But I'd be glad to. That's all. I suppose I can
_ask_ You for a frost. _That's_ reason.

"Lord God of earth and heaven! that made the South and North, the
pestilence and destruction, the sick and well, the living and the
dead, have mercy on us miserable sinners! Have mercy on the folks that
pray to You, and on the folks that don't! Remember the old graves, and
the new ones, and the graves that are to be opened if this hellish
heat goes on, and send us a blessed frost, O Lord, _as an act of
humanity_! And if that ain't the way to speak to You, remember I
haven't been a praying man long enough to learn the language very
well, - and that I'm pretty sick, - but that I would be glad to die - to
give them - a great, white, holy frost. Lord, a frost! Lord, a cool,
white, clean frost, for these poor devils that have borne so much!"

At midnight of that Saturday he dozed and dreamed. He dreamed of what
he had thought while Scip was sick: of what it was like, to be holy;
and, sadly waking, thought of holy people - good women and honest men,
who had never done a deadly deed.

"I cannot be holy," thought Zerviah Hope; "but I can pray for frost."
So he tried to pray for frost. But by that time he had grown confused,
and his will wandered pitifully, and he saw strange sights in the
little hut. It was as if he were not alone. Yet no one had come in.
_She_ could not come at midnight. Strange - how strange! Who was that
who walked about the hut? Who stood and looked at him? Who leaned to
him? Who brooded over him? Who put arms beneath him? Who looked at
him, as those look who love the sick too much to shrink from them?

"I don't know You," said Zerviah, in a distinct voice. Presently he
smiled. "Yes, I guess I do. I see now. I'm not used to You. I never
saw You before. You are Him I've heered about - God's Son! God's Son,
You've taken a great deal of trouble to come here after me. Nobody
else came. You're the only one that has remembered me. You're very
good to me.

"... Yes, I remember. They made a prisoner of _You_. Why, yes! They
deserted _You_. They let _You_ die by Yourself. What did You do it
for? I don't know much about theology. I am not an educated man. I
never prayed till I come South.... I forget - _What did You do it

A profound and solemn silence replied.

"Well," said the sick man, breaking it in a satisfied tone, as if he
had been answered, "I wasn't worth it ... but I'm glad You came. I
wish they had a frost, poor things! _You_ won't go away? Well, I'm
glad. Poor things! Poor things! I'll take Your hand, if You've no

After a little time, he added, in a tone of unutterable tenderness and

"_Dear_ Lord!" and said no more.

It was a quiet night. The stars rode on as if there were no task but
the tasks of stars in all the universe, and no sorrow keener than
their sorrow, and no care other than their motion and their shining.
The web of cloud floated like exhaling breath between them and the
earth. It grew cooler before the dawn. The leaves of the palmetto over
Scip's grave seemed to uncurl, and grow lax, and soften. The dust
still flew heavily, but the wind rose.

The Sunday-bells rang peacefully. The sick heard them, and the
convalescent and the well. The dying listened to them before they
left. On the faces of the dead, too, there came the look of those who

The bells tolled, too, that Sunday. They tolled almost all the
afternoon. The young Northerner, Dr. Remane, was gone, - a reticent,
brave young man, - and the heroic telegraph operator. Saturday night
they buried her. Sunday, "Bobby" took her place at the wires, and
spelled out, with shaking fingers, the cries of Calhoun to the wide,
well world.

By sunset, all the bells had done ringing and done tolling. There was
a clear sky, with cool colors. It seemed almost cold about Scip's hut.
The palmetto lifted its faint head. The dust slept. It was not yet
dark when a little party from the city rode up, searching for the
dreary place. They had ridden fast. Dr. Frank was with them, and the
lady, Marian Dare. She rode at their head. She hurried nervously on.
She was pale, and still weak. The chairman of the Relief Committee was
with her, and the sub-committee and others.

Dr. Dare pushed on through the swinging door of the hut. She entered
alone. They saw the backward motion of her gray-sleeved wrist, and
came no farther, but removed their hats and stood. She knelt beside
the bed, and put her hand upon his eyes. God is good, after all. Let
us hope that they knew her before they closed.

She came out, and tried to tell about it, but broke down, and sobbed
before them all.

"It's a martyr's death," said the chief, and added solemnly, "Let us

He knelt, and the others with him, between the buried negro and the
unburied nurse, and thanked God for the knowledge and the recollection
of the holy life which this man had lived among them in their hour of

* * * * *

They buried him, as they must, and hurried homeward to their living,
comforting one another for his memory as they could.

As for him, he rested, after her hand had fallen on his eyes. He who
had known so deeply the starvation of sleeplessness, slept well that

In the morning, when they all awoke, these of the sorrowing city here,
and those of the happy city yonder; when they took up life again with
its returning sunrise, - the sick and the well, the free and the
fettered, the living and the dead, - the frost lay, cool, white,
blessed, on his grave.



_Putnam's Magazine, August, 1870._

There was something about the wholesome sleepiness of Freiberg, in
Saxony, that fitted well with the lazy nature of Ronald Wyde. So,
having run down there to spend a day or two among the students and the
mines, and taking a liking to the quaint, unmodernized town, he bodily
changed his plans of autumn-travel, gave up a cherished scheme of
Russian vagabondage, had his baggage sent from Dresden, and made ready
to settle down and drowse away three or four months in idleness and
not over-arduous study. And this move of his led to the happening of a
very strange and seemingly unreal event in his life.

Ronald Wyde was then about twenty-five or six years old, rather above
the medium height, with thick blue-black hair that he had an
artist-trick of allowing to ripple down to his neck, dark hazel eyes
that were almost too deeply recessed in their bony orbits, and a
troublesome growth of beard that, close-shaven as he always was,
showed in strong blue outline through the thin and rather sallow skin.
His address was singularly pleasing, and his wide experience of life,
taught him by years of varied travel, made him a good deal of a
cosmopolitan in his views and ways, which caused him to be looked upon
as a not over-safe companion for young men of his own age or under.

Having made up his mind to winter in Freiberg, his first step was to
quit the little hotel, with its mouldy stone-vaulted entrance and its
columned dining-room, under whose full-centered arches close beery and
smoky fumes lingered persistently, and seek quieter student-lodgings
in the heart of the town. His choice was mainly influenced by a
thin-railed balcony, twined through and through by the shoots of a
vigorous Virginia creeper, that flamed and flickered in the breezy
October sunsets in strong relief against the curtains that drifted
whitely out and in through the open window. So, with the steady-going
and hale old Frau Spritzkrapfen he took up his quarters, fully
persuading himself that he did so for the sake of the stray
home-breaths that seemed to stir the scarlet vine-leaves more gently
for him, and ignoring pretty Lottchen's great, earnest Saxon eyes as
best he could.

A sunny morning followed his removal to Frau Spritzkrapfen's tidy
home. There had been a slight rain in the early night, and the
footways were yet bright and moist in patches that the slanting
morning rays were slowly coaxing away. Ronald Wyde, having set his
favorite books handily on the dimity-draped table, which comprised for
him the process of getting to rights, and having given more than one
glance of amused wonderment at the naïve blue-and-white scriptural
tiles that cased his cumbrous four-story earthenware stove, and smiled
lazily at poor Adam's obvious and sudden indigestion, even while the
uneaten half-apple remained in his guilty hand, he stepped out on his
balcony, leaned his elbows among the crimson leaves, and took in the
healthful morning air in great draughts. It was a Sunday; the bells of
the gray minster hard by were iterating their clanging calls to the
simple townsfolk to come and be droned to in sleepy German gutturals
from the carved, pillar-hung pulpit inside. Looking down, he saw
thick-ankled women cluttering past in loose wooden-soled shoes, and
dumpy girls with tow-braids primly dangling to their hips, convoying
sturdy Dutch-built luggers of younger brothers up the easy slope that
led to the church and the bells. Presently Frau Spritzkrapfen and
dainty Lottchen, rosy with soap and health, slipped through the
doorway beneath him out into the little church-bound throng, and, as
they disappeared, left the house and street somehow unaccountably
alone. Feeling this, Ronald Wyde determined on a stroll.

Something in the Sabbath stillness around him led Ronald away from the
swift clang and throbbing hum of the bells and in the direction of the
old cemetery. Passing through the clumsy tower-gate that lifts its
grimy bulk sullenly, like a huge head-stone over the grave of a dead
time of feudalism, he reached the burial-ground and entered the quiet
enclosure. The usual touching reverence of the Germans for their dead
was strikingly manifest around him. The humbler mounds, walled up with
rough stones a foot or two above the pathway level, carried on their
crests little gardens of gay and inexpensive plants; while on the tall
wooden crosses at their head hung yellow wreaths, half hiding the
hopeful legend, "Wiedersehen." The more pretentious slabs bore vases
filled with fresh flowers; while in the grate-barred vaults, that
skirted the ground like the arches of a cloister, lay rusty heaps of
long-since mouldered bloom, topped by newer wreaths tossed lovingly in
to wilt and turn to dust in their turn, like those cast in before them
in memory of that other dust asleep below.

Turning aside from the central walk that halved the cemetery, Ronald
strolled along, his hands in his pockets, his eyes listlessly fixed on
the orange-colored fumes and rolling smoke that welled out of tall
chimneys in the hollow beyond, an idle student-tune humming on his
lips, and his thoughts nowhere, and everywhere, at once. Happening to
look away from the dun smoke-trail for an instant, he found something
of greater interest close at hand. An old man stooped stiffly over a
simple mound, busied among the flowers that hid it, and by his side
crouched a young girl, perhaps fourteen years old, who peered up at
Ronald with questioning, velvet-brown eyes. The old man heard the
intruder's steps crunching in the damp gravel, and slowly looked up

"Good morning, mein Herr," said Ronald, pleasantly.

The old man remained for an instant blinking nervously, and shading
his eyes from the full sunlight that fell on his face. A quiet face it
was, and very old, seamed and creased by mazy wrinkles that played at
aimless cross-purposes with each other, beginning and ending nowhere.
His thick beard and thin, curved nose looked just a little Jewish, and
seemed at variance with his pale blue eyes that were still bright in
spite of age. And yet, bearded as he was, there was a lurking
expression about his features that bordered upon effeminacy, and made
the treble of his voice sound even more thin and womanish as he
answered Wyde's greeting.

"Good morning, too, mein Herr. A stranger to our town, I see."

"Yes; but soon not to be called one, I hope. I am here for the

"A cold season - a cold season; our northern winters are very chilling
to an old man's blood." And slouching together into a tired stoop, he
resumed his simple task of knotting a few flowers into a clumsy
nosegay. Ronald stood and watched him with a vague interest.
Presently, the flowers being clumped to his liking, the old man pried
himself upright by getting a good purchase with his left hand in the
small of his back, and so deliberately that Ronald almost fancied he
heard him creak. The girl rose too, and drew her thin shawl over her

"You Germans love longer than we," said Ronald, glancing at the
flowers that trembled in the old man's bony fingers, and then
downwards to the quiet grave; "a lifetime of easy-going love and a
year or two of easier-forgetting are enough for us."

"Should I forget my own flesh and blood?" asked the old man, simply.

Ronald paused a moment, and, pointing downwards, said:

"Your daughter, then, I fancy?"


"Long dead?"

"Very long; more than fifty years."

Ronald stared, but said nothing audibly. Inwardly he whispered
something about being devilish glad to make the wandering Jew's
acquaintance, rattled the loose gröschen in his pocket, and turned to
follow the tottering old man and firm-footed child down the walk.
After a dozen paces they halted before a more ambitious tombstone, on
which Ronald could make out the well-remembered name of Plattner. The
child took the flowers and laid them reverently on the stone.

"It seems to me almost like arriving at the end of a pilgrimage," said
Ronald, "when I stand by the grave of a man of science. Perhaps you
knew him, mein Herr?"

"He was my pupil."

"Whew!" thought Ronald, "that makes my friend here a centenarian at

"My pupil and friend," the feeble voice went on; "and, more than that,
my daughter's first lover, and only one."

"Ach so!" drawled Ronald.

"And now, on her death-day, I take these poor flowers from her to him,
as I have done all these years."

Something in the pathetic earnestness of his companion touched Ronald
Wyde, and he forthwith took his hands out of his pockets, and didn't
try to whistle inaudibly - which was a great deal for him to do.

"I know Plattner well by his works," he said; "I once studied
mineralogy for nearly a month."

"You love science, then?"

"Yes; like every thing else, for diversion."

"It was different with him," quavered the old man, pointing unsteadily
to the head-stone. "Science grew to be his one passion, and many
discoveries rewarded him for his devotion. He was groping on the track
of a far greater achievement when he died."

"May I ask what it was?" said Ronald, now fairly interested.

"The creation and isolation of the principle of Life!"

This was too much for Ronald Wyde; down dived his restless hands into
his trowsers' pockets again, and the gröschen rattled as merrily as

"I have made quite a study of biology, and all that sort of thing,"
said he; "and, although a good deal of a skeptic, and inclined to
follow Huxley, I can't bring myself to conceive of life without
organism. Such theorizing is, to my mind, on a par with the illogical
search for the philosopher's stone and a perpetual motor."

The old man's eyes sparkled as he turned full upon Ronald.

"You dismiss the subject very airily, my young friend," he cried; "but
let me tell you that I - I, whom you see here - have grappled with such
problems through a weary century, and have conquered one of them."

"And that one is - "

"The one that conquered Plattner!"

"Do I understand you to claim that you have discovered the


"Will you permit an utter stranger to inquire what is its nature?"

"Certainly. It is twofold. The ultimate principle of life is carbon;
the cause of its combination with water, or rather with the two
gaseous elements of water, and the development of organized existence
therefrom, is electricity."

Ronald Wyde shrugged his broad shoulders a little, and absently

"All I can say, mein Herr, is, that you've got the bulge on me."

"I beg your pardon - "

"Excuse me; I unconsciously translated an Americanism. I mean that I
don't quite understand you."

"Which means that you do not believe me. It is but natural at your
age, when one doubts as if by instinct. Would you be convinced?"

"Nothing would please me better."

With the same painful effort as before, the old man straightened
himself and made a piercing clairvoyant examination into and through
Ronald Wyde's eyes, as if reading the brain beyond them.

"I think I can trust you," he mumbled at last. "Come with me."

Leaning on the young girl's arm, the old philosopher faltered through
the cemetery and into the town, followed by Wyde, his hands again
pocketed for safety. Groups of released church-goers, sermon-fed, met
them, and once in a while some stout burgher would nod patronizingly
to Ronald's guides, and get in response a shaky, sidelong roll of the
old man's head, as if it were mounted on a weak spiral spring. Further
on they intersected a knot of students, who eyed them askance and
exchanged remarks in an undertone. Keeping on deeper into the foul
heart of the town, they passed through swarms of idle children playing
sportlessly, as poverty is apt to play, in the dank shadows of the
narrow street. They seemed incited to mirth and ribaldry by the sight
of Ronald's new friend, and one even ventured to hurl a clod at him;
but this striking Ronald instead, and he facing promptly to the
hostile quarter from whence it came, caused a sudden slinking of the

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Online LibraryVariousStories by American Authors, Volume 8 → online text (page 8 of 12)