S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Characteristics online

. (page 3 of 19)
Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 3 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


" Rather curious, is n't it, that two men as different


as you and me should like the same sort of things
fly-fishin', chess?"

" And how are we different?" I said, much amused.

"You 're the queerest man I ever saw a whole
menagerie. By the time you 're ten years older you
won't have a dollar. How 's that for a guess ? "

" Not a bad one. And here is one for you. Some
day you will go to bits. I see it in your face."

" Why, I 've been worth millions three times, and not
a cent next day. Safe this time ; got it solid."

"I 'm not sure. One more smash, and your ner-
vous system won't stand it. What advice have you ?
You have wasted quite time enough. Three long runs,
sulked a little, two or three dangerous jumps. Now I
propose to reel in. You like a man who can outwit
you j he is the only thing you esteem on earth."

" That 's so. TeU you what I 11 do. If you can
beat me one game at chess I '11 take your stock at par.''

" And bonds ? "

"Yes; last offer."

" 1 11 do it," I said.

" Then you 're done for, young man. Come along.
Who riz to the fly this time ? "

I followed him into a small room, bare of furniture
except a desk, chess-table, and spittoons. I was looked
upon as a good second-rate among our local players,
and had a pretty clear idea that I should win. He
chuckled as we went in, and, sitting down, arranged
the board. He won the move, and opened with the
famous but little-known Catapult gambit. I replied
with Herr Strombalovsky's defense, and the game went
on. I soon saw that he was quite my equal. Pres-


ently, having a little view ahead, and his queen being
in trouble, I said, "Did you ever see Maelzel's au-
tomaton ? "

"Never," he returned, abstractedly.

"It used to be in Philadelphia; was burned up;
said ' check ' in its last moments. Queer that, was it

" Oh, look here, there 's a lot of money in this game.
If you think "

I had accustomed myself to talk to a by-stander
while playing chess, because I found that constant at-
tention never helped me, and that a few moments of
intense concentration between moves got the best re-
sults out of my chess capacities. I thought a moment,
and castled the king. This altered the situation, and
while he studiously contemplated the game I went on

"I have an old Dutch treatise on chess. There is
one splendid gambit. Never been published. You
begin with the king castle's pawn."

" Nonsense ! Oh, look here," he said, " I don't be-
lieve in new gambits. What is it, anyway ? You wait
till we 're done. Bet you five hundred dollars it is n't

Then he moved a knight.

" Check," said I. " I have myself two books of ends
of games belonging to Von Kempelen." He made no
answer, but moved a bishop to guard the king.

" Check," said I.

" Oh, that 's your talk. It 's against the rules."

" Nonsense ! This is a game of chess, not the game.
Check again."


" Ever kill a salmon ? " I added.

"No; that must be fun."

" There is a boss salmon in the Cascapedia, weighs
about ninety pounds. They say he has been hooked
at least six dozen times. His mouth is so full of flies
and leaders it looks like a beard. They call him the

" Oh, bother ! " And he moved a pawn.

" Check."

" Euchred," he said. " I give up. It 's sure mate in
three moves. I give up."

" No ; we must play it out. A given game is not
won. You would turn around and say I had not beaten
you, and decline to pay the forfeit."

" That 's just what I meant to do, my boy. I wish
Peter was like you. He believes every word I say."

"Check mate," said I.

" I 've lost. What possessed me ? You just write
to Falls & Sons. They '11 settle. Want it in writing ? "

" I ? No. Of course not. You are free to pay or
not. I pestered you with talk. It was hardly fair.
Pay or not, as you like. I did not in any honest sense

" Stuff and nonsense. Do you suppose, sir, I don't
keep my engagements ? I don't guess you came here
to insult me."

" No ; hardly. I really came because I was curious
to see what manner of man you were."

" Like going to a menagerie show. Well, you 've
seen it, and got your money back too ; but don't you
go and buy a lot more stock now. It 's awful low.
How much am I in for this gamble ? "


I named the amounts ; he noted them, rose, and as
we went out into the hall said, " Let me see those ends
of games."

" I will send you the books. Pray keep them."

"And look here I never had a better mornin' in
my life ; but don't you go and tell everybody, and put
it in the papers. What 's your address? I '11 send
you the Wall street trout-fly. Peter calls him the bull."

At the door I said, " By the way, I never told you my

" That 's so ! a And he took my card.

" Well, by George ! you 're a doctor. That 's the
very queerest thing I ever did know. Why, I never
knew a doctor ever knew anything his own busi-
ness, or any one else's. How Peter would laugh. But
he won't next Monday. Good mornin', Doctor North.
Come in again and give me my revenge."

As I turned to go he stopped me. "You said I
did n't look well "

"Yes; I said that. It is something, I cannot tell
what, about your eyes "

" Hum ! come back and go over me a bit. I ain't
felt well of late, that 's a fact. And I can't tell the
doctors here. Don't trust 'em." I went in again, and
finally remained in the city overnight to complete my
study of his case.

"Well," he said at last, "what 's wrong with my
works ? Not much margin, eh ? "

"You have a disease of the kidneys "

"Fatal? Mind, I don't skeer easy. Yes, or no?
Out with it."

" Yes ; but with care you may live many years."


" How many ? "

" I do not know. I will write out my advice for you
in full."

" Good. And I may trust you not to let it get into
the papers. It would be worth a lot of money to some-

" You are safe with me."

" I believe you. You have done me a big service.
What 's your fee ? "

" It is large."

" I don't care. What is it ? "

" My fee is that you put that road back where it was
a year ago."

" Darned if I do. And take your stock too ? No,

" I have reflected. I won't take the money for it. I
have told you my fee. Good morning."

" I '11 do it. No man can say Xerxes Z don't

pay his debts. Five years ? Ten ? How long have I
got ? You '11 have to take care of me. I '11 send my
private car for you every month."

" I will do it. There is even a chance, a small one,
of recovery."

"Is that so? Hold on to your stock; buy more;
it 's pretty low. And come and dine here to-day."

" No ; I cannot. I must go. Good-by."

" Well, buy soon. Don't you forget, and hold your
tongue, too. It 's the biggest bill I ever paid. You 're
not a cheap doctor."

XERXES was as good as his word, but I bought no
more of the stock. In a year or two I was better off


than before. Nevertheless, I did not appear to myself
well in this transaction. I had used the robber's
methods to overcome the robber. It was true that I
had estimated correctly the character of Mr. X. Z., but
to meet the demands of the situation I had acted
against my own habitual ways. To this day the first
part of that little affair sits like a toad in one corner
of my mind and sneers at me. It is the one thing I
have never told Vincent. I merely said to him on my
return that I was resolved to wait, and have been much
applauded for my sagacity. Also, I am free to admit
that I did pull the great financier through his physical
difficulties. He lived to do untold mischief. I was
once standing on a pier in London when a thief, sharply
pursued, in trying to jump into a wherry, fell over-
board. He sank twice, when in dashed a huge New-
foundland and towed the unconscious rascal ashore,
where he was promptly seized by the police. For my
part, the behavior of that dog interested me. He shook
himself, and settled down in the sun on the pier with
a look of distinct self-gratulation at his feat. The
morals of the drowning man did not concern him. I
have often thought about that dog.


WAS now again at ease as to the
future, and without occupation. A
man of some thirty-six years of age,
I was master of three languages, well
read in a general way, and, as may
have been seen, a practised and in-
terested observer of my fellow men. Moreover, I had
had the experience of a long illness, and found, there-
fore, renewed pleasure in outdoor life as well as in
a myriad of things which are to be seen in field and
wood, and air and water. Mere science had in it for
me little that I liked, and it was clear to me that only
in my own profession was there what I desired a
combination of ever-changing science, and its constant
applications to medicine as an art.

Having no wish to increase my fortune, I took chiefly
to consulting practice, declining cases at will, and was
lucky enough to obtain a good hospital position.

Contented with my daily work, and the constant
problems it set before intelligent curiosity, I lived at
tranquil ease, my friends making for me a large part
of the pleasure of life. Some of them I loved for
groups of moral qualities, some for the mental food
with which they stimulated me. There were others
who were dear because they found something in me to


like and to trust and to use, and who themselves were
not in any way remarkably attractive except for hav-
ing a notable capacity to love. Undoubtedly there are
folks whom one loves as one does some quite useless
pleasant dog. From all of which it may be clear that
I had many friends. Some of them were always in-
teresting, and this is rare although I may as well
confess here that more people have interest for me
than is the case with educated men in general. Even
those who are generally looked upon as commonplace
often find a warm corner at the hearth-side of my
heart. When friends die or drift away, I like to fill
their places, and hope when life ends to find the ranks
as full as in the mid-flow of existence. Mrs. Vincent
says that I collect friends as a naturalist does flowers.
The only rational limit I can set to an increase of the
number of those whom one qualifies as friends lies in
the fact that one must contribute more or less in the
way of time, letters, and pleasant service. Some need
little ; others insist on constancy of relation for there
are genera and species in friendship. Of one of them,
Vincent, already mentioned, I should feel as sure if we
were parted for half a lif e. He was of the rare men
who have intellectual apprehensions so swift as to
seem instinctive. While in some matter of social diffi-
culty, or of tangled business, I should have slowly
reasoned out my conclusion, he attained the same re-
sult apparently without effort, and yet could afterward
give you his reasons. He was a man too sensitively
reserved to admit many to his friendship, too silent as
to his charities to be known to the world as generous.
His character was indeed throughout the more beauti-


ful for the modesty which hid its values. He was one
of the few I ever knew who had the art of giving, even
money, with graciousness. Also, he was master of
himself, body and mind. To me he seemed the ideal
of modern common sense, with ever a present possi-
bility of chivalric action carried to the verge of the
quixotic. Of this man, in company with a sculptor,
now very famous, and a scholar, also of the upper
rank, and already mentioned, I saw much. Among
them Frederick Vincent attracted me most. While
these others had attained in life all, or nearly all, of
what their capabilities made possible, he alone ap-
peared to me never to reach the success which seemed
within the command of his qualities. When I came to
know that it was his frail physical state which set limits
to a boundless ambition, I loved him more than ever,
because there was never on his part the least unmanly
repining. In fact, life active life was only possi-
ble to him on condition that he lived with care and
spent much time out of doors.

One evening we met, as was often the case, at my own
rooms. Three of us being bachelors and only Vincent
married, these meetings were easily and often possible.

Detained by a consultation, I came in late to find two
of my three friends gathered about the blazing hickory
logs of my study hearth. The third, Clayborne, was
as usual wandering about, now along the coast of my
bookcases, now knocking against chair or table, a great
drifting hulk of a man.

''And what have you been discussing?" I said.

" We began," said Vincent, " with a long screed from
St. Clair. He is laughing at Mrs. B for having


her girls trained by a drill-sergeant to have flat backs
like West Point cadets. He insists that no antique
statue of woman is erect, and he declares that they all
droop like flowers."

" It was n't a fertile text," said Clayborne, " and we
soon got through with it. There is one comfort about
that boy St. Glair's futilities of speech. If he talks
often he does n't talk long at a time."

" Thanks," said St. Clair. " It was Clayborne who
digressed ; I could have gone on for an hour about the
flat backs of what they call ' women ' in these days. I
wonder would Eve know her modern sisters. Clay-
borne went off for an unbroken half -hour on the an-
cients as realists. He thinks the Laocoon the finest
thing in plastic art, old or new. He meant, I fancy,
to start on that as a text, but the text got in only at
the end of the sermon. Realism I loathe the word,
and he calls the Laocoon realistic."

"I do."

"What, to carve a snake as a round rope, and to
give a constrictor serpent fangs f Any boy knows
better than that"

" Those snakes have no fangs," returned Clayborne.

" Yes, they have," I said ; " and in the upper jaw, in
the right place, and one on each side."

" I don't believe it," said Clayborne.

"And still it is so," returned St. Clair. " Moreover,
Clayborne, although the old sculptors were fond of
carving serpents, I never saw another example of the
venomous f anged snake in any art museum."

" And snakes are not round ? " said Clayborne, ap-
pealing to me.


" No ; a section of a snake in motion or constricting
would be like a half moon, and flattened on the belly

" I give up," said the scholar. " I am always ready
to yield to real knowledge ; but "

" Oh, come now ! " cried St. Clair. " When you do
eat your humble-pie don't growl because it gives you a
mental colic."

"I am not sure about it yet," urged Clayborne.
" However, we got off next on to weariness, or rather
fatigue of mind. Vincent happened to say that his
head was tired his brain, I mean. St. Clair and I
can't understand what that means. We do agree now
and then."

" Then," said St. Clair, " we remembered what some
one has said, that scholars who have lived much in
Europe believe work to be possible there at less cost to
one's nervous system than in our climate."

"I said that was absurd," said Clayborne. "So
much thought, so much product, so much tissue

"Try to climb in our summer climate, and on a
Swiss mountain," returned Vincent, " and see whether
or not more effort is needed here. It seems to me that
the same may be true as to the use of the mind."

" I think that a fair reply," I said. " But also, to
generalize, I fancy that any given thousand Americans
do more work in a year than as many of a like group
of English, we may say."

" As to this whole question," said Clayborne, " I am
a bad witness. I cannot understand what a man
means when he says his brain is tired."


" You must have strained it badly to know/' I re-
turned. "Sense of fatigue as referred to the brain,
and not merely to eye, hand, or back, is hardly a nor-
mal sensation."

" I wonder is it wholly modern/' remarked Vincent ;
" and did we Yankees really invent neurasthenia ? "

" If I had Sydenham here," I replied, " I would show
you what that master in medicine said of overwork,
and the consequences, in Charles II.'s time. While I
am sure we have only too many breakdowns from ex-
cesses in work, and above all from anxiety with work,
I know well enough that since we discovered, described,
and named the condition of nervous exhaustion it has
been found to exist everywhere in Europe."

" And the remedy ? " said St. Clair, who had merely

" Turn beast," cried Clayborne. " Who ever saw a
horse with neurasthenia ? "

"Go back to nature, I suppose," said St. Clair. "Live
out of doors. Turn cowboy. Get near the soil again.
Imagine a neurasthenic Sioux chief."

"The remedy would destroy me," said Clayborne.
" I once camped out with Owen. Never was man so
wretched. My own remedy would be change of oc-
cupation for a time. Some hobby is valuable. If I
weary of my work I simply go and fuss over my coins.
There is Vincent ; why does n't he write a play when
he is tired, or hunt butterflies ? "

Vincent smiled, but made no reply. I well knew
why. His fund of physical energy barely sufficed for
the week's work, and left him no available reserve.

" Once," I said, " a lawyer or a doctor could not af-


ford to go against the public opinion which decreed
that he could not be anything else but mere lawyer or
doctor. Now, in our great towns at least, these limi-
tations are passing away. We have more freedom,
and certainly what Clayborne says is true : one can't
run away always, and a little canter on a hobby of
literature, science, or art is usually possible."

" What is too often wanting to the tired man," said
Vincent, quite sadly, '4s the energy to saddle and
bridle and mount his hobby. Best is what I want. I
stay in bed of a Sunday."

" It is rather odd," said St. Clair, who was apt to be
discursive, " that in literature the doctor so often ap-
pears. There are Rabelais, Keats, Goldsmith, Holmes,
Akenside, and more, if one chose to think them over.
But among notable poets who have had legal training
one recalls only Goethe."

" I think that is true," remarked Clayborne, who, as
was common with him, was still moving about, and
now and then glancing at a book on my shelves.

"But no great poet," urged St. Clair, "ever could be
long or seriously anything else. None of those men
continued to be doctors. Akenside one need hardly
consider. Poetry is an inexorable mistress."

" I have often wondered," said Vincent, " what forms
of pursuit give on the whole the largest bounty in the
way of happiness."

" The naturalist's, I should say," I returned.

"The artist's," cried St. Clair. "I am supremely

" And you ? " said Clayborne to me.

" My life contents me," I said. " Yes ; I am happy


in my work. It admits of so much intellectual vari-
ety, and there is too the persistent daily work which,
like a great fly-wheel, steadies all the machinery of

" I wish," said Vincent, " I could get inside of any
other man's life."

" It would not explain or make easier your own life,"
said Clay borne. " After all, joyousness is a question
of temperament. But, over and above that, there is
something to be said as to the pleasurable quality of
men's pursuits."

"Are poets happy as a rule?"

" No," returned St. Clair ; " they are the very bonds-
men of common sense, and that is always unpleasant
in its influence. They see too clearly to be happy,
and feel too acutely."

" Stuff ! " cried Clayborne. " The rule would work
both ways. The trouble is that most of them were
fools and suffered for their nonsense. The best of
brains cannot always shut the door on folly. If a man
enjoys nature too much to go indoors when it rains
morally or physically rains need he growl at the
consequences ? "

" And yet the notion," I returned, " that poets, art-
ists, and men of science are wanting in every-day com-
mon business sense appears to me negatived by the
lives of many. Really, the great poets and foremost
men of science are always variously capable. They
fail in business matters merely because they care more
for other things. Whenever they have been forced to
conduct affairs they have shown no want of capacity.
There is Goethe again, and Shakspere, and Spenser,


and Emerson, and in science the noble list of men who
have managed the vast Smithsonian business."

"How we drift in our talk," said Clayborne. "I
think you may be correct. But let me go back and
recaU the talk to"

" Recall it ! " interrupted Vincent. " You can't an-
chor a conversation. It is only when it drifts that I
like it. Your serious talkers are too tiresome. How
very few good things they say. How often they must
re-say them. Look at any table-talk, even Coleridge's.
Imagine these things said to you gravely. Nobody
talks that way now; no one should. Think of the
long, dull fuses that fizzed gently between their brill-
iant firecrackers. These professors of conversation
are things of the past. As a rule, for good talk, you
must have people used to talk and to listen. They
must want to amuse and be amused. You can't have
good talk without good manners. For my part, I
would rather take my chance at table beside some
woman of the world than beside most of the literary
or scientific folks I have known."

There was silence for a moment while St. Clair rose
and filled a pipe, saying as he dropped the match,
" That is the reason why the forests are so agreeable."

" If you want to destroy conversation toss a conun-
drum into it," cried Clayborne. He detested lack of
clearness in verse, prose, or the talk of man.

St. Clair started up. " And you call that a conun-
drum? Do you know any one with the breeding or
manners of a pine tree ; and who talks better ? "

Vincent looked up at our poet-sculptor with a smile
which for a certain dignity and sweetness I never saw


the like of. " My manners are better and my talk more
amusing," he cried, laughing. " What stuff is all this
modern nonsense about the relation of man to nature !
It is all manufacture, all conventional. I love the
pleasant noises of trees, and wind, and waters. I like
them as a child likes music in a vague way.

I am it, and it is me,
Earth and water, air and sea ;
I am them, and they are me.
In my soul the poplar shivers,
la my heart the ash tree quivers,
And a philosophical search
Readeth anguish in the birch."

We all laughed and laughed again, except St. Clair.

"Does it seem to you really so absurd," he said, "that
the man and the tree should have mysterious relation-
ships ? Once they were both atoms somewhere in the
slime of what you call chaos." Our friend was just
now wildly, delightedly puzzled over the theories of
evolution. " This unity of original product explains to
me a good deal," he added.

" Does it? " said Vincent.

" The sun and moon shall fall a-main
Like sower's seeds into his brain,
There quickened, to be born again."

St. Clair was now really vexed. He had a keen
sense of humor, but also a childlike sense of annoy-
ance when it was used against him. " It is easy," he
cried, " to spoil a man's dreams, to bruise his ideals."

" Oh," exclaimed Vincent, " that is true, and you may
be right. The relation of nature and its voices to


man not to all men may be like the relations of
music to some. I say it as a verity because I have
no such relation to music. I have seen my wife with
tears in her eyes, or light of joy in her face, when

L played Beethoven. It was a closed door to me.

I sat and wondered at her passionate pleasure. It
was to me as are to you the murmurs of brooks, the
wind in the pines. I marvel at it. I am like the beg-
gar on the door-step. I see the house lighted up;
I hear merriment within. It is not of my world ; I
gather up my rags, and go on."

" There is no real music in nature," said Clayborne ;
"really none, and rhythm too is of purely human
begetting. Emerson guesses at the heart-pulse as its
origin. Holmes says the easier rimes are born of the
accidental length of respiration."

" Do you suppose," said I, " that verse is ever a
birth-gift ? Music may be, as it seems to me. Some
idiots can sing distinctly. I wonder if many of the
great poets had in very early childhood the tendency
to rime or to speak rhythmically. Apart from its in-
tellectual aspects, poetry does seem to me like a dis-
tinct means of expression, almost a distinct language,
easy for some, impossible for others."

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 3 of 19)