The Professor at the Breakfast-Table: What He Said, What He Heard, and What He Saw
WHAT HE SAID, WHAT HE HEARD, AND WHAT HE SAW.
You will know, perhaps, in the course of half an hour’s reading, what has been haunting my hours of sleep and waking for months. I cannot tell, of course, whether you are a nervous person or not. If, however, you are such a person,— if it is late at night,— if all the rest of the household have gone off to bed,— if the wind is shaking your windows as if a human hand were rattling the sashes,— if your candle or lamp is low and will soon burn out,— let me advise you to read the “ Critical Notices” or some other paper contained in this number, if you have not already devoured them all, and leave this to be read by daylight, with cheerful voices round, and people near by who would hear you, if you slid from your chair and came down in a lump on the floor.
I do not say that your heart will beat as mine did, I am willing to confess, when I entered the dim chamber. Did I not tell you that I was sensitive and imaginative, and that I had lain awake with thinking what were the strange movements and sounds which I heard late at night in my little neighbor’s apartment ? It had come to that pass that I was truly unable to separate what I had really heard from what I had dreamed in these nightmares to which I have been subject, as before mentioned. So, when I walked into the room, and Bridget, turning back, closed the door and left me alone with its tenant, I do believe you could have grated a nutmeg on my skin, such a “goose-flesh” shiver ran over it. It was not fear, but what I call nervousness,— unreasoning, but irresistible ; as when, for instance, one looking at the sun going down says, “ I will count fifty before it disappears ”; and as he goes on and it becomes doubtful whether he will reach the number, he gets strangely flurried, and his imagination pictures life and death and heaven and hell as the issues depending on the completion or non-completion of the fifty he is counting. Extreme curiosity will excite some people as much as fear, or what resembles fear, acts on some other less impressible natures.
I may find myself in the midst of strange facts in this little conjurer’s room. Or, again, there may be nothing in this poor invalid’s chamber but some old furniture, such as they say came over in the Mayflower. All this is just what I mean to find out while I am looking at the Little Gentleman, who has suddenly become my patient. The simplest things turn out to be unfathomable mysteries; the most mysterious appearances prove to be the most commonplace objects in disguise.
I wonder whether the boys that live in Roxbury and Dorchester are ever moved to tears or filled with silent awe as they look upon the rocks and fragments ot “ puddingstone ” abounding in those localities. I have my suspicions that those boys “ heave a stone ” or “ fire a brickbat,” composed of the conglomerate just mentioned, without any more tearful or philosophical contemplations than boys of less favored regions expend on the same performance. Yet a lump of puddingstone is a thing to look at, to think about, to study over, to dream upon, to go crazy with, to beat one’s brains out against. Look at that pebble in it. From what cliff was it broken? On what beach rolled by the waves of what ocean ? How and when imbedded in soft ooze, which itself became stone, and by-and-by was lifted into bald summits and steep cliffs, such as you may see on MeetinghouseHill any day,— yes, and mark the scratches on their faces left when the bouldercarrying glaciers planed the surface of the continent with such rough tools that the storms have not worn the marks out of it with all the polishing of ever so many thousand years?
Or as you pass a roadside ditch or pool in spring-time, take from it any bit of stick or straw which has lain undisturbed for a time. Some little wormshaped masses of clear jelly containing specks are fastened to the stick : eggs of a small snail-like shell-fish. One of these specks magnified proves to be a crystalline sphere with an opaque mass in its centre. And while you are looking, the opaque mass begins to stir, and by-and-by slowly to turn upon its axis like a forming planet,— life beginning in the microcosm, as in the great worlds of the firmament, with the revolution that turns the surface in ceaseless round to the source of life and light.
A pebble and the spawn of a mollusk! Before you have solved their mysteries, this earth where you first saw them may be a vitrified slag, or a vapor diffused through the planetary spaces. Mysteries are common enough, at any rate, whatever the boys in Roxbury and Dorchester think of “brickbats” and the spawn of creatures that live in roadside puddles.
But then a great many seeming mysteries are relatively perfectly plain, when we can get at them so as to turn them over. How many ghosts that “ thick men’s blood with cold” prove to be shirts hung out to dry! How many mermaids have been made out of seals ! How many times have horse-mackerels been taken for the sea-serpent!
—Let me take the whole matter coolly, while 1 see what is the matter with the patient. That is what I say to myself, as 1 draw a chair to the bedside.— The bed is an old-fashioned, dark mahogany four-poster. It was never that which made the noise of something moving. It is too heavy to be pushed about the room. — The Little Gentleman was sitting, bolstered up by pillows, with his hands clasped and their united palms resting on the back of the head, — one of the three or four positions specially affected by persons whose breathing is difficult from disease of the heart or other causes.
Sit down, Sir,—he said,—sit down ! I have come to the hill Difficulty, Sir, and am fighting my way up. — His speech was laborious and interrupted.
Don’t talk,— I said,.— except to answer my questions. — And I proceeded to “ prospect ” for the marks of some local mischief, which you know is at the bottom of all these attacks, though we do not always find it. I suppose 1 go to work pretty much like other professional folks of my temperament. Thus : —
Wrist, if you please. — I was on his right side, but he presented his left wrist, crossing it, over the other.—I begin to count, holding watch in left hand. One, two, three, four,——What, a handsome hand ! — wonder if that splendid stone is a carbuncle. — One, two, three, four, five,
six, seven,-Can’t see much, it is so dark, except one white object. — One, two, three, four,-Ilang it ! eighty or ninety in the minute, I guess. — Tongue, if you please.— Tongue is put out. Forget to look at it, or, rather, to take any particular notice of it ;—but what is that white object, with the long arm stretching up as if pointing to the sky, just as Vesalius and Spigelius and those old fellows used to put their skeletons ? I don’t think anything of such objects, you know; but what should he have it in his chamber for? —As I had found his pulse irregular and intermittent, I took out a stethoscope, which is a pocket-spyglass for looking into men’s chests with your ears, and laid it over the place where the heart beats. I missed the usual beat of the organ.-—How is this? — I said,— where is your heart gone to? — He took the stethoscope and shifted it across to the right side; there was a displacement of the organ,— I am ill-packed,—he said;—there was no room for my heart in its place as it is with other men. — God help him !
It is hard to draw the line between scientific curiosity and the desire for the patient’s sake to learn all the details of his condition. I must look at this patient’s chest, and thump it and listen to it. For this is a case of ectopia cordis, my boy,— displacement of the heart; and it isn’t every day you get a chance to overhaul such an interesting malformation. And so I managed to do my duty and satisfy my curiosity at the same time. The torso was slight and deformed; the right arm attenuated, — the left full, round, and of perfect symmetry. It had run away with the life of the other limbs,
— a common trick enough of Nature’s, as I told you before. If you see a man with legs withered from childhood, keep out of the way of his arms, if you have a quarrel with him. He has the strength of four limbs in two ; and if he strikes you, it is an arm-blow plus a kick administered from the shoulder instead of the haunch, where it should have started from.
Still examining him as a patient, I kept my eyes about me to search all parts of the chamber, and went on with the double process, as before.— Heart hits as hard as a fist,—bellows-sound over mitral valves (professional terms you need not attend to).—What the deuse is that long case for ? Got his witch grandmother mummied in it ? And three big mahogany presses,—hey ? — A diabolical suspicion came over me which I had had once before, — that he might be one of our modern alchemists,—you understand,
— make gold, you know, or what looks like it, sometimes with the head of a king or queen or of Liberty to embellish one side of the piece. — Don’t I remember hearing him shut a door and lock it once? What do you think was kept under that lock ? Let’s have another look at his hand, to see if there are any calluses. One can tell a man’s business, if it is a handicraft, very often by just taking a look at his open hand.—Ah ! Four calluses at the end of the fingers of the right hand. None on those of the left. Ah, ha ! What do those mean ?
All this seems longer in the telling, of course, than it was in fact. While I was making these observations of the objects around me, I was also forming my opinion as to the kind of case with which I had to deal.
There are three wicks, you know, to the lamp of a man’s life : brain, blood, and breath. Press the brain a little, its light goes out, followed by both the others. Stop the heart a minute, and out go all three of the wicks. Choke the air out of the lungs, and presently the fluid ceases to supply the other centres of flame, and all is soon stagnation, cold, and darkness. The “ tripod of life ” a French physiologist called these three organs. It is all clear enough which leg of the tripod is going to break down here. I could tell you exactly what the difficulty is;—which would be as intelligible and amusing as a watchmaker’s description of a diseased timekeeper to a ploughman. It is enough to say, that I found just what I expected to, and that I think this attack is only the prelude of more serious consequences,— which expression means you very well know what.
And now the secrets of this life .hanging on a thread must surely come out. If I have made a mystery where there was none, my suspicions will be shamed, as they have often been before. If there is anything strange, my visits will clear it up.
I sat an hour or two by the side of the Little Gentleman’s bed, after giving him some henbane to quiet his brain, and some foxglove, which an imaginative French professor has called the “Opium of the Heart.” Under their influence he gradually fell into an uneasy, half-waking slumber, the body fighting hard for every breath, and the mind wandering off in strange fancies and old recollections,which escaped from his lips in broken sentences.
-The last of 'em,— he said,— the last of ’em all,— thank God! And the grave he lies in will look just as well as if he had been straight. Dig it deep, old Martin, dig it deep,— and let it be as long as other folks’ graves. And mind you get the sods flat, old man,— flat as ever a straight-backed young fellow was laid under. And then, with a good tall slab at the head, and a footstone six foot away from it, it’ll look just as if there was a man underneath.
A man ! Who said he was a man ? No more men of that pattern to bear his name! — Used to be a good-looking set enough.— Where’s all the manhood and womanhood gone to since his great-grandfather was the strongest man that sailed out of the town of Boston, and poor Leah there the handsomest woman in Essex, if she was a witch?
-Give me some light,— he said,— more light.— I want to see the picture.
He had started either from a dream or a wandering reverie. I was not unwilling to have more light in the apartment, and presently had lighted an astral lamp that stood on a table.— lie pointed to a portrait hanging against the wall.— Look at her, — he said,— look at her! Wasn’t that a pretty neck to slip a hangman’s noose over?
The portrait was of a young woman, something more than twenty years old, perhaps. There were few pictures of any merit painted in New England before the time of Smibert, and I am at a loss to know what artist could have taken this half-length, which was evidently from life. It was somewhat stiff and flat, but the grace of the figure and the sweetness of the expression reminded me of the angels of the early Florentine painters. She must have been of some consideration, for she was dressed in paduasoy and lace with hanging sleeves, and the old carved frame showed how the picture had been prized by its former owners. A proud eye she had, with all her sweetness.— I think it was that which hanged her, as his strong arm hanged Minister George Burroughs;— but it may have been a little mole on one cheek, which the artist had just hinted as a beauty rather than a deformity. You know, I suppose, that nursling imps addict themselves, after the fashion of young opossums, to these little excrescences. “ Witch-marks ” were good evidence that a young woman was one of the Devil’s wet-nurses;—I should like to have seen you make fun of them in those days! — Then she had a brooch in her bodice, that might have been taken for some devilish amulet or other; and she wore a ring upon one of her fingers, with a red stone in it, that flamed as if the painter had dipped his pencil in fire; — who knows but that it was given her by a midnight suitor fresh from that fierce element, and licensed for a season to leave his couch of flame to tempt the unsanctified hearts of earthly maidens and brand their cheeks with the print of his scorching kisses ?
She and I,— he said, as he looked steadfastly at the canvas,— she and I are the last of’em.— She will stay, and I shall go. They never painted me,—except when the boys used to make pictures of me with chalk on the board-fences. They said the doctors would want my skeleton when I was dead. — You are my friend, if you are a doctor,— a’n’t you ?
I just gave him my hand. I had not the heart to speak.
I want to lie still,—he said, — after I am put to bed upon the hill yonder. Can’t you have a great stone laid over me, as they did over the first settlers in the old burying-ground at Dorchester, so as to keep the wolves from digging them up ? I never slept easy over the sod; — 1 should like to lie quiet under it. And besides,— he said, in a kind of scared whisper,— I don’t want to have my bones stared at, as my body has been. I don’t doubt I was a remarkable case; but, for God’s sake, oh, for God’s sake, don’t let ’em make a show of the cage I have been shut up in and looked through the bars of for so many years!
I have heard it said that the art of healing makes men hardhearted and indifferent to human suffering. I am willing to own that there is often a professional hardness in surgeons, just as there is in theologians,— only much less in degree than in these last. It does not commonly improve the sympathies of a man to be in the habit of thrusting knives into his fellow-creatures and burning them with red-hot irons, any more than it improves them to hold the blinding-white cautery of Gehenna by its cool handle and score and crisp young souls with it until they are scorched into the belief of — Transubstantiation or the Immaculate Conception. And, to say the plain truth, I think there are a good many coarse people in both callings. A delicate nature will not commonly choose a pursuit which implies the habitual infliction of suffering, so readily as some gentler office. Yet, while I am writing this paragraph, there passes by my window, on his daily errand of duty, not seeing me, though I catch a glimpse of his manly features through the oval glass of his chaise, as he rides by, a surgeon of skill and standing, so friendly, so modest, so tender-hearted in all his ways, that, if he had not approved himself at once adroit and firm, one would have said he was of too kindly a mould to be the minister of pain, even if it were saving pain.
You may be sure that some men, even among those who have chosen the task of pruning their fellow-creatures, grow more and more thoughtful and truly compassionate in the midst of their cruel experience. They become less nervous, but more sympathetic. They have a truer sensibility for others’ pain, the more they study pain and disease in the light of science. I have said this without claiming any special growth in humanity for myself, though I do hope I grow tenderer in my feelings as I grow older. At any rate, this was not a time in which professional habits could keep down certain instincts of older date than these.
This poor little man’s appeal to my humanity against the supposed rapacity of Science, which he feared would have her “ specimen,” if his ghost should walk restlessly a thousand years, waiting for his bones to be laid in the dust, touched my heart. But I felt bound to speak cheerily.
——We won't die yet awhile, if we can help it, — I said, — and I trust we can help it, But don’t be afraid ; if I live longest, I will see that your restingplace is kept sacred till the dandelions and buttercups blow over you.
He seemed to have got his wits together by this time, and to have a vague consciousness that he might have been saying more than he meant for anybody’s ears. — 1 have been talking a little wild, Sir, eh? — he said.—-There is a great buzzing in my head with those drops of yours, and I doubt if my tongue has not been a little looser than I would have it, Sir. But I don’t much want to live, Sir; that’s the truth of the matter; and it does rather please me to think that fifty years from now nobody will know that the place where I lie doesn’t hold as stout and straight a man as the best of ’em that stretch out as if they were proud of the room they take. You may get me well, if you can, Sir, if' you think it worth while to try; but I tell you there has been no time for this many a year when the smell of fresh earth was not sweeter to me than all the flowers that grow out of it. There’s no anodyne like your good clean gravel, Sir. But if you can keep me about awhile, and it amuses you to try, you may show your skill Upon me, if you like. There is a pleasure or two that I love the daylight for, and I think the night is not far off, at best. — I believe I shall sleep now; you may leave me, and come, if you like, in the morning.
Before I passed out, I took one more glance round the apartment. The beautiful face of the portrait looked at me, as portraits often do, with a frightful kind of intelligence in its eyes. The drapery fluttered on the still outstretched arm of the tall object near the window ;—a crack of this was open, no doubt, and some breath of wind stirred the hanging folds. In my excited state, I seemed to see something ominous iu that arm pointing to the heavens. I thought of the figures in the Dance of Death at Basle, and that other on the panels of the covered Bridge at Lucerne; and it seemed to me that the grim mask who mingles with every crowd and glides over every threshold was pointing the sick man to his far home, and would soon stretch out his bony hand and lead him or drag him on the unmeasured journey towards it.
The fancy had possession of me, and I shivered again as when I first entered the chamber. The picture and the shrouded shape; I saw only these two objects. They were enough. The house was deadly still, and the night-wind, blowing through an open window, struck me as from a field of ice, at the moment I passed into the creaking corridor. As I turned into the common passage, a white figure, holding a lamp, stood full before me.
I thought at first it was one of those images made to stand in niches and hold a light in their hands. But the illusion was momentary, and my eyes speedily recovered from the shock of the bright tlame and snowy drapery to see that the figure was a breathing one. It was Iris, in one of her statue-trances. She had come down, whether sleeping or waking, I knew not at first, led by an instinct that told her she was wanted,— or, possibly, having overheard and interpreted the sound of our movements,— or, it may be, having learned from the servant that there was trouble which might ask for a woman’s hand. I sometimes think women have a sixth sense, which tells them that others, whom they cannot see or hear, are in suffering. How surely we find them at the bedside of the dying! How strongly does Nature plead for them, that we should draw our first breath in their arms, as we sigh away our last upon their faithful breasts!
With white, bare feet, her hair loosely knotted, dressed as the starlight knew her, and the morning when she rose from slumber, save that she had twisted a seaif round her long dress, she stood still as a stone before me, holding in one hand a lighted coil of wax-taper, and in the other a silver goblet. I held my own lamp close to her, as if she had been a figure of marble, and she did not stir. There was no breach of propriety then, to scare the Poor Relation with and breed scandal out of. She had been “ warned in a dream,” doubtless suggested by her waking knowledge and the sounds which had reached her exalted sense. There was nothing more natural than that she should have risen and girdled her waist, and lighted her taper, and found the silver goblet with “ Ex dono pupillorum” on it, from which she had taken her milk and possets through all her childish years, and so gone blindly out to find her place at the bedside,— a Sister of Charity without the cap and rosary ; nay, unknowing whither her feet were leading her, and with wide, blank eyes seeing nothing but the vision that beckoned her along.— Well, I must wake her from her slumber or trance. I called her name, but she did not heed my voice.
The Devil put it into my head that I would kiss one handsome young girl before I died, and now was my chance. She never would know it, and I should carry the remembrance of it with me into the grave, and a rose perhaps grow out of my dust, as out of Lord Lovel’s, in memory of that immortal moment ! Would it wake her from her trance ? and would she see me in the flush of my stolen triumph, and hate and despise me ever after ? Or should I carry off my trophy undetected, and always from that time say to myself, when I looked upon her in the glory of youth and the splendor of beauty, “ My lips have touched those roses and made their sweetness mine forever”? You think my cheek was flushed, perhaps, and my eyes were glittering with this midnight flash of opportunity. On the contrary, I believe I was pale, very pale, and I know that I trembled. Ah, it is the pale passions that are the fiercest,— it is the violence of the chill that gives the measure of the fever! The fighting-boy of our school always turned white when he went out to a pitched battle with the bully of some neighboring village ; but we knew what his bloodless cheeks meant, — the blood was all in his stout heart,— he was a slight boy, and there was not enough to redden his face and fill his heart both at once.
Perhaps it is making a good deal of a slight matter, to tell the internal conflicts in the heart of a quiet person something more than juvenile and something less than senile, as to whether he should be guilty of an impropriety, and, it he were, whether he would get caught in his indiscretion. And yet the memory of the kiss that Margaret of Scotland gave to Alain Chartier has lasted four hundred years, and put it into the head of many an ill-favored poet, whether Victoria or Eugenie would do as much by him, if she happened to pass him when he was asleep. And have we ever forgotten that the fresh cheek of the young John Milton tingled under the lips of some high-born Italian beauty, who, I believe, did not think to leave her card by the side of the slumbering youth, but has bequeathed the memory of her pretty deed to all coming time ? The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a deal longer.
There is one disadvantage which the man of philosophical habits of mind suffers, as compared with the man of action. While he is taking an enlarged and rational view of the matter before him, he lets his chance slip through his fingers. Iris woke up, of her own accord, before I had made up my mind what I was going to do about it.
When I remember How charmingly she looked, I don’t blame myself at all for being tempted; but if I had been fool enough to yield to the impulse, I should certainly have been ashamed to tell of it. She did not know what to make of it, finding herself there alone, in such guise, and me staring at her. She looked down at her white robe and bare feet, and colored,— then at the goblet she held in her band,—then at the taper; and at last her thoughts seemed to clear up.
I know it all,— she said.— He is going to die, and I must go and sit by him. Nobody will care for him as I shall, and I have nobody else to care for.
I assured her that nothing was needed for him that night but rest, and persuaded her that the excitement of her presence could only do harm. Let him sleep, and he would very probably awake better in the morning. There was nothing to be said, for I spoke with authority; and the young girl glided away with noiseless step and sought her own chamber.
The tremor passed away from my limbs, and the blood began to burn in my cheeks. The beautiful image which had so bewitched me faded gradually from my imagination, and I returned to the still perplexing mysteries of my little neighbor’s chamber. All was still there now. No plaintive sounds, no monotonous murmurs, no shutting of windows and doors at strange hours, as if something or somebody were coining in or going out, or there was something to be hidden in those dark mahogany presses. Is there an inner apartment that I have not seen ? The way in which the house is built might admit of it. As I thought it over, I at once imagined a Bluebeard’s chamber. Suppose, for instance, that the narrow bookshelves to the right are really only a masked door, such as we remember leading to the private study of one of our most distinguished townsmen, who loved to steal away from his stately library to that little silent cell. If this were lighted from above, a person or persons might pass their days there without attracting attention from the household, and wander where they pleased at night,—do Copp’s-Hill burial-ground, if they liked,— I said to myself, laughing, and pulling the bed-clothes over my head. There is no logic in superstitious fancies any more than in dreams. A she-ghost wouldn’t want an inner chamber to herself. A live woman, with a valuable soprano voice, wouldn't start off at night to sprain her ankles over the old graves of the North-End cemetery.
It is all very easy for you, middle-aged reader, sitting over this page in the broad daylight, to call me by all manner of asinine and anserine unchristian names, because I had these fancies running through my head. I don’t care much for your abuse. The question is not, what it is reasonable for a man to think about, but what he actually does think about, in the dark, and when he is alone, and his whole body seems but one great nerve of hearing, and he sees the phosphorescent, flashes of his own eyeballs as they turn suddenly in the direction of the last strange noise,—wliat lie actually does think about, as he lies and recalls all the wild stories his head is full of, his fancy hinting the most alarming conjectures to account for the simplest facts about him, his commonsense laughing them to scorn the next minute, but his mind still returning to them, under one shape or another, until he gets very nervous and foolish, and remembers how pleasant it used to be to have his mother come and tuck him up and go and sit within call, so that she could hear him at any minute, if he got very much scared and wanted her. Old babies that we are !
Daylight will clear up all that lamplight has left doubtful. I longed for the morning to come, for I was more curious than ever. So, between my fancies and anticipations, I had but a poor night of it, and came down tired to the breakfasttable. My visit was not to be made until after this morning hour; —there was nothing urgent, so the servant was ordered to tell me.
It was the first breakfast at which the high chair at the side of Iris had been unoccupied.—You might jest as well take away that chair,— said our landlady,— he’ll never want it again. He acts like a man that’s struck with death, 'n' I don’t believe he’ll ever come out of his chamber till he’s laid out and brought down a corpse. — These good women do put things so plainly ! There were two or three words in her short remark that always sober people, and suggest silence or brief moral reflections.
&emdashLife is dreadful uncerting,—said the Poor Relation,— and pulled in her social tentacles to concentrate her thoughts on this fact of human history.
—If there was anything a fellah could do, — said the young man John, so called, —a fellah ’d like the chance o helpin’ a little cripple like that. He looks as if he couldn’t turn over any handier than a turtle that’s laid on his back; and I guess there a’n’t many people that know how to lift better than I do. Ask him if he don’t want any watchers. I don t mind settin’ up any more ’n’ a cat-owl. I was up all night twice last month.
[My private opinion is, that there was no small amount of punch absorbed on those two occasions, which I think I heard of at the time;—but the offer is a kind one, and it isn’t fair to question how be would like sitting up without the punch and the company and the songs and smoking. He means what he says, and it would be a more considerable achievement for him to sit quietly all night by a sick man than for a good many other people. I tell you this odd thing: there are a good many persons, who, through the habit of making other folks uncomfortable, by finding fault with all their cheerful enjoyments, at last get up a kind of hostility to comfort in general, even in their own persons. The correlative to loving our neighbors as ourselves is hating ourselves as we hate our neighbors. Look at old misers; first they starve their dependants, and then themselves. So I think it more for a lively young fellow to be ready to play nurse than for one of those useful but forlorn martyrs who have taken a spite against themselves and love to gratify it by fasting and watching.]
-The time came at last for me to make my visit. I found Iris sitting by the Little Gentleman’s pillow. To my disappointment, the room was darkened. He did not like the light, and would have the shutters kept nearly closed. It was good enough for me; — what business had I to be indulging my curiosity, when I had nothing to do but to exercise such skill as I possessed for the benefit of my patient ? There was not much to be said or done in such a case ; but I spoke as encouragingly as I could, as I think we are always bound to do. He did not seem to pay any very anxious attention, but the poor girl listened as if her own life and more than her own life were depending on the words I uttered. She followed me out of the room, when I had got through my visit.
How long? — she said.
Uncertain. Anytime; to-day,— next week,— next month,—I answered.—'One of those cases where the issue is not doubtful, but may be sudden or slow.
The women of the house were kind, as women always are in trouble. But Iris pretended that nobody could spare the time as well as she, and kept her place, hour after hour, until the landlady insisted that she'd lie killin’ herself, if she begun at that rate, and haf to give up, if she didn’t want to be clean beat out in less than a week.
At the table we were graver than common. The high chair was set back against the wall, and a gap left between that of the young girl and her nearest neighbor’s on the right. But the next morning, to our great surprise, that good-looking young Marylander had very quietly moved his own chair to the vacant place. I thought he was creeping down that way, but I was not prepared for a leap spanning such a tremendous parenthesis of boarders as this change of position included. There was no denying that the youth and maiden were a handsome pair, as they sat side by side. But whatever the young girl may have thought of her new neighbor, she never seemed for a moment to forget the poor little friend who had been taken from her side. There are women, and even girls, with whom it is of no use to talk. One might as well reason with a bee as to the form of his cell, or with an oriole as to the construction of his swinging nest, as try to stir these creatures from their own way of doing their own work. It was not a question with Iris, whether she was entitled by any special relation or by the fitness of things to play the part of a nurse. She was a wilful creature that must have her way In this matter. And it so proved that it called for much patience and long endurance to carry through the duties, say rather the kind offices, the painful pleasures, that she had chosen as her share in the household where accident had thrown her. She had that genius of ministration which is the special province of certain women, marked even among their helpful sisters by a soft, low voice, a quiet footfall, a light hand, a cheering smile, and a ready self-surrender to the objects of their care, which such trifles as their own food, sleep, or habits of any kind never presume to interfere with.
Day after day, and too often through the long watches of the night, she kept her place by the pillow.—That girl will kill herself over me, Sir, — said the poor Little Gentleman to me, one day, — she will kill herself, Sir, if you don’t call in all the resources of your art to get me off as soon as may be. I shall wear her out, Sir, with sitting in this close chamber and watching when she ought to be sleeping, if you leave me to the care of Nature without dosing me.
This was rather queer pleasantry, under the circumstances. But there are certain persons whose existence is so out of parallel with the larger laws in the midst of which it is moving, that life becomes to them as death and death as life.— How am I getting along V — he said, another morning. He lifted his shrivelled hand, with the death's-head ring on it, and looked at it with a sad sort of complacency. By this one movement, which I have seen repeatedly of late, I know that his thoughts have gone before to another condition, and that he is, as it were, looking back on the infirmities of the body as accidents of the past. For, when he was well, one might see him often looking at the handsome hand with the flaming jewel on one of its fingers. The single wellshaped limb was the source of that pleasure which in some form or other Nature almost always grants to her least richly endowed children. Handsome hair, eyes, complexion, feature, form, hand, foot, pleasant voice, strength, grace, agility, intelligence, — how few there are that have not just enough of one at least of these gifts to show them that the good Mother, busy with her millions of children, has not quite forgotten them ! But now he was thinking of that other state, where, free from all mortal impediments, the memory of his sorrowful burden should be only as that of the case he has shed to the insect whose “ deep-damasked wings” beat off the golden dust of the lily-anthers, as he flutters in the ecstasy of his new life over their full-blown summer glories.
No human being can rest for any time in a state of equilibrium, where the desire to live and that to depart just balance each other. If one has a house, which he has lived and always means to live in, he pleases himself with the thought of all the conveniences it offers him, and thinks little of its wants and imperfections. But once having made up his mind to move to a better, every incommodity starts out upon him until the very ground-plan of it seems to have changed in his mind, and his thoughts and affections, each one of them packing up its little bundle of circumstances, have quitted their several chambers and nooks and migrated to the new home, long before its apartments are ready to receive their bodily tenant. It is so with the body. Most persons have died before they expire,— died to all earthly longings, so that the last breath is only, as it were, the locking of the door of the already deserted mansion. The fact of the tranquillity with which the great majority of dying persons await this locking of those gates of life through which its airy angels have been going and coming, from the moment of the first cry, is familiar to those who have been often called upon to witness the last period of life. Almost always there is a preparation made by Nature for unearthing a soul, just as on the smaller scale there is for the removal of a milktooth. The roots which hold human life to earth are absorbed before it is lifted from its place. Some of the dying are weary and want rest, the idea of which is almost inseparable in the universal mind from death. Some are in pain, and want to be rid of it, even though the anodyne be dropped, as in the legend, from the sword of the Death-Angel. Some are stupid, mercifully narcotized that they may go to sleep without long tossing about. And some are strong in faith and hope, so that, as they draw near the next world, they would fain hurry toward it, as the caravan moves faster over the sands when the foremost travellers send word along the file that water is in sight. Though each little party that follows in a foot-track of its own will have it that the water to which others think they are hastening is a mirage, not the less has it been true iu all ages and for human beings of every creed which recognized a future, that those who have fallen worn out by their march through the Desert have dreamed at least of a River of Life, and thought they heard its murmurs as they lay dying.
The change from the clinging to the present to the welcoming of the future comes very soon, for the most part, after all hope of life is extinguished, provided this be left in good degree to Nature, and not insolently and cruelly forced upon those who are attacked by illness, on the strength of that odious foreknowledge often imparted by science, before the white fruit whose core is ashes, and which we call death, has set beneath the pallid and drooping flower of sickness. There is a singular sagacity very often shown in a patient’s estimate of his own vital force. His physician knows the state of his material frame well enough, perhaps,— that this or that organ is more or less impaired or disintegrated; but the patient has a sense that he can hold out so much longer,— sometimes that he must and will live for a while, though by the logic of disease he ought to die without any delay.
The Little Gentleman continued to fail, until it became plain that his remaining days were few. I told the household what to expect. There was a good deal of kind feeling expressed among the boarders, in various modes, according to their characters and style of sympathy. The landlady was urgent that he should try a certain nostrum which had saved somebody’s life in jest sech a case. The Poor Relation wanted me to carry, as from her, a copy of “ Allein’s Alarm,” etc. I objected to the title, reminding her that it offended people of old, so that more than twice as many of the book were sold when they changed the name to “ A Sure Guide to Heaven.” The good old gentleman whom I have mentioned before has come to the time of life when many old men cry easily, and forget their tears as children do.— He was a worthy gentleman, — he said, — a very worthy gentleman, but unfortunate, — very unfortunate. Sadly deformed about the spine and the feet. Had an impression that the late Lord Byron had some malformation of this kind. Had heerd there was something the matter with the ankle-j'ints of that nobleman, but he was a man of talents. This gentleman seemed to be a man of talents. Could not always agree with his statements,— thought he was a little over-partial to this city, and had some free opinions ; hut was sorry to lose him, — and if—there was anything—be—could-———. In the midst of these kind expressions, the gentleman with the diamond, the Koh-inoor, as we called him, asked, in a very unpleasant sort of way, how the old boy was likely to cut up, — meaning what money our friend was going to leave behind.
The young fellow .John spoke up, to the effect that this was a diabolish snobby question, when a man was dying and not dead. — To this the Koh-i-noor replied, by asking if the other meant to insult him.— Whereto the young man John rejoined that he had no particul’r intentions one way or t’other.—The Kohi-noor then suggested the young man’s Stepping out into the yard, that he, the speaker, might “slap his chops.”—Let ’em alone,'—• said young Maryland,-—■ it’ll soon be over, and they won’t hurt each other much. — So they went out.
The Koh-i-noor entertained the very common idea, that, when one quarrels with another, the simple thing to do is to knock the man down, and there is the end of it. Now those who have watched such encounters are aware of two things : first, that it is not so easy to knock a man down as it is to talk about it; secondly, that, if you do happen to knock a man down, there is a very good chance that he will be angry, and get up and give yon a thrashing.
So the Koh-i-noor thought he would, begin, as soon as they got into the yard, by knocking his man down, and with this intention swung his arm round after the fashion of rustics and those unskilled in the noble art, expecting the young fellow John to drop when hi fist, having completed a quarter of a circle, should come in contact with the side of that young man’s head. Unfortunately for this theory, it happens that a blow struck out straight is as much shorter, and therefore as much quicker than the rustic’s swinging blow, as the radius is shorter than the quarter of a circle. The mathematical and mechanical corollary was, that the Koh-i-noor felt something hard bring up suddenly against his right eye, which something he could have sworn was a paving-stone, judging by his sensations ; and as this threw his person somewhat backwards, and the young man John jerked his own head back a little, the swinging blow had nothing to stop it; and as the Jewel staggered between the hit he got and the blow he missed, he tripped and “ went to grass,” so far as the back-yard of our boarding-house was provided with that vegetable. It was a signal illustration of that fatal mistake, so frequent in young and ardent natures with inconspicuous calves and negative pectorals, that they can settle most little quarrels on the spot by “ knocking the man down.”
We are in the habit of handling our faces so carefully, that a heavy blow, taking effect on that portion of the surface, produces a most unpleasant surprise, which is accompanied with odd sensations, as of seeing sparks, and a kind of electrical or ozone-like odor, half-sulphurous in character, and which has given rise to a very vulgar and profane threat sometimes heard from the lips of bullies. A person not used to pugilistic gestures does not instantly recover from this surprise. The Koh-i-noor, exasperated by his failure, and still a little confused by the smart hit he had received, but furious, and confident of victory over a young fellow a good deal lighter than himself, made a desperate rush to bear down all before him and finish the contest at once. That is the way all angry greenhorns and incompetent persons attempt to settle matters. It doesn’t do, if the other fellow is only cool, moderately quick, and has a very little science. It didn’t do this time; for, as the assailant rushed in with his arms flying everywhere, like the vans of a windmill, he ran a prominent feature of his face against a fist which was travelling in the other direction, and immediately after struck the knuckles of the young man’s other fist a severe blow with the part of his person known as the epigastrium to one branch of science and the bread-basket to another. This second round closed the battle. The Koh-i-noor had got enough, which in such cases is more than as good as a feast. The young fellow asked him if he was satisfied, and held out his hand. But the other sulked, and muttered something about revenge, —Jest as y’like,—said the young man John.— Clap a slice o’ raw beefsteak on to that mouse o’ yours ’n’ ’t’ll take down the swellin’. (Mouse is a technical term for a bluish, oblong, rounded elevation occasioned by running one’s forehead or eyebrow against another’s knuckles.) The young fellow was particularly pleased that he had had an opportunity of trying his proficiency in the art of selfdefence without the gloves. The Koh-inoor did not favor us with his company for a day or two, being confined to his chamber, it was said, by a slight feverish attack. He was chop-fallen always after this, and got negligent in his person. The impression must have been a deep one; for it was observed, that, when he came down again, his moustache and whiskers had turned visibly white — about the roots. In short, it disgraced him, and rendered still more conspicuous a tendency to drinking, of which he had been for some time suspected. This, and the disgust which a young lady naturally feels at hearing that her lover has been “ licked by a fellah not half his size,” induced the landlady’s daughter to take that decided step which produced a change in the programme of her career I may hereafter allude to.
I never thought he would come to good, when I heard him attempting to sneer at an unoffending city so respectable as Boston. After a man begins to attack the State-House, when he gets bitter about the Frog-Pond, you may be sure there is not much left of him. Poor Edgar Poe died in the hospital soon after he got into this way of talking; and so sure as you find an unfortunate fellow reduced to this pass, you had better begin praying for him, and stop lending him money, for he is on his last legs. Remember poor Edgar! He is dead and gone; but the State-House has its cupola fresh-gilded, and the Frog-Pond has got a fountain that squirts up a hundred feet into the air and glorifies that humble sheet with a fine display of provincial rainbows.
— I cannot fulfil my promise in this number. I expected to gratify your curiosity, if you have become at all interested in these puzzles, doubts, fancies, whims, or whatever you choose to call them, of mine. Next month you shall hear all about it.
—It was evening, and I was going to the sick-chamber. As T paused at the door before entering, I heard a sweet voice singing. It was not the wild melody I had sometimes heard at midnight : — no, this was the voice of Iris, and I could distinguish every word. I had seen the verses in her book; the melody was new to me. Let me finish my page with them.
HYMN OF TRUST.
O LOVE Divine, that stooped to share
Our sharpest pang, our bitterest tear,
On Thee we cast each earthborn care,
We smile at pain while Thou art near!
Though long the weary way we tread,
And sorrow crown each lingering year,
No path we shun, no darkness dread,
Our hearts still whispering, Thou art near!
When drooping pleasure turns to grief,
And trembling faith is changed to fear,
The murmuring wind, the quivering leaf
Shall softly tell us, Thou art near!
On Thee we fling our burdening woe,
O Love Divine, forever dear,
Content to suffer, while we know,
Living and dying, Thou art near!