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The Twenty Kroner Story by A.E.W. Mason

 

The surgeon has a weakness for men who make their living on the sea. From the skipper of a Dogger Bank fishing-smack to the stoker of a Cardiff tramp, from Margate 'longshoreman to a crabber of the Stilly Isles, he embraces them all in a lusty affection. And this not merely out of his own love of salt water but because his diagnosis reveals the gentleman in them more surely than in the general run of his wealthier patients. "A primitive gentleman, if you like," Lincott will say, "not above tearing his meat with his fingers or wearing the same shirt night and day for a couple of months on end, but still a gentleman." As one of the innumerable instances which had built up his conviction, Lincott will offer you the twenty-kroner story.

As he was walking through the wards of his hospital he stopped for a moment by the bed of a brewer's drayman who was suffering from an access of delirium tremens. The drayman's language was violent and voluble. But he sank into a coma with the usual suddenness common to such cases, and in the pause which followed Lincott heard a gentle voice a few beds away earnestly apologising to a nurse for the trouble she was put to. "Why," she replied with a laugh, "I am here to be troubled." Apologies of the kind are not so frequently heard in the wards of an East End hospital. This one, besides, was spoken with an accent not very pronounced, it is true, but unfamiliar. Lincott moved down to the bed. It was occupied by a man apparently tall, with a pair of remorseful blue eyes set in an open face, and a thatch of yellow hair dusted with grey.

"What's the matter?" asked Lincott, and the patient explained. He was a Norseman from Finland, fifty-three years old, and he had worked all his life on English ships. He had risen from "decky" to mate. Then he had injured himself, and since he could work no more he had come into the hospital to be cured. Lincott examined him, found that a slight operation was all the man needed, and performed it himself. In six weeks time Helling, as the sailor was named, was discharged. He made a simple and dignified little speech of thanks to the nurses for their attention, and another to the surgeon for saving his life.

"Nonsense!" said Lincott, as he held out his hand. "Any medical student could have performed that operation."

"Then I have another reason to thank you," answered Helling. "The nurses have told me about you, sir, and I'm grateful you spared the time to perform it yourself."

"What are you going to do?" asked Lincott.

"Find a ship, sir," answered Helling. Then he hesitated, and slowly slipped his finger and thumb along the waist-band of his trousers. But he only repeated, "I must find a ship," and so left the hospital.

Three weeks later Helling called at Lincott's house in Harley Street. Now, when hospital patients take the trouble, after they have been discharged, to find out the doctor's private address and call, it generally means they have come to beg. Lincott, remembering how Helling's simple courtesies had impressed him, experienced an actual disappointment. He felt his theories about the seafaring man begin to totter. However, Helling was shown into the consulting- room, and at the sight of him Lincott's disappointment vanished. He did not start up, since manifestations of surprise are amongst those things with which doctors find it advisable to dispense, but he hooked a chair forward with his foot.

"Now then, sit down! Chuck yourself about! Sit down," said Lincott genially. "You look bad."

Helling, in fact, was gaunt with famine; his eyes were sunk and dull; he was so thin that he seemed to have grown in height.

"I had some trouble in finding a ship," he said; and sitting down on the edge of the chair, twirled his hat in some embarrassment.

"It is three weeks since you left the hospital?"

"Yes."

"You should have come here before," the surgeon was moved to say.

"No," answered Helling. "I couldn't come before, sir. You see, I had no ship. But I found one this morning, and I start to-morrow."

"But for these three weeks? You have been starving." Lincott slipped his hand into his pocket. It seemed to him afterwards simply providential that he did not fumble his money, that no clink of coins was heard. For Helling answered,

"Yes, sir, I've been starving." He drew back his shoulders and laughed. "I'm proud to know that I've been starving."

He laid his hat on the ground, drew out and unclasped his knife, felt along the waist-band of his breeches, cut a few stitches, and finally produced a little gold coin. This coin he held between his forefinger and thumb.

"Forty years ago," he said, "when I was a nipper and starting on my first voyage, my mother gave me this. She sewed it up in the waist-band of my breeches with her own hands and told me never to part with it until I'd been starving. I've been near to starvation often and often enough. But I never have starved before. This coin has always stood between that and me. Now, however, I have actually been starving and I can part with it."

He got up from his chair and timidly laid the piece of gold on the table by Lincott's elbow. Then he picked up his hat. The surgeon said nothing, and he did not touch the coin. Neither did he look at Helling, but sat with his forehead propped in his hand as though he were reading the letters on his desk. Helling, afraid to speak lest his coin should be refused, walked noiselessly to the door and noiselessly unlatched it.

"Wait a bit!" said Lincott. Helling stopped anxiously in the doorway.

"Where have you slept" — Lincott paused to steady his voice — "for the last three weeks?" he continued.

"Under arches by the river, sir," replied Helling. "On benches along the Embankment, once or twice in the parks. But that's all over now," he said earnestly. "I'm all right. I've got my ship. I couldn't part with that before, because it was the only thing I had to hang on to the world with. But I'm all right now."

Lincott took up the coin and turned it over in the palm of his hand.

"Twenty kroners," he said. "Do you know what that's worth in England?"

"Yes, I do," answered Helling with some trepidation.

"Fifteen shillings," said Lincott. "Think of it, fifteen shillings, perhaps sixteen."

"I know," interrupted Helling quickly, mistaking the surgeon's meaning. "But please, please, you mustn't think I value what you have done for me at that. It's only fifteen shillings, but it has meant a fortune to me all the last three weeks. Each time that I've drawn my belt tighter I have felt that coin underneath it burn against my skin. When I passed a coffee-stall in the early morning and saw the steam and the cake I knew I could have bought up the whole stall if I chose. I could have had meals, and meals, and meals. I could have slept in beds under roofs. It's only fifteen shillings; nothing at all to you," and he looked round the consulting-room, with its pictures and electric lights, "but I want you to take it at what it has been worth to me ever since I came out of the hospital."

Lincott took Helling into his dining-room. On a pedestal stood a great silver vase, blazing its magnificence across the room.

"You see that?" he asked.

"Yes," said Helling.

"It was given to me by a patient. It must have cost at the least £500."

Helling tapped the vase with his knuckles.

"Yes, sir, that's a present," he said enviously. "That is a present."

Lincott laughed and threw up the window.

"You can pitch it out into the street if you like. By the side of your coin it's muck."

Lincott keeps the coin. He points out that Helling was fifty-three at the time that he gave him this present, and that the operation was one which any practitioner could have performed.

 
 
 

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