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The Stuff of Heroes by Will Lillibridge

 

Springtime on the prairies of South Dakota. It is early morning, the sun is not yet up, but all is light and even and soft and all-surrounding, so that there are no shadows. In every direction the gently rolling country is dotted brown and white from the incomplete melting of winter's snows. In the low places tiny streams of snow-water, melted yesterday, sing low under the lattice-work blanket the frost has built in the night. Nearby and in the distance prairie-chickens are calling, lonely, uncertain. Wild ducks in confused masses, mere specks in the distance, follow low over the winding curves of the river. High overhead, flocks of geese in regular black wedges, and brant, are flying northward, and the breezy sound of flapping wings and of voices calling, mingle in the sweetest of all music to those who know the prairies—Nature's morning song of springtime.

“What a country! Look there!” The big man in the front seat of the rough, low wagon pointed east where the sun rose slowly from the lap of the prairie. The other men cleared their throats as if to speak, but said nothing.

“And I've lived sixty years without knowing,” continued the first voice, musingly.

“I've never been West before, either,” admitted De Young, simply.

They drove on, the trickling of snow-water sounding around the wagon wheels.

The third man, Clark, pointed back in the direction they had come.

“Did any one back there inquire what we were doing?” he asked.

“A fellow 'lowed,' with a rising inflection, that we were hunting ducks,” said De Young. “I temporized; made him forget that I hadn't answered. You know what will happen once the curiosity of the natives is aroused.”

“I wasn't approached,” Morris joined in, without turning. The corners of the big man's mouth twitched, as the suggested picture formed swiftly in his mind.

After a pause, De Young spoke again.

“I gave the postmaster a specially good tip to see that we got our mail out promptly.”

“So did I,” Clark admitted.

The face of the serious man lighted; and, their eyes meeting, the three friends smiled all together.

The sun rose higher, without a breath of wind from over the prairies, and one after another the men removed their top-coats. The horses' hoofs splashed at each step in slush and running water, sending drops against the dashboard with a sound like rain.

The trail which they were following could now scarcely be seen, except at intervals on higher ground, where hoof-prints and the tracks of wheels were scored in the soft mud, and with each mile these marks grew deeper and broader as the partly frozen earth softened.

The air of solemnity which had hung about the men for days, and which lifted from time to time only temporarily, now silenced them again. Indeed, had there been anybody present to observe, he doubtless would have been impressed most of all with the unwonted soberness of the wagon's occupants, a gravity strangely at variance with the rampant, fecund season.

And the object of their journeying into this unknown world was in all truth a matter for silence rather than speech; its influence was toward deep and earnest meditation, to which the joyous, awakening world could do no more than chant in a minor key a melancholy accompaniment. Never did a soldier advancing upon a breach in the enemy's breastworks more certainly confront the grinning face of Death, than did this trio in their progress across the singing prairie; but where the plaudits of the world spelled glory for the one, the three in the wagon knew that for them Death meant oblivion, extinction, a blotting out that must needs be utter and inevitable.

The thoughts of each dwelt upon some aspect of two scenes which had happened only a brief fortnight previously. There had been a notable convention of physicians in a city many miles to the east. One delegate, a man young, slender, firm of jaw, his face shining with zeal and the spirit which courts self-immolation, had addressed the body. His speech had made a profound impression—after its first effect of sensation had subsided—upon the hundreds gathered there, who hearkened amazedly; but of those hundreds only two had been moved to lay aside the tools of their calling and follow him.

And whither was he leading them? Into the Outer Darkness, each firmly believed. For them the future was spelled nihil; for the world, salvation—perhaps.

The inspired voice still rang in memory.

“Gentlemen, I repeat, it is a challenge.... The flag of the enemy is hung up boldly, flauntingly, in every public place.... Are we to permit this? Are we to sit idle and acknowledge ourselves beaten in the great struggle against Death? No, no, no! The Nation—yea, the whole civilized world—shrinks and shudders in terror before the sound of one dread word—tuberculosis!

“Our professional honor—our personal honor as well, gentlemen—is at stake. A solemn charge is laid upon us.... We must die if need be; but we must conquer this monstrous scourge, which is the single cause of more than one death in every ten.”

And then, the deep silence which had marked the closing words:

“Gentlemen, I can cure consumption,” came the simple declaration. “If there are those among you who value Science more than gain; who are willing to dare with me, willing to pay the extreme price, if necessary—if there are any such among you, and I believe there are, meet with me in my rooms this evening.”

To the eight who accepted that invitation, Dr. De Young disclosed the details of his Great Experiment. It included, among many other things which no one but a physician can appreciate, the lending of their bodies to the Experiment's exemplification. Of the eight, two had agreed to follow him to the end. Each of the three had placed his house in order, and here they were, nearing that end, whatever it was to be.

An hour passed, and now ahead in the distance a rough shanty came into view. It was the only house in sight, and the three men knew it was to be theirs. In silence they drew up where the men were unpacking their goods.

“Good morning for ducks—saw a big flock of mallards back here in a pond,” observed the man who took their team.

The three doctors alighted without answering, and watching them, the man stroked a stubby red whisker in meditation.

“Lord, they're a frost!” he commented.

                  * * * * *

Night had come, and the stars shone early from a sky yet light and warm. In the low places the waters sang louder than before, with the increase of a day's thawing. Looking away, the white spots were smaller and the brown patches larger; otherwise, all was the same, the prairie of yesterday, of to-day, and to-morrow.

Tired with a day of settling, the three men stood in the doorway and for the first time viewed the country at night. They were not talkers at best, and now the immensity of the broad prairies held them silent. The daily struggle of life, the activity and rivalry and ambition which before to-night had seemed so great to these city-bred men, here alone with Nature and Nature's God, where none other might see, assumed their true worth. The tangled web of life loosened and many foreign things caught and held therein, fell out. Man, introspecting, saw himself at his real worth, and was not proud.

The absolute quiet, so unusual, made them wakeful, and though tired, they sat long in the doorway, smoking, thinking. Small talk seemed to them profanation, and of that which was uppermost in each man's mind, none cared first to speak. A subtle understanding, called telepathy, was making of their several minds a thing united.

“No, not to-night, it's too beautiful,” said De Young at length, and the protesting voice sounded to his own ears as that of a stranger.

The men started at the sound, and the glowing tips of three cigars described partial arcs in the half light as they turned each to each. No one answered. They were face to face with fundamentals at last.

Minutes, an hour, passed. The cigars burned out, and as the pleasant odor of tobacco died away, there came the chill night air of the prairie. The two older men rose stiffly, and with a low good-night, stumbled into the darkness of the shanty.

De Young sat alone in the doorway. He realized that it was the supreme hour of his life. In his mind, memory of past and hope of future met on the battlefield of the present, and meeting, mingled in chaos. Thoughts came crowding upon each other thick—the thoughts which come to few more than once in life, to multitudes, never; the thoughts which writers in every language, during all time, have sought words to express, and in vain.

Everywhere the snow-streams sang lower and lower. A fog, dense, penetrating, born of early morning, wrapped all things about, uniting and at the same time setting apart. Shivering, he shut the door on the night and the damp, and as by instinct crept into bed. Listening in the darkness, the sound of the sleepers soothed him. Happier thoughts came, thoughts which made his heart beat more swiftly and his eyes grow tender; for he was yet young, and love untold ever dwelleth near heaven. Thus he fell asleep with a smile.

“Choose, please. We'll take our turns in the order of length,” said De Young, holding up the ends of three paper strips. Each man drew, and in the silence that followed, without a word Morris turned away, preparing swiftly for the operation.

“Give me chloroform,” he said, stretching himself horizontally,—adding as the others bent over him, “Inoculate deep, please. Let's not waste time.”

Swiftly, with the precision of absolute knowledge, the two physicians did their work. A mist was over their eyes, so that all the room looked dim, as to old men; and hands which had not known a tremor for years, shook as they emptied the contents of the little syringe, teeming with tiny, unseen, living rods. Clark's forehead was damp with a perspiration that physical pain could not have brought, and on De Young's face, time marked those minutes as months.

It was all done with the habit of years. The two doctors carefully sterilized their instruments and replaced them in cases, then, silently, drawn nearer together than ever before, the two friends watched the return of consciousness. And Morris awakening, things real and of dreamland still confused to his senses, heard the soft voice which a legion of patients had thus heard and blessed, saying cheerily, “Wake up! wake up, my friend!”

Thus the day passed. In turn, the men, hours apart, with active brains, and eyes wide open, sent their challenges to Death—each man his own messenger.

The months slipped by. Suns became torrid hot, and cooled until it seemed there was light but not heat on earth. Days grew longer, and in unison, earth waxed greener; then in descending scale, both together waned. Migratory wings fluttering at night, and passing voices calling in the darkness—most lonely sounds of earth—gave place to singers of the day. The robin, the meadow-lark, the ubiquitous catbird, all born of prairie and of summer, came and went. Blackbirds in countless flocks followed. Again the calling of prairie-chickens was heard at eve and morning, and anon frost glistened in the air.

At last throughout the land no sound of animal voice was heard, for winter bound all things firm and white. Another cycle was complete; yet, almost ere the record could be made, there appeared, moving far in the distance, a black triangle. Passing swiftly, with the sound of wings and calling voices, there sprang anew in all things animate a mixed feeling of gladness and unrest, which was the spirit of returned spring.

Thus twice the cycle of the seasons passed, and again the sun of early spring, shining bright, set the tiny snow-streams singing. It glistened over the prairie on snow-drift and frost; it lit up the few scattered shingled roofs of settlers newly come; and shone in at the open door of a rough cabin we know, touching without pity the faces of the two men who watched its rise. Shining low, even with the prairie, it touched in vivid contrast an oblong mound of fresh earth, heaped up target distance from the cabin door.

The mound had not been there long; neither snow or rain had yet touched it; it was still strange to the men in the doorway, who saw it vividly now, at time of sunrise. Though thus early, each man sat idly smoking, an open book reversed on the knee.

De Young first broke the silence.

“We must do something, or else decide to do nothing about Clark's mail.” He shifted in his seat, looking away from the open door.

“I don't know—whether—it would be kinder to tell them or not.”

A coughing fit shook Morris, and answering, a twitch as of pain tightened the corners of his companion's eyes. Minutes passed, and Morris sat limply in his chair, before he answered,

“I thought at first we'd better write; now it seems different. Let's wait until we go back.”

Neither of the men looked at the other. They seldom did now; it was useless pain. Filled with the incomparable optimism of the consumptive, neither man realized his own condition, but marked the days of his friend. Morris, unbelieving, spoke of his friend's return; yet, growing weaker each day himself, spoke in all hope and conviction of his future work, recording each day his mode of successful treatment, despite interruptions of coughing which left him breathless and trembling for minutes. De Young saw, and in pity marvelled; yet, seeing, and as a physician knowing, he not for a moment applied the gauge to himself.

Nature, in sportive mood, commands the Angel of Death, who with matchless legerdemain, keeps the mirror of illusion, unsuspected, before the consumptive's eyes; and, seeing, in derision the satirist smiles.

Unavoidably acting parts, the two friends found a barrier of artificiality separating them, making each happier when alone. Thus day after day, monotonous, unchanging, went by. Not another person entered their door. From the little town a man at periods brought provisions and their mail, but the house was acquiring an uncanny reputation. They were not understood, and such are ever foreign. With the passage of time and the coming of the mound in the dooryard, the feeling had developed into positive fear, and travellers avoided the place as though warned by a scarlet placard.

Morris grew weaker daily. At last the disillusionment that precedes death came to him. The artificial slipped from both men and a nearness like that of brothers, joined them. They spoke not of the future but of the past. Years slipped aside and left them back in the midst of active, brain-satisfying practice. Over again they performed operations, where life and death were separated but by a hair's width. Again, with eyes that brightened and breath that came more quickly, they lived their successes, and hand in hand, as children in the dark, told of their failures, and the tale was long, for they were but men.

The end came quietly. A hemorrhage, a big spot of blood on the cover, a firm hand pressure, and Morris's parting words,

“Save my notes.”

That night De Young knew no sleep. “I must finish the work,” he said, in lame excuse. Well he knew there could be no rest for him that night. He did his task thoroughly, making record of things that had passed, with the precision of a physician who knows a patient but as material.

A tramp, who, unknowing, had taken shelter in an outbuilding, waking in the night, saw the light. Moved by curiosity, he crawled up softly in the darkness, and peeped in at the window. In the half light he saw on the bed a thin, white face motionless in the expression which even he knew was death; and at the table, writing rapidly with manuscript all about, a man whose eyes shone with the brilliancy of disease, and with a face as pale as the face on the pillow. In the blank, unreasoning terror of superstition, he fled until Nature rebelled and would carry him no farther. Next day to all he saw, he told the tale of supernatural things which lingers yet around a prairie ruin, in whose dooryard are mounds built of man.

The mail carrier calling next day saw a man with spots of scarlet heightening the contrast of a face pale as death, digging in the dooryard. The man worked slowly, for he coughed often and must rest. In kindness the carrier offered help, but was refused with words that brought to the listener's eyes a moisture unknown since boyhood, and the thought of which in days that followed, kept him silent concerning what he had seen.

Summer, with the breath of warm life and the odor of growing things; with days made dreamy and thoughtful by the purring of the soft wind and the droning of insects; and nights when all was good; with stars above and crickets singing below—summer had come and was passing.

De Young could no longer deceive himself. The personal faith that had upheld him so long—when friends had failed—could fight the inevitable no longer. With eyes wide open, he saw at last clearly, and, seeing, realized the end. He cared not for death; he was too strong for that; but it must needs be that, now, with the shadow of defeat lying dark over the future, the problem of motive, the great “why,” should come uppermost in his mind demanding an answer.

Once before, at the time when other men read from their lives, he caught glimpses of something beyond. Now again the mood returned, and he knew why he was as he was; that with him love was, and had been, stronger than Science and all else beside. He knew that whatever he might have done, the entering into his life of The Woman, and the knowledge that followed her coming, had inspired the supreme motive that thenceforth drove him forward. With this realization came a new life, a happier and a sadder life, in which all things underwent readjustment.

Regret came as sadness, regret that he had not told this woman all; that in his blind confidence he had not written, but had waited—waited for this. He would wait no longer. He would tell her now. A thousand new thoughts came to his mind; a thousand new feelings surged over him as a flood, and he poured them out on paper. The man himself, not the physician, was unfolded for the first time in his life, and the writing of that letter which told all, his life, his love, that ended with a good-bye which was forever, was the sweetest labor of his life. He sealed the letter and sat for hours looking at it, dreaming.

It was summer and the nights were short, so that with the writing and the dreams, morning had come. He could scarce wait that day for the carrier; time to him had become suddenly a thing most precious; and when at last the man appeared. De Young twice exacted the promise that the letter should be mailed special delivery.

The reaction was on and all the world was dark. Fool that he was, two years had passed since he had heard from her. She also was a consumptive; might not—?

The very thought was torture; perspiration started at every pore, and with the little strength that was left he paced up and down the room like a caged animal. A fit of coughing, such as he had never known before, seized him, and he dropped full length upon the bed.

The limit was reached; he slept.

As he had worked one night before to forget, so he spent the following days. It was the end, and he knew it; but he no longer cared. His future was centred on one event—the coming of a letter. Beyond that all was shadow, and he cared not to explore. He worked all that Nature would allow, carrying to completion his observations, admitting his mistake with a candor which now caused no personal pain. He spent much time at his journal, writing needless things: his actions, his very thoughts,—things which could not have been wrung from him before; but he was lonely and desperate. He must not think—'t was madness. So he wrote and wrote and wrote.

He watched for the carrier all the daylight hours. His mail was light, and the coming infrequent. There had been time for an answer, and the watcher could no longer compose himself to write. All day he sat in the doorway, looking across the two mounds, down the road whence the carrier would come.

And at last he came. Far down the road toward town one morning a familiar moving figure grew distinct. De Young watched as though fascinated. He wanted to shout, to laugh, to cry. With an effort that sent his finger nails deep into his palms, he kept quiet, waiting.

A letter was in the carrier's hand. Struck by the look on De Young's face, the postman did not turn, but stood near by watching. The exile, once the immovable, seized the missive feverishly, then paused to examine. It was a man's writing he held, and he winced as at a blow, but with a hand that was nerved too high to tremble, he tore open the envelope. He read the few words, and read again; then in a motion of weariness and hopelessness indescribable, hands and paper dropped.

“My God! And she never knew,” he whispered.

When next the carrier came, he shaped the third mound.

 
 
 

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