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- Doctor Therne - 2/25 -


higher. If I had my life over again--and it is my advice to all young men of ability and ambition--I would leave the old country and settle in America or in one of the great colonies. There, where the conditions are more elastic and the competition is not so cruel, a hard-working man of talent does not need to be endowed with fortune to enable him to rise to the top of the tree.

Well, my desire was to be accomplished, for as it chanced a younger brother of my father, who during his lifetime had never taken any notice of me, died and left me 750 pounds. Seven hundred and fifty pounds! To me at that time it was colossal wealth, for it enabled us to rent some rooms in London, where I entered myself as a medical student at University College.

There is no need for me to dwell upon my college career, but if any one were to take the trouble to consult the old records he would find that it was sufficiently brilliant. I worked hard, and I had a natural, perhaps an hereditary liking, for the work. Medicine always fascinated me. I think it the greatest of the sciences, and from the beginning I was determined that I would be among the greatest of its masters.

At four and twenty, having finished my curriculum with high honours--I was gold medallist of my year in both medicine and surgery--I became house-surgeon to one of the London hospitals. After my term of office was over I remained at the hospital for another year, for I wished to make a practical study of my profession in all its branches before starting a private practice. At the end of this time my mother died while still comparatively young. She had never really recovered from the loss of my father, and, though it was long about it, sorrow sapped her strength at last. Her loss was a shock to me, although in fact we had few tastes in common. To divert my mind, and also because I was somewhat run down and really needed a change, I asked a friend of mine who was a director of a great steamship line running to the West Indies and Mexico to give me a trip out, offering my medicine services in return for the passage. This he agreed to do with pleasure; moreover, matters were so arranged that I could stop in Mexico for three months and rejoin the vessel on her next homeward trip.

After a very pleasant voyage I reached Vera Cruz. It is a quaint and in some ways a pretty place, with its tall cool-looking houses and narrow streets, not unlike Funchal, only more tropical. Whenever I think of it, however, the first memories that leap to my mind are those of the stench of the open drains and of the scavenger carts going their rounds with the /zaphilotes/ or vultures actually sitting upon them. As it happened, those carts were very necessary then, for a yellow fever epidemic was raging in the place. Having nothing particular to do I stopped there for three weeks to study it, working in the hospitals with the local doctors, for I felt no fear of yellow fever--only one contagious disease terrifies me, and with that I was soon destined to make acquaintance.

At length I arranged to start for the City of Mexico, to which in those days the journey from Vera Cruz was performed by diligence as the railway as not yet finished. At that time Mexico was a wild country. Wars and revolutions innumerable, together with a certain natural leaning that way, had reduced a considerable proportion of its inhabitants to the road, where they earned a precarious living--not by mending it, but by robbing and occasionally cutting the throats of any travellers whom they could catch.

The track from Vera Cruz to Mexico City runs persistently uphill; indeed, I think the one place is 7000 feet above the level of the other. First, there is the hot zone, where the women by the wayside sell you pineapples and cocoanuts; then the temperate zone, where they offer you oranges and bananas; then the cold country, in which you are expected to drink a filthy liquid extracted from aloes called /pulque/, that in taste and appearance resembles soapy water.

It was somewhere in the temperate zone that we passed a town consisting of fifteen /adobe/ or mud houses and seventeen churches. The excessive religious equipment of this city is accounted for by an almost inaccessible mountain stronghold in the neighbourhood. This stronghold for generations had been occupied by brigands, and it was the time-honoured custom of each chieftain of the band, when he retired on a hard-earned competence, to expiate any regrettable incidents in his career by building a church in the town dedicated to his patron saint and to the memory of those whose souls he had helped to Paradise. This pious and picturesque, if somewhat mediaeval, custom has now come to an end, as I understand that the Mexican Government caused the stronghold to be stormed a good many years ago, and put its occupants, to the number of several hundreds, to the sword.

We were eight in the coach, which was drawn by as many mules--four merchants, two priests, myself and the lady who afterwards became my wife. She was a blue-eyed and fair-haired American from New York. Her name, I soon discovered, was Emma Becker, and her father, who was dead, had been a lawyer. We made friends at once, and before we had jolted ten miles on our journey I learned her story. It seemed that she was an orphan with a very small fortune, and only one near relative, an aunt who had married a Mexican named Gomez, the owner of a fine range or /hacienda/ situated on the border of the highlands, about eighty miles from the City of Mexico. On the death of her father, being like most American girls adventurous and independent, Miss Becker had accepted an invitation from her aunt Gomez and her husband to come and live with them a while. Now, quite alone and unescorted, she was on her way to Mexico City, where she expected to be met by some friends of her uncle.

We started from Vera Cruz about mid-day and slept, or rather passed the night, at a filthy inn alive with every sort of insect pest. Two hours before dawn we were bundled into the /diligencia/ and slowly dragged up a mountain road so steep that, notwithstanding the blows and oaths of the drivers, the mules had to stop every few hundred yards to rest. I remember that at last I fell asleep, my head reposing on the shoulder of a very fat priest, who snored tempestuously, then awoke to pray, then snored again. It was the voice of Miss Becker, who sat opposite to me, that wakened me.

"Forgive me for disturbing you, Dr. Therne," she said, "but you really must look," and she pointed through the window of the coach.

Following her hand I saw a sight which no one who has witnessed it can ever forget: the sun rising on the mighty peak of Orizaba, the Star Mountain, as the old Aztecs named it. Eighteen thousand feet above our heads towered the great volcano, its foot clothed with forests, its cone dusted with snow. The green flanks of the peak and the country beneath them were still wrapped in shadow, but on its white and lofty crest already the lights of dawn were burning. Never have I seen anything more beautiful than this soaring mountain top flaming like some giant torch over a world of darkness; indeed, the unearthly grandeur of the sight amazed and half paralysed my mind.

A lantern swung from the roof of the coach, and, turning my eyes from the mountain, in its light I saw the face of my travelling companion and--fell in love with it. I had seen it before without any such idea entering my mind; then it had been to me only the face of a rather piquante and pretty girl, but with this strange and inconvenient result, the sight of the dawn breaking upon Orizaba seemed to have worked some change in me. At least, if only for an instant, it had pierced the barrier that day by day we build within us to protect ourselves from the attack of the impulses of nature.

In that moment at any rate there was a look upon this girl's countenance and a light shining in her eyes which overcame my caution and swept me out of myself, for I think that she too was under the shadow of the glory which broke upon the crest of Orizaba. In vain did I try to save myself and to struggle back to common-sense, since hitherto the prospect of domestic love had played no part in my scheme of life. It was useless, so I gave it up, and our eyes met.

Neither of us said anything, but from that time forward we knew that we did not wish to be parted any more.

After a while, to relieve a tension of mind which neither of us cared to reveal, we drifted into desultory and indifferent conversation. In the course of our talk Emma told me that her aunt had written to her that if she could leave the coach at Orizaba she would be within fifty miles of the /hacienda/ of La Concepcion, whereas when she reached Mexico City she would still be eighty miles from it. Her aunt had added, however, that this was not practicable at present, why she did not say, and that she must go on to Mexico where some friends would take charge of her until her uncle was able to fetch her.

Presently Emma seemed to fall asleep, at least she shut her eyes. But I could not sleep, and sat there listening to the snores of the fat priest and the strange interminable oaths of the drivers as they thrashed the mules. Opposite to me, tied to the roof of the coach immediately above Emma's head, was a cheap looking-glass, provided, I suppose, for the convenience of passengers when making the toilette of travel. In it I could see myself reflected, so, having nothing better to do, in view of contingencies which of a sudden had become possible, I amused myself by taking count of my personal appearance. On the whole in those days it was not unsatisfactory. In build, I was tall and slight, with thin, nervous hands. My colouring and hair were dark, and I had soft and rather large brown eyes. The best part of my face was my forehead, which was ample, and the worst my mouth, which was somewhat weak. I do not think, however, that any one would have guessed by looking at me as I then appeared at the age of seven and twenty, that I was an exceedingly hard-working man with extraordinary powers of observation and a really retentive memory.

At any rate, I am sure that it was not these qualities which recommended me to Emma Becker, nor, whatever we may have felt under the influences of Orizaba, was it any spiritual affinity. Doctors, I fear, are not great believers in spiritual affinities; they know that such emotions can be accounted for in other ways. Probably Emma was attracted to me because I was dark, and I to her because she was fair. Orizaba and opportunity merely brought out and accentuated these quite natural preferences.

By now the day had broken, and, looking out of the window, I could see that we were travelling along the side of a mountain. Above us the slope was gentle and clothed with sub-tropical trees, while below it became a veritable precipice, in some places absolutely sheer, for the road was cut upon a sort of rocky ledge, although, owing to the vast billows of mist that filled it, nothing could be seen of the gulf beneath.

I was reflecting, I remember, that this would be an ill path to drive with a drunken coachman, when suddenly I saw the off-front mule stumble unaccountably, and, as it fell, heard a shot fired close at hand. Next instant also I saw the driver and his companion spring from the box, and, with a yell of terror, plunge over the edge of the cliff, apparently into the depths below. Then from the narrow compass of that coach arose a perfect pandemonium of sounds, with an under cry of a single word, "Brigands! Brigands!"

The merchants shouted, supplicated their saints, and swore as with trembling hands they tried to conceal loose valuables in their boots


Doctor Therne - 2/25

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