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- Doctor Therne - 20/25 -
arguing, the lists are closed and we must wait until the thing is put to the proof of battle. When it is, one thing is sure, there will be plenty of dead," he added with a grim smile. Then taking off his hat and muttering, "Again I apologise," he returned into the cottage.
It seems that for a while Jane was very angry. Then she remembered that, after all, Dr. Merchison had apologised, and that he had made his offensive remarks in the ignorance and prejudice which afflicted the entire medical profession and were more worthy of pity than of anger. Further, she remembered that in her indignation she had forgotten to acknowledge or accept his apology, and, lastly, she asked him to a garden-party.
It is scarcely necessary for me to dwell upon the subsequent developments of this unhappy business--if I am right in calling it unhappy. The piteous little drama is played, both the actors are dead, and the issue of the piece is unknown and, for the present, unknowable. Bitterly opposed as I was to the suit of Merchison, justice compels me to say that, under the cloak of a rough unpromising manner, he hid a just and generous heart. Had that man lived he might have become great, although he would never have become popular. As least something in his nature attracted my daughter Jane, for she, who up to that time had not been moved by any man, became deeply attached to him.
In the end he proposed to her, how, when or where I cannot say, for I never inquired. One morning, I remember it was that of Christmas day, they came into my library, the pair of them, and informed me how matters stood. Merchison went straight to the point and put the case before me very briefly, but in a manly and outspoken fashion. He said that he quite understood the difficulties of his position, inasmuch as he believed that Jane was, or would be, very rich, whereas he had nothing beyond his profession, in which, however, he was doing well. He ended by asking my consent to the engagement subject to any reasonable conditions that I might choose to lay down.
To me the shock was great, for, occupied as I was with my own affairs and ambitions, I had been blind to what was passing before my face. I had hoped to see my daughter a peeress, and now I found her the affianced bride of a parish sawbones. The very foundation of my house of hopes was sapped; at a blow all my schemes for the swift aggrandisement of my family were laid low. It was too much for me. Instead of accepting the inevitable, and being glad to accept it because my child's happiness was involved, I rebelled and kicked against the pricks.
By nature I am not a violent man, but on that occasion I lost my temper and became violent. I refused my consent; I threatened to cut my daughter off with nothing, but at this argument she and her lover smiled. Then I took another ground, for, remembering her promise that she would consent to be separated for three years from any suitor of whom I did not approve, I claimed its fulfilment.
Somewhat to my surprise, after a hurried private consultation, Jane and her lover accepted these conditions, telling me frankly that they would wait for three years, but that after these had gone by they would consider themselves at liberty to marry, with my consent if possible, but, if necessary, without it. Then in my presence they kissed and parted, nor until the last did either of them attempt to break the letter of their bond. Once indeed they met before that dreadful hour, but then it was the workings of fate that brought them together and not their own design.
THE COMING OF THE RED-HEADED MAN
Half of the three years of probation had gone by and once more we found ourselves at Dunchester in August. Under circumstances still too recent to need explanation, the Government of which I was a member had decided to appeal to the country, the General Election being fixed for the end of September, after the termination of harvest. Dunchester was considered to be a safe Radical seat, and, as a matter of parliamentary tactics, the poll for this city, together with that of eight or ten other boroughs, was fixed for the earliest possible day, in the hope that the results might encourage more doubtful places to give their support. Constituencies are very like sheep, and if the leaders jump through a certain gap in the political hedge the flock, or a large proportion of it, will generally follow. All of us like to be on the winning side.
Few people who are old enough to remember it will ever forget the August of two years ago, if only because of the phenomenal heat. Up to that month the year had been very cold, so cold that even during July there were some evenings when a fire was welcome, while on several days I saw people driving about the roads wrapped up in heavy ulsters. But with the first day of August all this changed, and suddenly the climate became torrid, the nights especially being extraordinarily hot. From every quarter of the country came complaints of the great heat, while each issue of the newspapers contained lists of those who had fallen victims to it.
One evening, feeling oppressed in the tree-enclosed park of Ashfields, I strolled out of it into the suburb of which I have spoken. Almost opposite the private garden of the park stands a board school, and in front of this board school I had laid out an acre of land presented by myself, as a playground and open space for the use of the public. In the centre of this garden was a fountain that fell into a marble basin, and around the fountain, but at some distance from it, stood iron seats. To these I made my way and sat down on one of them, which was empty, in order to enjoy the cool sound of the splashing water, about which a large number of children were playing.
Presently, as I sat thus, I lifted my eyes and saw the figure of a man approaching towards the other side of the fountain. He was quite fifty yards away from me, so that his features were invisible, but there was something about his general aspect which attracted my attention at once. To begin with, he looked small and lonely, all by himself out there on the wide expanse of gravel; moreover, the last rays of the setting sun, striking full upon him, gave him a fiery and unnatural appearance against the dense background of shadows beyond. It is a strange and dreadful coincidence, but by some extraordinary action of the mind, so subtle that I cannot trace the link, the apparition of this man out of the gloom into the fierce light of the sunset reminded me of a picture that I had once seen representing the approach to the Norwegian harbour of the ship which brought the plague to the shores of Scandanavia. In the picture that ship also was clothed with the fires of sunset, while behind it lay the blackness of approaching night. Like this wanderer that ship also came forward, slowly indeed, but without pause, as though alive with a purpose of its own, and I remember that awaiting it upon the quay were a number of merry children.
Shaking myself free from this ridiculous but unpleasant thought, I continued to observe the man idly. Clearly he was one of the great army of tramps, for his coat was wide and ragged and his hat half innocent of rim, although there was something about his figure which suggested to me that he had seen better days. I could even imagine that under certain circumstances I might have come to look very much like this poor man, now doubtless turned into a mere animal by drink. He drew on with a long slow step, his head stretched forward, his eyes fixed upon the water, as he walked now and again lifting a long thin hand and scraping impatiently at his face and head.
"That poor fellow has got a touch of prickly heat and is thirsty," I thought, nor was I mistaken, for, on arriving at the edge of the fountain, the tramp knelt down and drank copiously, making a moaning sound as he gulped the water, which was very peculiar and unpleasant to hear. When he had satisfied his thirst, he sat himself upon the marble edge of the basin and suddenly plunged his legs, boots and all, into the water. Its touch seemed to please him, for with a single swift movement he slipped in altogether, sitting himself down on the bottom of the basin in such fashion that only his face and fiery red beard, from which the hat had fallen, remained above the surface, whereon they seemed to float like some monstrous and unnatural growth.
This unusual proceeding on the part of the tramping stranger at once excited the most intense interest in the mind of every child on the playground, with the result that in another minute forty or fifty of them had gathered round the fountain, laughing and jeering at its occupant. Again the sight brought to my mind a strained and disagreeable simile, for I bethought me of the dreadful tale of Elisha and of the fate which overtook the children who mocked him. Decidedly the heat had upset my nerves that night, nor were they soothed when suddenly from the red head floating upon the water came a flute-like and educated voice, saying--
"Cease deriding the unfortunate, children, or I will come out of this marble bath and tickle you."
Thereat they laughed all the more, and began to pelt the bather with little stones and bits of stick.
At first I thought of interfering, but as it occurred to me that the man would probably be violent or abusive if I spoke to him, and as, above all things, I disliked scenes, I made up my mind to fetch a policeman, whom I knew I should find round the corner about a hundred yards away. I walked to the corner, but did not find the policeman, whereon I started across the square to look for him at another point. My road led me past the fountain, and, as I approached it, I saw that the water-loving wanderer had been as good as his word. He had emerged from the fountain, and, rushing to and fro raining moisture from his wide coat, despite their shrieks half of fear and half of laughter, he grabbed child after child and, drawing it to him, tickled and kissed it, laughing dementedly all the while, in a fashion which showed me that he was suffering from some form of mania.
As soon as he saw me the man dropped the last child he had caught--it was little Tottie Smith--and began to stride away towards the city at the same slow, regular, purposeful gait with which I had seen him approach the fountain. As he passed he turned and made a grimace at me, and then I saw his dreadful face. No wonder it had looked red at a distance, for the /erythema/ almost covered it, except where, on the forehead and cheeks, appeared purple spots and patches.
Of what did it remind me?
Great Heaven! I remembered. It reminded me of the face of that girl I had seen lying in the /plaza/ of San Jose, in Mexico, over whom the old woman was pouring water from the fountain, much such a fountain as that before me, for half unconsciously, when planning this place, I had reproduced its beautiful design. It all came back to me with a shock, the horrible scene of which I had scarcely thought for years, so vividly indeed that I seemed to hear the old hag's voice crying in cracked accents, "/Si, senor, viruela, viruela!/"
I ought to have sent to warn the police and the health officers of the city, for I was sure that the man was suffering from what is commonly
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