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- Doctor Therne - 25/25 -
Then I gave in, feeling that after all it did not matter much, as in any case it was impossible for me to leave Dunchester. Personally I had no longer any fear of contagion, for within a week from that fatal night four large vesicles had formed on my arm, and their presence assured me that I was safe. At any other time this knowledge would have rejoiced me more than I can tell, but now, as I have said, I did not greatly care.
Another six days went by, bringing me to the eve of the election. At lunch time I managed to get home, and was rejoiced to find that Jane, who for the past forty-eight hours had been hovering between life and death, had taken a decided turn for the better. Indeed, she told me so herself in quite a strong voice as I stood in the doorway of her room, adding that she hoped I should have a good meeting that night.
It would seem, however, that almost immediately after I left a change for the worse set in, of such a character that Jane felt within herself her last hour was at hand. Then it was that she ordered the nurse to write a telegram at her dictation. It was to Dr. Merchison, and ran: "Come and see me at once, do not delay as I am dying.--Jane."
Within half an hour he was at her door. Then she bade the nurse to throw a sheet over her, so that he might not see her features which were horribly disfigured, and to admit him.
"Listen," she said, speaking through the sheet, "I am dying of the smallpox, and I have sent for you to beg your pardon. I know now that you were right and I was wrong, although it broke my heart to learn it."
Then by slow degrees and in broken words she told him enough of what she had learned to enable him to guess the rest, never dreaming, poor child, of the use to which he would put his knowledge, being too ill indeed to consider the possibilities of a future in which she could have no part.
The rest of that scene has nothing to do with the world; it has nothing to do with me; it is a private matter between two people who are dead, Ernest Merchison and my daughter, Jane Therne. Although my own beliefs are nebulous, and at times non-existent, this was not so in my daughter's case. Nor was it so in the case of Ernest Merchison, who was a Scotchman, with strong religious views which, I understand, under these dreadful circumstances proved comfortable to both of them. At the least, they spoke with confidence of a future meeting, which, if their faith is well founded, was not long delayed indeed; for, strong as he seemed to be, within the year Merchison followed his lover to the churchyard, where they lie side by side.
About half-past six Jane became unconscious, and an hour afterwards she died.
Then in his agony and the bitterness of his just rage a dreadful purpose arose in the mind of Merchison. He went home, changed his clothes, disinfected himself, and afterwards came on to the Agricultural Hall, where I was addressing a mass meeting of the electors. It was a vast and somewhat stormy meeting, for men's minds were terrified and overshadowed by the cases of disease which were reported in ever-increasing numbers, and even the best of my supporters had begun to speculate whether or no my anti-vaccination views were after all so absolutely irrefutable.
Still, my speech, which by design did not touch on the smallpox scare, was received with respect, if not with enthusiasm. I ended it, however, with an eloquent peroration, wherein I begged the people of Dunchester to stand fast by those great principles of individual freedom, which for twenty years it had been my pride and privilege to inculcate; and on the morrow, in spite of all arguments that might be used to dissuade them, fearlessly to give their suffrages to one who for two decades had proved himself to be their friend and the protector of their rights.
I sat down, and when the cheers, with which were mixed a few hoots, had subsided, my chairman asked if any one in the meeting wished to question the candidate.
"I do," said a voice speaking from beneath the shadow of the gallery far away. "I wish to ask Dr. Therne whether he believes in vaccination?"
When the meeting understood the meaning of this jester's question, a titter of laughter swept over it like a ripple over the face of a pond. The chairman, also rising with a smile, said: "Really, I do not think it necessary to put that query to my friend here, seeing that for nearly twenty years he has been recognised throughout England as one of the champions of the anti-vaccination cause which he helped to lead to triumph."
"I repeat the question," said the distant voice again, a cold deep voice with a note in it that to my ears sounded like the knell of approaching doom.
The chairman looked puzzled, then replied: "If my friend will come up here instead of hiding down there in the dark I have no doubt that Dr. Therne will be able to satisfy his curiosity."
There was a little commotion beneath the gallery, and presently a man was seen forcing his way up the length of the huge and crowded hall. For some reason or other the audience watched his slow approach without impatience. A spirit of wonder seemed to have taken possession of them; it was almost as though by some process of telepathy the thought which animated the mind of this questioner had taken a hold of their minds, although they did not quite know what that thought might be. Moreover the sword of smallpox hung over the city, and therefore the subject was of supreme interest. When Death is near, whatever they may pretend, men think of little else.
Now he was at the foot of the platform, and now in the gaunt, powerful frame I recognised my daughter's suitor, Ernest Merchison, and knew that something dreadful was at hand, what I could not guess.
There was still time--I might have pretended to be ill, but my brain was so weary with work and sorrow, and so occupied, what was left of it, in trying to fathom Merchison's meaning, that I let the precious moment slip. At length he was standing close by me, and to me his face was like the face of an avenging angel, and his eyes shone like that angel's sword.
"I wish to ask you, sir," he said again, "whether or no you believe that vaccination is a prophylactic against smallpox."
Once more there were opportunities of escape. I might for instance have asked for a definition of vaccination, of prophylactics and of smallpox, and thus have argued till the audience grew weary. But some God of vengeance fought upon his side, the hand of doom was over me, and a power I could not resist dragged the answer from my lips.
"I think, sir," I replied, "that, as the chairman has told you, the whole of my public record is an answer to your question. I have often expressed my views upon this matter; I see no reason to change them."
Ernest Merchison turned to the audience.
"Men of Dunchester," he said in such trumpet-like and thrilling tones that every face of the multitude gathered there was turned upon him, "Dr. Therne in answer to my questions refers to his well-known views, and says that he has found no reason to change them. His views are that vaccination is useless and even mischievous, and by preaching them he has prevented thousands from being vaccinated. Now I ask him to illustrate his faith by baring his left arm before you all."
What followed? I know not. From the audience went up a great gasp mingled with cries of "/yes/" and "/shame/" and "/show him/." My supporters on the platform murmured in indignation, and I, round whom the whole earth seemed to rush, by an effort recovering my self- control, rose and said:--
"I am here to answer any question, but I ask you to protect me from insult."
Again the tumult and confusion swelled, but through it all, calm as death, inexorable as fate, Ernest Merchison stood at my side. When it had died down, he said:--
"I repeat my challenge. There is smallpox in this city--people are lying dead of it--and many have protected themselves by vaccination: let Dr. Therne prove that he has not done this also by baring his left arm before you all."
The chairman looked at my face and his jaw dropped. "I declare this meeting closed," he said, and I turned to hurry from the platform, whereat there went up a shout of "/No, no/." It sank to a sudden silence, and again the man with the face of fate spoke.
"Murderer of your own child, I reveal that which you hide!"
Then with his right hand suddenly he caught me by the throat, with his left hand he gripped my linen and my garments, and at one wrench ripped them from my body, leaving my left breast and shoulder naked. And there, patent on the arm where every eye might read them, were those proofs of my infamy which he had sought.
I swooned away, and, as I sank into oblivion, there leapt from the lips of the thousands I had betrayed that awful roar of scorn and fury which has hunted me from my home and still haunts me far across the seas.
My story is done. There is nothing more to tell.
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