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- Doctor Therne - 5/25 -
see straight on to the /plaza/ of the little town. And when at night we could not see, still we could hear the wails of the dying and bereaved, the eternal clang of the church bells, rung to scare away the demon of disease, and the midnight masses chanted by the priests, that grew faint and fainter as their brotherhood dwindled, until at last they ceased. And so it went on in the tainted, stricken place until the living were not enough to bury the dead, or to do more than carry food and water to the sick.
It would seem that about twelve years before a philanthropic American enthusiast, armed with a letter of recommendation from whoever at that date was President of Mexico, and escorted by a small guard, descended upon San Jose to vaccinate it. For a few days all went well, for the enthusiast was a good doctor, who understood how to treat ophthalmia and to operate for squint, both of which complaints were prevalent in San Jose. Then his first vaccination patients developed vesicles, and the trouble began. The end of the matter was that the local priests, a very ignorant class of men, interfered, declaring that smallpox was a trial sent from Heaven which it was impious to combat, and that in any case vaccination was the worse disease of the two.
As the /viruela/ had scarcely visited San Jose within the memory of man and the vesicles looked alarming, the population, true children of the Church, agreed with their pastors, and, from purely religious motives, hooted and stoned the philanthropic "Americano" and his guard out of the district. Now they and their innocent children were reaping the fruits of the piety of these conscientious objectors.
After the first fortnight this existence in an atmosphere of disease became absolutely terrible to me. Not an hour of the day passed that I did not imagine some symptom of smallpox, and every morning when we met at breakfast I glanced at Emma with anxiety. The shadow of the thing lay deep upon my nerves, and I knew well that if I stopped there much longer I should fall a victim to it in the body. In this emergency, by means of Antonio, I opened negotiations with the officer of the /rurales/, and finally, after much secret bargaining, it was arranged that in consideration of a sum of two hundred dollars--for by good luck I had escaped from the brigands with my money--our flight through the cordon of guards should not be observed in the darkness.
We were to start at nine o'clock on a certain night. At a quarter to that hour I went to the stable to see that everything was ready, and in the courtyard outside of it found Antonio seated against the water tank groaning and writhing with pains in the back. One looked showed me that he had developed the usual symptoms, so, feeling that no time was to be lost, I saddled the mules myself and took them round.
"Where is Antonio?" asked Emma as she mounted.
"He has gone on ahead," I answered, "to be sure that the road is clear; he will meet us beyond the mountains."
Poor Antonio! I wonder what became of him; he was a good fellow, and I hope that he recovered. It grieved me much to leave him, but after all I had my own safety to think of, and still more that of Emma, who had grown very dear to me. Perhaps one day I shall find him "beyond the mountains," but, if so, that is a meeting from which I expect no joy.
The rest of our journey was strange enough, but it has nothing to do with this history. Indeed, I have only touched upon these long past adventures in a far land because they illustrate the curious fatality by the workings of which every important event of my life has taken place under the dreadful shadow of smallpox. I was born under that shadow, I wedded under it, I--but the rest shall be told in its proper order.
In the end we reached Mexico City in safety, and there Emma and I were married. Ten days later we were on board ship steaming for England.
SIR JOHN BELL
Now it is that I came to the great and terrible event of my life, which in its result turned me into a false witness and a fraud, and bound upon my spirit a weight of blood-guiltiness greater than a man is often called upon to bear. As I have not scrupled to show I have constitutional weaknesses--more, I am a sinner, I know it; I have sinned against the code of my profession, and have preached a doctrine I knew to be false, using all my skill and knowledge to confuse and pervert the minds of the ignorant. And yet I am not altogether responsible for these sins, which in truth in the first place were forced upon me by shame and want and afterwards by the necessities of my ambition. Indeed, in that dark and desperate road of deceit there is no room to turn; the step once taken can never be retraced.
But if I have sinned, how much greater is the crime of the man who swore away my honour and forced me through those gateways? Surely on his head and not on mine should rest the burden of my deeds; yet he prospered all his life, and I have been told that his death was happy and painless. This man's career furnishes one of the few arguments that to my sceptical mind suggest the existence of a place of future reward and punishment, for how is it possible that so great a villain should reap no fruit from his rich sowing of villainy? If it is possible, then verily this world is the real hell wherein the wicked are lords and the good their helpless and hopeless slaves.
Emma Becker when she became my wife brought with her a small dowry of about five thousand dollars, or a thousand pounds, and this sum we both agreed would be best spent in starting me in professional life. It was scarcely sufficient to enable me to buy a practice of the class which I desired, so I determined that I would set to work to build one up, as with my ability and record I was certain that I could do. By preference, I should have wished to begin in London, but there the avenue to success is choked, and I had not the means to wait until by skill and hard work I could force my way along it.
London being out of the question, I made up my mind to try my fortune in the ancient city of Dunchester, where the name of Therne was still remembered, as my grandfather and father had practised there before me. I journeyed to the place and made inquiries, to find that, although there were plenty of medical men of a sort, there was only one whose competition I had cause to fear. Of the others, some had no presence, some no skill, and some no character; indeed, one of them was known to drink.
With Sir John Bell, whose good fortune it was to be knighted in recognition of his attendance upon a royal duchess who chanced to contract the measles while staying in the town, the case was different. He began life as assistant to my father, and when his health failed purchased the practice from him for a miserable sum, which, as he was practically in possession, my father was obliged to accept. From that time forward his success met with no check. By no means a master of his art, Sir John supplied with assurance what he lacked in knowledge, and atoned for his mistakes by the readiness of a bluff and old-fashioned sympathy that was transparent to few.
In short, if ever a /faux bonhomme/ existed, Sir John Bell was the man. Needless to say he was as popular as he was prosperous. Such of the practice of Dunchester as was worth having soon fell into his hands, and few indeed were the guineas that slipped out of his fingers into the pocket of a poorer brother. Also, he had a large consulting connection in the county. But if his earnings were great so were his spendings, for it was part of his system to accept civic and magisterial offices and to entertain largely in his official capacities. This meant that the money went out as fast as it came in, and that, however much was earned, more was always needed.
When I visited Dunchester to make inquiries I made a point of calling on Sir John, who received me in his best "heavy-father" manner, taking care to inform me that he was keeping Lord So-and-so waiting in his consulting-room in order to give me audience. Going straight to the point, I told him that I thought of starting to practise in Dunchester, which information, I could see, pleased him little.
"Of course, my dear boy," he said, "you being your father's son I should be delighted, and would do everything in my power to help you, but at the same time I must point out that were Galen, or Jenner, or Harvey to reappear on earth, I doubt if they could make a decent living in Dunchester."
"All the same, I mean to have a try, Sir John," I answered cheerfully. "I suppose you do not want an assistant, do you?"
"Let me see; I think you said you were married, did you not?"
"Yes," I answered, well knowing that Sir John, having disposed of his elder daughter to an incompetent person of our profession, who had become the plague of his life, was desirous of putting the second to better use.
"No, my dear boy, no, I have an assistant already," and he sighed, this time with genuine emotion. "If you come here you will have to stand upon your own legs."
"Quite so, Sir John, but I shall still hope for a few crumbs from the master's table."
"Yes, yes, Therne, in anything of that sort you may rely upon me," and he bowed me out with an effusive smile.
"---- to poison the crumbs," I thought to myself, for I was never for one moment deceived as to this man's character.
A fortnight later Emma and I came to Dunchester and took up our abode in a quaint red-brick house of the Queen Anne period, which we hired for a not extravagant rent of 80 pounds a year. Although the position of this house was not fashionable, nothing could have been more suitable from a doctor's point of view, as it stood in a little street near the market-place and absolutely in the centre of the city. Moreover, it had two beautiful reception chambers on the ground floor, oak-panelled, and with carved Adam's mantelpieces, which made excellent waiting-rooms for patients. Some time passed, however, and our thousand pounds, in which the expense of furnishing had made a considerable hole, was melting rapidly before those rooms were put to a practical use. Both I and my wife did all that we could to get practice. We called upon people who had been friends of my father and grandfather; we attended missionary and other meetings of a non- political character; regardless of expense we went so far as to ask old ladies to tea.
They came, they drank the tea and inspected the new furniture; one of
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