A Debt Discharged
Mary L. Commins in the National Magazine
THE doctor was dying. For a week the “road-side club,” as a “summer boarder” once dubbed it, had given their evening sessions solely to the topic, each man occupying his own particular niche among granite boulders and stunted berry bushes in nature’s forum.
The hitherto absorbing question of whether a right-of-way through old Peter Lonson’s land, skirting the “searocks,” could be kept open now that Peter—the only one who had knowledge of its existence for the period of time which law demanded—was dead, was abruptly dropped in an unsettled condition when this calamity loomed upon the horizon of Winter Cove.
“ ’Twill be forty-eight year, come tomorra, since he paid his first visit here on the Cape—so old Capen Lufkin was tellin’ me,” Donald Perlie, a brawny Nova Scotian with eyes red rimmed by twenty years dawn-fishing, said reflectively.
“I mind the night well”—James Orr took up the tale. “I was only a little fella at the time, about high enough to hold up a drill for my father—he worked over to the Blood Ledge quarry in them days—but I mind ’twas blowin’ a livin’ gale from the nor’east when the new doctor went along by.”
“Aye, an’ tis many the gale o’ wind he’s tramped through since,” young Rowe’s voice ground a little in his throat. His big fore-finger still thrilled from that first clasp of a tiny hand which the doctor had saved for him. “There aint his match on the north shore, nor in Boston itself, for that matter.”
“I misdoubt that there is, Martin b'y, an’ he keepin’ so hearty up to a week ago to-night.”
Donald’s red lids blinked as he felt for a fresh supply of tobacco, and rubbed it between his palms. Each man pulled on his pipe in silence. The ready and dogmatic expression of opinion, which had characterized discussion concerning the right-of-way, was noticeably lacking in the present conclave. When the curfew sounded, their inexorable knell for d'sbanding, they drifted homeward, and no one noticed that the usual trail of prognostication concerning the morrow's weather had been omitted. A greater compliment could not have been paid to the man they were about to lose.
Within the doctor’s cottage things went on much as usual, save for the advent of his only living relative, the son of a dead sister. John Mayhew had hastened from Boston with his newly-made wife, temporarily dropping a budding law practice, when he heard of his uncle’s illness. Three days of enforced inaction, chiefly spent in striding from room to room, or around the little garden with slow, measured tread, had driven him, with avidity, to an examination of the doctor’s account books, which he found on a shelf in the sitting-room. More than once his strong mouth relaxed into softened lines as he bent over the entries.
“Received from Mrs. Lonson five young pullets, in full payment for medical services rendered.”
“Received from Donald Perlie, one kit of salt mackerel, in payment for medical services.”
“Received from Debby Watts three dozen fresh eggs, on account.”
This book bore a date many vears back. John Mayhew came suddenly upon an entry which blurred the yellowing page before his eyes.
“Received from Captain Olsen one sword-fish’s sword, on account.”
He had it still, that sword, hanging in his den in Boston. It had come to him in answer to a clamoring/boyish letter. Now, for the first time, he learned that it represented the labor of an over-worked man. He got up and stood looking out of the window at the deepening sunset.
His wife turned her fair head, while rocking softly near another latticed pane, as her eyes followed him. He had strong, aggressive shoulders and she liked a strong man. A soft little hum of contentment came from her lips. But her rapt gaze, which also sought the purpling sky, merely meant speculation as to the probable length of time they would be detained at Winter Cove. The place, stripped of its summer festivity, did not appeal to her.
And yet it was a scene upon which the doctor, in spite of his forty-eight years residence on the Cape, could not have looked without a soul-upheaval. Under a riot of purple and gold, made more vivid by the cameo clearness of an early October day, a dying northwest breeze had left the sea deeply indigo. From a valley, where the ground fell steeply to the west of the doctor’s house, the earth-shadow was already rising, dark and mysterious, turning the trees, which it enwrapped, to black against a hill still softly green where the light touched it. It was no wonder, John Mayhew thought, that in such environment his uncle’s soul had grown to be what it was, that it had found in the strength and passion of nature fine soil for its human pity.
When the sun dipped behind a lowlying line of coast he turned back to the books.
“Money seems to have been about the last thing Uncle Robert was ever paid in,” he remarked to his wife, taking up one of more recent date. “And yet there must have been some, for hert is Van entry. ‘Paid to Doctor West, fifty dollars for operation.’
What operation, I wonder? I did not know he had been ill.”
Elizabeth Mayhew lifted her fair head from the piece of fancy work in which, by the waning light, she was taking desultory stitches.
“Ask Sally ; she’ll know,” she counselled, astutely.
A tall, raw-boned, Nova Scotian woman entered the room carrying a lamp. Sarah McKenzie, or “Sally Mac,” the only name by which she was ever known in Winter Cove, was half-sister to Donald Perlie’s wife, and had been the doctor’s housekeeper for over twenty years. For one swift instant her shrewd, gray eyes fastened on the soft, fair beauty of the woman near the window. Men never wondered why John Mayhew had married his wife. A few women did, and Sally Mac was among the number.
In the brief moment that it took Elizabeth to lay down her work and turn her fair head, there descended over the face of the doctor’s housekeeper a vague and vacant look, that annihilation of all expression which the true Celt can draw, as a veil, over the features, and which so often hides an almost uncanny insight. Sally put down the lamp and stood waiting. Her brother-in-law, in describing her feelings at the moment,would have said that with John she knew herself to be sailing in deep water, clear and free. With his wife she was not yet sure whether it was deep water or shoal— but she strongly suspected shoal. Therefore she kept little “weight” on and took frequent soundings. Elizabeth, since her arrival, had treated Sally with that mixture of condescension and graciousness which she deemed the proper manner to servants, and therein she had wasted time with a woman whose ancestors, hundred of years before, had fought, covenanted and died among their heather-clad hills.
“Here is an entry which I can’t make out”—John was tracing the line with his pencil when the brass knocker on the front door rose and fell, as though someone had reached it with a finger tip. Elizabeth, craning her head to see out of the window, beheld a small girl, in an outgrown gingham dress, carrying a tray. Sally answered the knock.
“Mother says—perhaps the doctor —could take this—for his supper.”
The child made her speech with little, breathless pauses and bounded away like some wild, primeval thing. Sally’s face was twisted, as though by sudden pain, as she entered and placed the tray on the table.
“What china !” Elizabeth rose quickly and bent in ecstacy over the priceless old cup and saucer. There was a poached egg, like a ball of white fluff, on a delicately browned piece of toast, and a little cheap stone teapot of tea.
“ ’Twas Ellie Watson’s greatgrandmother’s,” Sally volunteered, “but that’s all the childer’s left of it; there’s nine of them.”
With a shrug, which conclusively settled the relative values of children and china, Elizabeth dropped into her chair. Sally took up the tray.
“He’ll not be able to take it—but he’ll like to know,” she said a little thickly, as she left the room.
John was looking out at the deepening twilight when she re-entered. She stood beside him for a moment before he seemed aware of her presence. Then he bent again over the books.
“This, Sally—‘fifty dollars to Doctor West for operation,’ do you know what it was?” he asked.
She stooped to examine the page.
“What’s the date?” she asked, slowly.
“June io, 1900.”
She.was distinctly conscious of the far-seeing blue eyes across the table, regarding her intently. Deliberately she straightened herself and faced them. Elizabeth Mayhew saw only the blank stare and dropped jaw of a dull woman vainly trying to recall something.
“ ’Twill be the summer I was down home to Prince Edward’s Island,” Sally said at length. “If ’twas sick the doctor was, I didn’t know it.”
John did not raise his head.
“She’s stupid,” his wife said, conclusively, when Sally Mac had left the room.
He threw a quizzical glance.
“If I had a tenth part of her ‘stupidity’ the Massachusetts bar would have gained a valuable acquisition,” he said, with a wary smile.
He was perfectly well aware that Sally knew all about that fifty dollars, but for some reason, probably unexplainable to herself, did not wish to speak of it just then.
“As far as I can make out,” he went on, “there is about twelve thousand dollars owing to Uncle Robert for medical services.”
“Really?” A bright spot of color leaped into Elizabeth’s cheeks. Her breath came unevenly.
“Of course much of that is of such long standing that it is practically outlawed, but some of it is undoubtedly collectible.”
She turned away that he might not see the too evident exultation in her eyes.
“Perhaps I can do something to help Sally,” she said, rising, with a sudden access of graciousness.
Within the sick room Sally, having taken the precaution to lock the door, moved about making the doctor comfortable for the night. His eyes followed her, eyes like the sea without, under the dying northwest wind ; as keenly blue, as suggestive of depth, though, like it, shadowed by coming night.
“Sarah,” he said, when she approached the bed—he was the only person in the village who never called her Sally—“you’re a rare woman . . . you’ve never talked.”
It was the highest mede of praise he could offer, and she knew it. The blood flashed to her rugged cheeks.
To hide the sudden smart of rare tears she turned and busied herself with the sick-room accessories on a little table near the window.
But half an hour later, when John stood alone in the small garden, Sally belied the doctor’s good opinion. A sickle moon hung over the valley where the earth-shadow had deepened into night. Save for the chirp of a belated cricket the night was intensely still. John started when she touched his arm.
“ ’Twas for Jane Watson,” she began, without preliminaries. “ ’Twas the time she had the appendicitis.”
“The little girl who brought the tray this evening?”
“No, the next older’n her. The doctor, he give his services free, but that’s neither here nor there. ’Twas what he was doin’ most o’ the time. But there had to be a surgeon got from Hillport an’ that cost fifty dollars, an’ where would the Watsons get that money, God help them?”
“So Uncle Robert paid the surgeon ?”
“Yes, he paid. But Alvin West never knew whose money he was handlin’, I’ll say that for him !”
“It was like him—Uncle Rob, I mean.”
“Like him!” Sally brought her hands together in a suddenly unloosed passion of woe. “What’ll they do without him at all, at all? The men —God help the quarrymen now, when the granite gets in their eyes—and the women and the childer ! An’ ’twasn t their bodies but their souls he saved. There’s many the man an’ many the woman livin’ here on the Cape to-day, happy an’ hearty, that lie’s steered through the ups an’ shoals !”
Her whole body quivered. Again she was feeling the wrench of that current, so cruelly strong, from which, twenty-five years before, the doctor had saved her. She turned away but came back to lay a hand on John’s arm.
“He always liked ye—fine,” she said, chokingly.
He nodded. The clear cut edges of the sickle moon, in its deep bed of starlit blue, merged and wavered before his eyes. When he entered his -wife’s room a little later, there was that in his face which she half feared —the touch of human kinship which seemed to separate him from her so immeasurably.
The brush, with which she had been grooming her abundant fair hair, fell unheeded to her lap. For the first time there rose within her a throb of desire to be the woman John Mayhew thought her. He stooped to kiss her through the veil of falling hair, for it was his turn to keep vigil beside his uncle. With a sudden impulse she put up both hands and held his face close against her own, and John was surprised to find that the cheek which pressed his was wet with tears. He never before had seen her cry. The room was very still, but in that stillness a woman’s soul awoke, and another instance of redemption by love was begun.
It was plain to Sally, when she entered the doctor’s room the next morning, that he had passed a poor night. His eyes followed her with vague unrest. When John had gone up stairs she bent ovrr the be^.
“What is it?”
“Get them—out of the way—Sarah. John—is all right—but-”
He did not need to finish the sentence. Sally Mac nodded her complete comprehension.
Her manner to Elizabeth that morning was such a subtle mixture of deference and subdued admiration, that the latter unbent sufficiently to chat with her about John, all of whose boyhood summers had been spent on the Cape. Somehow, she knew not quite how, Elizabeth found herself by noon, confirmed in an opinion which she had modestly held for some months, that John Mayhew was a lucky man when he married her. Her estimation of Sally Mac underwent a change. She decided that these Cape people only needed to be known in order to be liked.
It was a luncheon fit for an epicure which Sally, in spite of sick-room duties, served for them that day. While it was in progress she made a suggestion.
“Sammy Tarr sent up little Timmie to say ye could have the buggy an’ horse any time ye liked, an’ I was tLinkin’ ye nvght be takin’ yer wife for a bit of a ride lound the Cape. ’Tis needin’ a breath of air she’ll be.”
Sammy Tarr was the village teamster who, beside two wagons, boasted an ancient vehicle, termed by courtesy a “buggy.” Sally did not think it necessary to add that his offer had been stimulated by a gift on her part, of two dozen freshly fried doughnuts and several pies to his numerous family.
John looked in uncertainty from the housekeeper to his wife’s eager face. Elizabeth felt that any break in the monotony of the last few days would be welcome.
“Would it be safe to leave?”
“Dr. McAleer says we needn’t be lookin’ for any change for the next twenty-four hours.” Sally quoted the morning bulletin of the young doctor from Hillport. “An’ ’tis losin’ her pretty color yer wife is with so much anxiety.”
Again the glance of both women clashed, if anything could be said to clash with the ingenuousness of Sally Mac’s gray eyes at the moment.
“I should like to go,” Elizabeth said ; and John’s, “very well, you shall, dear,” decided the matter.
When she had watched them drive away Sally entered the sick room.
“They’re gone,” she said, concisely.
A wave of relief swept over the doctor’s face.
“The books—Sarah !”
She brought them from the shelf in the sitting-room, where John had replaced them. He pointed to one and she laid the other aside.
“Now—the pen—and ink.”
Again she obeyed in silence. He motioned to a seat beside the bed and she took it, keeping her eyes intently fixed on his face that she might miss nothing of what he wished. With a shaking fore-finger he drew a cross in the air. Sally opened the account book and scored a similar mark on the first page. Then her glance went again to his face. A light had broken over it.
“You’re—a rare woman—Sarah!” he said, with unction.
For some time there was no sound in the room but the scratch of Sally’s pen, the little clink of steel against glass as she dipped it in the ink, and the rustle of turning pages. The doctor lay with closed eyes. Not sleeping, she knew. Nothing would have induced him to miss the music of that scoring pen.
“ ’Tis done.”
His eyes came open in a flash, almost before the words had left her lips. He stretched out one hand.
“Can you—lift me?”
She did so with a strong arm, putting the pen between his fingers. At the foot of the last page he wrote, with infinite difficulty, “Paid in full. Robert Lee.”
A week later, when John Mayhew had helped his wife on board the electric car, which was to take them to the railway station at Hillport, he said :
“I find that I was mistaken about Uncle Robert’s accounts. The people around here do not owe him anything.”
“Are you sure?” Elizabeth’s voice was shrill with disappointment. Her full, red lip drooped.
He thought again of the group of weather-beaten faces, quarry-laborers and fishermen, which had encircled the open grave ; of the sunlit road along which the funeral procession had passed, where each cottage gave forth its dole of weeping women, the children, every one of whom the doctor had ushered into the world, clinging in sturdy soundness to their mother’s skirts. Martin Rowe’s young wife, with the abandon of her race, had knelt down, her tiny baby hugged close in her arms, her white face lifted in prayer, as the hearse went by.
Even now, John’s eyes turned to the roadside, where the wife of a Finn quarryman, her fair skin and hair tanned to one dull yellow from exposure to wind and sun, stood arrayed in her poor best. Two small children were with her and each of the three carried a bunch of' nasturtiums. Instinctively John Mayhew knew that they were waiting for a car bound itj the opposite direction, and mat their destination was that newly-made grave in the little cemetery by the sea. He turned again to his wife with the look which, while she loved, she still half feared.
“I am quite sure,” he said, quietly. “It has all been paid in full.