The Doctor’s Wife—Her Hour
IT was twelve o’clock at night, but the Manager’s Wife, the Bookkeeper’s Wife, the Doctor’s Wife, and the Wife of the Night Foreman were still playing euchre in the shanty of Mrs. Harney, the Doctor’s Wife, in the camp of the Cuban Construction Company; while the Wife of the Walking Boss was sitting on the lounge, nursing a very wideawake baby.
It wasn’t often that there was anything of sufficient interest going on in the camp to keep any one, except the night shift, out of bed until even nine o’clock; but tonight there was a bull-fight in the City of Santa Clara, twenty-five miles away—the first that the American inhabitants of the camp had ever had an opportunity to see —to be followed by various exciting and unusual amusements in that provincial capital. The women had declined to countenance any such barbarity by their presence; so the Manager, the Bookkeeper, the Doctor, the Walking Boss, and all the other men who could by any possibility be spared from the works, had departed on the twelve o’clock train that day from ttie little town of Miranda, just a mile from camp, to return at one in the morning.
It was risky, of course, for every one knows the riff-raff of laborers that follows railroad construction, even in the States; but the Cuban Construction Company held their men with a firm grip, and also dealt justly by them, so were both feared and respected by the fifty-odd inhabitants of the two long shanties some two hundred yards away from the main body of the camp. The greater part of the laborers were native negroes, though about a dozen
of them had been brought over from Louisiana by the company for this work.
So a very grouchy Night Foreman out on the works with the night shift, and a small, rabbit-faced clerk in the commissary, were in charge of the camp; and the five white ’women who inhabited the five little shanties opposite the commissary, at the end of the long clearing in the cane, were whiling away the time very pleasantly. There was just that little touch of excitement about it that comes alwrays from doing the unusual—enhanced in this instance by the presence of five pistols lying in a row on Mrs. Harney’s muslin-draped dresser, each woman having said, as she placed hers there, that her husband had laughed at her for saying she was going to bring it.
“I pass,” said Mrs. Wales, the wife of the Night Foreman, with a deprecatory glance at her partner.
“You would if you had both bowers and the king! I knew I ought to order that trump up, but I thought I could trust you this time, after all I’ve coached you, when you know they’re four to one!” said the Bookkeeper’s wife, looking disgustedly over her hand.
Mrs. Harney took up the trump card, giving her partner a triumphant glance.
Suddenly the wife of the Night Foreman sprang up wildly from her seat, clutchine: the top of her head with her hand. She was a little, delicate thing, and had been married only a few months. “Something dreadful has just happened!” she gasped.
The other women stared at her in amazement. “What is the matter? What are you talking about?” they exclaimed together.
“Something dreadful has just happened—I feel it!” she reiterated, looking around upon them with dilated eyes.
“Nonsense! It’s that cocoanut pie you had for supper—it’s terribly indigestible,” said the Bookkeeper’s wife, who had supped with her.
“How do you feel it?” asked Mrs. Harney, looking at her curiously with her big, mysterious eyes.
“I felt just as if some one had struck me a heavy blow on the head, and then my hair all rose up on end!” exclaimed Mrs. Wales, hysterically.
“You’re nervous. I used to be always having notions like that before baby was born,” said the wife of the Walking Boss, from the lounge.
Mrs. Wales hesitated a moment, looking apprehensively around, and then, mindful of the impatience of her partner, sat down again and took up her cards. “Well, it ain’t pleasant,” she remarked shiveringly; and the game went on.
There was silence in the room except for an occasional word about the game, and the gurglings of the baby, who, havingpartaken of a midnight lunch, positively declined to go to sleep, but was performing all the gyrations of an inverted beetle, lying fiat on his back across his mother’s ample knees.
“Well, is it just my nerves again, or is it really getting dark in here?” asked Mrs. Wales plaintively at length, after two more hands had been played.
“Why, surely it is—the lamp’s going out. I forgot to fill it to-dav,” said Mrs. Harney, rising hastilv. “I’ll just light this candle while I fill it now”; and she brought out half an inch of candle and set it in the middle of the table. Then she went into the little kitchen back of the front room, whence a scratching of matches soon ensued. Presently she came back, laughing a little nervously. “I’m dreadfully sorry.” she said, “but there isn’t a drop of oil in the can, and that’s my last candle!”
There was a chorus of “Ohs!” from the three women.
“We can get some from my house,” said the Bookkeeper’s wife, rising.
“No, indeed !” cried Mrs. Wales hastily.
“Why not? It’s only two yards away, and Mrs. Harney and I will go after it, and you three can stay here.”
“Oh, no, please don’t! Don’t let’s open the door for anything till the men come back.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Harney soothingly, “we won’t, then. It won’t be much over half an hour now, and we can talk until then.”
The Bookkeeper’s wife, who had lived in railroad camps long enough not to be afraid of many things, said something about a “’fraid-cat!” which the Doctor’s wife tried to suppress by making a noise with her chair, and the five women sat around quite close together and watched the half-inch of candle dissolve to a quarter of an inch, and talked—at first continuously, then desultorily.
Presently the candle sputtered and went out, and Mrs. Harney, who was sitting by Mrs. Wales and was beginning to be telepathically affected, drew a sharp breath.
“How noisy the niggers are to-night!” said the wife of the Walking Boss, after a pause. “I never knew them to make such a fuss before.”
“Well, goodness knows, they’re bad enough all the time, down there whooping and gambling and drinking all night,” said the Manager’s wife. “My house is closest to them, and sometimes I can scarcely sleep at all. Tom has spoken to them about it time and again, but they don’t seem to remember after he gets out of their sight. I don’t believe they’ll ever do any better as long as that one they call Buck Carter is here to lead them into all sorts of things. He’s the worst darky we’ve ever had, and the Cuban negroes just do everything he tells them.”
“Oh !” exclaimed the Bookkeeper’s wife, springing up violently.
“What is the matter?” cried the other women, jumping up also.
“S-something f-fell on my head and ran d-down my face!” exclaimed the Bookkeeper’s wife, clawing frantically at her face.
“I guess it was one of those little red spiders,” said Mrs. Harney apologetically. “There seem to be so many of them in the shanties—I can’t get rid of them. They’re perfectly harmless, you know.”
The Bookkeeper’s wife, whose one weakness was spiders, harmless little red ones not being excepted, shook herself violently. “I wish we had a light,” she said discontentedly.
“Why, you all aren’t really afraid here with me, are you?” asked the wife of the Walking Boss complacently. She was an Irishwoman of comfortably large frame and great muscular capabilities.
“No, we never heard of your hurting any one,” said the Manager’s wife, with a delighted little chuckle at her own wit.
The wife of the Walking Boss paused for a full minute until she had quite taken in the humorous nature of this remark; then she laughed explosively. The other women laughed feebly.
There was silence for several minutes. “It seems to me I never knew the moon to be so bright before,” said the Doctor’s wife at length. And, indeed, the room was becoming much lighter, though the heavy shades were pulled down over both windows.
She went to the front window and pulled up the shades, and a fierce red glare rushed in and smote them all in the eyes. Then she gave a wild exclamation and jerked down the shade quickly. “Oh, my God!” she cried. “The commissary! The negroes!”
There was a chorus of exclamations inside as the others rushed to the window. At the other end of the long clearing, surrounded by flames, stood the commissary, before which a number of black figures with knives in their hands were running to and fro. Just then came a low knocking at the back door.
Mrs. Harney started forward. “Don’t open it, on your life!” cried all the other wives frantically.
Mrs. Harney went to the kitchen door and peered fearfully into its semi-darkness. Then she went to the back door and listened. The knocking was repeated, and a voice outside cried beseechingly, “Miss Amy, Miss Amy! For Gawd’s sake, let me in, Miss Amy!”
The other women protested, but Mrs. Harney unlocked the door and opened it a foot, letting in another flood of the red light and a shaking colored girl, who was blanched a sickly green. She was the cook whom Mrs. Harney had brought with her from the States.
The cook slammed the door and fell up against it, her eyes rolling hideously in her head. “Dey’s cornin’ ! Dev’s cornin’ !” she gasped as soon as she could speak.
“Who’s coming?” demanded five shaking voices.
“Buck Carter an’ de Cuber niggers from de long shanties. Dey’s done bu’nt de commissary an’ kilt Mr. Anderson an’ de Night Fo’man!”
“De Night Fo’man he got mad wid AÍ Carter fer sassin’ him, an’ knocked him in de haid wid er pick-axe, an’ den Buck Carter an’ de night shif’ dey riz up an’ chase de Night Fo’man inter de commissary, an’ de Cuber niggers dey hear de fuss an’ come out an’ jine in, an’ dey kilt Mr. Wales wid er cane-knife, an’ den dey kilt Mr. Anderson, too, ’case he’s tryin’ ter save him, an’ dey got holt er de whiskey an’ sot de commissary on fire, an’ dey swars dey’s goin’ ter kill eve’y white pusson, man, ’ooman, an’ chile, on de wucks! O-oo-oo!” The words which had been tumbling out of the girl’s mouth like grist from a mill ended in a long-drawn howl, indescribably horrible.
Mrs. Harney turned in time to see Mrs. Wales falling slowly. The Bookkeeper’s wife caught her and shook her. “You mustn’t do that! There isn’t time! You’ve got yourself to save—and the baby!” she whispered. “Do you hear?” But the Night Foreman’s wife was past hearing. The Manager’s wife was running around the room, wringing her hands; and the Irishwoman rose and folded her shawl around her baby and held it to her breast.
“Fannie,” said Mrs. Harney, taking the girl by the arm, “you must get away to town and send help.”
“Lord, Miss Amy, I can’t, I can’t! moaned the girl. “Dey’ll cotch me an’ kill me ef I stirs outen here!”
“No, they won’t—they won’t pay any attention to you outside; but they’ll certainly kill you if you stay here with us.” She took a bottle from the mantel and held it to the girl’s ashen lips. “Drink this,” she said sternly, “and run as fast as you can ! Run, Fannie, run, and bring the first people you can find!”
She listened a moment at the back door of the kitchen, opened it cautiously a few inches, and shoved the girl out. locking the door after her; then she stood with her head upon her breast. She was a tall, beautiful woman of thirty-five, with a
dead white face and big, hypnotic, black eyes. She had been raised on a Louisiana sugar plantation that worked three hundred negroes.
Her chest began to heave. Suddenly she lifted her head, went to the front room, took down a long black cloak from the back of the door, and put it on over her light dress.
“What are you going to do?” asked the Bookkeeper’s wife, who was still holding Mrs. Wales moaning against her neck.
Mrs. Harney appeared not to hear her, as she hurriedly shook down her long black hair till it fell below her waist.
“What are you going to do?” demanded the Bookkeeper’s wife again, watching her breathlessly.
“Going to talk to them,” replied Mrs. Harney, in a strange, colorless voice.
“To talk to them, you fool? Don’t you know they’re not men now? They’re just beasts, crazy with whiskey and blood. We must take our pistols and keep them out as long as we can, and see that they don’t take us alive—that’s all, unless the men get here first!”
The manager’s wife, who had lifted up a corner of the shade and was peering out. now began to scream. “They’re coming! They’re coming!” at the ton of her voice: but the Irishwoman clapped a large hand over her mouth, cutting off all sound.
Mrs. Harney made no replv whatever, but turned up the whiskey bottle from which Fannie had just drunk, took three swallows, and started towards the door. Then she came back, took her pistol from the row on the dresser, and slipped it into her cloak pocket.
The Bookkeeper’s wife watched her with dilated eves until she had reached the hall, then she laid her horden gentlv down and came forward. “I’ll go with von.” she said, swallowing hard in her throat.
But Mrs. Harney merelv waved her hack with a. gesture of her hand, and the Bookkeener’s wife, looking into her eves fearfullv for a second, recoiled from what she saw there. As she stood hesitating, Mrs. Harnev, moving calmlv and slowlv. unlocked the front door and stepned out. Tt hadn’t been five minutes from the time the girl knocked at the hack door.
Half way down the long green rectangle which the shanties of the camp cut off
from the surrounding cane a number of black figures, colossal against the light, were running towards the little shanties in which the white people lived.
The woman shrank back a little as the long red fingers of firelight caught her and dragged her into the glare; then she stepped firmly off the little porch. When a shout showed that she was seen, her steady, vacant gaze shifted for a moment and took cognizance of Buck Carter in the lead, looking like a giant baboon against the light, and she caught her lower lip fiercely between her teeth, looked straight ahead of her, and walked^ slowly towards them, her arms hanging limp by her sides, and her long black hair waving a little in the flame-heated breeze.
As the negroes came closer they slackened their pace somewhat, but Buck Carter, stripped to the waist, his white cotton trousers splashed with ugly red stains, ran up close to her, a long cane-knife in his right hand, his black eyes and white teeth gleaming horribly, and caught her by the shoulder. Her right hand slid half way out of her pocket, but her white, set face never moved, and his hand dropped and he recoiled a little before the wide, strange eyes that seemed to look through him and for a thousand miles beyond, without ever seeing him. His followers halted uncertainly in mid-course, staring at her curiously. There was something eerie and mysterious in the still, automatic^ figure advancing so steadily upon their noise and violence.
The pause was so tense that it seemed as if the air must crack with it; then one or two of the men began to move restlessly.
At last the woman - turned her eyes slowly from the unseeing contemplation of Buck Carter up to the sky, gazed fixedly for a moment, and then began to speak.
“I can see straight up into heaven,” she said in a high, clear voice.^ “I can see the Lord God A’mighty sitting on his great white throne; I can see the^golden streets, and the angels with harps in their hands, standing on each side of the throne.”
It was impossible not to believe that she saw these things. Involuntarily, the semi-circle of black faces around her turned up fearfully to the sky and stared at
tlie clouds of black, spark-laden smoke rolling overhead.
The woman gave them no heed. “Over there/’ she went on, pointing realistically towards the burning ouilding, "1 can see down into Hell, and the uevil and his angels a-walking round with pitchforks in their hands.”
The half-witted negro water-boy who was standing on the outskirts nearest to “Hell,” suddenly gave a fearful look around him and moved up close to Buck Carter.
As she went on, there came to her the strange phraseology and the high, lialfchanung tone of the negro preachers to whom she had so often listened in her childhood, her voice keeping the same pitch for a whole sentence, and then falling suddenly at a single word.
“Up in heaven I see a long line of folks with white robes an crowns on their haids, a-stan'in’ on the right han' side of the throne, an’ a line of folks without any robes an; any crowns a-stan'in’ on the left han’ side of the throne; an’ I see the Angel Gabriel with a iiamin’ sword in his han’, stan’in’ befo’ the throne. An’ 1 hears the Lawd God A’mighty a-sayin' to the Angel, ‘Who are these without any robes or any crowns?’ An’ 1 hears the Angel Gabriel a-sayin', ‘Lawd, these are the bad men that did evil to their neighbor, that burned up their neighbor's property and spoiled his goods and put him to death. An’ I hears the Lawd God A’mighty say in', ‘Cast ’em out into hell tire, where there shall be wailin’ an' gnashin’ of teeth.’ ”
At the last words the high voice fell with an indescribable accent of finality and doom, and the Cuban negroes, most superstitious of their race, drew closer together, shivering; but Buck Carter shifted restlessly from one foot to the other, a black scowl of recollection on his face.
“De Night Fo’man he hit de fust lick,” he said defiantly.
“Dat’s so!” “’Deed he did!” exclaimed several other voices exultantly.
Then some stragglers from the burning house came running up with half-empty whiskey bottles in their hands.
“What’s de matter here?” “Whatcher waitin’ for?” “Whyn’t yer go on ter de
white folks’ shanties?” they asked, shoving their way curiously into the group.
Buck Carter’s eyes rolled back around his followers to gather his scattered resolution, and the ends of the semi-circle drew together and closed ominously around the central figure. The unwavering eyes in the white marble face did not see, but the watchful subconscious mind, which was in control, took note of it.
“An' I see the condemned sinners begin to wring their ban’s an’ sing.” Suddenly she lifted up her voice and began to sing. Ordinarily, it was a voice for the murmuring of contralto love songs to the accompaniment of a guitar on a summer’s evening, but now above the noise of the fiâmes it rose clear and strong as that of a prima donna over the footlights:
‘-Oh, Lawd, have mussy on me,
For Gabriel's trump done blow
To call po' sinners to eternity,
Au’ I ain't made ready fer ter go.
“I got no oil fer ter make no light,
An’ it’s tu’ned too dark ter see,
An’ Gabriel’s tootin’ wid all his might—
Oh, Lawd, have mussy on me!”
It was a camp-meeting song known to every negro in the Southern States, and the tune was weird enough to raise goosefiesh on a marble statue.
As she sang, her body swayed gently to and fro. When she got to the second verse the half-witted water-boy behind Buck Carter began to swing in time to the music:
“I got no robe, an’ I got no crown,
Ter w’ar through eternity.
Saint Peter's sho’ to tu’n me down—
Oh, Lawd, have mussy on me!”
A low, mournful humming began to be heard around the circle.
“Sing!” said the woman imperatively to Buck Carter. He hesitated for a moment, and then suddenly his great bass voice broke out:
“I went to de rock fer to hide my face From de tumble sights I see,
But de rock cried out, ‘No hidin’ place!’
Oh, Lawd, have mussy on me!”
It was the last verse. The whole company were rocking back and forth and singing.
Scarcely had the last notes of the songdied away when their leader, without pausing for breath, began another, of entirely different character—the triumphant song of one who has “come through” in a religious revival:
“I gotta robe, an’ you gotta robe, all of God’s child’en gotta robe;
When we git ter heaven gwine ter put on my robe, Gwine ter shout all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven 1
Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ thar— Heaven, heaven, gwine ter shout all over God’s heaven.”
The women kneeling, pistol in hand, at the window of the shanty, clutched one another convulsively when they heard this song; for it was one that they had often heard the negroes from the States sing as they sat out in front of their shanties of a Sunday night, and they knew that it had many, many verses. The ever watchful subconscious mind outside had remembered this also. The women listened with renewed hope as it rolled along in heavy chorus:
“I gotta shoes, an’ you gotta shoes, all of God’s child’en gotta shoes;
When we git ter heaven gwine ter put on my shoes, Gwine ter shout all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven,
Gwine ter shout all over God’s heaven.”
When, hopeless and vengeful, the men of the Cuban Construction Company broke around the corner of the little shanties, they brought up so abruptly that the citizens of Miranda, most of whom were following close behind, were precipitated headlong upon them. The circle of black devotees, swaying and singing
around the strange priestess, stood out strongly against a background of flame.
The white men paused irresolute, trying to read the meaning of the scene. The negroes, dazed by their own varying emotions of the past hour, and swept along by the torrent of sound, looked at them uncomprehendingly for a moment, and then back to their leader; but the gleam of firelight on gun and pistol barrel finally bore its warning and familiar message to their confused senses, and those on the outskirts began to steal away towards the friendly shadows of the tall cane. Then some one gave Buck Carter a warning jerk, and he turned and saw the last of his followers running tumultuously, and with a last lingering look at the woman he, too, ran for the cane.
But the Doctor’s wife never turned her head. She took no note of flying feet nor pursuing bullets. When the women rushed out and threw themselves upon her, when the Doctor tried to take her in his arms, she brushed them all aside as if they had been so many flies, and, looking straight before her, went on insistently :
“I gotta song, an’ you gotta song, all of God’s
They talked hysterically of her courage and devotion, but after two hypodermics of morphine had reduced her to something like quiet, the Doctor, who understood better about these things, stood looking dowm upon her, with the tears streaming down his face, and desperate fear in his heart; for he knew that when the subconscious mind once gets the upper hand it is never in a hurry to let go.
EWARE oi the
eye that droops.
OST men are slaves, but the poet is lord over his soul
IOLLARS beget dollars, but contentment begets a spiritual wealth.