Zerviah Hope by Elizabeth Stuart
In the month of August, in the year 1878, the steamer Mercy, of the
New York and Savannah line, cast anchor down the channel, off a little
town in South Carolina which bore the name of Calhoun. It was not a
regular part of her “run” for the Mercy to make a landing at this
place. She had departed from her course by special permit to leave
three passengers, two men and one woman, who had business of a grave
nature in Calhoun.
A man, himself a passenger for Savannah, came upon deck as the
steamship hove to, to inquire the reason of the delay. He was a short
man, thin, with a nervous hand and neck. His eyes were black, his hair
was black, and closely cut. He had an inscrutable mouth, and a
forehead well-plowed rather by experience than years. He was not an old man. He was cleanly dressed in new, cheap clothes. He had been
commented upon as a reticent passenger. He had no friends on board the
Mercy. This was the first time upon the voyage that he had been
observed to speak. He came forward and stood among the others, and
“What’s this for?”
He addressed the mate, who answered with a sidelong look, and none too
“We land passengers by the Company’s order.”
“Yes, the men and the lady.”
“Who are they?”
“Physicians from New York.”
“Ah-h!” said the man, slowly, making a sighing noise between his
teeth. “That means—that means—”
“Volunteers to the fever district,” said the mate, shortly, “as you
might have known before now. You’re not of a sociable cast, I see.”
“I have made no acquaintances,” said the short passenger. “I know
nothing of the news of the ship. Is the lady a nurse?”
“She’s a she-doctor. Doctors, the whole of ’em. There ain’t a nurse
“Plenty to be found, I suppose, in this place you speak of?”
“How should I know?” replied the mate, with another sidelong look.
One of the physicians, it seemed, overheard this last question and
reply. It was the woman. She stepped forward without hesitation, and,
regarding the short passenger closely, said:
“There are not nurses. This place is perishing. Savannah and the
larger towns have been looked after first—as is natural and right,”
added the physician, in a business-like tone. She had a quick and
clear-cut, but not ungentle voice.
The man nodded at her curtly, as he would to another man; he made no
answer; then with a slight flush his eye returned to her dress and
figure; he lifted his hat and stood uncovered till she had passed and
turned from him. His face, under the influence of this fluctuation of
color, changed exceedingly, and improved in proportion as it changed.
“Who is that glum fellow, Doctor?”
One of the men physicians followed and asked the lady; he spoke to her
with an air of camaraderie, at once frank and deferential; they had
been classmates at college for a course of lectures; he had theories
averse to the medical education of women in general, but this woman in
particular, having outranked him at graduation, he had made up his
mind to her as a marked exception to a wise rule, entitled to a candid
fellow’s respect. Besides, despite her diploma, Marian Dare was a
lady—he knew the family.
“Is he glum, Dr. Frank?” replied Dr. Dare.
But the other young man stood silent. He never consulted with
Dr. Dare went below for her luggage. A lonely dory, black of
complexion and skittish of gait, had wandered out and hung in the
shadow of the steamer, awaiting the passengers. The dory was manned by
one negro, who sat with his oars crossed, perfectly silent.
There is a kind of terror for which we find that animals, as well as
men, instinctively refrain from seeking expression. The face and
figure of the negro boatman presented a dull form of this species of
fear. Dr. Dare wondered if all the people in Calhoun would have that
look. The negro regarded the Mercy and her passengers apathetically.
It was a hot day, and the water seemed to be blistering about the
dory. So, too, the stretching sand of the shore, as one raised the
eyes painfully against the direct noon-light, was as if it smoked. The
low, gray palmetto leaves were curled and faint. Scanty spots of shade
beneath sickly trees seemed to gasp upon the hot ground, like
creatures that had thrown themselves down to get cool. The outlines of
the town beyond had a certain horrible distinctness, as if of a sight
that should but could not be veiled. Overhead, and clean to the flat
horizon, flashed a sky of blue and blazing fire.
“Passengers for Calhoun!”
The three physicians descended into the dory. The other
passengers—what there were of them—gathered to see the little group
depart. Dr. Frank offered Dr. Dare a hand, which she accepted, like a
lady, not needing it in the least. She was a climber, with firm, lithe
ankles. No one spoke, as these people got in with the negro, and
prepared to drift down with the scorching tide. The woman looked from
the steamer to the shore, once, and back again, northwards. The men
did not look at all. There was an oppression in the scene which no one
was ready to run the risk of increasing by the wrong word.
“Land me here, too,” said a low voice, suddenly appearing. It was the
glum passenger. No one noticed him, except, perhaps, the mate (looking
on with the air of a man who would feel an individual grievance in
anything this person would be likely to do) and the lady.
“There is room for you,” said Dr. Dare. The man let himself into the
boat at a light bound, and the negro rowed them away. The Mercy,
heading outwards, seemed to shrug her shoulders, as if she had thrown
them off. The strip of burning water between them and the town
narrowed rapidly, and the group set their faces firmly landwards.
Once, upon the little voyage, Dr. Frank took up an idle pair of oars,
with some vaguely humane intent of helping the negro—he looked so.
“I wouldn’t, Frank,” said the other gentleman.
“Now, Remane—why, for instance?”
“I wouldn’t begin by getting overheated.”
No other word was spoken. They landed in silence. In silence, and
somewhat weakly, the negro pulled the dory high upon the beach. The
four passengers stood for a moment upon the hot, white sands, moved
toward one another, before they separated, by a blind sense of human
fellowship. Even Remane found himself touching his hat. Dr. Frank
asked Dr. Dare if he could serve her in any way; but she thanked him,
and, holding out her firm, white hand, said, “Good-bye.”
This was, perhaps, the first moment when the consciousness of her sex
had made itself oppressive to her since she ventured upon this
undertaking. She would have minded presenting herself to the Relief
Committee of Calhoun, accompanied by gentlemen upon whom she had no
claim. She walked on alone, in her gray dress and white straw hat,
with her luggage in her own sufficient hand.
The reticent passenger had fallen behind with the negro boatman, with
whom he walked slowly, closing the line.
After a few moments, he advanced and hesitatingly joined the lady,
beginning to say:
“May I ask you—”
“Ah,” interrupted Dr. Dare, cordially, “it is you.”
“Will you tell me, madam, the best way of going to work to offer
myself as a fever nurse in this place? I want the best way. I want
“Yes, yes,” she said, nodding; “I knew you would do it.”
“I came from the North for this purpose, but I meant to go on to
“Yes, I know. This is better; they need everything in this place.”
She looked toward the gasping little town through the relentless noon.
Her merciful blue eyes filled, but the man’s look followed with a dry,
“There is no porter,” he said, abruptly, glancing at her heavy bag and
shawl-strap. “Would you permit me to help you?”
“Oh, thank you!” replied Dr. Dare, heartily, relinquishing her burden.
Plainly, this poor fellow was not a gentleman. The lady could afford
to be kind to him.
“I know nothing how we shall find it,” she chatted, affably, “but I go
to work to-night. I presume I shall need nurses before morning. I’ll
have your address.”
She took from her gray sacque pocket a physician’s note-book, and
stood, pencil in hand.
“My name,” he said, “is Hope—Zerviah Hope.”
She wrote without comment, walking as she wrote; he made no other
attempt to converse with her. The two physicians followed, exchanging
now and then a subdued word. The negro dragged himself wearily over
the scorching sand, and thus the little procession of pity entered the
town of Calhoun.
My story does not deal with love or ladies. I have to relate no tender
passages between the fever-physicians, volunteers from New York, for
the afflicted region of Calhoun. Dr. Marian Dare came South to do a
brave work, and I have no doubt she did it bravely, as a woman should.
She came in pursuit of science, and I have no doubt she found it, as a
woman will. Our chief interest in her at this time lies in the fact
that certain missing fragments in the history of the person known as
Zerviah Hope we owe to her. She hovers over the tale with a distant
and beautiful influence, pervading as womanly compassion and alert as
a woman’s eye.
I have nothing further to say about the story before I tell it, except
that it is true.
That night, after the physicians had gone about their business,
Zerviah Hope wandered, a little forlornly, through the wretched town.
Scip, the negro boatman, found him a corner to spend the night. It was
a passable place, but Hope could not sleep; he had already seen too
much. His soul was parched with the thirst of sympathy. He walked his
hot attic till the dawn came. As it grew brighter he grew calmer; and,
when the unkindly sun burst burning upon the land, he knelt by his
window and looked over the doomed town, and watched the dead-carts
slinking away toward the everglades in the splendid color of the sky
and air, and thought his own thoughts in his own way about this which
he had come to do. We should not suppose that they were remarkable
thoughts; he had not the look of a remarkable man. Yet, as he knelt
there,—a sleepless, haggard figure blotted against the sunrise, with
folded hands and moving lips,—an artist, with a high type of
imagination and capable of spiritual discernment, would have found in
him a design for a lofty subject, to which perhaps he would have given
the name of “Consecration” rather than of “Renunciation,” or of
“Exultance” rather than of “Dread.”
A common observer would have simply said: “I should not have taken him
for a praying man.”
He was still upon his knees when Dr. Dare’s order came, “Nurse wanted
for a bad case!” and he went from his prayer to his first patient. The
day was already deep, and a reflection, not of the sunrise, moved with
him as light moves.
Doctor Dare, in her gray dress, herself a little pale, met him with
keen eyes. She said:
“It is a very bad case. An old man—much neglected. No one will go.
Are you willing?”
The nurse answered:
“I am glad.”
She watched him as he walked away—a plain, clean, common man, with
unheroic carriage. The physician’s fine eyes fired.
To Doctor Frank, who had happened in, she said:
“He will do the work of ten.”
“His strength was as the strength of ten,
Because his heart was pure,”
quoted the young man, laughing lightly. “I don’t know that I should
have thought it, in this case. You’ve taken a fancy to the fellow.”
“I always respect an unmixed motive when I see it,” she replied,
shortly. “But I’ve been in practice too long to take sudden fancies.
There is no profession like ours, Doctor, for putting the sympathies
under double picket guard.”
She stiffened a little in her manner. She did not like to be thought
an over-enthusiastic woman—womanish, unused to the world.
The weather, soon after the arrival of the Mercy, took a terrible
mood, and a prolonged drought settled upon Calhoun. The days dawned
lurid and long. The nights fell dewless and deadly. Fatal and
beautiful colors lurked in the swamps, and in the sifting dust, fine
and hard, blown by siroccos across the glare of noon, like sands on
the shores of the Lake of Fire. The pestilence walked in darkness, and
the destruction wasted at midday. Men died, in that little town of a
few thousand souls, at the rate of a score a day—black and white,
poor and rich, clean and foul, saint and sinner. The quarantine laws
tightened. Vessels fled by the harbor mouth under full sail, and
melted like helpless compassion upon the fiery horizon. Trains upon
the Shore Line shot through and thundered past the station; they
crowded on steam; the fireman and his stoker averted their faces as
they whirled by. The world turned her back upon Calhoun, and the dying
town was shut in with her dead. Only, at long intervals, the Mercy,
casting anchor far down the channel, sent up by Scip, the weak, black
boatman, the signs of human fellowship—food, physician, purse,
medicine—that spoke from the heart of the North to the heart of the
South, and upheld her in those well-remembered days.
Zerviah Hope, volunteer nurse, became quickly enough a marked man in
Calhoun. He more than verified Doctor Dare’s prognosis. Where the
deadliest work was to be done, this man, it was observed, asked to be
sent. Where no one else would go, he went. What no one else would do,
he did. He sought the neglected, and the negroes. He braved the
unclean, and the unburied. With the readiness of all incisive
character acting on emergencies, he stamped himself upon the place and
time. He went to his task as the soldier goes to the front under
raking fire, with gleaming eyes and iron muscles. The fever of the
fight was on him. He seemed to wrestle with disease for his patients,
and to trample death beneath his feet. He glowed over his cures with a
positive physical dilation, and writhed over his dead as if he had
killed them. He seemed built of endurance more than mortal. It was not
known when he slept, scarcely if he ate. His weariness sat upon him
like a halo. He grew thin, refined, radiant. In short, he presented an
example of that rare spectacle which never fails to command
spectators—a common man possessed by an uncommon enthusiasm.
What passed with him at this time in that undiscovered sea which we
call a man’s inner life, it would not be easy to assert. So far as we
can judge, all the currents of his nature had swelled into the great,
pulsing tide of self-surrender, which swept him along. Weakness,
wrong, memory, regret, fear, grief, pleasure, hope,—all the little
channels of personal life,—ran dry. He was that most blessed of human
creatures, a man without a past and without a future, and living in a
present nobler than the one could have been or the other could become.
He continued to be a silent man, speaking little, excepting to his
patients, and now and then, very gently, to the lady, Dr. Dare. He was
always pliable to the influence of a woman’s voice or to womanly
manner. He had, in the presence of women, the quick responsiveness and
sudden change of color and sensitiveness of intonation which bespeak
the man whose highest graces and lowest faults are likely to be owing
to feminine power.
This was a quality which gave him remarkable success as a nurse. He
was found to be infinitely tender, and of fine, brave patience. It was
found that he shrank from no task because it was too small, as he had
shrunk from no danger because it was too great. He became a favorite
with the sick and with physicians. The convalescent clung to him, the
dying heard of him and sent for him, the Relief Committee leaned upon
him, as in such crises the leader leans upon the led. By degrees, he
became greatly trusted in Calhoun; this is to say, that he became
I have been told that, to this day, many people personally unknown to
him, whose fate it was to be imprisoned in that beleaguered town at
that time, and who were familiar with the nervous figure and plain,
intense countenance of the Northern nurse, as he passed, terrible day
after terrible day, to his post, cannot hear of him, even now, without
that suffusion of look by which we hold back tears; and that, when his
name took on, as it did, a more than local reputation, they were
unable to speak it because of choking voices. I have often wished that
he knew this.
It was the custom in Calhoun to pay the nurses at short, stated
intervals,—I think once a week, on Saturday nights. The first time
that Hope was summoned to receive his wages, he evinced marked
emotion, too genuine not to be one of surprise and repugnance.
“I had not thought,—” he began, and stood, coloring violently.
“You earn your five dollars a day, if anybody in Calhoun does,” urged
the official, with kindly brusqueness.
“It is not right; I do not wish to take the money,” said the nurse,
with agitation. “I do not wish to be paid for—saving—human life. I
did not come to the fever district to make money; I came to save
life—to save life!” he added, in a quick whisper. He had not slept
for four nights, and seemed, they noticed, more than usually nervous
in his manner.
“The money is yours,” insisted the treasurer.
“Very well,” said Hope, after a long silence; and no more was said
about it. He took his wages and walked away up the street, absorbed in
One morning, he went to his lodgings to seek a little rest. It was
about six o’clock, and people were already moving in the hot, thirsty
streets. The apothecaries’ doors were open, and their clerks were
astir. The physicians drove or walked hastily, with the haggard look
of men whose days and nights are too short for their work, and whose
hope, and heart as well, have grown almost too small. Zerviah noticed
those young Northern fellows among them, Frank and Remane, and saw how
they had aged since they came South,—brave boys, both of them, and
had done a man’s brave deed. Through her office window, as he walked
past, he caught a glimpse of Dr. Dare’s gray dress and blonde, womanly
head of abundant hair. She was mixing medicines, and patients stood
waiting. She looked up and nodded as he went by; she was too busy to
smile. At the door of the Relief Committee, gaunt groups hung,
clamoring. At the telegraph office, knots of men and women gathered,
duly inspiring the heroic young operator,—a slight girl,—who had not
left her post for now many days and nights. Her chief had the fever
last week,—was taken at the wires,—lived to get home. She was the
only person alive in the town who knew how to communicate with the
outer world. She had begun to teach a little brother of hers the Morse
alphabet,—“That somebody may know, Bobby, if I—can’t come some day.”
She, too, knew Zerviah Hope, and looked up; but her pretty face was
clouded with the awful shadow of her own responsibility.
“We all have about as much as we can bear,” thought Zerviah, as he
went by. His own burden was lightened a little that morning, and he
was going home to get a real rest. He had just saved his last
patient—the doctor gave him up. It was a young man, the father of
five very little children, and their mother had died the week before.
The nurse had looked at the orphans, and said: “He’s got to live.”
This man had blessed him this morning, and called the love of heaven
on his head and its tender mercy on his whole long life. Zerviah
walked with quick step. He lifted his head, with its short, black,
coarse hair. His eyes, staring for sleep, flashed, fed with a food the
body knows not of. He felt almost happy, as he turned to climb the
stairs that led to the attic shelter where he had knelt and watched
the dawn come on that first day, and given himself to God and to the
dying of Calhoun. He had always kept that attic, partly because he had
made that prayer there. He thought it helped him to make others since.
He had not always been a man who prayed. The habit was new, and
required culture. He had guarded it rigidly since he came South, as
he had his diet and regimen of bathing, air, and other physical needs.
On this morning that I speak of, standing with his almost happy face
and lifted head, with his foot upon the stairs, he turned, for no
reason that he could have given, and looked over his shoulder. A man
behind him, stepping softly, stopped, changed color, and crossed the
“I am followed,” said the nurse.
He spoke aloud, but there was no one to hear him. A visible change
came over his face. He stood uncertain for a moment; then shut the
door and crawled upstairs. At intervals he stopped on the stairs to
rest, and sat with his head in his hands, thinking. By and by he
reached his room, and threw himself heavily upon his bed. All the
radiance had departed from his tired face, as if a fog had crept over
it. He hid it in his long, thin, humane hands, and lay there for a
little while. He was perplexed—not surprised. He was not
shocked—only disappointed. Dully he wished that he could get five
minutes’ nap; but he could not sleep. Not knowing what else to do, he
got upon his knees presently, in that place by the window he liked to
pray in, and said aloud:
“Lord, I didn’t expect it; I wasn’t ready. I should like to sleep long
enough to decide what to do.”
After this, he went back to bed and lay still again, and in a little
while he truly slept. Not long; but to those who perish for rest, a
moment of unconsciousness may do the work of a cup of water to one
perishing of thirst. He started, strengthened, with lines of decision
forming about his mouth and chin; and, having bathed and cleanly
dressed, went out.
He went out beyond the town to the hut where Scip the boatman lived.
Scip was at home. He lived quite alone. His father, his mother and
four brothers had died of the plague since June. He started when he
saw Hope, and his habitual look of fear deepened to a craven terror;
he would rather have had the yellow fever than to have seen the
Northern nurse just then. But Zerviah sat down by him on the hot sand,
beside a rather ghastly palmetto that grew there, and spoke to him
very gently. He said:
“The Mercy came in last night, Scip.—I know. And you rowed down for
the supplies. You heard something about me on board the Mercy. Tell
“He’s a durn fool,” said Scip, with a dull show of passion.
“Who is a durn fool?”
“That dem mate.”
“So it was the mate? Yes. What did he say, Scip?”
“I never done believe it,” urged Scip, with an air of suddenly
“But you told of it, Scip.”
“I never told nobody but Jupiter, the durn fool!” persisted Scip.
“Who is Jupiter?”
“Doctor Remane’s Jupiter, him that holds his hoss, that he brung up
from the fever. He said he wouldn’t tell. I never done believe it,
“It seems to me, Scip,” said Zerviah, in a low, kind voice, “that I
wouldn’t have told if I’d been you. But never mind.”
“I never done mean to hurt you!” cried Scip, following him into the
road. “Jupiter the durn, he said he’d never tell. I never told nobody
“You have told the whole town,” said Zerviah Hope, patiently. “I’m
sorry, but never mind.”
He stood for a moment looking across the stark palmetto, over the
dusty stretch of road, across the glare, to the town. His eyes blinded
“It wouldn’t have been a great while,” he said. “I wish you hadn’t,
Scip, but never mind!”
He shook the negro gently off, as if he had been a child. There was
nothing more to say. He would go back to his work. As he walked along,
he suddenly said to himself:
“She did not smile this morning! Nor the lady at the telegraph office,
either. Nor—a good many other folks. I remember now.... Lord!” he
added aloud, thought breaking into one of his half-unconscious
prayers, which had the more pathos because it began with the rude
abruptness of an apparent oath,—“Lord! what in the name of heaven am
I going to do about it?”
Now, as he was coming into the little city, with bowed head and broken
face, he met Doctor Dare. She was riding on her rounds upon a patient,
Southern tackey, and she was riding fast. But she reined up and
“Mr. Hope! There is a hateful rumor brought from New York about you. I
am going to tell you immediately. It is said—”
“Wait a minute!” he pleaded, holding out both hands. “Now. Go on.”
“It is said that you are an escaped convict,” continued the lady,
“It is false!” cried the nurse, in a ringing voice.
The doctor regarded him for a moment.
“I may be wrong. Perhaps it was not so bad. I was in a cruel hurry,
and so was Doctor Frank. Perhaps they said a discharged convict.”
“What else?” asked Zerviah, lifting his eyes to hers.
“They said you were just out of a seven years’ imprisonment for
manslaughter. They said you killed a man—for jealousy, I believe;
something about a woman.”
“What else?” repeated the nurse, steadily.
“I told them I did not believe one word of it!” cried Marian Dare.
“Thank you, madam,” said Zerviah Hope, after a scarcely perceptible
pause; “but it is true.”
He drew one fierce breath.
“She was beautiful,” he said. “I loved her; he ruined her; I stabbed
He had grown painfully pale. He wanted to go on speaking to this
woman, not to defend or excuse himself, not to say anything weak or
wrong, only to make her understand that he did not want to excuse
himself; in some way, just because she was a woman, to make her feel
that he was man enough to bear the burden of his deed. He wanted to
cry out to her, “You are a woman! Oh, be gentle, and understand how
sorry a man can be for a deadly sin!” but his lips were parched. He
moved them dryly; he could not talk.
She was silent at first. She was a prudent woman; she thought before
“Poor fellow!” she said, suddenly. Her clear blue eyes overflowed. She
held out her hand, lifted his, wrung it, dropped it, and softly added,
“Well, never mind!” much as if he had been a child or a patient,—much
as he himself had said, “Never mind!” to Scip.
Then Zerviah Hope broke down.
“I haven’t got a murderer’s heart!” he cried. “It has been taken away
from me. I ain’t so bad—now. I meant to be—I wanted to do—”
“Hush!” she said. “You have, and you shall. God is fair.”
“Yes,” said the penitent convict, in a dull voice, “God is fair, and
so he let ’em tell of me. I’ve got no fault to find with Him. So
nigh as I can understand Almighty God, He means well.... I guess
He’ll pull me through some way.... But I wish Scip hadn’t told just
now. I can’t help being sorry. It wasn’t that I wanted to cheat,
but”—he choked—“the sick folks used to like me. Now, do you think
I’d ought to go on nursing, Doctor? Do you think I’d ought to stop?”
“You are already an hour late,” replied the woman of science, in her
usual business-like voice. “Your substitute will be sleepy and
restless; that affects the patient. Go back to your work as fast as
you can. Ask me no more foolish questions.”
She drew her veil; there was unprofessional moisture on her long,
feminine lashes. She held out her hearty hand-grasp to him, touched
the tackey, and galloped away.
“She is a good woman,” said Zerviah, half aloud, looking down at his
cold fingers. “She touched me, and she knew! Lord, I should like to
have you bless her!”
He looked after her. She sat her horse finely; her gray veil drifted
in the hot wind. His sensitive color came. He watched her as if he had
known that he should never see her again on earth.
A ruined character may be as callous as a paralyzed limb. A ruined and
repentant one is in itself an independent system of sensitive and
Zerviah Hope returned to his work, shrinking under the foreknowledge
of his fate. He felt as if he knew what kind of people would remind
him that they had become acquainted with his history, and what ways
they would select to do it.
He was not taken by surprise when men who had lifted their hats to the
popular nurse last week, passed him on the street to-day with a cold
nod or curious stare. When women who had reverenced the self-sacrifice
and gentleness of his life as only women do or can reverence the
quality of tenderness in a man, shrank from him as if he were
something infectious, like the plague,—he knew it was just, though he
felt it hard.
His patients heard of what had happened, sometimes, and indicated a
feeling of recoil. That was the worst. One said:
“I am sorry to hear you are not the man we thought you,” and died in
his arms that night.
Zerviah remembered that these things must be. He reasoned with
himself. He went into his attic, and prayed it all over. He said:
“Lord, I can’t expect to be treated as if I’d never been in prison.
I’m sorry I mind it so. Perhaps I’d ought not to. I’ll try not to care
More than once he was sure of being followed again, suspiciously or
curiously. It occurred to him at last that this was most likely to
happen on pay-days. That puzzled him. But when he turned, it was
usually some idler, and the fellow shrank and took to his heels, as if
the nurse had the fever.
In point of fact, even in that death-stricken town, to be alive was
to be as able to gossip as well people, and rumor, wearied of the
monotonous fever symptom, found a diverting zest in this shattered
Zerviah Hope was very much talked about in Calhoun; so much, that the
Relief Committee heard, questioned, and experienced official anxiety.
It seemed a mistake to lose so valuable a man. It seemed a severity to
disturb so noble a career. Yet who knew what sinister countenance the
murderer might be capable of shielding beneath his mask of pity? The
official mind was perplexed. Was it humane to trust the lives of our
perishing citizens to the ministrations of a felon who had so
skillfully deceived the most intelligent guardians of the public weal?
There was, in particular, a chairman of a sub-committee (on the water
supply) who was burdened with uneasiness.
“It’s clear enough what brought him to Calhoun,” said this man.
“What do you suppose the fellow does with his five dollars a day?”
The Committee on the Water Supply promptly divided into a
Sub-Vigilance, and to the Sub-Vigilance Committee Zerviah Hope’s case
was referred. The result was, that he was followed on pay-day.
One Saturday night, just as the red-hot sun was going down, the
sub-committee returned to the Relief Office in a state of high
official excitement, and reported to the chief as follows:
“We’ve done it. We’ve got him. We’ve found out what the fellow does
with his money. He puts it—”
“Well?” for the sub-committee hesitated.
“Into the relief contribution-boxes on the corners of the street.”
“Every dollar. We stood and watched him count it out—his week’s
wages. Every mortal cent that Yankee’s turned over to the fund for the
sufferers. He never kept back a red. He poured it all in.”
“Follow him next week. Report again.”
They followed, and reported still again. They consulted, and accepted
the astounding truth. The murderer, the convict, the miserable, the
mystery, Zerviah Hope,—volunteer nurse, poor, friendless, discharged
from Sing Sing, was proved to have surrendered to the public charities
of Calhoun, every dollar which he had earned in the service of her
sick and dying.
The Committee on the Water Supply, and the Sub-Vigilance Committee
stood, much depressed, before their superior officer. He, being a just
man, flushed red with a noble rage.
“Where is he? Where is Zerviah Hope? The man should be sent for. He
should receive the thanks of the committee. He should receive the
acknowledgments of the city. And we’ve set on him like detectives!
hunted him down! Zounds! The city is disgraced. Find him for me!”
“We have already done our best,” replied the sub-committee, sadly.
“We have searched for the man. He cannot be found.”
“Where is the woman-doctor?” persisted the excited chief. “She
recommended the fellow. She’d be apt to know. Can’t some of you find
At this moment, young Dr. Frank looked haggardly into the Relief
“I am taking her cases,” he said. “She is down with the fever.”
It was the morning after his last pay-day—Sunday morning, the first
in October; a dry, deadly, glittering day. Zerviah had been to his
attic to rest and bathe; he had been there some hours since sunrise,
in the old place by the window, and watched the red sun kindle, and
watched the dead-carts slink away into the color, and kneeled and
prayed for frost. Now, being strengthened in mind and spirit, he was
descending to his Sabbath’s work, when a message met him at the door.
The messenger was a negro boy, who thrust a slip of paper into his
hand, and, seeming to be seized with superstitious fright, ran rapidly
up the street and disappeared.
The message was a triumphal result of the education of the freedmen’s
evening school, and succinctly said:
“ive Gut IT. Nobuddy Wunt Nuss me. Norr no Docter nEther.
“P. S. Joopiter the Durn hee sed he’d kerry This i dont
Serpose youd kum.
The sun went down that night as red as it had risen. There were no
clouds. There was no wind. There was no frost. The hot dust curdled in
the shadow that coiled beneath the stark palmetto. That palmetto
always looked like a corpse, though there was life in it yet. Zerviah
came to the door of Scip’s hovel for air, and looked at the thing. It
seemed like something that ought to be buried. There were no other
trees. The everglades were miles away. The sand and the scant, starved
grass stretched all around. Scip’s hut stood quite by itself. No one
passed by. Often no one passed for a week, or even more. Zerviah
looked from the door of the hut to the little city. The red light lay
between him and it, like a great pool. He felt less lonely to see the
town, and the smoke now and then from chimneys. He thought how many
people loved and cared for one another in the suffering place. He
thought how much love and care suffering gave birth to, in human
hearts. He began to think a little of his own suffering; then Scip
called him, sobbing wretchedly. Scip was very sick. Hope had sent for
Dr. Dare. She had not come. Scip was too sick to be left. The nurse
found his duty with the negro. Scip was growing worse.
By and by, when the patient could be left for a moment again, Zerviah
came to the air once more. He drew in great breaths of the now cooler
night. The red pool was gone. All the world was filled with the fatal
beauty of the purple colors that he had learned to know so well. The
swamps seemed to be asleep, and to exhale in the slow, regular
pulsations of sleep. In the town, lamps were lighted. From a hundred
windows, fair, fine sparks shone like stars as the nurse looked over.
There, a hundred watchers tended their sick or dead, or their healing,
dearly loved, and guarded ones. Dying eyes looked their last at eyes
that would have died to save them; strengthening hands clasped hands
that had girded them with the iron of love’s tenderness, through the
valley of the shadow, and up the heights of life and light. Over
there, in some happy home, tremulous lips that the plague had parted
met to-night in their first kiss of thanksgiving.
Zerviah thought of these things. He had never felt so lonely before.
It seemed a hard place for a man to die in. Poor Scip!
Zerviah clasped his thin hands and looked up at the purple sky.
“Lord,” he said, “it is my duty. I came South to do my duty. Because
he told of me, had I ought to turn against him? It is a lonesome
place; he’s got it hard, but I’ll stand by him.... Lord!”—his worn
face became suddenly suffused, and flashed, transfigured, as he lifted
it—“Lord God Almighty! You stood by me! I couldn’t have been a
pleasant fellow to look after. You stood by me in my scrape! I
hadn’t treated You any too well.... You needn’t be afraid I’ll leave
He went back into the hut. Scip called, and he hurried in. The nurse
and the plague, like two living combatants, met in the miserable place
and battled for the negro.
The white Southern stars blazed out. How clean they looked! Zerviah
could see them through the window, where the wooden shutter had
flapped back. They looked well and wholesome—holy, he thought. He
remembered to have heard some one say, at a Sunday meeting he happened
into once, years ago, that the word holiness meant health. He wondered
what it would be like, to be holy. He wondered what kinds of people
would be holy people, say, after a man was dead. Women, he
thought,—good women, and honest men who had never done a deadly deed.
He occupied his thoughts in this way. He looked often from the cold
stars to the warm lights throbbing in the town. They were both company
to him. He began to feel less alone. There was a special service
called somewhere in the city that night, to read the prayers for the
sick and dying. The wind rose feebly, and bore the sound of the
church-bells to the hut. There was a great deal of company, too, in
the bells. He remembered that it was Sunday night.
It was Monday, but no one came. It was Tuesday, but the nurse and the
plague still battled alone together over the negro. Zerviah’s stock of
remedies was as ample as his skill. He had thought he should save
Scip. He worked without sleep, and the food was not clean. He lavished
himself like a lover over this black boatman; he leaned like a mother
over this man who had betrayed him.
But on Tuesday night, a little before midnight, Scip rose, struggling
on his wretched bed, and held up his hands and cried out:
“Mr. Hope! Mr. Hope! I never done mean to harm ye!”
“You have not harmed me,” said Zerviah, solemnly. “Nobody ever harmed
me but myself. Don’t mind me, Scip.”
Scip put up his feeble hand; Zerviah took it; Scip spoke no more. The
nurse held the negro’s hand a long time; the lamp went out; they sat
on in the dark. Through the flapping wooden shutter the stars looked
Suddenly, Zerviah perceived that Scip’s hand was quite cold.
He carried him out by starlight, and buried him under the palmetto. It
was hard work digging alone. He could not make a very deep grave, and
he had no coffin. When the earth was stamped down, he felt extremely
weary and weak. He fell down beside his shovel and pick to rest, and
lay there in the night till he felt stronger. It was damp and dark.
Shadows like clouds hung over the distant outline of the swamp.
The Sunday bells in the town had ceased. There were no sounds but the
cries of a few lonely birds and wild creatures of the night, whose
names he did not know. This little fact added to his sense of
He thought at first he would get up and walk back to the city in the
dark. An intense and passionate longing seized him to be among living
men. He took a few steps down the road. The unwholesome dust blew up
through the dark against his face. He found himself so tired that he
concluded to go back to the hut. He would sleep, and start in the
morning with the break of the dawn. He should be glad to see the faces
of his kind again, even though the stir of welcome and the light of
trust were gone out of them for him. They lived, they breathed, they
spoke. He was tired of death and solitude.
He groped back into the hut. The oil was low, and he could not relight
the lamp. He threw himself in the dark upon his bed.
He slept until late in the morning, heavily. When he waked, the birds
were shrill in the hot air, and the sun glared in.
“I will go now,” he said, aloud. “I am glad I can go,” and crept to
He took two steps—staggered—and fell back. He lay for some moments,
stricken more with astonishment than alarm. His first words were:
“Lord God! After all—after all I’ve gone through—Lord God Almighty,
if You’ll believe it—I’ve got it!”
This was on Wednesday morning. Night fell, but no one came.
Thursday—but outside the hut no step stirred the parched, white dust.
Friday—Saturday—no voice but his own moaning broke upon the sick
man’s straining ear.
His professional experience gave him an excruciating foresight of his
symptoms, and their result presented itself to him with horrible
distinctness. As one by one he passed through the familiar conditions
whose phases he had watched in other men a hundred times, he would
have given his life for a temporary ignorance. His trained imagination
had little mercy on him. He weighed his chances, and watched his fate
with the sad exactness of knowledge.
As the days passed, and no one came to him, he was aware of not being
able to reason with himself clearly about his solitude. Growing weak,
he remembered the averted faces of the people for whom he had labored,
and whom he had loved. In the stress of his pain their estranged eyes
gazed at him. He felt that he was deserted because he was distrusted.
Patient as he was, this seemed hard.
“They did not care enough for me to miss me,” he said, aloud, gently.
“I suppose I was not worth it. I had been in prison. I was a wicked
man. I must not blame them.”
“They would have come if they had known. They would not have let me
die alone. I don’t think she would have done that. I wonder where
she is? Nobody has missed me—that is all. I must not mind.”
Growing weaker, he thought less and prayed more. He prayed, at last,
almost all his time. When he did not pray, he slept. When he could not
sleep, he prayed. He addressed God with that sublime familiarity of
his, which fell from his lips with no more irreverence than the kiss
of a child falling upon its mother’s hand or neck.
The murderer, the felon, the outcast, talked with the Almighty
Holiness, as a man talketh with his friends. The deserted, distrusted,
dying creature believed himself to be trusted by the Being who had
bestowed on him the awful gift of life.
“Lord,” he said, softly, “I guess I can bear it. I’d like to see
somebody—but I’ll make out to get along.... Lord! I’m pretty weak. I
know all about these spasms. You get delirious next thing, you know.
Then you either get better or you never do. It’ll be decided by Sunday
night. Lord! Dear Lord!” he added, with a tender pause, “don’t You
forget me! I hope You’ll miss me enough to hunt me up.”
It grew dark early on Saturday night. The sun sank under a thin,
deceptive web of cloud. The shadow beneath the palmetto grew long over
Scip’s fresh grave. The stars were dim and few. The wind rose, and the
lights in the city, where watchers wept over their sick, trembled on
the frail breeze, and seemed to be multiplied, like objects seen
Through the wooden shutter, Zerviah could see the lights, and the
lonely palmetto, and the grave. He could see those few cold stars.
He thought, while his thoughts remained his own, most tenderly and
longingly of those for whom he had given his life. He remembered how
many keen cares of their own they had to carry, how many ghastly deeds
and sights to do and bear. It was not strange that he should not be
missed. Who was he?—a disgraced, unfamiliar man, among their kin and
neighborhood. Why should they think of him? he said.
Yet he was glad that he could remember them. He wished his living or
his dying could help them any. Things that his patients had said to
him, looks that healing eyes had turned on him, little signs of human
love and leaning, came back to him as he lay there, and stood around
his bed, like people, in the dark hut.
“They loved me,” he said: “Lord, as true as I’m alive, they did! I’m
glad I lived long enough to save life, to save life! I’m much
obliged to You for that! I wish there was something else I could do
for them.... Lord! I’d be willing to die if it would help them any. If
I thought I could do anything that way, toward sending them a frost—
“No,” he added, “that ain’t reasonable. A frost and a human life ain’t
convertible coin. He don’t do unreasonable things. May be I’ve lost my head already. But I’d be glad to. That’s all. I suppose I can
ask You for a frost. That’s reason.
“Lord God of earth and heaven! that made the South and North, the
pestilence and destruction, the sick and well, the living and the
dead, have mercy on us miserable sinners! Have mercy on the folks that
pray to You, and on the folks that don’t! Remember the old graves, and
the new ones, and the graves that are to be opened if this hellish
heat goes on, and send us a blessed frost, O Lord, as an act of
humanity! And if that ain’t the way to speak to You, remember I
haven’t been a praying man long enough to learn the language very
well,—and that I’m pretty sick,—but that I would be glad to die—to
give them—a great, white, holy frost. Lord, a frost! Lord, a cool,
white, clean frost, for these poor devils that have borne so much!”
At midnight of that Saturday he dozed and dreamed. He dreamed of what
he had thought while Scip was sick: of what it was like, to be holy;
and, sadly waking, thought of holy people—good women and honest men,
who had never done a deadly deed.
“I cannot be holy,” thought Zerviah Hope; “but I can pray for frost.”
So he tried to pray for frost. But by that time he had grown confused,
and his will wandered pitifully, and he saw strange sights in the
little hut. It was as if he were not alone. Yet no one had come in.
She could not come at midnight. Strange—how strange! Who was that
who walked about the hut? Who stood and looked at him? Who leaned to
him? Who brooded over him? Who put arms beneath him? Who looked at
him, as those look who love the sick too much to shrink from them?
“I don’t know You,” said Zerviah, in a distinct voice. Presently he
smiled. “Yes, I guess I do. I see now. I’m not used to You. I never
saw You before. You are Him I’ve heered about—God’s Son! God’s Son,
You’ve taken a great deal of trouble to come here after me. Nobody
else came. You’re the only one that has remembered me. You’re very
good to me.
“... Yes, I remember. They made a prisoner of You. Why, yes! They
deserted You. They let You die by Yourself. What did You do it
for? I don’t know much about theology. I am not an educated man. I
never prayed till I come South.... I forget—What did You do it
A profound and solemn silence replied.
“Well,” said the sick man, breaking it in a satisfied tone, as if he
had been answered, “I wasn’t worth it ... but I’m glad You came. I
wish they had a frost, poor things! You won’t go away? Well, I’m
glad. Poor things! Poor things! I’ll take Your hand, if You’ve no
After a little time, he added, in a tone of unutterable tenderness and
“Dear Lord!” and said no more.
It was a quiet night. The stars rode on as if there were no task but
the tasks of stars in all the universe, and no sorrow keener than
their sorrow, and no care other than their motion and their shining.
The web of cloud floated like exhaling breath between them and the
earth. It grew cooler before the dawn. The leaves of the palmetto over
Scip’s grave seemed to uncurl, and grow lax, and soften. The dust
still flew heavily, but the wind rose.
The Sunday-bells rang peacefully. The sick heard them, and the
convalescent and the well. The dying listened to them before they
left. On the faces of the dead, too, there came the look of those who
The bells tolled, too, that Sunday. They tolled almost all the
afternoon. The young Northerner, Dr. Remane, was gone,—a reticent,
brave young man,—and the heroic telegraph operator. Saturday night
they buried her. Sunday, “Bobby” took her place at the wires, and
spelled out, with shaking fingers, the cries of Calhoun to the wide,
By sunset, all the bells had done ringing and done tolling. There was
a clear sky, with cool colors. It seemed almost cold about Scip’s hut.
The palmetto lifted its faint head. The dust slept. It was not yet
dark when a little party from the city rode up, searching for the
dreary place. They had ridden fast. Dr. Frank was with them, and the
lady, Marian Dare. She rode at their head. She hurried nervously on.
She was pale, and still weak. The chairman of the Relief Committee was
with her, and the sub-committee and others.
Dr. Dare pushed on through the swinging door of the hut. She entered
alone. They saw the backward motion of her gray-sleeved wrist, and
came no farther, but removed their hats and stood. She knelt beside
the bed, and put her hand upon his eyes. God is good, after all. Let
us hope that they knew her before they closed.
She came out, and tried to tell about it, but broke down, and sobbed
before them all.
“It’s a martyr’s death,” said the chief, and added solemnly, “Let us
He knelt, and the others with him, between the buried negro and the
unburied nurse, and thanked God for the knowledge and the recollection
of the holy life which this man had lived among them in their hour of
They buried him, as they must, and hurried homeward to their living,
comforting one another for his memory as they could.
As for him, he rested, after her hand had fallen on his eyes. He who
had known so deeply the starvation of sleeplessness, slept well that
In the morning, when they all awoke, these of the sorrowing city here,
and those of the happy city yonder; when they took up life again with
its returning sunrise,—the sick and the well, the free and the
fettered, the living and the dead,—the frost lay, cool, white,
blessed, on his grave.