Zerviah Hope by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

PRELUDE.

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 abruptly said:

“What’s this for?”

He addressed the mate, who answered with a sidelong look, and none too cordially:

“We land passengers by the Company’s order.”

“Those three?”

“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 aboard.”

“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 doctresses.

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 real work.”

“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 Savannah.”

“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, exultant light.

“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 greatly loved.

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 thought.

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 street.

“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 me, Scip.”

“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 recollected virtue.

“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, never!”

“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 else.”

“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 and filled.

“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 confronted him.

“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, distinctly.

“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 him!”

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 she spoke.

“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 tortured nerves.

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 too much.”

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 reputation.

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.”

What!

“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 her?”

At this moment, young Dr. Frank looked haggardly into the Relief Office.

“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.

Scip.

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 the creetur.”

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 in.

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 solitude.

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 his feet.

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.”

And again:

“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 tears.

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 for?

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 objections.”

After a little time, he added, in a tone of unutterable tenderness and content:

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 hear.

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, well world.

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 pray.”

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 need.


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 night.

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.