The Night That Patti Sang

by Charles Weathers Bump

When I moved there 10 years ago that Franklin-street block just west of Charles was even then known as "Doctors' Row," though there was by no means the number of professional men the street now has. From Dr. Osler's at the Charles-street corner of the south side—in the old Colonial mansion where now the Rochambeau apartments stand—to Dr. Alan P. Smith's on the north side next to the old Maryland Club building at Cathedral street, there were in all five doctors. And my own shingle—newly painted in gilt letters as befitted a specialist freshly returned from the Vienna hospitals—made the sixth sign of the kind.

On the south side not far from Dr. Osler's, the front of one of those fine old houses erected in the thirties, and the homes of the elite of Baltimore for many years before Mount Vernon place was built up, bore the announcement of:

JAMES COURSEY DUNTON, M. D.

The sign was of a very old pattern, and was so rain-washed that the name could scarcely be deciphered. This, too, was the case with a frosted pane in the front window, on which—perhaps 40 years ago—Dr. Dunton had had his name painted in black letters. The house, too, showed the same lack of paint and care.

In my student days at the Johns Hopkins Medical School I had never heard the name of Dr. Dunton, and this led me to make inquiries of a professional neighbor. I learned that Dunton was in effect an elderly hermit, that for years he had abandoned his practice and had declined to respond to calls. His self-enforced isolation had grown to such a degree that he was rarely seen on the street and made all his household purchases through notes stuck in his vestibule door for "order boys". "I have seen Dunton only once in eight years," said my informant. "They say, too, he used to be an excellent practitioner, an Edinburgh graduate, with a patronage of the best classes—a courtly gentleman who was well liked by his patients."

"What was the cause for the change?" I asked.

"A love tragedy of some kind, they told me, though I never got the details."

I developed a lively curiosity in the elderly recluse, and nearly every time I moved in or out of my own residence, or passed my front windows, I glanced at Dr. Dunton's house in hopes of seeing him. My first glimpse was, perhaps, a month after I had been told about him. The sun had gone down, save where I could see the gilded tops of the Cathedral with a red glint upon them. In the half-light Dr. Dunton came to his second-story window—I knew it must be he—a tall, slender figure, somewhat bent, garbed in unrelieved black, save for the open white collar of ante-bellum style. Scant white hair extended from his temples back over his ears and framed a face that seemed, in the dusk, refined and kindly, though seared with many wrinkles. I watched the silent figure at the window unnoticed by him, for he gazed with intentness at the vine-adorned front of the old Unitarian Church at the corner, until the real darkness came upon us both.

It was, I think, about a week later when I again encountered Dr. Dunton. The Edmondson-avenue trolley line had just been completed up Charles street, and for the first time this old residential section resounded with the clangor that betokened rapid transit. About 9 one night I observed Dr. Dunton stepping down from the pavement of the Athenaeum Club to cross the street. A trolley car was coming rapidly, but the old gentleman, his head bent in thought and unused as he was to modern inventions and modern bursts of speed, paid no attention and moved in front of it. The motorman threw off his current, tried to reverse, and rang his gong furiously, but saw that he could not stop in time to avoid hitting the Doctor. I had bounded into the street, and when the car was only half a dozen feet off I was fortunately able to draw the old chap back and hold him clear of the Juggernaut that had so nearly wrought his destruction.

His first impulse, as he turned toward me, was one of anger that I had presumed to intrude so violently upon his thoughts. Then he saw what a narrow escape he had had, and anger gave place to a courtly smile and a slight twinkle in his sunken eyes.

"We young fellows are not so careful as we ought to be," he said. "I owe you my life."

I hastened to assure him that my act was one of simple kindness, but he renewed his expressions of thanks in even more polished phrases. The car had gone on and we had crossed to the church corner.

"I am Dr. Dunton," he said. "My house is yonder and, though I dwell alone, and with little ceremony, I will be pleased to have you partake of such hospitality as I can offer."

I accepted with alacrity. "I am Dr. Seaman," I responded. "I have just moved into the block." And I indicated my own home.

We crossed Franklin street to Dr. Dunton's house. He opened the heavy door with a latch-key, but before I could enter it was necessary for him to go ahead and light up. He was profuse in his apologies for the disorder of everything as he led me into the room behind the parlor, but beyond a thick coating of dust the dark mahogany furniture showed no signs of the absence of servants.

"I suppose you younger men might call this your 'den,'" he said as he applied a match to the centre chandelier, "but I prefer to name it my study." There were rows upon rows of medical works of a past generation on the shelves around the room, a familiar bust of Esculapius, a skull or two, some assorted bones and other signs of my host's former profession. A worn leather arm-chair sat behind the table under the chandelier, another arm-chair on the right. Dr. Dunton drew the latter forward for me and dropped into the other one. As the light fell full upon him I noted that he was not only thin, but gaunt, and that his face, which interested me strangely, was marked by hollow places that gave him an almost uncanny appearance, despite its refinement and intellectuality. His eyes had a haunting expression, as if at times he suffered much physical pain, and there was a sadness in them that quickened my sympathies.

For a minute or so there was silence. I felt that he was at a loss for topics upon which to converse on common ground. Finally he said:

"You are the first visitor I have had here since poor Wallis sat in that chair a dozen years ago."

"You mean Mr. Wallis the lawyer?" I asked.

"He was my good friend in many dark days," he answered gently. I felt that he was slipping away from me into the past.

"You must have it lonely here," I remarked.

"Not lonely," was the response. "I live with my memories."

The shadow on his face grew deeper.

"Why not practice your profession," I hazarded, "and forget some part of your past sorrows in a busy life?"

He leaned forward, looking intently at me and yet beyond. "Ah! lad," he said, as he laid a thin hand upon my wrist, "if you but knew, if you but knew! I tried hard, and then I found I couldn't, and then I gave up trying. There are griefs so great that one cannot lose them until the last sleep. I am not lonely, for I have Her always with me here."

It was best for me to remain silent. He was almost unaware of my presence. I felt he would go on if I did not divert his train of thought.

"Night after night She sits here with me," he pursued; "day after day She is by my side. In spirit the loving companionship I sought is ever mine, and yet, great God, how different!" His face he buried in his hands. In my eyes the tears could not be kept back.

Presently he rose from his seat and moved to the wall next to the parlor. To my surprise, the pressure of his finger against a spot in the wooden door pillar opened up a secret cupboard in the partition. The Doctor reached in and lifted out an arm chair of the same pattern as that upon which I was seated. It was heavy and I jumped to aid him, but he negatived me with a short, sharp twist of his head. As he came into the full light I saw that the chair contained a woman's cloak, one of shimmery gray satin, but now sadly faded and time-stained. Reverently he lifted the cloak and laid it across the back of the chair.

"That's as it was the night she sat there and passed away," said the Doctor.

For several minutes there was no word between us. The Doctor, his mouth twitching, his thoughts far from me, stared intently at the old cloak.

"How I loved her, how I loved her!" he finally murmured. Again he was becoming aware of my presence. "You can't understand, sir, the depth of my devotion. It stood the test of years—it stood even her marriage to another."

Another pause.

"She was the prettiest and merriest child you ever saw," he finally went on. "Had she been an Indian maid they would have called her 'Dancing Sunshine.' But being just a Baltimore girl, with her parents more fond of reading Scott than of any other literature save the Bible, she was named Geraldine. You remember that line in the 'Lay of the Last Minstrel':

The fair and lovely form, the Lady Geraldine.

"That's where she got her romantic and historic name. To us boys—my brother Tom and myself—she was always Dina. She was our cousin. Her father had died when she was but a babe. So had my mother, and Aunt Patty thenceforth was the housewife with us. Father was one of those merchants and ship owners who have long passed away in Baltimore. No firm was better known around the Basin than that of Dunton & Jameson, and no clipper ships were faster than those with the Dunton signal.

"Dina was Tom's age, some years younger than I, but both of us made her our playmate. We didn't have the hundred and one diversions and sports that young people seem to have nowadays—no suburban clubs, no motoring, little driving. We roamed through Howard's woods around and beyond the Washington Monument, and we strolled the banks of the 'canal' that used to parallel Jones' Falls down there above Centre street. And in all our rambles and excursions Dina was our joyous, care-free companion. I can see her now, as she was at 14, a simply dressed school girl, with her olive complexion, her clear, trustful gray eyes, her trim, petite, lissom figure and her rosebud mouth, ready ever to kiss either of us in fond sisterly affection.

"She was 16 when I was sent to Edinburgh on one of father's ships, to become a doctor. For once her laughter deserted her, and the last picture I had of her as our boat headed down the Patapsco on a bright, blue morning was of a tearful miss on Bowly's wharf, waving a bedewed handkerchief and watching through misty eyes the going of Cousin Jim across the water. There had been a tender farewell between us, and though no word of love was spoken, I tell you, lad, I knew I was leaving my heart behind.

"My three years in Scotland were ones of hard work, and the chief joy I knew came with Dina's letters. The mails were slow in those days, and they came too uncertainly for me, you may be sure. But each brought me, in addition to a budget of news, just a bit of Dina's lovely personality. I saw her, in her letters, growing into sweet womanhood, and, as I sometimes stretched myself in meditation on Arthur's Seat, far above old Edinburgh, my thoughts were not of the city, nor of my own lifework, but of the little girl at home.

"I was just completing my course, when there came my first terrible blow. A letter came from Dina, the first in two months, and it brought me word, lad, that she was married! Married! Just think of it! And to Tom. He had been with Watson and Ringgold in the Mexican War, and clippings they sent me had recounted the bravery of young Captain Dunton. I confess to you, sir, that for days I had murder in my heart, and against my own brother. I went off on a walking trip in the Trossachs, and a savage time I had of it with myself; I had schemes of petty revenge; I abused Dina; I vowed she could not love Tom; that she must have been swept off her feet by the brass buttons and the war glamour about him.

"By the time I came back to Baltimore I had regained self-control, and when I met Tom and his wife it was with the determination to do everything for Dina's happiness, even though she were another's. I was not wrong in my prophecy that she would develop into sweet womanhood, only I underestimated it. In all our circle of acquaintances in Baltimore there was no more beautiful young matron than Mrs. Dunton; no more sprightly and piquant bride; no hostess more gracious, as she presided over the dinners and 'small and early' affairs that were given at our home here.

"But, alas! it was not long before sorrows came to her. Tom began to drink heavily. He got in with a gay set at Barnum's Hotel, his hours grew irregular, his absences from home more numerous and more prolonged. Father and I remonstrated ineffectually, at first pleadingly and then in anger. We did our best to keep Dina ignorant of some of the worst stories out concerning Tom's dissipation, but she knew. And though she loyally never criticised him in talking to us, we saw the joy fade out of her heart and lips, and the glint of ineffaceable sadness come into those pure gray eyes. God only knows what she suffered in the nine years before death, invited by alcohol, came and took Tom.

"It may sound brutal, but I was glad when besotted Tom was gone. It ended Dina's terrible worry, it relieved father and myself of unexplainable trouble, expense and annoyance, it laid to rest a family skeleton of whose existence all Baltimore seemed to know. And deep down in my heart, I confess it, there was a thrill that the woman I loved above all was free.

"Of course, being a true woman, and a tender-hearted one, Dina grieved long over Tom's death. She had loved him sincerely despite his grievous faults, and ours was a melancholy household for another year. In those days our women wore deep black mourning and veils, and sombre, indeed, was Dina as she went out to church, to Tom's grave, or to half a dozen poor households she had taken under her wing. But most of the time she was at home ministering to father, whose declining health was a cause of alarm to both of us.

"Presently I began to urge her to go about with me. At first she said no, then with her characteristic considerateness she seemed unwilling to hurt me by refusing further. I took her to the homes of our friends for an evening of music or whist, or to an occasional public concert. The color began to come back into the cheeks whence it had been so long absent, and that glint of grief in the gray eyes grew dimmer. I spoke no word of love, but unobtrusively carried on a campaign to let her see how badly I yearned for her. The new books, the best sweets, the prettiest flowers, such delicate compliments as sincerity could dictate—all these I gave her and watched patiently to see the dawning of love on her part. I had always had her fond affection, but I wanted more and strove in every way to gain it.

"Two years passed and there came a night memorable in Baltimore when 18-year-old Adelina Patti—a singer in the first flush of youth and beauty, fresh from triumphs in New York—was brought to Holliday-Street Theatre to sing 'La Somnambula.' Strakosch had stirred up a furore about Patti and Brignoli in Gotham, and Baltimore was curious to hear them. I took Dina, and proud was I of her beauty and her sweet garb as we sat in the midst of a hundred acquaintances in an audience the newspapers called 'brilliant'. She had abandoned black and wore a satin gown of a soft color, shimmery and splendidly adorned with lace. Her matured beauty seemed to me more glorious than the promise of childhood, which had first captured me. She was entranced with the music, but I had no ears for the diva, and was there only to enjoy the divinity by my side. I had a feeling that the end of my probation was near. I believed she would say 'yes' should I ask her, and I determined to do so that night.

"After we had gotten away from our friends she talked animatedly of the opera in the carriage, and I listened contentedly all the while I kept saying 'Tonight, Jim, tonight!' As we came into the house she led the way into this office, and with a smile dropped into that chair you see. She allowed me to unfasten her opera cloak and draw it across the back of the chair, but she playfully bade me sit down, when I let my arm steal caressingly about her neck. Ah! man, if you could but know how I loved her that minute!"——

The Doctor's voice broke. There were tears in his eyes. As for me, I was profoundly moved, and my own eyelashes were wet.

"I passed into the dining-room to get her some sherry and cake. I was gone but a moment, but in that instant she was lost to me forever."

The veins in the old man's forehead stood out like whipcords. He resumed fiercely after a pause:

"She was dead, sir. She was dead. She sat in the same position in that chair as when I had left her, but her hand clutched her side and the smile she had given me was replaced by a sharp contraction, as if from pain. Swiftly her heart action had been gripped by an unseen force and stopped forever. I grew frantic when I found I could not revive her; I shrieked aloud in the agony of my heart, and father and the servants rushed here in alarm. They tell me I was mad for days; that I raved and called incessantly. I do not remember. I knew nothing for a long time, and then I cursed myself for living on when memory returned. Twice I had lost her—once by marriage and once by death—and the joy of living was never to be mine again. I have survived, sir, these many years. I buried Father after Dina, and I am alone here. But, God, man! I died long ago. My soul is with her I adored."

He arose and I followed. I felt that he meant to end our talk. He wiped away the tears from his cheek with a silk handkerchief, and then, placing his gaunt hand on my right shoulder, he moved his face close to mine and spoke earnestly:

"I never dare visit her grave in Greenmount. I am afraid of myself. But if you can, to please an old man whose wretched life you have saved tonight, will you go there some time and see that her resting place has been tended reverently? I have paid them for it."

I promised him I would, and then I passed out into the starlit night with a thousand impressions of the terrible tragedy of this man's life crowding my excited brain. I could not sleep, and I lay in bed for hours reconstructing the tale and fancying many details he had not supplied. The next morning I went to the Dunton lot in Greenmount and found it well cared for. Over his loved Dina's grave was a handsome stone of Carrara marble, with this inscription:

GERALDINE,
Beloved wife of Thomas Bowly Dunton.
Passed away suddenly, 1860.
Aged 30 years.
"God is love."

On one side was the grave of the ill-fated Tom. On the other the green turf waited to be disturbed to make room for the last of the Duntons, and there, on a raw day in the following March, I saw the body of the old Doctor laid beside her whom he had loved so long and with such overwhelming sorrow.