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A Winter Night's Errand
This is the story which the doctor told me.
Ezekiel Crofton's farm was on the slope of the hill, two miles in a straight line from the village. But to reach it you had to go more than two miles down the valley, and a long one up the hill road. A deep ravine, wherein flowed a noble trout stream, cut off the farm from more direct communication with the village. But the farm-house, with its barns and out houses, was a conspicuous object in the landscape, as seen from the back windows of the doctor's library.
There was sickness at the farm. Ezekiel's wife and Susie's mother lay ill, and the doctor had left her late in the afternoon with no little anxiety. But he had other patients, for it was a sickly winter. So Susie was instructed what to do if her mother grew worse. It was of no use to give Ezekiel orders. He was crazy. Trouble like this had never entered the farm-house before. Susie was to watch her mother, and report by a simple telegraph. The doctor set the tall clock by his watch. At ten o'clock, at midnight, and at two o'clock, if her mother should be worse, or if certain indications appeared, Susie was to burn a blaze of straw on the snow-bank in front of the house. The doctor would see it and drive out.
It was a cold night and the moon was young. The snow lay three feet deep on a level. A slight thaw, followed by a freeze, had left a glassy crust over everything. Then three inches of light snow had fallen without wind over this crust. It was after dark when the doctor reached home that night, and he was a weary man. Did I say he lived alone in his house? Yet not alone, for one who had been its light until a few years before never seemed to him absent from it. And though now, as he sat before the big fire, no one sat visibly by him, there was a cheery look on his face, just as there used to be when he sat there and talked to her. It is a wonderful joy, that which some hearts have, of living with those they love, whether gone away on a visit, or gone across what men call the river of death.
Dinner was on the table. Jupiter (son of Jupiter, who was also son of Jupiter, slave of the doctor's grandfather in that same village) stood while his master ate and drank. He never believed in the relationship between Burgundy and gout; and many a bottle of good sound wine of the Wind-mill Vineyard found its way from his cellar to the lips of the sick poor. The valley was a rich one, but the poor are always and everywhere. Would that such physicians with such cellars were equally abundant.
"Watch Mr. Crofton's farm from five minutes before to five minutes after ten, and again at midnight," said he to Jupiter. And the dark eyes set in ebony could be perfectly trusted.
The doctor was asleep on a lounge when midnight passed. There had been no signal from the farm. At two he stood at the back window and saw the blaze flash up from Susie's bonfire, for the poor girl was frightened and heaped the straw high. By the successive flashes he knew that she was throwing it on in armfuls, and that there was great trouble and fear at the farm-house.
The weather had changed. It was still cold but cloudy, and a snow-storm was hastening on. There were plenty of horses in the stable, and two powerful sorrels plunged out of the gate-way and down the broad village street, bringing up with a fierce rattle of the bells in front of the stone house near the church where lived the clergyman. He, too, was ready, for he had received warning from the doctor in the early evening and had watched. I am tempted to speak of him, that man whose memory is cherished by so many, who lived and died for those over whom he was appointed. But there is no space here. They two were men after one another's hearts. Happy the village with such a pair of doctors.
And now the wintry part of the story begins. For as they started a gust of wind met them, whirling the light snow which lay on the frozen crust. When they left the well-beaten village street and took the road down the valley a stiff gale was blowing. The track had been cut down like a deep canal between two banks, and the drift of the light snow which lay on the crust was fast filling it. It grew darker, for the moon was just setting, and it began to snow heavily. The runners cut deep in the hard pack. The horses were well used to such work, but there are impossibilities on roads before the best teams, and they found the first of these when the sorrels plunged into a heavy drift at the fork of the road where you turn up towards Ezekiel Crofton's. Thus far they had come at little faster than a walk, but for a few rods the horses had found light pulling and were on a swift trot when they plunged into this drift which lay diagonally across the road, full six feet deep. Down they went, while the doctors and the robes went in a confused mass over on the crust at the road-side.
No one was hurt, and at the voice of their master, who was at their heads in an instant, the sorrels recognized the situation and stood up. The drift was wide as well as deep, and the men righted the sleigh, gathered up the scatterings, then broke a road through the drift by trampling, and led the horses through and around the sharp turn into the hill road. All was made right, and they went on now very slowly; for the whole track was filled to the level of the banks, and the track on this less travelled road was narrow, and had been imperfectly broken before the new drift filled it. A hundred yards from the turn the left runner rose over a lump, caught the hard bank at the side, and lifted the sleigh so gently but so swiftly that as the doctor said "Whoa" he found himself lying in deep snow, a buffalo robe over him, and the minister on the buffalo robe. The horses had heard the word and stopped. This was a simple upset, a common enough affair to both of them. But a trace-hook had torn out, and it took ten minutes to mend it, for now they missed the lantern which had not been recovered at the first place of emptying the sleigh.
I will not dwell on the many incidents of that struggle, which the doctor related with keen enjoyment of the memory. It was a serious piece of business then. Sometimes it would have been ludicrous, but for the solemn errand that took them out in that tempestuous night among the hills. The storm increased, and the snow fell fast and deep and drifted into heaps. Again and again they were upset until they ceased to count the times. Now they went ahead and broke the way on foot for the horses. Now they took the horses out of the sleigh, mounted and rode them a little way to break road, and returned for the sleigh. Many good reasons forbade abandoning it. They were more than two hours on the half-mile between the fork of the roads and the first farm-house. Here they roused the people and held a consultation. Farmer Brown had six oxen in a stable a quarter of a mile off the road. He and his boys went for them. It took an hour or more to get them to the house, and the boys came near perishing. But who would not have worked that night, at any risk, to get the parson and the doctor to the bedside of Mrs. Crofton? The six oxen were put into the road, and driven up the hill through the drifts. Slowly and with infinite toil, shouting and encouragement, they floundered on. The sorrels followed in the track they broke. It stopped snowing, with the atmosphere far below zero, as the gray dawn came, and it was broad daylight when they entered the back gate of the Crofton farm-yard.
The roadway to the door crossed a hillock in front of the house, and the wind had swept it clean of drift. The horses sprang up the apparently clear track, but at the very summit again the left runner flew high and the last upset was accomplished. In full view of the windows, as if it were a circus show, the two doctors shot into the air and clutched each other before they struck the glassy surface of the hillock. They struck in a slanting fall and slid to the verge of the short but sharp descent. There was nothing to catch hold of, so they held tight, each to the other, and went like projectiles down the icy slope, head first, into a deep soft bed of snow. Ezekiel Crofton's Newfoundland dog was on the spot as their heads disappeared, and then nothing was visible for a moment but his huge black skin and the doctor's boots and one leg of the minister, at which the dog was tugging as if to save a drowning man.
So ended, and ended joyously, too, the merciful errand of that night. For the doctor, when he entered the sick-room, found Susie in a wild excitement, and her mother sitting up in bed laughing, and out of danger. I don't know what the doctor called the disease of which she was supposed to be dying. It was some trouble of the throat. She had been lying with her face towards the window, gasping. Even in the hour of death, when she was looking into the light as of the last earthly morning, the scene had overpowered all sense of solemnity, and the burst of laughter had removed the trouble which was killing her.
It might do you good, once in a while these winter nights, when you wake warm and comfortable in your city bed, to think what possible errands men like those two may just then be out on in the up country.