The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July 1, 1935.)
Limited Night Entertainments — Part II
When I first commenced practice 35 years ago,” said the Doctor, “I set up my plate in the township of Hanawiri.”
“To the great majority of people who travel up and down the country nowadays Hanawiri presents itself as an uninspiring huddle of roofs as the train halts there for a reluctant two minutes.
“In the days of which I am speaking, however, it was a township of considerable importance and the trains stopped there all night, and, turning round, went back again in the morning—for it was the terminus of the Main Trunk line which was slowly creeping north to meet the line being built south from Auckland.
“It was a thriving, prosperous place in those days, with its railway construction works and sawmills, and its population was four times as great as it is now. It provided me with a sharp lesson in the intricacies of my profession, an experience in the unravelling of the tangled threads of two peoples' lives, and a lifelong friendship which has just been further cemented by my being made godfather to the grandson of the two people concerned!” He smiled, settled himself more comfortably and, listening a moment as though to attune his thoughts to the rhythm of the flying wheels, began as follows:
* * *
The young doctor swung himself stiffly from the saddle as his horse passed beneath the arch of the livery stable.
From the shadows, a figure, grotesque in the uncertain light of a hurricane lamp, came shambling towards him.
“Hullo Mike,” said the doctor, “what keeps you out of bed at this time of night?”
“Noight?” answered the figure in aggrieved tones, “‘tis daylight it will be in an hour, and be the same token here's a letther that came for ye last evenin’.”
With a glance at the postmark the doctor hastily tore open the envelope, damning the stableman to hold the light steady as he eagerly scanned the close written scrawl.
“Dear Alan,” he read, “the tubes you sent me for testing contain no trace of precipitate, the presence of which would indicate organic disease, but there are factors which suggest a form of alkaline poisoning—possibly strychnine.
“Your diagnosis therefore in regard to the Hogarth case appears to be …”
He read no further, but straightened himself up with the fatigue all gone from his limbs.
“And was it a bhoy now or a girl that was born to O'Reilly this day?” asked the stableman.
The doctor stared at him uncomprehendingly a moment, then “Strychnine !” he said thoughtfully, and turning strode from the stable, leaving the bewildered Irishman scratching his head and muttering, “Strychnine is it? And what kind of a child moight that be at all?”
In the few months that the doctor had been practising in and about the township of Hanawiri he had encountered but one case which had tried his skill beyond the everyday misadventures of a healthy and active community, and as he made his way through the chilly darkness to his surgery his mind was busy with this new development.
Tom Hogarth was the owner of a big cattle run in the high bush country. He was a typical specimen of the best type of outback farmer—a tall, well set up man, with keen grey eyes and a frank manner. It was all the more distressing, therefore, when he had visited the doctor two months previously and complained, almost shamefacedly, of symptoms which had been troubling him for some weeks past.
From being a man who had hardly known the meaning of fatigue, he had become the victim of weakness and nausea; a lassitude which at times took all the force of his innate energy to combat, and worst of all, on occasions, a disquieting palpitation of the heart.
The doctor, who had from the first conceived a strong liking for him, had thumped him reassuringly and told him that it was probably due to overwork. He prescribed a tonic and rest. He was far from reassured himself, however, as he watched the tall figure go striding down the punga side-walk, for he felt it was absurd to suppose that such a man should become debilitated by mere physical toil. But he had been unable in that preliminary examination to discover anything organically wrong.
During the next fortnight, however, he saw little of him until one evening they met by chance in the local club, and then he was shocked-not so much by his appearance, as by his general demeanour. He seemed like a man fighting every instant to hold himself erect, his manner was abrupt where before it had been breezy, and his eyes were strained and self-conscious.
The doctor had some difficulty in persuading him to come round to the surgery, but the thorough examination to which he subjected him this time left little doubt in his mind that Hogarth was suffering from some pernicious form of wasting disease.
“And what exactly does that mean?” Hogarth had demanded. The doctor did not reply immediately, but said finally, “We should tell your wife.”
“No you don't,” his patient retorted sharply. “If I am really a sick man (and I can see by your face that you think I am), then I'm not going to tell her one instant before I have to.
“She is a nervy, town-bred girl,” he added, “and while she is happy enough while I am with her, I know the bush frightens her at times. To think that I was—going to leave her perhaps—would drive her out of her mind.”
He paused, then rising from the couch he took the doctor by the shoulders, “How long can you keep me alive for, Doc.?,” he asked.page 42
“Oh come, it isn&t as bad as all that,” the doctor replied without much conviction. “I suppose you won&t consider taking things easy for a bit.”
The other shook his head. “Less chance than ever now,” he said, “I've got to get the place in better shape before the winter really comes; it will make all the difference to the sale—if—er anything happens to me.”
The doctor nodded and remained silent for awhile, then—
“We shall have to take a chance with you, Tom,” he said. “Some experiments have recently been conducted with the injection of serums in cases like yours. They have proved nothing one way or the other as yet-but there might be a chance. Would you agree, if I am able to obtain samples, to give the injection cure a trial. It may mean that you would have to visit me two or three times a week.”
Hogarth nodded and held out his hand. “I'll do anything you say,” he promised, “if you think you can keep me going for a while longer.”
In the weeks that followed they kept to the compact they had made, and Hogarth's condition varied considerably. Generally he became worse, although there were periods when he appeared to show a definite improvement.
During this time they became firm friends, the doctor admiring Hogarth's courage, the latter finding in the doctor a sympathetic confidant. Indeed, there was no one else to whom he could turn in his extremity, and on his visits to town he would talk eagerly and incessantly while the doctor conducted his examinations or injections.
Mostly he would talk of the farm, and the way the work was progressing, but there were tragic moments, when enthusiasm ran away with him and he would rattle on about the crops and the stock, and then suddenly stop as the shock of realisation laid hold upon him.
He would be silent for a few minutes, as his eyes met the doctor's in an understanding glance—but presently he would rouse himself with a gruff laugh and set off on a new tact.
He seldom spoke of his wife—there seemed to be some hurt there, that was too poignant for even the doctor to share.
“But now,” thought the doctor, as he lit the surgery lamp, “this report from the Dunedin Laboratory puts a different complexion upon the whole affair.” And divesting himself of his oilskin coat, he sat down at the table to read the letter through again.
“No organic disease—a form of alkaline poisoning—possibly strychnine—“
“Strychnine”—if only he could make sense of that, then Tom Hogarth might not be doomed at all. He drummed with his knuckles upon the table and was immediately startled to hear it echoed by a sharp rap upon the panels of the door.
Almost before he had time to rise it was pushed open and a young woman stood upon the threshold.
Little more than a girl she appeared to the doctor, a girl whose fine violet eyes were black against the ashen pallor of her face, and whose lips were bloodless and trembling with nervous tension. Her long coat was smeared and spattered with mud.
“You are the doctor?” she asked in a voice husky with emotion, and as he nodded in reply—“Please come at once, there has been an accident.”
He gathered up his bag and was about to follow when he noticed a dark stain upon her sleeve; raising the latter he revealed a hastily tied handkerchief bound about her forearm.
“Never mind about that,” she said, with a grimace of pain, and stepped out into the darkness.
Two gig lamps were burning dimly, and by their light the doctor could discern the outline of a jaded horse and in the vehicle itself the huddled figure of a man.
The girl led the way, and as they drew closer the figure resolved itself into that of a youth sprawled across the seat. His head hung back and he was breathing stertorously.
With difficulty they removed him from the gig, and the doctor carried him into the surgery and laid him upon the couch.
“He is suffering from concussion,” he announced presently. “No bones broken apparently. I wonder if you would be good enough to fill a kettle and light the kerosene stove for me?”
He loosened the youth's clothing, and hearing no movement in the room, turned to repeat his request, and was astonished to find himself alone. Hastily he made for the door. The gig lamps were still burning, the horse still drooped, but the girl lay prone upon the muddy side-walk.
With an exclamation of dismay, he assisted her to rise and once more inside bade her rest, until he had attended to the immediate needs of the unconscious youth.
The doctor had separated his living quarters from his surgery by a curtain drawn across the middle of the single-room building which formed his domicile; and when the kettle boiled and the hot water bags were ready, he carried the youth from the surgery couch and laid him in his own bed, wrapping him in blankets with the hot water bags at his feet and sides.
When he returned, the girl was upon her feet leaning weakly against the table.
“Now,” he said smiling, “I want you to sit down for a moment while I look at your arm.”
“No,” she replied, “I must go—I have to catch the train.”
“The train—surely it can&t be—?” he pulled out his watch—a heavy old-fashioned affair of chased silver—the hands of which showed half past five. The daily train left at six.
“He was not going by the train; it was I who—“
Again the doctor shook his head, and taking a brandy flask from a cup-board poured a little of its contents into a glass.
“Drink this,” he said, “and forget the train for a moment while I see what is wrong here.”
Her forearm proved to be painfully lacerated and swollen, and, while he was dressing it, the doctor chattered inconsequently in an endeavour to lighten the strain in her brooding eyes. The brandy had brought a spot of colour to her cheeks and now that she had removed her hat her hair revealed itself—piled high in tawny coils which shone with a red gold lustre in the lamp-light.
As he finished he sat back, surveying her critically.
“Do you mind telling me how all this happened?” he asked.
She stared at him fearfully a moment, and then, biting her lip, replied sullenly: “The horse fell, and we were thrown out.”
The doctor rose.
“I don&t want to pry into your affairs,” he said, “but if you would like to tell me a little more, I might be able to help you; I should, of course, respect your confidence.
“You see,” he added, “it's rather a desperate situation isn&t it? I don&t know who you are, or the boy either, and he will have to stay here for a while. Again, your own nervous state suggests bed, rather than an arduous railway journey; and then there is the horse and gig; all rather embarrassing if you want to get away without anyone knowing.”
“Why should I want to do that?” she asked hurriedly.
“I don&t know, but if there had been any straightforward reason, you would have told me.”
For answer she buried her face in her hands and remained some moments in silence. When she looked up again her eyes were calmer.
“You're right,” she said tonelessly. “I am running away. Running away from a man who has drained my life of everything that made living worth while.
“I am running away because I can no longer bear to live in misery where once I was radiantly happy.
“Can you realise, I wonder, what it means to have found a new life of love and happiness in the most beautiful spot on earth, and then when that life has been smashed to have to go on living with the beauty mocking you and reminding you at every turn of what you have lost?
“I was married about fifteen months ago,” she continued in a low voice; after a pause in which she strove not very successfully to control her emotion, “when my husband was on a visit to Wellington. We had not known each other long, and I suppose I was carried away by the glamour of it all. I had had little to do with the country, and I was rather awed, when we came home, with the vast distances, and the bush.
“But my husband was kindness and consideration itself, and soon enough, when I had learned to live the bush life, I came to love it. The trees touched with gold at sunrise, the mountains blue in the mid-day heat, the piping of birds at evening. We had no near neighbours, but what with my new home, pottering about my garden, and going for rides in the afternoon, I was happy and busy all day long. And always in the evenings there was that precious, intimate hour to look forward to, when, just by ourselves we could talk over all our doings and plan for the future.
“The future,” she went on bitterly. “It was during one of those evening hours, when we had been married little more than a year, that I first noticed the change in my husband. He spoke but little, and seemed abstracted when I told him of my trivial doings. I was hurt, but I put it down to weariness, for it was during the busiest time of the year.
“Then one day he announced that he was going to town—there was nothing unusual in that, except that he did not want to take me with him; he made the excuse that he could travel faster and be home earlier by himself. Instead of which it was nearly midnight when he returned. I had my first taste of real fear of the bush then—black and mysterious with rustlings and mutterings among the branches, and the sudden harsh cry of some weird bird!”
“He laughed at my fears, however, and in my relief I laughed with him, nor did I think it strange at the time that he gave no reason for his delay, but I thought so later, when those visits to town became more frequent.
“I began to dread the long afternoons and evenings alone. I lost the faculty of being happily busy—so that any sudden noise set me tingling with fear.
“At last I could bear it no longer. I taxed him to his face, and he told me it was business that took him to town three times a week. What business could he have that I might not share? I knew—I had had plenty of opportunity to reason it out—that his business was merely a cloak for another woman.”
“But you had no definite proof?” asked the doctor, and she laughed sharply.
“Proof? What proof did I need but his secretiveness, his strangeness. Why he even made some vague excuse about sleeping badly, so that he could be by himself at night.”page 44 page 45
“Perhaps he was ill,” the doctor suggested gently.
“Ill?” the word seemed jerked from her lips in a sharp crescendo. “Ill that's very funny doctor why I'm the one that's ill - ill with suspense and anxiety, and the knowledge that I'd been cheated.” She laughed mirthlessly for some moments twisting her hands together in her lap, and the doctor, seating himself at her side, took her uninjured arm in a steady pressure.
“Please go on,” he said quietly.
“Go on? You can guess the rest,” she said. “How the familiar things of my life, now that the love in it was dead, all turned traitor, the blank staring hills and the bush pattering and sighing with the winter rains.
“I had meant to steal away last night, so that the boy could have been back before daylight with the trap. My husband seemed unable to settle down. A dozen times I crept out to see his light still shining. Twelve o'clock struck, and time was getting short. At last the light went out and I ran to the stables and woke the boy. We harnessed the horse in feverish haste the dogs all began barking, and I was petrified to hear the window thrown up and my husband whistle to them.
“At last we got away. In my anxiety I felt we should never get to town. The road was awful. I lashed the horse in panic he broke into a gallop and stumbled.” Her voice died away into silence- a silence that seemed only intensified by the laboured breathing of the youth behind the curtain until it was rent sharply by a long-drawn whistle which roused the echoes all down the valley.
They both started to their feet, the girl wild-eyed, quivering like a trapped animal.
“The train,” she gasped the doctor laid a restraining hand upon her arm; at the same instant there came the rapid drumming of a galloping horse a labouring, driven beast pelting up the road in a welter of flying mud.
Another whistle, the rush of escaping steam, and then the heavy puffing of an engine starting from rest. The sound grew in intensity; the exhaust beats quickened, yet another whistle for the level crossing and the rumble of cars waned and died away as the first filtering of light greyed the surgery window.
The girl sank back upon the settee-head in hands, a listless beaten figure, and the doctor turned away to attend to the youth when the sound of returning hoof-beats was heard. They halted at the surgery door, and a dishevelled haggard figure came crashing through it and stood blinking a moment in the lamp-light.
“Hogarth!” cried the doctor, “what the-” but the farmer was paying no attention to him instead he stood staring dumbly at the girl upon the settee.
The words were hardly whispered between them. The doctor came forward and laid his hand upon the girl's shoulder.
“Tom,” he asked, “is this your wife?” Hogarth nodded.
“Tom,” he asked again, “have you been handling poison lately?”
Hogarth- nodded, and then roused himself, crying savagely: “What the devil has that to do with all this?” he waved a comprehensive hand.
“Everything,” said the doctor, “if you will give me a chance to explain. You say you have been handling poison where and how.”
“Rabbits,” replied the farmer shortly. “We've been cleaning them out for months past on the top place.”
“Then,” said the doctor, “I'm the guilty party. Mrs. Hogarth for many weeks now I have been treating your husband for what appeared to be an incurable disease, with a new remedy which might or might not have saved him, had he really been suffering from it. Under the circumstances perhaps he was justified in not telling you, although now I realise it was a mistake which narrowly missed ending in tragedy.
“This letter, which I received an hour ago, is a report from the Dunedin Laboratory, and negatives the idea of organic disease, but tells me to look for a slow form of alkaline poisoning, the symptoms of which are virtually the same. There have been rare cases,” he added, “of systems which are particularly susceptible to poisons, absorbing it through the mere handling of it.”
A groan and a muttering from behind the curtain reminded the doctor of his other patient. The youth was recovering consciousness and needed attention; but when the doctor returned to the surgery he hastily drew the curtain again, for that tawny hair, red-gold in the fast fading lamplight gained an added lustre from its proximity to the dark serge that clothed Tom Hogarth's shoulder.
“And so,” concluded the doctor, “my story also ends happily-”
The others were silent a few moments, thinking perhaps, as the train roared through the darkness, of the other lives and stories that were working to their fulfilment in the lonely homesteads and among the scattered lights of townships that ever and anon twinkled and were lost in the gloom.
A fine rain was falling, streaking the windows with jewelled threads of light, and the banker turning from them shrugged his shoulders slightly.
“I'm glad I'm not any old-fashioned doctor riding the roads this night,” he said, “I'd rather be sitting here in comfort and telling you a yarn which also has to do with a horse—and some gold—!