Starling, A Scotch Story Chapter XXVII.
- The Sergeant's
Sickness and his Sick-Nurse
DR. SCOTT, as the reader knows, had
visited Adam, and felt a great interest in his patient. The Doctor was a
man of few words, very shy, and, as has been indicated, even abrupt and
gruff, his only affectation being his desire to appear devoid of any
feeling which might seem to interfere with severe medical treatment or a
surgical operation. He liked to be thought stern and decided. The fact was
that his intense sympathy pained him, and he tried to steel himself
against it. When he scolded his patients, it was because they made him
suffer so much, and because, moreover, he was angry with himself for being
angry with them. He therefore affected unconcern at the very time when his
anxiety for a patient made him sleepless, and compelled him often, when in
bed, to read medical journals with the aid of a long yellow candle,
instead of spending in sleep such portions of his night-life as the sick
permitted him to enjoy. He had watched Adam's whole conduct as an elder
had heard much about his labours from his village patientsand, as the
result of his observations, had come to the conclusion that he was a man
of a rare and right stamp. When the "disturbance," as it was called, about
the starling agitated the community, few ever heard the Doctor express his
opinion on the great question; but many listened to his loud
laughwondering as to its meaningwhen the case was mentioned, and how
oddly he stroked his chin, as if to calm his merriment. Some friends who
were more in his confidence heard him utter such phrases, in alluding to
the matter, as "only ministerial indigestion," "ecclesiastical
hysteria,"forms of evil, by the way, which are rarely dealt with in
His attendance on the Sergeant was,
therefore, a duty which was personally agreeable to him. He was not very
hopeful of success, however, from the time when the fever developed into
typhoid of a malignant and extremely infectious type.
The first thing which the Doctor
advised, as being necessary for the Sergeant's recovery, was the procuring
of a sick-nurse. Poor Katie protested against the proposal. What could any
one do, she argued, that she herself was not ft for? What cared she for
sleep? She never indeed at any time slept soundlyso she alleged and
could do with very little sleep at all times; she was easily wakened
upthe scratch of a mouse would do it; and Adam would do her bidding, for
he was always so good and kind: a stranger, moreover, would but irritate
him, and "put hersel' aboot." And who could be got to assist? Who would
risk their life? Had not others their own family to attend to? Would they
bring the fever into their own house? &c. "Na, na," she concluded, "lee
Adam tae me, and God will provide!"
So she reasoned, as one taught by
observation and experience; for most people in country villagesnow as
thenare apt to be seized with panic in the presence of any disease
pronounced to be dangerous and contagious. Its mystery affects their
imagination. It looks like a doom that cannot be averted ;a very purpose
of God, to oppose which is vain. To procure, therefore, a nurse for the
sick, except among near relations, is extremely difficult; unless it be
some worthless creature who will drink the wine intended for the patient,
or consume the delicacies left for his nourishment. We have known, when
cholera broke out in a county town in Scotland, a stranger nurse refused
even lodgings in any house within it, lest she should spread the disease!
It was a chill and gusty evening, and
Katie sat beside the fire in the Sergeant's room, her mind full of "hows"
and "whens," and tossed to and fro by anxiety about her Adam, and
questionings as to what she should or could do for his comfort. The rising
wind shook the bushes and tree-tops in the little garden. The dust in
clouds hurried along the street of the village. The sky was dark with
gathering signs of rain. There was a depressing sadness in the world
without, and little cheer in the room
within. The Sergeant lay in a sort of
uneasy restless doze, sometimes tossing his hands, starting up and asking
where he was, and then falling back again on his pillow with a heavy sigh.
Although his wife was not seriously alarmed, she was nevertheless very
miserable at heart, and felt unutterably lonely. But for her quiet faith
in God, and the demand made upon her for active exertion, she would have
yielded to passionate grief or fallen into sullen despair.
Her thoughts were suddenly disturbed by
little Mary telling her that some one was at the street door. Bidding Mary
take her place, she hastened to the kitchen and opened the door. Jock Hall
entered, in his usual unceremonious way.
"Ye needna speak, Mistress Mercer," he
said as he sat down on a chair near the door; "I ken a' aboot it!"
Katie was as much startled as she was
the first time he entered her house. His appearance as to dress and
respectability was, however, unquestionably improved.
"Jock Hall, as I declare!" exclaimed
Katie in a whisper.
The same, at yer service; and yet no'
jist the same," replied Jock, in as low a voice.
"Ye may say sae," said Katie. "What's
come ower ye? Whaur hae ye been? Whaur got ye thae claes? Ye're like a
"I houp sae," replied Hall; "I oucht to
be sae; I gat a' this frae Adam."
"The guidman?" inquired Katie; "that's
impossible! He never had claes like thae!"
"Claes or no claes," said Jock, "it's
him I got them frae."
"I dinna understan' hoo that could be,"
"Nor me," said Jock; "but sac it is,
and never speer the noo hoe it is. I'm come, as usual, on business."
"Say awa'," said Katie, "but speak
laigh. It's no' shoon ye're needin', I houp?"
But we must here explain that Jock had
previously called upon Dr. Scott, and thrusting his head into the
surgeryhis body and its new dress being concealed by the half-opened
"Is't true that. Sergeant Mercer has
got a smittat fivver?"
The Dutor, who was writing some
prescription, on discovering who the person was who put this question,
said no more in reply than"Deadly! deadly!, so ye need not trouble them,
Jock, by begging at their doorbe off!"
"Mrs. Mercer," replied Jock, "vull need
a nursewull she?"
"You had better go and get your friend
Mrs. Craigie for her, if that's what you are after. She'll help Mary,"
replied the Doctor, in derision.
"Thank ye!" said Jock, and disappeared.
But to return to his interview with
Mrs. Mercer - "I'm telt, Mrs. Mercer," he said, "that the Sergeant is awfu'
'ill wi' a smittal fivver, and that he needs some nursethat is, as I
understan', some ane that wad watch him day and nicht, and keep their een
open like a whitrat; somebody that wadna heed haein' muckle tae do, and
that could haud a guid but freen'ly grip o' Mr. Mercer gif his nerves
rise. An' I hae been thinkin' ye'Il fin't a bother tae get sic a bodie in
Drumsylieunless, maybe, ane that wad wark for a hantle o' siller; some
decent woman like Luckie Craigie, wha micht--"
"Dinna bother me the noo, Jock, wi' ony
nonsense," said Katie, "I'm no fit for't. If ye need onything yersel',
tell me what it is, and, if possible, I'll gie ye't. But I maun gang back
tae the room."
"Ay," said Jock, "I want something frae
ye, nae doot, and I houp I'll get it. I want an extraordinar' favour o'
ye; for, as I was sayin', ye'll fin't in tae get ony ane to watch Mr.
Mercer. But if I get ane that doesna care for their life that respecs and
loes Adamthat wadna take a bawbee o' siller"
"As for that o't, I'll pay them
decently," interrupted Katie.
"And ane that," continued Jock, as if
not interrupted, "has strength tae watch wi' leevin' man or woman,what
wad ye say tae sic a canny nurse as that?"
"If there's sic a bodie in the toon,"
replied Kate. "I wad be blythe tae try them; no' tae fix them, maybe, but
to try, as the Doctor insists on't."
Wee!." said Jock, "the favour 1 hae to
ax, aitho' it's ower muckle maybe for you tae gie, is to let me try my
ban'let me speak, and dinna lauch at me! I'm no feered for death, as I
hae been mony a time feci-ed for life: I hac had by ordinar' experience
watchin', ye ken, as a poacher, fisher, and a' that kin' o' thing, sin' I
was a bairn; sae I can sleep wi' my een open: and I'm strong, for I hae
thrashed keepers, and teylors, and a' sorts o' folk; fac', I was tempted
tae gie a blue cc tae Smellie !but let sicepin' dogs lieI'll mak' a braw
nurse for the udeman."
Katie was taken so much aback by this
speech as to let Jock go on without interruption; but she at last
exclaimed"Ye're a kind cratur, Jock, and I'm muckle obleeged to you; but
I really canna think o't. It 'ill no' work; it wad pit ye aboot, an' mak'
a cleish-me-claver in the toon; an'an'- "
"I care as little for the toon," said
Jock, "as the toon cares for me! Ye'll no' be bothered wi' me, mind, gif
ye let me help ye.. I hae got clean pease strae for a bed frae Geordie
Miller the carrier, and a sackfu' for a bowster; and I ken ye hae a sort
o' laft, and I'll pit up there; and it's no aften I hae sic a bed; and
cauld parritch or cauld praties wull dae for my meat, an' I need nae mair;
an' I hae braw thick stockin'sI can pit on twa pair if necessar', tae
walk as quiet as a cat stealin' cream; sac gif ye'll let me, I'll do my
best endeavour tae help ye."
"Oh, Jock, man!" said Mrs. Mercer, "ye're
unco' guid. I'll think o'tI'll think o't, and speer at the DoctorI wull,
indeed; and if sac be he needsWhisht! What's that ?" ejaculated Katie,
starting from her chair, as little Mary entered the kitchen hurriedly,
saying - "Come ben fast, mither!"
Katie was in a moment beside her
husband, who for the first time manifested symptoms of violent excitement,
declaring that he must rise and dress for church, as be heard the eight
o'clock bells ringing. In vain sh expostulated with him in the tenderest
manner. He ought to rise, he said, and would rise. Was he not an elder?
and had he not to stand at the plate? and would he, for any consideration,
be late? What did she mean? Had she lost her senses? And so on.
This was the climax of a weary and
terribly anxious time for Katie. For some nights she had as she said,
hardly "booed an cc," and every day her lonely sorrow was becoming truly
"too deep for tears." The unexpected visit of even Jock Hall had helped
for a moment to cause a reaction and to take her out of herself; and now
that she perceived beyond doubt, what she was slow hitherto to believe,
that her husband It wasna himsel' "nay, that even she was strange to him,
and was addressed by him in accents and with expressions betokening
irritation towards her, and with words which were, for the first time,
wanting in love,she became bewildered, and felt as if God had indeed sent
her a terrible chastisement. It was fortunate that Hall had calledfor
neither her arguments nor her strength could avail on the present
occasion. She immediately summoned Jock to her assistance. He was already
behind her, for be had quickly cast off his boots, and approached the bed
softly and gently, on perceiving the Sergeant's state. With a strong hand
he laid the Sergeant back on his pillow, saying, "Ye will gang to the kirk,
Sergeant, but I maun tell ye something afore ye gang. Ye'll mind Jock
Hall? him that ye gied the boots to? An' ye'!! mind Mr. Spence the keeper?
I hae got an erran' frac him for you. He said ye wad be glad tae hear
The Sergeant stared at Jock with a
half-excited, half-stupid gaze. But the chain of his associations had for
a moment been broken, and he was quiet as a child, the bells ringing no
more as he paused tohear about his old friend Spence.
Jock's first experiment at nursing had
proved successful. He was permitted, therefore, for that night only, as
Katie said, to occupy the loft, to which he brought his stra', bed and
straw bolster; and his presence proved, more than once during the night,
an invaluable aid.
The Doctor called next morning. Among
his other causes for anxiety, one, and not the least, had been the
impossibility of finding a respectable nurse. He was therefore not a
little astonished to discover Jock Hall, the "ne'er-do-weel," well
dressed, and attending the Sergeant. He did not at first ask any
explanations of so unexpected a phenomenon, but at once admitted that he
was better than none. But before leaving, and after questioning Jock, and
studying his whole demeanour, and, moreover, after hearing something about
him from Mrs. Mercer, he smiled and said, "Keep him by all meansI think I
can answer for him ;" and muttering to himself; "Peculiar
temperamenthysterical, but curable with dieta characterwill take
fanciesseems fond of the Sergeantcontagious feverwe shall try him by
"Don't drink?" he abruptly asked Jock.
"Like a beast," Jock replied; "for a
beast drinks jist when he needs it, Doctor, and sae div I; but I dinna
need it noo, and winna need it, I think, a' my days."
"You'll do," said the Doctor; and so
Jock was officially appointed to be Adam's nurse.
Adam Mercer lay many weary days with
the fever heavy upon himlike a ship lying to in a hurricane, when the
only question is, which will last longest, the storm or the ship ? Those
who have watched beside a lingering case of fever can alone comprehend the
effect which intense anxiety, during a few weeks only, caused by the
hourly conflict of "hopes and fears that kindle hope, an undistinguishable
throng," produces on the whole nervous system.
Katie was brought into deep waters. She
had never taken it home to herself that Adam might die. Their life had
hitherto been quiet and even, so like, so very like, was day to day, that
no storm was anticipated to disturb the blessed calm. And now at the
prospect of losing him, and being left alone in the wide, wide wilderness,
without her companion and guide; her earthly all in spite of the
unearthly links of faith and love that bound themlost to her; no one who
has thus suffered will wonder that her whole flesh shrunk as from the
approach of a terrible enemy. Then it was that old truths lying in her
heart were summoned to her aid, to become practical powers in this her
hour of need. She recalled all she had learned as to God's ends in sending
affliction, with the corresponding duties of a Christian in receiving it.
She was made to realize in her experience the gulf which separates knowing
from being and doi1'gthe right theory from the right practice. And thus
it was that during a night of watching she fought a great battle in her
soul between her own will and God's will, in her endeavour to say, not
with her lips, for that was easy, but from her heart, "Thy will be done!"
Often did she exclaim to herself, " Na, God forgie me, but I canna say't!"
and as often resolved, that "say't she wad, or dee." At early morn, when
she opened the shutters, after this long mental struggle, and saw the
golden dawn spreading its effulgence of glory along the eastern sky,
steeping the clouds with splendours of every hue from the rising sun of
heaven, himself as yet unseen; and heard the birds salute his comingthe
piping thrush and blackbird beginning their morning hymn of praise, with
the lark "singing like an angel in the clouds"a gush of holy love and
confidence filled her heart, as if through earth and sky she heard the
echo of her Father's name. Meekly losing herself in the universal peace,
she sank down on her knees, beside the old arm-chair, and with a flood of
quiet tears, that eased her burning heart, she said, "Father! Thy will be
In a short time she rose with such a
feeling of peace and freedom as she had never hitherto experienced in her
best and happiest hours. A great weight of care seemed lifted off as if by
some mighty hand; and though she dare not affirm that she was now prepared
for whatever might happen, she had yet an assured confidence in the
goodness of One who would prepare her when the time came, and whose grace
would be sufficient for her in any hour of need.
The interest felt by the parish
generally, on the Sergeant's dangerous state becoming known, was great and
sincere. In the presence of his sufferings, with which all could more or
less sympathise - whether from their personali experience of sorrow, from
family bereavements, or from the consciousness of their own liability to
be at any moment visited with dangerous sickness his real or supposed
failings were for the time covered with a mantle of charity. It was not
for them to strike a sorely wounded man.
Alas! for one that will rejoice with
those who rejoice, many will weep with those who weep. Sympathy with
another's joy is always an unselfish feeling; but pity only for another's
suffering may but express the condescension of pride towards dependent
But it is neither gracious nor
comforting to scrutinise too narrowly the motives which influence human
nature in its mixture of good and evil, its weakness and strength. We know
that we cannot stand such microscopic examination ourselves, and ought
not, therefore, to apply it to others. Enough that much real sympathy was
felt for Adam. Some of its manifestations at an earlier stage of his
illness were alluded to by Miss Thomasina in her conversation with Mr.
Smellie. It was true that Mrs. Gordon had called in her carriage, and that
repeatedly, to inquire for hima fact which greatly impressed those in the
neighbourhood who had treated him as a man far beneath them. Mr. 'Gordon,
too, had been unremitting in quiet attentions; and Mrs. Mercer was greatly
softened, and her heart delivered from its hard thoughts of many of her
old acquaintances, by the kind and constant inquiries which day by day
were made for her husband. Little Mary had to act as a sort of daily
bulletin as she opened the door to reply to those who "speered for the
Sergeant;" but no one entered the dwelling, from the natural fears
entertained by all of the fever.
Many, too, spoke well of the Sergeant
when he was "despaired of," who would have been silent respecting his
merits had he been in health. Others also, no doubt, would have waxed
eloquent about him after his burial. But would it not be well if those who
act on the principle of saying all that is good about the dead, were to
spend some portion of their charity upon the living? Their postmortem
store would not be diminished by such previous expenditure. No doubt it is
"better late than never ;" but would it not be still better if never so
late? Perhaps not! So far as the good man himself is concerned, it may be
as well that the world should not learn, nor praise him for, the many
premiums he has paid day by day for the good of posterity until these are
returned, like an insurance policy, in gratitude alter he is screwed down
in his coffin.
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