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The 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 patients—and, 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 laugh—wondering as to its meaning—when 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 Church courts.

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 soundly—so she alleged —and could do with very little sleep at all times; she was easily wakened up—the 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 villages—now as then—are 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 gentleman, Jock!"

"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," said Katie.

"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 surgery—his body and its new dress being concealed by the half-opened door— asked—

"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 door—be off!"

"Mrs. Mercer," replied Jock, "vull need a nurse—wull 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 nurse—that 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 Drumsylie—unless, 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 Adam—that 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 lie—I'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's—I 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't—I'll think o't, and speer at the Doctor—I wull, indeed; and if sac be he needs—Whisht! 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 called—for 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 aboot hfm."

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 means—I think I can answer for him ;" and muttering to himself; "Peculiar temperament—hysterical, but curable with diet—a character—will take fancies—seems fond of the Sergeant—contagious fever—we shall try him by all means."

"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 him—like 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 them—lost 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'g—the 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 coming—the 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 done!"

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 weakness.

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 him—a 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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