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  ― 184 ―

A Martyr of no Account.

THE sun looked down unwinkingly upon the rolling sand-dunes covered with a scrabbly undergrowth of mallee, ti-tree and lianas. It looked searchingly and pitilessly down upon the rubble hut with its flat tin-roof and “hessian” substitutes for windows. The everlastings stiffened and curled in the fierce heat, and the earth sizzled and fumed. The sweat from the doctor's horse quivered into the baked atmosphere and left streaks of acrid salt ruled down his heaving sides. No bird called. No insect hummed. The flies were clinging to the shady sides of the limestone boulders, and Sheol was in the air.

Inside the hotel all was as dark as a cellar, and as close. There was the same stillness, save for the heavy breathing of the man and the woman and the children—all lying in one bed smitten by the influenza-devil. The atmosphere of the place was poison—fetid, stagnant, and charged with every foul human product. Only one person besides the doctor moved in the den, slowly and with a mechanical languor. She was a girl of nineteen or twenty, who might have been good to look upon but for neglect and uncleanliness and the advance signals of disease. Now and then the man ground his teeth and groaned voicelessly. The woman whined an occasional answer to a question from the doctor. And the children slept the sleep of ptomaines and carbonic acid gas. The girl stood listlessly at the foot of the iron bed, supporting herself, with both lean, horny hands clutching its rusty rail.

“How long have you been down?” asked the doctor of the woman.

“A week,” she complained; “and he has been in bed four days; them” (indicating the children) “all took bad ten days ago.”




  ― 185 ―

The doctor said little, but took temperatures, ausoultated chests, and made entries in his note-book. It was a monotonous proceeding, broken only when he went out for a pannikin of warm water from the galvanised tank to wash his thermometer. The man had the headache; little else of importance. The woman had the cough: the cough that is like the rending of the soul from the body; but, again, little else of importance. The children had the deadly, helpless, hopeless sleep, from which they only awoke at intervals to moan and toss and complain and go to sleep again.

Just then the man roused himself to whimper for “something for this 'ere pain in my 'ead. It's driving me mad.” The woman would “never live through another night if I don't get relief from this corf.” The children made no complaint. They slept and breathed ptomaines and carbonic dioxide. And the girl said nothing, but gazed at the doctor with a hazy, half-intelligent stare and gripped the iron bed-rail harder, while her breath came and went in quick, irregular gasps and her nostrils moved like those of a winded hare.

“Anyone to fetch out the medicine?” Perhaps a neighbour would if the doctor would ask. Brandy? Yes. A little chicken-broth? Yes; Violet Pearl would make that.

“Violet Pearl! go and git Jimmy a drink! Can't yer 'ear 'im movin'?” whined the woman in a grieved tone; and then: “The girl is that stoopid and mazy-like, she ain't the leastest good to nobody. As if it wasn't bad enough to be nigh onto death without 'avin' to worrit for everything as is wanted!”

As the girl returned, stumbling over the uneven limestone floor, her father broke out: “For Gawd's sake, Violet Pearl, 'ow much longer are you goin' to let this 'an'kerchief dry on my 'ead? W'ere's the vinegar and water? Wring it out agin, carn't yer!”

“Sit down,” said the doctor to her, a moment later; “let me have a look at your chest.” Listlessly she unfastened the dowdy calico bodice and bared her thin neck and shoulders, breathing a little harder, but not appearing much interested.

“Hm!” said the doctor, as he moved the end of the stethoscope


  ― 186 ―
here and there, and tapped with his finger-ends on her all too plainly visible ribs; and then, a little later, “Temperature 104°, pulse 120, left posterior base solid,” he wrote in his note-book,—and to the girl he added, “You must go to bed, and stop there! If you don't do so now, you'll have to to-morrow, and then you may not get out of it again.”

A chorus came from the man and woman, “Lord sakes! doctor, w'at are yer talkin' about? 'oo's to look arfter us? She's the only one as is fit to move; as for me” (the woman continued alone), “I couldn't get up and do nothink, not if—if—you was to pay me! an' I'm sure he couldn't do nothink if he was to get up.” The man groaned, and said his head would come off if he were to move, and it was all nonsense talking of Violet Pearl “laying up.” She was “always fancying she had something the matter with her.”

The doctor sighed, and explained again, and at last lost his temper. “You good-for-nothing brute!” he said, looking contemptuously at the man. “What the devil does your headache matter compared with this girl's chances of dying in forty-eight hours if she doesn't go to bed? She's fifty times worse than your wife here; and, as for you, you're in no danger at all!”

Then he was sorry he had lost his temper, because it was of no use. The man groaned and the woman whined, and the children slept, and Violet Pearl smiled feebly and breathed a little faster, and said she could get along all right till Aunt Emma came; Aunt Emma had promised to come the day after to-morrow. No one else would come, because they were frightened of “catching it theirselves.” And again the doctor sighed, and then swore silently and rode away to arrange with a neighbour to take medicine to them.

Two days later he went again. The same baking heat; the same white, glaring light from the sand beating on the frowsy “hessian” and “sujee” windows; and, inside, the same fetid and plague-stricken atmosphere, and a silence this time broken by a few large, yellow-bodied droning flies that boomed and buzzed about the room.

The man was sitting up near the fireplace. The woman


  ― 187 ―
whimpered in a corner, seated on a kerosene-box. The children slept on a “shake-down” of gunny-sacks in another corner. And on the iron bed, covered by a coarse and dingy sheet, which fell into hollows and stood starkly out in horrible, unmistakeable ridges, lay something that had been Violet Pearl.

She had “got along all right” until that morning. Then the poor, willing, helpful spirit had shaken itself free and left its partner, and the man with the headache and the woman with a cough had unwillingly got up to attend to their wants themselves.

C. H. SOUTER.

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