[As related to the author of this book by Mr. McWilliams, a pleasant New York gentleman whom the said author met by chance on a journey.]
Well, to go back to where I was before I digressed to explain to you how that frightful and incurable disease, membranous croup,[Diphtheria D.W.] was ravaging the town and driving all mothers mad with terror, I called Mrs. McWilliams’s attention to little Penelope, and said:
“Darling, I wouldn’t let that child be chewing that pine stick if I were you.”
“Precious, where is the harm in it?” said she, but at the same time preparing to take away the stick for women cannot receive even the most palpably judicious suggestion without arguing it, that is married women.
“Love, it is notorious that pine is the least nutritious wood that a child can eat.”
My wife’s hand paused, in the act of taking the stick, and returned itself to her lap. She bridled perceptibly, and said:
“Hubby, you know better than that. You know you do. Doctors all say that the turpentine in pine wood is good for weak back and the kidneys.”
“Ah–I was under a misapprehension. I did not know that the child’s kidneys and spine were affected, and that the family physician had recommended–”
“Who said the child’s spine and kidneys were affected?”
“My love, you intimated it.”
“The idea! I never intimated anything of the kind.”
“Why, my dear, it hasn’t been two minutes since you said–”
“Bother what I said! I don’t care what I did say. There isn’t any harm in the child’s chewing a bit of pine stick if she wants to, and you know it perfectly well. And she shall chew it, too. So there, now!”
“Say no more, my dear. I now see the force of your reasoning, and I will go and order two or three cords of the best pine wood to-day. No child of mine shall want while I–”
“Oh, please go along to your office and let me have some peace. A body can never make the simplest remark but you must take it up and go to arguing and arguing and arguing till you don’t know what you are talking about, and you never do.”
“Very well, it shall be as you say. But there is a want of logic in your last remark which–”
However, she was gone with a flourish before I could finish, and had taken the child with her. That night at dinner she confronted me with a face a white as a sheet:
“Oh, Mortimer, there’s another! Little Georgi Gordon is taken.”
“Is there any hope for him?”
“None in the wide world. Oh, what is to be come of us!”
By and by a nurse brought in our Penelope to say good night and offer the customary prayer at the mother’s knee. In the midst of “Now I lay me down to sleep,” she gave a slight cough! My wife fell back like one stricken with death. But the next moment she was up and brimming with the activities which terror inspires.
She commanded that the child’s crib be removed from the nursery to our bedroom; and she went along to see the order executed. She took me with her, of course. We got matters arranged with speed. A cot-bed was put up in my wife’s dressing room for the nurse. But now Mrs. McWilliams said we were too far away from the other baby, and what if he were to have the symptoms in the night–and she blanched again, poor thing.
We then restored the crib and the nurse to the nursery and put up a bed for ourselves in a room adjoining.
Presently, however, Mrs. McWilliams said suppose the baby should catch it from Penelope? This thought struck a new panic to her heart, and the tribe of us could not get the crib out of the nursery again fast enough to satisfy my wife, though she assisted in her own person and well-nigh pulled the crib to pieces in her frantic hurry.
We moved down-stairs; but there was no place there to stow the nurse, and Mrs. McWilliams said the nurse’s experience would be an inestimable help. So we returned, bag and baggage, to our own bedroom once more, and felt a great gladness, like storm-buffeted birds that have found their nest again.
Mrs. McWilliams sped to the nursery to see how things were going on there. She was back in a moment with a new dread. She said:
“What can make Baby sleep so?”
“Why, my darling, Baby always sleeps like a graven image.”
“I know. I know; but there’s something peculiar about his sleep now. He seems to–to–he seems to breathe so regularly. Oh, this is dreadful.”
“But, my dear, he always breathes regularly.”
“Oh, I know it, but there’s something frightful about it now. His nurse is too young and inexperienced. Maria shall stay there with her, and be on hand if anything happens.”
“That is a good idea, but who will help you?”
“You can help me all I want. I wouldn’t allow anybody to do anything but myself, anyhow, at such a time as this.”
I said I would feel mean to lie abed and sleep, and leave her to watch and toil over our little patient all the weary night. But she reconciled me to it. So old Maria departed and took up her ancient quarters in the nursery.
Penelope coughed twice in her sleep.
“Oh, why don’t that doctor come! Mortimer, this room is too warm. This room is certainly too warm. Turn off the register-quick!”
I shut it off, glancing at the thermometer at the same time, and wondering to myself if 70 was too warm for a sick child.
The coachman arrived from down-town now with the news that our physician was ill and confined to his bed. Mrs. McWilliams turned a dead eye upon me, and said in a dead voice:
“There is a Providence in it. It is foreordained. He never was sick before. Never. We have not been living as we ought to live, Mortimer. Time and time again I have told you so. Now you see the result. Our child will never get well. Be thankful if you can forgive yourself; I never can forgive myself.”
I said, without intent to hurt, but with heedless choice of words, that I could not see that we had been living such an abandoned life.
“Mortimer! Do you want to bring the judgment upon Baby, too!”
Then she began to cry, but suddenly exclaimed:
“The doctor must have sent medicines!”
“Certainly. They are here. I was only waiting for you to give me a chance.”
“Well do give them to me! Don’t you know that every moment is precious now? But what was the use in sending medicines, when he knows that the disease is incurable?”
I said that while there was life there was hope.
“Hope! Mortimer, you know no more what you are talking about than the child unborn. If you would–As I live, the directions say give one teaspoonful once an hour! Once an hour!–as if we had a whole year before us to save the child in! Mortimer, please hurry. Give the poor perishing thing a tablespoonful, and try to be quick!”
“Why, my dear, a tablespoonful might–”
“Don’t drive me frantic! . . . There, there, there, my precious, my own; it’s nasty bitter stuff, but it’s good for Nelly–good for mother’s precious darling; and it will make her well. There, there, there, put the little head on mamma’s breast and go to sleep, and pretty soon–oh, I know she can’t live till morning! Mortimer, a tablespoonful every half-hour will–Oh, the child needs belladonna, too; I know she does–and aconite. Get them, Mortimer. Now do let me have my way. You know nothing about these things.”
We now went to bed, placing the crib close to my wife’s pillow. All this turmoil had worn upon me, and within two minutes I was something more than half asleep. Mrs. McWilliams roused me:
“Darling, is that register turned on?”
“I thought as much. Please turn it on at once. This room is cold.”
I turned it on, and presently fell asleep again. I was aroused once more:
“Dearie, would you mind moving the crib to your side of the bed? It is nearer the register.”
I moved it, but had a collision with the rug and woke up the child. I dozed off once more, while my wife quieted the sufferer. But in a little while these words came murmuring remotely through the fog of my drowsiness:
“Mortimer, if we only had some goose grease–will you ring?”
I climbed dreamily out, and stepped on a cat, which responded with a protest and would have got a convincing kick for it if a chair had not got it instead.
“Now, Mortimer, why do you want to turn up the gas and wake up the child again?”
“Because I want to see how much I am hurt, Caroline.”
“Well, look at the chair, too–I have no doubt it is ruined. Poor cat, suppose you had–”
“Now I am not going to suppose anything about the cat. It never would have occurred if Maria had been allowed to remain here and attend to these duties, which are in her line and are not in mine.”
“Now, Mortimer, I should think you would be ashamed to make a remark like that. It is a pity if you cannot do the few little things I ask of you at such an awful time as this when our child–”
“There, there, I will do anything you want. But I can’t raise anybody with this bell. They’re all gone to bed. Where is the goose grease?”
“On the mantelpiece in the nursery. If you’ll step there and speak to Maria–”
I fetched the goose grease and went to sleep again. Once more I was called:
“Mortimer, I so hate to disturb you, but the room is still too cold for me to try to apply this stuff. Would you mind lighting the fire? It is all ready to touch a match to.”
I dragged myself out and lit the fire, and then sat down disconsolate.
“Mortimer, don’t sit there and catch your death of cold. Come to bed.”
As I was stepping in she said:
“But wait a moment. Please give the child some more of the medicine.”
Which I did. It was a medicine which made a child more or less lively; so my wife made use of its waking interval to strip it and grease it all over with the goose oil. I was soon asleep once more, but once more I had to get up.
“Mortimer, I feel a draft. I feel it distinctly. There is nothing so bad for this disease as a draft. Please move the crib in front of the fire.”
I did it; and collided with the rug again, which I threw in the fire. Mrs. McWilliams sprang out of bed and rescued it and we had some words. I had another trifling interval of sleep, and then got up, by request, and constructed a flax-seed poultice. This was placed upon the child’s breast and left there to do its healing work.
A wood-fire is not a permanent thing. I got up every twenty minutes and renewed ours, and this gave Mrs. McWilliams the opportunity to shorten the times of giving the medicines by ten minutes, which was a great satisfaction to her. Now and then, between times, I reorganized the flax-seed poultices, and applied sinapisms and other sorts of blisters where unoccupied places could be found upon the child. Well, toward morning the wood gave out and my wife wanted me to go down cellar and get some more. I said:
“My dear, it is a laborious job, and the child must be nearly warm enough, with her extra clothing. Now mightn’t we put on another layer of poultices and–”
I did not finish, because I was interrupted. I lugged wood up from below for some little time, and then turned in and fell to snoring as only a man can whose strength is all gone and whose soul is worn out. Just at broad daylight I felt a grip on my shoulder that brought me to my senses suddenly. My wife was glaring down upon me and gasping. As soon as she could command her tongue she said:
“It is all over! All over! The child’s perspiring! What shall we do?”
“Mercy, how you terrify me! I don’t know what we ought to do. Maybe if we scraped her and put her in the draft again–”
“Oh, idiot! There is not a moment to lose! Go for the doctor. Go yourself. Tell him he must come, dead or alive.”
I dragged that poor sick man from his bed and brought him. He looked at the child and said she was not dying. This was joy unspeakable to me, but it made my wife as mad as if he had offered her a personal affront. Then he said the child’s cough was only caused by some trifling irritation or other in the throat. At this I thought my wife had a mind to show him the door. Now the doctor said he would make the child cough harder and dislodge the trouble. So he gave her something that sent her into a spasm of coughing, and presently up came a little wood splinter or so.
“This child has no membranous croup,” said he. “She has been chewing a bit of pine shingle or something of the kind, and got some little slivers in her throat. They won’t do her any hurt.”
“No,” said I, “I can well believe that. Indeed, the turpentine that is in them is very good for certain sorts of diseases that are peculiar to children. My wife will tell you so.”
But she did not. She turned away in disdain and left the room; and since that time there is one episode in our life which we never refer to. Hence the tide of our days flows by in deep and untroubled serenity.
[Very few married men have such an experience as McWilliams’s, and so the author of this book thought that maybe the novelty of it would give it a passing interest to the reader.]