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Doctor Therne - Chapter VI - THE GATE OF DARKNESS Post by :markdzimmer Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :June 2011 Read :2757

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Doctor Therne - Chapter VI - THE GATE OF DARKNESS


Taking the phial from the chest I poured an ample but not an over dose
of the poison into a medicine glass, mixing it with a little water, so
that it might be easier to swallow. I lingered as long as I could over
these preparations, but they came to an end too soon.

Now there seemed to be nothing more to do except to transfer that
little measure of white fluid from the glass to my mouth, and thus to
open the great door at whose bolts and bars we stare blankly from the
day of birth to the day of death. Every panel of that door is painted
with a different picture touched to individual taste. Some are
beautiful, and some are grim, and some are neutral-tinted and
indefinite. My favourite picture used to be one of a boat floating on
a misty ocean, and in the boat a man sleeping--myself, dreaming
happily, dreaming always.

But that picture had gone now, and in place of it was one of
blackness, not the tumultuous gloom of a stormy night, but dead, cold,
unfathomable blackness. Without a doubt /that/ was what lay behind the
door--only that. So soon as ever my wine was swallowed and those
mighty hinges began to turn I should see a wall of blackness thrusting
itself 'twixt door and lintel. Yes, it would creep forward, now
pausing, now advancing, until at length it wrapped me round and
stifled out my breath like a death mask of cold clay. Then sight would
die and sound would die and to all eternities there would be silence,
silence while the stars grew old and crumbled, silence while they took
form again far in the void, for ever and for ever dumb, dreadful,
conquering silence.

That was the only real picture, the rest were mere efforts of the
imagination. And yet, what if some of them were also true? What if the
finished landscape that lay beyond the doom-door was but developed
from the faint sketch traced by the strivings of our spirit--to each
man his own picture, but filled in, perfected, vivified a
thousandfold, for terror or for joy perfect and inconceivable?

The thought was fascinating, but not without its fears. It was strange
that a man who had abandoned hopes should still be haunted by fears--
like everything else in the world, this is unjust. For a little while,
five or ten minutes, not more than ten, I would let my mind dwell on
that thought, trying to dig down to its roots which doubtless drew
their strength from the foetid slime of human superstition, trying to
behold its topmost branches where they waved in sparkling light. No,
that was not the theory; I must imagine those invisible branches as
grim skeletons of whitened wood, standing stirless in that atmosphere
of overwhelming night.

So I sat myself in a chair, placing the medicine glass with the
draught of bane upon the table before me, and, to make sure that I did
not exceed the ten minutes, near to it my travelling clock. As I sat
thus I fell into a dream or vision. I seemed to see myself standing
upon the world, surrounded by familiar sights and sounds. There in the
west the sun sank in splendour, and the sails of a windmill that
turned slowly between its orb and me were now bright as gold, and now
by contrast black as they dipped into the shadow. Near the windmill
was a cornfield, and beyond the cornfield stood a cottage whence came
the sound of lowing cattle and the voices of children. Down a path
that ran through the ripening corn walked a young man and a maid,
their arms twined about each other, while above their heads a lark
poured out its song.

But at my very feet this kindly earth and all that has life upon it
vanished quite away, and there in its place, seen through a giant
portal, was the realm of darkness that I had pictured--darkness so
terrible, so overpowering, and so icy that my living blood froze at
the sight of it. Presently something stirred in the darkness, for it
trembled like shaken water. A shape came forward to the edge of the
gateway so that the light of the setting sun fell upon it, making it
visible. I looked and knew that it was the phantom of my lost wife
wrapped in her last garments. There she stood, sad and eager-faced,
with quick-moving lips, from which no echo reached my ears. There she
stood, beating the air with her hands as though to bar that path
against me. . . .


I awoke with a start, to see standing over against me in the gloom of
the doorway, not the figure of my wife come from the company of the
dead with warning on her lips, but that of Stephen Strong. Yes, it was
he, for the light of the candle that I had lit when I went to seek the
drug fell full upon his pale face and large bald head.

"Hullo, doctor," he said in his harsh but not unkindly voice, "having
a nip and a nap, eh? What's your tipple? Hollands it looks, but it
smells more like peach brandy. May I taste it? I'm a judge of
hollands," and he lifted the glass of prussic acid and water from the

In an instant my dazed faculties were awake, and with a swift motion I
had knocked the glass from his hand, so that it fell upon the floor
and was shattered.

"Ah!" he said, "I /thought/ so. And now, young man, perhaps you will
tell me why you were playing a trick like that?"

"Why?" I answered bitterly. "Because my wife is dead; because my name
is disgraced; because my career is ruined; because they have commenced
a new action against me, and, if I live, I must become a bankrupt----"

"And you thought that you could make all these things better by
killing yourself. Doctor, I didn't believe that you were such a fool.
You say you have done nothing to be ashamed of, and I believe you.
Well, then, what does it matter what these folk think? For the rest,
when a man finds himself in a tight place, he shouldn't knock under,
he should fight his way through. You're in a tight place, I know, but
I was once in a tighter, yes, I did what you have nearly done--I went
to jail on a false charge and false evidence. But I didn't commit
suicide. I served my time, and I think it crazed me a bit though it
was only a month; at any rate, I was what they call a crank when I
came out, which I wasn't when I went in. Then I set to work and showed
up those for whom I had done time--living or dead they'll never forget
Stephen Strong, I'll warrant--and after that I turned to and became
the head of the Radical party and one of the richest men in
Dunchester; why, I might have been in Parliament half a dozen times
over if I had chosen, although I am only a draper. Now, if I have done
all this, why can't you, who have twice my brains and education, do as

"Nobody will employ you? I will find folk who will employ you. Action
for damages? I'll stand the shot of that however it goes; I love a
lawsuit, and a thousand or two won't hurt me. And now I came round
here to ask you to supper, and I think you'll be better drinking port
with Stephen Strong than hell-fire with another tradesman, whom I
won't name. Before we go, however, just give me your word of honour
that there shall be no more of this sort of thing," and he pointed to
the broken glass, "now or afterwards, as I don't want to be mixed up
with inquests."

"I promise," I answered presently.

"That will do," said Mr. Strong, as he led the way to the door.

I need not dwell upon the further events of that evening, inasmuch as
they were almost a repetition of those of the previous night. Mrs.
Strong received me kindly in her faded fashion, and, after a few
inquiries about the trial, sought refuge in her favourite topic of the
lost Tribes. Indeed, I remember that she was rather put out because I
had not already mastered the books and pamphlets which she had given
me. In the end, notwithstanding the weariness of her feeble folly, I
returned home in much better spirits.

For the next month or two nothing of note happened to me, except
indeed that the action for damages brought against me by Sir Thomas
Colford was suddenly withdrawn. Although it never transpired publicly,
I believe that the true reason of this collapse was that Sir John Bell
flatly refused to appear in court and submit himself to further
examination, and without Sir John Bell there was no evidence against
me. But the withdrawal of this action did not help me professionally;
indeed the fine practice which I was beginning to get together had
entirely vanished away. Not a creature came near my consulting-room,
and scarcely a creature called me in. The prosecution and the verdict
of the jury, amounting as it did to one of "not proven" only, had
ruined me. By now my small resources were almost exhausted, and I
could see that very shortly the time would come when I should no
longer know where to turn for bread for myself and my child.

One morning as I was sitting in my consulting-room, moodily reading a
medical textbook for want of something else to do, the front door bell
rang. "A patient at last," I thought to myself with a glow of hope. I
was soon undeceived, however, for the servant opened the door and
announced Mr. Stephen Strong.

"How do you do, doctor?" he said briskly. "You will wonder why I am
here at such an hour. Well, it is on business. I want you to come with
me to see two sick children."

"Certainly," I said, and we started.

"Who are the children and what is the matter with them?" I asked

"Son and daughter of a working boot-maker named Samuels. As to what is
the matter with them, you can judge of that for yourself," he replied
with a grim smile.

Passing into the poorer part of the city, at length we reached a
cobbler's shop with a few pairs of roughly-made boots on sale in the
window. In the shop sat Mr. Samuels, a dour-looking man of about

"Here is the doctor, Samuels," said Strong.

"All right," he answered, "he'll find the missus and the kids in there
and a pretty sight they are; I can't bear to look at them, I can't."

Passing through the shop, we went into a back room whence came a sound
of wailing. Standing in the room was a careworn woman and in the bed
lay two children, aged three and four respectively. I proceeded at
once to my examination, and found that one child, a boy, was in a
state of extreme prostration and fever, the greater part of his body
being covered with a vivid scarlet rash. The other child, a girl, was
suffering from a terribly red and swollen arm, the inflammation being
most marked above the elbow. Both were cases of palpable and severe
erysipelas, and both of the sufferers had been vaccinated within five

"Well," said Stephen Strong, "well, what's the matter with them?"

"Erysipelas," I answered.

"And what caused the erysipelas? Was it the vaccination?"

"It may have been the vaccination," I replied cautiously.

"Come here, Samuels," called Strong. "Now, then, tell the doctor your

"There's precious little story about it," said the poor man, keeping
his back towards the afflicted children. "I have been pulled up three
times and fined because I didn't have the kids vaccinated, not being
any believer in vaccination myself ever since my sister's boy died of
it, with his head all covered with sores. Well, I couldn't pay no more
fines, so I told the missus that she might take them to the
vaccination officer, and she did five or six days ago. And there,
that's the end of their vaccination, and damn 'em to hell, say I," and
the poor fellow pushed his way out of the room.

It is quite unnecessary that I should follow all the details of this
sad case. In the result, despite everything that I could do for him,
the boy died though the girl recovered. Both had been vaccinated from
the same tube of lymph. In the end I was able to force the authorities
to have the contents of tubes obtained from the same source examined
microscopically and subjected to the culture test. They were proved to
contain the streptococcus or germ of erysipelas.

As may be imagined this case caused a great stir and much public
controversy, in which I took an active part. It was seized upon
eagerly by the anti-vaccination party, and I was quoted as the
authority for its details. In reply, the other side hinted pretty
broadly that I was a person so discredited that my testimony on this
or any other matter should be accepted with caution, an unjust
aspersion which not unnaturally did much to keep me in the enemy's
camp. Indeed it was now, when I became useful to a great and rising
party, that at length I found friends without number, who, not content
with giving me their present support, took up the case on account of
which I had stood my trial, and, by their energy and the ventilation
of its details, did much to show how greatly I had been wronged. I did
not and do not suppose that all this friendship was disinterested,
but, whatever its motive, it was equally welcome to a crushed and
deserted man.

By slow degrees, and without my making any distinct pronouncement on
the subject, I came to be looked upon as a leading light among the
very small and select band of anti-vaccinationist men, and as such to
study the question exhaustively. Hearing that I was thus engaged,
Stephen Strong offered me a handsome salary, which I suppose came out
of his pocket, if I would consent to investigate cases in which
vaccination was alleged to have resulted in mischief. I accepted the
salary since, formally at any rate, it bound me to nothing but a
course of inquiries. During a search of two years I established to my
satisfaction that vaccination, as for the most part it was then
performed, that is from arm to arm, is occasionally the cause of blood
poisoning, erysipelas, abscesses, tuberculosis, and other dreadful
ailments. These cases I published without drawing from them any
deductions whatever, with the result that I found myself summoned to
give evidence before the Royal Commission on Vaccination which was
then sitting at Westminster. When I had given my evidence, which, each
case being well established, could scarcely be shaken, some members of
the Commission attempted to draw me into general statements as to the
advantage or otherwise of the practice of vaccination to the
community. To these gentlemen I replied that as my studies had been
directed towards the effects of vaccination in individual instances
only, the argument was one upon which I preferred not to enter.

Had I spoken the truth, indeed, I should have confessed my inability
to support the anti-vaccinationist case, since in my opinion few
people who have studied this question with an open and impartial mind
can deny that Jenner's discovery is one of the greatest boons--
perhaps, after the introduction of antiseptics and anaesthetics, the
very greatest--that has ever been bestowed upon suffering humanity.

If the reader has any doubts upon the point, let him imagine a time
when, as used to happen in the days of our forefathers, almost
everybody suffered from smallpox at some period of their lives, those
escaping only whose blood was so fortified by nature that the disease
could not touch them. Let him imagine a state of affairs--and there
are still people living whose parents could remember it--when for a
woman not to be pitted with smallpox was to give her some claim to
beauty, however homely might be her features. Lastly, let him imagine
what all this means: what terror walked abroad when it was common for
smallpox to strike a family of children, and when the parents,
themselves the survivors of similar catastrophes, knew well that
before it left the house it would take its tithe of those beloved
lives. Let him look at the brasses in our old churches and among the
numbers of children represented on them as kneeling behind their
parents; let him note what a large proportion pray with their hands
open. Of these, the most, I believe, were cut off by smallpox. Let him
search the registers, and they will tell the same tale. Let him ask
old people of what their mothers told them when they were young of the
working of this pestilence in their youth. Finally, let him consider
how it comes about, if vaccination is a fraud, that some nine hundred
and ninety-nine medical men out of every thousand, not in England
only, but in all civilised countries, place so firm a belief in its
virtue. Are the doctors of the world all mad, or all engaged in a
great conspiracy to suppress the truth?

These were my real views, as they must be the views of most
intelligent and thoughtful men; but I did not think it necessary to
promulgate them abroad, since to do so would have been to deprive
myself of such means of maintenance as remained to me. Indeed, in
those days I told neither more nor less than the truth. Evil results
occasionally followed the use of bad lymph or unclean treatment after
the subject had been inoculated. Thus most of the cases of erysipelas
into which I examined arose not from vaccination but from the dirty
surroundings of the patient. Wound a million children, however
slightly, and let flies settle on the wound or dirt accumulate in it,
and the result will be that a certain small proportion will develop
erysipelas quite independently of the effects of vaccination.

In the same way, some amount of inoculated disease must follow the
almost promiscuous use of lymph taken from human beings. The danger is
perfectly preventable, and ought long ago to have been prevented, by
making it illegal, under heavy penalties, to use any substance except
that which has been developed in calves and scientifically treated
with glycerine, when, as I believe, no hurt can possibly follow. This
is the verdict of science and, as tens of thousands can testify, the
common experience of mankind.

Content of CHAPTER VI - THE GATE OF DARKNESS (H. Rider Haggard's novel: Doctor Therne)

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