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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDoctor Therne - Chapter XI - THE COMING OF THE RED-HEADED MAN
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Doctor Therne - Chapter XI - THE COMING OF THE RED-HEADED MAN Post by :jlmason Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :June 2011 Read :3409

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Half of the three years of probation had gone by and once more we
found ourselves at Dunchester in August. Under circumstances still too
recent to need explanation, the Government of which I was a member had
decided to appeal to the country, the General Election being fixed for
the end of September, after the termination of harvest. Dunchester was
considered to be a safe Radical seat, and, as a matter of
parliamentary tactics, the poll for this city, together with that of
eight or ten other boroughs, was fixed for the earliest possible day,
in the hope that the results might encourage more doubtful places to
give their support. Constituencies are very like sheep, and if the
leaders jump through a certain gap in the political hedge the flock,
or a large proportion of it, will generally follow. All of us like to
be on the winning side.

Few people who are old enough to remember it will ever forget the
August of two years ago, if only because of the phenomenal heat. Up to
that month the year had been very cold, so cold that even during July
there were some evenings when a fire was welcome, while on several
days I saw people driving about the roads wrapped up in heavy ulsters.
But with the first day of August all this changed, and suddenly the
climate became torrid, the nights especially being extraordinarily
hot. From every quarter of the country came complaints of the great
heat, while each issue of the newspapers contained lists of those who
had fallen victims to it.

One evening, feeling oppressed in the tree-enclosed park of Ashfields,
I strolled out of it into the suburb of which I have spoken. Almost
opposite the private garden of the park stands a board school, and in
front of this board school I had laid out an acre of land presented by
myself, as a playground and open space for the use of the public. In
the centre of this garden was a fountain that fell into a marble
basin, and around the fountain, but at some distance from it, stood
iron seats. To these I made my way and sat down on one of them, which
was empty, in order to enjoy the cool sound of the splashing water,
about which a large number of children were playing.

Presently, as I sat thus, I lifted my eyes and saw the figure of a man
approaching towards the other side of the fountain. He was quite fifty
yards away from me, so that his features were invisible, but there was
something about his general aspect which attracted my attention at
once. To begin with, he looked small and lonely, all by himself out
there on the wide expanse of gravel; moreover, the last rays of the
setting sun, striking full upon him, gave him a fiery and unnatural
appearance against the dense background of shadows beyond. It is a
strange and dreadful coincidence, but by some extraordinary action of
the mind, so subtle that I cannot trace the link, the apparition of
this man out of the gloom into the fierce light of the sunset reminded
me of a picture that I had once seen representing the approach to the
Norwegian harbour of the ship which brought the plague to the shores
of Scandanavia. In the picture that ship also was clothed with the
fires of sunset, while behind it lay the blackness of approaching
night. Like this wanderer that ship also came forward, slowly indeed,
but without pause, as though alive with a purpose of its own, and I
remember that awaiting it upon the quay were a number of merry

Shaking myself free from this ridiculous but unpleasant thought, I
continued to observe the man idly. Clearly he was one of the great
army of tramps, for his coat was wide and ragged and his hat half
innocent of rim, although there was something about his figure which
suggested to me that he had seen better days. I could even imagine
that under certain circumstances I might have come to look very much
like this poor man, now doubtless turned into a mere animal by drink.
He drew on with a long slow step, his head stretched forward, his eyes
fixed upon the water, as he walked now and again lifting a long thin
hand and scraping impatiently at his face and head.

"That poor fellow has got a touch of prickly heat and is thirsty," I
thought, nor was I mistaken, for, on arriving at the edge of the
fountain, the tramp knelt down and drank copiously, making a moaning
sound as he gulped the water, which was very peculiar and unpleasant
to hear. When he had satisfied his thirst, he sat himself upon the
marble edge of the basin and suddenly plunged his legs, boots and all,
into the water. Its touch seemed to please him, for with a single
swift movement he slipped in altogether, sitting himself down on the
bottom of the basin in such fashion that only his face and fiery red
beard, from which the hat had fallen, remained above the surface,
whereon they seemed to float like some monstrous and unnatural growth.

This unusual proceeding on the part of the tramping stranger at once
excited the most intense interest in the mind of every child on the
playground, with the result that in another minute forty or fifty of
them had gathered round the fountain, laughing and jeering at its
occupant. Again the sight brought to my mind a strained and
disagreeable simile, for I bethought me of the dreadful tale of
Elisha and of the fate which overtook the children who mocked him.
Decidedly the heat had upset my nerves that night, nor were they
soothed when suddenly from the red head floating upon the water came a
flute-like and educated voice, saying--

"Cease deriding the unfortunate, children, or I will come out of this
marble bath and tickle you."

Thereat they laughed all the more, and began to pelt the bather with
little stones and bits of stick.

At first I thought of interfering, but as it occurred to me that the
man would probably be violent or abusive if I spoke to him, and as,
above all things, I disliked scenes, I made up my mind to fetch a
policeman, whom I knew I should find round the corner about a hundred
yards away. I walked to the corner, but did not find the policeman,
whereon I started across the square to look for him at another point.
My road led me past the fountain, and, as I approached it, I saw that
the water-loving wanderer had been as good as his word. He had emerged
from the fountain, and, rushing to and fro raining moisture from his
wide coat, despite their shrieks half of fear and half of laughter, he
grabbed child after child and, drawing it to him, tickled and kissed
it, laughing dementedly all the while, in a fashion which showed me
that he was suffering from some form of mania.

As soon as he saw me the man dropped the last child he had caught--it
was little Tottie Smith--and began to stride away towards the city at
the same slow, regular, purposeful gait with which I had seen him
approach the fountain. As he passed he turned and made a grimace at
me, and then I saw his dreadful face. No wonder it had looked red at a
distance, for the /erythema/ almost covered it, except where, on the
forehead and cheeks, appeared purple spots and patches.

Of what did it remind me?

Great Heaven! I remembered. It reminded me of the face of that girl I
had seen lying in the /plaza/ of San Jose, in Mexico, over whom the
old woman was pouring water from the fountain, much such a fountain as
that before me, for half unconsciously, when planning this place, I
had reproduced its beautiful design. It all came back to me with a
shock, the horrible scene of which I had scarcely thought for years,
so vividly indeed that I seemed to hear the old hag's voice crying in
cracked accents, "/Si, senor, viruela, viruela!/"

I ought to have sent to warn the police and the health officers of the
city, for I was sure that the man was suffering from what is commonly
called confluent smallpox. But I did not. From the beginning there has
been something about this terrible disease which physically and
morally has exercised so great an influence over my destiny, that
seemed to paralyse my mental powers. In my day I was a doctor fearless
of any other contagion; typhus, scarletina, diphtheria, yellow fever,
none of them had terrors for me. And yet I was afraid to attend a case
of smallpox. From the same cause, in my public speeches I made light
of it, talking of it with contempt as a sickness of small account,
much as a housemaid talks in the servants' hall of the ghost which is
supposed to haunt the back stairs.

And now, coming as it were from that merry and populous chamber of
life and health, once again I met the Spectre I derided, a red-headed,
red-visaged Thing that chose me out to stop and grin at. Somehow I was
not minded to return and announce the fact.

"Why," they would say, "/you/ were the one who did not believe in
ghosts. It was /you/ who preached of vile superstitions, and yet
merely at the sight of a shadow you rush in with trembling hands and
bristling hair to bid us lay it with bell, book, and candle. Where is
your faith, O prophet?"

It was nonsense; the heat and all my incessant political work had
tried me and I was mistaken. That tramp was a drunken, or perhaps a
crazy creature, afflicted with some skin disease such as are common
among his class. Why did I allow the incident to trouble me?

I went home and washed out my mouth, and sprinkled my clothes with a
strong solution of permanganate of potash, for, although my own folly
was evident, it is always as well to be careful, especially in hot
weather. Still I could not help wondering what might happen if by any
chance smallpox were to get a hold of a population like that of
Dunchester, or indeed of a hundred other places in England.

Since the passing of the famous Conscience Clause many years before,
as was anticipated would be the case, and as the anti-vaccinators
intended should be the case, vaccination had become a dead letter
amongst at least seventy-five per cent. of the people.(*) Our various
societies and agents were not content to let things take their course
and to allow parents to vaccinate their children, or to leave them
unvaccinated as they might think fit. On the contrary, we had
instituted a house-to-house canvass, and our visitors took with them
forms of conscientious objection, to be filled in by parents or
guardians, and legally witnessed.

(*) Since the above was written the author has read in the press that
in Yorkshire a single bench of magistrates out of the hundreds in
England has already granted orders on the ground of "conscientious
objection," under which some 2000 children are exempted from the
scope of the Vaccination Acts. So far as he has seen this
statement has not been contradicted. At Ipswich also about 700
applications, affecting many children, have been filed. To deal
with these the Bench is holding special sessions, sitting at seven
o'clock in the evening.

At first the magistrates refused to accept these forms, but after a
while, when they found how impossible it was to dive into a man's
conscience and to decide what was or what was not "conscientious
objection," they received them as sufficient evidence, provided only
that they were sworn before some one entitled to administer oaths.
Many of the objectors did not even take the trouble to do as much as
this, for within five years of the passing of the Act, in practice the
vaccination laws ceased to exist. The burden of prosecution rested
with Boards of Guardians, popularly elected bodies, and what board was
likely to go to the trouble of working up a case and to the expense of
bringing it before the court, when, to produce a complete defence, the
defendant need only declare that he had a conscientious objection to
the law under which the information was laid against him? Many idle or
obstinate or prejudiced people would develop conscientious objections
to anything which gives trouble or that they happen to dislike. For
instance, if the same principle were applied to education, I believe
that within a very few years not twenty-five per cent. of the children
belonging to the classes that are educated out of the rates would ever
pass the School Board standards.

Thus it came about that the harvest was ripe, and over ripe, awaiting
only the appointed sickle of disease. Once or twice already that
sickle had been put in, but always before the reaping began it was
stayed by the application of the terrible rule of isolation known as
the improved Leicester system.

Among some of the natives of Africa when smallpox breaks out in a
kraal, that kraal is surrounded by guards and its inhabitants are left
to recover or perish, to starve or to feed themselves as chance and
circumstance may dictate. During the absence of the smallpox laws the
same plan, more mercifully applied, prevailed in England, and thus the
evil hour was postponed. But it was only postponed, for like a
cumulative tax it was heaping up against the country, and at last the
hour had come for payment to an authority whose books must be balanced
without remittance or reduction. What is due to nature that nature
takes in her own way and season, neither less nor more, unless indeed
the skill and providence of man can find means to force her to write
off the debt.

Five days after my encounter with the red-headed vagrant, the
following paragraph appeared in one of the local papers: "Pocklingham.
In the casual ward of the Union house for this district a tramp, name
unknown, died last night. He had been admitted on the previous
evening, but, for some unexplained reason, it was not noticed until
the next morning that he suffered from illness, and, therefore, he was
allowed to mix with the other inmates in the general ward. Drs. Butt
and Clarkson, who were called in to attend, state that the cause of
death was the worst form of smallpox. The body will be buried in
quicklime, but some alarm is felt in the district owing to the
deceased, who, it is said, arrived here from Dunchester, where he had
been frequenting various tramps' lodgings, having mixed with a number
of other vagrants, who left the house before the character of his
sickness was discovered, and who cannot now be traced. The unfortunate
man was about forty years of age, of medium height, and red-haired."

The same paper had an editorial note upon this piece of news, at the
end of which it remarked, as became a party and an anti-vaccination
organ: "The terror of this 'filth disease,' which in our fathers' time
amounted almost to insanity, no longer afflicts us, who know both that
its effects were exaggerated and how to deal with it by isolation
without recourse to the so-called vaccine remedies, which are now
rejected by a large proportion of the population of these islands.
Still, as we have ascertained by inquiry that this unfortunate man did
undoubtedly spend several days and nights wandering about our city
when in an infectious condition, it will be as well that the
authorities should be on the alert. We do not want that hoary veteran
--the smallpox scare--to rear its head again in Dunchester, least of
all just now, when, in view of the imminent election, the accustomed
use would be made of it by our prejudiced and unscrupulous political

"No," I said to myself as I put the paper down, "certainly we do not
want a smallpox scare just now, and still less do we want the
smallpox." Then I thought of that unfortunate red-headed wretch, crazy
with the torment of his disease, and of his hideous laughter, as he
hunted and caught the children who made a mock of him--the poor
children, scarcely one of whom was vaccinated.

A week later I opened my political campaign with a large public
meeting in the Agricultural Hall. Almost up to the nomination day no
candidate was forthcoming on the other side, and I thought that, for
the fourth time, I should be returned unopposed. Of a sudden, however,
a name was announced, and it proved to be none other than that of my
rival of many years ago--Sir Thomas Colford--now like myself growing
grey-headed, but still vigorous in mind and body, and as much
respected as ever by the wealthier and more educated classes of our
community. His appearance in the field put a new complexion on
matters; it meant, indeed, that instead of the easy and comfortable
walk over which I had anticipated, I must fight hard for my political

In the course of my speech, which was very well received, for I was
still popular in the town even among the more moderate of my
opponents, I dwelt upon Sir Thomas Colford's address to the electorate
which had just come into my hands. In this address I was astonished to
see a paragraph advocating, though in a somewhat guarded fashion, the
re-enactment of the old laws of compulsory vaccination. In a draft
which had reached me two days before through some underground channel,
this paragraph had not appeared, thus showing that it had been added
by an afterthought and quite suddenly. However, there it was, and I
made great play with it.

What, I asked the electors of Dunchester, could they think of a man
who in these modern and enlightened days sought to reimpose upon a
free people the barbarous infamies of the Vaccination Acts? Long ago
we had fought that fight, and long ago we had relegated them to
/limbo/, where, with such things as instruments of torment, papal
bulls and writs of attainder, they remained to excite the wonder and
the horror of our own and future generations.

Well would it have been for me if I had stopped here, but, led away by
the subject and by the loud cheers that my treatment of it, purposely
flamboyant, never failed to evoke, forgetful too for the moment of the
Red-headed Man, I passed on to deductions. Our opponents had
prophesied, I said, that within ten years of the passing of the famous
Conscience Clause smallpox would be rampant. Now what were the facts?
Although almost twice that time had gone by, here in Dunchester we had
suffered far less from smallpox than during the compulsory period, for
at no one time during all these eighteen or twenty years had three
cases been under simultaneous treatment within the confines of the

"Well, there are five now," called out a voice from the back of the

I drew myself up and made ready to wither this untruthful brawler with
my best election scorn, when, of a sudden, I remembered the Red-headed
Man, and passed on to the consideration of foreign affairs.

From that moment all life went out of my speech, and, as it seemed to
me, the enthusiasm of the meeting died away. As soon as it was over I
made inquiries, to find that the truth had been hidden from me--there
were five, if not seven cases of smallpox in different parts of the
city, and the worst feature of the facts was that three of the
patients were children attending different schools. One of these
children, it was ascertained, had been among those who were playing
round the fountain about a fortnight since, although he was not one
whom the red-haired tramp had touched, but the other two had not been
near the fountain. The presumption was, therefore, that they had
contracted the disease through some other source of infection, perhaps
at the lodging-house where the man had spent the night after bathing
in the water. Also it seemed that, drawn thither by the heat, in all
two or three hundred children had visited the fountain square on this
particular evening, and that many of them had drunk water out of the

Never do I remember feeling more frightened than when these facts came
to my knowledge, for, added to the possible terrors of the position,
was my constitutional fear of the disease which I have already
described. On my way homewards I met a friend who told me that one of
the children was dead, the malady, which was of an awful type, having
done its work very swiftly.

Like a first flake from a snow-cloud, like a first leaf falling in
autumn from among the myriads on some great tree, so did this little
life sink from our number into the silence of the grave. Ah! how many
were to follow? There is a record, I believe, but I cannot give it. In
Dunchester alone, with its population of about 50,000, I know that we
had over 5000 deaths, and Dunchester was a focus from which the
pestilence spread through the kingdom, destroying and destroying and
destroying with a fury that has not been equalled since the days of
the Black Death.

But all this was still to come, for the plague did not get a grip at
once. An iron system of isolation was put in force, and every possible
means was adopted by the town authorities, who, for the most part,
were anti-vaccinationists, to suppress the facts, a task in which they
were assisted by the officials of the Local Government Board, who had
their instructions on the point. As might have been expected, the
party in power did not wish the political position to be complicated
by an outcry for the passing of a new smallpox law, so few returns
were published, and as little information as possible was given to the

For a while there was a lull; the subject of smallpox was /taboo/, and
nobody heard much about it beyond vague and indefinite rumours.
Indeed, most of us were busy with the question of the hour--the
eternal question of beer, its purity and the method of its sale. For
my part, I made few inquiries; like the ostrich of fable I hid my head
in the sands of political excitement, hoping that the arrows of
pestilence would pass us by.

And yet, although I breathed no word of my fears to a living soul, in
my heart I was terribly afraid.

Content of CHAPTER XI - THE COMING OF THE RED-HEADED MAN (H. Rider Haggard's novel: Doctor Therne)

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