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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDr. Dumany's Wife - Part 1 - Chapter 8. My Uncle Diogenes
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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 1 - Chapter 8. My Uncle Diogenes Post by :redeagle Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :1703

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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 1 - Chapter 8. My Uncle Diogenes

PART I CHAPTER VIII. MY UNCLE DIOGENES

First of all, I must inform you that my father was a very zealous patriot, and mingled largely in state and political affairs. Of course, in the great insurrection of the year 1848 he took an active share, and after the catastrophe of Vilagos he was seized and imprisoned at Olmuetz. At that time I was a lean, overgrown youngster of sixteen. I was compelled to take charge of the household, and behave as head of the family, for which dignity I had no inclination and but little talent. Study was the great object of my life. After my father's release from prison I was just of an age to decide as to my future career; but that, at the time, was rather a difficult thing for a Hungarian youth, all offices and positions being filled by Germans and Bohemians. I did not wish to follow in my father's footsteps, for I saw that what with his neglect of business matters, what with his liberality in furnishing all patriotic enterprises out of his own pocket with the necessary means, and in extending a wide hospitality to all political refugees, our own circumstances were getting worse and worse, and we were deeply in debt.

So one day I took courage to speak to my father upon the subject, and told him that I thought it was time for me to select a profession.

"Oh! you are going to hunt for some paltry office in the district courts?" he said, with a snarl.

"No! I am going to study as a physician," I replied.

"What? Do you want to be a barber or a veterinary surgeon, or one of those curs who pretend to look after the wounded so that they themselves may keep out of danger when their betters fight? Imagine a scion of the Dumanys, and the last one, too, wanting to be a sick nurse instead of a man! I have a notion to shoot you on the spot!"

"That you can't, for our present ingenious Government takes precious good care that such dangerous persons as my father shall not be left in possession of a rifle or any other shooting-iron; and surely you will not butcher me? Come, father, be reasonable! You know well what I mean to become, and that the calling I have selected is honourable and respected."

"It is not fit for the son of a gentleman and a Dumany. If you dare to follow such an insane course, you may be sure of my malediction, and, besides that, I'll discard you--disinherit you!"

"I am very much afraid, papa, that if our present course lasts awhile longer, there will not be much left to bequeath to your heirs. So I am not afraid of that threat; and as to maledictions, you are much too kind and good-natured to utter such stuff; and, besides, curses are just as harmless and useless as blessings. The Frauenhofer lines tell us all the secrets of hell, and so I am not at all afraid of them. But I am terribly afraid, dear father, that the road which you have pursued will lead us to ruin in a very short time."

I had taken precise accounts of all that we possessed and all that we owed. I had computed these accurately, and showed him the result, which was rather alarming; but he waved the document away with his hands, and said, "Don't be foolish; don't worry about these little inconveniences, which can't be helped, and will soon cease to trouble us. Why, there is your uncle Dion, with eighty-seven winters on his head (may God rest him!) and not a soul to leave his large fortune to, but you, his only nephew! Bless my soul! what a nuisance is this boy! Instead of going to this paragon of an uncle, and trying to get into his good graces, as his next of blood and kin, he talks of becoming an apothecary, smearing plasters, mixing poisons, and setting sprained joints. Go to thy uncle, I say, like a dutiful nephew, and doctor him, if doctor you must!"

"I have been to him already, and have told him of my intentions."

"'Pon my word! And then?"

"He gave me the money to pay my preliminary expenses, and I hope to get along afterward by myself."

"Well, to think of Dion giving away anything but advice! It's a treat! And what did he say?"

"That I was right and sensible in providing against the future; for he knows of your difficulties."

"Stuff and nonsense! He can't last for ever, and then where is the need for your troubling yourself about my difficulties or studying for a profession?"

"You are mistaken: he will not leave us a penny; neither do I care for his money. All I wanted of him I have got, and there is an end of it."

"Then don't say that I am an unnatural or unfeeling father. I'll give you thir--no, twenty florins!" But he never said whether these twenty florins were meant to be given monthly, or only once for good and all. However, as I did not ask for them, I never got a penny, and soon learned to do without my father's money by giving lessons, coaching less diligent and capable fellow-students, and contriving to live upon almost nothing.

But I wanted to speak to you of my Uncle Diogenes, as he was generally called, although his Christian name was Dion. He was my father's brother, but by no means like him. Rather an odd sort of a fellow, and as keen as a razor. He went even beyond the old classical types; he was more cynical and more of a philosopher than they. Not the oldest inhabitant remembered the time when the cloak that covered his stooping shoulders on the street was new. Daily he went to church, never into church. There, on the sacred threshold, among the beggars and outcasts, he paid his homage to his Maker, and then returned to his desolate home. There was a large public well in the village. To this he himself went with a large pitcher for his drinking-water. This water he poured into a large boiler, boiled and strained it, and then drank it, because then he was sure of the bacilli. He kept no attendant or housekeeper, for fear of being murdered; and he was so much in dread of poison that he never ate cooked food or anything made of flour, not even bread. He lived on baked potatoes, nuts, honey, raw fresh eggs, and all sorts of fruits and vegetables which might be eaten raw, and which grew in his own orchard and garden. Out of his large herd of cattle he selected a cow for his stall. This cow he attended to with his own hand, carefully examining each stalk or haulm she ate, in order that no poisonous weed might be consumed by her, and thus poison the milk. Each morning and evening his own hands milked her, and he churned all his butter, and made all his cheese himself. He never ate anything but what I have mentioned, and he never went out without two loaded double-barrelled pistols in his boots. He never read any other newspaper than the Slavonic _Narodne Novine_, which he got from the village parson; but, before reading it, he held it over a charcoal fire, on which he had thrown some juniper berries, to kill possible malarial germs. His land was all farmed out, and the rent had to be paid to him in gold or silver, which he locked away in a great old iron chest. Occasionally, through auctioning off some poor debtor's effects, he came into possession of bank bills, 50, 100, 1,000 florin notes. These he rolled up separately, and pushed one by one into a hollow reed. Of those stuffed reeds he made bundles, which he stowed away in a corner of his room. He never lent a penny of his money; he never put a penny into any savings-bank, for he called them all humbugs; and he never gave a penny for charity or friendship. Such was my Uncle Diogenes or Dion; and now I will tell you what he had given me. You remember I told my father that my Uncle Dion had furnished me with the means of paying my preliminary expenses. That was true, but I had earned the money, little as it was, in ciphering, writing, and riding about to my uncle's tenants at a time when he was ill with a cold, and would have been obliged to pay a stranger for the work which I did for him. I said it was little he gave me. I have not told the whole truth, for he gave me his advice, and put his own example before me, and that made a small sum go a long way.

Well, to make a long story short, let me tell you that I was an established physician when my father died, and immediately after his death his estate was seized in bankruptcy proceedings.

I did not care. I was satisfied with my position in Vienna, and as I had no mother nor sisters or dependent younger brothers, and had long ago relinquished the hope of coming into possession of our family estate, I tried to forget my former home and live only for my profession.

After my efforts had made me a name as a clever and skilful specialist, I was occasionally called to visit some wealthy patient in Hungary, and then the papers gave accounts of the diagnosis I had given, and mentioned the generous fee I had received. I did not approve of this sort of advertisement, but I found that it could not be checked, and so grew indifferent to it. One day I received a registered letter containing money. It was stamped all over with the cheapest kind of sealing-wax, and, on opening the envelope, I was surprised to find a letter from my Uncle Dion, with an old, crumpled hundred-florin bill, of a kind that had long gone out of circulation, and which showed every mark of having issued from one of the hollow reeds. The letter ran about as follows:--

"MY DEAR NEPHEW, DR. DUMANY,--Knowing well that physicians will not move a step without being well paid, I send you the enclosed bank-bill, and pray you to take the trouble to visit me for a few days here in my house.

"DUMANY DION."

I took the bank-bill, put it into a fresh envelope, and wrote the following lines:--

"MY DEAR UNCLE,--One hundred florins will not induce me to leave my patients, and so I return the bill; but if you are really in need of a physician, and want me in that capacity, then please let me know, without enclosing money, for I should consider it my duty as a near blood-relation to give you my professional assistance without delay.--Yours,

"DUMANY KORNEL."

By return of post came the answer--"Yes, I want you immediately."

I went at once. It was ten years since I had seen him last. He was eighty-seven then; he must be ninety-seven now. A rare age, indeed! When last I saw him, his long and thick white hair had reached to the middle of his back, and his long untrimmed beard flowed down to his girdle, and was the colour of hemp. His eyes were as sharp as those of any young man, and he did his reading and writing without an eye-glass. Even his grafting he did without an artificial help to his vision. I remembered well the old custom for guests arriving at his house: coach and servants had to be left at the inn, and dinner had to be ordered there. Whoever came to visit the lord of the chateau, quite a magnificent old-fashioned country seat, had to enter through a narrow garden-gate, just wide enough to admit a single person. The great gate was never opened, no vehicle of any kind was admitted to pass through it, and a thick growth of horse-sorrel, both without and within the great oaken wings, bore witness to the fact. There was a turnkey at the little gate, and an old man--the only servant my uncle ever kept, who served for porter, gardener, and all other purposes--opened the door.

There was yet one tender spot in my uncle's heart, one sprinkle of poetry in his nature. He adored flowers, especially roses, and he did not even grudge money to secure rare specimens. His flower-garden was a real fairy bower, and the old man, with the flowing snow-white hair and beard, pruning and grafting continually, resembled some sorcerer who, with a single touch of his withered hands, could create or destroy all the beauty around him.

I found him there among his roses when I came. He recognised me at once, although the last ten years had considerably changed my appearance. He was looking just the same as he did ten years ago; not altered in the least. He was as dry, as wrinkled, and as white as when I had last seen him, and his eyes appeared by no means less sharp than at the time I speak of.

"Happy to see you, my dear fellow!" he said. "I should have known you wherever I met you. You look like the old boy you were."

"So I do, because of my clean-shaven face, uncle. I do not care for the manly beauty of a moustache and beard. But I must return your compliment. You have not aged in the least, and I can hardly believe in your wanting a physician at all. You do not look like it."

He chuckled. "Well, well, I don't think you are much mistaken; but sit down here in the bower: my room is not quite so pleasant and orderly a place. I must call the gardener--"

"Don't take the least trouble, uncle," I said. "I shall not stay with you, as I ordered a room at the inn and also my dinner. I had a hearty lunch half an hour ago, and so you need not worry about my comfort. Now tell me what ails you, pray, and then I'll see what I can do for you."

"Nothing in the least with regard to my health, for I am not a bit worse than I was ten years ago, and far better than most others at my age. I am ninety-seven, as you know, and that's no trifle. It would be foolish to expect anything better, and you could not prevent my dying about this time next year."

"Oh! you are hypochondriac, I see, and give way to fancies! Come in, and let me examine you professionally, for such fancies are always the result of some serious disorder."

"There you are mistaken, my boy. My heart, lungs, liver, and the rest of it are all right, and I am not melancholy. Neither am I weak-minded or nervous, and you need not look into my eyes or feel my pulse. I have known these four years that I am to die at the time I mentioned, although I am sure, when I tell you how I came to know it, you will call me superstitious. For you fellows of the present day are so sceptical and matter-of-fact that you refuse to believe in anything that cannot be proved by optical inspection or by evidence. It was, as I said, just four years ago, on my ninety-third birthday, when St. John the Nepomuc appeared to me in a dream, and said--'Dionysius, my good fellow, make the best of your time! There are only five more years for you in store, and then you must die! no help for it!' Since that time he comes to me every year regularly on the night of my birthday, and repeats his warning, each time giving me one year less. Last week was my birthday, and he gave me the last warning. Next time he comes I shall have to go. So--"

"But, my dear uncle," I said, rather vexed, "if you are so much convinced of the certainty of your death, then it was not at all necessary for me to come. You want the priest, and not the physician. I can cure bodily diseases, and release you from the clutches of cholera, or sometimes even of death; but if the saints have got hold of you, and such a tight hold, too, then you had better go to your confessor, for it is his business to be in close connection with all of them. I give you up. Good-bye! I have patients in Vienna, and cannot afford to waste my time on a pleasure trip."

"Good God! what a hot-tempered fellow, and what admirable rudeness! Stay, you unmannerly specimen of honesty, who don't think it worth your while to cajole an old fool for the sake of his money! What do you think that I summoned you for? But none of your impudence, if you please!"

I was amazed, and must have looked so, for the old man broke into a merry laugh, that sounded like two pieces of cracked iron rubbing together. There was a merry twinkle in his eye even after his laugh, and he regarded me with a humorous expression which was entirely new to me.

"Well," he said, "I see that you are somewhat slow of apprehension; not at all as sharp as others of the family. So I must help you out. I am going to make my will. There!"

"Well then, you had better consult a lawyer or a notary. I am neither of the two, and cannot be of the least use to you."

"That's gospel truth. But as you are the only sensible person of the whole family, the only one who is not a prodigal, and have made shift to live decently upon your own earnings, I rather think that I may be of use to you. I like you, because you browbeat me and do not flatter me, and I will tell you the truth; that bank-bill which you returned to me strongly interested me in your favour. There was a time when I was not the shrewd hard fellow that I am, but a true Dumany and a spendthrift. I can show you a heap of signatures from nearly all the members of our family--that is, the elder members--every one given me as security for money I have lent them; but that money was never returned to me, and although I have always believed that spirits will break their bonds and return to their former home, I never believed in a bank-note's return until you showed me the miracle. Therefore I have decided to make you my heir, and I have called you to witness the will and--"

"Not a word more," I said. "I never speculated upon anybody's death, and do not intend to change my habit. I never took the trouble to inquire how much of my poor father's fortune was swallowed by the lawyers, although I know that, after paying all of his debts, there must have been a handsome penny left, and I could have recovered that money if I had cared to see about it. I have earned for myself a respected position and a decent living, and I expect to do better yet. So thanks to you for your kind intention, but I am not the man you want."

"Yes, you are, and the more so because you do not worship the golden calf, and do not want to hurry me into my grave as the others do. To tell you all: I wish to settle everything on you while I live, the estate, the house, the money, and all--no, don't run away! I am not crazy, and you need not be afraid that I want you to live here with me in this old hall as it is, mouldy and dirty and desolate. Neither do I want you to share my diet of fruits and raw vegetables, eggs and milk, and baked potatoes. On the contrary, I want you to come to me and live like a gentleman, as a Dumany should, and let me enjoy life with you."

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