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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 62. Euthanasia
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 62. Euthanasia Post by :mkproductions Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :2250

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 62. Euthanasia


A few steps aside from Hugh and his grandfather at the forward rail of the hurricane roof, in a glow of autumn twilight, the Gilmores and the three couples taken on at Vicksburg observed the _Enchantress_, under Watson's skill, lay her lower guards against the guards of the Natchez wharf-boat with a touch as light as a human hand.

Down on the wharf-boat, in its double door, as beautiful in her fuller years as in _Votaress days, and more radiant, stood Madame Hayle. A man-servant at one elbow, a maid at the other, saw the group on the roof fondly bidding for her smiles, but except one sent earlier to the two Courteneys they were all for her husband and daughter, who, unseen from above, awaited her half-way down the main forward stairs. When the maid, however, leaned to her and spoke, her glance went aloft and her gestures were a joy even to the strangers who crowded the boat's side. Now while the stage was run out and her husband met her and gave her his arm, and white-jackets seized her effects, the man-servant answered a question softly called over to him by Ramsey, and the group overhead caught his words:

"De twins couldn' come. No, miss, 'caze dey ain't in town. No, miss, dey bofe went oveh to de Lou'siana place 'istiddy.... Yass, miss, on a bah hunt in Bayou Crocodile swamp."

Mrs. Gilmore stole a glance at Hugh, but the only sign that he had heard was a light nod to the mate below, and a like one up to Watson.

"Take in that stage," called the mate to his men. The engine bells jingled, the _Enchantress backed a moment on one wheel, then went forward on both, fluttered her skirts of leaping foam, made a wide, upstream turn, headed down the river, and swept away for Natchez Island just below and for New Orleans distant a full night's run. She had hardly put the island on her larboard bow when merrily up and down the cabin and out on the boiler deck and thence down the passenger guards rang the supper bell.

"Bayou Crocodile," said a Carthaginian descending the wheel-house stair, "that's where one of the sons-in-law has his plantation, isn't it?"

"On the Black River, yes," said he of Milliken's Bend.

"Near where it comes into Red River," added Vicksburg.

Once more Hugh and Ramsey sat alone side by side under a glorious night sky, at that view-point so rarely chosen by others but so favored by her--the front of the texas roof. Down forward at the captain's station sat the two commodores and up in the pilot-house were the two pilots, the Gilmores, "California," Madame Hayle, and they of Vicksburg and the Bends.

In the moral atmosphere of this uppermost group there was a new and happy clearness easily attributable to a single potent cause--Madame Hayle. Her advent and the moon's rising had come in the same hour and with very similar effect. Every one was aware for himself, though nobody could say when any one else had been told, that while Gideon's decision was still withheld, madame, in her own sweet, absolute way, had said it would be forthcoming before the boat touched the Canal Street wharf, and that in the interval, whether Hugh and Ramsey were never to sit side by side again, or were to go side by side the rest of their days, they should have this hour this way and were free to lengthen it out till night was gone, if they wished.

It was not late in any modern sense, yet on the passenger deck no one was up but the barkeeper, two or three quartets at cards, the second clerk at work on his freight list, a white-jacket or two on watch, and Joy and Phyllis. Thus assured of seclusion the lovers communed without haste. There had been hurried questions but Hugh had answered them and Ramsey was now passive, partly in the bliss of being at his side as she had never been before and partly in a despair growing out of his confessed purpose to leave the _Enchantress at Red River Landing. The grandfather had already assumed Hugh's place and cares aboard, and it was Hugh's design to make his way, by boat or horse, up to and along Black River in search of the twins.

To allay this distress Hugh's soft deep voice said:

"Suppose you were a soldier's wife. This is little to that. This is but once for all."

"Yes," murmured Ramsey, "but I'd have one advantage."

"That you'd be his wife?"

"Yes," whispered Ramsey, who could not venture the name itself, for the pure rapture of it.

"Why, you're going to be mine. As the song says: 'I will come again, my love, though a' the seas gang dry.'"

"Hugh, didn't you once say I didn't know what fear was?"

"I certainly thought it."

"Well, now I do know."

He made no reply and she sat thinking of his errand. If he should find her brothers he would meet them in the deepest wilderness. Only slaves, who could not testify against masters, would be with them, their loaded guns would be in their hands, and their blood would be heated with--She resorted again to questions in her odd cross-examining way.

"You say you think there's going to be a war?"

"I fear so."

"Humph! fear. If there should be will you fight?"


"Humph! certainly. I should think--you'd hate to fight."

"I'd fight all the more furiously on that account."

"Humph!... On which side?"

"Ramsey, I don't know. I _don't know till the time comes."

"Then how do you know you won't fight my brothers--now?"

"I shan't be armed."

"But if in an outburst you should snatch up some weapon?"

"I don't burst out. I don't snatch up."

"Humph! Wish I didn't."

They were rounding Point Breeze. The long reach from Fort Adams down to Red River Landing lay before them. "Hugh, did you ever have a presentiment? Of course not. I never did before. I got it a-comin' round Hard Times Bend."

"Then I can cure it--with a new verse, one our poet has made and given me. It shall be our parting word. Shall I?"

"Oh, yes, but not for parting! I don't want any parting!"

He spoke it softly:

"I dreamp I heard a joyful soun'--
O hahd times!--
Love once mo' foun' de last turn roun'
Hahd Times Ben'.
Los' an' foun', broke an' boun',
Love foun' an' boun' de last turn roun'
Hahd Times Ben'."

Ramsey barely waited for its end. "What's that light waving far away down yonder? It began as you did."

"It didn't know it. It's only some one on the Red River wharf-boat, wanting us to land," said Hugh, and before his last word came the _Enchantress roared her assent to the signal. But Ramsey had spoken again:

"What's this, right here?" She sprang up and gazed out on the water a scant mile ahead. There, directly in the steamer's course and just out of the moon's track, another faint light waved, so close to the water as to be reflected in it. The moment the whistle broke out it ceased to swing and when the whistle ceased the engines had stopped.

"What is it?" she asked again as Hugh stood by her looking out ahead with eyes better trained to night use than hers.

"A skiff," he replied, "with some message."

She could see only that Watson had put the light on their starboard bow. It seemed to drift toward them but she knew that the movement was the steamer's, and now the light was so close as to show the negro who held it. He stood poised to throw aboard a billet of wood with a note attached. And now he cast it. The lower guards were out of Ramsey's line of sight but a cry of disappointment told her the stick had fallen short and would be lost under the great wheel, which at that moment, with its fellow, "went ahead." But as the _Enchantress passed the skiff its occupant called out a hurried statement to the mate, on the forecastle, and as the skiff and its light swept astern the mate repeated the word to the commodores.

"Man at Red River Landing accidentally shot. Must be got to the city quick or he can't live."

The commodores, and then the lovers, resumed their seats.

"Poor man," murmured Ramsey, "poor man! he's got _his trouble without going in chase of it."

"If he'd gone in chase of it," rejoined Hugh, "he might never have met it."

The _Enchantress swung more directly toward the dim lights of the wharf-boat and at top speed ruffled through a freshening air with the goal but a few miles away. Yet the lovers sat silent. Once parted they would think of many a word they should have spoken while they could, but now none seemed large enough to break such silence with. To be silent and best content with silence was one of the most special and blissful of lovers' rights.

Presently a glow rose from the forecastle, reddening the white jack-staff up to its black night-hawk. The torch baskets were being lighted. Hugh stirred to go but Ramsey laid her touch on his wrist and he stayed.

She spoke. "Mustn't you wait near your grandfather till you see who it is that's coming aboard?"

"I can. I may as well."

The _Enchantress_, in mid-river, began to "round to" in order to land bow up-stream. When she came round, the half dozen men on the wharf-boat were close at hand in the glare of her torches, eye to eye with those on the forecastle, but prevented by the light itself from seeing those on the upper decks.

Ramsey sprang to her feet with lips apart to cry out to her mother up behind her, to Gideon down before, to Hugh at her side, but all these saw and knew. A face in the centre of the torchlight and of the wharf-boat group was Julian's bearing the mute intelligence that the writhing man on a rude stretcher borne by two negroes was his brother. The lovers parted without a word, but in a moment were near each other again as Hugh joined the commodores while Ramsey and her mother crouched at the roof's forward rail to see the wounded man brought across the stage.

"In my room!" pleaded madame to both Courteneys at once, and the elder assented as Hugh hurried below with the three Hayles following.

It was heart-rending work getting the sufferer into the berth while he poured out moanings of agony mingled with frantic accusations of his bearers, railings against God and all his laws, and unspoken recognitions of mother and sister. Ramsey, seeing his eye fall on Phyllis and remain there staring, and knowing from old Joy that he had grown enough like his uncle Dan to have been his twin, suffered for her as well as him.

"Who are _you_?" he cried, still staring. "Where am I?"

The maid did not reply, but her unfaltering gaze met his as if it neither could nor would do otherwise. Ramsey intuitively followed the play of her mind. To look again on Gideon Hayle had already recalled emotions she had striven for half a lifetime to put away, and now they kept her eyes set on this tortured yet unrelenting advocate of all the wrongs from which those emotions sprang.

He looked to his mother. "Great God! mother, is this the new Courteney boat? Well, if this isn't hell's finishing touch! Jule! Where's Jule? Go, get me Jule!"

Phyllis turned to go but--"No," he cried with a light of sudden purpose in his face, "you stay. Everybody else go! And send me Jule. Don't send a doctor, I'm the doctor myself. Get out, all of you, go! This isn't my death-bed. God! I wish it was, for I'm a cripple for life and will never walk again--leave! go! and send me Jule!"

Guided by a cabin-boy to Hugh's room, Ramsey found Julian confronting his father, "California," and the Gilmores. Hugh had led them there for privacy and stood close at one side. Julian seemed to be suffering a shock scarcely less than his brother's though it made a wholly different outward show. His face wore an appalled look, his voice was below its accustomed pitch, and his words, words which could not have been premeditated, seemed studiously fit and precise.

"Fortunately," he had been saying before Ramsey appeared, "he never"--meaning his brother--"goes into the country without his drugs and instruments--we have them with us yet--and he could tell me what to do and I did it, or he would have died right there in the swamp."

"But you don't say how the accursed thing happened," said Gideon as Ramsey entered hardly aware that she was pausing at Hugh's side. The brother turned and stared on the two.

"Come," said Gideon, "never mind that. How did it happen?"

"It happened, sir, through my own incredible carelessness and by my own hand. _Don't say a word! I would to God I had been the victim and had fallen dead in my tracks. If I had killed him I would have put the other load into my brain."

"Oh, if!" solemnly sneered the incredulous father. While he did so Julian, the profoundness of whose mental torture his father poorly saw, received from Ramsey his brother's summons and with her was turning away. He stopped and flashed back a look of agonized resentment, but Gideon met it with a beetling frown and neither gaze fell until Ramsey stepped between, facing the giant, and she and the brother backed away and were gone.

They sought the passenger deck. Between anguish for Lucian's calamity and anguish for his father's contumely there poured from Julian's lips in hectoring questions to Ramsey a further anguish of chagrin for the seeming triumph of Hugh's love. Two or three challenges she parried and while in a single utterance he launched out as many more they encountered at a wheel-house stair their mother and old Joy. He cut short all inquiries with a proffer to return to them and Ramsey post-haste and give a full account of the disaster.

Meantime down in the sick-room Lucian said to Phyllis, when they had been a few minutes alone:

"And now give me my medicine."

"Yes, sir; where is it?"

"Oh, damnation! in my saddle-bags on the washstand. What are you trying to talk white folks' English for?" He hardly spoke three words without a moan or an oath. "Do you find a measuring-glass?"

She found it.

"See a small bottle--dark liquid--about twice the size--of the glass?"

"Yass, suh, but it's full, suh."

"Hell! what of that? Fill the glass and give it to me!"

She filled it but paused. "It--it looks like la'danum."

"Oh, damn you, so did your great-grandmother. It's not laudanum. Did you ever smell vinegar in laudanum, or nutmeg? Give it here! God A'mighty, if I could reach you with my fist--Give me that glass!"

"Misteh Lucian, if this is la'danum----"

"You hell-fired idiot, it isn't! And if it was, such an overdose would only vomit me. Don't you know that?"

"Yass, suh, I know it would." But still she held back.

"Then give it here!"

Julian came in with alarm added to his other distresses.

"Oh, Luce! do you want to start that bleeding again?"

"I'd just as lief as not! Make that wench give me that glass or mash her head! She knows if it was laudanum it would merely puke me. Damn it, it's a simple euthanasia." The crafty sufferer felt assured his brother would neither know nor ask the smooth word's meaning.

Julian turned, savagely upon the maid. Heated with drink, enraged at himself, his father, Hugh Courteney, his sister, and his mother, he was in no mood to humor the contumacy of any freed slave and least of all this one. "Give it to him this instant," he cried. "Do you want to kill him?"

"No, Misteh Julian, that's exactly----"

He drew and levelled his revolver and then motioned with it a repetition of his command.

With a woe of protest in her eyes, Phyllis obeyed. Lucian swallowed the draught and sank to his pillow. Julian watched Phyllis slowly set down the glass and bottle.

"What did you say that stuff is?" he asked his brother, with an assumed lightness.

"Oh, a palliative for these infernal pains. Have you told the family what happened? Go do it." The speaker's tone grew lofty. "I want them to know it was all my fault! This girl can stay with me till you come back, and you can take your time. I shan't need you for an hour. Go, Jule, my brother. Oh don't harry me with idle questions."

As Julian presently shut himself out Phyllis, her fears for the patient disarmed by his transient excitement where she had looked for heaviness, laid her hand on a chair; but he stopped her. "You white nigger! would you presume to sit down in my presence? If you can't stand go outside--and shut the door. Oh, go anyhow! Life's more tolerable with you out of sight. If I want you I'll call."

The room was close abaft the wheel, where a widening of the guards made an inviting space, and out there Phyllis drew a chair up beside the door. A whitejacket came from the cabin in behalf of passengers in neighboring staterooms to ask what the commotion meant, and as she began to explain it away Ramsey and old Joy came down a near-by stair to watch with her or in her stead and to them she amplified her explanation. Ramsey listened at the door. The patient seemed to be asleep, so audible was his breathing.

She had a sudden thought: a doctor's saddle-bags always contain laudanum. Had Phyllis seen any--in another bottle, untouched? That would confirm the patient's denial. She beckoned and asked. Yes, Phyllis had seen it, labelled.

"And besides," Ramsey thought on, "neither twin has ever spoken falsely to the other." Why, then, sleep was good!

Even in outer sights and sounds there was solace and reassurance: in river and shore forever passing majestically up-stream through floods of moonlight; in the rhythmic flutter and rush of wheels and foam, and in the keen quiver of the _Enchantress flying to New Orleans on the swiftest wings steam could give. Ramsey sent Phyllis up to bid Julian be at ease, and the maid, returning, announced that both the commodores had gone to rest but that madame was anxious to come back to the invalid the moment he would permit. She added, unasked, that Captain Hugh was in the captain's chair.

The hour passed and Julian reappeared. The partial relief of mind which had come to all the others had in degree reached him. It enabled him, as he came down the wheel-house stair, to reflect, though with a shudder, upon that furious treatment which alone, he had somewhere heard, would counteract an opium poisoning, and upon Lucian's utter inability to endure any part of such a treatment. He found Ramsey hearkening at the door again, newly disquieted. The two servants were out at the rail of the wide guards.

"Ought his breathing," she said, "to sound like that?"

Julian thought not, but even a sister's solicitude offended his lifelong sentiment of paramount ownership in his brother. "Stand away, I'll let you know," he replied, passed in, and closed the door.

Then all at once, as so often has happened to so many of us, he saw his heedlessness where he had fancied himself vigilant. The light was dim. He knelt close to the sleeper. One long stare into the pale yet livid face was enough. Lucian was dying. Julian leaped to his feet to seek aid but saw its futility and fell again to his knees. Lucian was dying of the "black-drop" which his brother, in haughty ignorance, by the hand of Phyllis, had given him.

Presently Julian found voice, yet, mindful still of the listening Ramsey, let himself only softly murmur: "Oh, Lucian, my brother! Oh, Lucian, my twin brother! I've killed you, killed you twice over, my twin brother! God! but you're right not to live a cripple. And it was I who crippled you! Oh, Lucian, I'm the cripple now!"

Ramsey tapped. He sprang to the door and without opening it answered: "Yes, in a minute. He--he's all right."

At the wash-stand he lifted the phial of black-drop still half full. As quietly as if the dose were a dram at the bar he filled the measuring--glass and drank its last drop. Then he turned to the door and barely opened it.

"He's all right, Ramsey.... Yes.... Yes. He's done just the right thing. So have I. Now, go away, please, wherever you like, only don't--stay--here just to bother us. I'll merely lie down beside him without--What?... No, go away! You'll find us all right in the morning."

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