« ПредишнаНапред »
THE DEATH-BED CONFESSION.
FROM THE POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A LATE SURGEON.
“One fatal remembrance.”—MOORE.
I HAVE often thought that no profession is so fraught with the recollection of human suffering, mental and corporeal, in all their varied and characteristic shades of life and death, as that of the surgeon and general medical practitioner. The attorney in the course of business is sufficiently connected with misery, Heaven knows. It may be his stern duty to drag from the writhing hand of poverty the last shilling ; he may have to issue an execution, and, amid the wailings of a forlorn family, see torn from them, by his minion the broker, their every household chattel,--perhaps leaving a once smiling and happy hearth desolate indeed; nay, the attorney may have to consign some hopeless debtor to all the wretchedness of a prison for life; but the melancholy sequel—the last horrors of existence that border upon the mystic awfulness of eternity—the deathbed—belongs of right to us, and those whose holy ministry breathes, through a blessed Redeemer, the consoling balm of peace to the repentant and departing soul!
The wealthy, the poor, the honourable and ignoble, in all the lights and shadows of circumstance and character, call upon the professor of the “healing art” to administer the fruits of his study, to expel that foe to health and enjoyment, fell disease, with its hydra head. In the chambers of the sick, in the grey of early morning, or with the garish sunlight of the day streaming through the half-closed curtains, or at the more solemn midnight hour, when “half the world is hushed in deep repose,” the eventful pages of life and death sometimes display strange and startling scenes to us ;-when the anguish of the body and mind conjoined in the sufferer have thrown off the artificialities of every-day existence. The spirit then bordering upon the confines of another world, in the mutter of the broken sleep, the sudden start and exclamation, or even in the very raving of delirium, oftentimes but too eloquently tells of woe or vice, in all the horrors of their true details. Amid such scenes I have often noted that truth has worn a garb stranger than fiction.
Some such motive, I may say, has induced me to write the following recollection.
My early life in the profession was accompanied by a circumstance that, to say the least of it, was not a little singular. It is now some five-and-twenty years since I first commenced practice in this at present overgrown metropolis of London. The first house I occupied was in a style commensurate with my humble fortunes, in a small thoroughfare leading out of Oxford Street. Having but few friends, and those resident in the country, and but a very meagre capital for support until I got into active employment, the knowledge of this fact perhaps only served to stimulate me in my endeavours to obtain practice ; but, in spite of every effort, it was to no purpose. I felt myself under a kind of ban, of having the tolerable portion of skill I knew myself possessed of, remain unknown. Daily, hourly, as I
vainly hoped and sought for business, and as my capital gradually decreased, I had the mortification of knowing that my circumstances soon threatened to involve me in all the horrors of poverty.
If I had been a single man, I could have managed to have borne my ill fortune perhaps with something like resignation ; but there were two beings entirely dependent upon me for support-a young wife, and an infant at her breast.
One dull December evening, my wife and I were mourning over our gloomy circumstances. The tea-things had been just removed, and we were sitting in the little parlour adjoining my small and sel. dom-visited surgery. As I contemplated for a moment the horrors of beggary, I burst out into some of those repinings, which I did not possess philosophy enough entirely to suppress, while my angel wife endeavoured to soothe the rugged bitterness of my spirit with the first and last exhortation of the wretched-to hope! My last twenty pounds had been taken from my banker's hands the preceding week, and where I was to obtain a fresh supply when that was gone, Heaven only knew. Something was to be resolved upon soon; but each plan proposed was speedily rejected as impracticable.' We had sunken into a silent fit of reflection, gazing at the fire, when the voices of many persons, apparently approaching the house, fell upon
“ This is the house-here's the nearest doctor's. Take care of the gemman,” cried several voices.
I rushed to the door, which was already opened by the servant, and by the light of an adjoining lamp I beheld a considerable crowd of people half surrounding four men, employed in supporting the body of one who, twenty rough voices at one and the same moment informed me, had been run over by a carriage.
Conducting the four men into my surgery, I had my patient placed in a reclining arm-chair. He appeared covered with mud, and in great pain. In crossing Oxford Street, one of the men who assisted in bringing him informed me, he had been run over by the wheels of a carriage driven at a furious rate. The stranger, judging from a single glance at his tall and attenuated figure, had once, no doubt, been a singularly fine man, though now debilitated by age and grief, as his white hair and the furrowed lines of his open and intellectual countenance seemed to infer. He was suffering acute pain, which he informed me proceeded from his right leg. I now perceived, indeed, that this limb lay in a very lifeless and unnatural position. Taking my scissors from my case, I immediately cut down the seam of the trousers and through part of the stocking, laying bare the hurt limb, which, as I had expected, exhibited a severe fracture, through which a portion of ragged bone protruded. At the same moment the old gentleman had with much difficulty raised bimself a little, and now bent his eyes over the shattered leg.
“ Ha! as I thought !” he exclaimed, in a tone of voice in which pain, self-possession, and resignation were singularly blended. i Fracture of the tibia and fibula, just below the upper third. You must have recourse to your splints."
At this observation, which I knew could only have emanated from a medical man, the slight hope of reward I had cherished at once vanished from my mind, and I prepared as cheerfully as I could to
render those services to a brother of the profession that were called for by humanity, and rendered gratuitous from custom. Indeed, I apparently had little reason to regret the discovery; for, from the old man's dress, it would have been
reasonable to infer that his resources admitted but of a very wretched fee.
By the time I had cleaned the wound and bandaged on the splints, -a painful operation, which my patient bore with unshrinking firmness,--he complained of considerable faintness, which I relieved by administering a small glass of brandy.
“I fear this will go hard with my life,” said the old gentleman, regarding my countenance with a steady glance.
“If I were to tell you that you were not in considerable danger, I should deceive you, sir," I replied, at the same time inwardly dreading the worst from the evidently debilitated state of my patient's frame.
“ Well, God's will be done, and not that of a wretched sinner like me !" murmured the stranger, laying a kind of bitter emphasis upon the latter word.
The men who had carried my patient, and who seemed to belong to that very doubtful class, who, without any direct employment, may generally be seen congregated round the coach-stands in London, now took the opportunity of asking very significantly, if they were wanted any longer. I immediately perceived their drist, and asked my patient if it would not be better to send a note to his family or friends to apprise them of the accident, before making his appearance among them.
“No, it is needless; that pain is mercifully spared me and them. I have no family,—no friends," replied the old gentleman, in a voice so forlorn that it went to my heart at once, and even for a moment seemed to affect the men standing by.
“Shall I call the gemman a coach ?” inquired one.
“ No," replied my patient; " that is the worst conveyance for a broken limb. Take a cab, and obtain for me, if possible, a stretcher, and
The old man, evidently with a strong mental effort, suppressed the anguish he felt from his fractured limb; but the
he endured was but too perceptible in the writhing of his countenance, down which the large drops of perspiration trickled one after the other. I was moved at the sight, and a feeling of commiseration got the better of my selfishness : indeed, I even forgot my own situation at the moment, as I made him the offer of a vacant bed in the house.
“You are kind, sir,” he replied, a flush succeeding the death-like paleness of his care-stricken features. "I am not quite prepared to die—that is, I could wish to live some months longer, and I fear a removal at present might greatly increase the inflammation; therefore, if I do not encumber
you, I will accept your offer. But there is one, my kind landlady,- you must apprise her of my misfortune." And he gave me his address, when I immediately penned a note, which I despatched by one of the men to the street in Tottenham-court-road where Mr. Benfield (the name of my patient) resided.
After giving him an anodyne draught, by assisting the men a little, I managed to get him carried up stairs, without inducing much additional pain from the fractured limb.
“ Perhaps the gen'elman will have the goodness to think of us now,” said one of the men, as we got my patient into bed, endeavouring to assume an air of modesty, which sat upon his coarse fea. tures with intolerable grace.
“True, I must remember I have to reward your humanity, as it is not the worldly fashion to confer services for nothing." And the old gentleman, putting his hand into a small side pocket of his greatcoat, as it hung by his bed-side, took out a sovereign, which, to my surprise, he gave to be divided among the men.
The sight of this sum, so much larger a donation than these worthies had expected to receive, wrought an almost magical effect upon them, and brought forth numerous professions of gratitude
“I see, sir, you're a real gemman,” uttered the fellow who had been spokesman previously.“ Although I didn't think of it afore, I can tell you the number of the coach as knocked you down.”
“ It is of little consequence,” said the stranger, with a deep sigh.
“But the willain, Jem Burns, as drove over your honour," con. tinued the man.
“I forgive him with all my heart,” uttered the benevolent old gentleman.
Perceiving that the sleeping potion was already beginning to take a slight effect upon my patient, I placed the bell-rope close to his head, and forbidding the expression of some thanks he was about to utter, I led my rough assistants down stairs, when they took their departure with many offers of service to “the queer old gen’elman, as didn't mind people running over him.”
In the parlour I found my kind partner all anxiety to learn the state of our guest, and while discoursing on the suddenness of the occurrence, Mrs. Smith, his landlady, arrived. She was a woman past the meridian of life, and, with all the vulgar garrulity so common to her station in society, displayed a strong feeling of sorrow for Mr. Benfield's accident. The cause, indeed, of this emotion was sufficiently accounted for, when she informed us that her lodger had, by his great attention and medical skill, saved the life of her eldest
“Oh, sir," continued the widow, for such she was, “poor dear old Mr. Benfield is the best of men. He's never happy but when he's doing good to somebody or other; though, poor gentleman, his sad. ness at times, and his lone ways, sitting up as he will half through the night praying and calling himself names, as I've known him to do, makes me quite miserable. And then the old gentleman, if he only hears of a case of distress, will run out in all weathers to give relief. He's the best of human beings, sir; though he often talks as if he'd done something wicked in his youth.”
“Is he not in practice as a surgeon ?" I inquired.
“Oh, no, sir," replied Mrs Smith ; "though I heard him say he was once a doctor when a young man ; and then, as though the recollection made him miserable, he told me in his mild way never to ask him questions, or remind him of it; so that I and my eldest boy, whose life he saved, fancy he might have been unfortunate in business."
“ But has he no relations or acquaintance ?" The kind landlady's face assumed a look of grave thought as she
replied, “Oh, no; there it is where the old gentleman's sadness sometimes lays. He will talk in the most moving way for hours together in the middle of the night of his wife and children, that are dead. And then to see how hardly he treats himself in his living, when he thinks nothing can be too good for others, it makes me quite fretful to see it ; but he will have his own way, and says anything is good enough for him.”
It is almost unnecessary for me to say that my wife and myself were but too interested in the welfare of the excellent and eccentric old man, who had so strangely been made an inmate under our roof, not to listen with much interest to the brief particulars we collected of him from Mrs. Smith.
As the kind-hearted landlady seemed desirous of seeing her lodger, I immediately led the way up into his room. From his heavy and laboured breathing as I opened the door, I knew that he was asleep, and motioned Mrs. Smith to tread softly, while I shaded the light which I carried in my hand, so that its rays might not tend to disturb his slumbers. My patient's sunken cheek I perceived, as I bent over the bed for a moment, wore an alabaster paleness, which, with the few floating grey hairs streaming over his deeply furrowed countenance, gave him an appearance peculiarly venerable. Still, from a slight spasmodic display of feature, and an occasional half murmur in the hard breathing, it was but too easy to perceive that the old gentleman was in a high state of fever, and that his sleep, so far from being repose, seemed
“ But a continuance of enduring thought.”
All my fears were respecting the strong tendency to fever, so evident in the frame of my patient, and this reflection I had just whispered to Mrs. Smith, when he uttered a groan ; then followed a half muttering sound, as though he were talking in his sleep. Fearful of awaking him, I had just motioned to my kind-hearted companion to follow me out of the chamber, when the slumberer, in a voice whose cavernous and half-stifled tone seemed to emanate from the very depths of his chest, exclaimed
Blessed Lord! when shall I be forgiven!" There was something so solemn in this appeal, that I was deeply impressed by it as I softly closed the door.
“ That's just like him, sir,” said Mrs. Smith, as I conducted her down stairs. “ To hear Mr. Benfield at times, you'd think he'd been a very wicked man ; when it's quite impossible such a good man could ever have done anything wicked.”
Three months passed before anything like perfect adhesion took place in the fractured bones. During this period I had many oppor. tunities of becoming intimately acquainted with the character of a man, whose extensive knowledge and erudition were only equalled by his Christian philanthropy and humanity. From many conversa. tions I had with him, my previous belief was confirmed, that my patient was labouring under some painful recollection of early indiscretion or guilt, which his over sensitive mind, it appeared to me, seemed to imagine could never be atoned for in that world "where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest."