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A NIGHT CALL
ALL day long the June sun had beaten down with fierce July heat upon the sleepy town, upon the smooth green lawns, the white, pink, and yellow roses at the corners of houses, upon the bright green blades of growing corn in the gardens, the feathery foliage of the carrots, the waxy richness of the beets, the bright and smiling faces of the pansies, the smooth expanse of the nasturtium, with its crimson and yellow flashes from between the green leaves, and the fragile pinkness of the fragrant sweet peas.
Under the revolving sprinklers of the lawns, dapper robins had fluttered with wings upturned to catch the splashing drops, or stood upright with close-furled plumage. In the short white clover, which always follows a sprinkle of wood ashes, hundreds of bees had worked, unmindful of the fierce sun.
As darkness slowly steals over the landscape, the robins, silent during the furnace-heat of the day, begin the clear warble of their evening song.
In the grove behind the house the wood thrush chants his song that speaks of twilight shades in the darkening woods, while down in the dim orchard a whip-poor-will repeats again and again his odd three-syllabled cry, and from far above in the dim blue his prototype, the night hawk, drones his nasal whine, with rapid upbeat of his wings, and now and then plunges downward like a gray bolt, only to check his earthward rush with suddenly outstretched wings, through which the wind roars like distant thunder.
As the darkness deepens, the fireflies twinkle fitfully in the meadows, bats begin their erratic flight, and the droning buzz of the beetle is heard. The stars appear, but there is no moon, and the glare of electrics mar the soft darkness of the night.
The white figures of strolling couples pass to and fro, and the faint conversation of groups of people gathered on the piazzas and enjoying the delicious coolness of the evening, blends with the voices of Nature and night. One by one the lights in the houses disappear, the hum of conversation ceases, and the little town sleeps.
At midnight we are awakened by the insistent ringing of the telephone bell.
"Confound the telephone! Why can't people let it rest nights? There, I guess they have given it up now. No, there it goes again, 1-5, 1-5, 1-5; some one is in trouble."
So finally, with much grumbling, I turn out, and stumble downstairs in the dark to the receiver.
"Hello! Hello!! what is it?"
"Is it so important as that?"
"I will, of course."
"Let me repeat. Take the north road straight through to the village, first right, four corners, fourth house on right, big barn, about eight miles. All right."
"Hello! Yes, can do it in about an hour. Yes, will bring a witness. Is there one at the house? All right."
Some one is dying; a will must be made at once. It is too late for the little girl. Dick must go. So out to his room I go, dressing hurriedly. Dick grumbles; I don't blame him, for he came in late; but he becomes better-natured as he shakes the sleep from his eyes.
Downstairs we hurry. I run my head against the edge of a door, curse under my breath, fall over a chair, curse again right out loud, finally find and light a lantern. Polly lurches to her feet as I try the hasp of the barn-door. In the six years I have had her I have never seen her down.
I harness her hurriedly. This time I will drive, not ride; I can make better time, and my errand is urgent. Dick comes out with a bag of papers, which I keep ready for such calls. We hastily don light overcoats, for the night air is cool and damp, and with a lift of the reins we whirl round the corner and plunge into the blackness of the summer night.
Above we can see the stars and the faint light of the Milky Way. On either side the opaque blackness of the forest trees shuts out all light. There has been a shower in the early night, and the earth reeks with dampness and sweet and pungent smells.
From above comes the faint cheep of a passing night-bird. A sudden drone as a night beetle blindly blunders past makes one dodge instinctively. From the wet trees and damp places the trills of the tree-frogs and the peculiarly sleepy cry of the toads, a soft croak with a falling inflection, remind one of returning in a boat from an evening swim on a hot night in July.
The night is full of faint and drowsy noises, vague smells, eerie thoughts. But for the rapid clop, clop, clop of Polly's feet, the whirring of the wheels and the creak of the whiffle-tree, which needs oil, we might think ourselves in elf-land. We can almost hear "the horns of Elfland faintly blowing." But Polly is practical and knows her business. She is troubled with no fancies. Clop, clop, clop, she goes, with her ears pointing forward in the darkness.
A sudden chilly dampness shows we are approaching the river. We can almost see the mist as it settles on our faces. Then we have thunderously passed the bridge and ascended a rise, where it is warmer and where a sudden breeze showers us with big drops. Then down a rocky rattling slope we go, between dense pines. We cannot see them, but the sudden blackness shows they are there, standing shoulder to shoulder, for warmth and shelter in winter, for coolness and shade in summer.
And now we are approaching the village. In a house a light shines out of a watcher's room, a sick-room possibly, but in the darkness it seems cheerful and bright. Let us hope it is a late student, a clergyman writing his sermon for the next Sunday, a reader finishing an absorbing story. So bright a light could not come from a sickroom. Who could be sick on a June night? I forget, for we are going to a sick-room. I pull Polly up for a breathing-space. She has come five miles in about twenty-five minutes.
We are in the village now and can see the faint outlines of houses. A dog rushes out barking savagely, one of those unreasonably fierce shaggy animals that are the pest of drivers,. and especially of physicians and night travelers. Polly darts ahead, there is a thump, a yelp, then the off front wheel strikes a soft something and the wagon heels over dangerously amid a chorus of ear-splitting howls and pattering feet, as the shaggy devil bolts for home. We grin cheerfully, for the dog has learned a lesson.
We pass through the village at a racing gait, and are at the turn in the road where we pull up to get our bearings, — then to the right more slowly. How are we to find the house in the darkness?
It must be here, for a lighted lantern hangs from a post. We drive in, and a man in overalls and rubber boots takes our mare without a word, and motions us toward the door. We enter the sitting-room. In the corner is a melodeon, closed, and covered with a green cloth. On the melodeon is an old violin with all the strings broken but the G. A shaded lamp burns on the centre-table. There is a case of stuffed birds on a small marble-topped table in another corner, and a glass frame of wax flowers on a shelf. On the walls are two black-framed oval portraits, horrible caricatures of deceased persons, the lady in black and white checked dress, low in the neck, and with a large locket or medallion on her breast. Her hair is parted in the middle and brought down over her ears in a quaint old style recently revived. On all sides her ample skirts spread in billows. The man is brave in stock and tight-sleeved, narrow-shouldered black coat, and voluminous gray trouserloons and beautifully polished boots.
On the floor is a bright but somewhat faded carpet and braided rugs. A cat dozes in front of the open fire-place, neatly swept and dusted, while in a corner an old eight-day clock ticks loudly. I sink into a cambric-covered deep rocker and wait.
The clock ticks with dreary monotony, there is the sound of muffled footsteps overhead, then a door opens, and a portly, waistless, middle-aged woman beckons me upstairs.
As I enter a dimly lighted room, as noiselessly as possible, I see stretched on a bed, and covered with a patch-work quilt, an old gray-haired man, with a strong face sunken and yellowed by wasting disease, the lower jaw more prominent than in health, and the gnarled, twisted, calloused hands resting on the white sheet. By his side sits a sweet-faced old lady, with tremulous lips and troubled eyes, patiently awaiting the end. The old man opens his eyes and half raises his hand in welcome. I am in time.
Long before I come from that chamber the first streaks of light appear in the sky, and as I reenter the sitting-room it is nearly dawn. I look at the violin, the G string has snapped. There is a confused murmur and a hurried rush of feet overhead.
We go slowly out to where Polly is waiting and drive quietly out of the gateway. Hear the birds! Robins, bobolinks, catbirds, orioles, purple martins, — a rare bird now, — chewinks, purple finches, ground sparrows, vireos, red-winged blackbirds, bluebirds, pewees, summer yellow-birds, warblers, chippys, wrens, oven-birds, and every other bird that has a voice, are filling the air with trills and warbles, chirps and fluty grace notes. The air is full of the sweet scent of locust blossoms and the woody smell of the pines.
Everything speaks of life and love and happiness, but back in a darkened room the G string has snapped, and a life has gone out for all time.