A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

XXIII the Meeting of Maurice and Euthymia.

These autumnal fevers, which carry off a large number of our young people every year, are treacherous and deceptive diseases. Not only are they liable, as has been mentioned, to various accidental complications which may prove suddenly fatal, but too often, after convalescence seems to be established, relapses occur which are more serious than the disease had appeared to be in its previous course. One morning Dr. Butts found Maurice worse instead of better, as he had hoped and expected to find him. Weak as he was, there was every reason to fear the issue of this return of his threatening symptoms. There was not much to do besides keeping up the little strength which still remained. It was all needed.

Does the reader of these pages ever think of the work a sick man as much as a well one has to perform while he is lying on his back and taking what we call his "rest"? More than a thousand times an hour, between a hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand times a week, he has to lift the bars of the cage in which his breathing organs are confined, to save himself from asphyxia. Rest! There is no rest until the last long sigh tells those who look upon the dying that the ceaseless daily task, to rest from which is death, is at last finished. We are all galley-slaves, pulling at the levers of respiration,—which, rising and falling like so many oars, drive us across an unfathomable ocean from one unknown shore to another. No! Never was a galley-slave so chained as we are to these four and twenty oars, at which we must tug day and night all our life long

The doctor could not find any accidental cause to account for this relapse. It presently occurred to him that there might be some local source of infection which had brought on the complaint, and was still keeping up the symptoms which were the ground of alarm. He determined to remove Maurice to his own house, where he could be sure of pure air, and where he himself could give more constant attention to his patient during this critical period of his disease. It was a risk to take, but he could be carried on a litter by careful men, and remain wholly passive during the removal. Maurice signified his assent, as he could hardly help doing,—for the doctor’s suggestion took pretty nearly the form of a command. He thought it a matter of life and death, and was gently urgent for his patient’s immediate change of residence. The doctor insisted on having Maurice’s books and other movable articles carried to his own house, so that he should be surrounded by familiar sights, and not worry himself about what might happen to objects which he valued, if they were left behind him.

All these dispositions were quickly and quietly made, and everything was ready for the transfer of the patient to the house of the hospitable physician. Paolo was at the doctor’s, superintending the arrangement of Maurice’s effects and making all ready for his master. The nurse in attendance, a trustworthy man enough in the main, finding his patient in a tranquil sleep, left his bedside for a little fresh air. While he was at the door he heard a shouting which excited his curiosity, and he followed the sound until he found himself at the border of the lake. It was nothing very wonderful which had caused the shouting. A Newfoundland dog had been showing off his accomplishments, and some of the idlers were betting as to the time it would take him to bring back to his master the various floating objects which had been thrown as far from the shore as possible. He watched the dog a few minutes, when his attention was drawn to a light wherry, pulled by one young lady and steered by another. It was making for the shore, which it would soon reach. The attendant remembered all at once, that he had left his charge, and just before the boat came to land he turned and hurried back to the patient. Exactly how long he had been absent he could not have said,—perhaps a quarter of an hour, perhaps longer; the time appeared short to him, wearied with long sitting and watching.

It had seemed, when he stole away from Maurice’s bedside, that he was not in the least needed. The patient was lying perfectly quiet, and to all appearance wanted nothing more than letting alone. It was such a comfort to look at something besides the worn features of a sick man, to hear something besides his labored breathing and faint, half-whispered words, that the temptation to indulge in these luxuries for a few minutes had proved irresistible.

Unfortunately, Maurice’s slumbers did not remain tranquil during the absence of the nurse. He very soon fell into a dream, which began quietly enough, but in the course of the sudden transitions which dreams are in the habit of undergoing became successively anxious, distressing, terrifying. His earlier and later experiences came up before him, fragmentary, incoherent, chaotic even, but vivid as reality. He was at the bottom of a coal-mine in one of those long, narrow galleries, or rather worm-holes, in which human beings pass a large part of their lives, like so many larvae boring their way into the beams and rafters of some old building. How close the air was in the stifling passage through which he was crawling! The scene changed, and he was climbing a slippery sheet of ice with desperate effort, his foot on the floor of a shallow niche, his hold an icicle ready to snap in an instant, an abyss below him waiting for his foot to slip or the icicle to break. How thin the air seemed, how desperately hard to breathe! He was thinking of Mont Blanc, it may be, and the fearfully rarefied atmosphere which he remembered well as one of the great trials in his mountain ascents. No, it was not Mont Blanc,—it was not any one of the frozen Alpine summits; it was Hecla that he was climbing

The smoke of the burning mountain was wrapping itself around him; he was choking with its dense fumes; he heard the flames roaring around him, he felt the hot lava beneath his feet, he uttered a faint cry, and awoke.

The room was full of smoke. He was gasping for breath, strangling in the smothering oven which his chamber had become.

The house was on fire!

He tried to call for help, but his voice failed him, and died away in a whisper. He made a desperate effort, and rose so as to sit up in the bed for an instant, but the effort was too much for him, and he sank back upon his pillow, helpless. He felt that his hour had come, for he could not live in this dreadful atmosphere, and he was left alone. He could hear the crackle of fire as the flame crept along from one partition to another. It was a cruel fate to be left to perish in that way,—the fate that many a martyr had had to face,—to be first strangled and then burned. Death had not the terror for him that it has for most young persons. He was accustomed to thinking of it calmly, sometimes wistfully, even to such a degree that the thought of self-destruction had come upon him as a temptation. But here was death in an unexpected and appalling shape. He did not know before how much he cared to live. All his old recollections came before him as it were in one long, vivid flash. The closed vista of memory opened to its far horizon-line, and past and present were pictured in a single instant of clear vision. The dread moment which had blighted his life returned in all its terror. He felt the convulsive spring in the form of a faint, impotent spasm,—the rush of air,—the thorns of the stinging and lacerating cradle into which he was precipitated. One after another those paralyzing seizures which had been like deadening blows on the naked heart seemed to repeat themselves, as real as at the moment of their occurrence. The pictures passed in succession with such rapidity that they appeared almost as if simultaneous. The vision of the "inward eye " was so intensified in this moment of peril that an instant was like an hour of common existence. Those who have been very near drowning know well what this description means. The development of a photograph may not explain it, but it illustrates the curious and familiar fact of the revived recollections of the drowning man’s experience. The sensitive plate has taken one look at a scene, and remembers it all,

Every little circumstance is there,—the hoof in air, the wing in flight, the leaf as it falls, the wave as it breaks. All there, but invisible; potentially present, but impalpable, inappreciable, as if not existing at all. A wash is poured over it, and the whole scene comes out in all its perfection of detail. In those supreme moments when death stares a man suddenly in the face the rush of unwonted emotion floods the undeveloped pictures of vanished years, stored away in the memory, the vast panorama of a lifetime, and in one swift instant the past comes out as vividly as if it were again the present. So it was at this moment with the sick man, as he lay helpless and felt that he was left to die. For he saw no hope of relief: the smoke was drifting in clouds into the room; the flames were very near; if he was not reached and rescued immediately it was all over with him.

His past life had flashed before him. Then all at once rose the thought of his future,—of all its possibilities, of the vague hopes which he had cherished of late that his mysterious doom would be lifted from him. There was something, then, to be lived for, something! There was a new life, it might be, in store for him, and such a new life! He thought of all he was losing. Oh, could he but have lived to know the meaning of love! And the passionate desire of life came over him,—not the dread of death, but the longing for what the future might yet have of happiness for him.

All this took place in the course of a very few moments. Dreams and visions have little to do with measured time, and ten minutes, possibly fifteen or twenty, were all that had passed since the beginning of those nightmare terrors which were evidently suggested by the suffocating air he was breathing.

What had happened? In the confusion of moving books and other articles to the doctor’s house, doors and windows had been forgotten. Among the rest a window opening into the cellar, where some old furniture had been left by a former occupant, had been left unclosed. One of the lazy natives, who had lounged by the house smoking a bad cigar, had thrown the burning stump in at this open window. He had no particular intention of doing mischief, but he had that indifference to consequences which is the next step above the inclination to crime. The burning stump happened to fall among the straw of an old mattress which had been ripped open. The smoker went his way without looking behind him, and it so chanced that no other person passed the house for some time. Presently the straw was in a blaze, and from this the fire extended to the furniture, to the stairway leading up from the cellar, and was working its way along the entry under the stairs leading up to the apartment where Maurice was lying.

The blaze was fierce and swift, as it could not help being with such a mass of combustibles,—loose straw from the mattress, dry old furniture, and old warped floors which had been parching and shrinking for a score or two of years. The whole house was, in the common language of the newspaper reports, "a perfect tinder-box," and would probably be a heap of ashes in half an hour. And there was this unfortunate deserted sick man lying between life and death, beyond all help unless some unexpected assistance should come to his rescue.

As the attendant drew near the house where Maurice was lying, he was horror-struck to see dense volumes of smoke pouring out of the lower windows. It was beginning to make its way through the upper windows, also, and presently a tongue of fire shot out and streamed upward along the side of the house. The man shrieked Fire! Fire! with all his might, and rushed to the door of the building to make his way to Maurice’s room and save him. He penetrated but a short distance when, blinded and choking with the smoke, he rushed headlong down the stairs with a cry of despair that roused every man, woman, and child within reach of a human voice. Out they came from their houses in every quarter of the village. The shout of Fire! Fire! was the chief aid lent by many of the young and old. Some caught up pails and buckets: the more thoughtful ones filling them; the hastier snatching them up empty, trusting to find water nearer the burning building.

Is the sick man moved?

This was the awful question first asked,—for in the little village all knew that Maurice was about being transferred to the doctor’s house. The attendant, white as death, pointed to the chamber where he had left him, and gasped out,

"He is there!"

A ladder! A ladder! was the general cry, and men and boys rushed off in search of one. But a single minute was an age now, and there was no ladder to be had without a delay of many minutes. The sick man was going to be swallowed up in the flames before it could possibly arrive. Some were going for a blanket or a coverlet, in the hope that the young man might have strength enough to leap from the window and be safely caught in it. The attendant shook his head, and said faintly,

"He cannot move from his bed."

One of the visitors at the village,—a millionaire, it was said,—a kind-hearted man, spoke in hoarse, broken tones:

"A thousand dollars to the man that will bring him from his chamber!"

The fresh-water fisherman muttered, "I should like to save the man and to see the money, but it ain’t a thaousan’ dollars, nor ten thaousan’ dollars, that’ll pay a fellah for burnin’ to death,—or even chokin’ to death, anyhaow."

The carpenter, who knew the framework of every house in the village, recent or old, shook his head.

"The stairs have been shored up," he said, "and when the fists that holds ’em up goes, down they’ll come. It ain’t safe for no man to go over them stairs. Hurry along your ladder,—that’s your only chance."

All was wild confusion around the burning house. The ladder they had gone for was missing from its case,—a neighbor had carried it off for the workmen who were shingling his roof. It would never get there in time. There was a fire-engine, but it was nearly half a mile from the lakeside settlement. Some were throwing on water in an aimless, useless way; one was sending a thin stream through a garden syringe: it seemed like doing something, at least. But all hope of saving Maurice was fast giving way, so rapid was the progress of the flames, so thick the cloud of smoke that filled the house and poured from the windows. Nothing was heard but confused cries, shrieks of women, all sorts of orders to do this and that, no one knowing what was to be done. The ladder! The ladder! Five minutes more and it will be too late!

In the mean time the alarm of fire had reached Paolo, and he had stopped his work of arranging Maurice’s books in the same way as that in which they had stood in his apartment, and followed in the direction of the sound, little thinking that his master was lying helpless in the burning house. "Some chimney afire," he said to himself; but he would go and take a look, at any rate.

Before Paolo had reached the scene of destruction and impending death, two young women, in boating dresses of decidedly Bloomerish aspect, had suddenly joined the throng. "The Wonder" and "The Terror" of their school-days—Miss Euthymia rower and Miss Lurida Vincent had just come from the shore, where they had left their wherry. A few hurried words told them the fearful story. Maurice Kirkwood was lying in the chamber to which every eye was turned, unable to move, doomed to a dreadful death. All that could be hoped was that he would perish by suffocation rather than by the flames, which would soon be upon him. The man who had attended him had just tried to reach his chamber, but had reeled back out of the door, almost strangled by the smoke. A thousand dollars had been offered to any one who would rescue the sick man, but no one had dared to make the attempt; for the stairs might fall at any moment, if the smoke did not blind and smother the man who passed them before they fell.

The two young women looked each other in the face for one swift moment.

"How can he be reached? " asked Lurida. "Is there nobody that will venture his life to save a brother like that?"

"I will venture mine," said Euthymia.

"No! no!" shrieked Lurida,—"not you! not you ! It is a man’s work, not yours! You shall not go! Poor Lurida had forgotten all her theories in this supreme moment. But Euthymia was not to be held back. Taking a handkerchief from her neck, she dipped it in a pail of water and bound it about her head. Then she took several deep breaths of air, and filled her lungs as full as they would hold. She knew she must not take a single breath in the choking atmosphere if she could possibly help it, and Euthymia was noted for her power of staying under water so long that more than once those who saw her dive thought she would never come up again. So rapid were her movements that they paralyzed the bystanders, who would forcibly have prevented her from carrying out her purpose. Her imperious determination was not to be resisted. And so Euthymia, a willing martyr, if martyr she was to be, and not saviour, passed within the veil that hid the sufferer.

Lurida turned deadly pale, and sank fainting to the ground. She was the first, but not the only one, of her sex that fainted as Euthymia disappeared in the smoke of the burning building. Even the rector grew very white in the face,—so white that one of his vestry-men begged him to sit down at once, and sprinkled a few drops of water on his forehead, to his great disgust and manifest advantage. The old landlady was crying and moaning, and her husband was wiping his eyes and shaking his head sadly.

"She will nevar come out alive," he said solemnly.

"Nor dead, neither," added the carpenter. "Ther’ won’t be nothing left of neither of ’em but ashes." And the carpenter hid his face in his hands.

The fresh-water fisherman had pulled out a rag which he called a "hangkercher,"—it had served to carry bait that morning,—and was making use of its best corner to dry the tears which were running down his cheeks. The whole village was proud of Euthymia, and with these more quiet signs of grief were mingled loud lamentations, coming alike from old and young.

All this was not so much like a succession of events as it was like a tableau. The lookers-on were stunned with its suddenness, and before they had time to recover their bewildered senses all was lost, or seemed lost. They felt that they should never look again on either of those young faces.

The rector, not unfeeling by nature, but inveterately professional by habit, had already recovered enough to be thinking of a text for the funeral sermon. The first that occurred to him was this,—vaguely, of course, in the background of consciousness:

"Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego came forth of the midst of the fire."

The village undertaker was of naturally sober aspect and reflective disposition. He had always been opposed to cremation, and here was a funeral pile blazing before his eyes. He, too, had his human sympathies, but in the distance his imagination pictured the final ceremony, and how he himself should figure in a spectacle where the usual centre piece of attraction would be wanting,—perhaps his own services uncalled for.

Blame him not, you whose garden-patch is not watered with the tears of mourners. The string of self-interest answers with its chord to every sound; it vibrates with the funeral-bell, it finds itself trembling to the wail of the De Profundis. Not always,—not always; let us not be cynical in our judgments, but common human nature, we may safely say, is subject to those secondary vibrations under the most solemn and soul-subduing influences.

It seems as if we were doing great wrong to the scene we are contemplating in delaying it by the description of little circumstances and individual thoughts and feelings. But linger as we may, we cannot compress into a chapter—we could not crowd into a volume—all that passed through the minds and stirred the emotions of the awe-struck company which was gathered about the scene of danger and of terror. We are dealing with an impossibility: consciousness is a surface; narrative is a line.

Maurice had given himself up for lost. His breathing was becoming every moment more difficult, and he felt that his strength could hold out but a few minutes longer.

"Robert!" he called in faint accents. But the attendant was not there to answer.

"Paolo! Paolo!" But the faithful servant, who would have given his life for his master, had not yet reached the place where the crowd was gathered.

"Oh, for a breath of air! Oh, for an arm to lift me from this bed! Too late! Too late!" he gasped, with what might have seemed his dying expiration.

"Not too late!" The soft voice reached his obscured consciousness as if it had come down to him from heaven.

In a single instant he found himself rolled in a blanket and in the arms of—a woman!

Out of the stifling chamber,—over the burning stairs,—close by the tongues of fire that were lapping up all they could reach,—out into the open air, he was borne swiftly and safely,—carried as easily as if he had been a babe, in the strong arms of "The Wonder" of the gymnasium, the captain of the Atalanta, who had little dreamed of the use she was to make of her natural gifts and her school-girl accomplishments.

Such a cry as arose from the crowd of on-lookers! It was a sound that none of them had ever heard before or could expect ever to hear again, unless he should be one of the last boat-load rescued from a sinking vessel. Then, those who had resisted the overflow of their emotion, who had stood in white despair as they thought of these two young lives soon to be wrapped in their burning shroud,—those stern men—the old sea-captain, the hard-faced, moneymaking, cast-iron tradesmen of the city counting-room—sobbed like hysteric women; it was like a convulsion that overcame natures unused to those deeper emotions which many who are capable of experiencing die without ever knowing.

This was the scene upon which the doctor and Paolo suddenly appeared at the same moment.

As the fresh breeze passed over the face of the rescued patient, his eyes opened wide, and his consciousness returned in almost supernatural lucidity. Euthymia had sat down upon a bank, and was still supporting him. His head was resting on her bosom. Through his awakening senses stole the murmurs of the living cradle which rocked him with the wavelike movements of respiration, the soft susurrus of the air that entered with every breath, the double beat of the heart which throbbed close to his ear. And every sense, and every instinct, and every reviving pulse told him in language like a revelation from another world that a woman’s arms were around him, and that it was life, and not death, which her embrace had brought him.

She would have disengaged him from her protecting hold, but the doctor made her a peremptory sign, which he followed by a sharp command:—

"Do not move him a hair’s breadth," he said. "Wait until the litter comes. Any sudden movement might be dangerous. Has anybody a brandy flask about him?"

One or two members of the local temperance society looked rather awkward, but did not come forward.

The fresh-water fisherman was the first who spoke.

"I han’t got no brandy," he said, "but there’s a drop or two of old Medford rum in this here that you’re welcome to, if it’ll be of any help. I alliz kerry a little on ’t in case o’ gettin’ wet ’n’ chilled."

So saying he held forth a flat bottle with the word ,Sarsaparilla stamped on the green glass, but which contained half a pint or more of the specific on which he relied in those very frequent exposures which happen to persons of his calling.

The doctor motioned back Paolo, who would have rushed at once to the aid of Maurice, and who was not wanted at that moment. So poor Paolo, in an agony of fear for his master, was kept as quiet as possible, and had to content himself with asking all sorts of questions and repeating all the prayers he could think of to Our Lady and to his holy namesake the Apostle.

The doctor wiped the mouth of the fisherman’s bottle very carefully. "Take a few drops of this cordial," he said, as he held it to his patient’s lips. "Hold him just so, Euthymia, without stirring. I will watch him, and say when he is ready to be moved. The litter is near by, waiting." Dr. Butts watched Maurice’s pulse and color. The "old Medford " knew its business. It had knocked over its tens of thousands; it had its redeeming virtue, and helped to set up a poor fellow now and then. It did this for Maurice very effectively. When he seemed somewhat restored, the doctor had the litter brought to his side, and Euthymia softly resigned her helpless burden, which Paolo and the attendant Robert lifted with the aid of the doctor, who walked by the patient as he was borne to the home where Mrs. Butts had made all ready for his reception.

As for poor Lurida, who had thought herself equal to the sanguinary duties of the surgeon, she was left lying on the grass with an old woman over her, working hard with fan and smelling-salts to bring her back from her long fainting fit.


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Chicago: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "XXIII the Meeting of Maurice and Euthymia.," A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed July 17, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D1JK89DIUEHXGCF.

MLA: Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. "XXIII the Meeting of Maurice and Euthymia." A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 17 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D1JK89DIUEHXGCF.

Harvard: Holmes, OW, 'XXIII the Meeting of Maurice and Euthymia.' in A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, ed. . cited in 1909, A Mortal Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 17 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D1JK89DIUEHXGCF.