Drift from Two Shores

The Man Whose Yoke was Not Easy

Bret Harte

HE WAS a spare man, and, physically, an ill-conditioned man, but at first glance scarcely a seedy man. The indications of reduced circumstances in the male of the better class are, I fancy, first visible in the boots and shirt; the boots offensively exhibiting a degree of polish inconsistent with their dilapidated condition, and the shirt showing an extent of ostentatious surface that is invariably fatal to the threadbare waist-coat that it partially covers. He was a pale man, and, I fancied, still paler from his black clothes.

He handed me a note.

It was from a certain physician; a man of broad culture and broader experience; a man who had devoted the greater part of his active life to the alleviation of sorrow and suffering; a man who had lived up to the noble vows of a noble profession; a man who locked in his honorable breast the secrets of a hundred families, whose face was as kindly, whose touch was as gentle, in the wards of the great public hospitals as it was beside the laced curtains of the dying Narcissa; a man who, through long contact with suffering, had acquired a universal tenderness and breadth of kindly philosophy; a man who, day and night, was at the beck and call of anguish; a man who never asked the creed, belief, moral or worldly standing of the sufferer, or even his ability to pay the few coins that enabled him (the physician) to exist and practice his calling; in brief, a man who so nearly lived up to the example of the Great Master that it seems strange I am writing of him as a doctor of medicine and not of divinity.

The note was in pencil, characteristically brief, and ran thus:—

“Here is the man I spoke of. He ought to be good material for you.”

For a moment I sat looking from the note to the man, and sounding the “dim perilous depths” of my memory for the meaning of this mysterious communication. The good “material,” however, soon relieved my embarrassment by putting his hand on his waistcoat, coming toward me, and saying, “It is just here, you can feel it.”

It was not necessary for me to do so. In a flash I remembered that my medical friend had told me of a certain poor patient, once a soldier, who, among his other trials and uncertainties, was afflicted with an aneurism caused by the buckle of his knapsack pressing upon the arch of the aorta. It was liable to burst at any shock or any moment. The poor fellow’s yoke had indeed been too heavy.

In the presence of such a tremendous possibility I think for an instant I felt anxious only about myself. What I should do; how dispose of the body; how explain the circumstance of his taking off; how evade the ubiquitous reporter and the coroner’s inquest; how a suspicion might arise that I had in some way, through negligence or for some dark purpose, unknown to the jury, precipitated the catastrophe, all flashed before me. Even the note, with its darkly suggestive offer of “good material” for me, looked diabolically significant. What might not an intelligent lawyer make of it?

I tore it up instantly, and with feverish courtesy begged him to be seated.

“You don’t care to feel it?” he asked, a little anxiously.


“Nor see it?”


He sighed, a trifle sadly, as if I had rejected the only favor he could bestow. I saw at once that he had been under frequent exhibition to the doctors, and that he was, perhaps, a trifle vain of this attention. This perception was corroborated a moment later by his producing a copy of a medical magazine, with a remark that on the sixth page I would find a full statement of his case.

“Could I serve him in any way?” I asked.

It appeared that I could. If I could help him to any light employment, something that did not require any great physical exertion or mental excitement, he would be thankful. But he wanted me to understand that he was not, strictly speaking, a poor man; that some years before the discovery of his fatal complaint he had taken out a life insurance policy for five thousand dollars, and that he had raked and scraped enough together to pay it up, and that he would not leave his wife and four children destitute. “You see,” he added, “if I could find some sort of light work to do, and kinder sled along, you know—until—”

He stopped, awkwardly.

I have heard several noted actors thrill their audiences with a single phrase. I think I never was as honestly moved by any spoken word as that “until,” or the pause that followed it. He was evidently quite unconscious of its effect, for as I took a seat beside him on the sofa, and looked more closely in his waxen face, I could see that he was evidently embarrassed, and would have explained himself further, if I had not stopped him.

Possibly it was the dramatic idea, or possibly chance; but a few days afterward, meeting a certain kind-hearted theatrical manager, I asked him if he had any light employment for a man who was an invalid? “Can he walk?” “Yes.” “Stand up for fifteen minutes?” “Yes.” “Then I’ll take him. He’ll do for the last scene in the ‘Destruction of Sennacherib’—it’s a tremendous thing, you know. We’ll have two thousand people on the stage.” I was a trifle alarmed at the title, and ventured to suggest (without betraying my poor friend’s secret that he could not actively engage in the “Destruction of Sennacherib,” and that even the spectacle of it might be too much for him. “Needn’t see it at all,” said my managerial friend; “put him in front, nothing to do but march in and march out, and dodge curtain.”

He was engaged. I admit I was at times haunted by grave doubts as to whether I should not have informed the manager of his physical condition, and the possibility that he might some evening perpetrate a real tragedy on the mimic stage, but on the first performance of “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” which I conscientiously attended, I was somewhat relieved. I had often been amused with the placid way in which the chorus in the opera invariably received the most astounding information, and witnessed the most appalling tragedies by poison or the block, without anything more than a vocal protest or command, always delivered to the audience and never to the actors, but I think my poor friend’s utter impassiveness to the wild carnage and the terrible exhibitions of incendiarism that were going on around him transcended even that. Dressed in a costume that seemed to be the very soul of anachronism, he stood a little outside the proscenium, holding a spear, the other hand pressed apparently upon the secret within his breast, calmly surveying, with his waxen face, the gay auditorium. I could not help thinking that there was a certain pride visible even in his placid features, as of one who was conscious that at any moment he might change this simulated catastrophe into real terror. I could not help saying this to the Doctor, who was with me. “Yes,” he said with professional exactitude; “when it happens he’ll throw his arms up above his head, utter an ejaculation, and fall forward on his face,—it’s a singular thing, they always fall forward on their face,—and they’ll pick up the man as dead as Julius Cæsar.”

After that, I used to go night after night, with a certain hideous fascination; but, while it will be remembered the “Destruction of Sennacherib” had a tremendous run, it will also be remembered that not a single life was really lost during its representation.

It was only a few weeks after this modest first appearance on the boards of “The Man with an Aneurism,” that, happening to be at dinner party of practical business men, I sought to interest them with the details of the above story, delivered with such skill and pathos as I could command. I regret to say that, as a pathetic story, it for a moment seemed to be a dead failure. At last a prominent banker sitting next to me turned to me with the awful question: “Why don’t your friend try to realize on his life insurance?” I begged his pardon, I didn’t quite understand. “Oh, discount, sell out. Look here—(after a pause). Let him assign his policy to me, it’s not much of a risk, on your statement. Well—I’ll give him his five thousand dollars, clear.”

And he did. Under the advice of this cool-headed—I think I may add warm-hearted—banker, “The Man with an Aneurism” invested his money in the name of and for the benefit of his wife in certain securities that paid him a small but regular stipend. But he still continued upon the boards of the theatre.

By reason of some business engagements that called me away from the city, I did not see my friend the physician for three months afterward. When I did I asked tidings of The Man with the Aneurism. The Doctor’s kind face grew sad. “I’m afraid—that is, I don’t exactly know whether I’ve good news or bad. Did you ever see his wife?”

I never had.

“Well, she was younger than he, and rather attractive. One of those doll-faced women. You remember, he settled that life insurance policy on her and the children: she might have waited; she didn’t. The other day she eloped with some fellow, I don’t remember his name, with the children and the five thousand dollars.”

“And the shock killed him,” I said with poetic promptitude.

“No—that is—not yet; I saw him yesterday,” said the Doctor, with conscientious professional precision, looking over his list of calls.

“Well, where is the poor fellow now?”

“He’s still at the theatre. James, if these powders are called for, you’ll find them, here in this envelope. Tell Mrs. Blank I’ll be there at seven—and she can give the baby this until I come. Say there’s no danger. These women are an awful bother! Yes, he’s at the theatre yet. Which way are you going? Down town? Why can’t you step into my carriage, and I’ll give you a lift, and we’ll talk on the way down? Well—he’s at the theatre yet. And—and—do you remember the ‘Destruction of Sennacherib?’ No? Yes you do. You remember that woman in pink, who pirouetted in the famous ballet scene! You don’t? Why, yes you do! Well, I imagine, of course I don’t know, it’s only a summary diagnosis, but I imagine that our friend with the aneurism has attached himself to her.”

“Doctor, you horrify me.”

“There are more things, Mr. Poet, in heaven and earth than are yet dreamt of in your philosophy. Listen. My diagnosis may be wrong, but that woman called the other day at my office to ask about him, his health, and general condition. I told her the truth—and she fainted. It was about as dead a faint as I ever saw; I was nearly an hour in bringing her out of it. Of course it was the heat of the room, her exertions the preceding week, and I prescribed for her. Queer, wasn’t it? Now, if I were a writer, and had your faculty, I’d make something out of that.”

“But how is his general health?”

“Oh, about the same. He can’t evade what will come, you know, at any moment. He was up here the other day. Why, the pulsation was as plain—why, the entire arch of the aorta— What! you get out here? Good-by.”

Of course no moralist, no man writing for a sensitive and strictly virtuous public, could further interest himself in this man. So I dismissed him at once from my mind, and returned to the literary contemplation of virtue that was clearly and positively defined, and of Sin, that invariably commenced with a capital letter. That this man, in his awful condition, hovering on the verge of eternity, should allow himself to be attracted by—but it was horrible to contemplate.

Nevertheless, a month afterwards, I was returning from a festivity with my intimate friend Smith, my distinguished friend Jobling, my most respectable friend Robinson, and my wittiest friend Jones. It was a clear, star-lit morning, and we seemed to hold the broad, beautiful avenue to ourselves; and I fear we acted as if it were so. As we hilariously passed the corner of Eighteenth Street, a coupé rolled by, and I suddenly heard my name called from its gloomy depths.

“I beg your pardon,” said the Doctor, as his driver drew up by the sidewalk, “but I’ve some news for you. I’ve just been to see our poor friend——. Of course I was too late. He was gone in a flash.”

“What! dead?”

“As Pharaoh! In an instant, just as I said. You see, the rupture took place in the descending arch of—”

“But, Doctor!”

“It’s a queer story. Am I keeping you from your friends? No? Well, you see she—that woman I spoke of—had written a note to him based on what I had told her. He got it, and dropped in his dressing-room, dead as a herring.”

“How could she have been so cruel, knowing his condition? She might, with woman’s tact, have rejected him less abruptly.”

“Yes; but you’re all wrong. By Jove! she accepted him! was willing to marry him!”


“Yes. Don’t you see? It was joy that killed him. Gad, we never thought of that! Queer, ain’t it? See here, don’t you think you might make a story out of it?”

“But, Doctor, it hasn’t got any moral.”

“Humph! That’s so. Good morning. Drive on, John.”

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