Number Twelve

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856

 

When I was a young man, working at my trade as a mason, I met with a severe injury by falling from a scaffolding placed at a height of forty feet from the ground. There I remained, stunned and bleeding on the ground, until my companions, by attempting to remove me, restored me to consciousness. I felt as if the ground on which I was lying formed a part of myself; that I could not be lifted from it without being torn asunder; and, with the most piercing cries, I entreated my well-meaning assistants to leave me alone to die. They desisted for the moment, one running for the doctor, another for a litter, others surrounding me with pitying gaze; but amidst my increasing sense of suffering, the conviction began to dawn upon my mind, that the injuries were not mortal; and so, by the time the doctor and the litter arrived, I resigned myself to their aid, and allowed myself, without further objection, to be carried to the hospital.

There I remained for more than three months, gradually recovering from my bodily injuries but devoured with an impatience at my condition, and the slowness of my cure, which effectually retarded it. I felt all the restlessness and anxiety of a laborer suddenly thrown out of employment difficult enough to procure, knowing that there were scores of others ready to step into my place; that the job was going on, and that, ten chances to one, I would never set my foot on that scaffolding again.

The visiting surgeon vainly warned me against the indulgence of such passionate regrets futilely inculcated the opposite feeling of gratitude demanded by my escape; all in vain. I tossed on my fevered bed, murmured at the slowness of his remedies, and might have thus rendered them altogether ineffectual, had not a sudden change been effected in my disposition by another, at first unwelcome, addition to our patients. He was placed in the same ward with me, and insensibly I found my impatience rebuked, my repinings hushed for very shame, in the presence of his meek resignation to far greater privations and sufferings. Fresh courage sprang from his example, and soon, thanks to my involuntary physician, I was in a fair road to recovery.

And he who had worked the charm what was he? A poor, helpless old man, utterly deformed by suffering, his very name unnoticed, or at least never spoken in the place where he now was; he went only by the appellation of No. 12 the number of his bed, which was next to my own. This bed had already been his refuge during three long and trying illnesses, and had at last become a sort of property for the poor fellow in the eyes of doctors, students, nurses in fact, the whole hospital staff.

Never did a gentler creature walk on God's earth; walk alas! for him the word was but an old memory. Many years before, he had totally lost the use of his legs; but, to use his own expression, "this misfortune did not upset him;" he still retained the power of earning his livelihood, which he derived from copying deeds for a lawyer at so much per sheet; and if the legs were no longer a support, the hands worked at the stamped parchments as diligently as ever. But some months passed by, and then the paralysis attacked his right arm; still undaunted, he taught himself to write with the left. But hardly had the brave heart and hand conquered the difficulty when the enemy crept on, and disabling this second ally, no more remained for him than to be conveyed once more, though this time as a last resource, to the hospital. There he had the gratification to find his former quarters vacant, and he took possession of his old familiar bed with a satisfaction that seemed to obliterate all regret at being obliged to occupy it again. His first grateful accents smote almost reproachfully on my ear: "Misfortune must have its turn but every day has a tomorrow!"

It was indeed a lesson to witness the gratitude of this excellent creature. The hospital, so dreary a sojourn to most of its inhabitants, was a scene of enjoyment to him; everything pleased him; and the poor fellow's admiration of even the most trifling conveniences proved how severe must have been his privations. He never wearied of praising the neatness of the linen, the whiteness of the bread, the quality of the food; and my surprise gave place to the truest pity, when I learned that, for the last twenty years, this respectable old man could only afford himself, out of the profits of his persevering industry the coarsest bread, diversified with white cheese, or vegetable porridge; and yet, instead of reverting to his privations in the language of complaint he converted them into a fund of gratitude, and made the generosity of the nation, which had provided such a retreat for the suffering poor, his continual theme.

Nor did his thankful spirit confine itself to this. To listen to him, you would have believed him an especial object of divine as well as human benevolence all things working for his good. The doctor used to say that No. 12 had a "mania for happiness;" but it was a mania, that, in creating esteem for its victim, infused fresh courage into all who came within its range.

I think I still see him seated on the side of his bed, with his little black silk cap, his spectacles and the well-worn volume, which he never ceased perusing. Every morning, the first rays of the sun rested on his bed, always to him a fresh subject of rejoicing and thankfulness to God. To witness his gratitude one might suppose that the sun was rising for him alone.

I need hardly say, that he soon interested himself in my cure, and regularly made inquiry respecting its progress. He always found something cheering to say something to inspire patience and hope, himself a living commentary on his words. When I looked at this poor motionless figure, those distorted limbs, and, crowning all, that smiling countenance I had not courage to be angry, or even to complain. At each painful crisis, he would exclaim: "One minute, and it will be over. Relief will soon follow. Every day has its tomorrow!"

I had one good and true friend a fellow-workman, who used sometimes to spare an hour to visit me, and he took great delight in cultivating an acquaintance with No. 12. As if attracted by a kindred spirit, he never passed his bed without pausing to offer his cordial salutation; and then he would whisper to me: "He is a saint on earth; and not content with gaining Paradise himself, must win it for others also. Such people should have monuments erected to them, known and read of all men. In observing such a character, we feel ashamed of our own happiness we feel how comparatively little we deserve it. Is there anything I can do to prove my regard for this good, poor No. 12?"

"Just try among the bookstalls," I replied, "and find the second volume of that book you see him reading. It is now more than six years since he lost it, and ever since he has been obliged to content himself with the first."

Now, I must premise that my worthy friend had a perfect horror of literature, even in its simplest stages. He regarded the art of printing as a Satanic invention, filling men's brains with idleness and conceit; and as to writing in his opinion a man was never thoroughly committed until he had recorded his sentiments in black and white for the inspection of his neighbors. His own success in life, which had been tolerable, thanks to his industry and integrity, he attributed altogether to his ignorance of those dangerous arts; and now a cloud swept across his lately beaming face as he exclaimed, "What! the good creature is a lover of books? Well, we must admit that even the best have their failings. No matter. Write down the name of this odd volume on a slip of paper; and it shall go hard with me but I give him that gratification."

He did actually return the following week with a well-worn volume, which he presented in triumph to the old invalid. He looked somewhat surprised as he opened it; but our friend proceeding to explain that it was at my suggestion he had procured it in place of the lost one, the old grateful expression at once beamed up in the eyes of No. 12, and with a voice trembling with emotion, he thanked the hearty giver.

I had my misgivings, however, and the moment our visitor turned his back, I asked to see the book. My old neighbor reddened, stammered, and tried to change the conversation; but, forced behind his last entrenchments, he handed me the little volume. It was an old almanac! The bookseller, taking advantage of his customer's ignorance, had substituted it for the book he had demanded. I burst into an immoderate fit of laughter; but No. 12 checked me with the only impatient word I ever heard from his lips: "Do you wish our friend to hear you? I would rather never recover the power of this lost arm, than deprive his kind heart of the pleasure of his gift. And what of it? Yesterday I did not care a straw for an almanac; but in a little time it is perhaps the very book I would have desired. Every day has its tomorrow. Besides, I assure you it is a very improving study; even already I perceive the names of a crowd of princes never mentioned in history, and of whom, up to this moment, I have never heard any one speak."

And so the old almanac was carefully preserved beside the volume of poetry it had been intended to match; and the old invalid never failed to be seen turning over the leaves whenever our friend happened to enter the room. As to him, he was quite proud of its success, and would say to me at each time: "It appears I have made him a famous present." And thus the two guileless natures were content.

Towards the close of my sojourn in the hospital, the strength of poor No. 12 diminished rapidly. At first, he lost the slight powers of motion he had retained; then his speech became inarticulate; at last, no bodily part obeyed his will, except the eyes, which continued to smile on us still. But one morning, at last, it seemed to me as if his very glance had become dim. I arose hastily, and approaching his bed, inquired if he wished for a drink; he made a slight movement of his eyelids, as if to thank me, and at that instant the first ray of the rising sun shone in on his bed. Then the eyes lighted up, like a candle which flashes into brightness before it is extinguished he looked as if saluting this last gift of his Creator; and even as I watched him for a moment, his head fell gently on the side, his kindly heart ceased to beat. He had thrown off the burden of Today; he had entered on his eternal Tomorrow.