“Yes,” said Horace, “he was to have been married, forty years ago, and the match was broken off because he was a drunkard.”
“A drunkard!” I exclaimed, with a shock I cannot convey.
“Yes, sir,” said Horace, “one o’ the worst you ever see. He got it in the army. Handsome, wild, brilliant—that was the Doctor. I was a little boy but I remember it mighty well.”
He told me the whole distressing story. It was all a long time ago and the details do not matter now. It was to be expected that a man like the old Doctor should love, love once, and love as few men do. And that is what he did—and the girl left him because he was a drunkard!
“They all thought,” said Horace, “that he’d up an’ kill himself. He said he would, but he didn’t. Instid o’ that he put an open bottle on his table and he looked at it and said: ’Which is stronger, now, you or John North? We’ll make that the test,’ he said, ’we’ll live or die by that.’ Them was his exact words. He couldn’t sleep nights and he got haggard like a sick man, but he left the bottle there and never touched it.”
How my heart throbbed with the thought of that old silent struggle! How much it explained; how near it brought all these people around him! It made him so human. It is the tragic necessity (but the salvation) of many a man that he should come finally to an irretrievable experience, to the assurance that everything is lost. For with that moment, if he be strong, he is saved. I wonder if anyone ever attains real human sympathy who has not passed through the fire of some such experience. Or to humour either! For in the best laughter do we not hear constantly that deep minor note which speaks of the ache in the human heart? It seems to me I can understand Doctor North!
He died Friday morning. He had been lying very quiet all night; suddenly he opened his eyes and said to his sister: “Good-bye, Kate,” and shut them again. That was all. The last call had come and he was ready for it. I looked at his face after death. I saw the iron lines of that old struggle in his mouth and chin; and the humour that it brought him in the lines around his deep-set eyes.
——And as I think of him this afternoon, I can see him—curiously, for I can hardly explain it—carrying a banner as in battle right here among our quiet hills. And those he leads seem to be the people we know, the men, and the women, and the boys! He is the hero of a new age. In olden days he might have been a pioneer, carrying the light of civilisation to a new land; here he has been a sort of moral pioneer—a pioneering far more difficult than any we have ever known. There are no heroics connected with it, the name of the pioneer will not go ringing down the ages; for it is a silent leadership and its success is measured by victories in other lives. We see it now, only too dimly, when he is gone. We reflect sadly that we did not stop to thank him. How busy we were with our own affairs when he was among us! I wonder is there anyone here to take up the banner he has laid down!