The main road to wealth in New Orleans has long been Carondelet street. There you see the most alert faces; noses – it seems to one – with more and sharper edge, and eyes smaller and brighter and with less distance between them than one notices in other streets. It is there that the stock and bond brokers hurry to and fro and run together promiscuously – the cunning and the simple, the headlong and the wary – at the four clanging strokes of the Stock Exchange gong. There rises the tall façade of the Cotton Exchange. Looking in from the sidewalk as you pass, you see its main hall, thronged but decorous, the quiet engine-room of the surrounding city’s most far-reaching occupation, and at the hall’s farther end you descry the “Future Room,” and hear the unearthly ramping and bellowing of the bulls and bears. Up and down the street, on either hand, are the ship-brokers and insurers, and in the upper stories foreign consuls among a multitude of lawyers and notaries.
In 1856 this street was just assuming its present character. The cotton merchants were making it their favorite place of commercial domicile. The open thoroughfare served in lieu of the present exchanges; men made fortunes standing on the curb-stone, and during bank hours the sidewalks were perpetually crowded with cotton factors, buyers, brokers, weighers, reweighers, classers, pickers, pressers, and samplers, and the air was laden with cotton quotations and prognostications.
Number 3½, second floor, front, was the office of Dr. Sevier. This office was convenient to everything. Immediately under its windows lay the sidewalks where congregated the men who, of all in New Orleans, could best afford to pay for being sick, and least desired to die. Canal street, the city’s leading artery, was just below, at the near left-hand corner. Beyond it lay the older town, not yet impoverished in those days, – the French quarter. A single square and a half off at the right, and in plain view from the front windows, shone the dazzling white walls of the St. Charles Hotel, where the nabobs of the river plantations came and dwelt with their fair-handed wives in seasons of peculiar anticipation, when it is well to be near the highest medical skill. In the opposite direction a three minutes’ quick drive around the upper corner and down Common street carried the Doctor to his ward in the great Charity Hospital, and to the school of medicine, where he filled the chair set apart to the holy ailments of maternity. Thus, as it were, he laid his left hand on the rich and his right on the poor; and he was not left-handed.
Not that his usual attitude was one of benediction. He stood straight up in his austere pure-mindedness, tall, slender, pale, sharp of voice, keen of glance, stern in judgment, aggressive in debate, and fixedly untender everywhere, except – but always except – in the sick chamber. His inner heart was all of flesh; but his demands for the rectitude of mankind pointed out like the muzzles of cannon through the embrasures of his virtues. To demolish evil! – that seemed the finest of aims; and even as a physician, that was, most likely, his motive until later years and a better self-knowledge had taught him that to do good was still finer and better. He waged war – against malady. To fight; to stifle; to cut down; to uproot; to overwhelm; – these were his springs of action. That their results were good proved that his sentiment of benevolence was strong and high; but it was well-nigh shut out of sight by that impatience of evil which is very fine and knightly in youngest manhood, but which we like to see give way to kindlier moods as the earlier heat of the blood begins to pass.
He changed in later years; this was in 1856. To “resist not evil” seemed to him then only a rather feeble sort of knavery. To face it in its nakedness, and to inveigh against it in high places and low, seemed the consummation of all manliness; and manliness was the key-note of his creed. There was no other necessity in this life.
“But a man must live,” said one of his kindred, to whom, truth to tell, he had refused assistance.
“No, sir; that is just what he can’t do. A man must die! So, while he lives, let him be a man!”
How inharmonious a setting, then, for Dr. Sevier, was 3½ Carondelet street! As he drove, each morning, down to that point, he had to pass through long, irregular files of fellow-beings thronging either sidewalk, – a sadly unchivalric grouping of men whose daily and yearly life was subordinated only and entirely to the getting of wealth, and whose every eager motion was a repetition of the sinister old maxim that “Time is money.”
“It’s a great deal more, sir; it’s life!” the Doctor always retorted.
Among these groups, moreover, were many who were all too well famed for illegitimate fortune. Many occupations connected with the handling of cotton yielded big harvests in perquisites. At every jog of the Doctor’s horse, men came to view whose riches were the outcome of semi-respectable larceny. It was a day of reckless operation; much of the commerce that came to New Orleans was simply, as one might say, beached in Carondelet street. The sight used to keep the long, thin, keen-eyed doctor in perpetual indignation.
“Look at the wreckers!” he would say.
It was breakfast at eight, indignation at nine, dyspepsia at ten.
So his setting was not merely inharmonious; it was damaging. He grew sore on the whole matter of money-getting.
“Yes, I have money. But I don’t go after it. It comes to me, because I seek and render service for the service’s sake. It will come to anybody else the same way; and why should it come any other way?”
He not only had a low regard for the motives of most seekers of wealth; he went further, and fell into much disbelief of poor men’s needs. For instance, he looked upon a man’s inability to find employment, or upon a poor fellow’s run of bad luck, as upon the placarded woes of a hurdy-gurdy beggar.
“If he wants work he will find it. As for begging, it ought to be easier for any true man to starve than to beg.”
The sentiment was ungentle, but it came from the bottom of his belief concerning himself, and a longing for moral greatness in all men.
“However,” he would add, thrusting his hand into his pocket and bringing out his purse, “I’ll help any man to make himself useful. And the sick – well, the sick, as a matter of course. Only I must know what I’m doing.”
Have some of us known Want? To have known her – though to love her was impossible – is “a liberal education.” The Doctor was learned; but this acquaintanceship, this education, he had never got. Hence his untenderness. Shall we condemn the fault? Yes. And the man? We have not the face. To be just, which he never knowingly failed to be, and at the same time to feel tenderly for the unworthy, to deal kindly with the erring, – it is a double grace that hangs not always in easy reach even of the tallest. The Doctor attained to it – but in later years; meantime, this story – which, I believe, had he ever been poor would never have been written.
A YOUNG STRANGER
In 1856 New Orleans was in the midst of the darkest ten years of her history. Yet she was full of new-comers from all parts of the commercial world, – strangers seeking livelihood. The ravages of cholera and yellow-fever, far from keeping them away, seemed actually to draw them. In the three years 1853, ’54, and ’55, the cemeteries had received over thirty-five thousand dead; yet here, in 1856, besides shiploads of European immigrants, came hundreds of unacclimated youths, from all parts of the United States, to fill the wide gaps which they imagined had been made in the ranks of the great exporting city’s clerking force.
Upon these pilgrims Dr. Sevier cast an eye full of interest, and often of compassion hidden under outward impatience. “Who wants to see,” he would demand, “men —and women– increasing the risks of this uncertain life?” But he was also full of respect for them. There was a certain nobility rightly attributable to emigration itself in the abstract. It was the cutting loose from friends and aid, – those sweet-named temptations, – and the going forth into self-appointed exile and into dangers known and unknown, trusting to the help of one’s own right hand to exchange honest toil for honest bread and raiment. His eyes kindled to see the goodly, broad, red-cheeked fellows. Sometimes, though, he saw women, and sometimes tender women, by their side; and that sight touched the pathetic chord of his heart with a rude twangle that vexed him.
It was on a certain bright, cool morning early in October that, as he drove down Carondelet street toward his office, and one of those little white omnibuses of the old Apollo-street line, crowding in before his carriage, had compelled his driver to draw close in by the curb-stone and slacken speed to a walk, his attention chanced to fall upon a young man of attractive appearance, glancing stranger-wise and eagerly at signs and entrances while he moved down the street. Twice, in the moment of the Doctor’s enforced delay, he noticed the young stranger make inquiry of the street’s more accustomed frequenters, and that in each case he was directed farther on. But, the way opened, the Doctor’s horse switched his tail and was off, the stranger was left behind, and the next moment the Doctor stepped across the sidewalk and went up the stairs of Number 3½ to his office. Something told him – we are apt to fall into thought on a stair-way – that the stranger was looking for a physician.
He had barely disposed of the three or four waiting messengers that arose from their chairs against the corridor wall, and was still reading the anxious lines left in various handwritings on his slate, when the young man entered. He was of fair height, slenderly built, with soft auburn hair, a little untrimmed, neat dress, and a diffident, yet expectant and courageous, face.
“Doctor, my wife is very ill; can I get you to come at once and see her?”
“Who is her physician?”
“I have not called any; but we must have one now.”
“I don’t know about going at once. This is my hour for being in the office. How far is it, and what’s the trouble?”
“We are only three squares away, just here in Custom-house street.” The speaker began to add a faltering enumeration of some very grave symptoms. The Doctor noticed that he was slightly deaf; he uttered his words as though he did not hear them.
“Yes,” interrupted Dr. Sevier, speaking half to himself as he turned around to a standing case of cruel-looking silver-plated things on shelves; “that’s a small part of the penalty women pay for the doubtful honor of being our mothers. I’ll go. What is your number? But you had better drive back with me if you can.” He drew back from the glass case, shut the door, and took his hat.
On the side of the office nearest the corridor a door let into a hall-room that afforded merely good space for the furniture needed by a single accountant. The Doctor had other interests besides those of his profession, and, taking them altogether, found it necessary, or at least convenient, to employ continuously the services of a person to keep his accounts and collect his bills. Through the open door the book-keeper could be seen sitting on a high stool at a still higher desk, – a young man of handsome profile and well-knit form. At the call of his name he unwound his legs from the rounds of the stool and leaped into the Doctor’s presence with a superlatively high-bred bow.
“I shall be back in fifteen minutes,” said the Doctor. “Come, Mr. – ,” and went out with the stranger.
Narcisse had intended to speak. He stood a moment, then lifted the last half inch of a cigarette to his lips, took a long, meditative inhalation, turned half round on his heel, dashed the remnant with fierce emphasis into a spittoon, ejected two long streams of smoke from his nostrils, and extending his fist toward the door by which the Doctor had gone out, said: —
“All right, ole hoss!” No, not that way. It is hard to give his pronunciation by letter. In the word “right” he substituted an a for the r, sounding it almost in the same instant with the i, yet distinct from it: “All a-ight, ole hoss!”
Then he walked slowly back to his desk, with that feeling of relief which some men find in the renewal of a promissory note, twined his legs again among those of the stool, and, adding not a word, resumed his pen.
The Doctor’s carriage was hurrying across Canal street.
“Dr. Sevier,” said the physician’s companion, “I don’t know what your charges are” —
“The highest,” said the Doctor, whose dyspepsia was gnawing him just then with fine energy. The curt reply struck fire upon the young man.
“I don’t propose to drive a bargain, Dr. Sevier!” He flushed angrily after he had spoken, breathed with compressed lips, and winked savagely, with the sort of indignation that school-boys show to a harsh master.
The physician answered with better self-control.
“What do you propose?”
“I was going to propose – being a stranger to you, sir – to pay in advance.” The announcement was made with a tremulous, but triumphant, hauteur, as though it must cover the physician with mortification. The speaker stretched out a rather long leg, and, drawing a pocket-book, produced a twenty-dollar piece.