The night horseman, p.33
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       The Night Horseman, p.33

          

  CHAPTER XXXIII

  DOCTOR BYRNE SHOWS THE TRUTH

  On this day of low-lying mists, this day so dull that not a shadow wascast by tree or house or man, there was no graver place than the room ofold Joe Cumberland; even lamp light was more merciful in the room, forit left the corners of the big apartment in obscurity, but this meagredaylight stripped away all illusion and left the room naked and ugly.Those colours of wall and carpet, once brighter than spring, showed nowas faded and lifeless as foliage in the dead days of late November whenthe leaves have no life except what keeps them clinging to the twig, andwhen their fallen fellows are lifted and rustled on the ground by everyfaint wind, with a sound like breathing in the forest. And like autumn,too, was the face of Joe Cumberland, with a colour neither flushed norpale, but a dull sallow which foretells death. Beside his bed sat DoctorRandall Byrne and kept the pressure of two fingers upon the wrist of therancher.

  When he removed the thermometer from between the lips of Cumberland theold man spoke, but without lifting his closed eyelids, as if even thiswere an effort which he could only accomplish by a great concentrationof the will.

  "No fever to-day, doc?"

  "You feel a little better?" asked Byrne.

  "They ain't no feelin'. But I ain't hot; jest sort of middlin' cold."

  Doctor Byrne glanced down at the thermometer with a frown, and thenshook down the mercury.

  "No," he admitted, "there is no fever."

  Joe Cumberland opened his eyes a trifle and peered up at Byrne.

  "You ain't satisfied, doc?"

  Doctor Randall Byrne was of that merciless modern school which believesin acquainting the patient with the truth.

  "I am not," he said.

  "H-m-m!" murmured the sick man. "And what might be wrong?"

  "Your pulse is uneven and weak," said the doctor.

  "I been feelin' sort of weak since I seen Dan last night," admitted theother. "But that news Kate brought me will bring me up! She's kept himhere, lad, think of that!"

  "I am thinking of it," answered the doctor coldly. "Your last interviewwith him nearly--killed you. If you see him again I shall wash my handsof the case. When he first came you felt better at once--in fact, Iadmit that you _seemed_ to do better both in body and mind. But thething could not last. It was a false stimulus, and when the firsteffects had passed away, it left you in this condition. Mr. Cumberland,you must see him no more!"

  But Joe Cumberland laughed long and softly.

  "Life," he murmured, "ain't worth that much! Not half!"

  "I can do no more than advise," said the doctor, as reserved as before."I cannot command."

  "A bit peeved, doc?" queried the old man. "Well, sir, I know they ain'tmuch longer for me. Lord, man, I can feel myself going out like a flamein a lamp when the oil runs up. I can feel life jest makin' its last fewjumps in me like the flame up the chimney. But listen to me----" hereached out a long, large knuckled, claw-like hand and drew the doctordown over him, and his eyes were earnest--"I got to live till I see 'emstandin' here beside me, hand in hand, doc!"

  The doctor, even by that dim light, had changed colour. He passed hishand slowly across his forehead.

  "You expect to see that?"

  "I expect nothin'. I only hope!"

  The bitterness of Byrne's heart came up in his throat.

  "It will be an oddly suited match," he said, "if they marry. But theywill not marry."

  "Ha!" cried Cumberland, and starting up in bed he braced himself on aquaking elbow. "What's that?"

  "Lie down!" ordered the doctor, and pressed the ranchman back againstthe pillows.

  "But what d'you mean?"

  "It would be a long story--the scientific explanation."

  "Doc, where Dan is concerned I got more patience than Job."

  "In brief, then, I will prove to you that there is no mystery in thisDaniel Barry."

  "If you can do that, doc, you're more of a man than I been guessing youfor. Start now!"

  "In primitive times," said Doctor Randall Byrne, "man was nearly relatedto what we now call the lower animals. In those days he could notsurround himself with an artificial protective environment. He dependedon the unassisted strength of his body. His muscular and sensuousdevelopment, therefore, was far in advance of that of the modern man.For modern man has used his mind at the expense of his body. The very_quality_ of his muscles is altered; and the senses of sight andhearing, for instance, are much blunted. For in the primitive days theear kept guard over man even when he slept in terror of a thousanddeadly enemies, each stronger than he; and the eye had to be keenlyattuned to probe the shadows of the forest for lurking foes.

  "Now, sir, there is in biology the thing known, as the sport. You willhave heard that all living organisms undergo gradual processes ofchange. Season by season and year by year, environment affects theindividual; yet these gradual changes are extremely slow. Between stepsof noticeable change there elapse periods many times longer than thelife of historic man. All speed in changes such as these comes in whatwe call 'sports'. That is, a particular plant, for instance, graduallytends to have fewer leaves and a thicker bark, but the change is slightfrom age to age until suddenly a single instance occurs of plant whichrealises suddenly in a single step the 'ideal' towards which the specieshas been striving. In a word, it has very, very few leaves, and anextraordinarily thick bark.

  "For a particular instance, one species of orange tended to have few andfewer seeds. But finally came an orange tree whose fruit had no seeds atall. That was the origin of the navel orange. And that was a typical'sport'.

  "Now, there is the reverse of the sport. Instead of jumping longdistance ahead, an individual may lapse back towards the primitive. Thatindividual is called an atavism. For instance, in this mountain-desertthere has, for several generations, been a pressure of environmentcalling for a species of man which will be able to live with comparativecomfort in a waste region--a man, in a word, equipped with such powerfulorganisms that he will be as much at home in the heart of the desert asan ordinary man would be in a drawing-room. You gather the drift of myargument.

  "I have observed this man Barry carefully. I am thoroughly convincedthat he is such an atavism.

  "Among other men he seems strange. He is different and therefore heseems mysterious. As a matter of fact, he is quite a common freak. Icould name you others like him in differing from common men, though notdiffering from them in exactly the same manner.

  "You see the result of this? Daniel Barry is a man to whom the desert isnecessary, because he was made for the desert. He is lonely amongcrowds--you have said it yourself--but he is at home in a mountainwilderness with a horse and a dog."

  "Doc, you talk well," broke in Joe Cumberland, "but if he ain't human,why do humans like him so much? Why does he mean so much to me--toKate?"

  "Simply because he is different. You get from him what you could getfrom no other man in the world, perhaps, and you fail to see that thefellow is really more akin to his wolf-dog than he is to a man."

  "Supposin' I said you was right," murmured the old man, frowning, "howd'you explain why he likes other folks. According to you, the desert andthe mountains and animals is what he wants. Then how is it that he tookso much care of me when he come back this time? How is it that he likesKate, enough to give up a trail of blood to stay here with her?"

  "It is easy to explain the girl's attraction," said the doctor. "Allanimals wish to mate, Mr. Cumberland, and an age old instinct is nowworking out in Dan Barry. But while you and Kate may please him, you arenot necessary to him. He left you once before and he was quite happy inhis desert. And I tell you, Mr. Cumberland, that he will leave youagain. You cannot tame the untameable. It is not habit that rules thisman. It is instinct a million years old. The call which he will hear isthe call of the wilderness, and to answer it he will leave father andwife and children and ride out with his horse and his dog!"

  The old man lay quite motionless, staring at the ceiling.

  "I don't want to believe you," he said slowly, "but before God I thinkyou're right. Oh, lad, why was I bound up in a tangle like this one? AndKate--what will she do?"

  The doctor was quivering with excitement.

  "Let the man stay with her. In time she will come to see the brutenature of Daniel Barry. That will be the end of him with her."

  "Brute. Doc. They ain't nobody as gentle as Dan!"

  "Till he tastes blood, a lion can be raised like a house-dog," answeredthe doctor.

  "Then she mustn't marry him? Ay, I've felt it--jest what you've put inwords. It's livin' death for Kate if she marries him! She's kept himhere to-day. To-morrow something may cross him, and the minute he feelsthe pull of it, he'll be off on the trail--the blow of a man, thehollering out of the wild geese--God knows what it'll take to start himwild again and forget us all--jest the way a child forgets its parents!"

  A voice broke in upon them, calling far away: "Dan! Dan Barry!"

 
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