Fiat Justitia

By the light of the burning building, which illuminated the street for several blocks, Major Carteret and Ellis made their way rapidly until they turned into the street where the major lived. Reaching the house, Carteret tried the door and found it locked. A vigorous ring at the bell brought no immediate response. Carteret had begun to pound impatiently upon the door, when it was cautiously opened by Miss Pemberton, who was pale, and trembled with excitement.

“Where is Olivia?” asked the major.

“She is upstairs, with Dodie and Mrs. Albright’s hospital nurse. Dodie has the croup. Virgie ran away after the riot broke out. Sister Olivia had sent for Mammy Jane, but she did not come. Mrs. Albright let her white nurse come over.”

“I’ll go up at once,” said the major anxiously. “Wait for me, Ellis⁠—I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

“Oh, Mr. Ellis,” exclaimed Clara, coming toward him with both hands extended, “can nothing be done to stop this terrible affair?”

“I wish I could do something,” he murmured fervently, taking both her trembling hands in his own broad palms, where they rested with a surrendering trustfulness which he has never since had occasion to doubt. “It has gone too far, already, and the end, I fear, is not yet; but it cannot grow much worse.” The editor hurried upstairs. Mrs. Carteret, wearing a worried and haggard look, met him at the threshold of the nursery.

“Dodie is ill,” she said. “At three o’clock, when the trouble began, I was over at Mrs. Albright’s⁠—I had left Virgie with the baby. When I came back, she and all the other servants had gone. They had heard that the white people were going to kill all the negroes, and fled to seek safety. I found Dodie lying in a draught, before an open window, gasping for breath. I ran back to Mrs. Albright’s⁠—I had found her much better today⁠—and she let her nurse come over. The nurse says that Dodie is threatened with membranous croup.”

“Have you sent for Dr. Price?”

“There was no one to send⁠—the servants were gone, and the nurse was afraid to venture out into the street. I telephoned for Dr. Price, and found that he was out of town; that he had gone up the river this morning to attend a patient, and would not be back until tomorrow. Mrs. Price thought that he had anticipated some kind of trouble in the town today, and had preferred to be where he could not be called upon to assume any responsibility.”

“I suppose you tried Dr. Ashe?”

“I could not get him, nor anyone else, after that first call. The telephone service is disorganized on account of the riot. We need medicine and ice. The drugstores are all closed on account of the riot, and for the same reason we couldn’t get any ice.”

Major Carteret stood beside the brass bedstead upon which his child was lying⁠—his only child, around whose curly head clustered all his hopes; upon whom all his life for the past year had been centred. He stooped over the bed, beside which the nurse had stationed herself. She was wiping the child’s face, which was red and swollen and covered with moisture, the nostrils working rapidly, and the little patient vainly endeavoring at intervals to cough up the obstruction to his breathing.

“Is it serious?” he inquired anxiously. He had always thought of the croup as a childish ailment, that yielded readily to proper treatment; but the child’s evident distress impressed him with sudden fear.

“Dangerous,” replied the young woman laconically. “You came none too soon. If a doctor isn’t got at once, the child will die⁠—and it must be a good doctor.”

“Whom can I call?” he asked. “You know them all, I suppose. Dr. Price, our family physician, is out of town.”

Dr. Ashe has charge of his cases when he is away,” replied the nurse. “If you can’t find him, try Dr. Hooper. The child is growing worse every minute. On your way back you’d better get some ice, if possible.”

The major hastened downstairs.

“Don’t wait for me, Ellis,” he said. “I shall be needed here for a while. I’ll get to the office as soon as possible. Make up the paper, and leave another stick out for me to the last minute, but fill it up in case I’m not on hand by twelve. We must get the paper out early in the morning.”

Nothing but a matter of the most vital importance would have kept Major Carteret away from his office this night. Upon the presentation to the outer world of the story of this riot would depend the attitude of the great civilized public toward the events of the last ten hours. The Chronicle was the source from which the first word would be expected; it would give the people of Wellington their cue as to the position which they must take in regard to this distressful affair, which had so far transcended in ferocity the most extreme measures which the conspirators had anticipated. The burden of his own responsibility weighed heavily upon him, and could not be shaken off; but he must do first the duty nearest to him⁠—he must first attend to his child.

Carteret hastened from the house, and traversed rapidly the short distance to Dr. Ashe’s office. Far down the street he could see the glow of the burning hospital, and he had scarcely left his own house when the fusillade of shots, fired when the colored men emerged from the burning building, was audible. Carteret would have hastened back to the scene of the riot, to see what was now going on, and to make another effort to stem the tide of bloodshed; but before the dread of losing his child, all other interests fell into the background. Not all the negroes in Wellington could weigh in the balance for one instant against the life of the feeble child now gasping for breath in the house behind him.

Reaching the house, a vigorous ring brought the doctor’s wife to the door.

“Good evening, Mrs. Ashe. Is the doctor at home?”

“No, Major Carteret. He was called to attend Mrs. Wells, who was taken suddenly ill, as a result of the trouble this afternoon. He will be there all night, no doubt.”

“My child is very ill, and I must find someone.”

“Try Dr. Yates. His house is only four doors away.”

A ring at Dr. Yates’s door brought out a young man.

“Is Dr. Yates in?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can I see him?”

“You might see him, sir, but that would be all. His horse was frightened by the shooting on the streets, and ran away and threw the doctor, and broke his right arm. I have just set it; he will not be able to attend any patients for several weeks. He is old and nervous, and the shock was great.”

“Are you not a physician?” asked Carteret, looking at the young man keenly. He was a serious, gentlemanly looking young fellow, whose word might probably be trusted.

“Yes, I am Dr. Evans, Dr. Yates’s assistant. I’m really little more than a student, but I’ll do what I can.”

“My only child is sick with the croup, and requires immediate attention.”

“I ought to be able to handle a case of the croup,” answered Dr. Evans, “at least in the first stages. I’ll go with you, and stay by the child, and if the case is beyond me, I may keep it in check until another physician comes.”

He stepped back into another room, and returning immediately with his hat, accompanied Carteret homeward. The riot had subsided; even the glow from the smouldering hospital was no longer visible. It seemed that the city, appalled at the tragedy, had suddenly awakened to a sense of its own crime. Here and there a dark face, emerging cautiously from some hiding-place, peered from behind fence or tree, but shrank hastily away at the sight of a white face. The negroes of Wellington, with the exception of Josh Green and his party, had not behaved bravely on this critical day in their history; but those who had fought were dead, to the last man; those who had sought safety in flight or concealment were alive to tell the tale.

“We pass right by Dr. Thompson’s,” said Dr. Evans. “If you haven’t spoken to him, it might be well to call him for consultation, in case the child should be very bad.”

“Go on ahead,” said Carteret, “and I’ll get him.”

Evans hastened on, while Carteret sounded the old-fashioned knocker upon the doctor’s door. A gray-haired negro servant, clad in a dress suit and wearing a white tie, came to the door.

“De doctuh, suh,” he replied politely to Carteret’s question, “has gone ter ampitate de ahm er a gent’eman who got one er his bones smashed wid a pistol bullet in de⁠—fightin’ dis atternoon, suh. He’s jes’ gone, suh, an’ lef’ wo’d dat he’d be gone a’ hour er mo’, suh.”

Carteret hastened homeward. He could think of no other available physician. Perhaps no other would be needed, but if so, he could find out from Evans whom it was best to call.

When he reached the child’s room, the young doctor was bending anxiously over the little frame. The little lips had become livid, the little nails, lying against the white sheet, were blue. The child’s efforts to breathe were most distressing, and each gasp cut the father like a knife. Mrs. Carteret was weeping hysterically. “How is he, doctor?” asked the major.

“He is very low,” replied the young man. “Nothing short of tracheotomy⁠—an operation to open the windpipe⁠—will relieve him. Without it, in half or three quarters of an hour he will be unable to breathe. It is a delicate operation, a mistake in which would be as fatal as the disease. I have neither the knowledge nor the experience to attempt it, and your child’s life is too valuable for a student to practice upon. Neither have I the instruments here.”

“What shall we do?” demanded Carteret. “We have called all the best doctors, and none are available.”

The young doctor’s brow was wrinkled with thought. He knew a doctor who could perform the operation. He had heard, also, of a certain event at Carteret’s house some months before, when an unwelcome physician had been excluded from a consultation⁠—but it was the last chance.

“There is but one other doctor in town who has performed the operation, so far as I know,” he declared, “and that is Dr. Miller. If you can get him, he can save your child’s life.”

Carteret hesitated involuntarily. All the incidents, all the arguments, of the occasion when he had refused to admit the colored doctor to his house, came up vividly before his memory. He had acted in accordance with his lifelong beliefs, and had carried his point; but the present situation was different⁠—this was a case of imperative necessity, and every other interest or consideration must give way before the imminence of his child’s peril. That the doctor would refuse the call, he did not imagine: it would be too great an honor for a negro to decline⁠—unless some bitterness might have grown out of the proceedings of the afternoon. That this doctor was a man of some education he knew; and he had been told that he was a man of fine feeling⁠—for a negro⁠—and might easily have taken to heart the day’s events. Nevertheless, he could hardly refuse a professional call⁠—professional ethics would require him to respond. Carteret had no reason to suppose that Miller had ever learned of what had occurred at the house during Dr. Burns’s visit to Wellington. The major himself had never mentioned the controversy, and no doubt the other gentlemen had been equally silent.

“I’ll go for him myself,” said Dr. Evans, noting Carteret’s hesitation and suspecting its cause. “I can do nothing here alone, for a little while, and I may be able to bring the doctor back with me. He likes a difficult operation.”

It seemed an age ere the young doctor returned, though it was really only a few minutes. The nurse did what she could to relieve the child’s sufferings, which grew visibly more and more acute. The mother, upon the other side of the bed, held one of the baby’s hands in her own, and controlled her feelings as best she might. Carteret paced the floor anxiously, going every few seconds to the head of the stairs to listen for Evans’s footsteps on the piazza without. At last the welcome sound was audible, and a few strides took him to the door.

Dr. Miller is at home, sir,” reported Evans, as he came in. “He says that he was called to your house once before, by a third person who claimed authority to act, and that he was refused admittance. He declares that he will not consider such a call unless it come from you personally.”

“That is true, quite true,” replied Carteret. “His position is a just one. I will go at once. Will⁠—will⁠—my child live until I can get Miller here?”

“He can live for half an hour without an operation. Beyond that I could give you little hope.”

Seizing his hat, Carteret dashed out of the yard and ran rapidly to Miller’s house; ordinarily a walk of six or seven minutes, Carteret covered it in three, and was almost out of breath when he rang the bell of Miller’s front door.

The ring was answered by the doctor in person.

Dr. Miller, I believe?” asked Carteret.

“Yes, sir.”

“I am Major Carteret. My child is seriously ill, and you are the only available doctor who can perform the necessary operation.”

“Ah! You have tried all the others⁠—and then you come to me!”

“Yes, I do not deny it,” admitted the major, biting his lip. He had not counted on professional jealousy as an obstacle to be met. “But I have come to you, as a physician, to engage your professional services for my child⁠—my only child. I have confidence in your skill, or I should not have come to you. I request⁠—nay, I implore you to lose no more time, but come with me at once! My child’s life is hanging by a thread, and you can save it!”

“Ah!” replied the other, “as a father whose only child’s life is in danger, you implore me, of all men in the world, to come and save it!”

There was a strained intensity in the doctor’s low voice that struck Carteret, in spite of his own preoccupation. He thought he heard, too, from the adjoining room, the sound of someone sobbing softly. There was some mystery here which he could not fathom unaided.

Miller turned to the door behind him and threw it open. On the white cover of a low cot lay a childish form in the rigidity of death, and by it knelt, with her back to the door, a woman whose shoulders were shaken by the violence of her sobs. Absorbed in her grief, she did not turn, or give any sign that she had recognized the intrusion.

“There, Major Carteret!” exclaimed Miller, with the tragic eloquence of despair, “there lies a specimen of your handiwork! There lies my only child, laid low by a stray bullet in this riot which you and your paper have fomented; struck down as much by your hand as though you had held the weapon with which his life was taken!”

“My God!” exclaimed Carteret, struck with horror. “Is the child dead?”

“There he lies,” continued the other, “an innocent child⁠—there he lies dead, his little life snuffed out like a candle, because you and a handful of your friends thought you must override the laws and run this town at any cost!⁠—and there kneels his mother, overcome by grief. We are alone in the house. It is not safe to leave her unattended. My duty calls me here, by the side of my dead child and my suffering wife! I cannot go with you. There is a just God in heaven!⁠—as you have sown, so may you reap!”

Carteret possessed a narrow, but a logical mind, and except when confused or blinded by his prejudices, had always tried to be a just man. In the agony of his own predicament⁠—in the horror of the situation at Miller’s house⁠—for a moment the veil of race prejudice was rent in twain, and he saw things as they were, in their correct proportions and relations⁠—saw clearly and convincingly that he had no standing here, in the presence of death, in the home of this stricken family. Miller’s refusal to go with him was pure, elemental justice; he could not blame the doctor for his stand. He was indeed conscious of a certain involuntary admiration for a man who held in his hands the power of life and death, and could use it, with strict justice, to avenge his own wrongs. In Dr. Miller’s place he would have done the same thing. Miller had spoken the truth⁠—as he had sown, so must he reap! He could not expect, could not ask, this father to leave his own household at such a moment.

Pressing his lips together with grim courage, and bowing mechanically, as though to Fate rather than the physician, Carteret turned and left the house. At a rapid pace he soon reached home. There was yet a chance for his child: perhaps some one of the other doctors had come; perhaps, after all, the disease had taken a favorable turn⁠—Evans was but a young doctor, and might have been mistaken. Surely, with doctors all around him, his child would not be permitted to die for lack of medical attention! He found the mother, the doctor, and the nurse still grouped, as he had left them, around the suffering child.

“How is he now?” he asked, in a voice that sounded like a groan.

“No better,” replied the doctor; “steadily growing worse. He can go on probably for twenty minutes longer without an operation.”

“Where is the doctor?” demanded Mrs. Carteret, looking eagerly toward the door. “You should have brought him right upstairs. There’s not a minute to spare! Phil, Phil, our child will die!”

Carteret’s heart swelled almost to bursting with an intense pity. Even his own great sorrow became of secondary importance beside the grief which his wife must soon feel at the inevitable loss of her only child. And it was his fault! Would that he could risk his own life to spare her and to save the child!

Briefly, and as gently as might be, he stated the result of his errand. The doctor had refused to come, for a good reason. He could not ask him again.

Young Evans felt the logic of the situation, which Carteret had explained sufficiently. To the nurse it was even clearer. If she or any other woman had been in the doctor’s place, she would have given the same answer.

Mrs. Carteret did not stop to reason. In such a crisis a mother’s heart usurps the place of intellect. For her, at that moment, there were but two facts in all the world. Her child lay dying. There was within the town, and within reach, a man who could save him. With an agonized cry she rushed wildly from the room.

Carteret sought to follow her, but she flew down the long stairs like a wild thing. The least misstep might have precipitated her to the bottom; but ere Carteret, with a remonstrance on his lips, had scarcely reached the uppermost step, she had thrown open the front door and fled precipitately out into the night.