The Man Whose Yoke Was Not Easy by Bret Harte
He was a spare man, and, physically, an ill-conditioned man, but at
first glance scarcely a seedy man. The indications of reduced
circumstances in the male of the better class are, I fancy, first visible
in the boots and shirt; the boots offensively exhibiting a degree of
polish inconsistent with their dilapidated condition, and the shirt
showing an extent of ostentatious surface that is invariably fatal to the
threadbare waist-coat that it partially covers. He was a pale man, and, I
fancied, still paler from his black clothes.
He handed me a note.
It was from a certain physician; a man of broad culture and broader
experience; a man who had devoted the greater part of his active life to
the alleviation of sorrow and suffering; a man who had lived up to the
noble vows of a noble profession; a man who locked in his honorable
breast the secrets of a hundred families, whose face was as kindly, whose
touch was as gentle, in the wards of the great public hospitals as it was
beside the laced curtains of the dying Narcissa; a man who, through long
contact with suffering, had acquired a universal tenderness and breadth
of kindly philosophy; a man who, day and night, was at the beck and call
of anguish; a man who never asked the creed, belief, moral or worldly
standing of the sufferer, or even his ability to pay the few coins that
enabled him (the physician) to exist and practice his calling; in brief,
a man who so nearly lived up to the example of the Great Master that it
seems strange I am writing of him as a doctor of medicine and not of
The note was in pencil, characteristically brief, and ran
"Here is the man I spoke of. He ought to be good material for
For a moment I sat looking from the note to the man, and sounding the
"dim perilous depths" of my memory for the meaning of this mysterious
communication. The good "material," however, soon relieved my
embarrassment by putting his hand on his waistcoat, coming toward me, and
saying, "It is just here, you can feel it."
It was not necessary for me to do so. In a flash I remembered that my
medical friend had told me of a certain poor patient, once a soldier,
who, among his other trials and uncertainties, was afflicted with an
aneurism caused by the buckle of his knapsack pressing upon the arch of
the aorta. It was liable to burst at any shock or any moment. The poor
fellow's yoke had indeed been too heavy.
In the presence of such a tremendous possibility I think for an
instant I felt anxious only about myself. What I should do; how dispose
of the body; how explain the circumstance of his taking off; how evade
the ubiquitous reporter and the coroner's inquest; how a suspicion might
arise that I had in some way, through negligence or for some dark
purpose, unknown to the jury, precipitated the catastrophe, all flashed
before me. Even the note, with its darkly suggestive offer of "good
material" for me, looked diabolically significant. What might not an
intelligent lawyer make of it?
I tore it up instantly, and with feverish courtesy begged him to be
"You don't care to feel it?" he asked, a little anxiously.
"Nor see it?"
He sighed, a trifle sadly, as if I had rejected the only favor he
could bestow. I saw at once that he had been under frequent exhibition to
the doctors, and that he was, perhaps, a trifle vain of this attention.
This perception was corroborated a moment later by his producing a copy
of a medical magazine, with a remark that on the sixth page I would find
a full statement of his case.
"Could I serve him in any way?" I asked.
It appeared that I could. If I could help him to any light employment,
something that did not require any great physical exertion or mental
excitement, he would be thankful. But he wanted me to understand that he
was not, strictly speaking, a poor man; that some years before the
discovery of his fatal complaint he had taken out a life insurance policy
for five thousand dollars, and that he had raked and scraped enough
together to pay it up, and that he would not leave his wife and four
children destitute. "You see," he added, "if I could find some sort of
light work to do, and kinder sled along, you know—until—"
He stopped, awkwardly.
I have heard several noted actors thrill their audiences with a single
phrase. I think I never was as honestly moved by any spoken word as that
"until," or the pause that followed it. He was evidently quite
unconscious of its effect, for as I took a seat beside him on the sofa,
and looked more closely in his waxen face, I could see that he was
evidently embarrassed, and would have explained himself further, if I had
not stopped him.
Possibly it was the dramatic idea, or possibly chance; but a few days
afterward, meeting a certain kind-hearted theatrical manager, I asked him
if he had any light employment for a man who was an invalid? "Can he
walk?" "Yes." "Stand up for fifteen minutes?" "Yes." "Then I'll take him.
He'll do for the last scene in the 'Destruction of
Sennacherib'—it's a tremendous thing, you know. We'll have two
thousand people on the stage." I was a trifle alarmed at the title, and
ventured to suggest (without betraying my poor friend's secret that he
could not actively engage in the "Destruction of Sennacherib," and that
even the spectacle of it might be too much for him. "Needn't see it at
all," said my managerial friend; "put him in front, nothing to do but
march in and march out, and dodge curtain."
He was engaged. I admit I was at times haunted by grave doubts as to
whether I should not have informed the manager of his physical condition,
and the possibility that he might some evening perpetrate a real tragedy
on the mimic stage, but on the first performance of "The Destruction of
Sennacherib," which I conscientiously attended, I was somewhat relieved.
I had often been amused with the placid way in which the chorus in the
opera invariably received the most astounding information, and witnessed
the most appalling tragedies by poison or the block, without anything
more than a vocal protest or command, always delivered to the audience
and never to the actors, but I think my poor friend's utter impassiveness
to the wild carnage and the terrible exhibitions of incendiarism that
were going on around him transcended even that. Dressed in a costume that
seemed to be the very soul of anachronism, he stood a little outside the
proscenium, holding a spear, the other hand pressed apparently upon the
secret within his breast, calmly surveying, with his waxen face, the gay
auditorium. I could not help thinking that there was a certain pride
visible even in his placid features, as of one who was conscious that at
any moment he might change this simulated catastrophe into real terror. I
could not help saying this to the Doctor, who was with me. "Yes," he said
with professional exactitude; "when it happens he'll throw his arms up
above his head, utter an ejaculation, and fall forward on his
face,—it's a singular thing, they always fall forward on their
face,—and they'll pick up the man as dead as Julius Caesar."
After that, I used to go night after night, with a certain hideous
fascination; but, while it will be remembered the "Destruction of
Sennacherib" had a tremendous run, it will also be remembered that not a
single life was really lost during its representation.
It was only a few weeks after this modest first appearance on the
boards of "The Man with an Aneurism," that, happening to be at dinner
party of practical business men, I sought to interest them with the
details of the above story, delivered with such skill and pathos as I
could command. I regret to say that, as a pathetic story, it for a moment
seemed to be a dead failure. At last a prominent banker sitting next to
me turned to me with the awful question: "Why don't your friend try to
realize on his life insurance?" I begged his pardon, I didn't quite
understand. "Oh, discount, sell out. Look here—(after a pause). Let
him assign his policy to me, it's not much of a risk, on your statement.
Well—I'll give him his five thousand dollars, clear."
And he did. Under the advice of this cool-headed—I think I may
add warm-hearted—banker, "The Man with an Aneurism" invested his
money in the name of and for the benefit of his wife in certain
securities that paid him a small but regular stipend. But he still
continued upon the boards of the theatre.
By reason of some business engagements that called me away from the
city, I did not see my friend the physician for three months afterward.
When I did I asked tidings of The Man with the Aneurism. The Doctor's
kind face grew sad. "I'm afraid—that is, I don't exactly know
whether I've good news or bad. Did you ever see his wife?"
I never had.
"Well, she was younger than he, and rather attractive. One of those
doll-faced women. You remember, he settled that life insurance policy on
her and the children: she might have waited; she didn't. The other day
she eloped with some fellow, I don't remember his name, with the children
and the five thousand dollars."
"And the shock killed him," I said with poetic promptitude.
"No—that is—not yet; I saw him yesterday," said the
Doctor, with conscientious professional precision, looking over his list
"Well, where is the poor fellow now?"
"He's still at the theatre. James, if these powders are called for,
you'll find them, here in this envelope. Tell Mrs. Blank I'll be there at
seven—and she can give the baby this until I come. Say there's no
danger. These women are an awful bother! Yes, he's at the theatre yet.
Which way are you going? Down town? Why can't you step into my carriage,
and I'll give you a lift, and we'll talk on the way down? Well—he's
at the theatre yet. And— and—do you remember the 'Destruction
of Sennacherib?' No? Yes you do. You remember that woman in pink, who
pirouetted in the famous ballet scene! You don't? Why, yes you do! Well,
I imagine, of course I don't know, it's only a summary diagnosis, but I
imagine that our friend with the aneurism has attached himself to
"Doctor, you horrify me."
"There are more things, Mr. Poet, in heaven and earth than are yet
dreamt of in your philosophy. Listen. My diagnosis may be wrong, but that
woman called the other day at my office to ask about him, his health, and
general condition. I told her the truth—and she FAINTED. It was
about as dead a faint as I ever saw; I was nearly an hour in bringing her
out of it. Of course it was the heat of the room, her exertions the
preceding week, and I prescribed for her. Queer, wasn't it? Now, if I
were a writer, and had your faculty, I'd make something out of that."
"But how is his general health?"
"Oh, about the same. He can't evade what will come, you know, at any
moment. He was up here the other day. Why, the pulsation was as
plain—why, the entire arch of the aorta— What! you get out
Of course no moralist, no man writing for a sensitive and strictly
virtuous public, could further interest himself in this man. So I
dismissed him at once from my mind, and returned to the literary
contemplation of virtue that was clearly and positively defined, and of
Sin, that invariably commenced with a capital letter. That this man, in
his awful condition, hovering on the verge of eternity, should allow
himself to be attracted by—but it was horrible to contemplate.
Nevertheless, a month afterwards, I was returning from a festivity
with my intimate friend Smith, my distinguished friend Jobling, my most
respectable friend Robinson, and my wittiest friend Jones. It was a
clear, star-lit morning, and we seemed to hold the broad, beautiful
avenue to ourselves; and I fear we acted as if it were so. As we
hilariously passed the corner of Eighteenth Street, a coupe rolled by,
and I suddenly heard my name called from its gloomy depths.
"I beg your pardon," said the Doctor, as his driver drew up by the
sidewalk, "but I've some news for you. I've just been to see our poor
friend ——. Of course I was too late. He was gone in a
"As Pharaoh! In an instant, just as I said. You see, the rupture took
place in the descending arch of—"
"It's a queer story. Am I keeping you from your friends? No? Well, you
see she—that woman I spoke of—had written a note to him based
on what I had told her. He got it, and dropped in his dressing-room, dead
as a herring."
"How could she have been so cruel, knowing his condition? She might,
with woman's tact, have rejected him less abruptly."
"Yes; but you're all wrong. By Jove! she ACCEPTED him! was willing to
"Yes. Don't you see? It was joy that killed him. Gad, we never thought
of THAT! Queer, ain't it? See here, don't you think you might make a
story out of it?"
"But, Doctor, it hasn't got any moral."
"Humph! That's so. Good morning. Drive on, John."