"You can get dressed, John."
Holliday was bare-chested. He slipped into his shirt, which hung loosely on his thin frame. His trousers were too large, and when he tucked the shirttail into his waistband, he had to buckle the belt to the last notch. He began knotting his tie.
Tom Eckhart was a friend as well as a physician. He studied Holliday a moment. "How much weight have you lost?"
"Twenty pounds," Holliday said. "Perhaps a little more."
"Considerably more, I'd judge. I wish you had come to see me sooner."
Holliday was wracked by a sudden, harsh cough. He swabbed phlegm from his mouth with a handkerchief. "I thought it was pleurisy," he said. "These things sometimes linger on after a hard winter."
"You should have known better," Eckhart grumbled. "Dental college should have taught you the difference."
"The difference in what?"
"God, I wish it were someone besides me! Why didn't you go to another doctor?"
Holliday stared at him. "Just tell me."
Eckhart dropped his stethoscope on the desk. "You havewhat's commonly called consumption. The correct term is 'pulmonary tuberculosis.'"
"You couldn't be mistaken?"
"No, John, I'm not mistaken. I've seen too much of it in the last few years."
A generation of Southerners had contracted the disease during the Civil War. Younger men, their condition weakened by general hardship and the shortage of proper foods, were particularly susceptible. Even now, eleven years following the end of the war, tuberculosis was still rampant throughout the South.
Holliday's features were stoic. "How bad is it?"
"Quite bad," Eckhart said gravely. "Your lungs are in an advanced stage of deterioration."
"You're trying to sugarcoat it, Tom. Give it to me straight."
"I'm afraid your condition is terminal. As you know, there is no cure."
"I see." Holliday nodded, silent a moment. He was tall, with ash-blond hair and a brushy mustache, and penetrating gray-blue eyes. Yet now his look was closed and inaccessible. "How long do I have?"
"A year," Eckhart told him. "Maybe longer if you relocate to a drier climate. Atlanta is no place for a man with consumption."
"What would you recommend?"
"Somewhere out West, perhaps Colorado or Texas. The sooner the better, John."
Eckhart thought Holliday, who was barely twenty-four, had taken the news with a maturity beyond his years. Some men, particularly one with a future in dentistry, would have accepted their fate with far less equanimity. He watched as Holliday shrugged into his suit jacket.
"What will you do with your dental practice?"
"Take down my shingle," Holliday said simply. "Let my patients know I'm moving west. There's no scarcity of dentists."
"I suppose not," Eckhart agreed. "When will you leave?"
"As soon as my affairs are in order. Nothing to hold me here now."
The matter-of-fact tone piqued Eckhart's curiosity. He knew Holliday was engaged to be married, and he told himself that it was none of his business. Yet, presuming on their friendship, he couldn't resist a personal question.
"Will you ask Mattie to go with you?"
"Would that make her a bride or a widow?"
Holliday departed on that cryptic note. He stepped through the door of the office, and turned south along Piedmont Street. Somewhere inside himself, he was struck by a bitter irony. One far too difficult to accept.
He had lost more than his life today.
The evening was lit by a primrose-yellow moon. Holliday sat beside Mattie on the porch swing, cloaked in the warmth of a gentle April breeze. Her arm tucked in his, she chatted on about plans for their wedding, set for June 6. He had yet to find a way to tell her.
The house was on Peachtree Road, north of the city proper, in one of Atlanta's finer residential enclaves. Like the phoenix of myth, Atlanta had risen from ashes after the Civil War. Mattie's father, the Honorable George W. Holliday, was a judge on the fifth superior court. He had survived the war, and the Reconstruction Era, to attain prominence in the new South.
Last year, upon graduating from the Baltimore Dental College in Maryland, Holliday had established his practice in Atlanta. The shingle outside his office read JOHN H. HOLLIDAY, D.D.S., and he was readily accepted into the professional community. But his welcome was lukewarm, and at times bordered on frosty, in the household of Judge Holliday. The situation was aggravated by the betrothal announcement of Mattie and Holliday, early in 1876. All of Atlanta, it seemed, loved a scandal.
Judge Holliday was the brother of Holliday's father. Byblood they were uncle and nephew, which meant that Mattie was Holliday's first cousin. The judge and his wife strongly opposed the engagement, for everyone knew that a union of first cousins resulted in offspring that were physically, and oftentimes mentally, impaired. But their daughter was willful and defiant, unconcerned that the man she loved was her cousin. Despite their protests, she accepted Holliday's proposal of marriage.
For his part, Holliday was willing to suffer the outrage and the gossip, even the stigma of cousins joined in wedlock. His deep feelings for Mattie stemmed from their childhood, when they were raised together in Lowndes County, in southern Georgia. After the war, when he'd gone off to college and her father had been appointed to the bench in Atlanta, nothing had changed to alter their lifelong bond. He chose Atlanta to establish his dental practice for no other reason than it reunited him with Mattie. She chose him to be her husband.
But now, beside her in the porch swing, Holliday searched for a way to begin, a way to tell her. She was vivacious and animated, a young woman of remarkable beauty, with auburn hair and a trim figure. In the face of her spirited manner, Holliday was at a loss as to how he might break the news. Finally, when she paused for breath, he decided the simplest way was the direct way. He steeled himself to the task.
"I went to see Tom Eckhart today."
"Oh, good," she said briskly. "I've been worried sick with all the weight you've lost. Did he prescribe something for your pleurisy?"
Holliday held her gaze. "Tom ruled out pleurisy. He diagnosed it as consumption ... tuberculosis."
"What?" She suddenly looked stricken. "Oh, John, that's not possible. He must be wrong."
"No, I trust his judgment. He's seen too many cases over the years to make a mistake. He was quite certain about it."
"Well, what did he say? Surely there's something to be done."
Holliday had already decided that the whole truth would serve no purpose. To tell her that he'd been sentenced to death would destroy her, and he couldn't bear to see her hurt. Far better to let time and distance bring about a gradual loss of hope.
"I have to go away," he said gently. "A drier climate, somewhere out West. That's the only known treatment."
She squared her shoulders. "Then I'll go with you. We'll be married just as quickly as possible." She smiled bravely. "We'll go west together."
"Not so fast." Holliday took her hand. "There's no need to rush things. Give me time to get located out there, and try to recuperate. We'll get married when I'm better."
"How long will that take? Did Tom say?"
"Six months, maybe a year. Certainly no longer."
"A year!" She watched him, a dark edge of dread shading her eyes. "Are you telling me everything, John? You're not just putting me off ... are you?"
Holliday smiled, reassured her with a bold lie. "Give me a little time and I'll be as good as new." He squeezed her hand. "You want a healthy husband, don't you?"
"I want you, John Holliday. Healthy or not, only you."
"You have me, Mattie, and that's the gospel truth. I've been yours since the day we met. Nothing will change that."
Her eyes welled with tears. "You promise?"
Holliday enfolded her in his arms. "Yes, I do, most solemnly. On my oath."
There was no lie in the promise, and he felt absolved in that. For he would love her until the day he died.
However long, or short, his time. All his life.
The following afternoon Holliday stepped off the train in Valdosta. The town was the county seat of Lowndes County, his hometown. The place of his boyhood and his rite of passage into manhood. He was there to see his father.
For the most part, his memories of Valdosta were pleasant ones. Walking toward the town square, he was reminded of a time, long ago, when he'd fallen for Mattie. His family,and hers, were the landed aristocracy of Lowndes County before the Civil War. Their lives were idyllic, filled with the romanticism of youth, days of splendor. A time of innocence.
Then, with the war's end, the society to which he'd been born was destroyed. The Yankees came, and the carpetbaggers robbed his family of their lands, the genteel plantation life. His father, who had fought with the Twenty-seventh Georgia Infantry, became a lawyer, and Mattie's father, through murky political connections, moved on to a judgeship in Atlanta. Shortly afterward, in the fall of 1866, his mother died as much of lost dreams as failing health. A grieving youngster, scarcely fourteen, he was appalled when his father promptly took another wife. His time of innocence ended with the wedding.
From that day onward, Henry Holliday's only son became a rebellious troublemaker. He spent his time in the woods, avoiding his stepmother and his father, content to hunt deer and wildfowl. Lean and hard, gifted with quick hands and exceptional coordination, he discovered an inborn talent with firearms. Over the intervening years he won shooting contests, defied the Yankee constabulary by carrying a revolver, and often ran away to Atlanta to see Mattie. Finally, when he was twenty, and steadfastly refused to study for the legal profession, his father shipped him off to dental college in Baltimore. He had not returned to Valdosta since, a matter of some four years.
The law offices of Henry Holliday were located on the north side of the courthouse square. He looked up from a sheaf of legal documents as his son came through the door and halted before his desk. He managed a strained smile.
"Well, well," he said, somewhat taken aback. "The prodigal son returns. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Good breeding," Holliday said dryly. "If nothing else, you taught me duty, and manners. I've come to say good-bye."
"Have you, indeed?" the elder Holliday replied. "And where are you off to now?"
"Somewhere out West, perhaps Texas. I hear Dallas is more civilized than most."
"Why on earth would you move west?"
"A matter of health. I'm told my constitution requires a drier climate."
Henry Holliday appeared startled. He looked closer, saw that his son was pale and wasted, abnormally thin. "What is it, John? Are you ill?"
"In a manner of speaking," Holliday said. "I have tuberculosis. Otherwise known as consumption."
"My God, you can't be serious! How ill are you?"
"I'd thought to send you a telegram. But then, after some consideration, I thought it was better done in person. You might say this is our final parting."
"You're--" His father faltered, searching for words. "You came all this way to tell me you're dying?"
Holliday was struck by a sudden fit of coughing. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief, noting that the sputum was tinged red. "I'm touched by your concern. You've made the trip worthwhile."
"You're my son, for God's sake! What did you expect?"
"Actually, I came here with a request. I could hardly tell all to Uncle George, particularly since he's not one to keep a secret. That being the case--would you look after Mattie for me?"
"You haven't told her the truth?"
"Let's say she believes it to be a temporary condition."
"So she still thinks you're to be married?"
"For now," Holliday amended. "Time will convince her otherwise."
"I see." The elder Holliday looked at him with a dimming stare, as though he wanted to say something but it was too late. "When the time comes, I'll do what I can for Mattie. You have my word on it."
"Good-bye, Father." Holliday extended his hand. "I'm catching the afternoon train back to Atlanta. I appreciate your help."
"Come now, John, why rush off?" His father held theirhandshake a moment longer. "Won't you stay the night?"
"Thank you, no. I leave for Texas tomorrow."
"Well then, will you write me? Once you've settled?"
"We've never been much for letters, have we?"
"John ... what do you want me to say--you're my son."
"I think that says it all, Father. I wish you well."
"Godspeed, John. You'll ever be in my prayers."
Holliday nodded, quickly turning away, and walked to the door. As he stepped outside, the clock on the courthouse tower tolled the hour. He paused, staring upward, oddly reminded of a poem he'd studied in college. He thought it was by John Donne.
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. A slight, ironic smile touched the corner of Holliday's mouth. All of it seemed somehow fitting, appropriate to the moment.
He walked toward the train station.
Copyright © 1997 by Matt Braun.