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Poetry and Fiction by Rebekah Hyneman (1816-1875)

The Doctor

A romance novel (1860)

by: Rebekah Hyneman (1816-1875)

Chapter 3

The town of Westford lies in as pretty a valley as can be found on the banks of the Susquehanna, whose waters roll in quiet, calm serenity, just beyond the outskirts of the village; but it must be seen in summer to appreciate its beauties.

The houses are of frame, painted according to the taste or purse of the owner, and as Spanish brown is considered the cheapest and most durable, it predominates. There is little variety in their architecture: each stands a few feet from the street; each has a door in the middle, a window on each side and three windows above, said windows all shutterless, and graced by double paper curtains, sadly faded, and very often torn. In summer, when morning glories, scarlet runners and Mexican vines can be made to screen their unsightly fronts, and the little patches before them, glow with hollyhocks and roses, larkspurs and ladies’ slippers, the little village may be called a very pretty romantic place.

But upon such a day as that upon which our Doctor ventured out, it presented a most cheerless aspect. The sidewalks were sloppy and slushy where they were paved, and in the unpaved parts decidedly muddy, and the rows of dingy red houses looked dismal enough in the gathering twilight. Here and there, where a curtain was still rolled up, he could see the blaze of the cheerful wood fire reflected from the rows of shining tins on the walls, and the social gathering of the family around their hot, steaming supper, and it only made his walk seem more dull and uncomfortable.

By the time he had reached the top of the hill which he was obliged to cross, the snow became mingled with hail, and came cutting against him spitefully, and the wind nearly carried him off his feet.

"There!" he exclaimed with a round oath, as it took his hat off and carried it beyond him, just as he was floundering through the most muddy part of the road, "I knew how it would be." He went stumbling and groping for it, and when he found it, it was so wet and muddied he could not put it on, but was fain to go bareheaded into the lone house across the hill, just savage enough to eat up all the occupants, if looks went for anything.

"What’s up, that a man is dragged out on such a night?" he demanded gruffly, as he came into the outer room, or kitchen. There was no other light in the room than that emitted by a rather poor fire on the spacious hearth, but by its light he saw several female forms, and the sight did not tend to soften his temper.

"The doctor!" was hurriedly whispered among them, as they fluttered round to get a light; his rough greeting had scared them, and in their tremor, it was several minutes before a candle was found and lighted.

In the meanwhile he had deposited his unlucky hat on the chair presented to him, for table he saw none, and unbuttoning his overcoat threw it across the chair back.

"Now," he said, turning to the girl who held the light, "tell me what I am brought here for."

"Speak lower, if you please," she replied in a tone scarcely above a whisper. "It is for our father; he is very ill, or we would not have troubled you."

"Very well. Let me see him," he said in a less gruff tone, pleased that his patient was not a woman. The young woman opened the door softly, and shading the candle with her hand, walked on tiptoe to the bed.

"I am awake," said a feeble voice from the bed. "Leave me alone with the Doctor."

When the light fell on the face of the invalid, the doctor’s countenance changed, for his practiced eye saw death plainly written on it. He waited until the young woman left the room before he spoke.

"What is it?" he asked, going up to the bed. The man looked up. "You disease, I mean, consumption, I thought so. Don’t trouble yourself to speak. You can tell me nothing that I don’t know."

"Is there no hope?" groaned the wretched man.

"You are a man," returned the physician. There was a dash of contempt in the tone; the invalid noticed it.

"I don’t know whether I can lay claim to the title," he said, as a hot flush rose to his forehead. "I have acted less like a man than a fiend, or I would not be here."

"Talking can do you no good; it may do you much harm. Lie as quiet as you can," returned the Doctor, preparing a sedative for him.

"Oh, my God!" exclaimed the sick man, excitedly. "If I could but live one short year."

"If you don’t try to tranquilize yourself, your term here may not be one hour," returned the other, as he held the cup to the man’s lips. "Take this, and then try to sleep."

"Sleep?" he exclaimed. "As if I could sleep! I mask my feelings as I best can, before them; I pretend to sleep and lie quiet when I feel like springing from my bed, and shouting my curses to the winds of heaven! Die! I must not die yet! What did they bring you for, if your skill can’t save me? I tell you I dare not die yet!"

He had raised his voice to an unnatural pitch, forgetting that only a thin partition was between those whom he wished to mislead, and his own wretched self. One of the young women glided in and took her place by the bed.

"Father!" she said, in a low, clear tone, laying her hand at the same time on his arm. He shivered, and put one wasted hand over his eyes.

"Whatever medicines you wish him to take," she said, turning to the physician, "please leave here. I don’t think you can do him any good by remaining."

"Are you alone with him?" There was less gruffness in Doctor Watson’s voice as he asked the question.

"We are not afraid," she replied, hurriedly. "I hope you have given him a narcotic." This was added in a tone so low it reached only the ear for which it was intended.

"I have, and if he can be tranquilized he may sleep," he returned in the same tone.

"Go, then. Your presence only disturbs him. I shall soothe him when you are gone." She blushed as she hastily slipped a coin into the doctor’s hand. "It is not commensurate with your services, but it is all I can afford," she said, apologetically. The Doctor looked at it and at her, as if he was about to say something very bitter, but he contented himself with laying it on the mantel shelf as he went out.

She followed him from the room.

"Is there any hope?" she asked; there was no tremor in her voice, he noticed that, nor had she, during the whole time evinced any womanly weakness. "I almost knew it was useless to send for you, but the children wished it, and he did not object. Heretofore, I have not been permitted to have professional advice for him. You have not yet answered me: is there any hope?"

"None," replied the doctor. He felt no scruple in answering her, for he seemed to know that death was the thing least dreaded by her. She bent her head, and a sigh, it seemed like one of relief, escaped her.

She opened the door for him to pass out, and as she did so, a blast of wind extinguished the candle.

"It is a wild night," she said, peering out into the storm and darkness. "I am sorry you were obliged to come."

"There is usually another person sent for at such times," said the Doctor. "Do you want a priest?"

"No, no," she said, hurriedly, and not without something like fear in her voice. "No priest has ever attended one of them in his death hour; it would do no good. Can you find your way?" she added, as he stepped out. "I have no lantern to lend you. Why did you not bring one?"

"I don’t need one. I know every step of the road," he replied, as he floundered through the mud. He did not bid her good night, for it seemed superfluous; there was something so hard and matter-of-fact about her, that even the common civilities of every day life seemed out of place with her. He had not noticed her personal appearance, he cared, in fact, nothing about it, but her very hardness seemed to influence him. There was nothing of the woman about her; no whining helplessness, which he so much despised, no clinging weakness, no leaning upon others. She seemed amply able to take up her burden, whatever it might be,-- and it seemed no ordinary one-- and carry it alone and unaided. There was something too about the old man which awoke, not curiosity-- for that was a feminine weakness and the Doctor eschewed it as such-- but an interest; and he startled his old housekeeper by putting on his overcoat after supper instead of sitting quietly with his segar at home.

"Not going out again," she observed, in her short way. He nodded. "Humph!" seems to me you can change your mind as well as any woman. One minute you will and the next minute you won’t. Told me not to call you if any one came, for you wasn’t a goin’ out sich a night."

"You need not wait up for me," he shouted, for she was rattling the tea things in an alarming manner, and muttering to herself, as she always did when displeased, so that he was obliged to raise his voice more than usual when addressing her at such times. "I have the night key, and can let myself in."

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