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Keepers of A Charge by Grace Ellery Channing


The Doctor's brougham stood at the door; the Doctor's liveried servants waited at the foot of the stairs; the Doctor himself in his study was gathering together his paraphernalia for the day, and the Doctor's face was a study.

He was tired; he was cross; he was feeling ill. His nervous hands were unsteady; his movements were by jerks; his face was a knitted tangle of lines. He had rheumatism in both shoulders, and a headache, and a pain in his chest. He had slept but little, and one of his patients had had the happy idea of despatching a messenger for him in the dead hour of the night. The Doctor never went out nights, and she ought to have known this, but her only son was ill and she was persuaded he could not survive a dozen hours together without the Doctor's personal attendance.

It never seemed to occur to any of his patients that his own life was of the smallest consequence in the balance with theirs or that of any member of their families. Occasionally, when his rheumatism was exceptionally severe or his cough racking, this reflection embittered the Doctor. At other times—and this was generally—he accepted with philosophy this integral selfishness of clients as a part of their inevitable constitution. They were a set of people necessarily immersed and absorbed in their own woes, or in that extension of their woes which was still more passionately their own, and even more unmercifully insisted upon in proportion to the decent veneer of altruism it possessed.

Without being strictly a handsome man, the Doctor produced the effect of one. Nothing gives distinction like character, and this he had and to spare. He was not a popular physician, but a famous one; the day was long past when his professional success depended upon anything so personal as appearance or manner. He could afford to be—and he frequently was—as disagreeable as he felt; desperate sufferers could not afford to resent it, and their relatives, in the grim struggle for a precious life, swallowed without a protest the brusqueries and rebuffs of the man who held in, the hollow of his potent hand their jewel of existence.

He had his passionate detractors and his personal devotees, and these last afflicted him far more than the first. Like the priest, the physician cannot escape taking on superhuman proportions in the eyes of those to whom he has rendered back life, their own or a dearer, and the Doctor (having long outlived the time when it flattered him) was often exasperated to the limits of endurance by the blind faith which asked miracles of him as simply as cups of tea. The strain these women—they were mostly women, of course—put upon him was beyond belief, and he got but a mild pleasure out of the reflection that, being in their nature foolish, they could not help it.

It was quite in keeping, therefore, that one of them should have broken up his night's sleep. He knew those attacks of the boy's by heart; there was exactly one chance in one hundred that his presence should be necessary. He had sent a safe remedy, telephoned a severe but soothing message, and mentally prayed now for patience to meet the irrational, angered eyes of maternity, and to administer a reproof equally gentle and deterrent—gentle, for of course the woman's nerves had to be allowed for; she had been nursing this boy for months. The Doctor slipped into his long, fur-trimmed overcoat and reached for his tall hat.

“You may as well send those Symphony tickets to somebody,” he said, impatiently, to his wife; “I sha'n't be able to go. Ten to one I shall be late to dinner, and I doubt if I get home to lunch at all.”

His wife, who was patiently holding his gloves and cigar-case, looked at him with a sweet maternal anxiety as he tumbled together the papers on the table, but she only said, “Very well.” As he turned to take the gloves and cigar-case, she added, quickly, with a second anxious glance:

“Do try to get a few minutes' rest somewhere. Any of our friends will be so glad to give you a cup of tea—or a little music—and it always rests you so.”

The Doctor took the things from her hands; he looked abstractedly at his wife, then stooped hurriedly and kissed her.

“Don't worry about me; I shall be all right,” he said, as he hastened from the room. It was characteristic of him that he forgot his clinical thermometer, and was never known to have a prescription-pad or pencil.

One servant opened the house door for him, and another the carriage door; the Doctor stepped in quickly, growling out a direction and ignoring the bows of his retainers. He kept his own for the benefit of his clients, he was wont cynically to say. He settled himself in the seat, and before the door was fairly closed had lighted a cigar and unfurled a medical journal.

As the carriage whirled recklessly down the street and around corners, several feminine patients looked longingly after, as if virtue went out from it, and several masculine ones raised their hats, but the Doctor, his eyes glued to the paper, saw none of them.

Perhaps his most restful moments were these spent in his brougham. It was almost his only time for reading; he had found, moreover, that this served to keep his mind fresh from case to case, detaching it from one train of thought and bringing it with new concentration to the next. These brief intervals belonged wholly to himself. His home was never safe from invasion, and little time and less strength remained to him for domestic joys.

Life had not brought to him all that he was conscious might have been within its gift. Professionally, indeed, he had reached great heights, but these only enabled a measure of the territory beyond, and if to his patients he appeared as a species of demigod, to himself he was merely a “lucky” physician—his peculiar luck consisting in that sixth sense which put him so easily into his patients' skins and pierced through obscure maladies to possible sources. How he knew a great many things puzzled them, but puzzled him still more. Simply at certain crises he was aware that mysteries were momentarily revealed to him. Back of that he possessed, of course, the usual outfit of medical knowledge, open to any one, but which had never yet made a great physician since the world with all its aches and pains began. For that other things were needed: a coloring of the artistic temperament, a dash of the gambler's, a touch of femininity, as well as the solid stratum of cool common sense at the bottom of all; these eked out the modicum of scientific knowledge which is all mankind has yet wrested from secretive nature. The Doctor sometimes described himself as a “good guesser.” Surgery might be an exact science; few things in medicine were exact, and what was never exact was the material upon which medicine must work. The great bulk of his fraternity went through their studious, conscientious, hard-working, and not infrequently heroic lives under the contented conviction of having to deal with two principal facts—disease and medicine—both accessible through study. To them the imponderable factor of the patient represented such or such an aggregation of material—muscle, nerve, blood, brawn, bone, and tissue—which might be counted upon to respond to such and such a treatment in such and such a manner, with very slight variation. The Doctor envied them their simplicity of faith. To him, on the contrary, the patient was a factor which could not be counted on, at all—a force about which he knew virtually nothing, acting upon a mechanism about which he knew little more, and capable of interactions, reactions, and counteractions innumerable, reversing and nullifying all past experience at a moment's notice—an unforeseen moment always.

He eyed this mystery, accordingly, with respect, lying in wait for hints from it, and frequently reversing in his turn patiently prepared plans of action, with a prompt speed impossible to a less supple mind,—impossible at all, quite often, to any process of conscious thought. To have these intuitions—that was his touch of femininity; to risk largely upon them was the gambler in him; his swift appropriation of the subject's temperament betrayed the artist in his own; while the hard common sense which drew the rein on all these was a legitimate inheritance—both national and personal. So was his manner—not often extremely courteous and quite often extremely rude. In this latter case his adorers called it “abstracted,” while his enemies qualified it as “ill-bred.” But his voice, ordinarily abrupt and harsh, could pass to exquisite intonations in the sick-room, and there were moments when to anxious watchers therein, the man seemed more than a man.

The affinity between physician and artist is one of the most curious and suggestive. Every one will recall the famous surgeon-etcher, and the distinguished specialist in nerves and novels. The Doctor's artistic passion was for music. Unfortunately, it was not materially portable, like a writing-pad, and there would have been something unseemly in the spectacle of a physician fiddling in his carriage, so he nursed this love in seclusion. His violin was his one indulgence, and when he permitted himself to dream, it was of a life with music in it. Sometimes he wished his wife were musical; more often he congratulated himself that she was not. He was sincerely attached to her, owing—and, what was more significant, realizing that he owed—her much besides the promising twins; most of all, perhaps, that she consented to be his wife on his own terms. But she was distinctly not musical.

The Doctor laid down his paper and took up his mail, and a disagreeable expression came into his face. It was one of the pleasant features of his professional career that his brother physicians occasionally vented their jealousy of him upon one of their joint patients—stabbing him, so to speak, through their lungs or heart, wherein he was most vulnerable. Just as he expected! They had deliberately neglected his prescriptions, after calling him a winter-journey north to deliver them, and as deliberately allowed the victim to die according to their treatment rather than permit him to live according to the Doctor's.

The look upon his face was ugly to behold; he flung open the door with unnecessary violence before the carriage had stopped, and his foot was on the pavement before the footman could descend. Then he braced his rheumatic shoulders for the four steep flights of stairs; he could not justly complain of the number, since he himself had sent the patient there to be high and dry and quiet. On the way up he had one of his nameless seizures of intuition, and in the dark upper hall his hand fell sharply away from the knocker and his face set whitely. There had been just one chance in a hundred that his presence was necessary; before the door opened he knew this had been the hundredth chance.

The ghastly woman's face which met him added nothing to that certitude, yet he winced before it in every nerve.

“You have come too late,” she articulated only.

No!” thundered the Doctor. He put her aside like a piece of furniture and strode into the darkened room beyond.

It was more than an hour later when he emerged. The woman stood exactly where he had left her. It was another, tall and young, who turned from the window and looked at him with eyes that hurt. But he did not wince this time.

“It's all right!” he said, cheerfully. His voice quite sang with sweetness. He came and stood a moment by the window, breathing hard. His face was gray, but his eyes smiled, and there was something boyish in his aspect. He looked from one woman to the other sunnily.

“Bless me—you ought never to let yourselves go like that! He'll pull through all right.”

The younger woman continued to look at him silently, but the elder, with a long quivering sigh, fainted.

“Best thing she could possibly do,” said the Doctor, his fingers on her pulse. “Get her to bed as soon as you can,—and have these prescriptions sent out. I'll come back later. He'll sleep hours now.”

He ran down-stairs, consulting his visiting-list as he ran, and jumped into the brougham, calling an address as he pulled the door to with a slam. This time, however, he did not take out his papers, but sat with an unlighted cigar between his lips, gazing intently at nothing.

In the course of the next few hours he looked over an assortment of ailing babies, soothed as many distracted mothers, ordered to a gay watering-place one young girl whom he was obliged to treat for chronic headache—chronic heartache not being professionally recognizable,— administered the pathetically limited alleviations of his art to a failing cancer-patient (she happened to be a rich woman, going with the fortitude of the poor down the road to the great Darkness), and so, looking in on various pneumonias and fevers, broken souls and bruised bodies, by the way, brought up at last at the hospital to see how yesterday's operation was going on. It was going on in so very mixed a manner that he telephoned he should not return to lunch—prophesying long after the event.

It was turning dusk when he started on his second round of visits homeward, stopping on the outskirts to rebandage, in one of the tenements, a child's broken arm. He had not returned his footman's salutation that morning, but had carried in his subconsciousness all day this visit to the footman's child. In one manner or another that inconvenient locality had been compassed in his circuit for the past three weeks. From it he passed to his daily ordeal, another rich patient, a nervous wreck, whose primary ailment—the lack of anything to do—had passed into the advanced stages of an inability to do anything, with its sad Nemesis of melancholia—the registered protest of the dying soul. It was a case which took more out of the Doctor than all his day's practice put together; he always came from it in a misery of doubts.

The dusk was becoming the dark when he set his foot wearily on the carriage step once more, and with his hand on the carriage door paused suddenly. He was sick of sickness, mortally tired of mortality! For the first time in the whole day he hesitated; an odd, irresolute look came into his face; he pulled out his watch, glanced, and changing his first-given address for another, threw himself back on the cushions with closed eyes. He did not open them again until the carriage, rolling through many streets, came to a halt under some quiet trees, before an apartment-house. There were yellow daffodils between white curtains—very white and high up. As he stepped out, the Doctor glanced involuntarily towards them, and a half-breath of relief escaped him, instantly quenched in a nervous frown and jump as his arm was seized by a firm gloved hand.

“Doctor,—this is really providential! You are the very person I wished to see!”

It was the younger of two heavily upholstered and matronly ladies who spoke, in a voice of many underscorings. The Doctor, who had removed his hat with a purely mechanical motion, knew himself a prey, identified his captor, and eyed her with restrained bitterness.

“Doctor,—it is about my Elsie;—she hasn't a particle of color, and she complains of feeling languid all the time—”

“No wonder!—What do you expect?”—it was the Doctor's harshest tone. “She is loaded up with flesh,—she doesn't exercise,—you stuff her. Send her out with her hoop,—make her drink water,—stop stuffing her. What she, wants is thinning out.”

Elsie!—Why, Doctor, the child eats nothing,—I have to tempt her all the time;—and when she goes out she complains of feeling tired.”

“Let her complain,—and let her get tired;—it will do her good. Don't feed her in betweentimes,—and when you do feed her, give her meat—something that will make red blood,—not slops, nor sweets, nor dough. There's nothing in the world the matter with her.” He lifted his hat and strode on up the stairs.

Maternity, grieved and outraged, stared after him, speechless, then turned for sympathy in the nearest feminine eye.

“Really, dear,—I think that was almost vulgar,—as well as unkind,” murmured the other mother at her side.

Vulgar! Unkind! Well, it is the last time he will have the opportunity to insult me! The idea! Elsie!—But it's not the first time I have thought of changing physicians!” (This was true,—but she never did; the solid Elsie was her only one.) “And such desperate haste;—he must have a most critical case!” She cast an indignant glance at the building, as if to make it an accessory to the fact, and turning a kindling and interrogative glance upon her companion, encountered one of profound and scintillating significance. For a moment they contemplated their discovery breathlessly in each other's eyes.

“Did you ever!” exclaimed number one at last. “Oh, of course I had heard things,—but I will do myself the justice to say I never believed a word of it before! This, of course, makes it plain enough;—this explains all!”

The two—good women, but wounded withal—coruscated subtle knowledge all down the street.

Meantime the Doctor climbed the stairs. He was perfectly conscious that he had been, in fact, both unkind and rude, even though his mood did not incline him to take measure of the extent of his delinquency. He knew equally that he should presently have to write a note of apology—and that it would not do an atom of good, Tant pis. He rang at the door of the daffodil-room, and it was opened by the tall girl whose eyes had hurt him that morning. They did not hurt him now, but enveloped him with a keen and soft regard that left no question unanswered. In another moment she had put out a firm hand and drawn him over the threshold in its clasp.

“Don't speak,—don't try to say a word! There!” She had taken from him his hat and gloves and pushed forward a low chair in front of the fire, all in one capable movement. “What is it? Tea? Coffee? A glass of wine?”

Music!” answered the Doctor, raising two haggard eyes, with the exhausted air of an animal taking shelter.

The girl turned away her own and walked towards the piano, stopping on the way, however, to push forward a little table set forth with a steaming tea-urn and cups, matches and a tray, and to lift to its farther edge a bowl of heavy-scented violets. Her every motion was full of ministry, as devoid of fuss.

The room was low, broad, and large, and full of books, flowers, low seats, and leaping firelight. A grand-piano, piled with music, dominated the whole. The girl seated herself before it and began to play, with the beautiful, powerful touch of control. After the first bars, the Doctor's head sank back upon the cushions of the chair and the Doctor's hand stole mechanically to the matches. He smoked and she played—quiet, large music, tranquilly filling the room: Bach fugues, German Lieder, fragments of weird northern harmonies, fragments of Beethoven and Schubert, the Largo of Handel,—and all the time she played she looked at the man who lay back in the chair, half turned from her, the cigar drooping from his fingers. There was no sound in the room but the music and light leaping of little flames in the fireplace,—no motion but theirs and the pulsing fingers on the keys. The girl played on and on, till the fire began to die, and with a sudden sigh the Doctor held up his hand. Then she rose at once, and going forward, stood as simply at the side of the fireplace opposite him. She was not beautiful, but, oh, she was beautiful with health and calm vigor.

The Doctor let his eyes rest on her.

“If you knew,” he said, with a little, half-apologetic laugh.

In her turn she held up one of her long hands.

“But I do;—you forget I was there all the morning. And you pulled him through. As for the rest—” She stooped suddenly and began to pile together the logs; the Doctor watched her, noting with a trained and sensitive eye the muscular ease and grace of the supple arms and shoulders—like music. “Of course”—she spoke lightly—“they will kill you some day, among them; but—it's worth while, isn't it?—and there isn't much else that is, is there?” Still kneeling, she turned and looked straight up at him. “Do you know what it was like this morning—before you came?”

The Doctor shook his head.

She hesitated a moment, smiling a little. “'Lord, if Thou hadst been here, our brother had not died!'“ she quoted.

The Doctor got up quickly from his chair. He knocked the ash from his cigar and laid it down on the tray. “Well,” he said, lightly, “I must be off.” He squared his shoulders and held out his hand; its grip upon her own trembled very slightly, but he smiled sunnily. “I'll come back for some more music some day.”

“Do,” the girl said. She had risen and was smiling too.

The Doctor looked about the room wistfully. “Jolly place,—I don't get up very often, do I?”

“Not very.”

They smiled at each other again, then the girl, turning abruptly away, walked to the window and came back with a double handful of yellow flowers.

“Will you carry these to your wife? They are the first of the year.”

She held the door open for him, and from the little landing watched him down the stairs. At their turn he glanced up for a moment, holding his hat raised silently. She waved him a mute acknowledgment, then going into the room again, closed the door.

The firelight still leaped languidly on the hearth, and on the half-smoked cigar and pile of ashes in the tray. The girl stood a moment looking at these things and the chair, then walked quietly to the piano and sat down before it. But she did not play again.

Meantime the Doctor, an erect and urgent presence in the dusk, had driven through dim streets and climbed again the four flights of the morning, to find the hush of heaven fallen on the house.

“I knew you could save him!” said the pale mother only, lifting blind eyes of worship from the couch.

The Doctor laughed, poured her out with his own hands a sleeping-draught, and sat patiently beside her till she slept, then stole away, leaving injunctions with the nurse, established in his absence, to telephone if there came a crisis—“even,” after a moment's hesitation, “in the night.”

“Home!”—he gave the order briefly. There were black circles beneath his eyes, making him look thinner than when he left the house that morning; he had no distinct reminiscence of lunch, and he was very tired; but his shoulders no longer ached, his headache was gone, and his hands were perfectly steady.

Odd bits of music hummed perversely through his head, mixing themselves up with all things and rippling the air about him into their own large waves, bearing now and then upon them, like the insistent iteration of an oratorio chorus, fantastic fragments—“If Thou hadst been here!—If Thou hadst been here!” His fingers ached towards the responsive strings, and pulling out his watch, he made a hasty calculation. There should be good fifteen minutes, he decided—toilet allowed for—and he hurried the coachman again and leaned forward, looking with bright, eager eyes into the night, and humming to himself.

One liveried servant opened the house door, another the carriage door, and a third relieved him of his hat and coat. Out of the warmth and brightness his wife advanced to meet him, a child in either hand, their long curls brushed and tied with bright ribbons. Her face was filled with tender solicitude.

“You must be worn out;—what a long day you have made! Would you like the dinner sent in at once, or would you rather wait? Children, don't hang so on papa; he must be dreadfully tired. Oh, and there's a man been waiting over an hour; he simply wouldn't go; but you'll let him come back to-morrow?—you won't try to see any one else tonight?”

The Doctor hesitated a moment, letting all the warmth and brightness sink into him, while his hands played with the soft hair of his little son and daughter. He smiled at his wife, a bright, tired smile.

“Robin,” he said, “run down to the carriage; there are some posies there for mamma—from Miss Graham, Louise,—you see I did get a moment's rest.”

“Yes,” said his wife. She continued to gaze compassionately at the tired man. After a moment she repeated gently, “And the dinner, dear—?”

“No,—don't wait for me; I'll not be long. Have it brought in at once, and—send the man into the office, please.”

He stooped and kissed the children, and turning away, went into his office and closed the door behind him.


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