Read CHAPTER VI of The Doctor A Tale Of The Rockies , free online book, by Ralph Connor, on


Barney’s jaw ran along the side of his face, ending abruptly in a square-cut chin, the jaw and chin doing for his face what a ridge and bluff of rock do for a landscape. They suggested the bed rock of character, abiding, firm, indomitable. Having seen the goal at which he would arrive, there remained only to find the path and press it. He would be a doctor. The question was, how? His first step was to consult the only authority available, old Doctor Ferguson. It was a stormy interview, for the doctor was of a craggy sort like Barney himself, with a jaw and a chin and all they suggested. The boy told his purpose briefly, almost defiantly, as if expecting scornful opposition, and asked guidance. The doctor flung difficulties at his head for half an hour and ended by offering him money, cursing his Highland pride when the boy refused it.

“What do I want with money?” cried the doctor. He had lost his only son three years before. “There’s only my wife. And she’ll have plenty. Money! Dirt, fit to walk on, to make a path with, that’s all! Had my boy lived, God knows I’d have made him a surgeon. But ” Here the doctor snorted violently and coughed, trumpeting hard with his nose. “Confound these foggy nights! I’ll put you through.”

“I’ll pay my way,” said Barney almost sullenly, “or I’ll stay at home.”

“What are you doing here, then?” he roared at the boy.

“I came to find out how to start. Must a man go to college?”

“No,” shouted the doctor again; “he can be a confounded fool and work up by himself, a terrible handicap, going up for the examinations till the last year, when he must attend college.”

“I could do that,” said Barney, closing his jaws.

The doctor looked at his face. The shut jaws looked more than ever like a ledge of granite and the chin like a cliff. “You can, eh? Hanged if I don’t believe you! And I’ll help you. I’d like to, if you would let me.” The voice ended in a wistful tone. The boy was touched.

“Oh, you can!” he cried impulsively, “and I’ll be awfully thankful. You can tell me what books to get and sometimes explain, perhaps, if you have time.” His face went suddenly crimson. He was conscious of asking a favour.

The old doctor sat down, rejoicing greatly in him, and for the first time treated him as an equal. He explained in detail the course of study, making much of the difficulties in the way. When he had done he waved his hand toward his library.

“Now, there are my books,” he cried; “use them and ask me what you will. It will brush me up. And I’ll take you to see my cases and, by God’s help, we’ll make you a surgeon! A surgeon, sir! You’ve got the fingers and the nerves. A surgeon! That’s the only thing worth while. The physician can’t see further below the skin than anyone else. He guesses and experiments, treats symptoms, trys one drug then another, guessing and experimenting all along the line. But the knife, boy!” Here the doctor rose and began to pace the floor. “There’s no guess in the knife point! The knife lays bare the evil, fights, eradicates it! Look at that boy Kane, died three weeks ago. ‘Inflammation,’ said the physician. Treated his symptoms properly enough. The boy died. At the postmortem” here the doctor paused in his walk, lowering his voice almost to a whisper while he bent over the boy “at the post-mortem the knife discovered an abscess on the vermiform appendix. The discovery was made too late.” These were the days before appendicitis became fashionable. “Now, listen to me,” continued the doctor, even more impressively, “I believe in my soul that the knife at the proper moment might have saved that boy’s life! A slight incision an inch or two long, the removal of the diseased part, a few stitches, and in a couple of weeks the boy is well! Ah, boy! God knows I’d give my life to be a great surgeon! But He didn’t give me the fingers. Look at these,” and he held up a coarse, heavy hand; “I haven’t the touch. And besides, He brought me my wife, the best thing I’ve got in the world, and my baby, which settled the surgeon business forever. Now listen, boy! You’ve got the nerve plenty of men have that but you’ve also got the fingers, which few men have. With your touch and your steady nerve and your mechanical ingenuity I’ve seen your machines, boy you can be a great surgeon! But you must know your subject. You must think, dream, sleep, eat, drink bones and muscles and sinews and nerves. Push everything else aside!” he cried, waving his great hands. “And remember!” here his voice took a solemn tone “let nothing share your heart with your knife! Leave the women alone. A woman has no business in science. She distracts the mind, disturbs the liver, absorbs the vital powers, besides paralysing the finances. For you, let there be one woman, your mother, at least till you are a surgeon. Now, then, there are my books and all my spare time at your command.” At these words the boy’s face, which had caught the light and glow of the old man’s enthusiasm, fell.

“Well, what now?” cried the doctor, reading his face like a book.

“I have no right to take your books or your time.”

The doctor sprang to his feet with an oath. The boy also rose and faced him, almost as if expecting a blow. For a moment they stood steadfastly regarding each other, then the doctor’s old face relaxed, his eyes softened. He put his big hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Now, by the Lord that made you and me!” he said, “we were meant for a team, and a team we’ll make. I’ll help you and I’ll make you pay.” The boy’s face brightened.

“How?” he cried eagerly.

“We’ll change work.” The doctor’s old eyes began to twinkle. “I want fall ploughing done and my cordwood hauled.”

“I’ll do it!” cried Barney. A light broke in his eyes and flooded his face. At last he saw his path.

“Here,” said the doctor, taking down a book, “here’s your Gray.” And turning the leaves, “Here’s what happened to Ben Fallows. Read this. And here’s the treatment,” pulling down another book and turning to a page, “Read that. I’ll make Ben your first patient. There’s no money in it, anyway, and you can’t kill him. He only needs three things, cleanliness, good cheer, and good food. By and by we’ll get him a leg. Here’s that Buffalo doctor’s catalogue. Take it along. Now, boy, I’ll work you, grind you, and you’ll go for your first examination next spring.”

“Next spring!” cried Barney, aghast, “not for three years.”

“Three years!” snorted the doctor, “three fiddlesticks! You can do this first examination by next spring.”

“Yes. I could do it,” said Barney slowly.

The doctor cast an admiring glance at the line of jaw on the boy’s face.

“But there’s the mortgage and there’s Dick’s college.”

“Dick’s college? Why Dick’s and not yours?”

The boy’s rugged face changed. A tender light fell over it, filling in its cracks and canyons.

“Because well, because Dick must go through. Dick’s clever. He’s awful clever.” Pride mingled with the tenderness in look and tone. “Mother wants him to be a minister, and,” he added after a pause, “I do, too.”

The old doctor turned from him, stood looking out of the window a few minutes, and then came back. He put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “I understand, boy,” he said, his great voice vibrating in deep and tender tones, “I, too, had a brother once. Make Dick a minister if you want, but meantime we’ll grind the surgeon’s knife.”

The boy went home to his mother in high exultation.

“The doctor wants me to look after Ben for him,” he announced. “He is going to show me the dressings, and he says all he wants is cleanliness, good cheer, and good food. I can keep him clean. But how he is to get good cheer in that house, and how he is to get good food, are more than I can tell.”

“Good cheer!” cried Dick. “He’ll not lack for company. How many has she now, mother? A couple of dozen, more or less?”

“There are thirteen of them already, poor thing.”

“Thirteen! That’s an unlucky stopping place. Let us hope she won’t allow the figure to remain at that.”

“Indeed, I am thinking it will not,” said his mother, speaking with the confidence of intimate knowledge.

“Well,” replied Dick, with a judicial air, “it’s a question whether it’s worse to defy the fate that lurks in that unlucky number, or to accept the doubtful blessing of another twig to the already overburdened olive tree.”

“Ay, it is a hard time she is having with the four babies and all.”

“Four, mother! Surely that’s an unusual number even for the prolific Mrs. Fallows!”

“Whisht, laddie!” said his mother, in a shocked tone, “don’t talk foolishly.”

“But you said four, mother.”

“Twins the last twice,” interjected Barney.

“Great snakes!” cried Dick, “let us hope she won’t get the habit.”

“But, mother,” inquired Barney seriously, “what’s to be done?”

“Indeed, I can’t tell,” said his mother.

“Listen to me,” cried Dick, “I’ve got an inspiration. I’ll undertake the ‘good cheer.’ I’ll impress the young ladies into this worthy service. Light conversation and song. And you can put up the food, mother, can’t you?”

“We will see,” said the mother quietly; “we will do our best.”

“In that case the ‘food department’ is secure,” said Dick; “already I see Ben Fallows making rapid strides toward convalescence.”

It was characteristic of Barney that within a few days he had all three departments in full operation. With great tact he succeeded in making Mrs. Fallows thoroughly scour the woodwork and whitewash the walls in Ben’s little room, urging the doctor’s orders and emphasizing the danger of microbes, the dread of which was just beginning to obtain in popular imagination.

“Microbes? What’s them?” inquired Mrs. Fallows, suspiciously.

“Very small insects.”

“Insects? Is it bugs you mean?” Mrs. Fallows at once became fiercely hostile. “I want to tell yeh, young sir, ther’ hain’t no bugs in this ’ouse. If ther’s one thing I’m pertickler ’bout, it’s bugs. John sez to me, sez ’e, ‘What’s the hodds of a bug or two, Hianthy?’ But I sez to ’im, sez I, ’No bugs fer me, John. I hain’t been brought up with bugs, an’ bugs I cawn’t an’ won’t ‘ave.’”

It was only Barney’s earnest assurance that the presence of microbes was no impeachment of the most scrupulous housekeeping and, indeed, that these mysterious creatures were to be found in the very highest circles, that Mrs. Fallows was finally appeased. With equal skill he inaugurated his “good food” department, soothing Mrs. Fallows’ susceptibilities with the diplomatic information that in surgical cases such as Ben’s certain articles of diet specially prepared were necessary to the best results.

Not the least successful part of the treatment prescribed was that furnished by the “good cheer” department. This was left entirely in Dick’s charge, and he threw himself into its direction with the enthusiasm of a devotee. Iola with her guitar was undoubtedly his mainstay. But Dick was never quite satisfied unless he could persuade Margaret, too, to assist in his department. But Margaret had other duties, and, besides, she had associated herself more particularly with Mrs. Boyle in the work of supplementing Mrs. Fallows’ somewhat unappetising though entirely substantial meals with delicacies more suited to the sickroom. Dick, however, insisted that with all that Iola and himself in the “good cheer” department and Barney in what he called the “scavenging” department could achieve, there was still need of Margaret’s presence and Margaret’s touch. Hence, before the busy harvest time came upon them, he made a practice of calling at the manse, and, relieving her of the duty of getting to sleep little five-year-old Tom, with whom he was first favourite, he would carry her off to the Fallows household, whither Barney and Iola had preceded them.

Altogether the “young doctor,” as Ben called him, had reason to be proud of the success he was achieving with his first patient. The amputation healed over and the bone knit at the first intention, and in a few weeks Ben was far on the way to convalescence. He was never weary in his praises of the “young doctor.” It was the “young doctor” who, by changing the bandages, had eased him of the intolerable pain which followed the first dressing. It was the “young doctor” who had changed the splints, shaping them cunningly to fit the limb, bringing ease where there had been chafing pain.

“Let ’em ’ave the old doctor if they want,” was Ben’s final conclusion, “but fer me, the young doctor, sez I.”