IN A COUNTRY PRACTICE
Sarah Orne Jewett
Dr. Best, the old professor and king of the medical school, was talking eagerly to a pleasant-faced, slight young student who stood before him. The young man had taken his degree and received his diploma only the day before. He had graduated at the top of his class, and, as Dr. Best had said to one of his fellow professors, as they sat together signing the diplomas, he was the only man in the class who really had a genius for his profession.
Dr. Best was a New York physician of wide reputation who had kept his professorship in the medical school of one of the small inland colleges, both because it was his own college and because the few weeks which his lectures covered gave him almost the only vacation that he could manage to get through the long hard-worked years.
"I'm not so sure that I won't take you into partnership, my boy," he said, after ordinary means of persuasion had seemed to fail. "That is, if you will take a few months first in the -- hospital where I'll get you a grand chance. You ought not to bury yourself in a country practice with your gifts. I'll push you along as fast as I can if you'll come to New York."
The younger man threw back his fine head with a sudden eager gesture - a strange wistful look shone in his eyes. He knew well enough all that the doctor's generous offer and fatherly affectionateness meant: fame and money and all delightful social advantages were put easily within his reach. He was reverent of the world of art and of letters, and of a man's best knowledge and close acquaintance with affairs. But he could not shut his eyes to that other vision of a familiar upland country, the dark hills, the narrow rocky roads, the gray and red farmhouses of Alton. He remembered, too, his father, the old doctor of all that region, physician of souls and bodies, whom everybody had missed, he himself most of all.
"You're very kind, Dr. Best," said John Ashurst, with a bright color in his cheeks. "I know how much your kindness would mean - but you see they need a doctor up at Alton."
"There are plenty of doctors," said the old gentleman, gruffly. "The people up there can get a doctor - there's Duncan or Grafton or Smith who promise fairly well, and don't know where in the world to settle. You ought to have a larger place. Come, make a push and take what belongs to you."
"I feel as if I were needed up at Alton, sir," said the young doctor, with the anxiety slowly leaving his face, and a happy light coming into his eyes again, though he reached his hand for the back of a chair close by and took hard hold of it. Duty was so shining clear that the moment of temptation was quickly over, but he suddenly remembered that he was turning his back upon the most beloved companionship that he had ever known, except his father's. The doctors about Alton, whom he should sometimes meet, were old-fashioned men, not of the best sort; some of whom were likely to be jealous of him. There would be no more talk for him now with Dr. Best or with other friends who saw their profession from anything like a wide point of view, to whom he could speak in his own language. He was facing a good deal of loneliness; he could not hope to go to New York very often; he was in debt already for his education. Dr. Best was an old man, too, they might never meet again.
The old doctor rose gruffly - the moment had grown too painful for them both. "Well, well!" he said, impatiently. "You must do as you think best; mother living and depending upon you; wouldn't feel at home anywhere else; sacred inheritance from your father to take up his work; I know, I know, but if he were here he'd feel just as I do. No, no, I sha'n't forget you. I'm too busy to write much. I never promise; but you write to me if you like, and keep up with the periodicals; poor as they are, they're better than nothing, and you must follow the new notions. Some day, if I can get off, I may run up among the hills in the Summer. God bless you, my boy!" said the old gentleman, handing him a book, but not even offering to shake hands, and turning again, grumbling to himself, to fumble among some papers. John Ashurst escaped as quickly as he could - he felt a little light-headed and broken, as if it would be easy to shed tears. When he reached his boarding place he sat down drearily, and thought for a long time, deeply and anxiously. And at last he looked at the great book. It was the very best French surgical work of the day, one that Dr. Best [West] had just imported; he could not have bought it himself with a month's hard work.
A good many years afterward, one Winter day, John Ashurst, grown older, and gray and weather-beaten with his long drives over the windy hills, came into a railroad car from one of the small stations within twenty miles of Alton. He carried a heavy wrap over his arm, a Scotch plaid which Dr. Best, dead now these many years, had sent him once after a Summer abroad. They had both been too busy to see each other often; once or twice they had met, and once or twice they had done things for each other, but they had never failed to be truly intimate. It had proved as the elder man had foreseen, that John Ashurst had taught him and other doctors more than anybody could teach in return. And he had done marvelous things in surgery and medicine of which the world never heard, but, for all that, the best physicians knew him by name and reputation.
He wore the same boyish, simple look of his student days, and he had a doctor's lovely habit of taking care of othÿr people, so that when he sat down, stiff and tired from a long drive over frozen ground, he noticed that his next neighbor, a cross, grumpy-looking old fellow, whose seat he asked to share in the crowded car, looked old and pinched, and seriously ill besides. His quick eye saw signals [siginals]of danger from a most obscure disease, and he gave a little sigh of relief as he settled himself and tucked his warm wrap around his companion's knees and drew a corner of it over his own.
"It's too cold here, sir," he said, in an offhand way. "I haven't got far to go myself. I'm ashamed that there are no stoves in the cars yet. I spoke to the conductor this morning about them."
The elderly traveler turned a grateful, surprised face. "You're very kind, sir," he said. "I've been fairly suffering. I haven't been well, and it was a great risk to take this journey!"
John Ashurst considered a little. "I see you are not well, sir," he said at last. "I'm a stranger to you, but I'm a doctor, and I think I could give you some ease now, perhaps head off what's likely to trouble you a good deal if it goes on."
The stranger took a straightforward look at this unexpected Good Samaritan. He saw a man who looked rich in kindliness and wisdom, and poor in everything besides, but there was a look of distinction about him, there was something that whispered to him to have confidence. "Go on, sir," he said, "if you think you have time. I should be very much obliged to you."
"There isn't much time, but I'll write you a prescription. Tell me if -" and he asked a question or two with sympathy and directness. By the time they parted they were already friends. The traveler was a man of few words and great sincerity. He said that he was in business in Cuba, and had much against his will been obliged to come to the States at this season. His health had suddenly begun to fail him in such a way that he was much concerned. He insisted, in a blunt, old-fashioned way, upon paying the doctor his fee, but the doctor laughed and said the advice was his own proposal - it was nothing, and at that moment he rose and said good-by, hastily. "Keep the wrap," he said. "You can send it back by express to Dr. John Ashurst, Alton. Be careful about chills. That is part of the prescription."
"Keep the Wrap,: He said.
The traveler watched him as he left the car and got into a shaky-looking open buggy with which a young woman was waiting to drive him away. As the cars moved on he twisted about to watch the buggy as far as he could down the frozen road under a gray, bleak sky. It was a poor-looking hilly piece of country. The traveler took a note book and gold pencil out of his pocket, and wrote down carefully the name of Dr. John Ashurst, of Alton; then he tucked the Scotch plaid well about him and smoothed it over his knees affectionately. "That's a scholar and a gentleman," he thought, with an unusual glow in his heart. "He treated me like a brother. I wonder how he comes to be hidden away in this corner. Well, the world isn't as bad as I thought; it was good sense, everything he said. That fellow I saw yesterday made a trade of it, and this one put me on the right road, if there is any right road. I know my condition better than he thought - but he didn't lie once, and he explained just what chance I had, and how to go to work to take it. That's the doctor for me," and the traveler drummed on the dusty windowsill with a pleasant sense of taking a new lease of life.
Dr. John Ashurst was driving away with one of his daughters, and explaining to her under what circumstances he had left his wrap in the train. "Poor, cross old man," he said. "I should not wonder if I patched him up for some years to come. He was just where that first-rate prescription will hit him right between the eyes; he'll be surprised to find how much better he feels even within a day or two."
"I hope he'll remember to send the plaid back," said the doctor's young daughter, smiling a little. She was too well used to her father's doing such kindness on every hand, to take special note of this. Only the thought sometimes flitted through her mind that people hardly ever took the trouble to do him a kindness in return, and when the plaid arrived neatly folded and addressed, but without a word of acknowledgement, she put it in its place on the study sofa and loved her father all the more, because this stranger seemed to love him less.
It was late November the year after Dr. Ashurst's death and his two daughters and their mother were in a good deal of trouble. He had been a man of infinite generosities; he had gathered some good books and a very few good pictures. He had made his family happier than any other family in all that region ever dreamed of being. He was still a good bit this side of age when an attack of pneumonia brought him quickly to his end. People who had allowed themselves to take his talents and gifts for granted were surprised into doing him tardy honor by finding what recognition was given him on every hand. Those who knew him best praised him most, and many a city man who had perhaps only seen him once at some medical club meeting, to which on rare occasions Dr. Best or his little group of intimate friends beguiled the busy and self-sacrificing country doctor - many a city man owed to him the best of inspiration or enlightenment from some chance word or some new way of looking at old things. "Ashurst has more genius for his profession than any of us," old Dr. Best used to say.
It had been a long, sad year since the good man died - indeed "they needed a doctor up at Alton," as he had said at the beginning of his brave career. There was many a poor soul that felt unbefriended now and uncompanioned, with no one to look to for help, spiritual or material. And as for Dr. Ashurst's own household, the sorrow of poverty was added to sorrow itself. The mother and her two children were left really poor. John Ashurst always hoped to leave his family a good sum of money, to buy a comfortable life insurance before he should be taken away, but the necessities of the moment always hid the fear of the future. He had lost what money he had by the failure of a bank, and he had never been provident. It was the rainy day of the moment and not of the future with which he concerned himself. Now that the small bills that could be collected were all paid, many accounts having never been kept at all and still more forgiven, it was but a poor dependence and the girls were wondering what they could possibly do. One had inherited her father's gift of teaching and had gathered a little school, but it was more a thing of love than of business, and of late she had taken the district school near at hand and her poor pay was the mainstay that was left. They had always felt so rich all their lives that they did not know how to feel poor exactly. In the late years when Dr. Ashurst had been sent for far and wide, and now and then a large fee came in his way, they had begun to feel like people of fortune. And only the last Thanksgiving Day, the fortnight before his three days' illness began, what joy they had in making happiness for many poor households! The old chaise had gone its rounds with a high-heaped mound of benefactions under the buffalo robe, and this old woman must have this thing to make her happy, and the other something else, for Thanksgiving was still kept in all its glory of neighborliness and good cheer in Alton, and Christmas itself seemed to be the happier for young people because their elders and betters made the most of the earlier festival.
The doctor's study, where a light was apt to burn so late on Winter nights, was a plain room full of books, with a great desk and some three-cornered chairs which had been old Dr. Ashurst's before they belonged to our friend, whom the elder people still call the young doctor. There was a curious dry odor of drugs and Russia leather bindings. There was a huge wasps' nest on one bookcase, and a bust of Dante on the other, and a beautiful old engraving of Sydenham hanging on the wall. One could not help finding it a charming, scholarly sort of a place; there were still a delightful air of sympathy and friendliness, as of a place where people were sure to come to tell their troubles, and sure to go away comforted.
"She Had Been Looking at Some Books."
It was the day before Thanksgiving, and one of the doctor's daughters, who had oftenest been his companion, was sitting there alone. She had been looking at the books and making a list of some of them, about which one of her father's friends had written her. He had made a good offer, out of friendliness, but both Dr. Ashursts had known what good books were, and had left behind them some volumes of very great value. Of course they must sell them, and it was a good chance, but Nelly Ashurst loved these particular books, and treasured them all the more because her father and grandfather had treasured them too. She took down the old copy of the Religio Medici, and held it for a moment - then she kissed it and put it back again, and went over to the old desk to lay her head on her folded arms and cry. The night before a proposal had come from her mother's sister in one of the seaboard towns, that they two should come to her to spend the Winter, leaving the elder sister, who was the teacher, to board somewhere and go on with her school. In the Summer they could perhaps let their house, for Alton was near one of the hill towns where many people came to pass the Summer. "At any rate," the aunt had said kindly, "when you are fairly here, we can talk over plans and do what seems best." She was not a rich woman, and Nelly Ashurst was grateful for such thoughtfulness, but her mother, who had had many illnesses, was only well among these high, dry hills, and she sobbed to herself over the old desk: "This is an end of our home, an end of our home!" There seemed to be nowhere else to look, for the Winter at least. Perhaps when Summer came they would indeed come back, and find some people who would come to board in the pleasant old house. But their independence and old free ways were assailed; they must do what they could now, and never any more what they wished. Nelly Ashurst mourned with the despair of youth. She could almost feel her father's hand on her shoulder in kindly reproach, but her trouble was all the more bitter, poor girl, because it seemed in some vague way to be a rebuke to him whom she loved and made her hero. She had never felt the weight of pain and care as she felt it now. She thought of her mother's hopeless face.
"Nelly, where are you?" said her mother, suddenly, just outside the door, and Nelly dried her eyes in a hurry and crossed the room to stand before the bookcase in the shadow. "Nelly, dear," said Mrs. Ashurst, coming in, "here are some letters and the poor old Dent sisters are coming up the yard to see us - think of it, this cold day! I wish we had something - I really don't know how to be poor at Thanksgiving time," and her voice faltered. "They shall have a pie at any rate, and they shall come and sit in here in the dear study; they will like that best."
"Mother, mother, quick!" said Nelly. "Don't mind them; let them wait a minute. Oh, see here!" and she held a large letter sheet before her mother's eyes. She had turned quite gray and pale. "I thought it was only some circular, or something like that; it was directed to father. Somebody who lived in Cuba who died last month has left father and his heirs -" she could not hold her voice steady - "has left father in kind remembrance of most helpful services in time of need $50,000, to be paid at once according to directions. Oh, mother, mother!"
"Mother! Mother! Quick!" Said Nelly.
"Let me see it, dear," said the frail little woman, shaking with excitement and coming back across the room. "Oh, if your dear father were only here! And how often I have thought that so many people were ungrateful, and he always said that the poor had the best paymaster, or that he only asked for happiness enough to get his work done and was glad of the liberty to use what skill he had, and now this comes, like a gift of his provision for his girls and me! Why, Nelly, dear, don't cry so!"
"There are those two old Dents knocking and knocking - could you let them in, mother?" said Nelly, laughing and crying at once. "Oh, what a Thanksgiving we'll have! I wish Sister Lizzie would come. What will she say? Fifty thousand dollars! Why, father said once that he wished he had just that for his old age and for us, and no more; it would be all -"
Her mother, a little dazed, had gone to bid the poor old guests a glad welcome. Old Sarah, the dependence of the doctor's household, who seemed entirely one of themselves, was away that afternoon, and part of the sorrow and uncertainty that was hardest to bear had been in the thought of turning her out of her home, if they themselves must go. Now the dear old home was going on, and the little comforts and helps for many a poor person who was sick and old were to go on, too.
The mystery of the legacy was never made clear. Nelly vaguely remembered her father's saying something about a sick, old man, a merchant in Cuba, to whom he lent his thick plaid in the cars one cold day, and to whom he gave advice; and that was all. The good doctor was always doing such things, but the fact remained that one heart, that seemed at the moment to forget his kindness, had really remembered, and was grateful for years of health and activity, which he had ceased to expect. Out of his wealth he had made return, not only for himself, but for many another beside.
And on Thanksgiving Day, the doctor's children and his wife took double joy in doing everything and more that they had always loved to do in the old days. They tried to give the old patients who were sick or sorry, some thing to remind them of their friend, but indeed a life that shines with love and self-forgetfulness is a true star of light, and cannot be forgotten, no matter in what part of our heaven it may be placed.
"In a Country Practice" first appeared in the Philadelphia Press, November 27 and 28, 1894, p. 11 on both days. The illustrations are from this printing; they are placed approximately as they originally appeared. Because the story was distributed by the Batcheller, Johnson, and Batcheller syndicate, it may well have appeared in other newspapers as well. This text, including the illustrations, is from the Philadelphia Press printing. This text is available through the courtesy of the State Library of Pennsylvania.
Errors in the text are corrected and indicated with brackets.
Richard Cary reprinted this story in Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, but it appears he did not use the Philadelphia Press text as his master. This text differs at several points from Cary's.
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Good Samaritan: See Luke 10 for the parable of the good Samaritan.
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Thanksgiving Day: Thanksgiving is an annual holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. It originated in three days of prayer and feasting by the Plymouth colonists in 1621, although an earlier thanksgiving was offered in prayer alone by members of the Berkeley plantation near present-day Charles City, Va., on Dec. 4, 1619. The first national Thanksgiving Day, proclaimed by President George Washington, was celebrated on Nov. 26, 1789. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made it an annual holiday to be commemorated on the last Thursday in November (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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buffalo robe: buffalo skin or robe used as a blanket.
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Christmas: In New England, where Puritan influence was strong, the festival of Christmas was of comparatively recent origin. Puritan colonials had banned celebration on Christ's birthday. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Christmas came to be widely celebrated in New England.
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Russia leather bindings: Russia leather is soft and characterized by a particular odor resulting from being impregnated with birch bark oil. It is often used in book-binding because it resists mold and insects. (Source: ARTFL Project: Webster Dictionary, 1913).
The furnishings of the doctor's study are quite similar to those of Dr. Leslie in Jewett's A Country Doctor (1884).
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Dante: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italian author of The Divine Comedy.
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Sydenham: Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689). See The works of Thomas Sydenham, M. D., on acute and chronic diseases with their histories and modes of cure : with notes, intended to accommodate them to the present state of medicine, and to the climate and diseases of the United States. by Sydenham and Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), published in Philadelphia in 1809.
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Religio Medici: Physician Sir Thomas Browne's (1605-1682) Religio Medici appeared in 1642.
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happiness enough to get his work done: Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) expresses this general idea in several of his works, including `Characteristics' (1831) and Sartor Resartus (1833). The passage to which Jewett refers is most likely Past and Present (1843) III,iv.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
If you find errors or items needing annotation, pleae contact the site manager.