Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 15

Chapter 15

Gerald Brower, who was a baby when I came to live at Faraway, and was now eleven, had caught a cold in seed time, and he had never quite recovered. His coughing had begun to keep him awake, and one night it brought alarm to the whole household. Elizabeth Brower was up early in the morning and called Uncle Eb, who went away for the doctor as soon as light came. We ate our breakfast in silence. Father and mother and Grandma Bisnette spoke only in low tones and somehow the anxiety in their faces went to my heart. Uncle Eb returned about eight o'clock and said the doctor was coming. Old Doctor Bigsby was a very great man in that country. Other physicians called him far and wide for consultation. I had always regarded him with a kind of awe intensified by the aroma of his drugs and the gleam of his lancet. Once I had been his patient and then I had trembled at his approach. when he took my little wrist in his big hand, I remember with what reluctance I stuck out my quivering tongue, black, as I feared with evidences of prevarication.

He was a picture for a painter man as he came that morning erect in his gig. who could forget the hoary majesty of his head - his 'stovepipe' tilted back, his white locks flying about his ears? He had a long nose, a smooth-shaven face and a left eye that was a trifle turned. His thoughts were generally one day behind the calendar. Today he seemed to be digesting the affairs of yesterday. He was, therefore, absentminded, to a degree that made no end of gossip. If he came out one day with shoe-strings flying, in his remorse the next he would forget his collar; if one told him a good joke today, he might not seem to hear it, but tomorrow he would take it up in its turn and shake with laughter.

I remember how, that morning after noting the symptoms of his patient, he sat a little in silent reflection. He knew that colour in the cheek, that look in the eye - he had seen so much of it. His legs were crossed and one elbow thrown carelessly over the back of his chair. We all sat looking at him anxiously. In a moment he began chewing hard on his quid of tobacco. Uncle Eb pushed the cuspidor a bit nearer. The doctor expectorated freely and resumed his attitude of reflection. The clock ticked loudly, the patient sighed, our anxiety increased. Uncle Eb spoke to father, in a low tone, whereupon the doctor turned suddenly, with a little grunt of enquiry, and seeing he was not addressed, sank again into thoughtful repose. I had begun to fear the worst when suddenly the hand of the doctor swept the bald peak of benevolence at the top of his head. Then a smile began to spread over his face. It was as if some feather of thought had begun to tickle him. In a moment his head was nodding with laughter that brought a great sense of relief to all of us. In a slow, deliberate tone he began to speak:

'I was over t' Rat Tupper's t'other day,' said he, 'Rat was sitting with me in the door yard. Purty soon a young chap came in, with a scythe, and asked if he might use the grindstun. He was a new hired man from somewhere near. He didn't know Rat, an' Rat didn't know him. So Rat o' course had t' crack one o' his jokes.

'"May I use yer grindstun?" said the young feller.

'"Dunno," said Rat, "I'm only the hired man here. Go an' ask Mis' Tupper."

'The ol' lady had overheard him an' so she says t' the young feller, "Yes - ye can use the grindstun. The hired man out there'll turn it fer ye."

'Rat see he was trapped, an' so he went out under the plum tree, where the stun was, an' begun t' turn. The scythe was dull an' the young feller bore on harder'n wuz reely decent fer a long time. Rat begun t' git very sober lookin'.

'"Ain't ye 'bout done," said he.

'"Putty nigh," said the young feller bearin' down a leetle harder all the time.

'Rat made the stun go faster. putty soon he asked agin, "Ain't ye done yit?"

'"putty nigh!" says the other feeling o' the edge.

'"I'm done," said Rat, an' he let go o' the handle. "I dunno 'bout the scythe but I'm a good deal sharper'n I wuz."

'"You're the hired man here ain't ye?" said the young feller.

'"No, I ain't," said Rat. "'D rather own up t' bein' a liar than turn that stun another minnit."

As soon as he was fairly started with this droll narrative the strain of the situation was relieved. We were all laughing as much at his deliberate way of narration as at the story itself.

Suddenly he turned to Elizabeth Brower and said, very soberly, 'Will you bring me some water in a glass?'

Then he opened his chest of medicine, made some powders and told us how to give them.

'In a few days I would take him into the big woods for a while,' he said. 'See how it agrees with him.'

Then he gathered up his things and mother went with him to the gig.

Humour was one of the specifics of Doctor Bigsby. He was always a poor man. He had a way of lumping his bills, at about so much, in settlement and probably never kept books. A side of pork paid for many a long journey. He came to his death riding over the hills one bitter day not long after the time of which I write, to reach a patient.

The haying over, we made ready for our trip into the woods. Uncle Eb and Tip Taylor, who knew the forest, and myself, were to go with Gerald to Blueberry Lake. We loaded our wagon with provisions one evening and made ready to be off at the break of day.