When I Practised Medicine

THE manner of my initiation was this. There was living in the town of Wheatland an old man who knew everybody in the county, for indeed he had helped a good part of the inhabitants into this vale of tears, and, to speak truly, I fear had hastened the departure from it of not a few. This was the celebrated Dr. John Claggett, the greatest story-teller, the best companion with whom to share a mint julep, the welcome guest at every wedding, the friend of every child, the good physician, whose presence was worth a moderate sickness. For he brought the latest news from the farthest borders of the county ; he had stories new as well as old ; he played practical jokes in, as it seemed, the presence of death itself, and drove pain off with hearty human laughter. Perhaps the wit was rather too Elizabethan for the taste of to-day. Here was one that the country people liked more than the aroma of humor; they wanted to taste it, and thought that a joke, like whiskey, improved with age. Mother, and then daughter, had listened to it without shame. It is a wedding, — not complete without the Doctor. Two, three, perhaps more, glasses of apple-jack have been drunk; it’s time to break up, but first the Doctor must salute the bride. This he does, and adds, with a meaning look, “I’ll see you later,” answered by a push and a “ La, Doctor ! " from the buxom bride, and a fatuous giggle from the embarrassed groom. I fear we were not a refined people, but then, on the other hand, we were not divorced and married again the same day!

It came to pass, then, that this man — now, as I say, growing old — saw one day in the village street a child whom he did not know. And as that was a most remarkable thing, he stopped him and easily learned that he had not long been there, and that he lived on the Hill next to the Academy. Whereupon, Dr. Claggett remembered that he was on his way to that very house to see a lady there, — which was strange, for he was going in an opposite direction when the child met him. However, they returned to the house, the child about seven, and the man nearly ten times as old.

What talk went on behind the Venetian blinds in the parlor the little boy — swinging on the gate until the reappearance of his new friend — did not learn till years after, but when the Doctor reappeared he heard, “No books nor school, — give him to me and he ’ll live, and I ’ll make a man of him.”

Next morning at nine o’clock I stood before the Doctor’s house, — red brick, with a high stoop built along the front. An alleyway, arched over, gave protection to a little brown mare, hitched to a staple in the wall, and kept the rain from a buggy that was splashed to the top with cakes of yellow mud that had dried and made the whole vehicle almost invisible at a distance, so near was it to the color of the crossroads. In this vehicle I was destined to ride for the next two years, every day save Sunday, as the companion, the friend, and, as he said, the colleague of the man who had the largest practice in the county. In that way I began to practise medicine.

The little brown mare, named Lucy, turned to the right, and, passing through the square, turned to the right again on the Sharpesburg pike, then to the left, and stretched herself comfortably eastward on the Frederick road toward the blue mountains, shining like a long turquoise in the early winter sun.

“ Do you know where you are going ? ” said my new, indeed my first friend.

“ No, sir.”

“ Well, you are going to Jerusalem across the river Jordan.”

Oh, the terror of that drive ! It must be death, or at least endless exile, that affronted me. “ Jerusalem and Jordan ” — I knew the names. Indeed, they represented all I knew of geography. They were far away, I knew. Could I ever return ? I think here I should have wept had I not been roused from my sad forebodings by Lucy’s stopping at the toll gate. A wonderful place, that! What authority resided here! Why, even the tow-headed boy sitting on the fence could swing that bar to, and all the traffic would cease. “ There wa’n’t nobody dasen’t go through when the bar was swung in.” I did not know that then, but I learned it later from the same tow-headed boy, when he became my friend. The toll keeper was a shoemaker, too, and well-mannered people drove close to the step, so that he had only to reach out a hand to take the fare. A woman came through the orchard, where she had been feeding hens, to have a chat with the old Doctor.

“ Why, my sakes, Doctor, where did you get that child ? He ain’t one o’ yourn, be he ? ”

“ No sir-ree,” was the emphatic answer. “ This is a celebrated doctor from Virginia, and he’s going to practise medicine with me from the Blue Ridge to the Connococheague, and to-day we are bound ’cross the Jordan to Jerusalem.”

They all laughed, and I whispered piteously to the woman, —

“ Is it far ? ”

“No, honey, ’t ain’t no ways now. And don’t you mind the old Doctor. He ain’t happy ’less he’s foolin’ somebody.”

Here the Doctor laughed, too, and clucked to Lucy, and we climbed the long hill, from the top of which are seen, directly below, the sluggish yellow waters of the Antietam, spanned by a single arch of blue limestone, the wooden covering of the bridge’s wall painted bright red. The sycamore trees growing on the banks touched their outmost branches at midstream, and the old red brick flour mill shook with the whirl of the wheel, the yellow stream became white and creamy as it fell over the fall, and beyond the mill lay Funkstown, a hamlet without a comely building, and yet made beautiful by stately silver poplars which bordered the street, and gardens surrounding every house.

“ There ! This is Jerusalem, and that is the river Jordan, that we’ve crossed; and, yes, there they are, —in that window, bull’s eyes, — two for a penny, — and soon we shall be going home.”

Oh, how proud the child was that he had not cried ! He laughed, too, with a new sensation. He had become conscious of thought! This wise old man had taken a child, who needed rousing and an interest to make it seem worth while to life to keep in its delicate frame, and plunged it into the cold water of apprehension, and now it was tingling with the reaction of satisfaction. Like many puzzles, the explanation was simple. The Dunkers had a yearly baptism in the Antietam, hence the Antietam became Jordan, and Funkstown, Jerusalem. A parable, if you will, of the power of faith. For, as the early Italian painters dressed the Magi and the Holy Family in the gorgeous robes of Venice or Verona, and saw no incongruity, so these simple-minded peasants, — for they were little more, — in the illustration of the great experience, saw the insignificant stream changed to the river that cleansed Naaman, and the mean little village into the city of the great King.

This was the beginning of an education, impossible in school, of course, but most important. I mean the education of teasing. It is like teaching a puppy to jump by holding the dainty a little higher than he can reach. It is a sort of mental tickling, that may indeed become cruel, but is, in kindly hands, a delicious experience. And I think, in all the pharmacopœia of that day there was no better medicine than that of which I learned in my first day’s practice.

This day was typical of hundreds of days, when we drove briskly, for five or six miles, over the well-kept pikes, and then turned to some “ dirt road,” to follow it perhaps for three or four miles, sometimes fairly good in dry weather, until the red dust choked us, then deep in mud, when the frost broke up the ground. I can hear it now, the slow suck of the wheel out of the mud, the splash, the jar, as we sank to the hub in some deep hole. No better trade could be followed than that of blacksmith and wheelwright. Wheels would go down into that mud and come out crumpled like paper. Slowly, on three wheels and a rail under the axle, taken from the snake fence, we would crawl back to the pike, where we would find some sort of wheel to take us home.

But if the roads were bad, they were beautiful. Deep groves of hickory, up and down which scampered gray squirrels, while their poor relations, the chipmunks, flashed along the rail fences, and in a twinkling were gone. In wide woods of oak and chestnut the jay birds would scream and show their colors, like an angry woman shaking a petticoat; the catbird would sing from the walnut tree, while off in the field would be heard the red - headed woodpecker, tapping, tapping with insistent stroke.

I was shown, too, the great buzzard, the filthy scavenger, — which whoever killed would be fined five dollars, — resting as securely on the air as a duck on the water, motionless as a cloud.

The Doctor would whistle " Bob White,” until the partridges, as we called them, answering from the stubble field, showed where the covies were hid.

But we must not linger on the road. The farmhouse to which we are bound is across the stream. Bridges span it on every pike, but the dirt roads run to the ford and stop. I soon thought nothing of driving into the stream when the water was so deep as to cover the floor of the buggy, when I had to sit on my feet, and the Doctor placed his on the dashboard. Then would come a queer feeling as the jar of the horse’s motion suddenly ceased, and it was swimming.

I saw a vast deal of practice, I assure you. Beside children’s diseases, we had quinsy sore throats and congestion of the lungs, as well as pneumonia, and what I wrongly pronounced “ Chilson fever.” But generally we diagnosed the case as liver trouble, and treated accordingly. Sometimes we gave calomel in pills, but we thought we got better effects from powders; the pills were so large and were so unevenly covered with a bitter powder, — and, though I became expert in rolling them, still they would bulge and stick and gag the people, who either could not swallow them, or else had later accidents, — that, as I say, we thought best of powders. And when I say powders, have you in mind a dainty paper with a pinch of salt, as it were, within its ingenious folds ? Go to ! Do you think we were mere homœopathists ? We gave it in a teaspoon filled from a frequently replenished bottle carried in the Doctor’s capacious side pocket!

This was the favorite medicine with patient and physician. No more grateful compliment came to the professional ear than the familiar " I tell you, Doctor, that last dose took hold right smart,” received with the complacent “Well, I reckoned it would.” When salivation ensued, and the poor wretch had not a yellow tooth that did not rattle as he praised our skill, and the rebellious stomach refused to assimilate juicy spare ribs and the hot Sally Lunn, we gave him bumpers of bicarbonate of soda mixed with Brown’s Essence of Jamaica Ginger. He was taught that the disease was working out of the system, and that the ghastly symptoms were the inevitable sequelae of a mysterious dispensation, which they probably were !

Calomel was our favorite, I must admit; but we had others. I think jalap stood next highest in our estimation. We gave it once with curious results. As I have retired from practice, I am happy to share the results of my experience with my confrères.

We were called to see a little boy suffering with inflammatory rheumatism. Poor little chap, when asked what the trouble was, he said he had “ a short leg.” We cut long strips of linen, and having steeped them in a cold solution of bicarbonate of soda, wrapped the limb firmly, and gave directions to have them changed frequently. I dare say we left a little paregoric to ease the pain at night, and started to go. But before we reached the door, the Doctor paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. It was unusual, for, as a rule, he was quick in his decisions. Then he drew forth a bottle of jalap and returned to the bed. “ Which do you like best, scraped apple or currant jelly?”

“ I hate ’em both! ” cried the poor little mite, who knew what was coming. Perhaps we decided on scraped apple. This was my department. I scraped out a little and spread it in a spoon, then the powder was poured on, and after that there was a covering of apple, but the weight would cause the powder to ooze out on the sides, so that an idiot would not have been deceived. The child, small blame, would not open his mouth. The Doctor held the nose, compressing the nostrils so that the lips must open to gasp, then the spoon was slipped in, and being deftly turned upside down and slowly withdrawn, not a particle of this precious dose was lost.

When we paid our next morning visit, the child looked to me as one dead, but the Doctor felt his pulse and skin and said he was better. But the mother was angry. She said suddenly : “ That child liked to died in the night. He nigh had a spasm. He was that sick to his stomach he could n’t speak, and I don’t hold with givin’ no such doses to no child, — so there ! ”

“ Well,” said the Doctor slowly, “ I Ve seen a heap of rheumatism in my time, and the best thing for it is exercise. That child could n’t exercise, and that little jalap just stretched all his muscles a bit when it was acting, and now he’s going to get well. He don’t need any more medicine, but keep those wet bandages on his leg.”

We gave bushels of quinine, in tea to women, in whiskey, more plentiful than tea, to the men. I have spoken of calomel as the trump card which we played in the game with death, but I am not sure that we did not oftener take the trick with the lancet. We were hampered by no modern septicæmic fears. The little instrument, arranged with an ingenious spring to prevent its opening, was carried in the vest pocket along with a plug of tobacco, a toothpick, and odds and ends of every sort. I doubt if there was a day we did not find use for it. We bled for headaches and fevers; we bled for congestion of the lungs; we bled the negroes for their ills, generally designated by the generic term “ misery.”

The first day there was bloodletting I was given a basin, and told if I dropped it I should be bled. I did not drop it, but had I been bled, I doubt if blood could have been found in my scared little body! Once we bled a negro woman who must have weighed nearly three hundred pounds. I can see now her great arm like polished ebony! The Doctor asked me if I knew what blue blood was. I said I did.

“ I suppose you think you have it? ”

With dignity, I answered, “Yes.”

He laughed and said, “Well, I’m going to show you real blue blood.” And he did!

I squatted on the floor, caught the blood in a yellow earthen dish, while the Doctor — his back to the patient — began one of his marvelous stories to an admiring group collected on the back porch. I caught, “We’ve got the clearest air in the world right here in this county. Why, last October I was on the Blue Ridge, and, standing on Black Rock, I looked to the town, ten miles away as the crow flies, and on the roof of the Lutheran Church I saw two pigeons, and the air was so clear I could make out which was white and which was purple ! ” — A delighted murmur of “ Oh, Doctor ! ” — “ It’s the truth ; I ’ll explain it.” But he never did.

The poor soul I was watching had by this time lost so much blood that the ebony had become like ashes, her head lolled from side to side, and I heard her murmur, “ I ’se going, honey, for shore.” I burst into tears, the Doctor turned quickly, called for whiskey, bound up the arm, and the danger was over. May I never come so near to murder again.

It was a strenuous life the old man led. I shared only the forenoon practice, but often I saw him pale and heavy-eyed in the morning, and learned that he had driven twenty miles in the night. Yet he was always cheerful.

He was fond of betting, and he introduced me to that fascinating pastime. I only remember my first bet, — but it was a sample of them all. We saw a field of potatoes which the farmer had gathered in heaps, and the Doctor said, —

“ I suppose nothing sees so much as a potato.”

“Why, Doctor, a potato can’t see.”

“ Why not ? ”

“ It has no eyes.”

“ Why, it has more eyes than you have, and if you don’t believe me, I ’ll bet you a ‘ fip and a bit,’ and leave it to your mother.”

This seemed easy. My mother looked startled, but made no criticism, and the fascinating sport continued till I owed sixty-five cents. I saved with great difficulty seventeen cents, and was then compelled by my mother to offer it as an installment. The dear old man looked at me a moment with shining eyes, and said, “ Tell your mother the reason I’m rich is because I never receive partial payments.”

I repeated the message, not understanding one word of it, but it was the end of my career as a gambler!

Of course we talked politics, and I understood the Doctor to say that he was an old “ Lion Whig.” So that I soon announced that I, too, belonged to that royal party. When the great election — the most momentous of all elections — was held, I repaired to the stable of the Washington House, where the embryonic statesmen, from ten years old to fifteen, had decided to vote. There was only one question asked by the tellers : —

“ Breckinridge or Douglas ? ”

I answered, “ Bell and Everett.”

“ Are you crazy or sassy? ” they cried.

“ I’m an old Lion Whig ! ” I roared.

“ Oh, you are, are you ? Well, we ’ll Lion Whig you.” And they did !

When I recounted with tears my experience to the Doctor, he shook his head.

“ I reckon, sonny, now they’ve elected that Black Republican Abe Lincoln, you and I are the last of the ‘ old Lion Whigs.’ ” And as usual he was right.

Soon after this there was a bitter storm of sleet, and there was a case that kept us till late in the afternoon. We had dinner at the farmhouse. I was kept in the kitchen with the men, while the women and the Doctor stayed upstairs. All was very still, and later moaning and words of cheer, — then, a great cry that made my heart stand still. Finally the Doctor came.

“ Is it over ? ” said a man who had not spoken all day.

“ Yes, she ’ll pull through. It was twins, and the chloroform gave out.”

But there was no buoyancy in his voice, and as he drove home he shivered more than once. The next morning he was too ill to move, and Lucy was led back to the stable.

It was etiquette with us that when a doctor fell ill, the oldest physician in the town should have charge of the case, while all the others came in in consultation. There were thirteen in this town of less than three thousand inhabitants, and they all went through that sickroom, following Dr. Ireland, the dean, and looked wise. Then the Doctor sent for me. He said there was no luck in odd numbers, and, more than that, I understood his constitution ! I spent many hours with him, and we talked of everything except medicine.

But he did not get well.

“ I think some men have to get sick to get rested,” he said one day, when my face must have showed what I feared, — for indeed I feared greatly, most of all because he took no medicine. So at last I spoke.

“ Doctor,” I said, “would calomel or jalap do ? Or, I know how to bleed.”

All the old fun flushed his face as he said, —

“ Doctor, it would n’t be etiquette without Dr. Ireland. Besides, dear little boy, burnt brandy would n’t help me now.” The next day he died.

The town was as full of spring carts and buggies and saddle horses the day he was buried as if it had been the day of the county fair. The negroes, breaking the bonds of their Protestantism, prayed aloud in the streets for his soul, — and the clergyman said : —

“ This man sought neither riches nor honor, but gave himself for others. Fifty years from now his name may be a faint memory, but I think he was one of those whom God depends upon to keep the world good, and to bless little children by his gentleness and purity and cheerfulness.”

And all the people said, “ Amen.”

Leighton Parks.