By Laura E. Richards
Public Domain Books
Chapter II. The Doctor
The doctor sat in his buggy, leaning forward, and talking to the child. A florid, jovial-looking man, bright-eyed and deep-chested, with a voice like a trumpet, and a general air of being the West Wind in person. He was not alone this time: another doctor sat beside him; and Miss Vesta smoothed her ruffled front at sight of the stranger.
“Good-morning, Vesta,” shouted the doctor, cheerily. “You came out to shoot me, because you thought I was coming to carry off Melody, eh? You needn’t say no, for I know your musket-shot expression. Dr. Anthony, let me present you to Miss Vesta Dale,–a woman who has never had the grace to have a day’s sickness since I have known her, and that’s forty years at least.”
“Miss Dale is a fortunate woman,” said Dr. Anthony, smiling. “Have you many such constitutions in your practice, Brown?”
“I am fool enough to wish I had,” growled Dr Brown. “That woman, sir, is enough to ruin any practice, with her pernicious example of disgusting health. How is Rejoice this morning, Vesta? Does she want to see me?”
Miss Vesta thought not, to-day; then followed questions and answers, searching on one side, careful and exact on the other; and then–
“I should like it if you could spare Melody for half an hour this morning,” said the doctor. “I want her to go down to Phoebe Jackson’s to see little Ned.”
“Oh, what is the matter with Ned?” cried Melody, with a quick look of alarm.
“Tomfoolery is the principal matter with him, my dear,” said Dr. Brown, grimly. “His eyes have been troubling him, you know, ever since he had the measles in the winter. I’ve kept one eye on the child, knowing that his mother was a perfect idiot, or rather, an imperfect one, which is worse. Yesterday she sent for me in hot haste: Ned was going blind, and would I please come that minute, and save the precious child, and oh, dear me, what should she do, and all the rest of it. I went down mad enough, I can tell you; found the child’s eyes looking like a ploughed field. ’What have you been doing to this child, Phffibe?’ ’We-ell, Doctor, his eyes has been kind o’ bad along back, the last week. I did cal’late to send for you before; but one o’ the neighbors was in, and she said to put molasses and tobacco-juice in them.’ ’Thunder and turf!’ says I. ’What sa-ay?’ says Phoebe. ’’N’ then old Mis’ Barker come in last night. You know she’s had consid’able experi’nce with eyes, her own having been weakly, and all her children’s after her. And she said to try vitriol; but I kind o’ thought I’d ask you first, Doctor, so I waited till morning. And now his eyes look terrible, and he seems dretful ’pindlin’; oh, dear me, what shall I do if my poor little Neddy goes blind?’ ’Do, Madam?’ I said. ’You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you and your tobacco-juice and molasses have made him blind. That’s what you will do, and much good may it do you.’”
“Oh, Doctor,” cried Melody, shrinking as if the words had been addressed to her, “how could you say that? But you don’t think–you don’t think Ned will really be blind?” The child had grown very pale, and she leaned over the gate with clasped hands, in painful suspense.
“No, I don’t,” replied the doctor. “I think he will come out all right; no thanks to his mother if he does. But it was necessary to frighten the woman, Melody, for fright is the only thing that makes an impression on a fool. Now, I want you to run down there, like a good child; that is, if your aunts can spare you. Run down and comfort the little fellow, who has been badly scared by the clack of tongues and the smarting of the tobacco-juice. Imbeciles! cods’ heads! scooped-out pumpkins!” exclaimed the doctor, in a sudden frenzy. “A–I don’t mean that. Comfort him up, child, and sing to him and tell him about Jack-and-the-Beanstalk. You’ll soon bring him round, I’ll warrant. But stop,” he added, as the child, after touching Miss Vesta’s hand lightly, and making and receiving I know not what silent communication, turned toward the house,–"stop a moment, Melody. My friend Dr. Anthony here is very fond of music, and he would like to hear you sing just one song. Are you in singing trim this morning?”
The child laughed. “I can always sing, of course,” she said simply. “What song would you like, Doctor?”
“Oh, the best,” said Dr. Brown. “Give us ’Annie Laurie.’”
The child sat down on a great stone that stood beside the gate. It was just under the white lilac-bush, and the white clusters bent lovingly down over her, and seemed to murmur with pleasure as the wind swept them lightly to and fro. Miss Vesta said something about her bread, and gave an uneasy glance toward the house, but she did not go in; the window was open, and Rejoice could hear; and after all, bread was not worth so much as “Annie Laurie.” Melody folded her hands lightly on her lap, and sang.
Dr. Brown thought “Annie Laurie” the most beautiful song in the world; certainly it is one of the best beloved. Ever since it was first written and sung (who knows just when that was? “Anonymous” is the legend that stands in the song-books beside this familiar title. We do not know the man’s name, cannot visit the place where he wrote and sang, and made music for all coming generations of English-speaking people; can only think of him as a kind friend, a man of heart and genius as surely as if his name stood at the head of unnumbered symphonies and fugues),–ever since it was first sung, I say, men and women and children have loved this song. We hear of its being sung by camp-fires, on ships at sea, at gay parties of pleasure. Was it not at the siege of Lucknow that it floated like a breath from home through the city hell-beset, and brought cheer and hope and comfort to all who heard it? The cotter’s wife croons it over her sleeping baby; the lover sings it to his sweetheart; the child runs, carolling it, through the summer fields; finally, some world-honored prima-donna, some Patti or Nilsson, sings it as the final touch of perfection to a great feast of music, and hearts swell and eyes overflow to find that the nursery song of our childhood is a world-song, immortal in freshness and beauty. But I am apt to think that no lover, no tender mother, no splendid Italian or noble Swede, could sing “Annie Laurie" as Melody sang it. Sitting there in her simple cotton dress, her head thrown slightly back, her hands folded, her eyes fixed in their unchanging calm, she made a picture that the stranger never forgot. He started as the first notes of her voice stole forth, and hung quivering on the air,–
“Maxwellton braes are bonnie, Where early fa’s the dew.”
What wonder was this? Dr. Anthony had come prepared to hear, he quite knew what,–a child’s voice, pretty, perhaps, thin and reedy, nasal, of course. His good friend Brown was an excellent physician, but with no knowledge of music; how should he have any, living buried in the country, twenty miles from a railway, forty miles from a concert? Brown had said so much about the blind child that it would have been discourteous for him, Dr. Anthony, to refuse to see and hear her when he came to pass a night with his old college chum; but his assent had been rather wearily given: Dr. Anthony detested juvenile prodigies. But what was this? A voice full and round as the voices of Italy; clear as a bird’s; swelling ever richer, fuller, rising in tones so pure, so noble, that the heart of the listener ached, as the poet’s heart at hearing the nightingale, with almost painful pleasure. Amazement and delight made Dr. Anthony’s face a study, which his friend perused with keen enjoyment. He knew, good Dr. Brown, that he himself was a musical nobody; he knew pretty well (what does a doctor not know?) what Anthony was thinking as they drove along. But he knew Melody too; and he rubbed his hands, and chuckled inwardly at the discomfiture of his knowing friend.
The song died away; and the last notes were like those of the skylark when she sinks into her nest at sunset. The listeners drew breath, and looked at each other.
There was a brief silence, and then, “Thank you, Melody,” said Dr. Brown. “That’s the finest song in the world, I don’t care what the next is. Now run along, like my good maid, and sing it to Neddy Jackson, and he will forget all about his eyes, and turn into a great pair of ears.”
The child laughed. “Neddy will want ’The British Grenadier,’” she said. “That is his greatest song.” She ran into the house to kiss Miss Rejoice, came out with her sun-bonnet tied under her chin, and lifted her face to kiss Miss Vesta. “I sha’n’t be gone long, Auntie," she said brightly. “There’ll be plenty of time to make the cake after dinner.”
Miss Vesta smoothed the dark hair with a motherly touch. “Doctor doesn’t care anything about our cake,” she said; “he isn’t coming to tea to-night. I suppose you’d better stay as long as you’re needed. I should not want the child to fret.”
“Good-by, Doctor,” cried the child, joyously, turning her bright face toward the buggy. “Good-by, sir,” making a little courtesy to Dr. Anthony, who gravely took off his hat and bowed as if to a duchess. “Good-by again, dear auntie;” and singing softly to herself, she walked quickly away.
Dr. Anthony looked after her, silent for a while. “Blind from birth?" he asked presently.
“From birth,” replied Dr. Brown. “No hope; I’ve had Strong down to see her. But she’s the happiest creature in the world, I do believe. How does she sing?” he asked with ill-concealed triumph. “Pretty well for a country child, eh?”
“She sings like an angel,” said Dr. Anthony,–"like an angel from heaven.”
“She has a right to, sir,” said Miss Vesta, gravely. “She is a child of God, who has never forgotten her Father.”
Dr. Anthony turned toward the speaker, whom he had almost forgotten in his intense interest in the child. “This lovely child is your own niece, Madam?” he inquired. “She must be unspeakably dear to you.”
Miss Vesta flushed. She did not often speak as she had just done, being a New England woman; but “Annie Laurie” always carried her out of herself, she declared. The answer to the gentleman’s question was one she never liked to make. “She is not my niece in blood,” she said slowly. “We are single women, my sister and I; but she is like our own daughter to us.”
“Twelve years this very month, Vesta, isn’t it,” said Dr. Brown, kindly, “since the little one came to you? Do you remember what a wild night it was?”
Miss Vesta nodded. “I hear the wind now when I think of it,” she said.
“The child is an orphan,” the doctor continued, turning to his friend. “Her mother was a young Irish woman, who came here looking for work. She was poor, her husband dead, consumption on her, and so on, and so on. She died at the poorhouse, and left this blind baby. Tell Dr. Anthony how it happened, Vesta.”
Miss Vesta frowned and blushed. She wished Doctor would remember that his friend was a stranger to her. But in a moment she raised her head. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, after all,” she said, a little proudly. “I don’t know why I should not tell you, sir. I went up to the poor-farm one evening, to carry a basket of strawberries. We had a great quantity, and I thought some of the people up there might like them, for they had few luxuries, though I don’t believe they ever went hungry. And when I came there, Mrs. Green, who kept the farm then, came out looking all in a maze. ’Did you ever hear of such a thing in your life?’ she cried out, the minute she set eyes on me. ’I don’t know, I’m sure,’ said I. ’Perhaps I did, and perhaps I didn’t. How’s the baby that poor soul left?’ I said. It was two weeks since the mother died; and to tell the truth, I went up about as much to see how the child was getting on as to take the strawberries, though I don’t know that I realized it till this very minute.” She smiled grimly, and went on. “’That’s just it,’ Mrs. Green screams out, right in my face. ’Dr. Brown has just been here, and he says the child is blind, and will be blind all her days, and we’ve got to bring her up; and I’d like to know if I haven’t got enough to do without feedin’ blind children?’ I just looked at her. ’I don’t know that a deaf woman would be much better than a blind child,’ said I; ’so I’ll thank you to speak like a human being, Liza Green, and not scream at me. Aren’t you ashamed?’ I said. ’The child can’t help being blind, I suppose. Poor little lamb! as if it hadn’t enough, with no father nor mother in the world.’ ’I don’t care,’ says Liza, crazy as ever; ’I can’t stand it. I’ve got all I can stand now, with a feeble-minded boy and two so old they can’t feed themselves. That Polly is as crazy as a loon, and the rest is so shif’less it loosens all my j’ints to look at ’em. I won’t stand no more, for Dr. Brown nor anybody else.’ And she set her hands on her hips and stared at me as if she’d like to eat me, sun-bonnet and all. ’Let me see the child,’ I said. I went in, and there it lay,–the prettiest creature you ever saw in your life, with its eyes wide open, just as they are now, and the sweetest look on its little face. Well, there, you’d know it came straight from heaven, if you saw it in–Well, I don’t know exactly what I’m saying. You must excuse me, sir!” and Miss Vesta paused in some confusion. “’Somebody ought to adopt it,’ said I. ’It’s a beautiful child; any one might be proud of it when it grew up.’ ’I guess when you find anybody that would adopt a blind child, you’ll find the cat settin’ on hen’s eggs,’ said Liza Green. I sat and held the child a little while, trying to think of some one who would be likely to take care of it; but I couldn’t think of any one, for as she said, so it was. By and by I kissed the poor little pretty thing, and laid it back in its cradle, and tucked it up well, though it was a warm night. ’You’ll take care of that child, Liza,’ I said, ’as long as it stays with you, or I’ll know the reason why. There are plenty of people who would like the work here, if you’re tired of it,’ I said. She quieted down at that, for she knew that a word from me would set the doctor to thinking, and he wasn’t going to have that blind child slighted, well I knew. Well, sir, I came home, and told Rejoice.”
“Her sister,” put in Dr. Brown,–"a crippled saint, been in her bed thirty years. She and Melody keep a small private heaven, and Vesta is the only sinner admitted.”
“Doctor, you’re very profane,” said Miss Vesta, reprovingly. “I’ve never seen my sister Rejoice angry, sir, except that one time, when I told her. ’Where is the child?’ she says. ’Why, where do you suppose?’ said I. ’In its cradle, of course. I tucked it up well before I came away, and she won’t dare to mistreat it for one while,’ I said. ’Go and get it!’ says my sister Rejoice. ’How dared you come home without it? Go and get it this minute, do you hear?’ I stared as if I had seen a vision. ’Rejoice, what are you thinking of?’ I asked. ’Bring that child here? Why, what should we do with it? I can’t take care of it, nor you either.’ My sister turned the color of fire. ’No one else shall take care of it,’ she says, as if she was Bunker Hill Monument on a pillow. ’Go and get it this minute, Vesta. Don’t wait; the Lord must not be kept waiting. Go, I tell you!’ She looked so wild I was fairly frightened; so I tried to quiet her. I thought her mind was touched, some way. ’Well, I’ll go to-morrow,’ says I, soothing her; ’I couldn’t go now, anyhow, Rejoice. Just hear it rain and blow! It came on just as I stepped inside the door, and it’s a regular storm now. Be quiet,’ I said, ’and I’ll go up in the morning and see about it.’ My sister sat right up in the bed. ’You’ll go now,’ she says, ’or I’ll go myself. Now, this living minute! Quick!’ I went, sir. The fire in her eyes would have scorched me if I had looked at it a minute longer. I thought she was coming out of the bed after me,–she, who had not stirred for twenty years. I caught up a shawl, threw another over my shoulders, and ran for the poor-farm. ’T was a perfect tempest, but I never felt it. Something seemed to drive me, as if it was a whip laid across my shoulders. I thought it was my sister’s eyes, that had never looked hard at me since she was born; but maybe it was something else besides. They say there are no miracles in these days, but we don’t know everything yet. I ran in at the farm, before them all, dripping, looking like a maniac, I don’t doubt. I caught up the child out of the cradle, and wrapped it in the shawl I’d brought, and ran off again before they’d got their eyes shut from staring at me as if I was a spirit of evil. How my breath held out, don’t ask me; but I got home, and ran into the chamber, and laid the child down by the side of my sister Rejoice.”
Miss Vesta paused, and the shadow of a great awe crept into her keen blue eyes. “The poor-farm was struck by lightning that night!” she said. “The cradle where that baby was lying was shattered into kindling-wood, and Liza Green has never been the same woman from that day to this.”