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Doctor James Ripley was always looked upon as an exceedingly lucky dog by all of the profession who knew him. His father had preceded him in a practice in the village of Hoyland, in the north of Hampshire, and all was ready for him on the very first day that the law allowed him to put his name at the foot of a prescription. In a few years the old gentleman retired, and settled on the South Coast, leaving his son in undisputed possession of the whole country-side. Save for Doctor Horton, near Basingstoke, the young surgeon had a clear run of six miles in every direction, and took his fifteen hundred pounds a year, though, as is usual in country practices, the stable swallowed up most of what the consulting-room earned.
Doctor James Ripley was two-and-thirty years of age, reserved, learned, unmarried, with set, rather stern features, and a thinning of the dark hair upon the top of his head, which was worth quite a hundred a year to him. He was particularly happy in his management of ladies. He had caught the tone of bland sternness and decisive suavity which dominates without off ending. Ladies, however, were not equally happy in their management of him. Professionally, he was always at their service. Socially, he was a drop of quicksilver. In vain the country mammas spread out their simple lures in front of him. Dances and picnics were not to his taste, and he preferred during his scanty leisure to shut himself up in his study, and to bury himself in Virchow’s Archives and the professional journals.
Study was a passion with him, and he would have none of the rust which often gathers round a country practitioner. It was his ambition to keep his knowledge as fresh and bright as at the moment when he had stepped out of the examination hall. He prided himself on being able at a moment’s notice to rattle off the seven ramifications of some obscure artery, or to give the exact percentage of any physiological compound. After a long day’s work he would sit up half the night performing iridectomies and extractions upon the sheep’s eyes sent in by the village butcher, to the horror of his housekeeper, who had to remove the débris next morning. His love for his work was the one fanaticism which found a place in his dry, precise nature.
It was the more to his credit that he should keep up to date in his knowledge, since he had no competition to force him to exertion. In the seven years during which he had practiced in Hoyland three rivals had pitted themselves against him, two in the village itself and one in the neighbouring hamlet of Lower Hoyland. Of these one had sickened and wasted, being, as it was said, himself the only patient whom he had treated during his eighteen months of ruralising. A second had bought a fourth share of a Basingstoke practice, and had departed honourably, while a third had vanished one September night, leaving a gutted house and an unpaid drug bill behind him. Since then the district had become a monopoly, and no one had dared to measure himself against the established fame of the Hoyland doctor.
It was, then, with a feeling of some surprise and considerable curiosity that on driving through Lower Hoyland one morning he perceived that the new house at the end of the village was occupied, and that a virgin brass plate glistened upon the swinging gate which faced the high road. He pulled up his fifty guinea chestnut mare and took a good look at it. ‘Verrinder Smith, M.D.,’ was printed across it in very neat, small lettering. The last man had had letters half a foot long, with a lamp like a fire-station. Doctor James Ripley noted the difference, and deduced from it that the new-comer might possibly prove a more formidable opponent. He was convinced of it that evening when he came to consult the current medical directory. By it he learned that Doctor Verrinder Smith was the holder of superb degrees, that he had studied with distinction at Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, and finally that he had been awarded a gold medal and the Lee Hopkins scholarship for original research, in recognition of an exhaustive inquiry into the functions of the anterior spinal nerve roots. Doctor Ripley passed his fingers through his thin hair in bewilderment as he read his rival’s record. What on earth could so brilliant a man mean by putting up his plate in a little Hampshire hamlet.
But Doctor Ripley furnished himself with an explanation to the riddle. No doubt Dr. Verrinder Smith had simply come down there in order to pursue some scientific research in peace and quiet. The plate was up as an address rather than as an invitation to patients. Of course, that must be the true explanation. In that case the presence of this brilliant neighbour would be a splendid thing for his own studies. He had often longed for some kindred mind, some steel on which he might strike his flint. Chance had brought it to him, and he rejoiced exceedingly.
And this joy it was which led him to take a step which was quite at variance with his usual habits. It is the custom for a new-comer among medical men to call first upon the older, and the etiquette upon the subject is strict. Doctor Ripley was pedantically exact on such points, and yet he deliberately drove over next day and called upon Doctor Verrinder Smith. Such a waiving of ceremony was, he felt, a gracious act upon his part, and a fit prelude to the intimate relations which he hoped to establish with his neighbour.
The house was neat and well appointed, and Doctor Ripley was shown by a smart maid into a dapper little consultingroom. As he passed in he noticed two or three parasols and a lady’s sun-bonnet hanging in the hall. It was a pity that his colleague should be a married man. It would put them upon a different footing, and interfere with those long evenings of high scientific talk which he had pictured to himself. On the other hand, there was much in the consulting-room to please him. Elaborate instruments, seen more often in hospitals than in the houses of private practitioners, were scattered about. A sphygmograph stood upon the table and a gasometer-like engine, which was new to Doctor Ripley, in the corner. A bookcase full of ponderous volumes in French and German, paper-covered for the most part, and varying in tint from the shell to the yolk of a duck’s egg, caught his wandering eyes, and he was deeply absorbed in their titles when the door opened suddenly behind him. Turning round, he found himself facing a little woman, whose plain, palish face was remarkable only for a pair of shrewd, humorous eyes of a blue which had two shades too much green in it. She held a pince-nez in her left hand, and the doctor’s card in her right.
‘How do you do, Doctor Ripley?’ said she.
‘How do you do, madam?’ returned the visitor. ‘Your husband is perhaps out?’
‘I am not married,’ said she simply.
‘Oh, I beg your pardon! I meant the doctor—Dr. Verrinder Smith.’
‘I am Doctor Verrinder Smith.’
Doctor Ripley was so surprised that he dropped his hat and forgot to pick it up again.
‘What!’ he gasped, ‘the Lee Hopkins prizeman! You!’
He had never seen a woman doctor before, and his whole conservative soul rose up in revolt at the idea. He could not recall any Biblical injunction that the man should remain ever the doctor and the woman the nurse, and yet he felt as if a blasphemy had been committed. His face betrayed his feelings only too clearly.
‘I am sorry to disappoint you,’ said the lady drily.
‘You certainly have surprised me,’ he answered, picking up his hat.
‘You are not among our champions, then?’
‘I cannot say that the movement has my approval.’
‘I should much prefer not to discuss it.’
‘But I am sure you will answer a lady’s question.’
‘Ladies are in danger of losing their privileges when they usurp the place of the other sex. They cannot claim both.’
‘Why should a woman not earn her bread by her brains?’
Doctor Ripley felt irritated by the quiet manner in which the lady cross-questioned him.
‘I should much prefer not to be led into a discussion, Miss Smith.’
‘Doctor Smith,’ she interrupted.
‘Well, Doctor Smith! But if you insist upon an answer, I must say that I do not think medicine a suitable profession for women and that I have a personal objection to masculine ladies.’
It was an exceedingly rude speech, and he was ashamed of it, the instant after he had made it. The lady however, simply raised her eyebrows and smiled.
‘It seems to me that you are begging the question,’ said she. ‘Of course, if it makes women masculine that would be a considerable deterioration.’
It was a neat little counter, and Doctor Ripley, like a pinked fencer, bowed his acknowledgment.
‘I must go,’ said he.
‘I am sorry that we cannot come to some more friendly conclusion since we are to be neighbours,’ she remarked.
He bowed again, and took a step towards the door.
‘It was a singular coincidence,’ she continued, ‘that at the instant that you called I was reading your paper on “Locomotor Ataxia,” in the Lancet.’
‘Indeed,’ said he drily.
‘I thought it was a very able monograph.’
‘You are very good.’
‘But the views which you attribute to Professor Pitres, of Bordeaux, have been repudiated by him.’
‘I have his pamphlet of 1890,’ said Doctor Ripley angrily.
‘Here is his pamphlet of 1891.’ She picked it from among a litter of periodicals. ‘If you have time to glance your eye down this passage——’
Doctor Ripley took it from her and shot rapidly through the paragraph which she indicated. There was no denying that it completely knocked the bottom out of his own article. He threw it down, and with another frigid bow he made for the door. As he took the reins from the groom he glanced round and saw that the lady was standing at her window, and it seemed to him that she was laughing heartily.
All day the memory of this interview haunted him. He felt that he had come very badly out of it. She had showed herself to be his superior on his own pet subject. She had been courteous while he had been rude, self-possessed when he had been angry. And then, above all, there was her presence, her monstrous intrusion to rankle in his mind. A woman doctor had been an abstract thing before, repugnant but distant. Now she was there in actual practice, with a brass plate up just like his own, competing for the same patients. Not that he feared competition, but he objected to this lowering of his ideal of womanhood. She could not be more than thirty, and had a bright, mobile face, too. He thought of her humorous eyes, and of her strong, well-turned chin. It revolted him the more to recall the details of her education. A man, of course, could come through such an ordeal with all his purity, but it was nothing short of shameless in a woman.
But it was not long before he learned that even her competition was a thing to be feared. The novelty of her presence had brought a few curious invalids into her consulting-rooms, and, once there, they had been so impressed by the firmness of her manner and by the singular, new-fashioned instruments with which she tapped, and peered, and sounded, that it formed the core of their conversation for weeks afterwards. And soon there were tangible proofs of her powers upon the country-side. Farmer Eyton, whose callous ulcer had been quietly spreading over his shin for years back under a gentle régime of zinc ointment, was painted round with blistering fluid, and found, after three blasphemous nights, that his sore was stimulated into healing. Mrs. Crowder, who had always regarded the birthmark upon her second daughter Eliza as a sign of the indignation of the Creator at a third helping of raspberry tart which she had partaken of during a critical period, learned that, with the help of two galvanic needles, the mischief was not irreparable. In a month Doctor Verrinder Smith was known, and in two she was famous.
Occasionally, Doctor Ripley met her as he drove upon his rounds. She had started a high dog-cart, taking the reins herself, with a little tiger behind. When they met he invariably raised his hat with punctilious politeness, but the grim severity of his face showed how formal was the courtesy. In fact, his dislike was rapidly deepening into absolute detestation. ‘The unsexed woman,’ was the description of her which he permitted himself to give to those of his patients who still remained staunch. But, indeed, they were a rapidly-decreasing body, and every day his pride was galled by the news of some fresh defection. The lady had somehow impressed the country-folk with almost superstitious belief in her power, and from far and near they flocked to her consulting-room.
But what galled him most of all was, when she did something which he had pronounced to be impracticable. For all his knowledge he lacked nerve as an operator, and usually sent his worst cases up to London. The lady, however, had no weakness of the sort, and took everything that came in her way. It was agony to him to hear that she was about to straighten little Alec Turner’s club-foot, and right at the fringe of the rumour came a note from his mother, the rector’s wife, asking him if he would be so good as to act as chloroformist. It would be inhumanity to refuse, as there was no other who could take the place, but it was gall and wormwood to his sensitive nature. Yet, in spite of his vexation, he could not but admire the dexterity with which the thing was done. She handled the little wax-like foot so gently, and held the tiny tenotomy knife as an artist holds his pencil. One straight insertion, one snick of a tendon, and it was all over without a stain upon the white towel which lay beneath. He had never seen anything more masterly, and he had the honesty to say so, though her skill increased his dislike of her. The operation spread her fame still further at his expense, and self-preservation was added to his other grounds for detesting her. And this very detestation it was which brought matters to a curious climax.
One winter’s night, just as he was rising from his lonely dinner, a groom came riding down from Squire Faircastle’s, the richest man in the district, to say that his daughter had scalded her hand, and that medical help was needed on the instant. The coachman had ridden for the lady doctor, for it mattered nothing to the Squire who came as long as it were speedily. Doctor Ripley rushed from his surgery with the determination that she should not effect an entrance into this stronghold of his if hard driving on his part could prevent it. He did not even wait to light his lamps, but sprang into his gig and flew off as fast as hoof could rattle. He lived rather nearer to the Squire’s than she did, and was convinced that he could get there well before her.
And so he would but for that whimsical element of chance, which will for ever muddle up the affairs of this world and dumbfound the prophets. Whether it came from the want of his lights, or from his mind being full of the thoughts of his rival, he allowed too little by half a foot in taking the sharp turn upon the Basingstoke road. The empty trap and the frightened horse clattered away into the darkness, while the Squire’s groom crawled out of the ditch into which he had been shot. He struck a match, looked down at his groaning companion, and then, after the fashion of rough, strong men when they see what they have not seen before, he was very sick.
The doctor raised himself a little on his elbow in the glint of the match. He caught a glimpse of something white and sharp bristling through his trouser-leg half-way down the shin.
‘Compound!’ he groaned. ‘A three months’ job,’ and fainted.
When he came to himself the groom was gone, for he had scudded off to the Squire’s house for help, but a small page was holding a gig-lamp in front of his injured leg, and a woman, with an open case of polished instruments gleaming in the yellow light, was deftly slitting up his trouser with a crooked pair of scissors.
‘It’s all right, doctor,’ said she soothingly. ‘I am so sorry about it. You can have Doctor Horton to-morrow, but I am sure you will allow me to help you to-night. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw you by the roadside.’
‘The groom has gone for help,’ groaned the sufferer.
‘When it comes we can move you into the gig. A little more light, John! So! Ah, dear, dear, we shall have laceration unless we reduce this before we move you. Allow me to give you a whiff of chloroform, and I have no doubt that I can secure it sufficiently to——’
Doctor Ripley never heard the end of that sentence. He tried to raise a hand and to murmur something in protest, but a sweet smell was in his nostrils, and a sense of rich peace and lethargy stole over his jangled nerves. Down he sank, through clear, cool water, ever down and down into the green shadows beneath, gently, without eff ort, while the pleasant chiming of a great belfry rose and fell in his ears. Then he rose again, up and up, and ever up, with a terrible tightness about his temples, until at last he shot out of those green shadows and was in the light once more. Two bright, shining, golden spots gleamed before his dazed eyes. He blinked and blinked before he could give a name to them. They were only the two brass balls at the end posts of his bed, and he was lying in his own little room, with a head like a cannon ball, and a leg like an iron bar. Turning his eyes, he saw the calm face of Doctor Verrinder Smith looking down at him.
‘Ah, at last!’ said she. ‘I kept you under all the way home, for I knew how painful the jolting would be. It is in good position now with a strong side splint. I have ordered a morphia draught for you. Shall I tell your groom to ride for Doctor Horton in the morning?’
‘I should prefer that you should continue the case,’ said Doctor Ripley feebly, and then, with a half-hysterical laugh—‘You have all the rest of the parish as patients, you know, so you may as well make the thing complete by having me also.’
It was not a very gracious speech, but it was a look of pity and not of anger which shone in her eyes as she turned away from his bedside.
Doctor Ripley had a brother, William, who was assistant surgeon at a London hospital, and who was down in Hampshire within a few hours of his hearing of the accident. He raised his brows when he heard the details.
‘What! You are pestered with one of those!’ he cried.
‘I don’t know what I should have done without her.’
‘I’ve no doubt she’s an excellent nurse.’
‘She knows her work as well as you or I.’
‘Speak for yourself, James,’ said the London man with a sniff.
‘But apart from that, you know that the principle of the thing is all wrong.’
‘You think there is nothing to be said on the other side?’
‘Good heavens! do you?’
‘Well, I don’t know. It struck me during the night that we may have been a little narrow in our views.’
‘Nonsense, James. It’s all very fine for women to win prizes in the lecture-room, but you know as well as I do that they are no use in an emergency. Now I warrant that this woman was all nerves when she was setting your leg. That reminds me that I had better just take a look at it and see that it is all right.’
‘I would rather that you did not undo it,’ said the patient. ‘I have her assurance that it is all right.’
Brother William was deeply shocked.
‘Of course, if a woman’s assurance is of more value than the opinion of the assistant surgeon of a London hospital, there is nothing more to be said,’ he remarked.
‘I should prefer that you did not touch it,’ said the patient firmly, and Doctor William went back to London that evening in a huff.
The lady, who had heard of his coming, was much surprised on learning of his departure.
‘We had a difference upon a point of professional etiquette,’ said Doctor James, and it was all the explanation he would vouchsafe.
For two long months Doctor Ripley was brought in contact with his rival every day, and he learned many things which he had not known before. She was a charming companion, as well as a most assiduous doctor. Her short presence during the long, weary day was like a flower in a sand waste. What interested him was precisely what interested her, and she could meet him at every point upon equal terms. And yet under all her learning and her firmness ran a sweet, womanly nature, peeping out in her talk, shining in her greenish eyes, showing itself in a thousand subtle ways which the dullest of men could read. And he, though a bit of a prig and a pedant, was by no means dull, and had honesty enough to confess when he was in the wrong.
‘I don’t know how to apologise to you,’ he said in his shamefaced fashion one day, when he had progressed so far as to be able to sit in an arm-chair with his leg upon another one; ‘I feel that I have been quite in the wrong.’
‘Over this woman question. I used to think that a woman must inevitably lose something of her charm if she took up such studies.’
‘Oh, you don’t think they are necessarily unsexed, then?’ she cried, with a mischievous smile.
‘Please don’t recall my idiotic expression.’
‘I feel so pleased that I should have helped in changing your views. I think that it is the most sincere compliment that I have ever had paid me.’
‘At any rate, it is the truth,’ said he, and was happy all night at the remembrance of the flush of pleasure which made her pale face look quite comely for the instant. For, indeed, he was already far past the stage when he would acknowledge her as the equal of any other woman. Already he could not disguise from himself that she had become the one woman. Her dainty skill, her gentle touch, her sweet presence, the community of their tastes, had all united to hopelessly upset his previous opinions. It was a dark day for him now when his convalescence allowed her to miss a visit, and darker still that other one which he saw approaching when all occasion for her visits would be at an end. It came round at last, however, and he felt that his whole life’s fortune would hang upon the issue of that final interview. He was a direct man by nature, so he laid his hand upon hers as it felt for his pulse, and he asked her if she would be his wife.
‘What, and unite the practices?’ said she.
He started in pain and anger.
‘Surely you do not attribute any such base motive to me!’ he cried. ‘I love you as unselfishly as ever a woman was loved.’
‘No, I was wrong. It was a foolish speech,’ said she, moving her chair a little back, and tapping her stethoscope upon her knee. ‘Forget that I ever said it. I am so sorry to cause you any disappointment, and I appreciate most highly the honour which you do me, but what you ask is quite impossible.’
With another woman he might have urged the point, but his instincts told him that it was quite useless with this one. Her tone of voice was conclusive. He said nothing, but leaned back in his chair a stricken man.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said again. ‘If I had known what was passing in your mind I should have told you earlier that I intend to devote my life entirely to science. There are many women with a capacity for marriage, but few with a taste for biology. I will remain true to my own line, then. I came down here while waiting for an opening in the Paris Physiological Laboratory. I have just heard that there is a vacancy for me there, and so you will be troubled no more by my intrusion upon your practice. I have done you an injustice just as you did me one. I thought you narrow and pedantic, with no good quality. I have learned during your illness to appreciate you better, and the recollection of our friendship will always be a very pleasant one to me.’
And so it came about that in a very few weeks there was only one doctor in Hoyland. But folks noticed that the one had aged many years in a few months, that a weary sadness lurked always in the depths of his blue eyes, and that he was less concerned than ever with the eligible young ladies whom chance, or their careful country mammas, placed in his way.