From the Archive — From the October 2015 issue

Rural Prescription

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How well I remember him — the tall, grave, slightly bent figure, the head like Plato’s or that of Diogenes, peering, all too kindly, into the faces of dishonest men, the mild, brown-gray eyes. In addition, he wore long, full, brown-gray whiskers, in winter a long gray overcoat (soiled and patched toward the last), a soft black hat that hung darkeningly over his eyes. But what a doctor! And how simple, and often how non-drugstorey, were so many of his remedies!

“My son, your father is very sick. Now, I’ll tell you what you can do for me. You go out there along the Cheevertown road about a mile or two and ask any farmer this side of the creek to let you have a good big handful of peach sprigs — about so many — see? Say that Doctor Gridley said he was to give them to you for him. Then, Mrs.  —  — , when he brings them, you take a few, not more than seven or eight, and break them up and steep them in hot water until you have an amber-colored tea. Give Mr.  —  — about three or four teaspoonfuls of that every three or four hours, and I hope we’ll find he’ll do better.” And he did.

A brisk wind had fluttered snow in the morning, and now the ground was white, with a sinking red sun shining across it, a sense of spring in the air. Someone along the road — a home-driving farmer — told me of an old Mr. Mills who had a five-acre orchard farther on. In a little while I came to his door and was confronted by a thin, gaunt, bespectacled woman, who called to a man inside:

“Henry, here’s a little boy says Doctor Gridley said you were to cut him a double handful of peach sprigs.”

Henry now came forward. “Doctor Gridley sent cha, did he?” he observed, eyeing me most critically.

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s the matter? What does he want with ’em? Do ya know?”

“Yes, sir. My father’s sick with kidney trouble, and Doctor Gridley said I was to come out here.”

“Oh, all right. Wait’ll I git my big knife,” and back he went, returning later with a large, horn-handled knife, which he opened. He preceded me out through the barn lot and into the orchard beyond.

I remember once, one of my sisters being very ill, so ill that we were beginning to fear death. During one night, she seemed to get worse persistently. Her fever rose, and she complained of such aches and pains that finally I had to go and call my mother. A consultation with her finally resulted in my being sent for Doctor Gridley — no telephones in those days — to tell him, although she hesitated to do so, how she felt, and ask him if he would not come.

The street along which I had to go was quite dark, the town lights being put out at 2 a.m., by reason of thrift, perhaps. There was a high wind that cried in the trees. My shoes on the boardwalks here and there sounded like the thuds of a giant. I recall progressing in a shivery, ghost-like sort of way, expecting at any step to encounter goblins of the most approved form, until finally the well-known outlines of the house of the doctor on the main street — yellow, many-roomed, a wide porch in front — came, because of a very small lamp in a very large glass case to one side of the door, into view.

Here I knocked, and then knocked more. No reply. I then made a still more forceful effort. Finally, through one of the red glass panels which graced either side of the door, I saw at the head of the stairs the lengthy figure of the doctor, arrayed in a long white nightshirt and carrying a small glass hand-lamp. His feet were in gray flannel slippers, and his whiskers stuck out most discordantly.

“Wait! Wait!” I heard him call. “I’ll be there! I’m coming! Don’t make such a fuss! It seems as though I never get a real good night’s rest any more.”

In due time the doctor came. The seizure was apparently nothing which could not have waited until morning. However, he left some new cure, possibly clear water in a bottle, and departed. But the night trials of doctors and their patients, especially in the country, were fixed in my mind then.

From “The Country Doctor,” which appeared in the July 1918 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available here.

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