Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Girl at Cobhurst, Page 2

Frank Richard Stockton



  The Witton family, distant relatives of Miss Panney, with whom she hadlived for many years, resided on a farm in the hilly country aboveThorbury, and when Mrs. Tolbridge had rattled through the town, she foundthe country road very rough and bad--hard and bumpy in some places, andsoft and muddy in others; but Buckskin was in fine spirits and pulled herbravely on.

  When she reached the Witton house she left the horse in charge of theboy, and opening the hall door, went directly up to Miss Panney's room.Knocking, she waited some little time for an answer, and then was told,in a clear, high voice, to come in. The room was large and well lighted.Against one of the walls stood a high-posted bed with a canopy, and onone of the pillows of the bed appeared the head of an elderly woman, theskin darkened and wrinkled by time, the nose aquiline, and the black eyesvery sharp and quick of movement. This head was surrounded by the frillsof a freshly laundered night-cap, and the smooth white coverlid was drawnup close under its chin.

  "Upon my word," exclaimed the person in the bed, "is that you, Mrs.Tolbridge? I thought it was the doctor."

  "I don't wonder at that, Miss Panney," said Mrs. Tolbridge. "At times wehave very much the same sort of knock."

  "But where is the doctor?" asked the old lady.

  "I hope he is at home and asleep," was the reply. "He has been workingvery hard lately, and was up the greater part of last night. He wascoming here when he received your message, but I told him he should notdo it; I would come myself, and if I found it absolutely necessary thatyou should see him, I would let him know. And now what is the trouble,Miss Panney?"

  Miss Panney fixed her eyes steadfastly upon her visitor, who had taken aseat by the bedside.

  "Catherine Tolbridge," said she, "do you know what will happen to you, ifyou don't look out? You'll lose that man."

  "Lose him!" exclaimed the other.

  "Yes, just that," replied the old lady; "I have seen it over and overagain. Down they drop, right in the middle of their harness. And thestouter and sturdier they are, the worse it is for them; they think theycan do anything, and they do it. I'll back a skinny doctor against aburly one, any day. He knows there are things he can't do. He doesn'ttry, and he keeps afloat."

  "That is exactly what I am trying to do," said the doctor's wife, "and ifthose are your opinions, Miss Panney, don't you think that the doctor'spatients ought to have a regard for his health, and that they ought notto make him come to them in all sorts of weather, and at all hours of theday, unless there is something serious the matter with them? Now I don'tbelieve there is anything serious the matter with you today."

  "There is always something serious the matter with a person of my age,"said Miss Panney, "and as for Dr. Tolbridge's visits to me doing him anyharm, it is all stuff and nonsense. They do him good; they rest him; theybrighten him up. He's never livelier than when he is with me. He doesn'thave to hang over me all the night, giving me this and that, to keep thebreath in my body, when he ought to be taking the rest that he needs morethan any of us."

  Mrs. Tolbridge laughed. "No, indeed," said she, "he never has to doanything of that kind for you. I believe you are the healthiestpatient he has."

  "That may be," said the other, "and it is much to his credit, and tomine, too. I know when I want a doctor. I don't send for him when I amin the last stages of anything. But we won't talk anything more aboutthat. I want to know all about your husband. Do you think he is reallyout of health?"

  "No," said Mrs. Tolbridge, "he is simply overworked, and needs rest. Justthe sort of rest I hope he is getting this afternoon."

  "Nonsense," said Miss Panney; "rest is well enough, but you must give himmore than that if you do not want to see him break down. You must givehim good victuals. Rest, without the best of food, amounts to little inhis case."

  "Truly, Miss Panney!" exclaimed her visitor, "I think I give my husbandas good living as any one in Thorbury has or can expect."

  "Humph!" said the old lady. "He may have all that, and yet be starvingbefore your eyes. There isn't a man, woman, or child, in or aboutThorbury, who really lives well--excepting, perhaps, myself."

  Mrs. Tolbridge smiled. "I think you do manage to live very well,Miss Panney."

  "Yes," said the other, "and I'd like to manage to have my friends livewell, too. By the way, did you ever make rum-flake for the doctor whenhe comes in tired and faint?"

  "I never heard of it," replied the other.

  "I thought as much," said Miss Panney. "Well, you take the whites of twoeggs and beat them up, and while you are beating you sprinkle rum overthe egg, from a pepper caster, which you ought to keep clean to use forthis and nothing else. Then you should sift in sugar according to taste,and when you have put a dry macaroon, which has been soaking in rum allthis time, in the bottom of a glass saucer, you pile the flake over it,and it's ready for him, except that sometimes you put in,--let me see!--alittle orange juice, I think, but I've got the recipe there in myscrap-book, and I can find it in a minute." So saying, the old lady threwaside the coverlid, and jumped to the floor with the activity of a cat.

  Mrs. Tolbridge burst out laughing.

  "I declare, Miss Panney!" she exclaimed, "you have your dress on."

  "What of that?" said the old lady, opening a drawer. "A warm dress is agood thing to wear, at least I have always found it so."

  "But not with a night-cap," said the other.

  "That depends on circumstances," said Miss Panney, turning over the pagesof a large scrap-book.

  "And shoes," continued Mrs. Tolbridge, laughing again.

  "Shoes," cried Miss Panney, pushing out one foot, and looking at it."Well, truly, that was an oversight; but here is the recipe;" and withoutthe aid of spectacles, she began to read. "It's exactly as I told you,"she said presently, "except that some people use sponge cake instead ofmacaroons. The orange juice depends on individual taste. Shall I writethat out for you, or will you remember it?"

  "Oh, I can remember it," said the other; "but tell me, Miss Panney--"

  "Well, then," said the old lady, "make it for him, and see how he likesit. There is one thing, Mrs. Tolbridge, that you should never forget, andthat is that the doctor is not only your husband, but the mainstay of thecommunity."

  "Oh, I know that, and accept the responsibility; but you must tell me whyyou are in bed with all your clothes on. I believe that you did notexpect the doctor so soon, and when you heard my knock, you clapped onyour night-cap and jumped into bed."

  "Catherine," quietly remarked the old lady, "there is nothing sodiscouraging to a doctor as to find a person who has sent for him out ofbed. If the patient is up and about, she mystifies him; he is apt to makemistakes; he loses interest; he wonders if she couldn't come to him,instead of his having to go to her; but when he finds the ailing personin bed, the case is natural and straightforward; he feels at home, andknows how to go to work. If you believe in a doctor, you ought to makehim believe in you. And if you are in bed, he will believe in you, and ifyou are out of it, he is apt not to. More than that, Mrs. Tolbridge,there is no greater compliment that you can pay to a physician you havesent for, than to have him find you in bed."

  The doctor's wife laughed. She thought, but she did not say so, thatprobably this old lady had paid her husband a great many compliments.

  "Well, Miss Panney," she said, rising, "what report shall I make?"

  The old lady took off her night-cap, and replaced it with her ordinaryheadgear of lace and ribbons.

  "Have you heard anything," she asked, "of the young man who is coming toCobhurst?"

  "No," said Mrs. Tolbridge, "nothing at all."

  "Well," continued Miss Panney, "I think the doctor knows something abouthim through old Butterwood. I have an idea that I know something abouthim myself, but I wanted to talk to the doctor about him. Of course thisis a mere secondary matter. My back has been troubling me a good deallately, but as the doctor is so pushed, I won't ask him to come here onpurpose to see me. If he's i
n the neighborhood, I shall be very glad tohave him call. For the present, I shall try some of the old liniments.Dear knows, I have enough of them, dating back for years and years."

  "But it will not do to make any mistakes, Miss Panney. Those oldprescriptions might not suit you now."

  "Don't trouble yourself in the least about that," said the old lady,lifting her hand impressively; "medicine never injures me. Not a drop ofit do I ever take inside of me, prescription or no prescription. But Idon't mind putting things on the outside of me--of course, I mean inreason, for there are outside applications that would ruin theconstitution of a jack-screw."

  There were very few people in the neighborhood of Thorbury who were olderthan Miss Panney, and very few of any age who were as alert in both mindand body. She had been born in this region; had left it in her youth, andhad returned about thirty years ago, when she had taken up her abode withthe Wittons, who at that time were a newly married couple. They were nowmiddle-aged people, but Miss Panney still lived with them, and seemed tobe much the very same old lady as she was when she arrived. She was awoman who kept a good deal to herself, having many resources for heractive mind. With many people who were not acquainted with her sociallybut knew all about her, she had the reputation of being wicked. Theprincipal reason for this belief was the well-known fact that she alwaystook her breakfast in bed. This was considered to be a French habit, andthe French were looked upon as infidels. Moreover, she never went tochurch, and when questioned upon this subject, had been known to answerthat she could not listen with patience to a sermon, for she had neverheard one without thinking that she could preach on that subject a greatdeal better than the man in the pulpit.

  In spite of this fact, however, the rector of the Episcopal church ofThorbury and the Methodist minister were both great friends of MissPanney, and although she did not come to hear them, they liked very muchto go to hear her. Mr. Hampton, the Methodist, would talk to her aboutflower-gardening and the by-gone people and ways of the region, while Mr.Ames, the rector, who was a young man, did not hesitate to assert that hefrequently got very good hints for passages in his sermons, from remarksmade by Miss Panney about things that were going on in the religious andsocial world.

  But although Miss Panney took pleasure in the company of clergymen andphysicians, she boldly asserted that she liked lawyers better.

  "In the law," she would say, "you find things fixed and settled. A lawis a law, the same for everybody, and no matter how much people maywrangle and dispute about it, it is there, and you can read it foryourself. But the practice of medicine has to be shifted to suitindividual cases, and the practice of theology is shifted to suitindividual creeds, and you can't put your finger on steady principles asyou can in law. When I put my finger down, I like to be sure what isunder it."

  Miss Panney had other reasons for liking lawyers, for her first realfriend had been her legal guardian, old Mr. Bannister of Thorbury. Shewas one of the few people of the place who remembered this old gentleman,and she had often told how shocked and pained she had been when summonedfrom boarding-school to attend his funeral, and how she had beenimpressed by the idea that the preparations for this important eventconsisted mainly in beating up eggs, stemming raisins, baking cakes andpies, and making all sorts of provision for the sumptuous entertainmentof the people who should be drawn together by the death of the principalcitizen of the town. To her mind it would have been more appropriate hadthe company been fed on bread and water.

  Thomas Bannister, who succeeded to his father's business, had been MissPanney's legal friend and counsellor for many years. But he, too, wasdead, and the office had now devolved on Herbert Bannister, the grandsonof the old gentleman, and the brother of Miss Dora.

  Herbert and Miss Panney were very good friends, but not yet cronies. Hewas still under thirty, and there were many events of the past of whichhe knew but little, and about which he could not wholly sympathize withher. But she believed that years would ripen him, and that the time wouldcome when she would get along as well with him as she had with his fatherand grandfather.

  She was not supposed to be a rich woman, and she had not been muchengaged in suits at law, but it was surprising how much legal businessMiss Panney had, as well as business of many other kinds.

  When Mrs. Tolbridge had left her, the old lady put away her scrap-book,and prepared to go downstairs.

  "It is a great pity," she said to herself, "that one of the bodilyailments which is bound to show itself in the family in the course of thespring, should not have turned up to-day. I want very much to talk to thedoctor about the young man at Cobhurst, and I cannot drive about thecountry in such weather as this."