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Chronicles of Carlingford




THE DOCTOR'S FAMILY

BY

MRS OLIPHANT


NEW EDITION
_WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS_
EDINBURGH AND LONDON




CHRONICLES OF CARLINGFORD.

THE DOCTOR'S FAMILY.




CHAPTER I.


Young Dr Rider lived in the new quarter of Carlingford: had he aimed at
a reputation in society, he could not possibly have done a more foolish
thing; but such was not his leading motive. The young man, being but
young, aimed at a practice. He was not particular in the mean time as to
the streets in which his patients dwelt. A new house, gazing with all
its windows over a brick-field, was as interesting to the young surgeon
as if it had been one of those exclusive houses in Grange Lane, where
the aristocracy of Carlingford lived retired within their garden walls.
His own establishment, though sufficiently comfortable, was of a kind
utterly to shock the feelings of the refined community: a corner house,
with a surgery round the corner, throwing the gleam of its red lamp over
all that chaotic district of half-formed streets and full-developed
brick-fields, with its night-bell prominent, and young Rider's name on a
staring brass plate, with mysterious initials after it. M.R.C.S. the
unhappy young man had been seduced to put after his name upon that brass
plate, though he was really Dr Rider, a physician, if not an experienced
one. Friends had advised him that in such districts people were afraid
of physicians, associating only with dread adumbrations of a guinea a
visit that miscomprehended name; so, with a pang, the young surgeon had
put his degree in his pocket, and put up with the inferior distinction.
Of course, Dr Marjoribanks had all the patronage of Grange Lane. The
great people were infatuated about that snuffy old Scotchman--a man
behind his day, who had rusted and grown old among the soft diseases
of Carlingford, where sharp practice was so seldom necessary; and no
opening appeared for young Rider except in the new district, in the smug
corner house, with the surgery and the red lamp, and M.R.C.S. on a brass
plate on his door.

If you can imagine that the young man bowed his spirit to this without a
struggle, you do the poor young fellow injustice. He had been hard
enough put to it at divers periods of his life. Ambition had not been
possible for him either in one shape or another. Some people said he had
a vulgar mind when he subsided into that house; other people declared
him a shabby fellow when he found out, after the hardest night's thought
he ever went through in his life, that he durst not ask Bessie Christian
to marry him. You don't suppose that he did not know in his secret
heart, and feel tingling through every vein, those words which nobody
ever said to his face? But he could not help it. He could only make an
indignant gulp of his resentment and shame, which were shame and
resentment at himself for wanting the courage to dare everything, as
well as at other people for finding him out, and go on with his work
as he best could. He was not a hero nor a martyr; men made of that
stuff have large compensations. He was an ordinary individual, with no
sublimity in him, and no compensation to speak of for his sufferings--no
consciousness of lofty right-doing, or of a course of action superior to
the world.

Perhaps you would prefer to go up-stairs and see for yourself what was
the skeleton in Edward Rider's cupboard, rather than have it described
to you. His drag came to the door an hour ago, and he went off with Care
sitting behind him, and a certain angry pang aching in his heart, which
perhaps Bessie Christian's wedding-veil, seen far off in church yesterday,
might have something to do with. His looks were rather black as he
twitched the reins out of his little groom's hands, and went off at a
startling pace, which was almost the only consolation the young fellow
had. Now that he is certainly gone, and the coast clear, we may go
up-stairs. It is true he all but kicked the curate down for taking a
similar liberty, but we who are less visible may venture while he is
away.

This skeleton is not in a cupboard. It is in an up-stairs room,
comfortable enough, but heated, close, unwholesome--a place from which,
even when the window is open, the fresh air seems shut out. There is no
fresh air nor current of life in this stifling place. There is a fire,
though it is not cold--a sofa near the fire--a sickening heavy smell of
abiding tobacco--not light whiffs of smoke, such as accompany a man's
labours, but a dead pall of idle heavy vapour; and in the midst of all a
man stretched lazily on the sofa, with his pipe laid on the table beside
him, and a book in his soft, boneless, nerveless hands. A large man,
interpenetrated with smoke and idleness and a certain dreary sodden
dissipation, heated yet unexcited, reading a novel he has read
half-a-dozen times before. He turns his bemused eyes to the door when
his invisible visitors enter. He fancies he hears some one coming, but
will not take the trouble to rise and see who is there--so, instead of
that exertion, he takes up his pipe, knocks the ashes out of it upon his
book, fills it with coarse tobacco, and stretches his long arm over the
shoulder of the sofa for a light. His feet are in slippers, his person
clothed in a greasy old coat, his linen soiled and untidy. That is the
skeleton in young Rider's house.

The servants, you may be sure, knew all about this unwelcome visitor.
They went with bottles and jugs secretly to bring him what he wanted;
they went to the circulating library for him; they let him in when he
had been out in the twilight all shabby and slovenly. They would not be
human if they did not talk about him. They say he is very good-natured,
poor gentleman--always has a pleasant word--is nobody's enemy but his
own; and to see how "the doctor do look at him, and he his own brother
as was brought up with him," is dreadful, to be sure.

All this young Rider takes silently, never saying a word about it to any
human creature. He seems to know by intuition what all these people say
of him, as he drives about furiously in his drag from patient to patient;
and wherever he goes, as plain, nay, far more distinctly than the
actual prospect before him, he sees that sofa, that dusty slow-burning
fire--that pipe, with the little heap of ashes knocked out of it upon
the table--that wasted ruined life chafing him to desperation with its
dismal content. It is very true that it would have been sadly imprudent
of the young man to go to the little house in Grove Street a year ago,
and tell Bessie Christian he was very fond of her, and that somehow for
her love he would manage to provide for those old people whom that
cheerful little woman toiled to maintain. It was a thing not to be done
in any way you could contemplate it; and with a heartache the poor young
doctor had turned his horse's head away from Grove Street, and left
Bessie to toil on in her poverty. Bessie had escaped all that nowadays;
but who could have forewarned the poor doctor that his elder brother,
once the hope of the family--that clever Fred, whom all the others had
been postponed to--he who with his evil reputation had driven poor
Edward out of his first practice, and sent him to begin life a second
time at Carlingford--was to drop listlessly in again, and lay a harder
burden than a harmless old father-in-law upon the young man's hands--a
burden which no grateful Bessie shared and sweetened? No wonder black
Care sat at the young doctor's back as he drove at that dangerous pace
through the new, encumbered streets. He might have broken his neck over
those heaps of brick and mortar, and it is doubtful whether he would
have greatly cared.

When Dr Rider went home that night, the first sight he saw when he
pulled up at his own door was his brother's large indolent shabby figure
prowling up the street. In the temper he was then in, this was not
likely to soothe him. It was not a much-frequented street, but the young
doctor knew instinctively that his visitor had been away in the heart of
the town at the booksellers' shops buying cheap novels, and ordering
them magnificently to be sent to Dr Rider's; and could guess the curious
questions and large answers which had followed. He sprang to the ground
with a painful suppressed indignation, intensified by many mingled
feelings, and waited the arrival of the maudlin wanderer. Ah me! one
might have had some consolation in the burden freely undertaken for
love's sake, and by love's self shared and lightened: but this load of
disgrace and ruin which nobody could take part of--which it was misery
so much as to think that anybody knew of--the doctor's fraternal
sentiments, blunted by absence and injury, were not strong enough to
bear that weight.

"So, Fred, you have been out," said Dr Rider, moodily, as he stood aside
on his own threshold to let his brother pass in--not with the courtesy
of a host, but the precaution of a jailer, to see him safe before he
himself entered and closed the door.

"Yes, you can't expect a man to sit in the house for ever," said the
prodigal, stumbling in to his brother's favourite sitting-room, where
everything was tidy and comfortable for the brief leisure of the
hard-working man. The man who did no work threw himself heavily into
the doctor's easy-chair, and rolled his bemused eyes round upon his
brother's household gods. Those book-shelves with a bust at either
corner, those red curtains drawn across the window, those prints on the
walls--all once so pleasant to the doctor's eyes--took a certain air of
squalor and wretchedness to-night which sickened him to look at. The
lamp flared wildly with an untrimmed wick, or at least Dr Rider thought
so; and threw a hideous profile of the intruder upon the wall behind
him. The hearth was cold, with that chill, of sentiment rather than
reality, naturally belonging to a summer night. Instead of a familiar
place where rest and tranquillity awaited him, that room, the only
vision of home which the poor young fellow possessed, hardened into four
walls, and so many chairs and tables, in the doctor's troubled eyes.

But it bore a different aspect in the eyes of his maudlin brother.
Looking round with those bewildered orbs, all this appeared luxury to
the wanderer.



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