The Pioneers

by James Fenimore Cooper

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter VI

"And about his shelves, A beggarly account of empty boxes, Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds. Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses, Were thinly scattered to make up a show."-Shakespeare.

Doctor Elnathan Todd, for such was the name of the man of physic, was commonly thought to be, among the settlers, a gentleman of great mental endowments, and he was assuredly of rare personal proportions. In height he measured, without his shoes, exactly six feet and four inches. His hands, feet, and knees corresponded in every respect with this formidable stature; but every other part of his frame appeared to have been intended for a man several sizes smaller, if we except the length of the limbs. His shoulders were square, in one sense at least, being in a right line from one side to the other; but they were so narrow, that the long dangling arms they supported seemed to issue out of his back. His neck possessed, in an eminent degree, the property of length to which we have alluded, and it was topped by a small bullet-head that exhibited on one side a bush of bristling brown hair and on the other a short, twinkling visage, that appeared to maintain a constant struggle with itself in order to look wise. He was the youngest son of a farmer in the western part of Massachusetts, who, being in some what easy circumstances, had allowed this boy to shoot up to the height we have mentioned, without the ordinary interruptions of field labor, wood-chopping, and such other toils as were imposed on his brothers. Elnathan was indebted for this exemption from labor in some measure to his extraordinary growth, which, leaving him pale, inanimate, and listless, induced his tender mother to pronounce him "a sickly boy, and one that was not equal to work, but who might earn a living comfortably enough by taking to pleading law, or turning minister, or doctoring, or some such like easy calling. Still, there was great uncertainty which of these vocations the youth was best endowed to fill; but, having no other employment, the stripling was constantly lounging about the homestead," munching green apples and hunting for sorrel; when the same sagacious eye that had brought to light his latent talents seized upon this circumstance as a clew to his future path through the turmoils of the world. "Elnathan was cut out for a doctor, she knew, for he was forever digging for herbs, and tasting all kinds of things that growd about the lots. Then again he had a natural love for doctor-stuff, for when she had left the bilious pills out for her man, all nicely covered with maple sugar just ready to take, Nathan had come in and swallowed them for all the world as if they were nothing, while Ichabod (her husband) could never get one down without making such desperate faces that it was awful to look on."

This discovery decided the matter. Elnathan, then about fifteen, was, much like a wild colt, caught and trimmed by clipping his bushy locks; dressed in a suit of homespun, dyed in the butternut bark; furnished with a "New Testament" and a "Websters Spelling Book," and sent to school. As the boy was by nature quite shrewd enough, and had previously, at odd times, laid the foundations of reading, writing, and arithmetic, he was soon conspicuous in the school for his learning. The delighted mother had the gratification of hearing, from the lips of the master, that her son was a "prodigious boy, and far above all his class." He also thought that "the youth had a natural love for doctoring, as he had known him frequently advise the smaller children against eating to much; and, once or twice, when the ignorant little things had persevered in opposition to Elnathans advice, he had known her son empty the school-baskets with his own mouth, to prevent the consequences."

Soon after this comfortable declaration from his school master, the lad was removed to the house of the village doctor, a gentleman whose early career had not been unlike that of our hero where he was to be seen sometimes watering a horse, at others watering medicines, blue, yellow, and red: then again he might be noticed lolling under an apple-tree, with Ruddimans Latin Grammar in his hand, and a corner of Denmans Midwifery sticking out of a pocket; for his instructor held it absurd to teach his pupil how to dispatch a patient regularly from this world, before he knew how to bring him into it.

This kind of life continued for a twelvemonth, when he suddenly appeared at a meeting in a long coat (and well did it deserve the name!) of black homespun, with little bootees, bound with an uncolored calf-skin for the want of red morocco.

Soon after he was seen shaving with a dull razor. Three or four months had scarce elapsed before several elderly ladies were observed hastening toward the house of a poor woman in the village, while others were running to and fro in great apparent distress. One or two boys were mounted, bareback, on horses, and sent off at speed in various directions. Several indirect questions were put concerning the place where the physician was last seen; but all would not do; and at length Elnathan was seen issuing from his door with a very grave air, preceded by a little white-headed boy, out of breath, trotting before him. The following day the youth appeared in the street, as the highway was called, and the neighborhood was much edified by the additional gravity of his air. The same week he bought a new razor; and the succeeding Sunday he entered the meeting-house with a red silk handkerchief in his hand, and with an extremely demure countenance. In the evening he called upon a young woman of his own class in life, for there were no others to be found, and, when he was left alone with the fair, he was called, for the first time in his life, Dr. Todd, by her prudent mother. The ice once broken in this manner, Elnathan was greeted from every mouth with his official appellation.

Another year passed under the superintendence of the same master, during which the young physician had the credit of " riding with the old doctor," although they were generally observed to travel different roads. At the end of that period, Dr. Todd attained his legal majority. He then took a jaunt to Boston to purchase medicines, and, as some intimated, to walk the hospital; we know not how the latter might have been, but, if true, he soon walked through it, for he returned within a fortnight, bringing with him a suspicious-looking box, that smelled powerfully of brimstone.

The next Sunday he was married, and the following morning he entered a one-horse sleigh with his bride, having before him the box we have mentioned, with another filled with home-made household linen, a paper-covered trunk with a red umbrella lashed to it, a pair of quite new saddle-bags, and a handbox. The next intelligence that his friends received of the bride and bridegroom was, that the latter was "settled in the new countries, and well to do as a doctor in Templeton, in York State!"

If a Templar would smile at the qualifications of Marmaduke to fill the judicial seat he occupied, we are certain that a graduate of Leyden or Edinburgh would be extremely amused with this true narration of the servitude of Elnathan in the temple of Aesculapius. But the same consolation was afforded to both the jurist and the leech, for Dr. Todd was quite as much on a level with his own peers of the profession in that country, as was Marmaduke with his brethren on the bench.

Time and practice did wonders for the physician. He was naturally humane, but possessed of no small share of moral courage; or, in other words, he was chary of the lives of his patients, and never tried uncertain experiments on such members of society as were considered useful; but, once or twice, when a luckless vagrant had come under his care, he was a little addicted to trying the effects of every phial in his saddle-bags on the strangers constitution. Happily their number was small, and in most cases their natures innocent. By these means Elnathan had acquired a certain degree of knowledge in fevers and agues, and could talk with judgment concerning intermittents, remittents, tertians, quotidians, etc. In certain cutaneous disorders very prevalent in new settlements, he was considered to be infallible; and there was no woman on the Patent but would as soon think of becoming a mother without a husband as without the assistance of Dr. Todd. In short, he was rearing, on this foundation of sand a superstructure cemented by practice, though composed of somewhat brittle materials. He however, occasionally renewed his elementary studies, and, with the observation of a shrewd mind, was comfort ably applying his practice to his theory.

In surgery, having the least experience, and it being a business that spoke directly to the senses, he was most apt to distrust his own powers; but he had applied oils to several burns, cut round the roots of sundry defective teeth, and sewed up the wounds of numberless wood choppers, with considerable clat, when an unfortunate jobber suffered a fracture of his leg by the tree that he had been felling. It was on this occasion that our hero encountered the greatest trial his nerves and moral feeling had ever sustained. In the hour of need, however, he was not found wanting. Most of the amputations in the new settlements, and they were quite frequent, were per formed by some one practitioner who, possessing originally a reputation, was enabled by this circumstance to acquire an experience that rendered him deserving of it; and Elnathan had been present at one or two of these operations. But on the present occasion the man of practice was not to be obtained, and the duty fell, as a matter of course, to the share of Mr. Todd. He went to work with a kind of blind desperation, observing, at the same time, all the externals of decent gravity and great skill, The sufferers name was Milligan, and it was to this event that Richard alluded, when he spoke of assisting the doctor at an amputation by holding the leg! The limb was certainly cut off, and the patient survived the operation. It was, however, two years before poor Milligan ceased to complain that they had buried the leg in so narrow a box that it was straitened for room; he could feel the pain shooting up from the inhumed fragment into the living members. Marmaduke suggested that the fault might lie in the arteries and nerves; but Richard, considering the amputation as part of his own handiwork, strongly repelled the insinuation, at the same time declaring that he had often heard of men who could tell when it was about to rain, by the toes of amputated limbs, After two or three years, notwithstanding, Milligan's complaints gradually diminished, the leg was dug up, and a larger box furnished, and from that hour no one had heard the sufferer utter another complaint on the subject. This gave the public great confidence in Dr. Todd, whose reputation was hourly increasing, and, luckily for his patients, his information also.

Notwithstanding Dr. Todds practice, and his success with the leg, he was not a little appalled on entering the hall of the mansion-house. It was glaring with the light of day; it looked so imposing, compared with the hastily built and scantily furnished apartments which he frequented in his ordinary practice, and contained so many well- dressed persons and anxious faces, that his usually firm nerves were a good deal discomposed. He had heard from the messenger who summoned him, that it was a gun-shot wound, and had come from his own home, wading through the snow, with his saddle-bags thrown over his arm, while separated arteries, penetrated lungs, and injured vitals were whirling through his brain, as if he were stalking over a field of battle, instead of Judge Temples peaceable in closure.

The first object that met his eye, as he moved into the room, was Elizabeth in her riding-habit, richly laced with gold cord, her fine form bending toward him, and her face expressing deep anxiety in every one of its beautiful features. The enormous knees of the physician struck each other with a noise that was audible; for, in the absent state of his mind, he mistook her for a general officer, perforated with bullets, hastening from the field of battle to implore assistance. The delusion, however, was but momentary, and his eye glanced rapidly from the daughter to the earnest dignity of the fathers countenance; thence to the busy strut of Richard, who was cooling his impatience at the hunters indifference to his assistance, by pacing the hall and cracking his whip; from him to the Frenchman, who had stood for several minutes unheeded with a chair for the lady; thence to Major Hartmann, who was very coolly lighting a pipe three feet long by a candle in one of the chandeliers; thence to Mr. Grant, who was turning over a manuscript with much earnestness at one of the lustres; thence to Remarkable, who stood, with her arms demurely folded before her, surveying, with a look of admiration and envy, the dress and beauty of the young lady; and from her to Benjamin, who, with his feet standing wide apart, and his arms akimbo, was balancing his square little body with the indifference of one who is accustomed to wounds and bloodshed. All of these seemed to be unhurt, and the operator began to breathe more freely; but, before he had time to take a second look, the Judge, advancing, shook him kindly by the hand, and spoke.

"Thou art welcome, my good sir, quite welcome, indeed; here is a youth whom I have unfortunately wounded in shooting a deer this evening, and who requires some of thy assistance."

"Shooting at a deer, Duke," interrupted Richard-- "shooting at a deer. Who do you think can prescribe, unless he knows the truth of the case? It is always so with some people; they think a doctor can be deceived with the same impunity as another man."

"Shooting at a deer, truly," returned the Judge, smiling, "although it is by no means certain that I did not aid in destroying the buck; but the youth is injured by my hand, be that as it may; and it is thy skill that must cure him, and my pocket shall amply reward thee for it."

"Two ver good tings to depend on," observed Monsieur Le Quoi, bowing politely, with a sweep of his head to the Judge and to the practitioner.

"I thank you, monsieur," returned the Judge; "but we keep the young man in pain. Remarkable, thou wilt please to provide linen for lint and bandages."

This remark caused a cessation of the compliments, and induced the physician to turn an inquiring eye in the direction of his patient. During the dialogue the young hunter had thrown aside his overcoat, and now stood clad in a plain suit of the common, light-colored homespun of the country, that was evidently but recently made. His hand was on the lapels of his coat, in the attitude of removing the garment, when he suddenly suspended the movement, and looked toward the commiserating Elizabeth, who was standing in an unchanged posture, too much absorbed with her anxious feelings to heed his actions. A slight color appeared on the brow of the youth.

"Possibly the sight of blood may alarm the lady; I will retire to another room while the wound is dressing."

"By no means." said Dr. Todd, who, having discovered that his patient was far from being a man of importance, felt much emboldened to perform the duty. "The strong light of these candles is favorable to the operation, and it is seldom that we hard students enjoy good eyesight."

While speaking, Elnathan placed a pair of large iron-rimmed spectacles on his face, where they dropped, as it were by long practice, to the extremity of his slim pug nose; and, if they were of no service as assistants to his eyes, neither were they any impediment to his vision; for his little gray organs were twinkling above them like two stars emerging from the envious cover of a cloud. The action was unheeded by all but Remarkable, who observed to Benjamin:

"Dr. Todd is a comely man to look on, and desput pretty. How well he seems in spectacles! I declare, they give a grand look to a bodys face. I have quite a great mind to try them myself."

The speech of the stranger recalled the recollection of Miss Temple, who started as if from deep abstraction, and, coloring excessively, she motioned to a young woman who served in the capacity of maid, and retired with an air of womanly reserve.

The field was now left to the physician and his patient, while the different personages who remained gathered around the latter, with faces expressing the various degrees of interest that each one felt in his condition. Major Hartmann alone retained his seat, where he continued to throw out vast quantities of smoke, now rolling his eyes up to the ceiling, as if musing on the uncertainty of life, and now bending them on the wounded man, with an expression that bespoke some consciousness of his situation.

In the mean time Elnathan, to whom the sight of a gun shot wound was a perfect novelty, commenced his preparations with a solemnity and care that were worthy of the occasion. An old shirt was procured by Benjamin, and placed in the hand of the other, who tore divers bandages from it, with an exactitude that marked both his own skill and the importance of the operation.

When this preparatory measure was taken, Dr. Todd selected a piece of the shirt with great care, and handing to Mr. Jones, without moving a muscle, said: "Here, Squire Jones, you are well acquainted with these things; will you please to scrape the lint? It should be fine and soft, you know, my dear sir; and be cautious that no cotton gets in, or it may pizen the wound. The shirt has been made with cotton thread, but you can easily pick it out."

Richard assumed the office, with a nod at his cousin, that said quite plainly, "You see this fellow cant get along without me;" and began to scrape the linen on his knee with great diligence.

A table was now spread with phials, boxes of salve, and divers surgical instruments. As the latter appeared in succession, from a case of red morocco, their owner held up each implement to the strong light of the chandelier, near to which he stood, and examined it with the nicest care. A red silk handkerchief was frequently applied to the glittering steel, as if to remove from the polished surfaces the least impediment which might exist to the most delicate operation. After the rather scantily furnished pocket-case which contained these instruments was exhausted, the physician turned to his saddle-bags, and produced various phials, filled with liquids of the most radiant colors. These were arranged in due order by the side of the murderous saws, knives, and scissors, when Elnathan stretched his long body to its utmost elevation, placing his hand on the small of his back as if for sup port, and looked about him to discover what effect this display of professional skill was likely to produce on the spectators.

"Upon my wort, toctor," observed Major Hartmann, with a roguish roll of his little black eyes, but with every other feature of his face in a state of perfect rest, "put you have a very pretty pocket-book of tools tere, and your toctor-stuff glitters as if it was petter for ter eyes as for ter pelly."

Elnathan gave a hem--one that might have been equally taken for that kind of noise which cowards are said to make in order to awaken their dormant courage, or for a natural effort to clear the throat; if for the latter it was successful; for, turning his face to the veteran German, he said:

"Very true, Major Hartmann, very true, sir; a prudent man will always strive to make his remedies agreeable to the eyes, though they may not altogether suit the stomach. It is no small part of our art, sir," and he now spoke with the confidence of a man who understood his subject, "to reconcile the patient to what is for his own good, though at the same time it may be unpalatable."

"Sartain! Dr. Todd is right," said Remarkable, "and has Scripter for what he says. The Bible tells us how things may be sweet to the mouth, and bitter to the inwards."

"True, true," interrupted the Judge, a little impatiently; "but here is a youth who needs no deception to lure him to his own benefit. I see, by his eye, that he fears nothing more than delay."

The stranger had, without assistance, bared his own shoulder, when the slight perforation produced by the pas sage of the buckshot was plainly visible. The intense cold of the evening had stopped the bleeding, and Dr. Todd, casting a furtive glance at the wound, thought it by no means so formidable an affair as he had anticipated. Thus encouraged, he approached his patient, and made some indication of an intention to trace the route that had been taken by the lead.

Remarkable often found occasions, in after days, to recount the minutiae of that celebrated operation; and when she arrived at this point she commonly proceeded as follows:" And then the doctor tuck out of the pocket book a long thing, like a knitting-needle, with a button fastened to the end on't; and then he pushed it into the wound and then the young man looked awful; and then I thought I should have swaned away--I felt in sitch a disput taking; and then the doctor had run it right through his shoulder, and shoved the bullet out on tother side; and so Dr. Todd cured the young man--Of a ball that the Judge had shot into him--for all the world as easy as I could pick out a splinter with my darning-needle."

Such were the impressions of Remarkable on the subject; and such doubtless were the opinions of most of those who felt it necessary to entertain a species of religious veneration for the skill of Elnathan; but such was far from the truth.

When the physician attempted to introduce the instrument described by Remarkable, he was repulsed by the stranger, with a good deal of decision, and some little contempt, in his manner.

"I believe, sir," he said, "that a probe is not necessary; the shot has missed the bone, and has passed directly through the arm to the opposite side, where it remains but skin deep, and whence, I should think, it might he easily extracted."

"The gentleman knows best," said Dr. Todd, laying down the probe with the air of a man who had assumed it merely in compliance with forms; and, turning to Richard, he fingered the lint with the appearance of great care and foresight. "Admirably well scraped, Squire Jones: it is about the best lint I have ever seen. I want your assistance, my good sir, to hold the patients arm while I make an incision for the ball. Now, I rather guess there is not another gentleman present who could scrape the lint so well as Squire Jones!"

"Such things run in families," observed Richard, rising with alacrity to render the desired assistance. "My father, and my grandfather before him, were both celebrated for their knowledge of surgery; they were not, like Marmaduke here, puffed up with an accidental thing, such as the time when he drew in the hip-joint of the man who was thrown from his horse; that was the fall before you came into the settlement, doctor; but they were men who were taught the thing regularly, spending half their lives in learning those little niceties; though, for the matter of that, my grandfather was a college-bred physician, and the best in the colony, too--that is, in his neighborhood."

"So it goes with the world, squire," cried Benjamin; "if so be that a man wants to walk the quarter-deck with credit, dye see, and with regular built swabs on his shoulders, he mustnt think to do it by getting in at the cabin windows. There are two ways to get into a top, besides the lubber-holes. The true way to walk aft is to begin forrard; thof it he only in a humble way, like myself, dye see, which was from being only a hander of topgallant sails, and a stower of the flying-jib, to keeping the key of the captains locker."

Benjamin speaks quite to the purpose, continued Richard, "I dare say that he has often seen shot extracted in the different ships in which he has served; suppose we get him to hold the basin; he must be used to the sight of blood."

"That he is, squire, that he is," interrupted the cidevant steward; "manys the good shot, round, double-headed, and grape, that Ive seen the doctors at work on. For the matter of that, I was in a boat, alongside the ship, when they cut out the twelve-pound shot from the thigh of the captain of the Foodyrong, one of Mounsheer Ler Quaws countrymen!" *

* It is possible that the reader may start at this declaration of Benjamin, but those who have lived in the new settlements of America are too much accustomed to hear of these European exploits to doubt it.

"A twelve-pound ball from the thigh of a human being:" exclaimed Mr. Grant, with great simplicity, dropping the sermon he was again reading, and raising his spectacles to the top of his forehead.

"A twelve-pounder!" echoed Benjamin, staring around him with much confidence; "a twelve-pounder! ay! a twenty-four-pound shot can easily be taken from a mans body, if so be a doctor only knows how, Theres Squire Jones, now, ask him, sir; he reads all the books; ask him if he never fell in with a page that keeps the reckoning of such things."

"Certainly, more important operations than that have been performed," observed Richard; "the encyclopaedia mentions much more incredible circumstances than that, as, I dare say, you know, Dr. Todd."

"Certainly, there are incredible tales told in the encyclopaedias," returned Elnathan, "though I cannot say that I have ever seen, myself, anything larger than a musket ball extracted."

During this discourse an incision had been made through the skin of the young hunters shoulder, and the lead was laid bare. Elnathan took a pair of glittering forceps, and was in the act of applying them to the wound, when a sudden motion of the patient caused the shot to fall out of itself, The long arm and broad hand of the operator were now of singular service; for the latter expanded itself, and caught the lead, while at the same time an extremely ambiguous motion was made by its brother, so as to leave it doubtful to the spectators how great was its agency in releasing the shot, Richard, however, put the matter at rest by exclaiming:

"Very neatly done, doctor! I have never seen a shot more neatly extracted; and I dare say Benjamin will say the same."

"Why, considering," returned Benjamin, "I must say that it was ship- shape and Brister-fashion. Now all that the doctor has to do, is to clap a couple of plugs in the holes, and the lad will float in any gale that blows in these here hills,"

"I thank you, sir, for what you have done," said the youth, with a little distance; "but here is a man who will take me under his care, and spare you all, gentlemen, any further trouble on my account"

The whole group turned their heads in surprise, and beheld, standing at one of the distant doors of the hall, the person of Indian John.

Return to the The Pioneers Summary Return to the James Fenimore Cooper Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.