The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Part II - The Struggle, Chapter X

The Lady Venetia de Phillips, as the young woman used to call herself in the doll age, had never set foot in a common street car, or, indeed, in anything more public than a day coach on the suburban train; and in that only because the railroad had not found it profitable to provide as yet in that service a special coach for her class. For Mrs. Phillips, who had known what it was to ride in an Ottumwa buggy, comfortably cushioned by the stout arm of an Ottumwa swain, understood intuitively the cardinal principle of class evolution, which is separation. Therefore she had carefully educated her children according to that principle.

So it happened shortly before Mrs. Phillips had taken possession of her new home that Miss Phillips, wishing to pay a visit to her new friend who lived on the North Side of the city, was driving in her mother's victoria, in dignity, according to her estate. Beside her sat her favorite terrier, Pete, scanning the landscape of the dirty streets through which they were obliged to pass from the South to the North Side. Suddenly, as the carriage turned a corner, Pete spied a long, lank wharf rat, of a kind that did not inhabit his own more cleanly neighborhood. The terrier took one impulsive leap between the wheels of the victoria, and was off up Illinois Street after the rat. It was a good race; the Lady Venetia's sporting blood rose, and she ordered the coachman to follow. Suddenly there dashed from an alley a light baker's wagon, driven by a reckless youth. Pete, unmindful of the clattering wagon, intent upon his loping prey, was struck full in the middle of his body: two wheels passed diagonally across him, squeezing him to the pavement like an india-rubber ball. For a moment he lay there stretched in the street, and then he dragged himself to the sidewalk, filling the air with hideous howls. The passers-by stopped, but the reckless youth in the baker's wagon, having leaned out to see what damage had been done, grinned, shook his reins, and was off.

Before the coachman had brought the victoria to a full stop Venetia was out and across the street. Pete had crawled into an alley, where he lay in a little heap, moaning. When his mistress tried to gather him into her skirt he whimpered and showed his teeth. Something was radically wrong! The small boys who had gathered advised throwing Pete into the river, and offered to do the deed. But Venetia, the tears falling from her eyes, turned back into the street to take counsel with the coachman. A young man who was hurrying by, swinging a little satchel and whistling to himself, stopped.

"What's up?" he asked, ceasing to whistle at sight of the girl's tears.

Venetia pointed to the dog, and the stranger, pushing the small boys aside, leaned over Pete.

"Gee! he's pretty well mashed, ain't he? Here, Miss, I'll give him a smell of this and send him to by-by."

He opened his little satchel and hunted for a bottle. Venetia timidly touched his arm.

"Please don't kill him!"

"That's just what I'm going to do, sure thing!" He paused, with the little vial in his hand, and looked coolly at the girl. "You don't want the pup to suffer like that?"

"But can't he be saved?"

The stranger looked again at Pete, then back at Venetia. Finally he tied a handkerchief over the dog's mouth, and began to examine him carefully.

"Let's see what there's left of you after the mix-up, Mr. Doggie. We'll give you the benefit of our best attention and skill,—more'n most folks ever get in this world,—because you are the pet of a nice young lady. If you were just an alley-cat, you wouldn't even get the chloroform. Well, Miss, he'd have about one chance in a hundred, after he had that hind leg cut off."

"Are you a doctor? Do you think that you could cure him? Mamma will be very glad to pay you for your services."

"Is that so?" the stranger remarked. "How do you know that my services don't come too high for your mother's purse? Well, come on, pup! We'll see what can be done for you."

Drawing the improvised muzzle tighter, he gathered Pete up in a little bundle. Then he strode down the street to the west. The coachman drew up beside the curb and touched his hat.

"Won't you get in?" Venetia asked.

"It's only a step or so to my place," he answered gruffly. "You can follow me in the carriage."

But she kept one hand on Pete, and walked beside the stranger until he stopped at an old, one-story, wooden cottage. Above the door was painted in large black letters, "S. COBURN, M.D., PHYSICIAN AND SURGEON."

"May I come in?" the girl asked timidly.

"Sure! Why would I keep you sitting on the door-step?"

Inside there was a little front hall apparently used as a waiting-room for patients. Back of this was a large bare room, occupying the remaining floor space of the cottage, into which the doctor led the way. A wooden bench extended the entire length of this room underneath a row of rough windows, which had been cut in the wall to light the bench. Over in one corner was a cot, with the bedclothes negligently dragging on the floor. Near by was an iron sink. On a table in the centre of the room, carefully guarded by a glass case, was a complex piece of mechanism which looked to the girl like one of the tiresome machines her teacher of physics was wont to exhibit.

"My laboratory," the doctor explained somewhat grandly.

Venetia stepped gingerly across the cluttered floor, glancing about with curiosity. The doctor placed the dog on the table and turned on several electric lights.

"You'll have to help at this performance," he remarked, taking off his coat.

Together they gave Pete an opiate and removed the muzzle. The doctor then turned him over and poked him here and there.

"Well," he pronounced, "Pete has a full bill. Compound fracture, broken rib, and mashed toes. And I don't know what all on the inside. He has a slim chance of limping around on three legs. Shall I give him some more dope? What do you say?"

"Pete was a gamy dog," Venetia replied thoughtfully. "I think he would like to have all his chances."

"Good!" The doctor tossed aside the sponge that he had held ready to give Pete his farewell whiff. He told the girl how to hold the dog, and how to touch the sponge to his nose from time to time. They were absorbed in the operation when the coachman pushed his way into the room.

"What shall I do, Miss, about the horses? Mis' Phillips gave particler instructions I wasn't to stay out after five-thurty. It's most that now."

"Tell him to go home," the doctor ordered. "We'll be an hour more."

"But how shall I get home then?" the girl asked, perplexed.

"On your feet, I guess, same as most folks," the doctor answered, testing a knife on his finger. "And the cars ain't stopped running on the South Side, have they?"

"I don't know. I never use them," Venetia replied helplessly.

The doctor put the knife down beside Pete and looked at the girl from her head to her feet, a teasing smile creeping over his swarthy face.

"Well, it's just about time for you to find out what they're good for. I'll take you home myself just to see how you like them. You won't get hurt, not a bit. You may go, Thomas!" He waved his hand ironically to the coachman. "And when you go out, be good enough to slip the latch. We have a little business to attend to in here, and don't want to be interrupted."

When the coachman had left, Venetia turned to the doctor with a red face, and copying her mother's most impressive tones, asked:—

"What would you like me to do now, Dr. Coburn?"

"Nothing special. Turn your back if you don't like to see me take a chop out of doggie."

He laughed at her dignity; therefore she kept her face turned resolutely on poor Pete. She could not help being interested in the man as she watched his swift movements. The doctor was stocky and short, black-haired, with a short black mustache that did not disguise the perpetual sardonic smile of his lips. She noticed that his trousers were very baggy and streaked at the bottoms with mud. They were the trousers of a man who, according to her experience, was not a gentleman. The frayed cravat, which showed its cotton filling, belonged to the same category as the trousers. But there was something in the fierce black eyes, the heavy jaw, the nervous grip of the lips when the man was thinking, that awed the girl. The more Venetia looked at him, the more she was afraid of him; not afraid that he would do any harm to her, but vaguely afraid of his strength, his force. His bare arms were thick and hairy, although the fingers were supple, and he touched things lightly. Altogether he was a strange person in her little world, and somewhat terrifying.

The doctor talked all the time, while he worked swiftly over the dog, describing to the girl just what he was doing. Venetia watched him without flinching, though the tears would roll down her face. She put one hand under Pete's limp head to hold it, as she would have liked to have her head held under the same circumstances. At last the doctor straightened himself and exclaimed:—

"Correct! He's done up in first-class style." He went to the sink and washed his arms and hands. "Yes, Peter is as well patched as if the great Dr. Cutem had done it himself and charged you ten thousand dollars for the job. I donno' but it's better done. And he would have charged you all right!" He gave a loud, ironical laugh and swashed the water over his bare arms. Then he came back to the operating table, wiping his hands and arms on a roller towel that was none too clean.

"You can quit that sponge now, Miss, and I guess doggie won't appreciate the little attention of holding his head yet awhile. He hasn't got to the flower-and-fruit stage yet, have you, eh, purp?"

Venetia stood like a little girl, awkwardly waiting for orders.

"What's your name?" the doctor demanded abruptly.

"Venetia—Venetia Phillips."

"Well, Miss Venetia, you seem fond of animals. Would you like to see my collection?"

Without waiting for an answer he strode to the farther end of the room and opened a trap-door.

"Come over here!"

The girl peeped through the trap-door into the cellar. There, in a number of pens, were huddled a small menagerie of animals,—dogs, cats, guinea-pigs, rabbits.

"What do you do with all of them?" the girl asked, her heart sinking with foreboding.

"Cut 'em up!"

"Cut them up?"

"Sure! And dose 'em. This is an experimental laboratory." The doctor waved his hand rather grandly over the dirty room. "There are not many like it in the city of Chicago, I can tell you. I am conducting investigations, and I use these little fellers."

"It's horrid!" the girl exclaimed, looking apprehensively at Pete.

"Not a bit of it!" The doctor reached down his hand and pulled up a rabbit, a little mangy object, which tottered a few steps and then fell down as if dizzy. "Jack's had fifteen drops of the solution of hydrochlorate of manganese this morning. He looks kind of dopy, don't he? He'll be as smart as a trivet to-morrow. But I guess he's about reached his limit of hydrochlorate, eh, Jack?"

In spite of herself the girl's curiosity was aroused, and when the doctor had returned Jack to his pen, she asked, "What's that queer machine over there?"

"That's to pump things into your body, to squirt medicines into you, instead of dropping them into your tummy loose, as doctors usually do. See? When I stick this long needle into you and work this handle, a little stream of the thing I want to give you is pumped into your body at the right spot. Have you got anything the matter with your liver? I am working on livers just now. Would you like to have me try it on you? No! I thought not. That's why Jack has to take his dose every morning."

He went into his explanation more thoroughly, and they talked of many things that were as wonderful to Venetia, brought up in the modern city of Chicago, as if she had come out of Thibet.

"I suppose I shall have to leave Pete here," she said at last. "May I come to see him sometimes?"

"Sure! As often as you like. I'm generally in afternoons. I'll telephone if the patient's pulse gets feeble or his temperature goes up."

"You needn't make fun of me! And I think I can find my way home alone," she added, as the doctor took his hat from the table and jammed it on his head.

"I said I'd go home with you. I am not going to miss seeing you take that first ride on the cable, not much! Perhaps you won't mind walking across the bridge and up the avenue to the cable line? It's a pretty evening, and it will do you good to take the air along the river."

So the two started for the city and crossed the busy thoroughfare of the Rush Street Bridge just as the twilight was touching the murky waters of the river. The girl was uncomfortably conscious that the man by her side was a very shabbily dressed escort. She was glad that the uncertain light would hide her from any of her acquaintances that might be driving across the bridge at this hour. The doctor seemed to be in no hurry; he paused on the bridge to watch a tug push a fat grain boat up the river, until they were almost caught by the turning draw.

"That's a fine sight!" he remarked.

"Yes, the sunset is beautiful," she replied conventionally.

"No! I mean that big vessel loaded with grain. That's what you live on: it's what you are,—that and a lot of dirty cattle over in the pens of the stock yard. That's you, Miss Venetia,—black hair, pink cheeks, and all!"

"What a very materialistic way of looking at life!" Venetia replied severely.

"Lord, child!" the doctor exclaimed ironically. "Who taught you that horrid word?" Then he proceeded to give her a little lecture on the beauties of physiology, which occupied her attention all the way to the cable car, so that she forgot her snobbish anxieties.

The car was crowded, and no one of the tired men who were reading their newspapers was gallant enough to offer her a seat. So she was obliged to stand crowded in a corner, swaying from a strap overhead, while the persistent doctor told her all about the car, the motive power, the operatives, the number of passengers carried daily, the dispute over the renewal of the franchise for the road, and kindred matters of common concern.

"Now, it's likely enough some of your folks own a block of watered stock in this concern," he concluded in his clear, high voice, that made itself felt above the rattle of the car. "And you are helping to pay them their dividends. Some day, though, maybe the rest of us won't want to go on paying them five cents to ride in their old cars. Then the water will dry up, the stock will go down, and perhaps you'll have one or two dresses less every year. You'll remember then I told you the reason why!"

Venetia had heard enough about stocks and bonds to know that a good deal of the Phillips money was invested in the City Railway. But she had also learned from her earliest youth that it was very vulgar for a man to discuss money matters with a girl. Furthermore, peering about the crowded conveyance, she had caught sight of Porter Howe, one of her brother Stanwood's friends. He was looking at her and the doctor, and she began to feel uncomfortable again. It had never occurred to her that the young men of her class were in the habit of using the street cars, at least until they had reached those assured positions at the head of industry which always awaited them.

So the novelty of the ride in the public car had something of torture in it, and she was glad enough to escape through the front door at Eighteenth Street.

"Won't you come in?" she asked the doctor politely when they came to the formidable pile of red brick where she lived.

"Thanks! I guess not to-day. I don't believe your folks will want me to stay to supper, and I am getting hungry. Hope you enjoyed your ride. Some day I'll come and take you for a trolley ride somewhere else."

He shook her hand vigorously and laughed. Then he started briskly for the city, his hands thrust in his trousers pockets, his black felt hat drawn forward over his brows. But Venetia had barely mounted the first bank of steps before she heard her name called in a loud voice from the street.

"Say, Miss Venetia!"

The doctor was shouting back to her, one hand at the side of his mouth.

"Don't you worry about that pup! I think I can bring him round all right."

She nodded nervously and stepped into the vestibule with a sense of relief from her companion. She knew that Dr. Coburn was what her brother called a "mucker," and her mother spoke of as a "fellow." Yet she felt that there was something in the man to be respected, and this insight, it may be said, distinguished Miss Venetia from her mother and her brother.


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