"How are you to-day, Mrs. Carleton?" asked Dr. Farleigh, as he sat down by his patient, who reclined languidly in a large cushioned chair.
"Miserable," was the faintly spoken reply. And the word was repeated,--"Miserable."
The doctor took one of the lady's small, white hands, on which the network of veins, most delicately traced, spread its blue lines everywhere beneath the transparent skin. It was a beautiful hand--a study for a painter or sculptor. It was a soft, flexible hand--soft, flexible, and velvety to the touch as the hand of a baby, for it was as much a stranger to useful work. The doctor laid his fingers on the wrist. Under the pressure he felt the pulse beat slowly and evenly. He took out his watch and counted the beats, seventy in a minute. There was a no fever, nor any unusual disturbance of the system. Calmly the heart was doing its appointed work.
"How is your head, Mrs. Carleton?"
The lady moved her head from side to side two or three times.
"Anything out of the way there?"
"My head is well enough, but I feel so miserable--so weak. I haven't the strength of a child. The least exertion exhausts me."
And the lady shut her eyes, looking the picture of feebleness.
"Have you taken the tonic, for which I left a prescription yesterday?"
"Yes; but I'm no stronger."
"How is your appetite?"
"Have you taken the morning walk in the garden that I suggested?"
"O, dear, no! Walk out in the garden? I'm faint by the time I get to the breakfast-room! I can't live at this rate, doctor. What am I to do? Can't you build me up in some way? I'm burden to myself and every one else."
And Mrs. Carleton really looked distressed.
"You ride out every day?"
"I did until the carriage was broken, and that was nearly a week ago. It has been at the carriage-maker's ever since."
"You must have the fresh air, Mrs. Carleton," said the doctor, emphatically. "Fresh air, change of scene, and exercise, are indispensable in your case. You will die if you remain shut up after this fashion. Come, take a ride with me."
"Doctor! How absurd!" exclaimed Mrs. Carleton, almost shocked by the suggestion. "Ride with you! What would people think?"
"A fig for people's thoughts! Get your shawl and bonnet, and take a drive with me. What do you care for meddlesome people's thoughts? Come!"
The doctor knew his patient.
"But you're not in earnest, surely?" There was a half-amused twinkle in the lady's eyes.
"Never more in earnest. I'm going to see a patient just out of the city, and the drive will be a charming one. Nothing would please me better than to have your company."
There was a vein of humor, and a spirit of "don't care" in Mrs. Carleton, which had once made her independent, and almost hoydenish. But fashionable associations, since her woman-life began, had toned her down into exceeding propriety. Fashion and conventionality, however, were losing their influence, since enfeebled health kept her feet back from the world's gay places; and the doctor's invitation to a ride found her sufficiently disenthralled to see in it a pleasing novelty.
"I've half a mind to go," she said, smiling. She had not smiled before since the doctor came in.
"I'll ring for your maid," and Dr. Farleigh's hand was on the bell-rope before Mrs. Carleton had space to think twice, and endanger a change of thought.
"I'm not sure that I am strong enough for the effort," said Mrs. Carleton, and she laid her head back upon the cushions in a feeble way.
"Trust me for that," replied the doctor.
The maid came in.
"Bring me a shawl and my bonnet, Alice; I am going to ride out with the doctor." Very languidly was the sentence spoken.
"I'm afraid, doctor, it will be too much for me. You don't know how weak I am. The very thought of such an effort exhausts me."
"Not a thought of the effort," replied Dr. Farleigh. "It isn't that."
"What is it?"
"A thought of appearances--of what people will say."
"Now, doctor! You don't think me so weak in that direction?"
"Just so weak," was the free-spoken answer. "You fashionable people are all afraid of each other. You haven't a spark of individuality or true independence. No, not a spark. You are quite strong enough to ride out in your own elegant carriage but with the doctor!--O, dear, no! If you were certain of not meeting Mrs. McFlimsey, perhaps the experiment might be adventured. But she is always out on fine days."
"Doctor, for shame! How can you say that?"
And a ghost of color crept into the face of Mrs. Carleton, while her eyes grew brighter--almost flashed.
The maid came in with shawl and bonnet. Dr. Farleigh, as we have intimated, understood his patient, and said just two or three words more, in a tone half contemptuous.
"Afraid of Mrs. McFlimsey!"
"Not I; nor of forty Mrs. McFlimseys!"
It was not the ghost of color that warmed Mrs. Carleton's face now, but the crimson of a quicker and stronger heart-beat. She actually arose from her chair without reaching for her maid's hand and stood firmly while the shawl was adjusted and the bonnet-strings tied.
"We shall have a charming ride," said the doctor, as he crowded in beside his fashionable lady companion, and took up the loose reins. He noticed that she sat up erectly, and with scarcely a sign of the languor that but a few minutes before had so oppressed her. "Lean back when you see Mrs. McFlimsey's carriage, and draw your veil closely. She'll never dream that it's you."
"I'll get angry if you play on that string much longer!" exclaimed Mrs. Carleton; "what do I care for Mrs. McFlimsey?"
How charmingly the rose tints flushed her cheeks! How the light rippled in her dark sweet eyes, that were leaden a little while before!
Away from the noisy streets, out upon the smoothly-beaten road, and amid green field and woodlands, gardens and flower-decked orchards, the doctor bore his patient, holding her all the while in pleasant talk. How different this from the listless, companionless drives taken by the lady in her own carriage--a kind of easy, vibrating machine, that quickened the sluggish blood no more than a cushioned rocking chair!
Closely the doctor observed his patient. He saw how erectly she continued to sit; how the color deepened in her face, which actually seemed rounder and fuller; how the sense of enjoyment fairly danced in her eyes.
Returning to the city by a different road, the doctor, after driving through streets entirely unfamiliar to his companion, drew up his horse before a row of mean-looking dwellings, and dropping the reins, threw open the carriage door, and stepped upon the pavement--at the same time reaching out his hand to Mrs. Carleton. But she drew back, saying,--
"What is the meaning of this, doctor?"
"I have a patient here, and I want you to see her."
"O, no; excuse me, doctor. I've no taste for such things," answered the lady.
"Come--I can't leave you alone in the carriage. Ned might take a fancy to walk off with you."
Mrs. Carleton glanced at the patient old horse, whom the doctor was slandering, with a slightly alarmed manner.
"Don't you think he'll stand, doctor?" she asked, uneasily.
"He likes to get home, like others of his tribe. Come;" and the doctor held out his hand in a persistent way.
Mrs. Carleton looked at the poor tenements before which the doctor's carriage had stopped with something of disgust and something of apprehension.
"I can never go in there, doctor."
"I might take some disease."
"Never fear. More likely to find a panacea there."
The last sentence was in an undertone.
Mrs. Carleton left the carriage, and crossing the pavement, entered one of the houses, and passed up with the doctor to the second story. To his light tap at a chamber door a woman's voice said,--
The door was pushed open, and the doctor and Mrs. Carleton went in. The room was small, and furnished in the humblest manner, but the air was pure, and everything looked clean and tidy. In a chair, with a pillow pressed in at her back for a support, sat a pale, emaciated woman, whose large, bright eyes looked up eagerly, and in a kind of hopeful surprise, at so unexpected a visitor as the lady who came in with the doctor. On her lap a baby was sleeping, as sweet, and pure, and beautiful a baby as ever Mrs. Carleton had looked upon. The first impulse of her true woman's heart, had she yielded to it, would have prompted her to take it in her arms and cover it with kisses.
The woman was too weak to rise from her chair, but she asked Mrs. Carleton to be seated in a tone of lady-like self-possession that did not escape the visitor's observation.
"How did you pass the night, Mrs. Leslie?" asked the doctor.
"About as usual," was answered, in a calm, patient way; and she even smiled as she spoke.
"How about the pain through your side and shoulder?"
"It may have been a little easier."
"What of the night sweats?"
"I don't think they have diminished any."
The doctor beat his eyes to the floor, and sat in silence for some time. The heart of Mrs. Carleton was opening towards--the baby and it was a baby to make its way into any heart. She had forgotten her own weakness--forgotten, in the presence of this wan and wasted mother, with a sleeping cherub on her lap, all about her own invalid state.
"I will send you a new medicine," said the doctor, looking up; then speaking to Mrs. Carleton, he added,--
"Will you sit here until I visit two or three patients in the block?"
"O, certainly," and she reached out her arms for the baby, and removed it so gently from its mother's lap that its soft slumber was not broken. When the doctor returned he noticed that there had been tears in Mrs. Carleton's eyes. She was still holding the baby, but now resigned the quiet sleeper to its mother, kissing it as she did so. He saw her look with a tender, meaning interest at the white, patient face of the sick woman, and heard her say, as she spoke a word or two in parting,--
"I shall not forget you."
"That's a sad case, doctor," remarked the lady, as she took her place in the carriage.
"It is. But she is sweet and patient."
"I saw that, and it filled me with surprise. She tells me that her husband died a year ago."
"And that she has supported herself by shirt-making."
"But that she had become too feeble for work, and is dependent on a younger sister, who earns a few dollars, weekly, at book-folding."
"The simple story, I believe," said the doctor.
Mrs. Carleton was silent for most of the way home; but thought was busy. She had seen a phase of life that touched her deeply.
"You are better for this ride," remarked the doctor, as he handed her from the carriage.
"I think so," replied Mrs. Carleton.
"There has not been so fine a color on your face for months."
They had entered Mrs. Carleton's elegant residence, and were sitting in one of her luxurious parlors.
"Shall I tell you why?" added the doctor.
Mrs. Carleton bowed.
"You have had some healthy heart-beats."
She did not answer.
"And I pray you, dear madam, let the strokes go on," continued Dr. Farleigh. "Let your mind become interested in some good work, and your hands obey your thoughts, and you will be a healthy woman, in body and soul. Your disease is mental inaction."
Mrs. Carleton looked steadily at the doctor.
"You are in earnest," she said, in a calm, firm way.
"Wholly in earnest, ma'am. I found you, an hour ago, in so weak a state that to lift your hand was an exhausting effort. You are sitting erect now, with every muscle taughtly strung. When will your carriage be home?"
He asked the closing question abruptly.
"To-morrow," was replied.
"Then I will not call for you, but--"
"Say on, doctor."
"Will you take my prescription?"
"Yes." There was no hesitation.
"You must give that sick woman a ride into the country. The fresh, pure, blossom-sweet air will do her good--may, indeed, turn the balance of health in her favor. Don't be afraid of Mrs. McFlimsey."
"For shame, doctor! But you are too late in your suggestion. I'm quite ahead of you."
"Ah! in what respect?"
"That drive into the country is already a settled thing. Do you know, I'm in love with that baby?"
"Othello's occupation's gone, I see!" returned the doctor, rising. "But I may visit you occasionally as a friend, I presume, if not as a medical adviser?"
"As my best friend, always," said Mrs. Carleton, with feeling. "You have led me out of myself, and showed me the way to health and happiness; and I have settled the question as to my future. It shall not be as the past."
And it was not.