Authors: Maryrose Wood
For Donna Bray,
the incorrigibly devoted editor of these books
T IS NOT INFLUENZA.
is it dropsy, nor the vapors.” The doctor gave Lady Constance Ashton a sour look. “And it is certainly not the chicken pox. Thank goodness! A disgusting illness, in my opinion. All that itching and scratching.”
His full name was Dr. Charles Veltschmerz. He was a morose and irritable man, not at all the sort of person one would expect to spend his days caring for the sick. His gruff speech and lack of sympathy made his patients feel far worse than they did before; consequently, they put on brave faces and made heroic
efforts to rise from their sickbeds, so as to never have to see the unpleasant doctor again. Naturally, these miraculous cures were attributed to the skill of Dr. Veltschmerz. His reputation grew until he was considered the finest physician in the county.
Barring unexpected illness, we too are unlikely to have a second encounter with Dr. Veltschmerz. In fact, we will do our best to avoid it, and the less said about him, the better. We need not reveal his favorite food (bread pudding) or his preferred style of dancing (oddly enough, the polka, a surprisingly cheerful step for a man so grim). The secret nickname he gave his most beloved childhood toy is completely irrelevant to our tale. (Honey Hee-Haw, the stuffed donkey, was little Charlie's bosom companion for more years than he would care to admit, and even accompanied him to medical school, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed until now.)
No; none of these details about Dr. Veltschmerz are remotely worth mentioning, and you should erase them from your minds at once. What is important is that
is an actual word whose meaning all well-educated people ought to know. (As the polyglots among you are doubtless already aware, the German
is pronounced “Veltschmerz,” and it
meansâbut more on that topic later. Lady Constance has yet to hear her diagnosis, and patience was never one of her virtues.)
A pathetic cry rose from the fainting couch in the front parlor of Ashton Place. Dr. Veltschmerz frowned and arranged his stethoscope around his neck. “Lady Ashton, need I remind you? You are with child. An intruder grows within your womb, and it cares not one whit about your discomfort. The monster is far too busy kicking its tiny, vicious feet and pummeling away with those miniature yet brutal fists. With your permission . . .” He pressed the stethoscope to the lady's heart and listened. “Mother's heartbeat, strong as an ox. Your indigestion, fatigue, backache, and other miseries are all because of this cursÃ©d parasite of a baby.”
“I could hardly feel worse if I had eaten an ox.” Lady Constance leaned back on the couch with operatic weariness. “I am hungry all the time, yet taking a single bite is enough to make me seasick. How much longer am I expected to bear this horrible ordeal?”
“Until spring, when the baby comes. Then you'll have new and worse ordeals to complain about!” Dr. Veltschmerz spoke in a jolly tone, as if he were pleased by this fact.
“Spring? But it is only January!” Lady Constance
tried to sit up and failed, until Mrs. Clarke, the head housekeeper of Ashton Place, gave a helpful boost from behind. “Dr. Veltschmerz, I insist that youâ
At this the doctor laughedâimagine, a doctor laughing at his own patient! “Get used to suffering, that's my advice. Human babies take ten moons to grow properly, and this one will be no exception.”
“Ten moons!” Lady Constance began to weep, and count, but mostly weep. “Moon, moon, moon, moon, moon . . .”
“Ten moons!” Lady Constance began to weep, and count, but mostly weep.
Mrs. Clarke dabbed away the lady's tears with a clean pocket handkerchief, an item that no well-brought-up person ought ever be without. “There, there, my lady,” the kind housekeeper said, with a warning look to the doctor. “Many a woman's been with child before, else none of us would have been born to grow up and complain about our aches and pains, would we? They all managed it somehow, and you will, too, and a sweet little baby makes it all worthwhile in the end. I'm sure that's what the doctor meant to say.”
Dr. Veltschmerz checked his watch. “I will waste no more time at Ashton Place. The lady is perfectly well, and my job is to treat the sick.” To Mrs. Clarke he added, “Your mistress is strong of constitution but
weak of spirit. Tell her to buck up and stop complaining. No need to call me again until the baby comes.”
Mrs. Clarke opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again at once. For her (or anyone else) to tell Lady Constance Ashton to “buck up and stop complaining” was not likely to be well received, and she was only the head housekeeper, after all.
“Very good, sir,” she mumbled, and went to get his coat and hat from the closet.
“O, endless moons of misery!” Lady Constance cried. “Has the medical profession come to this? Will no one help me? Woe, woe, and more woe! I am alone, adrift, abandoned in my hour of need! I hope you are writing all this down, Miss Lumley. Otherwise, no one is likely to believe my tale of abuse. The horror! The cruelty! The injustice!”
And so you see: Miss Penelope Lumley was also present during this unhappy scene. Miss Lumley was the governess at Ashton Place. Her job was to care for the three wards of Lord Fredrick Ashton, otherwise known as the Incorrigible children. However, because of her exceptionally neat handwriting, she had been summoned from the nursery the moment the doctor arrived and told to copy down whatever instructions he might give for the care of Lady Constance. So far
she had not written anything but
strong as an ox
. Near these words she had doodled a four-legged creature that looked rather more like an elk than an ox, but as she had no model to draw from, it was the best she could manage.
She had also doodled ten moons in various phases: full, waning, waxing, gibbous, crescent, and so on. The new moon was hardest to draw, since it cannot be seen, but she got around that by drawing an empty box and writing a caption beneath it that read
new moon (invisible)
“As you wish, my lady,” she answered, and hastily wrote
Dr. V says stop complaining, worse ordeals in store.
Penelope enjoyed both writing and doodling as a rule, but she was not pleased to be stuck in the parlor taking notes. For one thing, it meant that the Incorrigible children were upstairs in the nursery with no one to supervise them but their pet squirrel, Nutsawoo. There was no question that the squirrel was alert; most squirrels are so perpetually nervous that they notice threats both real and imaginary, and sometimes bolt for no reason at all. However, the bushy-tailed rodent did not possess much in the way of judgment, and was therefore not an ideal babysitter.
Penelope doodled an unhappy face inside one of
her full moons. “As a proud graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, I know that a bit of pluck, optimism, and good common sense are more than enough to manage most situations perfectly well,” she thought. Now the moon looked strikingly like Dr. Veltschmerz, especially once she added a frown and two gloomy, down-slanting eyebrows. “Yet I do sometimes wish that storybook magic were real. Why, if I had a magic lamp with one of those wish-giving genies inside, I would use one entire wish just to get rid of this depressing doctor! Why on earth would a person like him enter the medical profession to begin with? Instead he ought to have become . . .”
But kindhearted as she was, Penelope could not think of a position in which being grouchy and unfeeling were actual job qualifications. (Here Penelope's youth and inexperience were in evidence. Hard-hearted people may be no fun to sit next to at parties, but they are just as entitled to earn a living as the rest of us. Fortunatelyâfor them, at leastâthe need for insurance adjusters, tax collectors, theater critics, and the like continues unchecked to this very day.)
“The insensitivity! The lack of human compassion!” Even in her weak condition, Lady Constance somehow found the strength to express her feelings at high
volume. “The misfortune! The misery! The . . . whatever is worse than misery!”
Dr. Veltschmerz latched up his medical bag and retrieved his hat from the waiting hands of Mrs. Clarke. “Lady Ashton, your caterwauling pains my ears. I shall have to call for my own services soon if you do not gain control of yourself! Of course, there is one thing that might improve your health, if not your disposition, but it would be a considerable expense,” he said, as an afterthought. “I will talk it over with your husband, if he is at home.”
At the word “expense,” Lady Constance brightened. “Oh, please do! Fredrick will agree to any expense for my sake, of that I am sure.”
“Poor fellow!” was all that the disagreeable doctor said, and took his leave.
gone, Lady Constance sat up on the sofa and cheerfully demanded luncheon. Despite the lady's complaints, Penelope thought she looked quite well. Her cheeks were plump and pink, her complexion glowed, and her middleâwell, it was not quite as round as it would be, come springtime. But she was halfway into her pregnancy, and somehow the fullness of her face and figure made
her seem less like a doll-like, spoiled young lady of great wealth and little sense, but someone rather more sturdy and robust.
Penelope found it a marked improvement. She only wished the lady's flights of dramatic behavior would alter to match her new, more earthbound physique. But poor Lady Constance was so used to making a fuss, it seemed she could hardly bring herself to stop, even when things were going her way.
“It is a reminder that one ought to choose one's actions carefully, for any sort of behavior can turn into a habit if one repeats it often enough,” Penelope thought. “As Agatha Swanburne once said, âIt is harder to break one bad habit than it is to forge ten good ones.' That is a lesson worth sharing with the childrenâif ever I make my escape from this room, that is!” (Agatha Swanburne was the founder of the Swanburne Academy. Her countless pithy sayings were at the heart of Penelope's education there, but one need not be poor, bright, or female to benefit from the wise lady's advice.
Mrs. Clarke rang the bell to summon food, but Lady Constance could not wait. She declared herself to be “absolutely ravenous” and gestured for Margaret to approach. Margaret was a high-strung girl with a high-pitched voice; even kind doctors made her nervous,
and Dr. Veltschmerz had rendered her mute with fear. Now he was gone, but the young housemaid's hands still trembled. She held a silver tray that bore a plate of thin, plain wafers and several boxes of chocolates.
Obediently she stepped nearer, so that Lady Constance might examine the contents of the tray. After a moment's consideration, the lady swept the food into her lap and gobbled as she spoke. “I wonder what the doctor will have Fredrick buy for me? I am sure it will do me a world of good. A lavish purchase is bound to improve any situation, in my experience. But Mrs. Clarke, what did Dr. Veltschmerz mean when he said ânew and worse ordeals' were in store for me? Surely he was joking!”
Mrs. Clarke blushed, which was not something she often did. “I believe he was referring to when the baby comes, my lady,” she said cautiously. “The birth of a child often has some . . . discomfort . . . involved.”
With a fistful of chocolates melting in one hand, Lady Constance used the other to stuff her mouth with wafers. “Nonsenseâpardon my crumbs. What could be uncomfortable about a baby? They are small and soft, like pillows, and if I tire of holding it, I will simply give it to Margaret to carry.”
Mrs. Clarke folded her arms across her mighty
bosom. “My lady, you do know how the baby is born, do you not?”
Lady Constance's mouth was so full she could barely speak. “Why, that is the doctor's business! I am sure it is none of my concern.”