Authors: Jim Piecuch
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For my son, Michael
wakened before dawn by the clop of horses' hooves and the clatter of wagons that signaled the start of a London workday, the young woman immediately pulled back the tattered piece of blanket from her son's face, lay her cheek an inch above his mouth, and tensely waited to feel his breath. This had become her habit over the past few months, as the boy's condition slowly but steadily worsened. The faint puff of the boy's exhalation prompted a deep sigh of relief from the woman. The small child in her lap had survived another freezing night on the city streets.
The woman's sigh awoke her neighbor, an old woman, perhaps fifty, who had come down the alley during the night to share the recessed doorway that provided a feeble shelter from the cold and wind. The old woman coughedâa deep, throaty hackâthen looked at the child, held tightly in his mother's arms.
“He's a sickly one, aren't he?” the old woman asked, her words difficult to understand because most of her teeth were missing.
“Yes,” the young woman answered.
“Pardon me for sayin' so, but he aren't long for this world,” the old woman declared with a glance at the child's pale face. “It'd be a mercy if you let 'im go in the night, when he's sleepin'. A mercy to you both. Just let the cold take 'im. He'll be gone sure, no matter what you do, and the longer he lasts, the harder it'll be for you.”
The old woman clearly had more to say, but stopped when she saw the expression on the younger woman's face.
“Beggin' yer pardon,” the old woman said, getting to her feet and stretching. “When you been out 'ere long as I 'ave, you learn to think 'bout yourself first. That or you die.”
Pulling her threadbare cloak about her, she walked stiffly down the alley, her joints sore from huddling all night against the plank door.
The young woman remained silent. The crone had made her angry, in part because she could see in the old woman her own likely future, a future she dreaded: the nightmare of spending the rest of her life wandering the streets, sleeping in doorways. But more than that, the old woman had put into words what she had been fearingâthat her son was dying. She would never, however, consign him to death without doing everything she could to find help for him.
If she was to save her son's life, the woman would need to find a doctor very soon. The few coins she had saved would not begin to cover the cost of a physician. When she was sick as a child, what had her parents done? They had been poor, though not as poor as she was now.
Then she remembered. Once, when she had been very sick, a doctor had come, cared for her, and made her well. And he had done it at no cost. She remembered him, a thin, light-haired man with a concerned manner. That was her strongest memory of him, the kind eyes that assured her that he truly cared, that he wanted her to be well. He must still be somewhere in London, and she resolved to find him. He would help her son, had to help him. The young woman could not recall the doctor's first name, Tom or Ted, something with a
. But she remembered his last name. It was unusual, and that should make him easier to find. The doctor's name was Cratchit.
r. Timothy Cratchit emerged from his Harley Street office shortly after six-thirty in the evening. He was surprised to find that the yellow-gray fog that had blanketed London for the past week had disappeared, swept away by a biting north wind. He paused for a moment to gaze up at the stars, a rare sight in the usually haze-choked city. Then, pulling his scarf tightly around his neck, he walked quickly down the steps and along the path to the curb, where his brougham waited. The horses, a chestnut gelding and another of dappled gray, stomped their hooves on the cobblestone pavement. They made an odd pair, but Tim had chosen them for their gentle nature rather than their appearance. As the doctor approached, his coachman smiled and swung open the side door. The coach's front and rear lamps barely pierced December's early darkness.
“Good evening, Doctor,” the coachman said as Tim approached.
“Good evening, Henry,” the doctor replied. “How are you tonight?”
The coachman, who was tall and lean, wore a knee-length black wool coat and a black top hat, his ears covered by an incongruous-looking strip of wool cloth below the brim.
“Cold, sir,” Henry replied. Tim grasped the vertical rail alongside the carriage door and was about to hoist himself inside when he heard a shout. Stepping back from the carriage, he turned to his left, toward the direction where the sound had come from.
The gas lamps along the street penetrated just enough of the gloom to allow Tim to distinguish a figure hurrying toward him. As the person drew nearer, Tim could see that it was a woman, clutching a dirty bundle to her chest. Thousands of poor women in London made a meager living sifting through the city's dustbins for usable items and selling them for whatever pittance they could fetch. The bundle this woman cradled so carefully probably contained an assortment of odd candlesticks, worn shoes, frayed shirts, and the like. Still, this was not someone who would normally frequent Harley Street.
“Wait a moment, please,” Tim told the coachman, resignation in his voice. He was eager to get home, and too tired to wait while the woman unwrapped the bundle. He reached into his trousers pocket, found a half crown and two shillings to give her so that she would continue on her way.
When the woman came to a stop in front of him, Tim noticed with surprise that she was young, perhaps twenty years old. She was small, not much over five feet tall, clad in a tattered dress covered by a dirty, threadbare gray blanket that she had fashioned into a hooded cloak. Her dark brown hair was matted in greasy clumps, and a smudge of dirt smeared her right cheek. Her face, though it was beginning to show the premature wear of a hard life, was still quite pretty. She stood with her brown eyes downcast, silently waiting for Tim to acknowledge her.
“Can I help you, miss?”
“Thank you for waiting, sir,” the woman said, still struggling to catch her breath. “I was hoping that you could take a look at my son. He's very sick.” She tugged back a corner of what appeared to be a piece of the same blanket that constituted her cloak to reveal the face of an infant.
Tim suppressed a groan. It had been a long dayâall his days seemed long nowâand he was eager to get home. “Come inside, please,” he instructed the woman. To Henry he said, “This shouldn't take too long.”
Unlocking the office door, Tim went inside, lit a lamp, and then held the door for the woman and baby to enter. Inside, the woman gazed at him with an earnestness that aroused his sympathy.
“I'm very sorry to bother you like this, Doctor. I didn't mean to come so late, but I had to walk all the way from the East End, and it took longer than I thought,” she explained. “I never would have found your office yet, except that a kind old gentleman asked if I was lost and then pointed me to your door. A friend of yours, he said.”
“Well,” Tim replied in a reassuring tone, “you're fortunate that I had to work late; I usually close the office at six.”
The woman shuffled her feet uneasily. “If it's too late, sir, we can come back tomorrow.”
“No, no, that's all right. Now tell me, what is the matter?”
“It's my Jonathan, sir. He's been sickly since birth, and now he's getting worse,” she said. Tim noticed that her eyes were moist.
“Let's take him into the examination room.” Tim led them in, lit the lamps. The woman laid the child on the table and pulled back the blanket and other wrappings. Tim was shocked to see that the boy was not an infantâhis facial features were too developedâbut he was clearly undersized, and Tim did not dare hazard a guess as to his age.
“How old is the little fellow?”
“Three last summer, sir.”
Tim studied the boy. His eyes were open, brown like his mother's, and though they gazed intently at Tim, the little body was limp. No mental defect, but something physical, and severe. Tim placed a thumb in each of the tiny hands.
“Can you squeeze my thumbs, Jonathan?” he asked. The boy did so, feebly.
“Very good!” Tim said. Jonathan smiled.
“I didn't know who else to go to, sir,” the woman explained as Tim flexed the boy's arms and legs. “There's no doctors who want to see the likes of us, but then I remembered you, sir. You took care of me many years back, when I had a fever. You came by the East End every week then, sir, and took care of the poor folk.”
“I'm sorry, but I treated so many patients that I can't recall you, Miss, ah, Mrs.â”
“It's Miss, Doctor. Jonathan's father was a sailor. We were supposed to marry, but I never seen him since before Jonathan was born. My name's Ginny Whitson.”
It was already clear to Tim that the child, like his thin, almost gaunt mother, was badly malnourished. That accounted in part for his small size. Tim also noticed that the boy's leg muscles were extremely weak. Jonathan remained quiet, looking at the strange man with a mixture of curiosity and fear.
“Does Jonathan walk much?” Tim asked.
“No, sir, never a step. He could stand a bit until a few weeks ago, but now he can't even do that. I think it's the lump on his back, Doctor.”
Tim carefully turned the boy over to find a plum-sized swelling along the left edge of his spine at waist level. He touched it lightly, and Jonathan whimpered. “How long has he had this?” Tim asked.
“I didn't notice it till a year ago, sir. It was tiny then, but it's grown since. In the last month or so it's gone from about the size of a grape to this big.”
Tim hesitated. He needed to do some research and then give Jonathan a more thorough examination before he could accurately diagnose and treat the boy's condition. He did have several possibilities in mind, none of them good, but there was no sense alarming Ginny prematurely. After she had swathed her child in the bundle of cloth, Tim ushered them back into the waiting room, where he studied his appointment book.
“Can you come back at noon on Saturday? I'm sorry to make you wait that long, but I have some things to check, and it will take time.” Ginny nodded. “I'll see then what I can do,” Tim said.
“Oh, Doctor, thank you so much,” Ginny blurted, grateful for any help regardless of when it might come. She shifted Jonathan to her left arm, and thrust her right hand into the pocket of her frayed and patched black dress. Removing a small felt sack, she emptied a pile of copper coins onto the clerk's desk. Most were farthings and halfpennies, with an occasional large penny interspersed among them.
“I know this isn't enough even for today, sir,” she apologized. “But I'll get more, I promise. I'm working hard, you see, sir. Every day I go door-to-door and get work cleaning house and doing laundry and save all I can.”
With his right hand, Tim swept the coins across the desktop into his cupped left palm and returned them to Ginny. He was touched by her attempt to pay him, knowing that she must have gone without food many times to accumulate this small amount of money. Her devotion to her son and effort to demonstrate her independence impressed him.
“There isn't any fee, Miss Whitson. I'll be happy to do whatever I can for Jonathan at no charge.”
“But I can't accept charity, Doctor,” the surprised woman answered. “It wouldn't be right, taking your time away from your paying patients.”
“We all need charity in one form or another at some time in our lives,” Tim said. “I wouldn't be where I am today if not for a great act of charity long ago, and as for taking time away from my paying patients, that may be more of a benefit than a problem. Come along, now, and I'll give you and Jonathan a ride home.”
Tim locked the office door and escorted Ginny and Jonathan to his coach as tears trickled down her face, picking up dirt from the smudge on her cheek and tracking it down to her chin. Jonathan began to cry soon after the coach got under way, and Ginny comforted him with a lullaby, one that Tim remembered his own mother singing to him. When the child finally fell asleep, both remained silent, afraid to wake him. Once they reached the narrow streets packed with sailors, beggars, drunks, and an assortment of London's other poor wretches, Ginny asked to be let out. Tim knocked twice on the roof, and Henry reined in the horses.
As she was about to step out of the carriage, something she had said earlier occurred to Tim. “One moment, Miss Whitson. You mentioned that someone directed you to my office. Do you know who he was?”
“No, Doctor,” she replied, “and he didn't say. He was an old gentleman, thin, with a long nose and white hair. Neatly dressed, but his clothes weren't fancy, if you know what I mean, sir.”
Tim bade her good night and watched as she walked down the sidewalk, past gin mills and dilapidated rooming houses. She soon turned into the recessed doorway of a darkened pawnshop and settled herself on the stone pavement. Tim briefly thought of going back to find out if she even had a home, or if she was going to spend the night in the doorway. Fatigue slowed his thoughts, however, and by the time the idea took root, the carriage was a block away and gathering speed.
Tim lay back against the soft, leather-covered seat cushions, pondering which of his Harley Street neighbors had directed her to his office. Most of them would have ignored such a woman, or ordered her back to the slums. Her description, though, didn't fit any of them. He shook his head, trying to remove the cobwebs from his tired mind. It must have been someone else, someone he just couldn't recall in his fuddled state. No sense wrestling with the question, he concluded.
During the long drive across town to his home in the western outskirts of London, Tim tried to relax. It had been another in a seemingly endless string of days filled with consultations and surgeries. Tim had arrived at his office at five-thirty that morning, half an hour earlier than usual, to prepare for a seven o'clock operation on the Duchess of Wilbersham. She had been complaining for weeks about pain in her left shoulder, which she attributed to a strain that refused to heal. Since she never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards at her daily whist game, Tim doubted the explanation, and several examinations showed no sign of any real injury. The duchess had a reputation as a hypochondriac who sought treatment for her phantom ailments from the best doctors in London, then bragged about how she managed to maintain her health by not stinting on the cost of good medical care. To placate the pompous woman, Tim had finally caved in to her demand that he operate to repair the tendons and ligaments she insisted had been damaged. Because the surgery was minor and the duchess, with good reason, abhorred hospitals, Tim performed the operation in his office, which was equipped for such tasks. A small incision and internal examination verified his suspicion that the duchess's shoulder was perfectly sound. When she awoke, with more pain from the surgery than she had ever experienced from her imaginary injury, along with sutures and an application of carbolic acid to prevent infection, she swore that the shoulder had not felt so well in ten years. Tim wondered if she would be so pleased when the effects of the morphine wore off.
“Just give the doctor that bag of coins I asked you to bring,” the duchess had ordered her maidservant. “I won't insult you, Dr. Cratchit, by asking your fee, but I'm sure there's more than enough here to cover it, and worth every farthing, too.”
When Tim's clerk opened the leather pouch, he found it contained one hundred gold guineas. Tim could not help contrasting the way his wealthy patients tossed gold coins about with Ginny Whitson's offer of her pathetic little hoard of coppers. The thought stirred memories of his own childhood, when pennies were so scarce that he and his brothers and sisters sometimes had to roam through frigid alleys to scavenge wood scraps to keep a fire burning on winter nights. It was on one such night when he lay awake, shivering on his thin straw mattress, that he overheard the conversation that changed his life.
“I'm to get a raise in salary,” his father murmured excitedly, trying not to wake the children.