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Tales and Sketches

My summer with Dr. Singletary.

A Fragment.

Chapter 1:

Dr. Singletary is dead!

Well, what of it? All who live die sooner or later; and pray who was Dr. Singletary, that his case should claim particular attention?

Why, in the first place, Dr. Singletary, as a man born to our common inheritance of joy and sorrow, earthly instincts and heavenward aspirations, —our brother in sin and suffering, wisdom and folly, love, and pride, and vanity,—has a claim upon the universal sympathy. Besides, whatever the living man may have been, death has now invested him with its great solemnity. He is with the immortals. For him the dark curtain has been lifted. The weaknesses, the follies, and the repulsive mental and personal idiosyncrasies which may have kept him without the sphere of our respect and sympathy have now fallen off, and he stands radiant with the transfiguration of eternity, God's child, our recognized and acknowledged brother. [198]

Dr. Singletary is dead. He was an old man, and seldom, of latter years, ventured beyond the precincts of his neighborhood. He was a single man, and his departure has broken no circle of family affection. He was little known to the public, and is now little missed. The village newspaper simply appended to its announcement of his decease the customary post mortem compliment, ‘Greatly respected by all who knew him;’ and in the annual catalogue of his alma mater an asterisk has been added to his name, over which perchance some gray-haired survivor of his class may breathe a sigh, as he calls up the image of the fresh-faced, bright-eyed boy, who, aspiring, hopeful, vigorous, started with him on the journey of life,—a sigh rather for himself than for its unconscious awakener.

But, a few years have passed since he left us; yet already wellnigh all the outward manifestations, landmarks, and memorials of the living man have passed away or been removed. His house, with its broad, mossy roof sloping down on one side almost to the rose-bushes and lilacs, and with its comfortable little porch in front, where he used to sit of a pleasant summer afternoon, has passed into new hands, and has been sadly disfigured by a glaring coat of white paint; and in the place of the good Doctor's name, hardly legible on the corner-board, may now be seen, in staring letters of black and gold, ‘Valentine Orson Stubbs, M. D., Indian doctor and dealer in roots and herbs.’ The good Doctor's old horse, as well known as its owner to every man, woman, and [199] child in the village, has fallen into the new comer's hands, who (being prepared to make the most of him, from the fact that he commenced the practice of the healing art in the stable, rising from thence to the parlor) has rubbed him into comparative sleekness, cleaned his mane and tail of the accumulated burrs of many autumns, and made quite a gay nag of him. The wagon, too, in which at least two generations of boys and girls have ridden in noisy hilarity whenever they encountered it on their way to school, has been so smartly painted and varnished, that if its former owner could look down from the hill-slope where he lies, he would scarcely know his once familiar vehicle as it whirls glittering along the main road to the village. For the rest, all things go on as usual; the miller grinds, the blacksmith strikes and blows, the cobbler and tailor stitch and mend, old men sit in the autumn sun, old gossips stir tea and scandal, revival meetings alternate with apple-bees and huskings,—toil, pleasure, family jars, petty neighborhood quarrels, courtship, and marriage,—all which make up the daily life of a country village continue as before. The little chasm which his death has made in the hearts of the people where he lived and labored seems nearly closed up. There is only one more grave in the burying-ground,—that is all.

Let nobody infer from what I have said that the good man died unlamented; for, indeed, it was a sad day with his neighbors when the news, long expected, ran at last from house to house and from workshop to workshop, ‘Dr. Singletary is dead!’ [200] He had not any enemy left among them; in one way or another he had been the friend and benefactor of all. Some owed to his skill their recovery from sickness; others remembered how he had watched with anxious solicitude by the bedside of their dying relatives, soothing them, when all human aid was vain, with the sweet consolations of that Christian hope which alone pierces the great shadow of the grave and shows the safe stepping-stones above the dark waters. The old missed a cheerful companion and friend, who had taught them much without wounding their pride by an offensive display of his superiority, and who, while making a jest of his own trials and infirmities, could still listen with real sympathy to the querulous and importunate complaints of others. For one day, at least, even the sunny faces of childhood were marked with unwonted thoughtfulness; the shadow of the common bereavement fell over the play-ground and nursery. The little girl remembered, with tears, how her broken-limbed doll had taxed the surgical ingenuity of her genial old friend; and the boy showed sorrowfully to his playmates the top which the good Doctor had given him. If there were few, among the many who stood beside his grave, capable of rightly measuring and appreciating the high intellectual and spiritual nature which formed the background of his simple social life, all could feel that no common loss had been sustained, and that the kindly and generous spirit which had passed away from them had not lived to himself alone.

As you follow the windings of one of the loveliest [201] rivers of New England, a few miles above the sea-mart, at its mouth, you can see on a hill, whose grassy slope is checkered with the graceful foliage of the locust, and whose top stands relieved against a still higher elevation, dark with oaks and walnuts, the white stones of the burying-place. It is a quiet spot, but without gloom, as befits ‘God's Acre.’ Below is the village, with its sloops and fishing-boats at the wharves, and its crescent of white houses mirrored in the water. Eastward is the misty line of the great sea. Blue peaks of distant mountains roughen the horizon of the north. Westward, the broad, clear river winds away into a maze of jutting bluffs and picturesque wooded headlands. The tall, white stone on the westerly slope of the hill bears the name of ‘Nicholas Singletary, M. D.,’ and marks the spot which he selected many years before his death. When I visited it last spring, the air about it was fragrant with the bloom of sweet-brier and blackberry and the balsamic aroma of the sweet-fern; birds were singing in the birch-trees by the wall; and two little, brown-locked, merry-faced girls were making wreaths of the dandelions and grasses which grew upon the old man's grave. The sun was setting behind the western river-bluffs, flooding the valley with soft light, glorifying every object and fusing all into harmony and beauty. I saw and felt nothing to depress or sadden me. I could have joined in the laugh of the children. The light whistle of a young teamster, driving merrily homeward, did not jar upon my ear; for from the transfigured landscape, and from the singing birds, and from [202] sportive childhood, and from blossoming sweetbrier, and from the grassy mound before me, I heard the whisper of one word only, and that word was peace.

Chapter 2:

Some account of Peewawkin on the Tocketuck.

well and truly said the wise man of old, ‘Much study is a weariness to the flesh.’ Hard and close application through the winter had left me ill prepared to resist the baleful influences of a New England spring. I shrank alike from the storms of March, the capricious changes of April, and the sudden alternations of May, from the blandest of southwest breezes to the terrible and icy eastern blasts which sweep our seaboard like the fabled sanser, or wind of death. The buoyancy and vigor, the freshness and beauty of life seemed leaving me. The flesh and the spirit were no longer harmonious. I was tormented by a nightmare feeling of the necessity of exertion, coupled with a sense of utter inability. A thousand plans for my own benefit, or the welfare of those dear to me, or of my fellow-men at large, passed before me; but I had no strength to lay hold of the good angels and detain them until they left their blessing. The trumpet sounded in my ears for the tournament of life; but I could not bear the weight of my armor. In the midst of duties and responsibilities which I clearly comprehended, I found [203] myself yielding to the absorbing egotism of sickness. I could work only when the sharp rowels of necessity were in my sides.

It needed not the ominous warnings of my acquaintance to convince me that some decisive change was necessary. But what was to be done? A voyage to Europe was suggested by my friends; but unhappily I reckoned among them no one who was ready, like the honest laird of Dumbiedikes, to inquire, purse in hand, ‘Will siller do it?’ In casting about for some other expedient, I remembered the pleasant old-fashioned village of Peewawkin, on the Tocketuck River. A few weeks of leisure, country air, and exercise, I thought might be of essential service to me. So I turned my key upon my cares and studies, and my back to the city, and one fine evening of early June the mail coach rumbled over Tocketuck Bridge, and left me at the house of Dr. Singletary, where I had been fortunate enough to secure bed and board.

The little village of Peewawkin at this period was a well-preserved specimen of the old, quiet, cozy hamlets of New England. No huge factory threwits evil shadow over it; no smoking demon of an engine dragged its long train through the streets; no steamboat puffed at its wharves, or ploughed up the river, like the enchanted ship of the Ancient Mariner,—

Against the wind, against the tide,
     Steadied with upright keel.

The march of mind had not overtaken it. It had neither printing-press nor lyceum. As the fathers had done before them, so did its inhabitants at [204] the time of my visit. There was little or no competition in their business; there were no rich men, and none that seemed over-anxious to become so. Two or three small vessels were annually launched from the carpenters' yards on the river. It had a blacksmith's shop, with its clang of iron and roar of bellows; a pottery, garnished with its coarse earthen-ware; a store, where molasses, sugar, and spices were sold on one side, and calicoes, tape, and ribbons on the other. Three or four small schooners annually left the wharves for the St. George's and Labrador fisheries. Just back of the village, a bright, noisy stream, gushing out, like a merry laugh, from the walnut and oak woods which stretched back far to the north through a narrow break in the hills, turned the great wheel of a grist-mill, and went frolicking away, like a wicked Undine, under the very windows of the brown, lilac-shaded house of Deacon Warner, the miller, as if to tempt the good man's handsome daughters to take lessons in dancing. At one end of the little crescent-shaped village, at the corner of the main road and the green lane to Deacon Warner's mill, stood the school-house,—a small, ill-used, Spanish-brown building, its patched windows bearing unmistakable evidence of the mischievous character of its inmates. At the other end, farther up the river, on a rocky knoll open to all the winds, stood the meeting-house,—old, two story, and full of windows,—its gilded weathercock glistening in the sun. The bell in its belfry had been brought from France by Skipper Evans in the latter part of the last century. Solemnly baptized and consecrated [205] to some holy saint, it had called to prayer the veiled sisters of a convent, and tolled heavily in the masses for the dead. At first some of the church felt misgivings as to the propriety of hanging a Popish bell in a Puritan steeple-house; but their objections were overruled by the minister, who wisely maintained that if Moses could use the borrowed jewels and ornaments of the Egyptians to adorn and beautify the ark of the Lord, it could not be amiss to make a Catholic bell do service in an Orthodox belfry. The space between the school and the meeting-house was occupied by some fifteen or twenty dwellings, many-colored and diverse in age and appearance. Each one had its green yard in front, its rose-bushes and lilacs. Great elms, planted a century ago, stretched and interlocked their heavy arms across the street. The mill-stream, which found its way into the Tocketuck, near the centre of the village, was spanned by a rickety wooden bridge, rendered picturesque by a venerable and gnarled white-oak which hung over it, with its great roots half bared by the water and twisted among the mossy stones of the crumbling abutment.

The house of Dr. Singletary was situated somewhat apart from the main street, just on the slope of Blueberry Hill,—a great, green swell of land, stretching far down from the north, and terminating in a steep bluff at the river side. It overlooked the village and the river a long way up and down. It was a brown-looking, antiquated mansion, built by the Doctor's grandfather in the earlier days of the settlement. The rooms were large and low, [206] with great beams, scaly with whitewash, running across them, scarcely above the reach of a tall man's head. Great-throated fireplaces, filled with pine-boughs and flower-pots, gave promise of winter fires, roaring and crackling in boisterous hilarity, as if laughing to scorn the folly and discomfort of our modern stoves. In the porch at the front-door were two seats, where the Doctor was accustomed to sit in fine weather with his pipe and his book, or with such friends as might call to spend a half hour with him. The lawn in front had scarcely any other ornament than its green grass, cropped short by the Doctor's horse. A stone wall separated it from the lane, half overrun with wild hop, or clematis, and two noble rock-maples arched over with their dense foliage the little red gate. Dark belts of woodland, smooth hill pasture, green, broad meadows, and fields of corn and rye, the homesteads of the villagers, were seen on one hand; while on the other was the bright, clear river, with here and there a white sail, relieved against bold, wooded banks, jutting rocks, or tiny islands, dark with dwarf evergreens. It was a quiet, rural picture, a happy and peaceful contrast to all I had looked upon for weary, miserable months. It soothed the nervous excitement of pain and suffering. I forgot myself in the pleasing interest which it awakened. Nature's healing ministrations came to me through all my senses. I felt the medicinal virtues of her sights, and sounds, and aromal breezes. From the green turf of her hills and the mossy carpets of her woodlands my languid steps derived new vigor and elasticity. [207] I felt, day by day, the transfusion of her strong life.

The Doctor's domestic establishment consisted of Widow Matson, his housekeeper, and an idle slip of a boy, who, when he was not paddling across the river, or hunting in the swamps, or playing ball on the ‘Meetina--'us-Hill,’ used to run of errands, milk the cow, and saddle the horse. Widow Matson was a notable shrill-tongued woman, from whom two long-suffering husbands had obtained what might, under the circumstances, be well called a comfortable release. She was neat and tidy almost to a fault, thrifty and industrious, and, barring her scolding propensity, was a pattern housekeeper. For the Doctor she entertained so high a regard that nothing could exceed her indignation when any one save herself presumed to find fault with him. Her bark was worse than her bite; she had a warm, woman's heart, capable of soft relentings; and this the roguish errand-boy so well understood that he bore the daily infliction of her tongue with a good-natured unconcern which would have been greatly to his credit had it not resulted from his confident expectation that an extra slice of cake or segment of pie would erelong tickle his palate in atonement for the tingling of his ears.

It must be confessed that the Doctor had certain little peculiarities and ways of his own which might have ruffled the down of a smoother temper than that of the Widow Matson. He was careless and absent-minded. In spite of her labors and complaints, he scattered his superfluous clothing, [208] books, and papers over his rooms in ‘muchad-mired disorder.’ He gave the freedom of his house to the boys and girls of his neighborhood, who, presuming upon his good nature, laughed at her remonstrances and threats as they chased each other up and down the nicely-polished stairway. Worse than all, he was proof against the vituperations and reproaches with which she indirectly assailed him from the recesses of her kitchen. He smoked his pipe and dozed over his newspaper as complacently as ever, while his sins of omission and commission were arrayed against him.

Peewawkin had always the reputation of a healthy town: and if it had been otherwise,

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