Dr. James Ripley was always looked upon as an exceedingly lucky dog by all of
the profession who knew him. His father had preceded him in a practice in the
village of Hoyland, in the north of Hampshire, and all was ready for him on the
very first day that the law allowed him to put his name at the foot of a
prescription. In a few years the old gentleman retired, and settled on the South
Coast, leaving his son in undisputed possession of the whole country side. Save
for Dr. Horton, near Basingstoke, the young surgeon had a clear run of six miles
in every direction, and took his fifteen hundred pounds a year, though, as is
usual in country practices, the stable swallowed up most of what the
Dr. James Ripley was two-and-thirty years of age, reserved, learned,
unmarried, with set, rather stern features, and a thinning of the dark hair upon
the top of his head, which was worth quite a hundred a year to him. He was
particularly happy in his management of ladies. He had caught the tone of bland
sternness and decisive suavity which dominates without offending. Ladies,
however, were not equally happy in their management of him. Professionally, he
was always at their service. Socially, he was a drop of quicksilver. In vain the
country mammas spread out their simple lures in front of him. Dances and picnics
were not to his taste, and he preferred during his scanty leisure to shut
himself up in his study, and to bury himself in Virchow's Archives and the
Study was a passion with him, and he would have none of the rust which often
gathers round a country practitioner. It was his ambition to keep his knowledge
as fresh and bright as at the moment when he had stepped out of the examination
hall. He prided himself on being able at a moment's notice to rattle off the
seven ramifications of some obscure artery, or to give the exact percentage of
any physiological compound. After a long day's work he would sit up half the
night performing iridectomies and extractions upon the sheep's eyes sent in by
the village butcher, to the horror of his housekeeper, who had to remove the
debris next morning. His love for his work was the one fanaticism which found a
place in his dry, precise nature.
It was the more to his credit that he should keep up to date in his
knowledge, since he had no competition to force him to exertion. In the seven
years during which he had practised in Hoyland three rivals had pitted
themselves against him, two in the village itself and one in the neighbouring
hamlet of Lower Hoyland. Of these one had sickened and wasted, being, as it was
said, himself the only patient whom he had treated during his eighteen months of
ruralising. A second had bought a fourth share of a Basingstoke practice, and
had departed honourably, while a third had vanished one September night, leaving
a gutted house and an unpaid drug bill behind him. Since then the district had
become a monopoly, and no one had dared to measure himself against the
established fame of the Hoyland doctor.
It was, then, with a feeling of some surprise and considerable curiosity that
on driving through Lower Hoyland one morning he perceived that the new house at
the end of the village was occupied, and that a virgin brass plate glistened
upon the swinging gate which faced the high road. He pulled up his fifty guinea
chestnut mare and took a good look at it. "Verrinder Smith, M. D.," was printed
across it in very neat, small lettering. The last man had had letters half a
foot long, with a lamp like a fire-station. Dr. James Ripley noted the
difference, and deduced from it that the new-comer might possibly prove a more
formidable opponent. He was convinced of it that evening when he came to consult
the current medical directory. By it he learned that Dr. Verrinder Smith was the
holder of superb degrees, that he had studied with distinction at Edinburgh,
Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, and finally that he had been awarded a gold medal and
the Lee Hopkins scholarship for original research, in recognition of an
exhaustive inquiry into the functions of the anterior spinal nerve roots. Dr.
Ripley passed his fingers through his thin hair in bewilderment as he read his
rival's record. What on earth could so brilliant a man mean by putting up his
plate in a little Hampshire hamlet.
But Dr. Ripley furnished himself with an explanation to the riddle. No doubt
Dr. Verrinder Smith had simply come down there in order to pursue some
scientific research in peace and quiet. The plate was up as an address rather
than as an invitation to patients. Of course, that must be the true explanation.
In that case the presence of this brilliant neighbour would be a splendid thing
for his own studies. He had often longed for some kindred mind, some steel on
which he might strike his flint. Chance had brought it to him, and he rejoiced exceedingly.
And this joy it was which led him to take a step which was quite at variance
with his usual habits. It is the custom for a new-comer among medical men to
call first upon the older, and the etiquette upon the subject is strict. Dr.
Ripley was pedantically exact on such points, and yet he deliberately drove over
next day and called upon Dr. Verrinder Smith. Such a waiving of ceremony was, he
felt, a gracious act upon his part, and a fit prelude to the intimate relations
which he hoped to establish with his neighbour.
The house was neat and well appointed, and Dr. Ripley was shown by a smart
maid into a dapper little consulting room. As he passed in he noticed two or
three parasols and a lady's sun bonnet hanging in the hall. It was a pity that
his colleague should be a married man. It would put them upon a different
footing, and interfere with those long evenings of high scientific talk which he
had pictured to himself. On the other hand, there was much in the consulting
room to please him. Elaborate instruments, seen more often in hospitals than in
the houses of private practitioners, were scattered about. A sphygmograph stood
upon the table and a gasometer-like engine, which was new to Dr. Ripley, in the
corner. A book-case full of ponderous volumes in French and German,
paper-covered for the most part, and varying in tint from the shell to the yoke
of a duck's egg, caught his wandering eyes, and he was deeply absorbed in their
titles when the door opened suddenly behind him. Turning round, he found himself
facing a little woman, whose plain, palish face was remarkable only for a pair
of shrewd, humorous eyes of a blue which had two shades too much green in it.
She held a pince-nez in her left hand, and the doctor's card in her right.
"How do you do, Dr. Ripley?" said she.
"How do you do, madam?" returned the visitor. "Your husband is perhaps out?"
"I am not married," said she simply.
"Oh, I beg your pardon! I meant the doctor—Dr. Verrinder Smith."
"I am Dr. Verrinder Smith."
Dr. Ripley was so surprised that he dropped his hat and forgot to pick it up again.
"What!" he grasped, "the Lee Hopkins prizeman! You!"
He had never seen a woman doctor before, and his whole conservative soul rose
up in revolt at the idea. He could not recall any Biblical injunction that the
man should remain ever the doctor and the woman the nurse, and yet he felt as if
a blasphemy had been committed. His face betrayed his feelings only too clearly.
"I am sorry to disappoint you," said the lady drily.
"You certainly have surprised me," he answered, picking up his hat.
"You are not among our champions, then?"
"I cannot say that the movement has my approval."
"I should much prefer not to discuss it."
"But I am sure you will answer a lady's question."
"Ladies are in danger of losing their privileges when they usurp the place of
the other sex. They cannot claim both."
"Why should a woman not earn her bread by her brains?"
Dr. Ripley felt irritated by the quiet manner in which the lady
"I should much prefer not to be led into a discussion, Miss Smith."
"Dr. Smith," she interrupted.
"Well, Dr. Smith! But if you insist upon an answer, I must say that I do not
think medicine a suitable profession for women and that I have a personal
objection to masculine ladies."
It was an exceedingly rude speech, and he was ashamed of it the instant after
he had made it. The lady, however, simply raised her eyebrows and smiled.
"It seems to me that you are begging the question," said she. "Of course, if
it makes women masculine that WOULD be a considerable deterioration."
It was a neat little counter, and Dr. Ripley, like a pinked fencer, bowed his acknowledgment.
"I must go," said he.
"I am sorry that we cannot come to some more friendly conclusion since we are
to be neighbours," she remarked.
He bowed again, and took a step towards the door.
"It was a singular coincidence," she continued, "that at the instant that you
called I was reading your paper on 'Locomotor Ataxia,' in the Lancet."
"Indeed," said he drily.
"I thought it was a very able monograph."
"You are very good."
"But the views which you attribute to Professor Pitres, of Bordeaux, have
been repudiated by him."
"I have his pamphlet of 1890," said Dr. Ripley angrily.
"Here is his pamphlet of 1891." She picked it from among a litter of
periodicals. "If you have time to glance your eye down this passage——"
Dr. Ripley took it from her and shot rapidly through the paragraph which she
indicated. There was no denying that it completely knocked the bottom out of his
own article. He threw it down, and with another frigid bow he made for the door.
As he took the reins from the groom he glanced round and saw that the lady was
standing at her window, and it seemed to him that she was laughing heartily.
All day the memory of this interview haunted him. He felt that he had come
very badly out of it. She had showed herself to be his superior on his own pet
subject. She had been courteous while he had been rude, self-possessed when he
had been angry. And then, above all, there was her presence, her monstrous
intrusion to rankle in his mind. A woman doctor had been an abstract thing
before, repugnant but distant. Now she was there in actual practice, with a
brass plate up just like his own, competing for the same patients. Not that he
feared competition, but he objected to this lowering of his ideal of womanhood.
She could not be more than thirty, and had a bright, mobile face, too. He
thought of her humorous eyes, and of her strong, well-turned chin. It revolted
him the more to recall the details of her education. A man, of course, could
come through such an ordeal with all his purity, but it was nothing short of
shameless in a woman.
But it was not long before he learned that even her competition was a thing
to be feared. The novelty of her presence had brought a few curious invalids
into her consulting rooms, and, once there, they had been so impressed by the
firmness of her manner and by the singular, new-fashioned instruments with which
she tapped, and peered, and sounded, that it formed the core of their
conversation for weeks afterwards. And soon there were tangible proofs of her
powers upon the country side. Farmer Eyton, whose callous ulcer had been quietly
spreading over his shin for years back under a gentle regime of zinc ointment,
was painted round with blistering fluid, and found, after three blasphemous
nights, that his sore was stimulated into healing. Mrs. Crowder, who had always
regarded the birthmark upon her second daughter Eliza as a sign of the
indignation of the Creator at a third helping of raspberry tart which she had
partaken of during a critical period, learned that, with the help of two
galvanic needles, the mischief was not irreparable. In a month Dr. Verrinder
Smith was known, and in two she was famous.
Occasionally, Dr. Ripley met her as he drove upon his rounds. She had started
a high dogcart, taking the reins herself, with a little tiger behind. When they
met he invariably raised his hat with punctilious politeness, but the grim
severity of his face showed how formal was the courtesy. In fact, his dislike
was rapidly deepening into absolute detestation. "The unsexed woman," was the
description of her which he permitted himself to give to those of his patients
who still remained staunch. But, indeed, they were a rapidly-decreasing body,
and every day his pride was galled by the news of some fresh defection. The lady
had somehow impressed the country folk with almost superstitious belief in her
power, and from far and near they flocked to her consulting room.
But what galled him most of all was, when she did something which he had
pronounced to be impracticable. For all his knowledge he lacked nerve as an
operator, and usually sent his worst cases up to London. The lady, however, had
no weakness of the sort, and took everything that came in her way. It was agony
to him to hear that she was about to straighten little Alec Turner's club foot,
and right at the fringe of the rumour came a note from his mother, the rector's
wife, asking him if he would be so good as to act as chloroformist. It would be
inhumanity to refuse, as there was no other who could take the place, but it was
gall and wormwood to his sensitive nature. Yet, in spite of his vexation, he
could not but admire the dexterity with which the thing was done. She handled
the little wax-like foot so gently, and held the tiny tenotomy knife as an
artist holds his pencil. One straight insertion, one snick of a tendon, and it
was all over without a stain upon the white towel which lay beneath. He had
never seen anything more masterly, and he had the honesty to say so, though her
skill increased his dislike of her. The operation spread her fame still further
at his expense, and self-preservation was added to his other grounds for
detesting her. And this very detestation it was which brought matters to a
One winter's night, just as he was rising from his lonely dinner, a groom
came riding down from Squire Faircastle's, the richest man in the district, to
say that his daughter had scalded her hand, and that medical help was needed on
the instant. The coachman had ridden for the lady doctor, for it mattered
nothing to the Squire who came as long as it were speedily. Dr. Ripley rushed
from his surgery with the determination that she should not effect an entrance
into this stronghold of his if hard driving on his part could prevent it. He did
not even wait to light his lamps, but sprang into his gig and flew off as fast
as hoof could rattle. He lived rather nearer to the Squire's than she did, and
was convinced that he could get there well before her.
And so he would but for that whimsical element of chance, which will for ever
muddle up the affairs of this world and dumbfound the prophets. Whether it came
from the want of his lights, or from his mind being full of the thoughts of his
rival, he allowed too little by half a foot in taking the sharp turn upon the
Basingstoke road. The empty trap and the frightened horse clattered away into
the darkness, while the Squire's groom crawled out of the ditch into which he
had been shot. He struck a match, looked down at his groaning companion, and
then, after the fashion of rough, strong men when they see what they have not
seen before, he was very sick.
The doctor raised himself a little on his elbow in the glint of the match. He
caught a glimpse of something white and sharp bristling through his trouser leg
half way down the shin.
"Compound!" he groaned. "A three months' job," and fainted.
When he came to himself the groom was gone, for he had scudded off to the
Squire's house for help, but a small page was holding a gig-lamp in front of his
injured leg, and a woman, with an open case of polished instruments gleaming in
the yellow light, was deftly slitting up his trouser with a crooked pair of scissors.
"It's all right, doctor," said she soothingly. "I am so sorry about it. You
can have Dr. Horton to-morrow, but I am sure you will allow me to help you
to-night. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw you by the roadside."
"The groom has gone for help," groaned the sufferer.
"When it comes we can move you into the gig. A little more light, John! So!
Ah, dear, dear, we shall have laceration unless we reduce this before we move
you. Allow me to give you a whiff of chloroform, and I have no doubt that I can
secure it sufficiently to——"
Dr. Ripley never heard the end of that sentence. He tried to raise a hand and
to murmur something in protest, but a sweet smell was in his nostrils, and a
sense of rich peace and lethargy stole over his jangled nerves. Down he sank,
through clear, cool water, ever down and down into the green shadows beneath,
gently, without effort, while the pleasant chiming of a great belfry rose and
fell in his ears. Then he rose again, up and up, and ever up, with a terrible
tightness about his temples, until at last he shot out of those green shadows
and was in the light once more. Two bright, shining, golden spots gleamed before
his dazed eyes. He blinked and blinked before he could give a name to them. They
were only the two brass balls at the end posts of his bed, and he was lying in
his own little room, with a head like a cannon ball, and a leg like an iron bar.
Turning his eyes, he saw the calm face of Dr. Verrinder Smith looking down at him.
"Ah, at last!" said she. "I kept you under all the way home, for I knew how
painful the jolting would be. It is in good position now with a strong side
splint. I have ordered a morphia draught for you. Shall I tell your groom to
ride for Dr. Horton in the morning?"
"I should prefer that you should continue the case," said Dr. Ripley feebly,
and then, with a half hysterical laugh,—"You have all the rest of the parish as
patients, you know, so you may as well make the thing complete by having me also."
It was not a very gracious speech, but it was a look of pity and not of anger
which shone in her eyes as she turned away from his bedside.
Dr. Ripley had a brother, William, who was assistant surgeon at a London
hospital, and who was down in Hampshire within a few hours of his hearing of the
accident. He raised his brows when he heard the details.
"What! You are pestered with one of those!" he cried.
"I don't know what I should have done without her."
"I've no doubt she's an excellent nurse."
"She knows her work as well as you or I."
"Speak for yourself, James," said the London man with a sniff. "But apart
from that, you know that the principle of the thing is all wrong."
"You think there is nothing to be said on the other side?"
"Good heavens! do you?"
"Well, I don't know. It struck me during the night that we may have been a
little narrow in our views."
"Nonsense, James. It's all very fine for women to win prizes in the lecture
room, but you know as well as I do that they are no use in an emergency. Now I
warrant that this woman was all nerves when she was setting your leg. That
reminds me that I had better just take a look at it and see that it is all right."
"I would rather that you did not undo it," said the patient. "I have her assurance that it is all right."
Brother William was deeply shocked.
"Of course, if a woman's assurance is of more value than the opinion of the
assistant surgeon of a London hospital, there is nothing more to be said," he remarked.
"I should prefer that you did not touch it," said the patient firmly, and Dr.
William went back to London that evening in a huff.
The lady, who had heard of his coming, was much surprised on learning his departure.
"We had a difference upon a point of professional etiquette," said Dr. James,
and it was all the explanation he would vouchsafe.
For two long months Dr. Ripley was brought in contact with his rival every
day, and he learned many things which he had not known before. She was a
charming companion, as well as a most assiduous doctor. Her short presence
during the long, weary day was like a flower in a sand waste. What interested
him was precisely what interested her, and she could meet him at every point
upon equal terms. And yet under all her learning and her firmness ran a sweet,
womanly nature, peeping out in her talk, shining in her greenish eyes, showing
itself in a thousand subtle ways which the dullest of men could read. And he,
though a bit of a prig and a pedant, was by no means dull, and had honesty
enough to confess when he was in the wrong.
"I don't know how to apologise to you," he said in his shame-faced fashion
one day, when he had progressed so far as to be able to sit in an arm-chair with
his leg upon another one; "I feel that I have been quite in the wrong."
"Over this woman question. I used to think that a woman must inevitably lose
something of her charm if she took up such studies."
"Oh, you don't think they are necessarily unsexed, then?" she cried, with a mischievous smile.
"Please don't recall my idiotic expression."
"I feel so pleased that I should have helped in changing your views. I think
that it is the most sincere compliment that I have ever had paid me."
"At any rate, it is the truth," said he, and was happy all night at the
remembrance of the flush of pleasure which made her pale face look quite comely for the instant.
For, indeed, he was already far past the stage when he would acknowledge her
as the equal of any other woman. Already he could not disguise from himself that
she had become the one woman. Her dainty skill, her gentle touch, her sweet
presence, the community of their tastes, had all united to hopelessly upset his
previous opinions. It was a dark day for him now when his convalescence allowed
her to miss a visit, and darker still that other one which he saw approaching
when all occasion for her visits would be at an end. It came round at last,
however, and he felt that his whole life's fortune would hang upon the issue of
that final interview. He was a direct man by nature, so he laid his hand upon
hers as it felt for his pulse, and he asked her if she would be his wife.
"What, and unite the practices?" said she.
He started in pain and anger.
"Surely you do not attribute any such base motive to me!" he cried. "I love
you as unselfishly as ever a woman was loved."
"No, I was wrong. It was a foolish speech," said she, moving her chair a
little back, and tapping her stethoscope upon her knee. "Forget that I ever said
it. I am so sorry to cause you any disappointment, and I appreciate most highly
the honour which you do me, but what you ask is quite impossible."
With another woman he might have urged the point, but his instincts told him
that it was quite useless with this one. Her tone of voice was conclusive. He
said nothing, but leaned back in his chair a stricken man.
"I am so sorry," she said again. "If I had known what was passing in your
mind I should have told you earlier that I intended to devote my life entirely
to science. There are many women with a capacity for marriage, but few with a
taste for biology. I will remain true to my own line, then. I came down here
while waiting for an opening in the Paris Physiological Laboratory. I have just
heard that there is a vacancy for me there, and so you will be troubled no more
by my intrusion upon your practice. I have done you an injustice just as you did
me one. I thought you narrow and pedantic, with no good quality. I have learned
during your illness to appreciate you better, and the recollection of our
friendship will always be a very pleasant one to me."
And so it came about that in a very few weeks there was only one doctor in
Hoyland. But folks noticed that the one had aged many years in a few months,
that a weary sadness lurked always in the depths of his blue eyes, and that he
was less concerned than ever with the eligible young ladies whom chance, or
their careful country mammas, placed in his way.