Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2

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His First Case: from Chapter XVIII—When the Epidemic Struck the Village

The Medical Pickwick VII (November 1921)

The dreaded epidemic had struck with terrific force and Fred was overwhelmed with calls. It is difficult for the outsider to understand the physician’s burden under such a powerful antagonist as Spanish influenza. To sight [sic] an instance: One morning before he had finished his breakfast ten calls came in from various places in the village and surrounding country, taking in the complete scope of the territory to which he administered in all directions, and each party who called asked him to come to their place first.

Obviously, such a thing could not be done, and also he could not take them in the order in which they came, for perhaps the first one would be five miles north and the second seven miles south. Therefore, it was necessary to collect and classify them, making a definite route to cover all in the shortest distance of travel. Then he would start out, and at each place there would be from two to commonly five or six people to examine and prescribe for, and one place he found eleven sick in one house of two rooms, with nobody to care for them except the least afflicted member of the family—a boy of twelve—and his fever was 102.

spacer Talk to me and cheer me up before I go wild. I’ve seen nothing but sick people for days and now many of them have pneumonia and are delirious—wildly so—and some of them are dead—dead. It’s more than I can stand.

A recent thaw had cut the roads to pieces and they had frozen solid again, and he could not complete this work before midafternoon. Then he would call Mrs. Ganey from some telephone along the line and receive another list of calls that had come in during the day, and another route would be mapped out, perhaps retracing the first one for quite a distance. At the end of the day his head swam from the continuous bumping over the rough roads.

Seldom did he get a chance to eat, and many nights did he return to his fireside at midnight or later and eat the only meal of the day since morning, which the motherly, patient Mrs. Ganey always had ready for him.

Always there were calls left over, which, in his exhaustion he could not make, and, throwing himself on the bed with his clothes on, he would catch a few hours of sound sleep and go at his task again, making up his route so that the left-over calls would be first on the list.

Justina’s attack of the disease was quite severe but without complications. The first three nights of her illness found Fred at her bedside several times, for he would set his alarm clock and force himself to awaken and administer to her wants, as he knew that Mrs. Ganey had not the strength and vitality to keep up at nights and also answer the calls that poured in during the day hours.

On the third day of the girl’s illness Mrs. Ganey herself took down, and Justina, although still running fever, arose and cared for her, and Fred did not know of it until he came home at one o’clock in the morning and made the discovery that the girl whom he loved had prepared the hot, steaming meal that awaited him. He flew into a rage and forced her to retire to her bed, and the next day Tom Ganey closed his store and acted as nurse and cook and telephone girl.

However, within three more days Fred permitted Justina to get up and attend to the telephone calls, after making sure that she was free from danger of complications, but insisted that Tom still do the cooking, and the jolly storekeeper did so, grumbling cheerfully the while. It was on this day, or rather early the next morning to be exact, for it was half-past twelve that the young physician staggered in and sat down to the meal that faithful Tom had ready for him.

“Is Justina up?” asked Fred.

“Yes; she’s with Alice.”

“You go stay with Mrs. Ganey and send her down here—I want to talk to her.”

Presently she appeared—as beautiful as ever, though her face showed pallor to some extent, and she had lost weight, but still the lustre in her well-arranged, black, wavy hair was there, and the penetrating power of her wonderful eyes was not faded in the least.

“Talk to me,” he said—“for heaven’s sake talk to me like you did that night when Mrs. Johnson nearly died—even if you don’t want to do it. Talk to me—talk to me and cheer me up before I go wild. I’ve seen nothing but sick people for days and now many of them have pneumonia and are delirious—wildly so—and some of them are dead–dead. It’s more than I can stand. I’ve just now come from the bedside of Virginia Donon and—”

“Is she sick?” cried Justina in alarm. “Is she—”

“She’s dead.”

For an instant there was silence, profound and intense. Then Fred cried out again: “Talk to me—say something! God knows I can’t stand this strain forever without a woman’s help—without sympathy from some one who can understand. I see them sick—I see the delirious ones calling out to me—I see them in my dreams—and I know the worst is yet to come, for the epidemic is not at its height. Everybody else has gone to pieces and I’m supposed to stand up and work—work—work; and see my friends die—and keep on working and working, as if it were all part of the day’s game. I’ve a notion to give up and quit.”

The girl took a chair and sat down beside him. “Eat your supper,” she commanded. “You’re nearly famished.”

“But I’m not hungry,” he protested.


Her hypnotic eyes were fixed upon him as she muttered the words, and he obeyed with implicity.

Then she placed her hand on his arm as was her habit, but her hand shook perceptibly, and she continued to look at him, but her eyes were moist. “Tell me,” she said slowly, “was Virginia anything to you but a friend?”

He dared not return her look, but kept his eyes on his coffee which he stirred as he spoke. “No. I thought she was once. I tried to make myself think she would be—that she should be—but I couldn’t. No—she was only a friend, but the truest friend I’ve had.”

spacer A half hour later she stood by the side of the table, reading the thermometer that he had taught her to use during the pleasant days of their first acquaintance.

Justina removed her hand and let it fall limply in her lap, while Fred drank his coffee, refusing the other things, and spilled much of it on the table, for he was shaking.

“I’m going to quit,” he said, setting the cup down and pounding the table. “I’m going to quit. Do you hear me? I’m going to quit.”

He jumped up and Justina arose and confronted him. His eyes were glassy, his face flushed. She took both of his hot hands in her own. “No; you’re not going to quit,” she stated with the same firm tone that a mother uses with a rebellious child. And then—was it coincidence, or did she remember? “You must not falter, never, on account of death!”

Fred’s tense form relaxed. He looked at her foolishly—then an amazed expression came over his countenance. He tore his hands from hers and held them out. “Justina, I love you. I love you. Don’t you believe it? Tell me, won’t you marry me? Please.”

“Don’t ask me that,” she said drawing away from him fearfully. “You know I can’t.”


“Because, well, you know why.”

“Don’t—you—love—me?” he asked through chattering teeth.

“I don’t know,” she said, glancing away from him. “But even if I did I wouldn’t marry you, because of—well,” she endeavored to laugh gayly, “I told you I would ask you when the time came.” She turned her eyes toward him again and found him seated, having dropped into a chair with a violent chill. “Doctor, you’re sick,” she cried, stepping forward and taking his arm. “Come, let me help you upstairs. You must go to bed at once.”

A half hour later she stood by the side of the table, reading the thermometer that he had taught her to use during the pleasant days of their first acquaintance. Then she glanced at the bed where his blanket-covered form was quiet after many minutes of the hardest chilling one can undergo.

She tip-toed to the bed and listened to his fast breathing, and, laying her small white finger on the pulse in front of his ear, counted the rapid heart beats while keeping her eyes fixed on her wrist watch. She shook the thermometer down and again placed it in his mouth and he went to sleep before the time elapsed to remove it, which she did gently, again stepping to the table and holding it under the reading lamp. It read the same as before—105.

Not many minutes thereafter a big car was bouncing over the rough road from Oliva to Astuna. The darkness was intense, but the bright lights shone a half mile ahead and the chauffeur who looked through the windshield, viewing the sea of ruts before him, objected and made known his intention of turning back.

“We can’t make it,” he explained.

“We’re going to make it,” mumbled a voice from the rear seat.

“It’ll tear the car to pieces,” was the insistent reply.

“Well, we’ll go until it falls apart—then we’ll walk,” growled Doctor Lants.  

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