X. Ralph's First Case
 

"Father," said Ralph at breakfast, "I got my first case yesterday."

Anthony Dexter smiled at the tall, straight young fellow who sat opposite him. He did not care about the case but he found endless satisfaction in Ralph.

"What was it?" he asked, idly.

"Broken ankle. I only happened to get it because you were out. I was accused of being a 'play doctor,' but, under the circumstances, I had to do."

"Miss Mehitable?" queried Doctor Dexter, with lifted brows. "I wouldn't have thought her ankles could be broken by anything short of machinery."

"Guess they couldn't," laughed Ralph. "Anyhow, they were all right at last accounts. It's Araminta--the pretty little thing who lives with the dragon."

"Oh!" There was the merest shade of tenderness in the exclamation. "How did it happen?"

"Divesting the circumstance of all irrelevant material," returned Ralph, reaching for another crisp roll, "it was like this. With true missionary spirit and in the belief that cleanliness is closely related to godliness, Miss Mehitable determined to clean the old house on the hill. The shack has been empty a long time; but now has a tenant--of whom more anon.

"Miss Mehitable's own mansion, it seems, has been scrubbed inside and out, and painted and varnished and generally torn up, even though it is early in the year for such unholy doings. Having finished her own premises, and still having strength in her elbow, and the housecleaning microbe being yet on an unchecked rampage through her virtuous system, and there being some soap left, Miss Mehitable wanders up to the house with her pail.

"Shackled to her, also with a pail, is the helpless Araminta. Among the impedimenta are the Reverend Austin Thorpe and the step-ladder, the Reverend Thorpe being, dismissed at the door and allowed to run amuck for the day.

"The Penates are duly thrown out of the windows, the veiled chatelaine sitting by mute and helpless. One room is scrubbed till it's so clean a fly would fall down in it, and the ministering angel goes back to her own spotless residence after bedding. I believe I didn't understand exactly why she went after the bedding, but I can doubtless find out the next time I see Miss Mehitable.

"In the absence of the superintendent, Araminta seizes the opportunity to fall off the top of the ladder, lighting on her ankle, and fainting most completely on the way down. The rest is history.

"Doctor Dexter being out, his son, perforce, has to serve. The ankle being duly set and the excitement allayed, terms are made in private with the 'play doctor.' How much, Father, do you suppose I am to be paid the day Araminta walks again?"

Doctor Dexter dismissed the question. "Couldn't guess," he grunted.

"Four and a half," said Ralph, proudly.

"Hundred?" asked Doctor Dexter, with a gleam of interest. "You must have imbibed high notions at college."

"Hundred!" shouted Ralph, "Heavens, no! Four dollars and a half! Four dollars and fifty cents, marked down from five for this day only. Special remnant sale of repaired ankles!" The boy literally doubled himself in his merriment.

"You bloated bondholder," said his father, fondly. "Don't be extravagant with it."

"I won't," returned Ralph, between gasps. "I thought I'd put some of it into unincumbered real estate and loan the rest on good security at five per cent."

Into the lonely house Ralph's laughter came like the embodied spirit of Youth. It searched out the hidden corners, illuminated the shadows, stirred the silences to music. A sunbeam danced on the stair, where, according to Doctor Dexter's recollection, no sunbeam had ever dared to dance before. Ah, it, was good to have the boy at home!

"Miss Mehitable," observed Doctor Dexter, after a pause, "is like the poor--always with us. I seldom get to a patient who is really in danger before she does. She seems to have secret wires stretched all over the country and she has the clinical history of the neighbourhood at her tongue's end. What's more, she distributes it, continually, painstakingly, untiringly. Every detail of every case I have charge of is spread broadcast, by Miss Mehitable. I'd have a bad reputation, professionally, if so much about my patients was generally known anywhere else."

"Is she a good nurse?" asked Ralph.

"According to her light, yes; but she isn't willing to work on recognised lines. She'll dose my patients with roots and herbs of her own concocting if she gets a chance, and proudly claim credit for the cure. If the patient dies, everybody blames me. I can't sit by a case of measles and keep Miss Mehitable from throwing sassafras tea into it more than ten hours at a stretch."

"Why don't you talk to her?" queried Ralph.

"Talk to her!" snorted Doctor Dexter. "Do you suppose I haven't ruptured my vocal cords more than once? I might just as well put my head out of the front window and whisper it as to talk to her."

"She won't monkey with my case," said Ralph. His mouth was firmly set.

"Won't she?" parried Doctor Dexter, sarcastically. "You go up there and see if the cast isn't off and the fracture being fomented with pennyroyal tea or some such mess."

"I always had an impression," said Ralph, thoughtfully, "that people were afraid of you."

"They are," grunted Doctor Dexter, "but Miss Mehitable isn't 'people.' She goes by herself, and isn't afraid of man or devil. If I had horns and a barbed tail and breathed smoke, I couldn't scare her. The patient's family, being more afraid of her than of me, invariably give her free access to the sick-room."

"I don't want her to worry Araminta," said Ralph.

"If you don't want Araminta worried," replied Doctor Dexter, conclusively, "you'd better put a few things into your suit case, and move up there until she walks."

"All right," said Ralph. "I'm here to rout your malign influence. It's me to sit by Araminta's crib and scare the old girl off. I'll bet I can fix her."

"If you can," returned Doctor Dexter, "you are considerably more intelligent than I take you to be."

With the welfare of his young patient very earnestly at heart, Ralph went up the hill. Miss Evelina admitted him, and Ralph drew her into the dusty parlour. "Can you take care of anybody?" he inquired, without preliminary. "Can you follow directions?"

"I--think so."

"Then," Ralph went on, "I turn Araminta over to you. Miss Mehitable has nothing to do with the case from this moment. Araminta is in your care and mine. You take directions from me and from nobody else. Do you understand?"

"Yes," whispered Miss Evelina, "but Mehitable won't--won't let me."

"Won't let you nothing," said Ralph, scornfully. "She's to be kept out."

"She--she--" stammered Miss Evelina, "she's up there now."

Ralph started upstairs. Half-way up, he heard the murmur of voices, and went up more quietly. He stepped lightly along the hall and stood just outside Araminta's door, shamelessly listening.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," said an indignant feminine voice. "The idea of a big girl like you not bein' able to stand on a ladder without fallin' off. It's your mother's foolishness cropping out in you, after all I've done for you. I've stood on ladders all my life and never so much as slipped. I believe you did it a purpose, though what you thought you'd get for doin' it puzzles me some. P'raps you thought you'd get out of the housecleanin' but you won't. When it comes time for the Fall cleanin,' you'll do every stroke yourself, to pay for all this trouble and expense. Do you know what it's costin'? Four dollars and a half of good money! I should think you'd be ashamed!"

"But, Aunt Hitty--" began the girl, pleadingly.

"Stop! Don't you 'Aunt Hitty' me," continued the angry voice. "You needn't tell me you didn't fall off that ladder a purpose. Four dollars and a half and all the trouble besides! I hope you'll think of that while you're laying here like a lady and your poor old aunt is slavin' for you, workin' her fingers to the bone."

"If I can ever get the four dollars and a half," cried Araminta, with tears in her voice, "I will give it back to you--oh, indeed I will!"

At this point, Doctor Ralph Dexter entered the room, his eyes snapping dangerously.

"Miss Mehitable," he said with forced calmness, "will you kindly come downstairs a moment? I wish to speak to you."

Dazed and startled, Miss Mehitable rose from her chair and followed him. There was in Ralph's voice a quality which literally compelled obedience. He drew her into the dusty parlour and closed all the doors carefully. Miss Evelina was nowhere to be seen.

"I was standing in the hall," said Ralph, coolly, "and I heard every word you said to that poor, helpless child. You ought to know, if you know anything at all, that nobody ever fell off a step-ladder on purpose. She's hurt, and she's badly hurt, and she's not in any way to blame for it, and I positively forbid you ever to enter that room again."

"Forbid!" bristled Aunt Hitty. "Who are you?" she demanded sarcastically, "to 'forbid' me from nursing my own niece!"

"I am the attending physician," returned Ralph, calmly. "It is my case, and nobody else is going to manage it. I have already arranged with--the lady who lives here--to take care of Araminta, and----"

"Arrange no such thing," interrupted Miss Hitty, violently. Her temper was getting away from her.

"One moment," interrupted Ralph. "If I hear of your entering that room again before I say Araminta is cured, I will charge you just exactly one hundred dollars for my services, and collect it by law."

Miss Hitty's lower jaw dropped, her strong, body shook. She gazed at Ralph as one might look at an intimate friend gone suddenly daft. She had heard of people who lost their reason without warning. Was it possible that she was in the room with a lunatic?

She edged toward the door, keeping her eyes on Ralph.

He anticipated her, and opened it with a polite flourish. "Remember," he warned her. "One step into Araminta's room, one word addressed to her, and it costs you just exactly one hundred dollars." He opened the other door and pointed suggestively down the hill, She lost no time in obeying the gesture, but scudded down the road as though His Satanic Majesty himself was in her wake.

Ralph laughed to himself all the way upstairs but in the hall he paused and his face grew grave again. From Araminta's room came the sound of sobbing.

She did not see him enter, for her face was hidden in her pillow. "Araminta!" said Ralph, tenderly, "You poor child."

Touched by the unexpected sympathy, Araminta raised her head to look at him. "Oh Doctor--" she began,

"Doctor Ralph," said the young man, sitting down on the bed beside her. "My father is Doctor Dexter and I am Doctor Ralph."

"I'm ashamed of myself for being such a baby," sobbed Araminta. "I didn't mean to cry."

"You're not a baby at all," said Doctor Ralph, soothingly, taking her hot hand in his. "You're hurt, and you've been bothered, and if you want to cry, you can. Here's my handkerchief."

After a little, her sobs ceased. Doctor Ralph still sat there, regarding her with a sort of questioning tenderness which was entirely outside of Araminta's brief experience.

"You're not to be bothered any more," he said. "I've seen your aunt, and she's not to set foot in this room again until you get well. If she even speaks to you from the hall, you're to tell me."

Araminta gazed at him, wide-eyed and troubled. "I can't take care of myself," she said, with a pathetic little smile.

"You're not going to. The lady who lives here is going to take care of you."

"Miss Evelina? She got burned because she was bad and she has to wear a veil all the time."

"How was she bad?" asked Ralph.

"I don't just know," whispered Araminta, cautiously. "Aunt Hitty didn't know, or else she wouldn't tell me, but she was bad. She went to a man's house. She----"

Then Araminta remembered that it was Doctor Dexter's house to which Miss Evelina had gone. In shame and terror, she hid her face again.

"I don't believe anybody ever got burned just for being bad," Ralph was saying, "but your face is hot and I'm going to cool it for you."

He brought a bowl of cold water, and with his handkerchief bathed Araminta's flushed face and her hot hands. "Doesn't that feel good?" he asked, when the traces of tears had been practically removed.

"Yes," sighed Araminta, gratefully, "but I've always washed my own face before. I saw a cat once," she continued. "He was washing his children's faces."

"Must have been a lady cat," observed Ralph, with a smile.

"The little cats," pursued Araminta, "looked to be very soft. I think they liked it."

"They are soft," admitted Ralph. "Don't you think so?"

"I don't know. I never had a little cat."

"Never had a kitten?" cried Ralph. "You poor, defrauded child! What kind of a kitten would you like best?"

"A little grey cat," said Araminta, seriously, "a little grey cat with blue eyes, but Aunt Hitty would never let me have one."

"See here," said Ralph. "Aunt Hitty isn't running this show. I'm stage manager and ticket taker and advance man and everything else, all rolled into one. I can't promise positively, because I'm not posted on the cat supply around here, but if I can find one, you shall have a grey kitten with blue eyes, and you shall have some kind of a kitten, anyhow."

"Oh!" cried Araminta, her eyes shining. "Truly?"

"Truly," nodded Ralph.

"Would--would--" hesitated Araminta--"would it be any more than four dollars and a half if you brought me the little cat? Because if it is, I can't----"

"It wouldn't," interrupted Ralph. "On any bill over a dollar and a quarter, I always throw in a kitten. Didn't you know that?"

"No," answered Araminta, with a happy little laugh. How kind he was, eyen though he was a man! Perhaps, if he knew how wicked her mother had been, he would not be so kind to her. The stern Puritan conscience rose up and demanded explanation.

"I--I--must tell you," she said, "before you bring me the little cat. My mother--she--" here Araminta turned her crimson face away. She swallowed a lump in her throat, then said, bravely: "My mother was married!"

Doctor Ralph Dexter laughed--a deep, hearty, boyish laugh that rang cheerfully through the empty house. "I'll tell you something," he said. He leaned over and whispered in her ear; "So was mine!"

Araminta's tell-tale face betrayed her relief. He knew the worst now--and he was similarly branded. His mother, too, had been an outcast, beyond Aunt Hitty's pale. There was comfort in the thought, though Araminta had been taught not to rejoice at another's misfortune.

Ralph strolled off down the hill, his hands in his pockets, for the moment totally forgetting the promised kitten. "The little saint," he mused, "she's been kept in a cage all her life. She doesn't know anything except what the dragon has taught her. She looks at life with the dragon's sidewise squint. I'll open the door for her," he continued, mentally, "for I think she's worth saving. Hope to Moses and the prophets I don't forget that cat."

No suspicion that he could forget penetrated Araminta's consciousness. It had been pleasant to have Doctor Ralph sit there and wash her face, talking to her meanwhile, even though he was a man, and men were poison. Like a strong, sure bond between them, Araminta felt their common disgrace.

"His mother was married," she thought, drowsily, "and so was mine. Neither of them knew any better. Oh, Lord," prayed Araminta, with renewed vigour, "keep me from the contamination of marriage, for Thy sake. Amen."