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Dr. Jex's Predicament by Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

 

IT was the funniest thing that I ever saw in my life. Cruikshank would have gloried in it. I wish I had him here to illustrate that scene with the spirited vigor that only his dancing pencil gives.

It was in Kentucky that it happened—that pleasant land of blue-grass, and tobacco, and fine stock, and white-teethed girls. Mabel, my sister, had married Dick Hucklestone, and they had begun life in great contentment and a little three-roomed house scarcely big enough to hold the bridal presents. But they were happy, hearty, healthy. They had two cows, ice-cream every day, a charming baby, and Uncle Brimmer. Who shall say that their cup was not full? Indeed, they thought it full before Uncle Brimmer added himself thereto—a very ponderous rose-leaf. He was one of our old family servants, who fondly believed that Miss Mabel and her young husband would never be able to get on without him. He walked all the way from Mississippi to Kentucky, with his things tied up in a meal sack, and presented himself before Mabel, announcing affably that he had come to “stay on.”

“But I haven't any place for you, Uncle Brimmer,” said Mabel, divided between hospitality and embarrassment.

“Lor', honey, you kin jes tuck me aroun' anywhar. I don't take up no room.”

Mabel looked thoughtfully upon the big, brown, gray- whiskered old negro, whose proportions were those of a Hercules, and shook her head. “You are not a Tom Thumb, Uncle Brimmer.”

“No, ma'am,” said he, submissively, “but I've got his sperit. Couldn't I sleep in de kitchen, honey?” he went on, with insinuating sweetness.

“No, indeed!” cried our young house-keeper. “I put my foot down on anybody sleeping in the kitchen.”

Aunt Patsey, the cook, stood by, balancing a pan of flour on her head, one fat hand on her hip. I suspected her of a personal interest in the matter, and indeed she afterward acknowledged that she thought Uncle Brimmer's coming would prove a “blessin' to her feet.” Those feet of hers had been saved many steps through the service of her ten-year-old daughter, Nancy Palmira Kate—called Nanky Pal for short. But of late Nanky's services had been called into requisition as a nurse, and Aunt Patsey, who was fat and scant o' breath, thought she had too much to do; and so she viewed with evident delight the stalwart proportions of our good-natured giant from the South.

“Dar's de lof', Miss Mabel,” she suggested.

“It is too small, and is cluttered up with things already.”

“Oh, sho, chile, afar ain't nothin' in dat lof' 'cep' de 'taters, an' de peppers, an' de dried apples, an' some strings o' terbacker, an' de broken plough, an' some odds an' ends o' de chiller's, an Lucy Crittenden's pups. Lor', afar ain't nothin ter speak of in de lof'.”

“He can't get in at the window,” said Mabel, shifting her ground.


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“Lemme try,” said Uncle Brimmer.

The kitchen was a small log-cabin, some distance from the house— “in good hollerin' reach,” to quote Aunt Patsey. Above it was a low room, or loft, crowded with the miscellaneous articles enumerated. The only way of getting into it was from the outside. A ladder against the side of the cabin admitted one, through a little window, no larger, I am sure, than that of a railway coach, into this storehouse of treasures. Nanky Pal, who was as slim as a snake, was usually selected to fetch and carry through the small aperture. But Uncle Brimmer!

“I'm pretty sho' I kin do it,” he said, squinting up one eye, as he took off his coat and prepared to try.

We stood in the door-way as he cautiously went up the ladder; and after an exciting moment he pushed himself through the window, and, turning, smiled triumphantly.

This settled the matter. A cot bed was procured for Uncle Brimmer, and he soon became the main-stay of the family. Cheerfully avoiding all the work possible; indifferently as an ostrich eating all he could find in cupboards or highways; grimly playing hobgoblin for baby; gayly twanging his banjo on moonlight nights—memory recalls thee, with a smile, Uncle Brimmer! I can close my eyes now and recall him, big, shapeless, indistinct in the semi-darkness, as he sat under the mulberry-tree, singing:


                        “Wish I wuz in Tennessee,
                        A-settin' in my cheer,
                        Jug o' whiskey by my side,
                        An' arms aroun' my dear!”

This was his favorite. Who shall doubt that it expressed to him all the poetry, romance, passion, of life?

After a time Uncle Brimmer fell ill, and we sent for a doctor.

Dr. Trattles Jex was the medical man of our county. He lived in Middleburn, seven miles away, and he came trotting over on a great bay horse, with a pair of saddle-bags hanging

like Gilpin's bottles, one on either side. He looked as diminutive as a monkey perched on the tall horse's back, and indeed he was “a wee bit pawky body,” as was said of Tommy Moore. But, bless me! he was as pompous and self-important as though he had found the place to stand on, and could move the world with his little lever. A red handkerchief carefully pinned across his chest showed that he had lungs and a mother. His boots were polished to the last degree. His pink and beardless face betrayed his youth; and his voice—ah, his voice!— what a treasure it would have been could he have let it out to masqueraders! Whether it was just changing from that of youth to that of a man, or whether, like reading and writing, it “came by nature,” I can't tell. One instant it was deep and bass, the next, squeaking and soprano. No even tenor about that voice!

He held out his hand, with, “GOOD-MORNING, Mrs. Hucklestone. I hope THE BABY HAS NOT HAD an attack?

I popped into the dining-room to giggle, but little well-bred Mabel did not even smile.

“Oh no!” she cried; “it is Uncle Brimmer.”

The doctor offered to see him at once. Mabel got up to lead the way. Up to this moment I warrant it had not struck her as anything out-of-the-way that she must invite Dr. Jex to climb a ladder and crawl through a window to get at his patient. But as she looked at him, speckless, spotless, gloved, scented, curled, then at the ladder leaning against the wall in a disreputable, rickety sort of way, a sense of incongruity seemed borne in on her soul. To add to her distress and my hilarity, we saw that Uncle Brimmer had hung out of the window some mysterious under-rigging that he wore. Long, red, and ragged, it “flaunted in the breeze” as picturesquely as the American flag on a Fourth of July.

“I am afraid, doctor, it will be a little awkward,” faltered Mabel; “Uncle Brimmer is up there;” and she waved her lily hand.

“An' you'll have ter climb de ladder,” put in Nanky Pal, with a disrespectful chuckle.

I thought the little doctor gasped; but he recovered himself gallantly, and said:

“AS A BOY I HAVE CLIMBED trees, and THINK I CAN ASCEND A l adder as a man;” and he smiled heroically.

We watched him. He was encumbered by the saddle-bags, but he managed very well, and had nearly reached the top, when suddenly Uncle Brimmer's head and shoulders protruded, giving him the look of a snail half out of its shell.

“Here's my pulse, doctor,” he cried, blandly, extending his bared arm. “ 'Tain't no place for you up here. An' here's my tongue.” Then out went his tongue for Dr. Jex's inspection.

The doctor settled himself on a rung of the ladder, quite willing to be met half-way. Professional inquiries began, when


                        “A deep sound struck like a rising knell.”

“Good gracious!” exclaimed Mabel; “what is that?”

Nanky Pal sprung up, with distended eyes, almost letting the baby fall.

Again,


                        “Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before.”

“Sakes alive, Miss Mabel!” cried Nanky, “ole Mr. Simmons's bull's done broke loose!”

She was right. A moment more, and in rushed the splendid, angry beast, bellowing, pawing the ground, shaking his evil, lowered head as if the devil were contradicting him.

Dr. Jex turned a scared face. My lord Bull caught sight of the fluttering red rags, and charged the side of the house. And I give you my word, the next instant the ladder was knocked from under the doctor's feet, and he was clinging frantically round the neck of Uncle Brimmer.

Fearful moment!

“Pull him in, Uncle Brimmer—pull him in!” shrieked Mabel, dancing about.

“I can't, honey—I can't,” gasped the choking giant; “I'm stuck.

Hold me UP!” cried the doctor. “SEND FOR help!

Uncle Brimmer seized him by the arm-pits. The saddlebags went clattering down, and about the head of Master Bull a cloud of quinine, calomel, Dover's and divers other powders and pills, broke in blinding confusion.

“Aunt Patsey, go for Mr. Hucklestone at once!” called Mabel.

Aunt Patsey looked cautiously out from the kitchen door. “Yer don't ketch me in de yard wid ole Simmons's bull,” she said, with charming independence.

“Then I shall send Nanky Pal.”

“If Nanky Pal goes outen dat house I'll break every bone in her body.”

Then Mabel began to beg: “Aunt Patsey, let her go, please. I'll give you a whole bagful of quilt pieces, and my ruby rep polonaise that you begged me for yesterday.”

Aunt Patsey's head came out a little farther. “An' what else?”

“And a ruffled pillow-sham,” said Mabel, almost in tears, “and some white sugar, and I'll make you a hat—and that's all. Now.


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“I reckon cat's about as much as de chile is wuth,” said the philosophic mother. “Let her go.”

“Fly! fly!” cried Mabel.

“I ain't skeered,” said Nanky. “I ain't dat sort. Mammy ain't nuther. She wuz jes waitin' ter see how much you'd give.”

Nanky's bare legs scudded swiftly across the yard. The bull took no notice of her. He was still stamping and bellowing under that window. Uncle Brimmer and the doctor clung together, and only a convulsive kick now and then testified to the little man's agony.

“Suppose Uncle Brimmer should let go?” I suggested, in a hollow whisper.

“Oh, hush!” cried Mabel. “The doctor's blood would be on our heads.”

“Or the bull's horns.”

It was not far to the tobacco field, and in an incredibly short time brother John came riding in, followed by half a dozen stout negroes. With some delightful play that gave one quite an idea of a Spanish bull-fight, his lordship was captured, and our little doctor was assisted to the house.

Gone was the glory of Dr. Trattles Jex. His coat was torn, his knees grimy, his hands scratched, and he looked—yes—as if he had been crying.

“Can you ever forgive us?” said Mabel, piteously. She hovered about him like a little mother. She made him drink two glasses of wine; she mended his coat; she asked him if he would not like to kiss the baby. And finally a wan smile shone in the countenance of Dr. Jex. For me, I felt my face purpling, and leaving him to Mabel, I fled with brother John to the smoke-house, where we—roared.

Uncle Brimmer got well, and went in to see the doctor. He returned with a new cravat, a cane, and several smart articles of attire, from which we inferred that, in those trying moments when he supported the suspended doctor, that little gentleman had offered many inducements for him to hold fast. When questioned he responded chiefly with a cavernous and mysterious smile, only saying:

“Master Dr. Jex is a gentleman; starch in or starch out, he's de gentleman straight.”

And brother John, who is somewhat acquainted with slang, said, with a great laugh, “Well, old man, you had a bully chance to judge, so you must be right.”

 
 
 

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