Three AM on the day of Tommy Bang‘s wedding, and Nan was roused from her bed by a loud knock at the door. She did not take time to light a candle, but quickly slipped on a pair of shoes and a long wrap dress that she kept by her bed for occasions such as this. Another knock, and Nan was dashing to answer the door, her eyes bright and awake even at this early hour.
It was doctor Morrison at the door. The older man was disheveled in that way which no gentleman would allow, but was permissible for doctors working through the night. He held his medicine chest under one arm, and looked every bit as alert as Nan felt.
“Ah, I’m glad you’re up,” the older man said. “Just down the road from here, a child has died, you see, and another is having feverish and seizures in addition to coughing spasms . Hooping cough, I expect, and the whole household has it.”
“I’ve had it myself when I was a child, so I can assist, with little fear of contracting it. Let’s make haste then,” said Nan, seriously. “Have you got everything we need, or shall I get my medical kit?”
“You needn’t bring anything. Close the door and we’ll go.”
It was a short walk from Nan’s home to the afflicted household, made shorter by the two doctors’ brisk steps. On the way, Morrison filled Nan in on the specifics of the case.
“The family hasn’t much money, and I daresay some of the harm could have been prevented, had they asked for help sooner, but we shan’t tell them as much, will only upset them.”
“How old was the child who died? And the one who we are seeing? We’ll do all we can, but doesn’t the illness kill half of all infants who contract it?”
“Two, and the one we’re seeing is nearing seven.”
Nan let out a relieved breath, “Then we’re not working in vain, necessarily. Is he usually a healthy lad?”
“Mother says he is,” said Morrison, as they arrived at the door. Even from outside, Nan could hear somebody coughing loudly, followed by a high-pitched gasping sound, for the disease could make one’s throat close up after fits.
“Masks?” Asked Nan, who liked to take precautions.
Morrison nodded, removing two white cloth masks from his kit. Nan tied hers, so that her nose and mouth were safely covered. It was true that past medical theories of miasma and noxious vapors were fast on their way to being disproved, but if the masks were unnecessary they still only took a second to don, and Nan was willing to take that on the chance that they did help.
Morrison opened the door of the house, and Nan followed him inside.
There were three living people in the house, which had but one large room. One child, a plump boy with hair so yellow as to seem almost white, was coughing, bent over himself, his shirt wet with vomit. He was on the floor, the bed having been taken up by what had been a little girl, but which Nan had trouble thinking of as anything but a body, having spent her schooling dissecting and studying corpses to the point where the sight of one did not much affect her any longer.
Nan nodded to the mother and father, before going over to kneel by the child, who reached out for her in a way that touched the young doctor quite a bit, even though the initial tragedy of the scene had not.
There was a reason why Morrison brought her along to cases such as this one. Though she would readily admit that Morrison’s bedside manner was better than her own, which tended to be overly clinical at times, there were certain patients that gravitated more towards her than they did the other doctors. Children, for example. It was a mere accident of gender, and Nan was well aware of it, but at times when it helped her in her chosen profession rather than hindering her, she didn’t mind. It was simply that many people saw a woman’s face, and projected gentleness upon it, and though Nan might do exactly the same thing as her male counterparts, it was often taken more kindly coming from her. And so it was often the case that she found herself tending women or sick children, rather than men who sometimes laughed at her, or tried to flirt as she was examining them.
“He’s vomiting, that’s a good sign, gets the sickness out of him faster,” said Nan, who was not sure if she spoke for the benefit of the mother and father, or Dr. Morrison. She took hold of the child’s wrist, just as another fit of coughs came over him. She could feel his pulse, beating far more quickly than it ought to be, and no wonder, for he was in a state of paroxysm.
“A warm bath, remove all constricting clothing, a dose -- one half ounce syrup of squills, one once antimonial wine, 15 drops of laudanum ---” Said Nan, who had a habit of reciting procedures out loud, particularly if she was dealing with a disease that she was less familiar with.
“One once syrup of Toulou, and one and a half ounces water,” finished Morrison briskly, casting Nan a quick smile, which would have seemed morbid and of place to anyone not in the medical profession. The boy’s parents were certainly far from smiling, and Nan directed them to prepare a tub of hot water. Morrison mixed the dose, and seeing that the child seemed inclined to rest in her arms, Nan allowed it, heedless of the mess.
The night dragged on from there, for even once the dose had taken affect, and the young boy was asleep, she and Morrison had more work to do, mixing enough medicine to last the family several more days, and helping them to prepare the body of the departed girl, which was not strictly their job, but which neither felt they could refuse when the mother broke down in bewildered tears when they proposed leaving.
It was nearly nine in the morning by the time Nan returned home, thoroughly exhausted, but feeling she had performed as well as anyone could. Her mind was buzzing with the memory of the dead child, which seemed more horrible now that she was away from it, when she caught a glance of herself in her bedroom mirror, and laughed.
Her hair was a mess, her clothes were dirty, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Seeing herself appearing thoroughly disrespectable often produced a feeling of perverse glee in Nan, for she knew that when she looked her worst, it was because she’d worked her hardest. And somehow, working her hardest, and returning to her neat, orderly home after seeing things that would give most of her friends nightmares, were they in her shoes, made her prone to at least a few moments of desperate merriment.
“To think,” she said to herself, suddenly remembering, “I’ve a wedding to attend in an hour! Dear Tommy, how happy for him that Dora‘s the bride and not me!”
Breakfast and coffee were in order, and she would have to dress quickly to make something presentable of herself. Lifting her wrap up over her head, Nan began to ready herself to enter a very different kind of scene.
It was bright and sunny, and so the service was to be held outdoors. Nan was rarely late for anything, but in this case she was the last person to arrive. She carried a wrapped, and heavy gift in her hands -- a lovely mahogany medicine chest for Dora, who she assumed would take care of any doctoring needed in the Bangs household. Knowing Tommy, the bandages would come in handy, for he was as much a scapegrace as ever, and for all that he’d had some medical training, Nan trusted Dora’s good sense than any snippets of information that Tommy might have half-heard while pretending to study alongside her.
“Here, let me take that,” said Bess, acting as hostess, for the role suited her well. Nan had not seen the girl in some time, for her career meant that she needed to make special effort to see any of her friends, and that effort was most frequently used on Daisy or Tommy.
“I take it the bride’s in hiding?” said Nan.
“Yes, mother and aunt Meg are helping her with her hair, and I believe father is talking to Tommy now. He’s only a little nervous, and today truly is the perfect day for a wedding!”
Nan had to smile at the idea of Tommy being nervous, and no doubt overflowing with excitement for this day. She’d always liked him best when he was in high spirits, and not moping over misplaced romantic notions. With any luck, he would always be happy now, having found the one person to whom his heart could truly belong.
“It is good to see everyone here and together,” said Nan, for a glance around told her that many students from Plumfield had decided to attend. Daisy and Demi were seated together along with Alice, Nat was tuning his violin that he might play it at the ceremony, and Dolly and Ned were standing near the hors d'oeuvres as Stuffy raided them voraciously.
“Not everyone,” said Bess, a little somberly. “Dan isn’t here, and I daresay he won’t come. He didn’t look well when he last visited, and Aunt Jo seems to think he’s unlikely to come again soon. She looked so very queer when I asked her about him today -- sad and strict all at once.”
At that moment Josie ran in between them, and Ted followed, nearly colliding with the gift that Bess was still holding.
“Rascal. You will give it back, for I’m giving that book to Dora,” Josie called, her braids all eschew, not even bothering to look back at Nan and Bess. Nan laughed, and even Bess found it hard to look affronted.
“Let me put this away, before it’s ruined,” said Bess. “You can take a seat, if you like, and I shall come and find you when I have time.”
Nan did take a seat near Rob, her active mind still musing on what Bess had said about Dan. Mother Bhaer would be sad if she thought Dan would not come again, but Nan couldn’t imagine that truly to be the case.
Soon Daisy came over to join her, just as Nat’s fiddling announced that Dora would arrive soon, to join hands with Tommy forever more.
She was a pretty bride, in her simple white gown, her curly hair trimmed with fresh flowers, and her appearance did not surprise Nan in the least. Tommy Bangs was another story. Nan had expected him to be stammering and beet red, as he’d been when he first told her about the engagement, to muddle his lines, and perhaps finish by falling off the podium. In fact, he did none of these things, but kissed Dora solemnly and tenderly, as if he’d finally grown up.
“Do you feel sad at all?” Whispered Daisy, leaning a companionable head against Nan’s shoulder.
It was not something that Nan had expected to be asked, having made up her mind so firmly about Tommy Bangs and all things related to him, that she was sure the rest of the world must know without her telling them so. For some reason, though, the question made Nan think.
Tommy was handsome, she realized dimly, but knowing this meant no more to her than knowing and acknowledging that Bess was beautiful. He was also good and kind, and though she noticed those things and esteemed him for it, it did not make her love him. Dora looked so very happy when she kissed him, yet Nan at once felt certain that she would not enjoy kissing him, or anyone else for that matter.
“I think,” said Nan slowly, “that he’s well satisfied with his lot, and I’m happy for him. As for me, I wouldn’t trade mine for the world.”
And though Daisy, who wanted such different things out of life than Nan did, might never understand completely why she forsook a husband and home and pursued a career, Nan felt the truth of her words