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The Doctor

( Originally Published 1905 )



DOCTOR WILFRED T. GRENFELL is the young Englishman who, for the love of God, practices medicine on the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. Other men have been moved to heroic deeds by the same high motive, but the professional round, I fancy, is quite out of the common ; indeed, it may be that in all the world there is not another of the sort. It extends from Cape John of Newfoundland around Cape Norman and into the Strait of Belle Isle, and from Ungava Bay and Cape Chidley of the Labrador south ward far into the Gulf of St. Lawrence—two thousand miles of bitterly inhospitable shore : which a man in haste must sail with his life in his hands. The folk are for the most part isolated and desperately wretched —the shore fishermen of the remoter Newfoundland coasts, the Labrador " liveyeres," the Indians of the forbidding interior, the Esquimaux of the far north. It is to such as these that the man gives devoted and heroic service—not for gain ; there is no gain to be got in those impoverished places : merely for the love of God.

I once went ashore in a little harbour of the northeast coast of Newfoundland. It was a place most unimportant—and it was just beyond the doctor's round. The sea sullenly confronted it, hills overhung it, and a scrawny wilderness flanked the hills ; the ten white cottages of the place gripped the dripping rocks as for dear life. And down the path there came an old fisherman to meet the stranger.

" Good-even, zur," said he.

" Good-evening."

He waited for a long time. Then, " Be you a doctor, zur ?" he asked.

" No, sir."

"Noa ? Isn't you ? Now, I was thinkin' maybe you might be. But you isn't, you says ?"

" Sorry—but, no ; really, I'm not."

" Well, zur," he persisted, " I was thinkin' you might be, when I seed you comin' ashore. They is a doctor on this coast," he added, " but he's sixty mile along shore. 'Tis a wonderful expense t' have un up. This here harbour isn't able. An' you isn't a doctor, you says ? Is you sure, zur ? "

There was unhappily no doubt about it.

"I was thinkin' you might be," he went on, wistfully, " when I seed you comin' ashore. But perhaps you might know something about doctorin' ? Noa ? "

"Nothing."

"I was thinkin', now, that you might. 'Tis my little girl that's sick. Sure, none of us knows what's the matter with she. Woan't you come up an' see she, zur ? Perhaps you might do something—though you isn't—a doctor."

The little girl was lying on the floor—on a ragged quilt, in a corner. She was a fair child—a little maid of seven. Her eyes were deep blue, wide, and fringed with long, heavy lashes. Her hair was flaxen, abundant, all tangled and curly. Indeed, she was a winsome little thing !

" I'm thinkin' she'll be dyin' soon," said the mother. " Sure, she's wonderful swelled in the legs. We been waitin' for a doctor t' come, an' we kind o' thought you was one."

"How long have you waited?"

"'Twas in April she was took. She've been lyin' there ever since. 'Tis near Au-gust, now, I'm thinkin'."

" They was a doctor here two year ago," said the man. "He come by chance," he added, " like you."

" Think they'll be one comin' soon ? " the woman asked.

I took the little girl's hand. It was dry and hot. She did not smile—nor was she afraid. Her fingers closed upon the hand she held. She was a blue-eyed, winsome little maid ; but pain had driven all the sweet roguery out of her face.

"Does you think she'll die, zur ? " asked the woman, anxiously.

I did not know.

" Sure, zur," said the man, trying to smile, "'tis wonderful queer, but I sure thought you was a doctor, when I seed you comin' ashore."

" Bat you isn't ? " the woman pursued, still hopefully. "Is you sure you couldn't do nothin' ? Is you noa kind of a doctor, at all ? We doan't—we doan't—want she t' die ! "

In the silence—so long and deep a silence —melancholy shadows crept in from the desolation without.

" I wisht you was a doctor," said the man. " I—wisht—you—was ! "

He was crying.

" They need," thought I, " a mission-doctor in these parts."

And the next day—in the harbour beyond —I first heard of Grenfell. In that place they said they would send him to the little maid who lay dying ; they assured me, in-deed, that he would make haste, when he came that way : which would be, perhaps, they thought, in "long about a month." Whether or not the doctor succoured the child I do not know ; but I have never forgotten this first impression of his work—the conviction that it was a good work for a man to be about.

Subsequently I learned that Dr. Grenfell was the superintendent of the Newfoundland and Labrador activities of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, an English organization, with a religious and medical work already well-established on the North Sea, and a medical mission then in process of development on the North Atlantic coast. Two years later he discovered himself to be a robust, hearty Saxon, strong, indefatigable, devoted, jolly; a doctor, a parson by times, something of a sportsman when occasion permitted, a master-mariner, a magistrate, the director of certain commercial enterprises designed to " help the folk help themselves "—the prophet and champion, indeed, of a people : and a man very much in love with life.



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