“I must insist on your absolute discretion, doctor,” he was saying.
“I understand, I understand.” The doctor’s voice was thinner, conditioned by years of telling people what they wanted to hear. “Your daughter’s reputation is safe in my hands.”
“I say nothing of her reputation, sir.” Martha’s father’s voice carried his frown so clearly that Marla suppressed a giggle. “There is no question of any stain on her reputation. It is merely an infirmity. She is overwrought. Possibly hysterical. But not so overwrought or so hysterical as to cast the slightest aspersion on her reputation. Do you understand me plainly?”
“Yes sir, yes.” The doctor’s voice rose a little more as he adjusted his position. “I cast no aspersions. But in my profession, frankness and honesty mark the road to the happiest destination, if you follow my meaning.”
Martha’s father’s growl neither contradicted nor agreed with the doctor.
“Perhaps you could describe her ailments before I see her?” asked the doctor. “I would trust your judgement far more than a girl whom you describe as hysterical.”
“Very wise, I’m sure.” Martha’s father believed his judgement was second to none. Martha suspected that was a sign that it was last among many, and she suspected that the doctor shared her opinion. “Well doctor, she has been reading books.”
“Yes, books. So you see why I ask you to keep this between us.”
“Indeed I do. You may count on my discretion. May I ask, they’re not in French are they?”
“French? Good Lord no. It’s not that bad. But she does appear to be reading a great deal in English and Latin.”
“Latin?” The doctor sounded startled. “She reads in Latin?”
“I engaged a tutor to ensure she was sufficiently accomplished. I dismissed the man as soon as I discovered she had inveigled him into teaching her Latin, but the damage was done.”
“I see, I see. In that case, the balance of her mind may be in grave peril. Latin is often used to convey ideas. Ideas require the fortitude of the masculine mind to encompass them without falling unduly under their influence. As I am sure I need not tell you, sir.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” said her father. “I have no time for such fripperies as ideas.”
“My dear sir, have you ever stopped up the valve of a kettle and had the kitchen maid boil it? It’s an informative experiment, albeit one best not observed from close proximity. A superb illustration of the effect of ideas on the female mind.”
Martha decided that quick wits or no, she didn’t like the doctor at all.
“I had better see the young lady at once,” said the doctor. “There is no time to lose.”
Footsteps moved away from the chimney. Martha heard the dwindling grumble of her father’s voice, but couldn’t divine the words. When she heard the men climbing the stairs, she flung herself on the bed with her arms outstretched. Her father’s expression at seeing her so disported nearly made her laugh out loud. Girlish laughter was not what the situation warranted so she suppressed to it a single squeak that she was unable to contain.
“Oh dear oh dear,” said the doctor. “I see she is in deep distress.”
“Good day, doctor.” Martha leapt to her feet. “I suppose you wish to caress my pulse like the last three.”
She sat in her chair and offered her wrist. “If you’re quick about it, you can decide I’m incurable, incorrigible and irredeemable before teatime and I can return to my Galen. You are familiar with Galen, I presume, being a doctor?”
“Galen?” The doctor looked startled. “Well naturally I have heard of him but I prefer to put my trust in Christian rather than pagan texts.”
“Quite right,” said Martha’s father.
The doctor stepped forward and curled his fingers around Martha’s wrist.
“Yes,” said Martha. “I imagined you were just such a man the moment I set eyes on you. How staunch. Now you must press harder or you will not feel my poor, feeble pulse. It’s very demure. But you must promise me, no bleeding. The second one left me feeling quite languid. When the third one produced his scalpel, I had to sheath it in his leg to persuade him not to.”
“Oh, you did, did you?” The doctor stepped back until he reached the wall and turned to Martha’s father. “I am sorry to say sir, I am not sure there is much I can do for a young lady with such a pulse. It speaks of a mind that is beyond the reach of a humble physician.”
“But what am I to do with her?”
“I suggest you get her married as soon as possible. I will not press you for my fee.”
Martha’s peal of laughter pursued him down the staircase.