Title: Come at last to safety
Word Count 974
Come at Last to Safety
“No, don't fight it, the more you cough the better. Here, this is the way.” Placing a firm pillow in the young man's lap, he folded the lad forward over it.
“Oh. It doesn't hurt so much like that.” The voice was weak and husky.
“Your belly is just sore from the cough. Supporting it helps.” Dr John Hornblower patted the young shoulder absently, noting the wasted muscle, the slick sweat.
“Ribs still --- oh, ow.”
“Yes. That's the pleurisy.”
The boy nodded. Dr. Hornblower noted the dumb resignation. Anger would have been better.
“Well, I will check back in a day or two. I will leave a bottle with your mother. You can use it to ease the cough, at night, so you can sleep. Only at night, mind you!” He smiled at the boy, and received a weak laugh, in return.
The woman at the door was not laughing. And he knew she had no money for him. He wanted to tell her that payment was unimportant. He wished it were true. He wished she would invite him to sit by the hearth. His toes were sore with cold, and squelching in his wet boots. But her shame made her brusque. He tried to ease it, tried to tell her that her son was improving. But she had him on the doorstep in no time. It was raining again.
He wrapped his wet coat more tightly around himself. The rain had somehow contrived to blow into his face both to and fro. The doctors mouth quirked. His Horatio would probably know just how and why. He would look at his father with those earnest dark eyes, and give a long explanation, probably involving geometry.
But Horatio was not here. There had not been a letter in months. And it seemed so long since his boy had walked beside him. He told himself there was no reason to fret. Letters go astray. Boys have adventures, they forget to write. Dr Hornblower tried not to think about Mr Kennedy. Kennedy had been so vibrantly alive, with beauty and poise that drew the eye, and a modest kindness that showed him unaware of it. But Mr Kennedy had been lost at sea. That had been in the last letter. There had been no news since.
Dr Hornblower found himself thinking, as a child does, that every day that passed brought him closer to the day that a letter would come. He would not allow himself to think otherwise.
Was that sleet now? Sleet in July? He ducked his head, squinting against it. Almost home. There was something on his door step, a dark smudge of cowering something, huddled against the door. John Hornblower hurried forward on his cold numb feet. Hard to tell what it was. His spectacles were smeared with sleet or rain, or whatever it was. A child? No. It was a dog. And it was weeping.
She was not a pretty dog. She seemed to be a strange gray and brown mottle, her nose was very pointed, her ears indecisive. Her long ragged coat more mud than hair. She looked at him despairingly as he came near, and she cowered, shaking. Nothing but bones, underneath all that hair.
“Well, girl. Why don't you come in. I'm sure we can find something to feed you.” He kept his voice level. He kept his hands gentle. He pushed at her hindquarters, and she slid, her feet splayed and muddy. He shut the door behind them.
Mary had been and gone. She had laid the fire, but not lit it. He did that, quickly. The dog looked astonished. Not a house dog, then. And here, on inspection, the proof. A thin rope, hidden under the matted fur at her throat. It had rubbed raw, sunk into her skin. He kept his hands kind, his voice level.
“Can't leave that that there. No, we cannot. That rope is hurting isn't it? Here we go...” And she curled her lip a little, but she let him remove it.
Mary had left him a covered plate. Ham, potatoes. The dog took the ham from his hand, hesitant at first, and then greedy as she was able. He ate the potatoes, hungry himself. His muddy boots steamed, close by the fire. He sat down, to stare into the flames. In a minute he would up and change into something dry. The flames were pleasant. He had not realized his fatigue. The dog crept, belly down, close to the hearth. She rested her chin on his boots, and sighed.
He ought to get up. He ought to change into a dressing gown, make a cup of coffee, write up his case notes. Well, soon enough. He did not fight much, as his eyes shut.
Mary stepped very quietly, she did not look dangerous. And the dog, torpid in the food and heat, was beyond astonishment. It lifted its chin, that was all.
Mary lifted hers too. “Well.” She said, “I can see that my life is going to get more difficult.” She moved to the doctor, snoring in his chair. “Soaked to the skin.” She muttered. She took a blanket from the back of the chair, and spread it over him. He did not wake.
“Make yourself useful,” She said to the dog. “See that he gets this.”
And then she let her own smile unfurl, bright as the missing sun. She rose up on her toes, almost dancing. A close observer ---there was none-- would have seen a flash of the lithe girl that she had once been. And she propped, against the coffee cup, the long awaited, come at last, letter from Horatio.