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HOW REUBEN ALLEN "SAW LIFE" IN SAN FRANCISCO


The junior partner of the firm of Sparlow & Kane, "Druggists and
Apothecaries," of San Francisco, was gazing meditatively out of the
corner of the window of their little shop in Dupont Street. He
could see the dimly lit perspective of the narrow thoroughfare fade
off into the level sand wastes of Market Street on the one side,
and plunge into the half-excavated bulk of Telegraph Hill on the
other. He could see the glow and hear the rumble of Montgomery
Street--the great central avenue farther down the hill. Above the
housetops was spread the warm blanket of sea-fog under which the
city was regularly laid to sleep every summer night to the cool
lullaby of the Northwest Trades. It was already half-past eleven;
footsteps on the wooden pavement were getting rarer and more
remote; the last cart had rumbled by; the shutters were up along
the street; the glare of his own red and blue jars was the only
beacon left to guide the wayfarers. Ordinarily he would have been
going home at this hour, when his partner, who occupied the surgery
and a small bedroom at the rear of the shop, always returned to
relieve him. That night, however, a professional visit would
detain the "Doctor" until half-past twelve. There was still an
hour to wait. He felt drowsy; the mysterious incense of the shop,
that combined essence of drugs, spice, scented soap, and orris
root--which always reminded him of the Arabian Nights--was
affecting him. He yawned, and then, turning away, passed behind
the counter, took down a jar labeled "Glycyrr. Glabra," selected a
piece of Spanish licorice, and meditatively sucked it. Not
receiving from it that diversion and sustenance he apparently was
seeking, he also visited, in an equally familiar manner, a jar
marked "Jujubes," and returned ruminatingly to his previous position.

If I have not in this incident sufficiently established the
youthfulness of the junior partner, I may add briefly that he was
just nineteen, that he had early joined the emigration to
California, and after one or two previous light-hearted essays at
other occupations, for which he was singularly unfitted, he had
saved enough to embark on his present venture, still less suited to
his temperament. In those adventurous days trades and vocations
were not always filled by trained workmen; it was extremely
probable that the experienced chemist was already making his
success as a gold-miner, with a lawyer and a physician for his
partners, and Mr. Kane's inexperienced position was by no means a
novel one. A slight knowledge of Latin as a written language, an
American schoolboy's acquaintance with chemistry and natural
philosophy, were deemed sufficient by his partner, a regular
physician, for practical cooperation in the vending of drugs and
putting up of prescriptions. He knew the difference between acids
and alkalies and the peculiar results which attended their
incautious combination. But he was excessively deliberate,
painstaking, and cautious. The legend which adorned the desk at
the counter, "Physicians' prescriptions carefully prepared," was
more than usually true as regarded the adverb. There was no danger
of his poisoning anybody through haste or carelessness, but it was
possible that an urgent "case" might have succumbed to the disease
while he was putting up the remedy. Nor was his caution entirely
passive. In those days the "heroic" practice of medicine was in
keeping with the abnormal development of the country; there were
"record" doses of calomel and quinine, and he had once or twice
incurred the fury of local practitioners by sending back their
prescriptions with a modest query.

The far-off clatter of carriage wheels presently arrested his
attention; looking down the street, he could see the lights of a
hackney carriage advancing towards him. They had already flashed
upon the open crossing a block beyond before his vague curiosity
changed into an active instinctive presentiment that they were
coming to the shop. He withdrew to a more becoming and dignified
position behind the counter as the carriage drew up with a jerk
before the door.

The driver rolled from his box and opened the carriage door to a
woman whom he assisted, between some hysterical exclamations on her
part and some equally incoherent explanations of his own, into the
shop. Kane saw at a glance that both were under the influence of
liquor, and one, the woman, was disheveled and bleeding about the
head. Yet she was elegantly dressed and evidently en fete, with
one or two "tricolor" knots and ribbons mingled with her finery.
Her golden hair, matted and darkened with blood, had partly escaped
from her French bonnet and hung heavily over her shoulders. The
driver, who was supporting her roughly, and with a familiarity that
was part of the incongruous spectacle, was the first to speak.

"Madame le Blank! ye know! Got cut about the head down at the fete
at South Park! Tried to dance upon the table, and rolled over on
some champagne bottles. See? Wants plastering up!"

"Ah brute! Hog! Nozzing of ze kine! Why will you lie? I dance!
Ze cowards, fools, traitors zere upset ze table and I fall. I am
cut! Ah, my God, how I am cut!"

She stopped suddenly and lapsed heavily against the counter. At
which Kane hurried around to support her into the surgery with the
one fixed idea in his bewildered mind of getting her out of the
shop, and, suggestively, into the domain and under the
responsibility of his partner. The hackman, apparently relieved
and washing his hands of any further complicity in the matter,
nodded and smiled, and saying, "I reckon I'll wait outside,
pardner," retreated incontinently to his vehicle. To add to Kane's
half-ludicrous embarrassment the fair patient herself slightly
resisted his support, accused the hackman of "abandoning her," and
demanded if Kane knew "zee reason of zees affair," yet she
presently lapsed again into the large reclining-chair which he had
wheeled forward, with open mouth, half-shut eyes, and a strange
Pierrette mask of face, combined of the pallor of faintness and
chalk, and the rouge of paint and blood. At which Kane's
cautiousness again embarrassed him. A little brandy from the
bottle labeled "Vini Galli" seemed to be indicated, but his
inexperience could not determine if her relaxation was from
bloodlessness or the reacting depression of alcohol. In this
dilemma he chose a medium course, with aromatic spirits of ammonia,
and mixing a diluted quantity in a measuring-glass, poured it
between her white lips. A start, a struggle, a cough--a volley of
imprecatory French, and the knocking of the glass from his hand
followed--but she came to! He quickly sponged her head of the
half-coagulated blood, and removed a few fragments of glass from a
long laceration of the scalp. The shock of the cold water and the
appearance of the ensanguined basin frightened her into a momentary
passivity. But when Kane found it necessary to cut her hair in the
region of the wound in order to apply the adhesive plaster, she
again endeavored to rise and grasp the scissors.

"You'll bleed to death if you're not quiet," said the young man
with dogged gravity.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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