The Gentleman Physician

A Regency Romance

Sally Britton

26 min.

Chapter One

January 10th, 1812

Nathaniel Hastings bit his bottom lip to keep from laughing while his patient, Lady Huntington, continued to spout nonsense about the reasons behind her various ailments. He knew very well nothing troubled her that a good conversation could not cure.

“You are not at all sympathetic enough to be a doctor,” the septuagenarian accused, wagging a bejeweled finger at him. “Look at you. As I give you a list of my rheumatisms and poor spirits, you are laughing at me.” Though her words were said with affront, her old gray eyes sparkled with mirth. “What is to become of us when young doctors like you sit and chuckle at their patients? Hardly a way to run a medical practice, if you ask me.”

“I beg your pardon, my lady.” He stopped trying to hide his smile. “I find it hard to believe that your aches are so dreadful when I have it on very good authority you spent last evening at a ball, dancing nearly as often as that granddaughter of yours. Rumor also has it that you turned many a head with your new turban.”

Her eyes glittered playfully. She leaned forward, the scent of lavender and face powder wafting toward him as she moved, to give his hand a grandmotherly pat where it rested on the arm of the chair.

“It is not a rumor at all, dear boy. And I will show you the magnificent headpiece.” She signaled her maid who disappeared briefly and returned carrying a very tall, very bright yellow turban of silk, bedecked with green and blue feathers. “You see,” the old woman said triumphantly, taking in his surprised expression with glee. “Positively everyone noticed and commented upon it. They cannot decide if I am senile or too out of the world to even care about fashion. Bah.” She took the hideous thing and put it on her head, the maid fluttering about to help adjust it.

Nathaniel covered his mouth with his fist, overcome with amusement and horror in equal parts. “Is that a stuffed bird at the top?”

“Indeed, it is.” The dowager affected a dramatic pose, lifting her aristocratic nose in the air. “I can tell you are absolutely agog, as were all at the assembly last evening.” But when she twisted her neck to allow her profile to show, she winced and raised a hand to the back of her head.

He shook his head. “I can see. I also think, my lady, that I will leave you with a tincture after all. Such a glorious head piece likely caused you some strain due to its weight. I doubt the whole turban is as light as the feathers festooned upon it?”

“It is a taxing load,” she consented, waving for her maid to remove the silk and feathered monstrosity. “What do you recommend I take to cure my suffering?”

He gave her instructions for herbal tea to ease her headache and relax her muscles, advised she rest and not wear the turban for a few days at least, and then took his leave of her. Lady Huntington always saw to it that his visits were well compensated, though he never asked a thing from her. That was the way with the wealthy. They would never stoop to paying a doctor but would give him gifts instead.

The poor insisted on paying, however meager the amount, and Nathaniel had long since decided it all evened out. He earned a respectable living, for an independent man, and he enjoyed the work.

He put his beaver atop his head, covering his dark blond hair. He would need to visit a barber soon to keep it from covering his eyes. He inhaled deeply of the afternoon air and strode down the walk, taking in the clear blue sky, half smiling. Winter usually meant gray skies and dreadful weather, but today the world remained bright.

Nathaniel liked Bath. The city, ancient and modern at the same time, appealed to him. He could visit Roman ruins or listen to the old gossips discuss the latest London scandals in the Pump Room. With the season well under way in London, Bath emptied of many of its usual citizens, to fill again with families taking leases. These families were generally not high enough in society to thrive in London, but they could command great respect in Bath.

Deciding to walk to his next appointment, Nathaniel enjoyed the brisk winter breezes. Cities were always more pleasant in the winter, the air scented by coal and wood smoke instead of animals. He missed the green trees and gardens, but the bare branches in the parks made him more restful. People stayed indoors, softening the sounds in the streets.

In spring, life returned to the parks and the noise of all the citizenry bursting out of doors bringing vibrancy back to the town. But for now, he enjoyed the peacefulness of the season.

Nathaniel turned his mind to his next patient, hoping the cold dry air would make the man’s day a little easier. The Baron of Heatherton, Charles Macon, was next on his list. It would not be a light-hearted visit, as his lordship was failing with consumption. The disease had taken the man’s lungs. All Nathaniel could do was alleviate the man’s pain and treat the symptoms to make what time he had left meaningful.

He had tried every remedy he could find, but Lord Heatherton’s case had already advanced to a point there was nothing more a doctor could do.

He arrived at the house at half past two, and Lady Heatherton greeted him. She met him at the top of the stairs, her fair hair piled upon her head in a regal manner, her dress impeccable, her countenance stoic. She bore herself like a duchess, and he nearly forgot she was younger than his own twenty-seven years.

“Doctor Hastings, welcome.” She offered him her hand which he bowed over. “Your visits are most appreciated.”

He smiled, having found that this family preferred a pleasant disposition over a somber one. “Thank you, my lady. I hope, with the weather drier than normal, that your husband is faring well today?”

A flicker of worry appeared in her eyes and she glanced downward. “I am afraid not. I had hoped, with the lack of rain, his cough would ease. But…” When she looked up again there were tears in her eyes. “The solicitor came earlier to go over the details of the will. His lordship does not think he has much time left.”

Nathaniel frowned. “This disease is cruel in its kindness.”

“Indeed. It gives us plenty of time to prepare, yet we must watch the slow progression of it take away our loved ones.” She blinked away her tears and lifted her eyes, the bravery reappearing. “Thank you for coming. Please, let us see to my husband.”

Lord Heatherton reclined on the fainting couch in his bedroom, sitting before a large fire. The pallor of his skin testified of his illness, and his coat hung loosely about his shoulders. The gentleman had lost a great deal of weight. He turned to the door when Nathaniel entered, the motion jarring a coughing fit. His wife hurried to his side, handing him a handkerchief and putting her hand to his shoulder in support. She offered him water when the coughing had passed but he waved it away.

The baroness gave care rivaling professional nurses and Nathaniel admired her for it.

“Perhaps he ought to have tea instead,” Nathaniel suggested as he came further into the room. He always instructed soap and a basin of water be available to him, to wash his hands, before and after encountering all of his patients.

While some scoffed at what they deemed fastidious behavior, Nathaniel had seen its benefits. Having studied medicine in Scotland, Nathaniel was well read in Doctor Alexander Gordon’s treatment of puerperal fever. Doctor Gordon’s treatise on his findings that washing one’s hands, and instruments, and airing out clothing when visiting women with child-bed fever, remained one of the most controversial topics among doctors.

Nathaniel decided to experiment with the idea in other cases of illness, to determine its veracity for himself. He came to his conclusion quickly.

A family who washed well, with sickness in their midst, did not pass the illness between themselves as often. Nathaniel and his patients enjoyed better health than his colleagues who did not take the time to wash.

“Something soothing. I imagine you have a headache, my lord?” Nathaniel asked. The baron nodded, the dark circles under his eyes more pronounced by the paleness of his face. “Willow-bark, then, with copious amounts of honey.”

Lady Heatherton nodded and left the room, after washing her hands at the same basin the doctor had used. Her dedication to her husband was such that she would fetch the tea herself, rather than send for a maid. This meant Nathaniel could have a few private minutes with the baron.

“Doctor Hastings,” the man said at last, his voice hoarse. “I fear you will soon lose me as a patient.”

Nathaniel came forward and took a chair placed near the sick man’s couch. “It is possible. But the Lord might call me home in the next instant. One never knows for certain.” He reached out to check the man’s pulse, finding the artery in the neck. He observed the dilated pupils of Lord Heatherton, took note of the thinning hair and bags under the man’s eyes. “You are not sleeping well?”

“Not with this cough.” The baron sat back and closed his eyes. “I have made Virginia move across the house instead of in the adjoining chamber, so I do not disturb her at night. If she insists on tending to me all day, she must have her rest. She is exhausted, spending time with the children. She moves between the nursery and my sickroom so often it is a wonder she has not worn her tracks into the floors.”

Nathaniel’s shoulders tensed. “She is continuing to wash, as I advised?”

“Always. I make certain she never forgets, though I do not think it necessary. She would do anything to ensure the children remain healthy.” Another fit of coughing seized him and Nathaniel reached for the water glass again, insisting the man drink a few sips.

“Have you experienced any fever?” he asked, his heart heavy. Losing a patient always felt like losing a piece of himself. When a man as honorable and good as the baron succumbed, it was worse. For weeks, Nathaniel had sent letters to colleagues all across the country to try and find any new treatments for consumption, but nothing came that he had not already tried.

“It comes and goes,” the baron answered. “But it is all as you told us to expect. I think the worst of it is that Virginia is angry with me.”

“Angry with you?” Nathaniel shook his head, disbelieving the remark. “I have rarely seen a wife as devoted to caring for her husband.”

The baron winced. “I convinced her to come to Bath with a lie. I told her I would get better here, that it wasn’t consumption, but weak lungs. She wanted to stay in the country. But I knew if she was out there alone, far from people, she would not do well. My passing will already be difficult enough, but Virginia cannot be alone in that old pile of stone.”

“Has she friends?” Nathaniel asked. “Or will your family come to aid her?”

“My only family is my brother. He will be of little use.” The man shook his head dismissively. “And my wife’s family are ridiculous people. I cannot fathom how she could’ve come from those lines. But I know she has a cousin, a friend from her youth, who will help with the children.”

The door opened and Lady Heatherton entered, balancing a tray with a small teapot and a single cup upon it.

“I have the tea,” she announced, her cheer forced, as she went directly to her husband. “And I asked Mrs. Fairchild to see that the washing water be changed.” A maid came in with a new basin of water and fresh towels, efficiently replacing the old and disappearing out the door again.

“You see, Doctor?” The baron attempted a more pleasant expression. “My lady remembers all your recommendations.”

“What on earth would we want a doctor for if not to heed his advice?” She poured her husband’s tea and shared a smile with the doctor in question.

Nathaniel passed a few more minutes in their company, prescribing small doses of laudanum to help the baron sleep. The man protested, not wanting to deal with the effects of the drink, but his wife insisted they listen to the doctor, to allow her husband the rest his body desperately needed.

When Nathaniel took his leave, he swallowed his frustration with the case. Perhaps if the family had sought medical care earlier, something may have been done. There were cases, after all, of consumptive patients living for many years. But too often his patients, especially the wealthy, put off seeing a doctor. They would ignore symptoms as an ordinary ailment until they could no longer do so, denying for as long as possible what their bodies would succumb to. That had been the case with the baron.

He attended the remainder of his appointments with little trouble and fewer concerns for treatments. Winter brought chills and sore throats to many of Bath’s residents. Nathaniel left his patients with recommendations for better care in light of the weather.

As he walked home later that evening, Nathaniel’s mind returned to the baron’s case. The man would leave behind a wife and two children, materially cared for, but without someone who meant the world to them. Shaking his head, Nathaniel reminded himself there was nothing he could do.

Nathaniel entered his office, a set of rooms which served as his home and place of business, thinking on the disease. At times, being a doctor felt akin to being a fraud. How could he, a man of medicine, stand to watch a patient die? Why did he not know how to cure Lord Heatherton?

He recorded his observations in his journal, as always, and tried to tuck away the guilt that came with knowing he had done all in his power, and it was not enough.

He stood and went to the window, surveying the street below, and his body stilled. A carriage sat across the way, a young woman with dark hair sitting inside, peering out at Bath with wide eyes and a hopeful smile.

Nathaniel’s heart lurched inside his chest, beating an unsteady rhythm, before the girl in the carriage looked up and broke the spell. It was not her. Of course, it could not be her. The equipage moved down the street and out of sight.

After nearly five years, Nathaniel’s memory continued to disconcert him. He knew the chances of seeing the woman he had loved here, in Bath, were slim. He knew even if he did see her it would not be like the first time.

The first time, he glimpsed her in a carriage in London, studying all and sundry along the street with wonder. She had captured his attention from across the crowded lane, her pleasure genuine and her face absolutely breathtaking in its fresh beauty. He’d moved without thinking to lessen the distance between them, realizing at the last moment he intended to speak to her.

When he gave her the flower he’d tucked in his pocket, having found the lovely little bud on the ground minutes before, he was also giving Julia Devon his heart.

If she had kept it, how different his life might’ve been.

∞∞∞

“This is absolutely wretched!”

Julia turned her gaze to the door, surprised by her youngest sister’s outburst as she entered the bedchamber. “Father cannot do this to us. We have never been apart before, and I cannot stand the thought of being away from you.” She dropped down into the chair Julia kept beside the fireplace, her lower lip protruding in a manner unseen since her nursery days.

Julia bit back both a sigh and the desire to add her complaints to Rebecca’s. Bemoaning their fate would get them nowhere.

“I’m afraid it has all been decided without us. But we may write to each other as often as we wish.”

“But I don’t want to go to London. I’d rather go to Bath, with you.”

Rebecca’s body slumped further, something Julia did not think possible given the girl’s already sagging form. A sixteen-year-old lady really ought to have better posture and be less prone to a fit.

“I cannot understand why we are to be banished because Christine went off and married Mr. Gilbert. They are certainly happy, and Father didn’t even need to give her a season in London. I thought he would be pleased about the spared expense.”

“Father did not approve of the match.” Julia approved heartily, but she tried not to voice that thought too often. She brought her attention back to the open trunk beside her bed, trying to determine how many dresses she might fit in the small space. “Mr. Gilbert, though honorable, doesn’t hold a high place in the world. Father desires our marriages to make connections for him in society.”

The memory of a pair of blue eyes surfaced as she spoke of marriage, along with a warm smile that made her heart leap even now, many years since the last time she’d seen them. Julia thrust the memories away, unwilling to examine them when her sister needed comfort. Putting her sisters and their needs first was her best defense against her own broken heart.

“I think it terribly unfair.” Rebecca cast her eyes heavenward. “I don’t wish to live with Aunt Jacqueline. She will make me attend all her stuffy morning calls and meet other girls who do nothing but compare gowns, stitch samplers, and conspire to win husbands.”

Rebecca Devon was to be molded into the perfect lady by Aunt Jacqueline, their father’s elder sister, over the course of the next two or three years. She would be made into a fit enough wife for a duke, and married to one without her consent, if their father had his way.

Julia swallowed her anger and tried to keep her tone light.

“Think of the lovely things you will be able to do and see in London.” Julia glanced up from her work to give her sister an encouraging nod. “There are lending libraries. And Aunt Jacqueline’s house is near Hyde Park. You will be able to explore and have adventures, like the heroines of your favorite novels.”

Rebecca’s lips twitched upward. “Aunt Jacqueline does not approve of novels. I will have to read in secret if I wish to make use of the libraries.”

“Which is exactly what you do now.” Julia crossed to her wardrobe and opened its doors with pursed lips. “The true tragedy is that we shall be apart while you are molded into a lady and I am sent into servitude.” Julia said the last dramatically, putting her hand to her forehead.

Julia was to go to the relative most in need of an extra pair of hands, her cousin, Lady Virginia Macon. They were near in age and had been good friends before Virginia’s marriage, but Julia had only received a few letters since her cousin wed seven years ago.

Rebecca scoffed, wrinkling her nose. But some of the light came back into her eyes. “You are going to Bath. And Cousin Virginia adores you. She will let you do whatever you please.”

Pushing a lock of dark brown hair from her eyes, Julia realized she would get nothing done in the way of packing while her sister remained sulking in the chair. Though she resented their separation as much as Rebecca, Julia had long since learned to carefully choose her battles. She was well acquainted with her father’s burning censure, as like to be manifested in a callous word as it was to be in humiliating punishment. Charles Devon’s cruelty was often subtle, and always carefully wielded.

According to him, Rebecca and Horace, his ten-year-old son away at Eton, would aid him in his desire to rise in society’s ranks. Julia he deemed a lost cause, knowing she would not bend to his will by making an ambitious marriage, and he had little more use for her than he did a housekeeper. At twenty-three years old, he declared her a spinster.

“I will not allow you to encourage Rebecca to rebel against my wishes,” he had said after informing them of his plans for their separation, his cold eyes flashing in anger.

“Oh, Rebecca.” Julia went to her sister and knelt next to her chair, looking up into the freckled face of her youngest sister. “It will not be as bad as you expect. London is wonderful.”

Her heart ached at being removed from her sister. Their mother died before Julia’s London season, when Rebecca was but twelve years old, leaving Julia to act as mother, though she was only seven years Rebecca’s senior.

Looking after her sisters in the most awkward years of youth forced Julia to mature quickly. Likewise, she had attended to their brother Horace’s needs until their father sent him away to school, determined the boy not grow soft by spending extended amounts of time with his sisters. The loss of little Horace still hurt. They saw him on rare occasions when school holidays overlapped with their father’s presence in the country.

“I know it cannot be helped,” Rebecca said, bringing Julia back to the situation at hand and yet another loss. “Father must be obeyed. But I hate it, Julia.” Her brown eyes filled with tears. “I hate that I must lose everyone I love.”

Julia gathered her sister in her arms, easing the girl down to the floor next to her, holding her close and smoothing back her dark curls.

“I do too.” She would not let her own tears escape as her sister cried into her shoulder. She rocked Rebecca gently, humming a lullaby from better days, until the crying slowed and finally ceased. “There now. You will feel better for letting all of it out.” She set her sister back from her, gazing into her watery eyes as she spoke earnestly.

“We must be brave and promise each other that we will not allow this to be a permanent parting. We will come together again, and soon I hope. Virginia will not need me forever, and you will eventually have to make your debut in society. Either I will come to Aunt Jacqueline, or you will make a splendid match and send for me, or else we will both be completely useless to our family and end up right back here to plague our father with our failures.” She smiled as brightly as she could, relieved when Rebecca started to laugh.

“That would teach all of them to meddle. Perhaps we ought to take up a cottage together and spend our days tending gardens, reading novels, and criticizing society.” Rebecca rose to her feet and Julia joined her. “Promise me you will write often? I don’t think I will be able to bear Aunt Jacqueline without hearing from you.”

“I will write pages and pages to you,” Julia promised. “And it will not be as agonizing as you think. You will see. You will have adventures, and I’ll read every word you write, relieved that I am not as busy as you.”

Rebecca laughed again but sobered almost at once. “I checked the maps in the library. We will be over one hundred miles apart. We have never been that far from each other.”

“I know.” Julia pulled her sister close in another embrace. “But all little birds must fly the nest eventually.” She kissed her sister’s cheek. “It’s now up to you whether you soar above the clouds or go plummeting to the earth. Spread your wings, hope for the best, and I will do the same.”

Rebecca nodded and forced a pleasant expression on her face. “Will you help me? I’m not sure what to take with me.”

Julia called for a maid to assist her packing hours later, after soothing her sister’s fears and consulting with her about what to take to London. She had to dissuade Rebecca from taking half the library in her trunks.

Though the two of them shared many common features, the same dark curls, a similar delicate build, they had plenty of differences too. While Rebecca had a fine bone structure, she had grown taller than Julia in the past year. Julia’s eyes were brown with liberal dashes of green, but Rebecca’s were dark as chocolate. They had the same dark hair, all curls and waves that snarled if not properly braided for bed.

But their temperaments were the most different. Julia did all things in moderation, Rebecca often kept her opinion to herself, and their sister Christine regularly threw away caution to do as she thought best.

Rebecca would leave the day after Julia climbed into her father’s coach. Everything had been arranged hastily, with letters travelling from London to Kettering as Aunt Jacqueline sorted out all the details. Before their sister and Thomas Gilbert even spoke their vows, the plans were underway for Rebecca’s reeducation and Julia’s exile.

Julia did not know what the trip to Bath would bring for her. Aunt Jacqueline’s letters informed her that Virginia and her family were in Bath for the Baron’s health but included none of the details of his illness.

Resolved to handle herself with dignity, and well-schooled in hiding her thoughts and emotions, Julia could at least promise herself that none would know how her heart missed her sisters or how she would worry for them.

When morning came and Julia entered the carriage, her sister came to see her off. Their father doubtless worked in his study.

“I will write as soon as I get to London,” Rebecca promised, giving her sister one last embrace.

“As will I. Take care, darling, and behave yourself for Aunt.”

Rebecca nodded and sniffed back her tears, putting on a brave face. But as the coach pulled away, Julia watched from the windows and saw her sister raise a hand to dash at her eyes.

Julia felt lonelier than she had in years. As her father’s home and her sister’s tears fell behind her, she at last allowed herself a few moments of misery. No one was in the carriage with her to see her cry. Her father had not even give her the courtesy of a maid to guard her reputation, so little did he value her.

This last sign of rejection from him hurt, as though he’d slapped her across the cheek, leaving her bruised. Since the death of their mother, Julia had to be the comforter in the family, which left no one to soothe her own fears and sorrows.

Her heart had not been this battered since her disastrous London season, five years past, when it had been broken because of a man with intelligent blue eyes and a gentle smile.

Nathaniel.

As she gave way to her feelings, Julia allowed herself to think on those eyes and their owner.

Once, she well knew, her happiness could have been secured. If she had been brave and revealed more of what she felt—but instead, years of loneliness and heartache were her lot, both behind and ahead of her.

As the wheels tumbled over ruts and bumps in the road, Julia took a deep breath and reconstructed the careful mask she wore. She put the broken pieces of her heart back into the fortified walls she had built around it. Those walls had stood since the day she denied her love for a man her father deemed unworthy, and they must continue to protect her.

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About Sally Britton

Sally Britton is sixth generation Texan, received her BA in English from Brigham Young University, and reads voraciously. She started her writing journey at the tender age of fourteen on an electric typewriter, and she’s never looked back. Sally lives in Arizona with her husband, four children, and their dog. She loves researching, hiking, and eating too much chocolate.

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