“The Doctor returned last night”. Harriet fluffed her mother’s pillow, carefully pulled back one corner of the duvet cover, and then helped her mother up from her wheelchair onto her bed. The transfer was an effort for both women, so it was a moment before their conversation continued.
Mother spoke next, ”I’m so glad he got back safely. I don’t know why he goes on those dangerous voyages when his daughter is still a child.”
”He’s the Anderson’s top scientist. I imagine he has to do what he’s told.”
He didn’t have to leave his daughter in the care of that brute he has for a brother-in-law.
“Jimmy is a brute, but Katherine takes good care of Caitlin.”
“Dutiful wife and sister.” Harriet spoke with contempt.
Thus far the conversation was to type: Harriet and her mother’s opinions about Doctor Hofstaedter and his family had not changed for years.
”What did the Doctor say when he saw Daniel in that awful cell; or was he too tired to notice? You know how tired people can be so good at not noticing.”
“He was plenty tired when he arrived. He looked terrible, like he hadn’t slept in months. But he noticed Daniel, alright.”
The conversation paused for a minute while Harriet’s elderly mother propped herself up, so that she was more comfortable. When she was done, Mother eagerly asked, “What happened?”
Harriet replied, ”The moment the Doctor saw Daniel in his cell he just stopped. His whole entourage stopped, the porters, his man, Caitlin.”
”His daughter was there?”
“Of course she was there. She hasn’t seen her father in well over a year! You couldn’t separate them.”
“She’s a sweetheart, isn’t she?”
” I sometimes fear that her heart is too good for this world.”
”She’s going to have to lose some innocence; the world’s certainly not going to get more virtuous on her account.
“She already has. Remember how she looked when her Uncle took the money she was going to use to bribe the auditor.”
Mom nodded in agreement then asked, “So what did the Doctor do?”
“For a long moment he didn’t move. I didn’t even see him breathe. It was like he was trying to find the energy to do anything at all. But when he moved again, he moved quickly. First he whispered something to his man, who disappeared up the stairs with the porters in tow. Then he told his daughter to go to bed. After that he turned around and marched out the door.”
“What did Caitlin do?
”She followed her father, of course. She’s like her father very determined once she’s chosen a path.”
“It took almost an hour for the Doctor to return but I didn’t notice the time because the foyer was filling up with people. Every time someone new arrived I had to tell them the story all over again.”
“What about Mrs. Ellison?”
“She was standing on the edge of the foyer. Bruno was with her, of course.”
Mother nodded as she pictured the scene in her head. After a sip of water, Harriet resumed her story.The Doctor returned with his daughter and a blacksmith. By this time his eyes were dark red and his hands were so unsteady that Caitlin had to open the door for him.
“Had he been drinking?”
“The Doctor never drinks!”
“Habits change, daughter. Tell me more about Mrs. Ellison.”
“Be patient, Mother. I’ll tell you about Mrs. Ellison when it matters.”
Harriet straightened her skirt, and then continued, “The Doctor walked straight to the cell, past Bruno, Mrs. Ellison, everyone, as if we didn’t exist.”
”Harriet, I’ve known Doctor Hofstaedter since he was a child. Be certain he knew everyone’s location and rank.”
Harriet ignored her mother’s comment and continued. She said, “The Doctor stopped one step before the cell. He turned to face Bruno, his hand on the hilt of his saber, ready to draw. The locksmith and Caitlin were behind his back. The locksmith fired up a gas torch. He could have picked the lock, but the Doctor had ordered him to break the gate into pieces.”
Mother laughed and clapped. “What wonderful news! Why that’s the best news.” She quickly became serious. ”Harriet, if your father had lived, this whole episode with Daniel would never have happened. You know that.”
Harriet nodded her head obligingly. She didn’t know that, but liked to share her mother’s dreams about what might have been.
Mother asked, ”What happened to Daniel?”
When the gate to his cell was destroyed Daniel immediately ran out and cowered behind the Doctor. Bruno tried to intervene, but when the Doctor drew his sword , he thought better of it and backed off toward the door.”
“What about Mrs. Ellison?”
“She was screaming that Daniel’s imprisonment was legal, that he was a hoarder, and that his imprisonment was a mercy because he should have been hanged for what he did.”
“Such a fight, in such a small space.”
“It was like a stage at a theatre. Everyone but the main actors had run up to the mezzanine or out into the street to watch from a safe distance.”
”Did Bruno attack the Doctor?”
“Bruno was carrying a large wrench in his right hand – the one he uses with the boiler. You could see him trying to decide whether to attack the Doctor, and mark my words he was going to, when the door was pushed open by the Doctor’s man, who had arrived with two tough looking friends. I don’t trust that man, but I understand now why the Doctor retains his services.”
Mother nodded and Harriet continued speaking, ”The Doctor stepped toward the entrance to join his people. Caitlin and Daniel were one step behind. They formed a line at the door. The Doctor was in the center. His daughter was on his left side, in front of the stained glass window. The Doctor’s man and his ruffian friends were by the entrance to the mud room.”
“Where was Daniel?”
“While they were gathering at the door, Daniel slipped out and ran away. He didn’t even have shoes on.”
“What happened next?
“It was the Doctor’s show. Even though he was so weary he could barely stand”. He said in a public voice, ‘Why was Daniel imprisoned?’ It was like the beginning of an ancient Greek trial.”
“How do you know that?”
“Alright, so tell me about Mrs. Ellison.”
“Mrs. Ellison was standing at the foot of the stairs under our License. She said, ‘Its like I’ve been saying, the prisoner is a hoarder. There’s a war on right now, and he had a sack of rice he wasn’t sharing. There was a fair trial and he was convicted. We should have executed him.'”
“What did the Doctor say to that?” Mother asked.
“He ignored Mrs. Ellison. Instead drew his sabre and pointed it at Bruno and asked in his most proper voice, ‘Who is this man?’ Bruno stepped into the middle of the foyer, two paces from the Doctor. He bowed and said, ‘Bruno Constantinus, at your service’.”
Bruno can be polite? Mother asked caustically.
”He brandished his wrench before he bowed”, her daughter replied.
“Didn’t the Doctor’s man do anything?
“He moved to block Bruno but the Doctor signaled for him to back off. But let me finish! After Bruno introduced himself, he walked right up to the Doctor and said very politely, Mister, you are upsetting the Lady.”
”Lady…!”, Mother laugh while she slapped her knee.
Harriet nodded, ”You’re of the same mind as the Doctor. He took two steps sideways – toward the entrance and away from his people – and shouted so loudly he could be heard across the street, ‘This man is calling Mrs. Ellison a Lady! Hah! There is nothing noble about that woman!'”
”The Doctor was making room for his sabre, wasn’t he?” Mother asked.
Harriet nodded. “Then Bruno did something very stupid.”
“The poignard? Mother hazarded, with a worried tone in her voice.
Harriet nodded, ”Bruno pulled back his cloak to reveal that rusty knife he calls an heirloom.”
Mother used her pillows to raise herself half way out of her bed, “Oh no. Bruno didn’t … ?”
“The instant Bruno placed a hand on the knife the Doctor killed him with one cut through the heart.”
“In front of Caitlin! Poor child. Is she alright?”
“I don’t think so know, but she can’t be. As Bruno collapsed she smiled that flat terse smile of hers.”
“Her secret smile. What about Mrs. Ellison?
“When Bruno died Mrs. Ellison went crazy. She started shouting at the Doctor, and pounding her fists against his chest. She went on about food shortages and how dangerous hoarders are, and how letting one person get away with crime encourages everyone to try.”
“What did the Doctor do?”
“He didn’t do anything, he just studied Mrs. Ellison, like she was a specimen.”
Harriet continued, “Guess what happened next? Two policemen showed up!”
Mother was so thrilled the story had another chapter she slapped her palsied knee again. Her daughter continued, “The Doctor was the person with the highest rank at the scene of the crime, so of course he explained to the officers why there was a corpse. The police accepted the Doctor’s claim that he had killed Bruno in self-defense. One policeman actually ticketed Bruno for possessing an illegal weapon. He said, ‘That’s what happens when commoners wear swords.'”
The policeman’s comment fired Mother up. She said, “That cop is an ass. Bruno was just too stupid for his weapon.”
Harriet smiled at her Mother but her narrative did not miss a beat, “You won’t believe what happened next. Two more policemen entered with Daniel, handcuffed, between them.
”What did Mrs. Ellison do? She she try to show them the court records?”
“She wanted to say something. She stood right behind the Doctor, muttering to herself like she was practicing her lines.”
“But she didn’t?”
”No. The Doctor didn’t give her a chance. He was very civil. He invited all four policemen to warm themselves by the coal heater, and sent his man upstairs for drinks. The newly arrived policemen said that they were here because they had found Daniel, without any shoes, at the carriage depot. Because he had been branded with this address, they suspected he was a felon or escaped slave.”
“As his man handed the policemen drinks, the Doctor informed them that Daniel had been a prisoner here but new evidence had come to light, and he was now free.” Harriet imitated the Doctor’s formal style of speech as she recounted his words. ”He gave the officers extravagant gratuities and asked them to please ensure Daniel got shoes, a change of clothes and a coach ticket to Anchorage. The Doctor asked for their names and ranks to ensure compliance. As the policemen left, the Doctor shouted after them in a loud, hearty voice, ‘Officers, I will commend you to the Anderson.'”
”That’s so like the Doctor”, Mother said drily.
Harriet continued, “As soon as the policemen were gone the Doctor shooed everyone out of the foyer promising that everything would be set in order at the next board meeting. He had his people take care of Bruno. They did a good job. There’s no sign of blood at all.”
”That’s quite a story, Harriet. Did it really happen or is that pitiful man still imprisoned under the stairs?”
”Daniel’s free Mother. He’s at his parent’s house in Anchorage.”
Mother reached over to clasp her daughter’s hands in hers. ”Harriet, I fear that my generation has let you down: we’re leaving you a world far worse than the one we inherited. Just like our parents and grandparents did.”
”Nonsense Mother. The Doctor is back. All it takes is a few good people to turn everything around.”
”Harriet, there are never enough good people.”