It is the year 1800, or thereabouts, and a young doctor has recently opened his own surgery. All he is waiting for is his first patient. However, none seem to be forthcoming. Days pass and still no patients arrive. That is, until late one night, a woman, dressed in mourning attire and a black veil, is admitted to see the doctor. Her identity is completely hidden beneath the fabric, and although the doctor cannot make out any of her features, except that she is a singularly tall lady, he can feel her eyes on him, watching him, but she doesn’t speak.
Eventually the doctor breaks the silence and asks whether there is anything he can do for her. By this time he has come to the conclusion that she might be a local madwoman. Finally she declares that she is very ill, but that she is there on behalf of another, one who’s condition is grave.
In reply the doctor the announces that a moment cannot be lost if this person is as ill as she claims and he will attend them at once. But rather bizarrely, the woman says no, it would be useless. Instead, she instructs him to come at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.
The doctor protests, saying that it makes no sense to put it off, it surely will only make matters worse, but the woman won’t be moved. Before she leaves she gives vague directions as to where the doctor can find them tomorrow and then makes her exit.
But what awaits the doctor the following morning? And is he really too late to be of any use?
I can honestly say that I didn’t expect the one big surprise in the story. In true Dickensian style, the plight of the poor is vividly recounted, and his sympathy for them through his words is clearly evident.
I came across this short story in Short Stories from the Nineteenth Century, selected by David Stuart Davies.