Ancient Gentility

by William Carlos Williams

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IN THOSE DAYS I was about the only doctor they would have on Guinea Hill. Nowadays some of the kids I delivered, then may be practising medicine in the neighborhood. But in those days I had them all. I got to love those people, they were all right. Italian peasants from the region just south of Naples, most of them, living in small jerry-built houses— doing whatever they.could find to do for a living and get­ting by, somehow.

Among the others, there was a little frame building, or box, you might almost say, which had always interested me but into which I had never gone. It stood in the center of the usual small garden patch and sometimes there would be an old man at the gate, jun standing there, with a big curved and silver-capped pipe in his mouth, puffing away at his leisure.

Sure enough, one day I landed in that house also.

I had been seeing a child at the Petrello’s or Albino’s or whoever it was when, as often happened, the woman of the house stopped me with a smile at the door just as I was leaving,

Doc, I want you to visit the old people next door. The old lady’s sick. She don’t want to call nobody, but you go just the same. I’ll fix it up with you sometime. Will you do it—for me?

Would I! It was a June morning. I had only to go twenty feet or so up the street—with a view of all New York City spread out before me over the meadows just beginning to turn green—and push back the low gate to the little vege­table garden.

The old man opened the house door for me before I could knock. He smiled and bowed his. head several times out of respect for a physician and pointed upstairs. He couldn’t speak a word of English and I knew practically no Italian, so he let it go at that.

He was wonderful. A gentle, kindly creature, big as the house itself, almost, with long pure white hair and big white moustache. Every movement he made showed a sort of ancient gentility. Finally he said a few words as if to let me know he was sorry he couldn’t talk English and pointed upstairs again.

Where I stood at that moment it -was just one room, everything combined: you cooked in one corner, ate close by, and sat yourself down to talk with your friends and relatives over beyond. Everything was immaculately clean and smelt just tinged with that faint odor of garlic, peppers and olive oil which one gets to expect in all these peasant houses.

There was one other room, immediately above. To it there ascended a removable ladder. At this moment the trap was open and the ladder in place. I went up. The old man remained below.

What A thrill I got! There was an enormous bed that almost filled the place, it seemed, perhaps a chair or two besides, but no. other furniture, and in the bed sinking into the feather mattress and covered with a great feather quilt was the woman I had been summoned to attend.

Her face was dry and seamed with wrinkles, as old peas­ant faces will finally become, but it had the same patient smile upon it as shone from that of her old husband. White hair framing her face with silvery abundance, she didn’t look at all sick to me.

She said a few words, smiling the while, by which I under­stood that after all it wasn’t much and that she knew she didn’t need a doctor and would have been up long since— or words to that effect—if the others hadn’t insisted. After listening to her heart and palpating her abdomen I told her she could get up if she wanted to, and as I backed down the ladder after saying good-bye, she had already begun to do so.

The old man was waiting for me as I arrived below.

We walked to the door together, I trying to explain to him what I had found and he bowing and saying a word or two of Italian in reply. I could make out that he was thank­ing me for my trouble and that he was sorry he had no money, and so forth and so on.

At the gate we paused in one of those embarrassed mo­ments which sometimes arrive during any conversation be­tween relative strangers who wish to make a good impression on each other. Then as we stood there, slightly ill at ease, I saw him reach into his vest pocket and take something into his hand which he held out toward me.

It was a small silver box, about an inch and a quarter along the sides and half an inch thick. On the cover of it was the embossed figure of a woman reclining among flowers. I took it in my hand but couldn’t imagine what he wanted me to do with it. He couldn’t be giving it to me?

Seeing that I was puzzled, he reached for it, ever so gently, and I returned it to him. As he took it in his hand he opened it. It seemed to contain a sort of brown powder. Then. I saw him pick some of it up between the thumb and finger of his right hand, place it at the base of his left thumb and …

Why snuff! Of course. I was delighted.

As he whiffed the powder into one generous nostril and then the other, he handed the box back to me—in all, one of the most gracious, kindly proceedings I had ever taken part in.

Imitating him as best I could,. I shared his snuff with him, and that was about the end of me for a moment or two. I couldn’t stop sneezing. I suppose I had gone at it a little too vigorously. Finally, with tears in my eyes, I felt the old man standing there, smiling, an experience the like of which I shall never, in all probability, have again in my life on this mundane sphere.

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