The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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by Cynthia DeFelice

  When Lucas stepped onto the land that he and Pa and Asa had cleared for the farm, a strange feeling swept over him. It seemed so long ago that he had lived here with his family. When he and Pa and Asa had hauled out rocks and tree stumps and prepared the stony ground for planting, Lucas had figured he’d stay on this land forever. Now the house, the fields, the animal sheds, and especially Mama’s garden had a neglected, lonesome look.

  He climbed the hill to the small graveyard. Pa’s headstone had been heaved sideways by the winter frost, and Lucas straightened it. He touched the stones at each grave, and memories of his family flooded him. But they were not the awful memories that had been part of him for so long, of the slow wasting and weakening, the coughing and the pain.

  Now he remembered Pa, strong and vigorous, urging Reuben and Rachel to pull one more time on a stubborn stump, and Pa’s look of satisfaction when the job was done.

  As if it were yesterday, he could see Lizy carrying a pitcher of buttermilk out to the field. He smiled, remembering the way she walked so carefully on her short, sturdy legs, her face twisted up with the effort not to spill a drop.

  He remembered Asa, with his gap-toothed grin, taking the pitcher from Lizy and lifting her high over his head while she shrieked with delight. Poor, kindly Uncle Asa, who always found an excuse to be someplace else at butchering time. With a grin, Lucas shook his head, glad that he could put aside forever the image of Asa as an evil spirit from the grave.

  “Mama,” he murmured, his hand tracing the rounded shape of her headstone. He sat on the damp earth beside her grave and closed his eyes, and saw her as she’d been before her illness. Mama, full of life and love. The pictures swirled behind his eyelids until it seemed to Lucas that she was there, before him, smiling and touching him gently on the cheek. “You did well, Lucas,” he imagined her saying. “You did all you could do.” In Lucas’s mind, her face looked happy and peaceful, and he sat on the hillside for a long time, letting that peace wash over him.

  Ever since Mama died, he’d been telling himself over and over that he could have cured her, and he had failed. Having failed, he’d wanted to believe that at least he could use the cure to save others.

  But now, with the warmth of the April sunlight on his face, he could hear the voices of Doc and Moll, who had told him the truth. The truth was that there was no cure for consumption. The truth was that he couldn’t have saved his mama. No one could.

  It was time to go home.


  Mrs. Bunce’s eyebrows lifted when she opened the door to find Lucas on the front step. “Hmmph,” she said. “Thought you’d taken off for good.”

  “Hello, Mrs. Bunce,” said Lucas. “Is Doc home?”

  “Yes,” she said. “Peering into that ridiculous gadget of his, I’ve no doubt.” With a sniff, she turned and disappeared into the house, muttering to herself.

  Lucas waited, wondering what Mrs. Bunce had meant by her last remark. Nervously, he fingered the patchwork quilt his mother had made for the bed he and Lizy had shared. Wrapped in it were other treasured family objects: his father’s gold pocket watch and chain, his mother’s Bible, a book of poetry, a silver birth cup with Lizy’s initials on it that had been sent all the way from England, and the small cloth bag from under Mama and Pa’s mattress, with four gold coins inside.

  He imagined placing the quilt on the narrow bed in his room. Maybe he’d ask Doc if he could put Lizy’s silver cup up on the mantel where folks could see how pretty it was. First, though, he’d go out to the barn to see Jasper and Moses and rub their soft noses…

  He heard Doc’s heavy footsteps approaching, and then the man himself stood before Lucas, his white hair and beard tangled about his face. Doc seemed to be having trouble controlling a twitch at the corners of his mouth. Looking with mock sternness at Lucas, he asked, “You’re here about the apprenticeship, I take it?”

  “Yes, sir,” Lucas answered.

  “Can you read?”

  Lucas smiled. “I can read all right.”


  “Lucas Whitaker.”


  Lucas was about to answer twelve when he remembered that it was now April. He’d been born on the first of the month. “A regular April fool,” Uncle Asa had called him. “Must be I’m thirteen now, Doc!” he answered proudly.

  At that, Doc let out a familiar roar of laughter. “Oh, Lucas, you’re a sight for these sore old eyes!” he said. “It’s good to have you back. And, I might say, you look more presentable than the first time you showed up at my door. Come in, lad, come in.”

  When they were settled comfortably in Doc’s office, Doc turned to Lucas and said, “Now then, suppose you tell me what you and that rascal Moll have been up to.”

  “I will, Doc,” said Lucas. “I’ll tell it all. But, first, there’s something else I’d like to say.”

  “By all means,” said Doc. “Speak up.”

  Lucas took a deep breath. “Well, Doc, I got to thinking about lots of things while I was gone,” he began. “About the cure, mostly, I guess. And I started to wonder if it was just superstition and people hoping, like you said. So when I left Moll’s I didn’t come right here, even though I thought maybe I should…” He hesitated.

  “It’s all right, lad. Never mind that,” urged Doc. “Tell me, where did you go?”

  “Back north aways, where I came from,” Lucas said. “To visit the Roods, and to my family’s farm.”

  “Ahh,” said Doc. He waited for Lucas to continue.

  “And, Doc, Enoch Rood wasn’t cured, after all. He’s dead.”

  Doc grimaced and shook his head. “I’m sorry, lad,” he said.

  “And now Enoch’s brother is sick. Mr. Rood figures something went wrong with the way he worked the cure on Enoch, and he’s hoping to use it again to save Matthew. He heard it might be one of the others, maybe even Enoch, coming back to bother Matthew. He wanted me to help him dig up their graves.”

  Doc lifted his eyebrows.

  “And I couldn’t do that, Doc,” said Lucas. “Not when I knew it was no use. I told Mr. Rood the truth, the way I knew you would. He didn’t much want to hear it.”

  Doc was nodding thoughtfully. “He was angry?”

  “Yes,” said Lucas. He added, “Like me, I guess, when you tried to tell me the same thing.”

  “He’ll have to face up to it in his own time, Lucas,” said Doc. “Just as you did.”

  Lucas nodded gratefully. Then, dreading the answer, he asked, “What about those who came to the curing? Lavinia Sheldon…is she…?”

  “Dead,” said Doc grimly. “And others who were at the town square that day are doing poorly.”

  Lucas forced himself to ask the question he feared most. “And Sarah Stukeley?”

  Doc smiled. “Fit as a fiddle.”

  “But will she soon die, too, Doc?” Lucas asked with anguish. “Enoch, they say, seemed well for a while, also.”

  “Consumption is a confounded thing, Lucas,” said Doc. “As you know. Some folks die of it quickly, others linger, others seem to revive the way Enoch did, only to die later. But some do recover and, like Sarah, seem to be stronger afterward. They’re often less likely to sicken with it again. So,” he said with a shrug, “while I can’t say for certain, I do believe that Sarah will continue to be fine.”

  Lucas let out a sigh of relief. “I’m glad of that,” he said. He knew the Stukeleys would have heard by now about Lavinia and the others. He would go to see Lydia just as soon as he could, and tell her what Doc had said about Sarah.

  Taking another deep breath, he went on with what he had come to tell Doc. “I’ve been thinking a lot, sir, and I’ve decided that I want to be a doctor, too, just like you.”

  “Well, that’s fine, lad,” said Doc. “It’s what I had hoped for.”

  “I want to learn all I can about doctoring,” Lucas continued. “I want to find real cures, like the one for smallpox. And—”

  “Whoa, lad,”
said Doc gently. “Take it easy, now. I can’t promise we’ll be discovering any cures.”

  “But I—”

  Doc held up his hand to silence Lucas. “I’ll teach you what I know. And we’ll ask ourselves questions about all the things I don’t know. And someday there will be answers, Lucas. And cures. Real ones.”

  Lucas thought about that. It was enough. It had to be.

  He looked up to smile at Doc. But Doc was already across the room, standing behind his desk, both hands resting on something that sat on the desktop. Lucas couldn’t see what it was because there was a cloth draped over the top, hiding it from view. Doc’s eyes were dancing with excitement, and he couldn’t contain the eagerness in his voice.

  “Lucas, my boy,” he said, “I’ve something wondrous to show you.” Beaming at Lucas, Doc patted the covered object on the desk. “A while back, I ordered this from Philadelphia. Meant to surprise you with it. And, lo and behold, it arrived while you were gone.

  “Much as I missed you, lad, since this was delivered three days ago the hours have flown by so fast I scarcely know where they’ve gone. The truth is, I have spent every waking moment with my eye glued to this remarkable instrument!”

  His voice dropped to a whisper. “Mrs. Bunce is fit to be tied. She’s certain I’ll never do another decent day’s work.

  “But you, lad,” he said, fixing Lucas with a dazzling grin, “will see the wonder of it, I’m sure. Now. Are you prepared to witness the most extraordinary sights imaginable? Are you prepared to see a new world, one that is all around us, yet invisible to normal sight?”

  “Doc!” exclaimed Lucas. “For crying out loud, show me what you’ve got there!”

  With a flourish, Doc whisked off the covering and gazed expectantly at Lucas. Bewildered, Lucas stared at the peculiar-looking instrument. It didn’t look like much, just a long brass tube with clear glass at both ends, mounted on some sort of stand. Trying hard to hide his disappointment, he asked, “What is it?”

  “This, lad,” said Doc proudly, “is a microscope.”

  “A microscope?” Lucas repeated. “What do you do with it?”

  “You look into it,” said Doc. He demonstrated, lowering his right eye to the top of the tube and looking inside.

  So that was what Mrs. Bunce had meant about Doc “peering into that ridiculous gadget.”

  “What’s in there to see?” asked Lucas dubiously.

  “There’s nothing to see in the scope itself,” explained Doc. “What you look at is down here, on this glass platform. At the moment, lad, there are several drops of water on the glass. I got them from the ditch out on the road. Here, put your eye to it.”

  It took Lucas a moment to adjust his eye to looking down the tube, but when he did he gasped with amazement. Pulling his eye away from the tube, he looked down at the water sitting on the platform. It looked quite ordinary. But, putting his eye back to the tube, he saw them again: hundreds of wiggling, squirming creatures of different shapes and colors such as he’d never seen before! Some were round, others long and skinny, some had tails and others had what looked like thousands of little legs. They were all swimming about in three small drops of water!

  Lucas was dumbstruck, watching them. Once again he looked at the glass platform with both eyes and saw nothing but plain, ordinary water. Looking back through the tube, he saw the creatures, busily moving about! He couldn’t tear his eye away from the sight. Finally, he asked, “What are they, Doc? And how is it that sometimes I can see them and sometimes I can’t?”

  “They’re always there, lad,” Doc answered, “but you can’t see them without the aid of the microscope. It makes things much larger, allowing you to see what the normal human eye can’t see.”

  Lucas was once more staring at the wondrous sights in the scope. “But what are they?” he asked again in awe.

  “The fellow who first discovered them called them ‘animalcules,’” said Doc. “Little animals, you could say.”

  “Are they alive?” Lucas asked. “Like other animals?”

  “Most certainly they are,” said Doc excitedly. “And, Lucas, lad, listen to this: there are those in scientific circles who believe that disease is caused by those little animals you see, or other creatures like them.”

  Lucas stared at the wriggling shapes before him. “Tiny little animals you can’t even see…Do you really think they can make people sick, Doc?” He felt a bit queasy just thinking about it. “Why, it’s as strange to think of as—as Uncle Asa coming out of his grave!”

  Doc laughed. “So it is, lad. Except that you and I have seen these creatures with our very own eyes. Now what, if any, relationship they have to disease remains to be proven. But I tell you, Lucas, over the past few days I’ve seen such extraordinary things that I’ve been dazed by the sight of them.”

  “What else have you seen?” asked Lucas eagerly.

  “I’ve looked at everything I could get my hands on, lad!” Doc exclaimed. “Hair, skin, fleas, gnats, beetles, dust, cider, Mrs. Bunce’s bread dough…Why, I’ve even looked at manure!”

  Lucas grinned.

  “Blood, spit…I tell you, lad, we’ve got some exciting work ahead of us! Why, I even scraped my teeth and took a good look at what I found!”

  Lucas ran his tongue over his own teeth. “There weren’t any little animals, were there?” he asked uneasily.

  “Yes, lad.” Doc dropped his voice again and added, “But we’d best not breathe a word about it to Mrs. Bunce or, next thing we know, she’ll be taking the broom to our mouths!”

  Lucas laughed at the idea. It reminded him of a question he’d been wanting to ask for a long time. “Doc,” he said, “meaning no disrespect to Mrs. Bunce, but I have been wondering…Don’t you think it’s downright unnatural, even bad for the health, to…” Lucas hesitated.

  “To what? Speak up, lad.”

  “To be washing and bathing all the time, the way she says to.”

  Doc let out his great bellow of a laugh. “Oh, Lucas, you say you want to be a doctor and you want true answers. Well, here’s the first one: there is a growing number of doctors, and I’m one of them, who believe that good hygienic practices have a great deal to do with staying healthy. And, conversely, that dirt and filth aid in the spreading of illness.”

  “But how?” asked Lucas.

  “We don’t know how or why,” Doc explained cheerfully. “But it does seem that crowded and dirty conditions seem to hasten certain disease processes.” He pointed to the microscope, adding, “There’s folks who believe the answers will be found by looking through that gadget.”

  The idea excited Lucas. “But meantime,” he concluded glumly, “it looks like more baths.”

  Doc placed his hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “Here’s something else that’s true, lad,” he said with a solemn wink. “In this household, when it comes to washing up, Mrs. Bunce is the doctor. And I wager we both know what she’s going to prescribe for you tonight.”

  “I wonder what I’d see,” Lucas said thoughtfully, “if I looked at some drops of dirty bath water under the microscope?”

  “There’s one quick way to find out,” answered Doc.

  Lucas and Doc grinned at each other.

  “I believe I’ll go find Mrs. Bunce,” said Lucas, “and give her the good news.”


  Medical knowledge has advanced greatly since 1676, when Anton van Leeuwenhoek looked through the lens of the first microscope and viewed tiny “animalcules” in a drop of undistilled vinegar. Another two hundred years passed before the connection between germs and disease was proven. That connection was just beginning to be considered seriously in Lucas Whitaker’s time.

  Today, of course, we know that tuberculosis, or TB, is caused by several species of bacteria called the tubercle bacillus. We understand, as well, how TB is transmitted from one person to another. When a person who is sick with TB coughs or spits or sneezes, tiny droplets containing countless tubercle bacilli are sent out into
the air, where they may float for hours. Anyone who inhales them risks becoming infected.

  There is no vaccine against tuberculosis, but it can be treated effectively through improved nutrition and hygiene, combined with bed rest and the use of antibiotics and other drugs. However, TB is still found all over the world, and remains a serious health threat in densely populated areas with poor hygienic standards.

  We can see the ways in which inadequate nourishment and the crowded, unsanitary conditions of most colonial farmhouses helped to spread the disease among people who had no knowledge of germs, or of the means of contagion or prevention. But if we place ourselves back in those dimly lit farmhouses, faced with the terrifying and mysterious spread of a life-threatening sickness, it is not hard to understand how people might superstitiously blame the dead for their troubles.

  Imagine for a moment opening the coffin of a dead person and seeing eyes fixed and open, fingernails that appear to have grown, a mouth with blood draining from it. We now know that these “signs of life” that Lucas saw when he gazed at Thomas Stukeley’s body are normal effects of the decomposition process. But in the absence of this knowledge, what might we have believed?

  Indeed, superstitions often seem no more strange than the truth. After all, isn’t it amazing that “tiny animals,” invisible to the eye, are the cause of sickness and death?

  Also by Cynthia DeFelice

  Bringing Ezra Back

  The Missing Manatee

  The Ghost of Cutler Creek

  Under the Same Sky

  The Ghost and Mrs. Hobbs

  Death at Devil’s Bridge

  Nowhere to Call Home

  The Ghost of Fossil Glen

  Copyright © 1996 by Cynthia C. DeFelice

  All rights reserved

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  DeFelice, Cynthia C.

  The apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker / Cynthia C. DeFelice—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  Summary: After his family dies of consumption in 1849, twelve-year-old Lucas becomes a doctor’s apprentice.


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