Beth tried not to flinch from the coldness of the stethoscope and concentrated on breathing slowly in and out, though the proximity of the great doctor from Washington was making her anxious.
'Hmm,' was all the doctor said. 'Thank you, Miss March.' He walked slowly round to the other side of his desk. Marmee took Beth's hand and squeezed it reassuringly.
The doctor made some indecipherable notes on the pad in front of him and frowned. Beth's heart sank. Not so much for herself - she had been trying to teach herself for years, not to worry, not to hope - but for her mother. It would be so hard for her to hear the bad news.
'Well,' said the doctor, 'there is a slight murmur. Dr. Bangs may be right in supposing that the fever damaged the heart, but it's also possible that it has been present since birth. Were you always delicate, Miss March? Your mother mentioned that you did not go to school?'
Beth glanced at her mother, rather hoping that she would answer for her, but Marmee only smiled encouragingly and squeezed her hand again.
'I...' Beth spoke haltingly, but clearly. 'I was only shy, and didn't like the noise and strangers, but I was always healthy, until I had the fever. And I am quite better now, it is only that I get so tired.'
'Good, good.' He continued making notes. 'Sometimes, you know, a young lady will appear to be delicate in body when in reality she is only delicate in mind. It seems you are a sensible girl who knows the difference.'
'Oh, Beth is by no means an invalid,' Mrs March put in quickly. 'She works so hard at her chores and her hobbies - she would work even harder if we let her.'
'Good. I see far too many young ladies wasting their lives lounging on sofas, taking all manner of unnecessary tonics, when a dose of fresh air and exercise would do them more good and give them more energy than a year of resting up. The heart is a muscle like any other, and it needs to be exercised to stay strong and healthy. I would like Miss March to take a brisk daily walk, to eat a simple diet with not too much meat or other rich food, and drink plain water rather than tea or coffee.'
'A daily walk? Even in winter?' Mrs March sounded dubious.
'Absolutely, the cold air has a bracing effect. So long as you wrap up warm and don't sit around in damp clothes you will be fine. Don't let anybody tell you that you are too frail to do anything, Miss March. You are still very young, and your constitution must be strong else you could not have survived the fever in the first place.'
Beth stared at him, her eyes growing round and wide. The words seemed impossible to say, yet she knew that she must say them. 'You mean... I'm not going to die after all?'
'Beth!' cried Mrs March, honestly shocked to learn of the secret burden her daughter had been carrying.
The doctor smiled. 'We're all going to die, eventually. I can't make any promises. None of us know what the future may hold. But I see no reason why you should die any sooner than your mother or myself, if you follow my advice and luck is on your side.'
'But the exhaustion...' Mrs March began.
'Believe it or not, it is much more fatiguing to do nothing all day than it is to do something. My advice may seem unorthodox, but experience suggests that it works better than the standard treatments. The only medicine I want you to take is these drops to help regulate your heart beat.' The doctor scribbled rapidly on his pad and handed a script to Mrs March. 'Nothing else: no sleeping draughts, no tonics, nothing to interfere with the body's natural workings. Wine is acceptable, but not in excess. Most importantly, Miss March, you must not allow yourself to have any more such morbid thoughts about the future. Once one starts to admit of such dreadful possibilities, half the Reaper's work is already done for him.'
Beth nodded, meekly but enthusiastically, afraid of her own heart pounding in her chest. It wasn't good for her to be excited, she knew, but she felt that she had just been given a wonderful gift and was determined to make the most of it.