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Jacob Grysham wrinkled his cravat in his hands and threw it to the ground like a discarded toy. “Coming to Berkeley was supposed to fix everything,” his recently deepened voice muttered as he paced the hallway, sweat beading his brow. His mother’s sobs from the other side of the door tore at his heart.
He pulled on the handle and opened the door. The scene looked the same as it had for the last two days: his perfect ten-year-old little sister lay motionless, stricken with fever. Red puss-filled sores dotted every part of her exposed skin, their poison ravaging her body. Her case of smallpox was worse than most. Jacob moved slowly to his mother and touched her hair, still beautiful and dark, as she clutched her daughter’s hand.
Earlier that year, Jacob had been vaccinated—that was the word the doctor had used—against this awful disease by Dr. Jenner himself. Now Dr. Jenner sat next to Eleanor’s bed, tears streaming down his own face. Jacob shifted his long, gangly frame toward them, wondering how his body had grown three inches in the last year while his sister had become so frail and deathly ill.
Jacob knelt next to his sister and whispered, “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
The physician looked down and shook his head. “Not now. It is too late.”
Jacob winced, clutching his open collar. His voice came out in a strained whisper. “Would your vaccination have prevented this?”
His mother’s tears had become silent, and her eyes looked distant from across the room.
The doctor swallowed. “Since the time I was young and exposed to this devil, I knew I must do everything in my power to fight it. That is why I searched for a way to stop it. It doesn’t save all, but it is far better than anything this country has ever had.”
Jacob kicked the floor with his tall riding boot. Why had he not insisted his sister receive the same treatment as he did? Why did he not press his parents harder on the subject? He blamed himself for his sister’s imminent death.
The doctor stood and placed his arm on Jacob. “I am so sorry.”
“Thank you, Dr. Jenner,” he said.
Heavy silence filled the room. Lady Haversley, Jacob’s mother, went over to him and placed her hands on his. “I was sure coming to the country would improve her health. The air is so much better here.”
Jacob shook his head. “Smallpox can destroy anywhere.”
Lady Haversley’s eyes closed as more tears slipped out. “My dear boy, promise me you will not be next.”
Jacob took his mother’s hand and kissed it. “I will always be here for you.”