Rab and his Friends

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"Rab and his Friends" (1859) is a short story by Scottish writer Dr John Brown.[1] It was very popular in the 19th century and often considered John Brown's best, or at least most well known work. Even though short in length it was often published as a single volume with illustrations.

The title character 'Rab' - the Lowland Scots form of 'Rob' - is "a huge mastiff" dog. He is described as being "old, grey, brindled, as big as a Highland bull", as well as being extremely loyal and loving.[1]


"Rab and His Friends" is a simple story of how John Brown's teacher and employer, Doctor James Syme, taught and operated. The other main characters are Rab, a ferocious dog, his owner the Howgate Carter Jamie, and the Carter's ailing wife. The story begins with a fight between Rab and a bull-terrier and ends with the faithful sheep dog's funeral.

Ailie had a lump in her breast. “One fine October afternoon I ( the student ) was leaving the Hospital and saw the large gates open and in walked Rab with that great and easy saunter of his. After him came Jess, now white from age, with her cart and in it a woman carefully wrapped up, the Carrier leading the horse anxiously and looking back. When he saw me, James, (for his name was James Noble), he made a curt and grotesque bow, and said, Maister John, this is the mistress; she has got a trouble in her breest some kind of income we are thinking.

By this time I saw the woman's face; she was sitting on a sack filled with straw with her husband's plaid round her and had his big coat with its large white metal buttons over her feet. Had Solomon in all his glory been handing down the Queen of Sheba at his palace gate, he would not have done it more daintily that did James the Howgate Carrier when he had lifted down Ailie, his wife.

Rab led the way into the consulting room, grim and comic, willing to be happy and confidential, Ailie sat down, undid her open gown and her lawn handkerchief round her neck and without a word showed me her right breast. I looked at and examined it carefully. What could I say? There it was, hard as stone, a centre of horrid pain.

Next day my master, the surgeon, examined Ailie. It could be removed; it would give her speedy relief. She curtsied. "Tomorrow” said the kind surgeon - a man of few words. The following day, at noon, the students came in, hurrying up the stair, eager to secure good places. The theatre is crowded; much talk and fun, and all the cordiality and stir of youth. The surgeon with his staff of assistants is there. In comes Ailie: one look at her quiets and abates the eager students. That beautiful old woman is too much for them; they sit down, and are dumb. These rough boys feel the power of her presence. She walks in quickly, but without haste; dressed in her mutch, her neckerchief, her white dimity short-gown, black bombazeen petticoat, showing her white worsted stockings and her carpet shoes. Ailie stepped up, and laid herself on the table, as her friend the surgeon told her; arranged herself, gave a rapid look at James, shut her eyes, rested herself on me, and took my hand. The operation was at once begun; it was necessarily slow; chloroform was then unknown. The pale face showed its pain, but was still and silent. Rab's soul was working within him; he growled and gave now and then a sharp impatient yelp; but James had him firm.

It is over; she is dressed, steps gently and decently down from the table, looks for James; then turning to the surgeons and the students, she curtsies, - and in a low, clear voice, begs their pardon if she has behaved ill. All of us wept like children; the surgeon happed her up carefully, - and, resting on James and me, Ailie went to her room. We put her to bed. James said, 'Maister John, I'll be her nurse”, and as swift and tender as any woman, was that horny-handed, peremptory little man. As before, they spoke little. For some days Ailie did well. The wound healed 'by the first intention'; for as James said, 'Oor Ailie's skin's ower clean to beil'. The students came in quiet and anxious. She said she liked to see their young, honest faces. Four days after the operation, my patient had a sudden and long shivering, a 'groosin', as she called it. Her eyes were too bright, her cheek coloured; she was restless, and ashamed of being so; mischief had begun. On looking at the wound, a blush of red told the secret; her pulse was rapid, her breathing anxious and quick, she wasn’t herself, as she said, and was vexed at her restlessness. We tried what we could, but she died in three to four days.

No asepsis, a dog in theatre and no anaesthesia. Speed, trust and hope.


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