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   Chapter 1 No.1

The Web of Life By Robert Herrick Characters: 15844

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The young surgeon examined the man as he lay on the hospital chair in which ward attendants had left him. The surgeon's fingers touched him deftly, here and there, as if to test the endurance of the flesh he had to deal with. The head nurse followed his swift movements, wearily moving an incandescent light hither and thither, observing the surgeon with languid interest. Another nurse, much younger, without the "black band," watched the surgeon from the foot of the cot. Beads of perspiration chased themselves down her pale face, caused less by sympathy than by sheer weariness and heat. The small receiving room of St. Isidore's was close and stuffy, surcharged with odors of iodoform and ether. The Chicago spring, so long delayed, had blazed with a sudden fury the last week in March, and now at ten o'clock not a capful of air strayed into the room, even through the open windows that faced the lake.

The patient groaned when the surgeon's fingers first touched him, then relapsed into the spluttering, labored respiration of a man in liquor or in heavy pain. A stolid young man who carried the case of instruments freshly steaming from their antiseptic bath made an observation which the surgeon apparently did not hear. He was thinking, now, his thin face set in a frown, the upper teeth biting hard over the under lip and drawing up the pointed beard. While he thought, he watched the man extended on the chair, watched him like an alert cat, to extract from him some hint as to what he should do. This absorption seemed to ignore completely the other occupants of the room, of whom he was the central, commanding figure. The head nurse held the lamp carelessly, resting her hand over one hip thrown out, her figure drooping into an ungainly pose. She gazed at the surgeon steadily, as if puzzled at his intense preoccupation over the common case of a man "shot in a row." Her eyes travelled over the surgeon's neat-fitting evening dress, which was so bizarre here in the dingy receiving room, redolent of bloody tasks. Evidently he had been out to some dinner or party, and when the injured man was brought in had merely donned his rumpled linen jacket with its right sleeve half torn from the socket. A spot of blood had already spurted into the white bosom of his shirt, smearing its way over the pearl button, and running under the crisp fold of the shirt. The head nurse was too tired and listless to be impatient, but she had been called out of hours on this emergency case, and she was not used to the surgeon's preoccupation. Such things usually went off rapidly at St. Isidore's, and she could hear the tinkle of the bell as the hall door opened for another case. It would be midnight before she could get back to bed! The hospital was short-handed, as usual.

The younger nurse was not watching the patient, nor the good-looking young surgeon, who seemed to be the special property of her superior. Even in her few months of training she had learned to keep herself calm and serviceable, and not to let her mind speculate idly. She was gazing out of the window into the dull night. Some locomotives in the railroad yards just outside were puffing lazily, breathing themselves deeply in the damp, spring air. One hoarser note than the others struck familiarly on the nurse's ear. That was the voice of the engine on the ten-thirty through express, which was waiting to take its train to the east. She knew that engine's throb, for it was the engine that stood in the yards every evening while she made her first rounds for the night. It was the one which took her train round the southern end of the lake, across the sandy fields, to Michigan, to her home.

The engine puffed away, and she withdrew her gaze and glanced at the patient. To her, too, the wounded man was but a case, another error of humanity that had come to St. Isidore's for temporary repairs, to start once more on its erring course, or, perhaps, to go forth unfinished, remanded just there to death. The ten-thirty express was now pulling out through the yards in a powerful clamor of clattering switches and hearty pulsations that shook the flimsy walls of St. Isidore's, and drew new groans from the man on the chair. The young nurse's eyes travelled from him to a woman who stood behind the ward tenders, shielded by them and the young interne from the group about the hospital chair. This woman, having no uniform of any sort, must be some one who had come in with the patient, and had stayed unobserved in the disorder of a night case.

Suddenly the surgeon spoke; his words shot out at the head nurse.

"We will operate now!"

The interne shrugged his shoulders, but he busied himself in selecting and wiping the instruments. Yet in spite of his decisive words the surgeon seemed to hesitate.

"Was there any one with this man,-any friend?" he asked the head nurse.

In reply she looked around vaguely, her mind thrown out of gear by this unexpected delay. Another freak of the handsome surgeon!

"Any relative or friend?" the surgeon iterated peremptorily, looking about at the attendants.

The little nurse at the foot of the patient, who was not impressed by the irregularity of the surgeon's request, pointed mutely to the figure behind the ward tenders. The surgeon wheeled about and glanced almost savagely at the woman, his eyes travelling swiftly from her head to her feet. The woman thus directly questioned by the comprehending glance returned his look freely, resentfully. At last when the surgeon's eyes rested once more on her face, this time more gently, she answered:

"I am his wife."

This statement in some way humanized the scene. The ward tenders and the interne stared at her blankly; the nurses looked down in unconscious comment on the twisted figure by their side. The surgeon drew his hands from his pockets and stepped toward the woman, questioning her meanwhile with his nervous, piercing glance. For a moment neither spoke, but some kind of mute explanation seemed to be going on between them.

She kept her face level with his, revealing it bravely, perhaps defiantly. Its tense expression, with a few misery-laden lines, answered back to the inquiry of the nonchalant outsiders: 'Yes, I am his wife, his wife, the wife of the object over there, brought here to the hospital, shot in a saloon brawl.' And the surgeon's face, alive with a new preoccupation, seemed to reply: 'Yes, I know! You need not pain yourself by telling me.'

The patient groaned again, and the surgeon came back at once to the urgent present-the case. He led the way to one side, and turning his back upon the group of assistants he spoke to the woman in low tones.

"This man, your husband, is pretty badly off. He's got at least two bullets in bad places. There isn't much chance for him-in his condition," he explained brusquely, as if to reconcile his unusual procedure with business-like methods.

"But I should operate," he continued; "I shall operate unless there are objections-unless you object."

His customary imperious manner was struggling with a special feeling for this woman before him. She did not reply, but waited to hear where her part might come in. Her eyes did not fall from his face.

"There's a chance," the surgeon went on, "that a certain operation now will bring him around all right. But to-morrow will be too late."

His words thus far had something foolish in them, and her eyes seemed to say so. If it was the only chance, and his custom was to operate in such cases,-if he would have operated had she not been there, why did he go through this explanation?

"There may be--complications in his recovery," he said at last, in low tones. "The recovery may not be complete."

She did not seem to understand, and the surgeon frowned at his failure, after wrenching from himself this frankness. The idea, the personal idea that he had had to put out of h

is mind so often in operating in hospital cases,-that it made little difference whether, indeed, it might be a great deal wiser if the operation turned out fatally,-possessed his mind. Could she be realizing that, too, in her obstinate silence? He tried another explanation.

"If we do not operate, he will probably have a few hours of consciousness-if you had something to say to him?"

Her face flushed. He humiliated her. He must know that she had nothing to say to him, as well as if he had known the whole story.

"We could make him comfortable, and who knows, to-morrow might not be too late!" The surgeon ended irritably, impatient at the unprofessional frankness of his words, and disgusted that he had taken this woman into his confidence. Did she want him to say: 'See here, there's only one chance in a thousand that we can save that carcass; and if he gets that chance, it may not be a whole one-do you care enough for him to run that dangerous risk?' But she obstinately kept her own counsel. The professional manner that he ridiculed so often was apparently useful in just such cases as this. It covered up incompetence and hypocrisy often enough, but one could not be human and straightforward with women and fools. And women and fools made up the greater part of a doctor's business.

Yet the voice that said, "I am his wife," rang through his mind and suggested doubts. Under the miserable story that he had instinctively imaged, there probably lay some tender truth.

"There's a chance, you see!" he resumed more tenderly, probing her for an evidence. "All any of us have, except that he is not in a condition for an operation."

This time her mouth quivered. She was struggling for words. "Why do you ask me?" she gasped. "What-" but her voice failed her.

"I should operate," the surgeon replied gently, anticipating her question.

"I, we should think it better that way, only sometimes relatives object."

He thought that he had probed true and had found what he was after.

"It is a chance," she said audibly, finding her voice. "You must do what you think-best. I have nothing to say to him. You need not delay for that."

"Very well," the surgeon replied, relieved that his irregular confidence had resulted in the conventional decision, and that he had not brought on himself a responsibility shared with her. "You had best step into the office. You can do no good here."

Then, dismissing the unusual from his mind, he stepped quickly back to the patient. The younger nurse was bathing the swollen, sodden face with apiece of gauze; the head nurse, annoyed at the delay, bustled about, preparing the dressings under the direction of the interne.

The wife had not obeyed the doctor's direction to leave the room, however, and remained at the window, staring out into the soft night. At last, when the preparations were completed, the younger nurse came and touched her. "You can sit in the office, next door; they may be some time," she urged gently.

As the woman turned to follow the nurse, the surgeon glanced at her once more. He was conscious of her calm tread, her admirable self-control. The sad, passive face with its broad, white brow was the face of a woman who was just waking to terrible facts, who was struggling to comprehend a world that had caught her unawares. She had removed her hat and was carrying it loosely in her hand that had fallen to her side. Her hair swept back in two waves above the temples with a simplicity that made the head distinguished. Even the nurses' caps betrayed stray curls or rolls. Her figure was large, and the articulation was perfect as she walked, showing that she had had the run of fields in her girlhood. Yet she did not stoop as is the habit of country girls; nor was there any unevenness of physique due to hard, manual labor.

As she passed the huddle of human flesh stretched out in the wheel-chair, a wave of color swept over her face. Then she looked up to the surgeon and seemed to speak to him, as to the one human being in a world of puppets. 'You understand; you understand. It is terrible!'

The surgeon's brown eyes answered hers, but he was puzzled. Had he probed her aright? It was one of those intimate moments that come to nervously organized people, when the petty detail of acquaintanceship and fact is needless, when each one stands nearly confessed to the other. And then she left the room.

The surgeon proceeded without a word, working intently, swiftly, dexterously. At first the head nurse was too busy in handling bowls and holding instruments to think, even professionally, of the operation. The interne, however, gazed in admiration, emitting exclamations of delight as the surgeon rapidly took one step after another. Then he was sent for something, and the head nurse, her chief duties performed, drew herself upright for a breath, and her keen, little black eyes noticed an involuntary tremble, a pause, an uncertainty at a critical moment in the doctor's tense arm. A wilful current of thought had disturbed his action. The sharp head nurse wondered if Dr. Sommers had had any wine that evening, but she dismissed this suspicion scornfully, as slander against the ornament of the Surgical Ward of St. Isidore's. He was tired: the languid summer air thus early in the year would shake any man's nerve. But the head nurse understood well that such a wavering of will or muscle must not occur again, or the hairbreadth chance the drunken fellow had--

She watched that bared arm, her breath held. The long square fingers closed once more with a firm grip on the instrument. "Miss Lemoris, some No. 3 gauze." Then not a sound until the thing was done, and the surgeon had turned away to cleanse his hands in the bowl of purple antiseptic wash.

"My!" the head nurse exclaimed, "Dr. Trip ain't in it." But the surgeon's face wore a preoccupied, sombre look, irresponsive to the nurse's admiration. While she helped the interne with the complicated dressing, the little nurse made ready for removal to the ward. Then when one of the ward tenders had wheeled the muffled figure into the corridor, she hurried across to the office.

"It's all over," she whispered blithely to the wife, who sat in a dull abstraction, oblivious of the hospital flurry. "And it's going to be all right, I just know. Dr. Sommers is so clever, he'd save a dead man. You had better go now. No use to see him to-night, for he won't come out of the opiate until near morning. You can come tomorrow morning, and p'r'aps Dr. Sommers will get you a pass in. Visitors only Thursdays and Sunday afternoons usually."

She hurried off to her duties in the ward. The woman did not rise at once. She did not readjust her thoughts readily; she seemed to be waiting in the chance of seeing some one. The surgeon did not come out of the receiving room; there was a sound of wheels in the corridor just outside the office door, followed by the sound of shuffling feet. Through the open door she could see two attendants wheeling a stretcher with a man lying motionless upon it. They waited in the hall outside under a gas-jet, which cast a flickering light upon the outstretched form. This was the next case, which had been waiting its turn while her husband was in the receiving room,-a hand from the railroad yards, whose foot had slipped on a damp rail; now a pulpy, almost shapeless mass, thinly disguised under a white sheet that had fallen from his arms and head. She got up and walked out of the room. She was not wanted there: the hospital had turned its momentary swift attention to another case. As she passed the stretcher, the bearers shifted their burden to give her room. The form on the stretcher moaned indistinctly.

She looked at the unsightly mass, in her heart envious of his condition. There were things in this world much more evil than this bruised flesh of what had once been a human being.

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