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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Web of Life By Robert Herrick Characters: 10668

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The next morning Dr. Sommers took his successor through, the surgical ward. Dr. Raymond, whose place he had been holding for a month, was a young, carefully dressed man, fresh from a famous eastern hospital. The nurses eyed him favorably. He was absolutely correct. When the surgeons reached the bed marked 8, Dr. Sommers paused. It was the case he had operated on the night before. He glanced inquiringly at the metal tablet which hung from the iron cross-bars above the patient's head. On it was printed in large black letters the patient's name, ARTHUR C. PRESTON; on the next line in smaller letters, Admitted March 26th. The remaining space on the card was left blank to receive the statement of regimen, etc. A nurse was giving the patient an iced drink. After swallowing feebly, the man relapsed into a semi-stupor, his eyes opening and closing vacantly.

As he lay under the covering of a sheet, his arms thrust out bare from the short-sleeved hospital shirt, his unshaven flushed face contrasting with the pallid and puffy flesh of neck and arms, he gave an impression of sensuality emphasized by undress. The head was massive and well formed, and beneath the bloat of fever and dissipation there showed traces of refinement. The soft hands and neat finger-nails, the carefully trimmed hair, were sufficient indications of a kind of luxury. The animalism of the man, however, had developed so early in life that it had obliterated all strong markings of character. The flaccid, rather fleshy features were those of the sensual, prodigal young American, who haunts hotels. Clean shaven and well dressed, the fellow would be indistinguishable from the thousands of overfed and overdrunk young business men, to be seen every day in the vulgar luxury of Pullman cars, hotel lobbies, and large bar-rooms.

The young surgeon studied the patient thoughtfully. He explained the case briefly to his successor, as he had all the others, and before leaving the bed, he had the nurse take the patient's temperature. "Only two degrees of fever," he commented mechanically; "that is very good. Has his wife-has any one been in to see him?" The head nurse, who stood like an automaton at the foot of the bed, replied that she had seen no one; in any case, the doorkeeper would have refused permission unless explicit orders had been given.

Then the doctors continued their rounds, followed by the correct head nurse. When they reached the end of the ward, Dr. Sommers remarked disconnectedly: "No. 8 there, the man with the gun-shot wounds, will get well, I think; but I shouldn't wonder if mental complications followed. I have seen cases like that at the Bicetre, where operations on an alcoholic patient produced paresis. The man got well," he added harshly, as if kicking aside some dull formula; "but he was a hopeless idiot."

The new surgeon stared politely without replying. Such an unprofessional and uncalled-for expression of opinion was a new experience to him. In the Boston hospital resident surgeons did not make unguarded confidences even to their colleagues.

The two men finished their inspection without further incident, and went to the office to examine the system of records. After Sommers had left his successor, he learned from the clerk that "No. 8" had been entered as, "Commercial traveller; shot three times in a saloon row." Mrs. Preston had called,-from her and the police this information came,-had been informed that her husband was doing well, but had not asked to see him. She had left an address at some unknown place a dozen miles south.

The surgeon's knowledge of the case ended there. As in so many instances, he knew solely the point of tragedy: the before and the after went on outside the hospital walls, beyond his ken. While he was busy in getting away from the hospital, in packing up the few things left in his room, he thought no more about Preston's case or any case. But the last thing he did before leaving St. Isidore's was to visit the surgical ward once more and glance at No. 8's chart. The patient was resting quietly; there was every promise of recovery.

He left the grimy brick hospital, and made his way toward the rooms he had engaged in a neighborhood farther south. The weather was unseasonably warm and enervating, and he walked slowly, taking the broad boulevard in preference to the more noisome avenues, which were thick with slush and mud. It was early in the afternoon, and the few carriages on the boulevard were standing in front of the fashionable garment shops that occupied the city end of the drive. He had an unusual, oppressive feeling of idleness; it was the first time since he had left the little Ohio college, where he had spent his undergraduate years, that he had known this emptiness of purpose. There was nothing for him to do now, except to dine at the Hitchcocks' to-night. There would be little definite occupation probably for weeks, months, until he found some practice. Always hitherto, there had been a succession of duties, tasks, ends that he set himself one on the heels of another, occupying his mind, relieving his will of all responsibility.

He was cast out now from his youth, as it were, at thirty-two, to find his place in the city, to create his little world. And for the first time since he had entered Chicago, seven mo

nths before, the city wore a face of strangeness, of complete indifference. It hummed on, like a self-absorbed machine: all he had to do was not to get caught in it, involved, wrecked. For nearly a year he had been a part of it; and yet busy as he had been in the hospital, he had not sought to place himself strongly. He had gone in and out, here and there, for amusement, but he had returned to the hospital. Now the city was to be his home: somewhere in it he must dig his own little burrow.

Unconsciously his gait expressed his detachment. He sauntered idly, looking with fresh curiosity at the big, smoke-darkened houses on the boulevard. At Twenty-Second Street, a cable train clanged its way harshly across his path. As he looked up, he caught sight of the lake at the end of the street,-a narrow blue slab of water between two walls. The vista had a strangely foreign air. But the street itself, with its drays lumbering into the hidden depths of slimy pools, its dirty, foot-stained cement walks, had the indubitable aspect of Chicago.

Along the boulevard carriages were passing more frequently. The clank of metal chains, the beat of hoofs upon the good road-bed, sounded smartly on the ear. The houses became larger, newer, more flamboyant; richly dressed, handsome women were coming and going between them and their broughams. When Sommers turned to look back, the boulevard disappeared in the vague, murky region of mephitic cloud, beneath which the husbands of those women were toiling, striving, creating. He walked on and on, enjoying his leisure, speculating idly about the people and the houses. At last, as he neared Fortieth Street, the carriages passed less frequently. He turned back with a little chill, a feeling that he had left the warm, living thing and was too much alone. This time he came through Prairie and Calumet Avenues. Here, on the asphalt pavements, the broughams and hansoms rolled noiselessly to and fro among the opulent houses with tidy front grass plots and shining steps. The avenues were alive with afternoon callers. At several points there were long lines of carriages, attending a reception, or a funeral, or a marriage.

The air and the relaxation of all purpose tired him. The scene of the previous evening hung about his mind, coloring the abiding sense of loneliness. His last triumph in the delicate art of his profession had given him no exhilarating sense of power. He saw the woman's face, miserable and submissive, and he wondered. But he brought himself up with a jerk: this was the danger of permitting any personal feeling or speculation to creep into professional matters.

* * * * *

In his new rooms on Twenty-Eighth Street, there was an odor of stale tobacco, permeating the confusion created by a careless person. Dresser had been occupying them lately. He had found Sam Dresser, whom he had known as a student in Europe, wandering almost penniless down State Street, and had offered him a lodging-place.

"How did it come out?" Sommers asked the big, blond young man with a beer-stained mustache.

The big fellow stopped, before answering, to stuff a pipe with tobacco, punching it in with a fat thumb.

"They'll give me a job-mean one-three dollars a day-nine to five-under the roof in a big loft, tenth story-with a lot of women hirelings. Regular sweatshop-educational sweatshop."

Sommers took up some letters from the table and opened them.

"Well, I've got to scare up some patients to live on, even to make three dollars a day."

"You!" Dresser exclaimed, eying the letters with naive envy. "You are pals with the fat-fed capitalists. They will see that you get something easy, and one of these days you will marry one of their daughters. Then you will join the bank accounts, and good-by."

He continued to rail, half jestingly, half in earnest, at McNamara and Hills,-where he had obtained work, thanks to a letter which Sommers had procured for him,-at his companion's relations with the well-to-do, which he exaggerated offensively, and at the well-to-do themselves.

"It was lucky for you," Sommers remarked good-humoredly, "that I was thick enough with the bloodsuckers to get you that letter from Hitchcock. One of us will have to stand in with the 'swilling, fat-fed capitalist.'"

"Are those Hitchcocks rich?" Dresser asked, his eye resting wistfully on a square note that the young doctor had laid aside.

"I suppose so," Sommers answered. "Shall we go and have some beer?"

Dresser's blue eyes still followed the little pile of letters-eyes hot with desires and regrets. A lust burned in them, as his companion could feel instinctively, a lust to taste luxury. Under its domination Dresser was not unlike the patient in No. 8.

When they turned into the boulevard, which was crowded at this hour of twilight, men were driving themselves home in high carts, and through the windows of the broughams shone the luxuries of evening attire. Dresser's glance shifted from face to face, from one trap to another, sucking in the glitter of the showy scene. The flashing procession on the boulevard pricked his hungry senses, goaded his ambitions. The men and women in the carriages were the bait; the men and women on the street sniffed it, cravingly, enviously.

"There's plenty of swag in the place," Dresser remarked.

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