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Title: The House Surgeon
Author: Edgar Wallace
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1305861h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Oct 2013
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The House Surgeon

by

Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

First published in:
The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature, June 1915
A PDF image file of the magazine with this story is available at archive.org
(http://archive.org/stream/canadianmagazine45torouoft#page/156/mode/2up)



I REACHED out of bed, and turning down the lamp, tried to sleep. The knowledge of the fact that one has, by a single foolish action, placed himself on the verge of bankruptcy is scarcely conducive to mental quiet, and it was only after what seemed to me hours of wakefulness that I sank into a fitful sleep.

I could not have been dozing more than half an hour when a knock at my door aroused me. A knock at such an hour, could only mean one thing to a house surgeon, and getting out of bed, I opened the door to admit, as I had expected, the night porter.

"Case just come in, sir," he said tersely. "Dr. Thompson don't think he's likely to live."

"What sort of case?" I asked sharply, for even one liable to end fatally did not necessarily require my attention, "and when was he brought in?"

The porter was rather taken aback at my brusqueness, for amongst my subordinates, I believe, I bore a reputation for courtesy.

"Brought in a few minutes since, sir." said the man. "Came in a cab with a policeman. 'Pears as how he was goin' home from his club, and passin' down Holborn the horse bolted and came bang against a pillar at the corner of Chancery Lane, gent was thrown out of the cab and fell against the kerb."

By this time I was ready, and after bathing my face to waken me I followed the porter down the dimly-lighted corridor that connected my quarters with the hospital, along the broad stone-flagged central hall, with its many glass doors opening into various wards, till my guide stopped before No. 11, the accident ward.

I entered and softly closed the door behind me. Screened off from the rest of the ward, on an operating table, lay the form of a man, who was in evening dress, the coat of which had been removed to allow the surgeon to commence operations.

By his side stood the night nurse and Thompson, who nodded as I entered. I went nearer to the table and looked into the face. Good God! Newton!—Newton whom I left a few hours before in the bloom of health—and now!

For the moment I forgot our last interview when I had left my club, a ruined man, with the haunting remembrance of Newton, a sympathetic smile on his florid face, making a bundle of the notes and bills that I, in the true gambler's spirit, had plunged with to recoup the trifling losses of the previous evening. The sympathetic smile was part of his stock-in-trade, and was the result of long practice. Believing in that ancient fallacy, luck must turn, I had plunged and plunged, till I suddenly realized that I had lost every penny I had in the world.

In that evening I had entered the private card room a comparatively wealthy man, and had left it with my year's salary mortgaged. I had read of such cases, but had always accepted them with a grain of salt. For how, I argued, can a man continue to play a losing game! Why does he not desist when he finds luck against him? Even now I couldn't say why I hadn't; I only knew that I had played doggedly on, expecting my luck to turn.

In the bitterness of the moment I had said some hard things concerning Newton's "luck," which I more than hinted was assisted by the lucky one's dexterity. He had retaliated with words that had made me wince; he had told me that by such fools as I—those were his words—he managed to make a living. There were other stinging, maddening things he had said, such as only an educated man could have said, but now for the time I forgot his insults, forgot that he had ruined me, and only saw the poor battered form that lay awaiting my skill.

"What are the injuries?" I asked, regaining my composure.

"The scalp wound that you can see," was Thompson's reply. I nodded; one could not help but see that ugly gash that stretched across the head from eyebrow to ear. "Anything else?"

"I haven't looked," he answered. "I thought I'd wait till you came. The bleeding ceased soon after his arrival. I have had him washed up. Will you examine him?"

I took off my coat, and, rolling up my sleeves, proceeded to inspect the wound.

It was, I could see at first glance, a serious case.

I ran my finger gingerly along the bare skull that lay exposed till I felt a little swelling beneath my fingers; unlike the ordinary bump, it was splintered across in two or three directions. I looked up and met Thompson's inquiring eyes.

"Fracture?" was the question.

"Yes," I answered slowly. "A small fracture above the brain. Just see if there's anything else."

Carefully and tenderly Thompson passed his hands over the body and limbs of the insensible man; "a fractured rib," he muttered, half to himself as surgeons are wont to do. "That's nothing; face cut up, evidently from a sharp stone—that's nothing, other limbs seem all right. What are you going to do!" This last remark was addressed to me.

I gave the wound another glance and then decided. "Get the instruments ready for trepanning," I said, "it must be done at once, or it will be too late. There is, undoubtedly, a compression which must be removed."

As my assistant and the nurses hastened noiselessly to obey my orders, I was left alone with the inanimate form. It was a scene that could not have failed to impress the most callous observer.

The long airy room was just sufficiently lit to allow the attendants to move about without injury to limb. The first faint streaks of the dawn were struggling through the windows at the farther end of the ward, its ghastly light making the flickering night-lamps a bilious yellow. This was no novel experience to me; I lived my life amidst these rows of sufferers.

Even the sweet scented flowers that stood amidst the queer shaped instruments on the nursing sister's table were so inseparably associated wilh the internal decoration of a hospital, that a visit to the fairest garden amidt the most picturesque surroundings had no other effect than to recall the scenes of suffering that I had left behind. They were so familiar, too, those neat cots with the overhanging pulleys, and the little Scriptural texts above each patient's head.

I looked at Newton. How still he lay! To all intents and purposes dead. I had served a long and hard apprenticeship, and suffering and death had long ceased to cause me mental pain. There had been a time when the sight of a blood-splashed knife had made me feel sick and giddy, and the memory of the patient's agonized cries had haunted me through the long hours of the night. These times had passed, but in passing they left a few lines on my forehead, and had given a tinge of gray to my hair as a souvenir. In spite of practice a feeling of pity came over me for this unfortunate man, who had probably only a few hours to live.

His "choker" collar and his white tie had been removed to allow of his breathing, and from the front of his dress shirt, crumpled and stained, a single brilliant winked and glittered. I turned my head with half a sigh, when almost at my feet, I saw what, in the dim light, appeared to be a sack. Methodical, even in my abstraction, I stooped, with the intention of removing it to the outside of my ward.

The moment my fingers touched it I realized that what I had taken for a sack was a dust-coat—evidently Newton's.

I switched on the electric light under which his head had been placed; the coat was soiled with that mixture peculiar to London street accidents—mud and blood. As I turned to put the coat with the remainder of the clothing on an adjacent locker, something fell from the pocket; it was a pocket-book, I bent down and picked it up, and was about to replace it, when, like a flash, I remembered that in this book were the bills and notes that Newton had won from me the same evening.

For a moment I stood irresolute.

Here lay a man on the point of death, a man who had as good as confessed that he lived on the wits of fools—such fools as I. He had not, I knew, a single relative in the world, no prying heirs to raise awkward questions.

Half unconsciously, I pressed back the clasp, and opened the flap. Yes. there snug and crisp, lay the little roll of notes and papers; in two or three places I could see my signature, "Donald Fraser," written at the foot of divers bills that spelt ruin to me. What a fool I had been! And what a fool I was. Within my grasp lay all that I desired, and who was to know? He had left the club at the same time as I. I knew there was only one small chance of his recovering; if by that chance he lived, I could restore the money, and if he died—. After all, was not this money mine? Yes, I would take it. This episode should be a lesson to me for all lifetime. I would never again touch a card.

Thompson would soon be returning. I refastened the clasp of the book and, raising my eyes, I met the fixed gaze of—Newton! For a moment I was speechless; the shock of encountering the glare of those eyes that I had thought closed in insensibility, produced a momentary paralysis. For the moment I imagined that I had been speaking my thoughts aloud, but recovering my mental equilibrium, my professional instincts came to my rescue.

"You must remain perfectly quiet," I said in a subdued tone; "you have met with a bad accident."

He did not speak, but his eyes rested for a second on the pocket-book, and then rose to my face, into which, in spite of a determined effort, and for the first time in my life, a blush of guilt was creeping. He evidently noticed my distress, and mistaking the cause, he said faintly. "It's all right. Fraser, don't trouble, I'm not afraid of your holding these things, I know you are straight!"

The blush deepened, and I tossed the accursed thing that had made me forget duty, as a gentleman and a physician, on to the heap of clothing. If he was a sharper, what was I, a thief? Had the tables been turned, and he, instead of I, been the loser, should I have considered his feelings! I looked at Newton; he lay with half-closed eyes, breathing very quickly, and I could see he was lapsing again into insensibility. Thompson at this moment came up with an apology for keeping me so long; he bore a tray containing the instruments. The nurses who accompanied him placed the necessary waters and antiseptics in the various basins, and all was ready.

Thompson looked curiously at the patient.

"Has he regained consciousness!" he asked, proceeding to divest himself of his coat, and fastening back his cuffs.

"For a short time, yes," I answered. "He is half-conscious now; these periods of lucidity are not uncommon in cases of compression." I felt the pulse—it was normal; with a stethoscope I examined the heart, this, too, was sound.

"I shall give him chloroform," I said, by way of explanation, "and endeavour to elevate the splintered bone." Newton opened his eyes, and glanced from one to the other; at last his inquiring gaze rested on Thompson.

"This is Doctor Thompson," I said, thinking to inspire him with confidence; "we are going to operate on you, there will be little or no pain—"

He stopped me with an almost imperceptible movement of his head.

"I want to talk alone," he said, and there was a suspicious thickness in his voice that warned me that any interview would have to be short. "I want to talk alone with Dr. Thompson."

I started in astonishment, for I knew they were not even acquaint ed. "Do you mean me?" I asked, thinking that the injury might have affected his brain.

"No, no!" he said almost impatiently, "I mean that gentleman."

It was a strange request, but I could see that every moment now was precious.

At a motion from me, Thompson took his place by the side of the patient's head, and the nurses, with myself, withdrew. Why should he wish to speak to Thompson! I could see them from where I stood, the patient speaking slowly and evidently painfully, and Thompson's nod of acquiescence. Suddenly the conversation came to an end, and beckoning one of the nurses to him, my colleague walked to the heap of clothing, and picking up Newton's book, placed it in his pocket, and resuming his place by the patient's side, continued the conversation.

Now I knew! Newton had told him of what he had seen when he bad recovered from his insensibility. He had called the nurse for a witness and handed the book and its contents into my assistant's keeping for safety. To-morrow, the whole world—my world, would know that, in addition to being a ruined gambler, Donald Fraser, Doctor of Medicine, had violated the sacred laws of humanity, had dishonoured his noble profession, by attempting to rob a patient!

I made my way back to the table. Thompson looked curiously at me, but I avoided his glance, and by a mighty effort of will all emotions were hidden for a time, and I took my place at his side, not as the man whose reputation was at his mercy, but as a surgeon.

I took up the conical inhaler that lay on the tray and, bending over the head of the dying man, for dying now he undoubtedly was, placed it over the patient's mouth and nose, and gently shook a few drops of the anaesthetic over its porous sides. The sickly, penetrating odour of the chloroform rose and, as he felt the first whiff of it in his lungs, Newton opened his eyes and, looking at Thompson in a meaning manner, said the one word, "remember" Thompson nodded and again glanced from me to the patient, who, closing his eyes, was gently inhaling. Now and then, as is usual, when patients are sinking under the influence of the chloroform, the breathing for a moment ceased, but a slight pressure upon the uninjured side would cause him to resume his respiration. After a while, I lifted the eyelids, and gently touched the pupils. Yes, he was well under. I handed the inhaler to Thompson and, dipping my hands into the antiseptic lotion, I commenced.

It was a difficult job, even more so than I had anticipated; the fracture extended farther than I had thought, but I had not been working long before I realized the hopelessness of my task. But, to a surgeon, the adage, "Whilst there's life, there's hope," had a special significance, and the fact that to all appearance my work would be useless did not deter me from doing my utmost.

The end came very quietly. Thompson, who was administering sufficienly small doses of chloroform to keep the patient insensible, suddenly dropped the inhaler and, picking up the stethoscope, applied it to the heart. I stopped my work and leaned, red-handed, on the table, awaiting his decision.

"You can stop," he said after a while, "he's dead." I took the instrument from him and listened. It was as he said! Newton had gone to face his Maker.

Hastly washing and drying my hands, I slipped on my coat, and made my way back to my room.

Now that it was all over, a dreary feeling of my own helplessness came over me, and as I drew a basket chair up to the fire that the porter had replenished in my absence, I thought of the misery I should have to face on the morrow. I glanced at my watch; it was three o'clock. To-morrow, then, was to-day. To-day I should die—the social death. I never realized till that minute how dear this little world of mine was to me. The functions that I had held up to ridicule as senseless and time-wasting, seemed now to be clothed with a dignity and refinement unthought of. The profession I loved so well, and God knows, no mother could suffer more at the death of her firstborn than I at the thought of severing myself from St, Mark's.

What a blackguard I was. I fancied I could hear Newton saying, "I can trust you, you are straight." I who, even as he spoke, was weighing the chances of evading detection. And yet, after all, he could not have meant it, otherwise why should he have told Thompson?

A quick footstep echoed down the corridor, and stopped opposite my door. There was a knock. I rose from my chair, and opened the door to Thompson. "Come in," I said, closing the door after him. He seated himself, facing me, on the opposite side of the fire. I pushed the decanter towards him.

I hadn't the nerve to open the conversation.

"Thanks," he said, helping himself to a modest allowance of Burgundy. "I owe you an apology for disturbing your rest again, but I have to tell you what transpired between this patient and myself." I nodded. I had expected something of this, if not so soon, and my hand trembled as I pushed back the decanter from its perilous position on the edge of the table, where Thompson, with youthful disregard to safety, had left it. It is curious how, in times of great trouble, or mental worry, little trifling incidents leave a lasting impression on one's mind, and the sight of a decanter placed too near the edge of a table has ever since then reminded me of that startling interview.

"I saw when you came into ward," my assistant went on, "that you knew him, and you can imagine, knowing this, how surprised I was when he asked for an interview with me. I could see that you, too, were a little astonished; however, before I had time to recover from my amazement, you were gone, and we were left together. The first thing he did was to ask me whether I knew anything about law. I told him I did for, as you know, my people are in the law, and I was, at first, intended for that stuffy profession. He then asked me whether he could dispose of his property without making a will. I told him that such a thing was permissible in cases of urgent necessity. 'Such as this?' he asked. 'Yes,' I replied, 'this would he a case in which you could verbally bequeath your property, providing it was done in the presccnce of two disinterested persons.' It was then, at his request, that I called Nurse Joyce, and searched among his clothing for a pocket-book. This I found and brought to him, and then to my profound astonishment, he said, 'In the presence of these witnesses I bequeath this book and its contents to—Doctor Donald Fraser, of St. Mark's Hospital!'" As Thompson said this he drew from his pocket the book.

I had risen to my feet as he commenced his story and stood by the window that overlooked the dawn-lit quadrangle of the hospital. I had done this partly to hide any show of emotion that may have been evident, partly because, in my then condition of mind, I could not remain seated, but as the unlooked for, unthought of story of Newton's generosity was laid before me, the room swam round, and the figure of Thompson, silhouetted against the dancing flames of the fire, became blurred and indistinct. "For me?" I managed to gasp.

"Yes, for you, and he made me promise to hand it to you to-night. 'For,' he said, 'there are some papers that I want the doctor to burn.'"

My fingers closed over the leathern package.

"He added a very strange sentence," said Thompson. "His last words before you came were, 'Tell the doctor the cards were marked.'"

As he finished speaking Thompson stepped towards the door and, holding it open, he looked down, with a perplexed frown. "About those papers," he said, "I don't know whether it is irregular to destroy them until the will has been proved, but as it was evidently his wish, I suppose you had better burn them."

"I think I had better do so," I answered, closing the door after him and turning towards the fire.


THE END

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