Open main menu


The Story of a New Life

By Henry M. Rideout

IT was on a June day, at the time when the results of Billy Drummond's second-year exams were beginning to appear behind the glass front of the bulletin board in the Medical School corridor, that Nason Sawyer called him up on the telephone from Cambridge to appoint a meeting with him. And it was on the same evening, cold and rainy, when the saloons and Chinese laundries across Harrison Avenue were beginning to show lighted windows, and the rumble of drays was lessening, that Billy heard the door bell of two twenty nine jangle down on the ground floor, and encountered Nason in the obscure light at the head of the spiral stairway.

"Sawyer the lawyer," was Billy's greeting. "So you're really off for New York for good, to begin the great fight. Come in here and sit down, won't you? There are some fellows in the next room playing checkers or something. I don't believe you're anxious to meet them."

In this way it fell out that, with the red baize table and the student lamp between them, they sat in the main room of the Lying-In branch, and drifted into serious talk. Out of the lighted doorway behind them came the click of checkers, the scratching of matches, drifting layers of pipe-smoke, and fragments of medical conversation. The evening grew along toward half past nine.

The two men had known each other well in college, and it was their last chance for a long talk. Sawyer had managed the business of college teams and papers, managed many bits of undergraduate politics, managed his studies in college and law school,—always cool, without apparent enthusiasm or discouragement. Now, as they chatted, his long, sharp face and bulbous gray eyes showed a droll, elderly interest in Billy.

"You're such a kid still," he said calmly, crossing his lean shanks. "I can't seem to see you as a doctor, somehow. Honestly now, Billy, aren't you just paying your compliments to medicine, as you have to football, and,—and books, and pictures, and the rest?"

Billy looked aggrieved. He had a fine face,—too fine, some people thought,—and quick, black eyes. The odd little feminine quirk in his lips grew plainer as he retorted:—

"Well, why not?—But that's not it I've been carried away with this thing ever since I saw my first operation."

He sprang up, lithe and eager, crossed the room and stood by the window, in one of his most handsome attitudes. He seemed, this evening, to be more alert and nervous even than usual.

"I can see that affair now," he exclaimed. "By George, I'll never forget it." For a moment he pondered, with introverted gaze,—then became voluble—"You see, one day, junior year, Joe Kimball took Mac Dawless and me through a snowstorm down to the Operating Theater,—up a long flight of stairs, you know, and then we came out at the very ceiling of the amphitheater. It was all terribly light,—a dry, white light,—and there were rows on rows of big brown seats, with high backs, that shelved down to the pit. Joe wanted us to go down front; but, there were pails of blood,—chloride of mercury, you know, but I thought it was blood then,—down there on the tables; and, right beside them, an array of cold, steel instruments; so I was too wise to go down, and we sat at the very top, up by the ceiling.

"And ether! It came up to us in great waves, and seemed to make everything hazy and fumey. The whole business went to my head. And, when the old bald-headed surgeon got through chatting down there, and the doors at the back of the pit swung open, and a push of men in white coats rolled in a long table covered with cloth,—why, gad! there was a glow all over my body. You couldn't help craning forward, somehow, to see what would follow. I wouldn't have missed anything then for the world. When they took off the cloth, and showed only another cloth and a yellow square of flesh, I was actually disappointed!"

Drummond broke off sharply, and stood listening, with a look of dismay:—

By gad, I thought that was the bell,—lucky it wasn't"

"Anyway," he went on, "it was so. It was through a mist that I saw the old boy take up his scalpel, and heard him talk in just a rumble of sound about appendicitis, and 'it is now the ninth day,' and so on. Then he bent over the square, and made a stroke like an engraver. It was hours in coming; when it came, it was just a thin red line on the yellow square; but somehow I didn't have to look any more, and sat up straight, as if a charm had broken, you know. When I raised my hands to wipe the sweat off my forehead, I found them shockingly light, and small, and wa-a-ay off. Everything got dark round the edge, except Joe and Mac, grinning like asses. And then a little bit of a voice came from somewhere and said: 'You'd better get out; you look pretty bad.' So I grabbed my ulster, and groped down the stairs, and sat down in the snow on the courtyard steps and looked up into a great whirl of snowflakes, and fanned myself with my hat.

Billy paused, his face bright with enthusiasm for this recollected scene. His listener sat frowning slightly, as if over a puzzle.

"In two weeks I was back seeing more of them," Billy concluded. "It fascinated me. And next year I went in for chemistry and hygiene—and here we are. And it's fun!"

"Well," said Sawyer, deliberately. "Very good, so far. But if you don't mean to see it through, it's silly nonsense."

"Excuse me, but I don't see that at all," cried Drummond, with some heat "If I don't want to spend my summer talking to a lot of seaside Flossies, or going to Europe again, why can't I choose my own amusement? If it's all as horrible as you say,—and perhaps I'll know before morning—I'll simply throw the whole thing overboard, boluses, powders, and all, and look for something new." And Billy's black eyes shone. "But it is amusing, and just now it's mighty exciting. Why, an hour before you appeared, up came Kimball—he's senior here, you know—all white and haggard, and fagged out. He wiped his name off the slate there on the door, and entered something in that little brown book—it's full of names, Jewesses and Irish women—and went to bed. I'm sorry you can't see him, but he's too tired for us to wake. Now that man has been through Experience with a great E; and do you think that I'm not on my toes to see whether I can go through it, too? I'm 'Pup,' and the next case is mine."

"I know, my dear Billy," said Sawyer, in his cold and misanthropic voice. "But the waste of time, the waste—"

"Yes, yes! Dozens of people have said that," was the reply. "Joe Kimball told me pleasantly that I'm a fool and a fungo. But your argument—"

Off they went into more talk about law and medicine, and about dabblers in both, Nason, smiling in his feeble, skeptical way, adjusted his finger tips nicely on the arms of the chair; Billy talked eagerly, and at great length.

"Oh pshaw, Nason!" he broke in at last "You're hopeless. But just in point of utility, then; suppose I, when a middle-aged and worthless city bachelor, should happen to notice that my coachman had toe-drop. It might save me from having him fall off the box some fine night, with the horses at full gallop. Wouldn't that be as useful as the knowledge of conveyancing is to a golf-playing country squire?"

"And you really don't mean ever to practice?" asked Sawyer.

"No," answered Billy, in polite surprise. "Why should I? My income's at least sufficient I haven't a living to make—fortunately."

"But interest in your profession," said the other, soberly; "pleasure in healing grievous disease—"

"Oh, yes, I know; you mean the sort of thing that Howard Blair and Mitchell Hall are doing,—working for the fun of it in dirty alleys, or else shutting themselves in a laboratory until they can't come among decent people without bringing along a collection of old and rare stinks. That's mostly done for effect; or at best it's morbid pleasure and misdirected charity. To make a whim serious, is poor taste. How many children in the slums will have Howard Blair to curse for dragging them into their wretched life, or keeping them in it afterward? None of that for me. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde you remember, there's a lawyer who says, 'I incline to Cain's heresy; I let my brother go to the devil his own way.’"

And Drummond waved the subject aside, to talk of Nason's prospects in New York.

By ten, the two men had said good-by; at eleven Billy had gone to bed in the little back room where Kimball was sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. When Billy at last dozed off, it was with somewhat the feelings of a small boy who must rise to take a whipping next day.

It seemed hardly a minute before the electric bell above them gave it's long whirr, with the dismal ring at the end. Kimball, in the next bed, groaned and swore. Billy jumped up, shuffled for his slippers, and stumbled down the winding stairs to the front door.

Outside, in the darkness of the steps, stood a small boy, shivering.

"Oh, doctor," he whined, "they wantcher at 14 Gill Court. The McAvoy's. Please hurry, Doctor."

In five minutes Drummond and the lad were off through the streets, dark with midnight, splashing with rain—into some unknown quarter in the direction of the harbor. What with the cold, the sudden awakening and the strange excitement, Billy's nerves misgave him as he strode along beside the trotting urchin.

After some time the boy stopped and pointed into a dark passage between two buildings.

"Gill Court's in there. Fourteen's on the right, and it's the top floor," he said, and instantly disappeared.

Drummond plunged into the mud and blackness of the alley. Stumbling round the court and striking many matches at the doors, he came at last upon Number fourteen. The damp and sordid entry was dimly lighted from an open side-door, through which came the smell of tobacco and cabbage, and a chatter of vile words in Italian. Two, three, four flights he groped upward on creaking stairs, and came at last to another open door, and the smoky light of a tin hand-lamp.

Within, upon a low stool, he saw a woman who sat as one forlorn of hope, her face buried in her hands. At the sound of his feet upon the landing, however, she looked up wearily, and on her patient, dull, pug-nosed, Irish face Drummond saw—what took hold of him unpleasantly—the great tears rolling down.

"Are ye the doctor?" she asked in a whisper; and when Billy answered—"Oh, doctor, doctor, what'll we do?" she whispered and fell once more to weeping silently.

Not set at ease by this reception, he entered the stuffy room, where the air was glutinously close with heat and evil smells.

"My good woman," he said rather helplessly, "this is no place for you. You ought to be in bed."

"Sssh, for God's sake!" she replied in a frightened voice; and without looking up, pointed behind her to the corner. There, upon the only bed in the room, sprawled a man, unshaven, foully clothed, and with the heavy breathing and flushed face of drunken sleep; one hairy, corded hand dangled over the side of the bed.

"He'll be a roarin' divil if ye wake him," continued the woman. "He's been there since nine o'clock, and he tould me to go to Hell with the baby."

Drummond's flesh quailed, and for an instant he stood gripped by the most cowardly fear. That brute might easily kill him in such a house of thugs. "This is Mr. McAvoy," he caught himself thinking, "apparently this is Mr. McAvoy," and he felt a touch of wonder at his own flippancy. The sense of what would happen if the man woke rushed upon him with the weight of a suffocating dream; next he was aware only of the smell of whiskey, and that huge hand by the bedside! But finally, as by a clearing of haze, shame rose in him, and he recalled that at least he had never before been afraid of a drunken man.

He took the sleeper by the shoulder.

"Come," he said, "get up.

The woman cried out upon the love of God; the man, with a jumble of oaths, sat up, swaying, and stared at Drummond.

"Wha'—wha'—who in Hell are you?"

"I'm the doctor," said Drummond stoutly. "Do you want your wife to die?"

"Do I want—want," muttered the man getting to his feet, and then, in a burst of fierceness, "Don't ye lay a finger on her!" he cried huskily.

"I don't want to," answered Billy with a great deal of truth; "but I'm going to save her life and the child's. See, there she sits nigh dead with pain and you were snoring on the bed. Shame! What way was that for an Irishman to act? It's more like those Dagoes downstairs!"

"I'm no Dago," cried the man angrily, "No wan iver called Gaun McAvoy a dirthy Dago."

"Then don't treat your wife like one."

The reason in this seemed to penetrate the fumes of liquor. From blind agressiveness the man's face fell to stupid meditation.

"What'll we do?" he whispered at last. "Docthor, let's put her t' bed. That's it. That's it. Let's put 'er t' bed. Doc."

"No," said Drummond, "I'll look to that. Let me see. Haven't you a pitcher or a pail, or something? Take it down to the nearest all night hash-house and get it filled with hot water. I'll pay them. Lug up enough water to fill that tub in the corner. "

Still grumbling about Dagoes, the man groped out a can from behind the stove.

"That'll do," said Drummond; "but hurry up." And as he turned toward the woman he heard the man's steps reel downward, then a bumping noise and a crash of tin on the landing below.

"He's broken his neck, I trust," thought Billy; "anyway, I've cleared the decks.

Then his work began. The rest was a nightmare, crude and terrible; a nightmare of bestial squalor, of fierce pain, of groans, of curses that were prayers, and prayers that were blasphemy; yet a nightmare in which, for the first time, Drummond felt some one else working in him, some one clear-headed, quick, and of an undivided resolution,

And outside the weather cleared, as the dawn began to stir somewhere through the wide darkness. Every half hour Gaun McAvoy, each time nearer to tears, clumped in to pour the hot water into the tub.

"She'll not die, Docther?" he kept asking, and Drummond threw over his shoulder the answer:—

"No, of course not,—if you keep on helping me."

And so passed, in the heat, the dim light, the smell of drugs and the throes of travail, the strangest night in Billy Drummond's experience. Yet when the worst of the work was over, when young Mr. McAvoy, dressed in his father's only white shirt, lay quiescent at his mother's side, and when the smoky lamp had at last gone sputtering out, there came the strangest thing of all. For as Drummond, his dripping hair plastered to his forehead, and his shirt bosom cleaving to his chest with sweat, looked abroad from the dingy casement window upon the harbor, and the first sunrise he had seen in years, a deep soberness filled his mind. After much smaller achievements he had often felt a heady exultation; but now, when this great brutal miracle had been accomplished, and they were four in that room who had been three, he was only thankful and serious.

As the red light went leaping up the sky he looked at it as at some prodigy. A snatch of Grieg—"Morgenstimmung"—ran through his head; but he hardly noticed it, for grave thoughts were hammering at his conscience. He had nearly been a coward that night; he had been a fool every day of his life. Sawyer's phrase, "pleasure in healing grievous disease," recurred to him with almost Biblical dignity. The sense of responsibility toward men and things began to crowd in upon him, to cry out within him so insistently, that he was amazed.

He wiped the sweat out of his eyes and turned to pack the handbag.

"I'd be an ass to buy those polo ponies now," he thought "They'd only eat their heads off."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1939, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.