James hilton collected n.., p.70
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.70

           James Hilton

  While she was shopping, Sam Bates, the electrician, was running a few colored lights under the cedar tree in the doctor’s garden, and Johnny Johnson, the odd-job gardener, was erecting trestle tables, arranging chairs on the lawn, and generally making himself useful. The doctor was visiting; Susan was baking pies for the evening; Leni was doing simply nothing.

  By special arrangement there was to be no surgery session, and David, as soon as he got home, took a tepid bath and changed into a different suit of clothes that looked exactly the same. The invitations were for eight o’clock, by which time the heat of the day had drained into walls and pavements, leaving the air cool. The sky was clear, and a half-moon rose over the cedar tree.

  About fifty people gathered and grouped in the drawing-room and garden—the Dean and the Archdeacon, the Precentor, Jaggers the organist, Yule the choirmaster, various vicars of parishes, doctors, a solicitor, a retired admiral, the headmaster of the local grammar school, the editor of the Calderbury Gazette. But there the edge was reached of that social territory beyond which Mrs. Newcome would not venture; and it was tacitly understood that Fred Garton, son of the town’s leading grocer and invited because of his fine baritone, was not really a guest in the same sense as the others.

  Greetings, gossip, a piano solo by the choirmaster, who did not play very well, and for whom the doctor’s piano would not have been good enough if he had; then a Grieg violin solo by the wife of the grammar-school head. In the midst of this, Susan entered with a message which made David tiptoe from the room, followed by glances of vague commiseration. “It’s always like that for a doctor, isn’t it?” people said to Jessica afterwards, and she admitted that it was. Actually she didn’t feel that David’s absence mattered very much, since he was no help in running any but a children’s party.

  He cycled to a cottage in Colohan Street, off Briargate; a workman, his wife, and six children lived there in four small rooms. One of the six lay gasping and coughing in bed. “Bronchial, doctor,” the father kept saying, with the pathetic trustfulness of the man who knows a word. David soon found that it was double pneumonia. There was little chance for the boy, who was about the same age as Gerald; it was a case that should have been under skilled treatment days before. David did what he could, left instructions with the plaintively glum parents, and promised to send a nurse immediately and call again about midnight. Said the man timorously: “Will a nurse cost much, doctor?”—and David answered, as on so many other occasions, “Oh no, no, very little—I’ll arrange it.” Downstairs, as the woman edged him along the narrow lobby past a perambulator, she said: “You know, we used to have Dr. Thompson, but Mrs. Nickle who’s just come to live next door put in a word for you.” “God bless my soul,” thought David momentarily, “she thinks she’s doing me a favor calling me in to attend a neglected pneumonia that I’ll never get paid for and that I’ll probably be blamed for not being able to save!” But he said, touched by sympathy that lay deeper: “Yes, indeed, I remember Mrs. Nickle…”

  But back on his bicycle he forgot Mrs. Nickle and only thought of the fluid spreading and thickening in strained lungs, the word “bronchial” that had killed just as another word might have saved, the chatter of women over garden fences, recommending doctors as they might tip horses…Stupid, pathetic, suffering world.

  By the time he returned to the house the party had had the refreshment interval and were on with music again. He let himself in by the surgery entrance. Passing through the waiting room, he caught the sound of strings; then, as he opened the surgery door, the sound swelled into sudden harmony, and also, at the same moment, he saw Leni in the leather armchair.

  She looked so still and calm, so much a part of all that he sought beyond the fret of existence, that he caught his breath at both the sight and the sound; and all at once he realized something that he had long been experiencing without notice—an unclenching of every nerve whenever he came into her presence, a secret renewal of strength to take up every stress when he was left alone.

  “Was it anything serious, David?”

  “Not only serious but hopeless, I’m sorry to say.”

  (A way they often had, and a way that no one else had ever had with him, to begin talking without preliminaries, as if speech were suddenly switched on to a conversation that had been taking place for a long time, but silently.)

  “I am sorry too.”

  He put down his hat and bag and sat in the swivel desk chair and was soon absorbed. Something in music rarely failed to lure him with a promise. He was no facile optimist, and nothing of his secret belief could be expressed in any outward allegiance to party or creed; he had no wild faith in progress, even in his own craft. But the patience and patterning of a string quartet offered him the strongest hint of destiny in man—and destiny without deans. It was not that he was irreligious—merely that a whiff of anticlerical-ism flavored his musings when he had a house full of Cathedral dignitaries. He was really happier by himself in the surgery, and “by himself” did not conflict with the presence of Leni. So why join the crowd just yet?

  “I ought to have been playing in that quartet,” he said, when it was over. “But listen—” Fred Garton was beginning to sing. He had a good voice and a musicianly intelligence. “I don’t think I ever heard that song before.”

  “It is a song by Schubert called ‘Die Krähe.’ From the Winterreise.”

  “Krähe? What’s that?”

  “I don’t know what you call it. A bird—black—disastrous—I can’t think of the word.”

  “Never mind… Leni, I’m sorry you’re going.”


  “And four of them I’m away at a conference. It’s too bad. I shall miss you.”

  “I shall miss you too…Oh, that word—‘Die Krähe’—I can remember now—it means a bird that Poe wrote a poem about.”

  “The raven ?”

  They looked up and saw Jessica standing outside the door, opening it slowly.

  Fred Garton’s song drew an encore, and it was during this that Jessica returned to the drawing-room with David. It was noticed that he looked pale and weary, from which observers were ready to deduce an arduous errand.

  But Jessica gave him no peace. It was not that she was deliberately uncivil, or that any actual thing she said could have been objected to, but rather that she put him in positions where he was constantly at a disadvantage. “David, Mr. Campbell can’t see his music—switch on the light over the piano, will you, please.” As most of the lights had been put out for the music, David had a choice of a dozen switches; and it was a little comic when he kept pressing the wrong ones. “I thought you knew,” said Jessica coolly, when he had at last succeeded. And then later: “David will turn over the pages for you, Mrs. Shapkey.” There was no reason at all why David should; he wasn’t good at reading piano music, and at nearly every turn he was so late that the pianist had to give him an agitated signal. Afterwards he apologized, but Jessica cut in with: “Don’t believe him, Mrs. Shapkey—it isn’t that he can’t read, it’s just that he doesn’t pay attention.” She laughed as she spoke, making it sound harmless, but the laugh itself was unyielding.

  Finally she bothered him at the doorway with the hats. That was Susan’s job, not David’s, but of course he had to respond when she said: “David, have you seen Mr. Driveway’s hat? Do look for it.” He couldn’t refuse to join the search: on the other hand, what use was it to pick up hats at random when Mr. Driveway was so much more likely to discover his own?

  Just little things like that.

  And presently the guests departed; all grew quiet in the doctor’s house. At midnight he bicycled to the cottage where the boy lay dying of pneumonia but still alive. David stayed till four; then, with eyes hardly open, bicycled back through the dawn-lit streets. He did not go to bed, but slumped into the surgery chair and wakened at half-past seven, made himself a cup of tea, and cycled to the local infirmary. It was a small institution on the edge of the town, fairl
y well equipped, and efficiently managed. David as a rule looked forward to his visits there, preferring the orderliness of the wards to the cramped sickrooms of private houses; but that morning as he half dozed along the roads he could only think of the extraordinary fret and muddle that had encompassed him—he did not see what he could do about it, it all seemed so preposterous. He left the bicycle in the shed and walked in through the main doors of the hospital so slowly and vagrantly that a couple of nurses, watching from a window, commented upon his air of preoccupation. In the anteroom where he put on his surgeon’s uniform he was still oppressed with the revelation of a wantonly misbehaving world. Trevor, his young assistant, and Jones, the anaesthetist, had already arrived.

  “Going to be a warm one to-day, doctor.”

  “Yes, indeed.”

  “Feeling the heat? You look tired.”

  “Oh, just a bit sleepy, that’s all. How’s the case?”

  “All ready for you.” And Jones added, rather nervously: “Difficult, do you think?”

  Then, as at a signal, David’s manner changed. No longer was he the tired man harassed by the chafings of events, but a reserve power that could be tapped immediately by anyone who craved it. Young Jones was new and not yet very expert; he had bungled once or twice before and had blamed himself into a state of nervousness. David took him by the arm, sensing and combating his anxieties. “Oh, I wouldn’t call it difficult, Fred. Just watch the pulse and be ready for transfusions.”

  They passed into the theatre together, and there, even if nowhere else, the little doctor was in his kingdom.

  At that time patients were usually anaesthetized on the table with all the apparatus of surgery to add panic to their trepidation. But David, always aware of fear as a poison in the blood, would never allow the more suggestive items to be exposed to that last frightened consciousness—instruments, clamps, sponges, and so on. Trays containing these were covered over till ether or nitrus oxide had begun its work; and this, among the hospital staff, was regarded as just one of the little doctor’s fads. He had several others.

  The patient lay outstretched, with pain-sharpened eyes swerving restlessly amidst his new environment. He was an old man, night watchman at a factory, grey-haired and thin-featured, the thinness accentuated by disease. His hands, loosely taped to the cross rests, were white and wasted, but emaciation could not hide the seams and scars of a hardworking lifetime. The hipbones, almost fleshless, lifted the covering sheet into ridges.

  “Nothing to worry about, Charlie,” David said, smiling as he touched the pulse for a moment. He always called his patients by their names when they were on the table, because he believed it primed a man with some personal dignity when he lay pinioned and anxious under the glare.

  David nodded to Jones and the stream of stupefying gas began to pour into nostrils and lungs, while the battery of arcs, now switched full on, shone down on a shrouded human body, shrouded except for a stained rectangle of flesh that rose and sagged irregularly. The little doctor stood by, like an actor waiting for his cue; presently he uncovered a tray of instruments and arranged them, giving instructions to the nurses in a low muttering. “More clamps here, sister…smaller ones…Too much iodine—wash a little off with alcohol…Sponges …smaller ones…no, never cut a sponge…the man’s very thin, that’s a help…How’s he going, Jones?”

  Sometimes, waiting at such moments, he felt that his words were like an incantation, and the thought came to him that if, twenty thousand years ago, human eye could have looked ahead to glimpse the supine victim, the tray of instruments, the white-gowned and masked officiants, it could only have deduced some scene of ritual torture.

  Jones signaled and David began, calmly confident, at home with the familiar feel of the knife ploughing through skin and flesh, so swiftly that the first reddening crept into the slope of the cavity almost like a blush. Deeper…then the click of the clamps as the nurses handed them…“There…another one…lay them outside the gauze…now a retractor…” Precision hypnotized the room and its occupants; the minutes passed as in a dream which only the hands of the clock could certify. “He was a fine surgeon,” Trevor said, long afterwards. “You watched his hands and had an impression at first that they were behaving automatically—then you realized a perfect coordination between brain and muscle, a quiet fearless exactness that was almost boring after a time, like championship billiards. After all, it’s the mistakes that make drama—and God knows there were doctors in Calderbury who made drama enough of that kind—fellows who had the whole hospital staff in a state of nerves if they were only going to lance an abscess…But the little doctor, as we called him, made everyone as calm as himself. And he had a curious way—a sort of mystic way, if you let yourself be fanciful about it—of looking up and blinking while his fingers told him things. He’d put his hand inside an abdomen as far as the wrist and feel around and just mutter to himself and to youngsters like me who were looking on: ‘No, there’s no pelvic inflammation…rather a small spleen…oh, dear, that’s too bad—C.A. just here…’ He made us always say ‘C.A.’ even amongst ourselves, lest otherwise the fatal word might slip out in front of patients; but of course some of ’em were cute enough to suspect what the initials meant, and then he’d tell the most fantastic lies about them. Often he’d made up a disease with a flower name like Calceolaria or Caprifoliaceas, and when once we reminded him that the patient might, after all, know something about gardening, he said: ‘Well, that’s all right—it’s a nice association of ideas—can’t do any harm. And diseases are like flowers—they seed and grow and spread…’ God, he had some crazy ideas—yet there was something great about him, too—something that made you want to worship him at times.”

  And Jones, who afterward conquered his nervousness and became an anaesthetist in a big city hospital, commented when he was prosperous and successful: “Yes, I used to work under Newcome at Calderbury. He was damn nice to me, say what you like about him. He’d have had a career, that man, if he hadn’t stuck in Calderbury—well, maybe he wouldn’t—he wasn’t the kind to use his chances properly. Funny little chap, rather like a wise child, but not wise enough for municipal politics. Didn’t know which side his bread was buttered on.”

  “What do you mean by that?”

  “Oh, well, Mrs. Newcome was all in with the Cathedral crowd—great opening for Newcome in a place like Calderbury if he’d played his cards properly. As it was…well, there was one incident: Newcome was going round the wards—he’d been operating—and Archdeacon Rogers was going round too, doing his stuff—you remember what a pompous fellow he was? If you knew Calderbury, I’m sure you do remember. Anyhow, in the corridor after the grand tour he kept Newcome and me talking, wasting our time, in point of fact, and one of the things he said was that a surgeon in the course of his job was bound to acquire respect for the mind of God in creating such a wonderful thing as the human body. Of course when parsons talk like that one doesn’t usually say anything—bad form, you know, as well as pretty useless. But Newcome answers in that mild soft-toned voice he had: ‘I’ve just been operating on an enlarged prostate, and, believe me, any intelligent plumber could invent a better drainage system than you and I possess, Archdeacon!’ Of course old Rogers was terribly shocked—I believe that was why he used his influence to prevent Newcome being offered the medical officership.”

  David had begun the operation on Charlie at eight o’clock in the morning; the final stage was not complete until after ten. It had been an awkward case, largely inoperable, and complicated by a weak heart. Twice the man had almost died on the table. But at last, still breathing faintly, and with bandages like a great white bundle tied in front of him, he was wheeled away to hours of lingering unconsciousness, days of pain, a few months of half-life, pain again, and death.

  David pulled off the stained gloves and washed his hands and face in the lavatory adjoining the theatre. As always after an operation he felt the sudden deflation of personal ascendancy; he had given himself,
and was now utterly spent. Rallying himself a little, he visited a few of his patients in the wards; then he rode away for his usual morning round of house calls. One of them was the pneumonia he had been called to the night before; to his surprise and gratification the boy was a little better.

  He was late home for lunch and was neither startled nor disconcerted when Susan greeted him with: “Mrs. Newcome wouldn’t wait, sir.”

  “Oh, I don’t mind—all I want is some coffee.”

  “She asked if you would go in and see her.”

  “Eh? Where? Why? What does she want?”

  “I don’t know, sir. She’s in the dining room.”

  “Oh, all right, I’ll go.”

  Because he was used to obeying in these small outward things, he went. Jessica had finished lunch and was toying with biscuits and cheese.

  “Really, David, I couldn’t wait for you—I really do think you might try to be punctual for at least one occasion of the day.”

  “It’s all right. I’m glad you didn’t wait.”

  “I suppose you’ve got the usual excuse of having had an exceptionally busy morning.”

  “Well yes, I have been rather busy.”

  “I’m sorry you preferred to stay in the surgery rather than join your guests last night.”

  He said nothing.

  “Did you invite that girl into the surgery?”

  He said nothing.

  “What business had she in there?”

  He said nothing.

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