By Rupert Hughes
AND then Fanny Protheroe came back to town to stay. For some time before this event Doctor Merrill had amazed everybody by going to church pretty regularly. He had amazed especially the United Presbyterians, whom he honored with his presence. Landing so hard a customer as a young doctor against the fierce competition for the souls of Carthage, was such a distinct triumph that the young parson had rather plumed himself upon it.
Just as the elders were thinking of inviting the doctor to rent a pew he stopped coming. The first Sunday the preacher murmured in the back of his mind, "A professional call, no doubt," realizing that a doctor has no Sabbath.
The next Sunday, another absence. "He is growing busier," thought the preacher. The fourth Sunday followed the third into the calendar, and yet no young Doctor Merrill. Young Mr. Findley gave him up for lost. He forgot to hope that some other church had gathered him in.
On the following Monday he met Doctor Merrill at the post-office, where almost all Carthage assembled twice a day.
"Why don't you come to church any more?" said the preacher.
"She threw me over," said the doctor.
The parson realized, with a gulp of ashes, that his pride in his own oratory had been misplaced. The doctor had been attracted by the silent eloquence of the back of some girl's neck, or by her gifts as a listener on the way home. The parson supposed that the girl was Cicely Tansey, whom the doctor had chiefly affected most recently.
The Reverend Wilfred Findley (who hoped some day to be a doctor himself—of divinity) was too young and too deeply involved in three or four conflicting romances of his own to resent Merrill's frankness. He was too honest to pretend a priggish horror. He was plucky enough to smile and insinuate:
"Surely there are other nice girls in our congregation."
But Merrill shook his head.
And then Fanny Protheroe came back to town—an entirely other person than the Fanny Protheroe that went away.
She had been the prettiest girl in Carthage when she left. Her return made the merely pretty girls who had usurped her place look like cheap and shallow débutantes in life. For now she had significance. Her beauty was important.
She went along the quiet streets as pallid as a lily and as lithe; and the weeds she wore seemed to be less the regular uniform of a widow than the habiliments of the very genius of tragedy.
The young men of the town gazed upon her with a tender awe: she was a girl in years and in comeliness; yet she had already known the inner luxuries of the great city, she had already been the widow of a coward and a scoundrel, and she led at her side a little child.
"A mighty interesting woman," the Carthaginians agreed, and "a mighty interesting wife," the young men thought; for they all felt that she had ceased to love her husband before he squandered his wealth and his good name in New York and took the short cut to the cemetery.
Though most of the bachelors in Carthage thought how interesting a wife so experienced a woman would make in that dull town, all of them were just a little afraid of her except two—the young doctor and the young preacher. They felt sorry for her—and afraid of each other.
The doctor begrudged the parson one unfair advantage. Mr. and Mrs. Crawford, the parents of Mrs. Fanny Protheroe, were members of the United Presbyterian Church, and when she came back from New York she followed them to their pew. She became addicted to Findley, and Doctor Merrill felt that the preacher, with his lofty consolations and his habit of calling defeats triumphs and renunciations victories, must have a peculiar value to the young woman whose urn of hopes was but a scatter of broken shards at her feet.
So, all unwittingly, Fanny Protheroe walked between the two men who had been friends and sundered them. The bond of their friendship had been, it is true, such a bond as unites two opposing tug-of-war teams, for they most ardently disbelieved in each other's creeds.
Findley had told Merrill, rather patronizingly, that he himself had once planned to become a physician, but had thought better of it. A passing revivalist had taught him how much nobler a task than the saving of bodies is the saving of souls.
They fought bitterly over this bone, and shouted at each other hard names, shook mutual fists and brandished extravagant epithets, without ever coming to actual blows. They acquired a sort of friendship by virtue of their intense antagonism.
Findley called Merrill a horse-doctor—or "Vet" for short; and Merrill called Findley the "Neverend" Wilfred.
But, as usual, the two remained good friends, because they quarreled over essentials instead of non-essentials.
The United Presbyterian parson could not debate creeds with a Methodist elder or an Episcopalian vestryman for five minutes without falling into ferocious acrimony—because they disagreed upon details. But there was never any personal bitterness in his quarrels with the man who scoffed at everything he held sacred.
The young allopath grew black with rage at the homeopath, the osteopath, and all the other paths; he hated them bitterly. But he felt only a merciful tolerance for the clergyman's contempt of his art.
So the two young enthusiasts fought, almost affectionately, over such utterly important matters as the soul, the will, responsibility, miracles, sin, punishment, atonement, redemption, resurrection—and were still friends. Because, to repeat it, they fought over essentials.
And then Fanny Protheroe came back to town to stay.
THE very next Sunday the Reverend Wilfred Findley noted that Dr. Frank Merrill's head was once more visible in the cabbage rows of his garden. He wondered why. Not for an instant did he flatter himself, or his creed, or Merrill's interest in them as the cause.
It was in the late days of spring and the preacher was young, and he found his eyes recurring to the great attentive eyes of Fanny Protheroe. He caught himself thinking: "What a wonderwork of God is the human eye!" Then he rebuked himself for the canting hypocrisy of the formula.
He tried to keep his eyes out of that girl's eyes, but they seemed to stand from the blur of faces like an owl's eyes in the woods, or a cat's eyes in a cellar.
He recalled himself to his text with anger. He smote his Bible in impatient wrath at his wandering self.
Findley wondered what his arch opponent, Doctor Merrill, would think of his rambling logic. He resolved to fasten his mind on him as an anchor. He faced that way with self-denying resolution. But he could not grip Merrill's eyes, for Merrill's eyes were aimed elsewhere. Where? He traced the imaginary line of vision and it ended on her—on Fanny Protheroe. She had an unusually beautiful nape.
The Reverend Wilfred felt ashamed of Doctor Merrill, angry at him. It was outrageous that a man should come to church to philander, to flirt, to ogle.
He recalled himself to his text with a mental wrench. When the sermon was over and the sonorous benediction spoken many of the congregation lingered to shake his hand. Mr. and Mrs. Crawford lingered to shake his hand; but his anxious glance saw Fanny drifting through the door and smiling at something Doctor Merrill was saying. Findley wondered how Merrill had become acquainted with the girl so soon.
Tuesday evening Findley decided to drop in for another little chat with the Crawfords. Their daughter being a newcomer to town and a former member of the church, it was his duty to pay her special attention. He tried to do his duty.
As he approached the gate of the Crawford place he saw a shadowy some one coming toward the same gate from the opposite direction. Carthage streets were poorly lighted and heavily shaded, and the advancing figure was a mere phantom wearing audible shoes. But Findley said to himself, with unpastoral phrase:
"I'll bet a thousand dollars it's Merrill."
The two men met before the gate, paused, mutually embarrassed and embarrassing. Each waited for the other to pass by.
Merrill spoke first, with a cynical smirk. "Well, Neverend, are you calling on Mrs. Fanny, too?"
Findley answered with rebuking coldness, "I am calling on the family. But you—is anybody ill here?"
"Nope. They are not patients of mine. They fell into the hands of that old quack, Lucas. I'm calling on Mrs. Fanny."
The clergyman flushed with new anger. The doctor had been franker than he. It did not endear the doctor.
The two swains went up the walk together. All Carthage was on its porch that evening—the Crawford family like the rest—save that Fanny's child was already asleep upstairs somewhere. Merrill made straight for Fanny, after the most perfunctory salutations to the parents.
Findley had to devote himself to the old people.
They threw him into complete misery by showing him a timid deference and talking of duty, and the poor, and the Scriptures and their interpretation.
The subjects did not seem to interest Fanny. She drifted to the far end of the porch and Merrill followed her. He lighted a cigar after asking Fanny's permission. Findley heard her say:
"Oh, do smoke! I'm quite used to it. I love it."
Findley would have loved it too. But if he had been caught smoking a cigar the whole town would have rocked with the scandal.
The voices of Fanny and Merrill sank to a murmur, broken with her little flutters of laughter, which somehow suggested to Findley the moonlit spray his oar had thrown up, feathering the dark waters of the mountain lake where he spent his summers.
And there he must sit talking doctrine with sleepy old parents who treated him as if he were their parent, while the fascinating daughter sat in the gloom with an irreligious young doctor!
The Reverend Wilfred Findley would have been no more of a preacher and much less of a man if he had not suffered exquisitely from such a plight. He stayed on and on, listening rather to what he could not hear from the farther end of the porch than to what the parental Crawfords were saying or what he himself was saying.
He hoped that the old folks would have the decency to go upstairs to bed and leave him a fair field. Finally it came over him that they would never dare insult their pastor by such a step. He could see that they were waging a fierce battle with the sleepiness of age, and he ended their anguish, if not his own, by bidding them "Good night, all!" The saving of souls is not all of a pastor's labors.
Fanny gave him her hand and it felt like a cool, white moonflower in his. And her voice from the shadow was delicately dulcet. But when Merrill called out gayly, "Good night, old man!" it somehow reminded him of the sardonic chuckle of Mephistopheles in the garden. For he had soon a performance of Faust before he had decided on the ministry. Needless to say, he had not seen one since.
He knew that the moment he had closed the gate the yawning parents bad closed the door, leaving their child alone. Carthage was a chaperonless community and all about town the porches were inhabited, or the roads were buggy-ridden, by young couples, with only the moon for duenna.
It seemed to Findley nothing short of heinous to leave the Protheroe porch in command of Merrill, of all men—a materialist, a freebooter with no anchorage in religion. And Fanny Frotheroe was so weakened with suffering, so lonely, so trusting, so pretty, so wistful for consolation.
Findley called himself a coward for deserting her, but greater timidities kept him from going back. He slept little and bitterly that night. He felt that somebody ought to protect Fanny Protheroe from persons like Merrill. He felt a personal call to be her protector. The more he thought of it the more it became his duty to her, to his church and to himself to marry her in from danger, and to help her rebuild her shattered life.
Findley did not realize that Doctor Merrill was feeling very solemnly toward Fanny Protheroe. He, too, felt a call to protect her from the ills of life, and to take happiness by making her happy again. But long before he had reached a point of even considering a proposal his attentions to her were cut summarily short.
It was a rival that ousted him. But the rival was not Wilfred Findley, or any of the young men that coagulated about Fanny's beauty.
DOCTORS tend to become a habit, and some families will see their members perish, one by one, without ever daring a change of physicians.
Having always affected the venerable Doctor Lucas, the Crawfords expected always to affect him. Though all the children except Fanny had died despite him, he always boasted that he had brought Fanny through every disease known to childhood. It had not occurred to any of them that keeping people out of disease is a more physicianly duty than bringing them through.
In an earlier day everywhere, and to this day in the smaller communities, children have entered the world with a gauntlet to run, like Indian captives offered one alley of escape. In a grisly double row, hideous warriors have waited, wearing names like convulsions, measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria, whooping-cough, croup, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and what not. Each of these cruel sachems must take a whack at the little frame in turn. Few children could escape all of them, and the making of tiny coffins was a chief industry in every town, as the building of tiny mounds was the chief industry in every family.
Bringing a child "through" was the triumph of any physician, and none too frequent a triumph. People said, when a child fell ill, "Well, it's best to have it now and get it over with." If the child did not "get it over with" it was sad, but it was not strange.
Young Doctor Merrill, who had commenced his career as a physician in a later and a saner day, looked with horror and contempt on this theory. His plan of campaign was to sneak the child to maturity by avoiding the gauntlet or covering his little patient with protection as football players surround and conceal a runner with interference.
Seeing that Fanny Protheroe's whole soul was wrapped up in the prosperity of her little boy, he felt that he could prove his love and earn hers by saving the child from many a fiery ordeal. But his hope was thwarted and his ardor misconstrued. Doctor Lucas made no bones about declaring that Merrill's frequence at the house was due to mere enterprise in drumming up trade and stealing patients from an older and a wiser man.
He also was a parishioner of Findley's and he managed to get the preacher to convey his feeling to Merrill. The young physician was nauseated at the thought.
"The only way I can disprove such a disgusting charge," he said, "is to stay away altogether."
"It would seem so," said the preacher, with an altruism not absolutely pure.
So Doctor Merrill removed himself from the race for Fanny Protheroe's love. As he expected, her child fell under the clubs of disease after disease, recovering from one bludgeon only to stagger under another. Doctor Lucas' old phaeton was constantly to be seen at the Crawford curb, and every time Merrill recognized it he groaned. He loved and he could not serve.
He rarely saw Fanny now except, haphazard, when she was hurrying out. on some errand to hurry back at full speed. It was her privilege to seem more beautiful than ever in distress. Anguish ennobled, not distorted, her features. But her lover, feeling himself capable of saving her and hers from many an agony, could not even proffer his skill to her use. He could not even venture a criticism or a suggestion.
It gave him no comfort that at these very times his rival Findley had more access than ever to Fanny's side.
Eventually it came the turn of typhoid fever to wreak its will upon the weakened child. It was only through Findley that Merrill had bulletins of the progress of the disease. He raged at the Lucas drugs and diet where he felt that neither medicine nor food should be added to the little body's fardels.
At length he grew fierce enough to protest to Findley, and to beg him to convey his protest to the guardians of the child. Findley brought back word that his interference was taken in bad part, and set down to meddlesomeness and lack of experience.
A few days later, before the rebuff had ceased to sting, an errand of Merrill's took him past the Crawford home. He saw Findley just ringing the bell. Fanny opened the door herself. She was disheveled and distraught. In an abandonment of despair she flung her arms about the preacher and wept on his shoulder.
Merrill stopped stockstill, racked with pity for Fanny Protheroe and with envy for Findley. The preacher put his arm around the young woman's waist and the door closed them from Merrill's sight. He raged along the street, fuming with covetousness. He knew that he could not have given such consolation as Findley was master of; but he felt that he could have made consolation unnecessary.
He resolved that he would throw aside professional formalities and force his way to the bedside of the fever-smitten, drug-hampered child.
He would scandalize all Carthage and outrage the canons of Good Taste. But what a contemptibly petty thing was Good Taste in the face of such necessity!
Merrill turned back, aflame with resolution. Even as his hand hesitated over the latch of the Crawford gate the door opened and Findley came down the steps totteringly. He fell against the doctor's shoulder and wept like a child.
"He's dead, Vet! Fanny's boy is dead! The last thing she valued on earth is taken from her. I don't know how she can live through it. Her heart is crushed."
As the two men stood in helpless pity Doctor Lucas left the home where he had been so busy and so mortally futile.
The old man was worn out with his labors and his defeat and his sympathy, but young Merrill felt a desperate impulse to beat him to the dust for a miserable bungler. He merely bowed with deference to his elder colleague. But there must have been something in his eyes that betrayed his thoughts, for the old man looked at him with some alarm and slunk down the street. Perhaps he read the condemnation of his own old methods before the young new theories he could neither understand nor attempt.
Merrill walked partway to the parsonage with Findley, holding him up by the elbow. He endured all of Findley's tender and proprietary allusions to the forlorn mother. He endured all of Findley's comments on his own distress, and he watched almost cynically the process by which the young man's heavy soul relieved itself by unpacking its grief and washing its own heart clean and strong with what Merrill called "the original antiseptic solution, sodium chloride, popularly known as tears."
His way homeward, or boarding-houseward, led him past the Crawford house again. Now the place was silent. He rather imagined than heard low moans from the room where he knew she crouched by an empty shell that no longer babbled with mother-love, no longer put out appealing hands for shelter from the wantoning fiends of pain, no longer maundered in infantile delirium, no longer glowed with warmth even of fever, no longer gave any sign of anything save nullity and conclusion.
Doctor Merrill felt so much more than sorry for her. He felt as never before an outcast from her life. There was no way whatever for him to be of use to her now.
FANNY PROTHEROE was too ill to go to the baby's graveside. Even Doctor Lucas forbade her that dismal privilege. He could not tell what ailed her. Her grief prostrated her. It was more than the devastation of a young mother's collapse, so pitiful and so usual.
Seeing no other cause for her absolute prostration except brooding upon the wreckage of her life, Doctor Lucas advised a change of scene. Findley told Merrill that he had recommended a place in the mountains, the home of his Uncle Joshua and his Aunt Hannah.
"She'll die of loneliness," said Merrill.
"She wants to be alone," said Findley.
"She oughtn't to be alone."
"Her mother's going with her."
"That's worse yet."
But Merrill was neither the family doctor nor the family pastor, and he was forced to see everything done as he least wished.
Weeks passed and the reports from the mountains brought no comfort to the pastor, who received them from his Aunt Hannah or from Fanny's mother. They brought no comfort to Doctor Merrill, who received them at second hand. Her state grew so bad that Doctor Lucas was sent for. He came back from the mountains ignorant, and admitting it. He blamed her bodily ills to her mental condition. When Findley told Merrill, Merrill growled: "Doesn't the old idiot know that it's bound to be the other way round?"
Findley looked at him as a hopeless bigot of materialism.
Then, one day, Merrill met Findley on the street reading a letter. His eyes were blurred with horror and he walked into trees and fences like a blind man. Merrill rescued him almost from under the wheels of a wagon. Findley, looking up, recognized Merrill with difficulty, then clutched his shoulder hard and moaned:
"Fanny Protheroe dying!" Merrill gasped. Findley nodded in complete terror.
"My aunt writes that she—read it yourself. I can't tell you."
He thrust the letter in Merrill's hands and the doctor read. It was an old woman's rambling letter and he gnashed his teeth over its vague expressions. He gleaned only that Fanny Protheroe had arrived at the farm in very poor condition. For the first day or two her spirits had risen to greet the big mountains, the trailing clouds and the neighborly sky. Then she had lapsed into despondency. Her mother had been of little comfort. The girl rushed away for long walks and came back wet-eyed and dejected. She could be heard crying at night. She complained always of her heart. "It aches! It aches!" was all she could say.
She grew too weak to walk; she sat on the porch and stared off into nowhere, one hand always on her heart. She grew too weak to leave her room. At last she could not rise from her bed.
When Doctor Lucas came, saw and retreated, Findley's aunt had advised calling in the local doctor. He lived fifteen miles away and it took half a day to fetch him, but Mrs. Crawford had sent for him time and again. All his diagnoses had failed, his medicines had shown no effect. He had finally confessed himself baffled. He was sure that it was not heart disease, nor consumption, nor pneumonia, nor any of the fevers. His medicines had done no good.
Merrill finished the letter in glum silence.
"What do you suppose it is, Vet?" Findley demanded.
"How can I tell from here?" he answered peevishly.
"Do you suppose that doctor knows anything?"
"Probably not much. But he ought to be able to tell the symptoms of the big diseases. It might be something obscure."
"I know what it is," Findley cried.
"She is dying of a broken heart!"
"Nonsense! People don't die of heartbreak," the doctor roared.
"Do you mean to say that people don't perish of grief?"
"Yes. The heart is only a big involuntary muscle, a pump. Bad food and bad water and bad blood have killed millions, but grief—no! A few invisible microbes are more dangerous than all the sorrows in the world. Look at what mothers go through—and grow strong on."
"You're mad—you crazy materialist!" shrieked Findley. "You don't believe in anything except what can be weighed and measured."
"What else is there?" said Merrill calmly.
"Everything!" the preacher thundered. "The poor girl brooded over her husband's death till her heart broke. She loves the blackguard still. It is part of God's mysterious wisdom that no villain should fall so low that some good woman's love shall not reach down and fasten on him. And now God has called her child to Him, and she is pining to follow him to Heaven."
Merrill's outcast love made him savage. He snarled: "You know more about Heaven than I do, Neverend, but I know more about earth than you do, and I tell you people don't die of grief. If I were there I bet I could find out what ails her, and I could cure her too."
"You think so?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Then pack your things, for we're going on the first train."
Merrill needed no further urging. At last he had his wish. He was called in to apply his science to the service of his love.
THE old eyes of Aunt Hannah did not see the buckboard coming till it turned in at the gate. She did not recognize her nephew till he hailed her.
She missed the usual warmth of his greeting. His manner was hurried and he had a stranger with him.
"This is Doctor Merrill from Carthage," he said.
They found Mrs. Crawford at the foot of the stairs, just bringing down a tray of food the invalid had refused. The mother greeted them both as people greet ghosts.
She hobbled upstairs to warn Fanny of the visitors. The men came close on her heels and waited outside. The mother returned to the door and beckoned. Merrill started forward. The mother motioned him back and again beckoned Findley. The preacher looked amazed:
"Will she see me?"
"She asked for you first. She was always talking of you."
Merrill almost smiled at the blaze of joy that fired the preacher's face. He waited.
Findley went into the room as if an ethereal chariot were carrying him on high. Merrill listened for the girl's voice; he heard nothing but one sepulchral groan from Findley. In a few minutes the door was opened and Findley stumbled into the hall, his face white with despair, his eyes turned up white, his frame as shattered as if he had been hurled from that chariot. He tried to speak, but his lips beat together in vain.
Merrill pushed by him. He was used to seeing sick women and dying women, but he was struck rigid by the change in the Fanny Protheroe he had known and loved from afar. Even when he had seen her at the train the day she left Carthage she was merely very sad, drooping a little, like a young rose in the heat of the day, but still a rose. Now she was the shriveled husk one finds in a neglected vase.
She was so weak that lifting her eyelids to look at Merrill was a slow task. She tried to smile, and her soul tugged at the corners of her thin lips like fishermen bending to a full net, but gave up the task.
This débris of beauty was the utmost tragedy to Findley. He fell to his knees by the bedside, clasped his hands and closed his eyes in prayer. But Merrill, for all the sorrow that smote him, kept his eyes open and studious, and his hands went about the ruined temple of the face, the arms and the body of the girl. Everything he saw was symptoms—symptoms that whispered theories to him, theories to which other symptoms gave the lie.
He placed under her heavily coated tongue a thermometer. He was searching for things that could be "weighed and measured."
He bent and picked up a hand like a dried leaf. The wrist was now hardly more than white willow. The pulse was racing, feeble, irregular and intermittent, and without that elastic quality he called tonicity.
The thermometer recorded a temperature of 103. He noted that she was breathing very rapidly, or rather panting than breathing, for her respiration was exaggerated and shallow. He bent low and smiled with hypocritic encouragement, and said in an offhand way:
"Will you tell me where the pain is greatest?"
A slow hand crept up and rested over her heart. He placed his ear there and listened, but there was no hint of any organic or functional evil other than the pulse had shown.
He placed his hands at her sides and squeezed the chest-walls. She gave a little cry of pain. Then she was flung about with a cough. When this had quieted, Merrill bent down again and put his ear to her breast and back. He could trace no obstruction in her lungs. The stethoscope told him no more and percussion taught him nothing new. He stood erect, frustrated and bewildered.
Findley raised his eyes and saw the ignorance in the doctor's face. It confirmed his own theory, but he took no pleasure in his triumph. His head sank as if a club had battered it down.
Merrill read in Findley's eyes his belief that the girl was dying simply of grief, but he did not believe that the soul could withdraw from the body of its own accord—resign from life in mere disgust. In his creed life always fought to remain, and died as a fire dies, because it is smothered or quenched or starved.
He returned to his examination and went over all the ground again. He began to percuss the almost fleshless bosom, here, there, everywhere, and his trained ear listened to his exploring fingertip as to a revealing oracle. Even the shy woman could hardly blush beneath his coldly earnest gaze or his untender touch. She never dreamed that this man loved her.
Findley staggered to the window and was staring at the gaunt peaks upheaved on the horizon. The mother had dropped into a chair with gaze averted, feeling a sense of uneasy shame of which Merrill was innocent.
His hunting hands found nothing to arrest them in any of the territory they roamed. At length he sought further and his finger went tap-tapping below her heart. At last, just over the point of it, he paused and repeated the questioning rap.
The resonant note that indicates the air in the lungs below was missing. There was a dullness of sound that might have meant a solidification in some tissue; but there was also a flatness of tone which hinted some fluid.
He knelt and fastened a keener scrutiny on the white flesh, and now he could just descry, not in outline but faintly in perspective, a slight distension of the natural line. As the trained eye of the Indian finds a volume of news in a broken twig or a crushed leaf, so Merrill saw in this almost invisible curve a book of revelation.
His first gasp of delight at his discovery was quenched in a realization of its vital import. Findley heard the gasp and demanded:
"You have found the trouble?"
"I think so, but I must make sure. If I only had an aspiratory needle!" He thought hard, then he said, "My hypodermic needle is large; it will have to do."
He darted from the room and ran downstairs. In the kitchen he found, as he expected, a kettle simmering on the range. He opened the case of surgical instruments he had brought along, took from it a hypodermic needle, dropped it in the water and stirred the fire.
When the implement had boiled long enough to suit him he fished it out and hurried upstairs. He approached the bedside again, bared the fluttering chest and poised the needle over the girl's heart. It looked like a stiletto, and Fanny thrust it aside with feeble haste and with a little wail that brought her mother to her side with the plea:
"Don't hurt the poor child."
Merrill pushed her aside. "She is too ill to feel it much." And he said to Fanny, "I won't give you any more pain than I can help."
She yielded, rather from inability to resist than from conviction. There was something ghastly in the figure of the man asking to be permitted to drive a pointed needle straight toward her heart. She would have been more frightened still had she known how frightened Merrill was.
In Carthage the same man is both physician and surgeon, and Merrill had had none too much experience since he left his hospital practice. He had often regretted the sparsity of his opportunity to wield his knives, and Findley had abhorred his gruesome ambition. But now the reason of it was manifest.
He must pierce the very envelope of a beating heart and yet not touch the heart's self. And hearts are not always in the right place.
He asked Mrs. Crawford to hold the girl's twitching hands, lest some involuntary clutch should make a murderer of him; but the mother was too palsied to be of help, and he commanded Findley to perform the task.
The preacher, unutterably afraid and blushing with the unwonted duty, took the little hands in his and turned his eyes away, thinking of the curse that fell on Noah's son.
Merrill was used to outer integuments and the inner recesses of life, and he tried to regard the girl only as a mechanical problem.
He placed the point of the hollow needle against the white skin at the fifth intercostal space; set his thumb along the needle as a check and pressed it backward, inward and downward with the uttermost nicety, avoiding bone and artery and cartilage and throbbing heart.
The girl quivered with a twinge of pain, and Findley, quivering with her throe, turned his eyes to Merrill, saw his intense frown dissolve in an arch of exultance—the exultance that surgeons feel on tracking a hidden trouble home. When he lifted away the needle the cylinder was filled with an evil fluid.
He nodded his head and again he became very solemn.
"What is it, Vet?" Findley whispered.
"Come with me," said Merrill.
He turned to nod and smile as reassuringly as he could to the anxious patient and went into the hall, where the mother and the lover followed him. Findley repeated his query. "What is it, Vet?"
Merrill answered: "Empyema of the pericardium."
The mother threw up her hands in dismay and paced the floor in dread of such big words. Merrill tried to describe to Findley what he meant.
"The heart, you understand, hangs in a kind of sack called the pericardium. It has a little fluid to lubricate it, but the pericardium of that girl is not well. It is filled with thick liquid like this in the tube. And her heart must beat through it like a man wading in heavy snow. It grows wearier and weaker; it cannot beat much longer."
The brows of Findley were beautiful with pity, and the old mother became a child with fear and grief.
Findley turned to Merrill.
"Is there any hope of saving her? Must she—must she—die?"
Merrill answered: "I think I can save her. I think—I hope—I believe so. If I operate there is at least a chance for her. It is a very hard operation. But without it there is no chance. One cannot always be sure of a diagnosis, but here I am sure. I know; I can see. This fluid is the proof. If the pericardium is not opened and drained at once she will die, and die soon. If I am given freedom to act I can save her—I think. I am almost sure."
Findley translated the message of hope with a lilt of enthusiasm that raised the mother from the cold ashes of despair. She wanted to know more, but Merrill decided that it would only terrify and mystify her. He demanded immediate and full liberty to proceed. There was no hospital within reach, no better surgeon than Merrill within call. The journey over the rough roads to the railway was beyond the endurance of the exhausted frame. It was a case of choosing between a forlorn hope and absolute despair. Merrill promised only one thing, that the girl would inevitably die without the operation. With it there were hardly two chances, but there was one.
Merrill was more alarmed than he dared confess. He felt the need of skilled help and of more experience. He could think of no one but Findley to hold the instruments and hand them to him as they were needed. And Findley was almost worse than nobody, because his love unsettled him.
After the deed should be done a trained nurse was sadly to be desired. A telegram could bring one by the morrow. In the meanwhile the old aunt must serve. She had brought children of her own through the procession of old-fashioned ills and had reared the motherless Findley to gianthood. So Merrill called her to his aid.
He began to catalogue the many things he should need to make the operation less dangerous. He reeled off a series of tasks for the aunt and for the hired girl and for the neighbor's wife—precautions that sounded strange to Aunt Hannah, but which she never questioned. The very ceremonial inspired faith.
Then Merrill took Findley downstairs into the parlor and begged him to steel himself to the great necessity, to realize why doctors and nurses must abjure ordinary human tendernesses and delicacies, mercies and decencies and sympathies.
"If you behave like a man and a doctor, Neverend, I'll make you a present of this girl's life. You see her heart isn't broken, it's suffering from a material infection—an aftermath of a rheumatic cold. Think of her as already your wife and forget that you're a Presbyterian and a gentleman. Keep your mind on what I tell you."
At the same time he was spreading out on a marble-topped table his instruments, sutures, gauzes, everything his little equipment provided. He explained to Findley what each thing was for, what he expected to find and hoped to do. He drew diagrams and rehearsed the operation minutely, for his own benefit no less than Findley's.
"Fanny's heart is so weak that I am afraid to use chloroform or ether," he said; "I shall rely on local anesthesia. I'm afraid even of cocaine. The best and simplest thing is pure cold water."
"Cold water!" Findley exclaimed.
"Yes, if boiled water is chilled and injected into the surrounding region, its pressure causes a perfect mechanical inhibition of the nerve impulses."
"Marvelous!" said Findley.
Aunt Hannah was turning the house upside down. All the household linen was baking in every utensil she could crowd on the kitchen range. Water was boiling on the stoves in the parlor and the bedrooms where Uncle Joshua had lighted fires.
The spare bedroom had been emptied of all its furniture, and the neighbor's wife was scouring it with boiling water—floor, walls, windows. The long table from the kitchen, scoured and scoured again, was carried thither.
The farmhouse had merely a rudimentary bathroom without running water. A boilerful of it had been toted there, and Merrill, leading Findley within, told him to follow his own example. They slipped off their street clothes and crowded into two newly-baked bathrobes—one of them belonging to Fanny, one to her mother.
Merrill joked at the appearance they made, but Findley was incapable of taking anything in life with levity now. Merrill was trying to keep up his own spirits—to laugh lest he weep. They slipped their feet into two pairs of baked slippers. Merrill had brought his own along and the uncle lent Findley a pair.
Then they began on their hands.
"More patients have died from doctors' fingernails than you could imagine," said Merrill, as he fished for a nail-brush at the bottom of a steaming basin.
Ordering Findley to imitate him in everything, he set to work scrubbing his hands with soap and achingly hot water. Then he tossed an antiseptic into another basin, and washed his hands there to remove the germs; then he washed his hands with hot water to remove the antiseptic; then with alcohol to remove the oil of the skin; then with hot water to remove the alcohol.
His hands and Findley's were almost parboiled and almost flayed before he felt them safe. He had already wound baked linen strips round Findley's hair and his own like turbans, and even muffled up their mouths. Then they girded the cords of the bathrobes tightly and sallied forth.
To the eyes of the sick girl they looked less like human beings than like two undertakers come to carry her off. She would have been more afraid of them than she was but that she was too weak even for much fear. She only knew that she feared death a little less than she feared Merrill.
Merrill tried by smiles and nods to comfort the paralyzed victim of all this ceremonial. He must instil courage into the whole household and conceal from every one how dire was his own fear—a fear not of vague things but of countless, conspiring dangers that only his learning and experience could realize. And they read it as coldness or indifference!
Taking a hot, dry sheet from a boiler, he slashed a large hole in it and threw it across Fanny's lithe body. The region of her waist was all he exposed. That he laved with hot water, soap, carbolic water, hot water, alcohol, hot water. He gathered the sheet about her, and with Findley's help carried her into the spareroom.
There again he sterilized the tender flesh, wrapped the body above and below, and putting his hands once more through the supersterilizing rites, took the needle from the boiling water and filled it with the boiled water that Aunt Hannah had chilled at his request. Then he asked her to close the door from the outside and guard it.
Adjusting the frail body of the girl so that her head was comfortable, but low, and her chest high, he injected sterilized water in the region above the point of the heart—six times, with a total of no more than an ounce.
While he waited for the paralysis to be complete he took the necessary instruments from the boiler and laid them out on the linen-covered table, arranging them in their order and coaching Findley again in their names and uses.
Fanny Protheroe was too weak to be very curious. The ebbing of her life had brought its own anesthesia to soul and body. Her chief emotion was a dim wonder, like moonlight wavering through a fog. A part of her was detached from the total of her. She could hear words in a strange language, she could hear the click of instruments, and later she could hear the sounds of their labor on her own flesh, but she felt nothing more than a vague and drowsy wonderment.
The soft-hearted Findley was far more terrified than she. He stood fighting off womanly tenderness and whispering to himself to be a man, lest Merrill despise him. He could not have dreamed that Merrill was also at war with himself, and so full of dismay at his problem that he was greatly tempted to give up the case and leave the girl to a peaceful death. He thought of Findley's love and how much success or failure meant to him, but that was an unnerving sentiment, and he tried to banish it as a soldier going into battle dismisses thoughts of home. He paced the floor, collecting his faculties and laying out his plan of campaign and wondering why he had ever undertaken so critical a task with so many chances against him, under such unfavorable conditions. He found himself gazing through the window at the distant mountain-peaks. Somehow, they seemed to send him strength from their abundance and to lend him granite.
He set his jaw hard and strode back to the table, tested the site of the operation, found it without tenderness. Then, for the greater good of mankind, he bade his own nerves forget all pity, all the sentiments that are beautiful in everybody but a surgeon.
He selected a scalpel of medium size and, holding it as one holds a violin bow, drew it across the skin. It parted and drew back like silk. Findley shook as if lightning had struck him. He braced himself with supreme effort. Then Merrill incised the thin strawlike covering of the fascia of the greater breast muscle, and pressed the blade through its stout fabric.
"Some retractors," he said.
Findley felt the room rocking.
"The retractors, quick!" Merrill repeated sharply, and Findley handed them to him with wavering hand. Merrill fitted them into the opposite edges of the muscle to hold it back.
"The forceps," he commanded, "and a clamp."
Clamping one end of the severed blood-vessel, he picked up the other with the forceps.
"Hold this!" and he gave the forceps into Findley's ashen hand, while he snatched up a catgut thread, looped it over the end of the blood-vessel and knotted it with a dexterity a sailor would have envied. And so he did with all the veins and small arteries he was compelled to cut.
The intercostal membrane and the muscles it covered he similarly penetrated, as if they were so much canvas, or bundles of twine, but with a precision that was exquisite. He pulled them out of the way with retractors, exposing the great throbbing tube of the internal mammary artery. This fountain of motherhood he did not venture to cut and ligate; he simply drew it out of danger.
The stout stuff of the triangular breast muscle barred his way, and he went through its fibers by gently persuading them apart. He had arrived at the delicate fabric of the pleura. Cautiously, anxiously, he pressed it aside and with it displaced the scarlet web of the lungs. And now he had reached his destination.
"There's the pericardium, if you want to see it," he muttered, as he cleansed the walls of the shaft he had made.
Findley looked. He felt dizzy to his very marrow. There was something appalling in the almost joyous entrance of this amiable fiend, Merrill, through the manifold warp and woof of the bodily vestment. The astonishing variety and complexity of structure and function unearthed in one small opening bewildered him as a wonderwork of God's loom.
The clergyman was thrilled by the awful power and prowess of the surgeon, but the businesslike manner of Merrill shocked him. But Merrill was not pondering mysteries, he was manipulating a wilderness of facts. He had prepared the scene for the final step, and he woke Findley from his reveries with a sharp:
"Give me a couple of toothed forceps, quick!"
Findley handed him a cartilage knife.
"No, thank God, I don't have to cut out any cartilage—toothed forceps, I said."
Findley gave him a bistoury and trocar to select from. The intense strain Merrill was laboring under betrayed him into an impatient outburst.
"Damn it, man, can't you remember anything!"
"Don't swear—now!" Findley whispered.
"Oh, hell!" snapped Merrill, as he snatched up two forceps himself, and delicately fastened one of them in the wall of the pericardium.
"Hold this and be careful," and he put the forceps in Findley's grip. "Don't move."
He seized the walls a little lower down in the other forceps and, holding it with his left hand, reached for the scissors and made a slight incision, which he lengthened a trifle with a probe-pointed knife.
The gushing result so delighted Merrill that he called out to the wavering Findley:
"That ought to please you, old man; we're turning the yellow devils out of the church. See 'em scatter!"
He was happy with the sanest, noblest joy a man can feel, the exultance of the scholar who is at once explorer, discoverer, crusader, reformer, healer, and reëstablisher of a tormented soul in a cleansed house. Even as he chuckled he seized a curved needle, already threaded with a suture, and stitched the edges of the opening to the tough muscles adjacent. When he had purified the pericardium he spoke again—rather tenderly this time:
"Would you like to see her heart?"
Findley found strength to gaze down the tiny well, and in the gloom he could just see the imprisoned throbber—the little red sultan of that realm. It was to Findley a glance into the holy of holies. The mechanism of it, yet the mysticism of it! It was the very machinery of the soul. And he turned away, afraid, afraid.
Merrill was fighting too hard to be afraid of what scared Findley. He had so many other things to fear. His time was critically brief, the tissues were recovering from the anesthetic sleep, and the nerves waking to agony. The girl's strength was crucially small, and she might slip away from him like a vapor any moment. Everywhere was some vein or artery waiting to waste the precious blood. He had much to do to arrange for the drainage of that inner citadel, for the dressing and packing of the wound and its fortification against the armies of infection mustering outside in every breath of air.
But at last, with all his faculties flying, his task of reconstruction was finished. He had come safely through a thousand dangers and he breathed deep as he said:
"Now, Neverend, lend me a hand and we'll get her back to her room."
But the preacher did not hear him. The preacher was a heap on the floor.
Merrill smiled tolerantly, and gathering what was left of Fanny Protheroe into his arms, as if she were even more fragile than she was, called out:
"Aunt Hannah, please open the door!"
Aunt Hannah obeyed and stared at him with white wonder as he cautiously felt his way along the hall with his armload of salvage.
His smile told her of his success, but all he said was: "You might go in and look after that parson. He's fainted."
All the rest of that day and all that night Merrill kept watch over the treasure-trove he had haled from the edge of the abyss. He fought off death with drug and stimulant, and saved her life over and over every hour. He paid little heed to Findley except to tell him to go telegraph for a trained nurse and then to keep his terror-haunted visage out of sight.
At the next noon the nurse arrived. Merrill was swaying in his tracks with exhaustion, and wild-eyed with lack of sleep. When he had delivered to her a long sermon on her duties he leaned heavily on Findley and burbled as if he were drunk:
"Neverend, old boy, you'd better give those parishioners of yours a vacation and take one yourself. You all need it. I've got to go back to Carthage. I'll tell everybody you're where you belong—at the side of the future occupant of that parsonage of yours."
"Vet, Vet, do you think she'll get well?"
"Of course she'll get well. She'll be rather sick for a good while, but she'll be prettier than ever when you bring her back to town. You stay right here. People don't die of broken hearts, as you see, but they get well quicker if they're happy. I'll run up from Carthage as often as I can."
"God bless you, Vet! You're the best man in the world."
Merrill leered at him blearily. "I'm not a good man, Neverend, but I'm a damfine doctor, and it was a beautiful operation."
When the buckboard drove away with him he was fast asleep before it turned out of the gate. The farmers who passed and saw his head wobbling on his breast grinned contemptuously; but the mountains seemed to regard him with respect.