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THE WEB OF LIFE

BY

ROBERT HERRICK


AUTHOR OF "THE GOSPEL OF FREEDOM," "THE MAN WHO WINS,"
"LITERARY LOVE-LETTERS AND OTHER STORIES"


TO G. R. C.


"_Hear from the spirit world this mystery:
Creation is summed up, O man, in thee;
Angel and demon, man and beast, art thou,
Yea, thou art all thou dost appear to be!_"




THE WEB OF LIFE




PART I




CHAPTER I


The young surgeon examined the man as he lay on the hospital chair in which
ward attendants had left him. The surgeon's fingers touched him deftly,
here and there, as if to test the endurance of the flesh he had to deal
with. The head nurse followed his swift movements, wearily moving an
incandescent light hither and thither, observing the surgeon with languid
interest. Another nurse, much younger, without the "black band," watched
the surgeon from the foot of the cot. Beads of perspiration chased
themselves down her pale face, caused less by sympathy than by sheer
weariness and heat. The small receiving room of St. Isidore's was close and
stuffy, surcharged with odors of iodoform and ether. The Chicago spring, so
long delayed, had blazed with a sudden fury the last week in March, and now
at ten o'clock not a capful of air strayed into the room, even through the
open windows that faced the lake.

The patient groaned when the surgeon's fingers first touched him, then
relapsed into the spluttering, labored respiration of a man in liquor or in
heavy pain. A stolid young man who carried the case of instruments freshly
steaming from their antiseptic bath made an observation which the surgeon
apparently did not hear. He was thinking, now, his thin face set in a
frown, the upper teeth biting hard over the under lip and drawing up the
pointed beard. While he thought, he watched the man extended on the chair,
watched him like an alert cat, to extract from him some hint as to what he
should do. This absorption seemed to ignore completely the other occupants
of the room, of whom he was the central, commanding figure. The head nurse
held the lamp carelessly, resting her hand over one hip thrown out, her
figure drooping into an ungainly pose. She gazed at the surgeon steadily,
as if puzzled at his intense preoccupation over the common case of a man
"shot in a row." Her eyes travelled over the surgeon's neat-fitting evening
dress, which was so bizarre here in the dingy receiving room, redolent of
bloody tasks. Evidently he had been out to some dinner or party, and when
the injured man was brought in had merely donned his rumpled linen jacket
with its right sleeve half torn from the socket. A spot of blood had
already spurted into the white bosom of his shirt, smearing its way over
the pearl button, and running under the crisp fold of the shirt. The head
nurse was too tired and listless to be impatient, but she had been called
out of hours on this emergency case, and she was not used to the surgeon's
preoccupation. Such things usually went off rapidly at St. Isidore's, and
she could hear the tinkle of the bell as the hall door opened for another
case. It would be midnight before she could get back to bed! The hospital
was short-handed, as usual.

The younger nurse was not watching the patient, nor the good-looking young
surgeon, who seemed to be the special property of her superior. Even in her
few months of training she had learned to keep herself calm and
serviceable, and not to let her mind speculate idly. She was gazing out of
the window into the dull night. Some locomotives in the railroad yards just
outside were puffing lazily, breathing themselves deeply in the damp,
spring air. One hoarser note than the others struck familiarly on the
nurse's ear. That was the voice of the engine on the ten-thirty through
express, which was waiting to take its train to the east. She knew that
engine's throb, for it was the engine that stood in the yards every evening
while she made her first rounds for the night. It was the one which took
_her_ train round the southern end of the lake, across the sandy
fields, to Michigan, to her home.

The engine puffed away, and she withdrew her gaze and glanced at the
patient. To her, too, the wounded man was but a case, another error of
humanity that had come to St. Isidore's for temporary repairs, to start
once more on its erring course, or, perhaps, to go forth unfinished,
remanded just there to death. The ten-thirty express was now pulling out
through the yards in a powerful clamor of clattering switches and hearty
pulsations that shook the flimsy walls of St. Isidore's, and drew new
groans from the man on the chair. The young nurse's eyes travelled from him
to a woman who stood behind the ward tenders, shielded by them and the
young interne from the group about the hospital chair. This woman, having
no uniform of any sort, must be some one who had come in with the patient,
and had stayed unobserved in the disorder of a night case.

Suddenly the surgeon spoke; his words shot out at the head nurse.

"We will operate now!"

The interne shrugged his shoulders, but he busied himself in selecting and
wiping the instruments. Yet in spite of his decisive words the surgeon
seemed to hesitate.

"Was there any one with this man, - any friend?" he asked the head nurse.

In reply she looked around vaguely, her mind thrown out of gear by this
unexpected delay. Another freak of the handsome surgeon!

"Any relative or friend?" the surgeon iterated peremptorily, looking about
at the attendants.

The little nurse at the foot of the patient, who was not impressed by the
irregularity of the surgeon's request, pointed mutely to the figure behind
the ward tenders. The surgeon wheeled about and glanced almost savagely at
the woman, his eyes travelling swiftly from her head to her feet. The woman
thus directly questioned by the comprehending glance returned his look
freely, resentfully. At last when the surgeon's eyes rested once more on
her face, this time more gently, she answered:

"I am his wife."

This statement in some way humanized the scene. The ward tenders and the
interne stared at her blankly; the nurses looked down in unconscious
comment on the twisted figure by their side. The surgeon drew his hands
from his pockets and stepped toward the woman, questioning her meanwhile
with his nervous, piercing glance. For a moment neither spoke, but some
kind of mute explanation seemed to be going on between them.

She kept her face level with his, revealing it bravely, perhaps defiantly.
Its tense expression, with a few misery-laden lines, answered back to the
inquiry of the nonchalant outsiders: 'Yes, I am his wife, _his_ wife,
the _wife_ of the object over there, brought here to the hospital,
shot in a saloon brawl.' And the surgeon's face, alive with a new
preoccupation, seemed to reply: 'Yes, I know! You need not pain yourself by
telling me.'

The patient groaned again, and the surgeon came back at once to the urgent
present - the case. He led the way to one side, and turning his back upon
the group of assistants he spoke to the woman in low tones.

"This man, your husband, is pretty badly off. He's got at least two bullets
in bad places. There isn't much chance for him - in his condition," he
explained brusquely, as if to reconcile his unusual procedure with
business-like methods.

"But I should operate," he continued; "I shall operate unless there are
objections - unless you object."

His customary imperious manner was struggling with a special feeling for
this woman before him. She did not reply, but waited to hear where her part
might come in. Her eyes did not fall from his face.

"There's a chance," the surgeon went on, "that a certain operation now will
bring him around all right. But to-morrow will be too late."

His words thus far had something foolish in them, and her eyes seemed to
say so. If it was the only chance, and his custom was to operate in such
cases, - if he would have operated had she not been there, why did he go
through this explanation?

"There may be - - complications in his recovery," he said at last, in low
tones. "The recovery may not be complete."

She did not seem to understand, and the surgeon frowned at his failure,
after wrenching from himself this frankness. The idea, the personal idea
that he had had to put out of his mind so often in operating in hospital
cases, - that it made little difference whether, indeed, it might be a great
deal wiser if the operation turned out fatally, - possessed his mind. Could
she be realizing that, too, in her obstinate silence? He tried another
explanation.

"If we do not operate, he will probably have a few hours of
consciousness - if you had something to say to him?"

Her face flushed. He humiliated her. He must know that she had nothing to
say to _him_, as well as if he had known the whole story.

"We could make him comfortable, and who knows, to-morrow might not be too
late!" The surgeon ended irritably, impatient at the unprofessional
frankness of his words, and disgusted that he had taken this woman into his
confidence. Did she want him to say: 'See here, there's only one chance in
a thousand that we can save that carcass; and if he gets that chance, it
may not be a whole one - do you care enough for him to run that dangerous
risk?' But she obstinately kept her own counsel. The professional manner
that he ridiculed so often was apparently useful in just such cases as
this. It covered up incompetence and hypocrisy often enough, but one could
not be human and straightforward with women and fools. And women and fools
made up the greater part of a doctor's business.

Yet the voice that said, "I am his wife," rang through his mind and
suggested doubts. Under the miserable story that he had instinctively
imaged, there probably lay some tender truth.

"There's a chance, you see!" he resumed more tenderly, probing her for an
evidence. "All any of us have, except that he is not in a condition for an
operation."

This time her mouth quivered. She was struggling for words. "Why do you ask
me?" she gasped. "What - " but her voice failed her.

"I should operate," the surgeon replied gently, anticipating her question.
"I, we should think it better that way, only sometimes relatives object."

He thought that he had probed true and had found what he was after.

"It is a chance," she said audibly, finding her voice. "You must do what
you think - best. I have nothing to say to him. You need not delay for
that."

"Very well," the surgeon replied, relieved that his irregular confidence
had resulted in the conventional decision, and that he had not brought on
himself a responsibility shared with her. "You had best step into the
office. You can do no good here."

Then, dismissing the unusual from his mind, he stepped quickly back to the
patient. The younger nurse was bathing the swollen, sodden face with apiece
of gauze; the head nurse, annoyed at the delay, bustled about, preparing
the dressings under the direction of the interne.

The wife had not obeyed the doctor's direction to leave the room, however,
and remained at the window, staring out into the soft night. At last, when
the preparations were completed, the younger nurse came and touched her.
"You can sit in the office, next door; they may be some time," she urged
gently.

As the woman turned to follow the nurse, the surgeon glanced at her once
more. He was conscious of her calm tread, her admirable self-control. The
sad, passive face with its broad, white brow was the face of a woman who
was just waking to terrible facts, who was struggling to comprehend a world
that had caught her unawares. She had removed her hat and was carrying it
loosely in her hand that had fallen to her side. Her hair swept back in two
waves above the temples with a simplicity that made the head distinguished.
Even the nurses' caps betrayed stray curls or rolls. Her figure was large,
and the articulation was perfect as she walked, showing that she had had
the run of fields in her girlhood. Yet she did not stoop as is the habit of
country girls; nor was there any unevenness of physique due to hard, manual
labor.

As she passed the huddle of human flesh stretched out in the wheel-chair, a
wave of color swept over her face. Then she looked up to the surgeon and
seemed to speak to him, as to the one human being in a world of puppets.
'You understand; you understand. It is terrible!'

The surgeon's brown eyes answered hers, but he was puzzled. Had he probed
her aright? It was one of those intimate moments that come to nervously
organized people, when the petty detail of acquaintanceship and fact is
needless, when each one stands nearly confessed to the other. And then she
left the room.

The surgeon proceeded without a word, working intently, swiftly,
dexterously. At first the head nurse was too busy in handling bowls and
holding instruments to think, even professionally, of the operation. The
interne, however, gazed in admiration, emitting exclamations of delight as
the surgeon rapidly took one step after another. Then he was sent for
something, and the head nurse, her chief duties performed, drew herself
upright for a breath, and her keen, little black eyes noticed an
involuntary tremble, a pause, an uncertainty at a critical moment in the
doctor's tense arm. A wilful current of thought had disturbed his action.
The sharp head nurse wondered if Dr. Sommers had had any wine that evening,
but she dismissed this suspicion scornfully, as slander against the
ornament of the Surgical Ward of St. Isidore's. He was tired: the languid
summer air thus early in the year would shake any man's nerve. But the head
nurse understood well that such a wavering of will or muscle must not occur
again, or the hairbreadth chance the drunken fellow had - -

She watched that bared arm, her breath held. The long square fingers closed
once more with a firm grip on the instrument. "Miss Lemoris, some No. 3
gauze." Then not a sound until the thing was done, and the surgeon had
turned away to cleanse his hands in the bowl of purple antiseptic wash.

"My!" the head nurse exclaimed, "Dr. Trip ain't in it." But the surgeon's
face wore a preoccupied, sombre look, irresponsive to the nurse's
admiration. While she helped the interne with the complicated dressing, the
little nurse made ready for removal to the ward. Then when one of the ward
tenders had wheeled the muffled figure into the corridor, she hurried
across to the office.

"It's all over," she whispered blithely to the wife, who sat in a dull
abstraction, oblivious of the hospital flurry. "And it's going to be all
right, I just know. Dr. Sommers is _so_ clever, he'd save a dead man.
You had better go now. No use to see him to-night, for he won't come out of
the opiate until near morning. You can come tomorrow morning, and p'r'aps
Dr. Sommers will get you a pass in. Visitors only Thursdays and Sunday
afternoons usually."

She hurried off to her duties in the ward. The woman did not rise at once.
She did not readjust her thoughts readily; she seemed to be waiting in the
chance of seeing some one. The surgeon did not come out of the receiving
room; there was a sound of wheels in the corridor just outside the office
door, followed by the sound of shuffling feet. Through the open door she
could see two attendants wheeling a stretcher with a man lying motionless
upon it. They waited in the hall outside under a gas-jet, which cast a
flickering light upon the outstretched form. This was the next case, which
had been waiting its turn while her husband was in the receiving room, - a
hand from the railroad yards, whose foot had slipped on a damp rail; now a
pulpy, almost shapeless mass, thinly disguised under a white sheet that had
fallen from his arms and head. She got up and walked out of the room. She
was not wanted there: the hospital had turned its momentary swift attention
to another case. As she passed the stretcher, the bearers shifted their
burden to give her room. The form on the stretcher moaned indistinctly.

She looked at the unsightly mass, in her heart envious of his condition.
There were things in this world much more evil than this bruised flesh of
what had once been a human being.




CHAPTER II


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was cast out now from his youth, as it were, at thirty-two, to find his
place in the city, to create his little world. And for the first time since
he had entered Chicago, seven months before, the city wore a face of
strangeness, of complete indifference. It hummed on, like a self-absorbed
machine: all he had to do was not to get caught in it, involved, wrecked.
For nearly a year he had been a part of it; and yet busy as he had been in
the hospital, he had not sought to place himself strongly. He had gone in
and out, here and there, for amusement, but he had returned to the
hospital. Now the city was to be his home: somewhere in it he must dig his
own little burrow.

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

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

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

* * * * *

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


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Online LibraryRobert HerrickThe Web of Life → online text (page 1 of 21)