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Full Online Book HomeLong Stories"k" - Chapter 25
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"k" - Chapter 25 Post by :Simon0804 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary Roberts Rinehart Date :May 2012 Read :2122

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"k" - Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV

On the evening of the shooting at Schwitter's, there had been a late operation at the hospital. Sidney, having duly transcribed her lecture notes and said her prayers, was already asleep when she received the insistent summons to the operating-room. She dressed again with flying fingers. These night battles with death roused all her fighting blood. There were times when she felt as if, by sheer will, she could force strength, life itself, into failing bodies. Her sensitive nostrils dilated, her brain worked like a machine.

That night she received well-deserved praise. When the Lamb, telephoning hysterically, had failed to locate the younger Wilson, another staff surgeon was called. His keen eyes watched Sidney--felt her capacity, her fiber, so to speak; and, when everything was over, he told her what was in his mind.

"Don't wear yourself out, girl," he said gravely. "We need people like you. It was good work to-night--fine work. I wish we had more like you."

By midnight the work was done, and the nurse in charge sent Sidney to bed.

It was the Lamb who received the message about Wilson; and because he was not very keen at the best, and because the news was so startling, he refused to credit his ears.

"Who is this at the 'phone?"

"That doesn't matter. Le Moyne's my name. Get the message to Dr. Ed Wilson at once. We are starting to the city."

"Tell me again. I mustn't make a mess of this."

"Dr. Wilson, the surgeon, has been shot," came slowly and distinctly. "Get the staff there and have a room ready. Get the operating-room ready, too."

The Lamb wakened then, and roused the house. He was incoherent, rather, so that Dr. Ed got the impression that it was Le Moyne who had been shot, and only learned the truth when he got to the hospital.

"Where is he?" he demanded. He liked K., and his heart was sore within him.

"Not in yet, sir. A Mr. Le Moyne is bringing him. Staff's in the executive committee room, sir."

"But--who has been shot? I thought you said--"

The Lamb turned pale at that, and braced himself.

"I'm sorry--I thought you understood. I believe it's not--not serious. It's Dr. Max, sir."

Dr. Ed, who was heavy and not very young, sat down on an office chair. Out of sheer habit he had brought the bag. He put it down on the floor beside him, and moistened his lips.

"Is he living?"

"Oh, yes, sir. I gathered that Mr. Le Moyne did not think it serious."

He lied, and Dr. Ed knew he lied.

The Lamb stood by the door, and Dr. Ed sat and waited. The office clock said half after three. Outside the windows, the night world went by--taxi-cabs full of roisterers, women who walked stealthily close to the buildings, a truck carrying steel, so heavy that it shook the hospital as it rumbled by.

Dr. Ed sat and waited. The bag with the dog-collar in it was on the floor. He thought of many things, but mostly of the promise he had made his mother. And, having forgotten the injured man's shortcomings, he was remembering his good qualities--his cheerfulness, his courage, his achievements. He remembered the day Max had done the Edwardes operation, and how proud he had been of him. He figured out how old he was--not thirty-one yet, and already, perhaps--There he stopped thinking. Cold beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.

"I think I hear them now, sir," said the Lamb, and stood back respectfully to let him pass out of the door.

Carlotta stayed in the room during the consultation. No one seemed to wonder why she was there, or to pay any attention to her. The staff was stricken. They moved back to make room for Dr. Ed beside the bed, and then closed in again.

Carlotta waited, her hand over her mouth to keep herself from screaming. Surely they would operate; they wouldn't let him die like that!

When she saw the phalanx break up, and realized that they would not operate, she went mad. She stood against the door, and accused them of cowardice--taunted them.

"Do you think he would let any of you die like that?" she cried. "Die like a hurt dog, and none of you to lift a hand?"

It was Pfeiffer who drew her out of the room and tried to talk reason and sanity to her.

"It's hopeless," he said. "If there was a chance, we'd operate, and you know it."

The staff went hopelessly down the stairs to the smoking-room, and smoked. It was all they could do. The night assistant sent coffee down to them, and they drank it. Dr. Ed stayed in his brother's room, and said to his mother, under his breath, that he'd tried to do his best by Max, and that from now on it would be up to her.

K. had brought the injured man in. The country doctor had come, too, finding Tillie's trial not imminent. On the way in he had taken it for granted that K. was a medical man like himself, and had placed his hypodermic case at his disposal.

When he missed him,--in the smoking-room, that was,--he asked for him.

"I don't see the chap who came in with us," he said. "Clever fellow. Like to know his name."

The staff did not know.

K. sat alone on a bench in the hall. He wondered who would tell Sidney; he hoped they would be very gentle with her. He sat in the shadow, waiting. He did not want to go home and leave her to what she might have to face. There was a chance she would ask for him. He wanted to be near, in that case.

He sat in the shadow, on the bench. The night watchman went by twice and stared at him. At last he asked K. to mind the door until he got some coffee.

"One of the staff's been hurt," he explained. "If I don't get some coffee now, I won't get any."

K. promised to watch the door.

A desperate thing had occurred to Carlotta. Somehow, she had not thought of it before. Now she wondered how she could have failed to think of it. If only she could find him and he would do it! She would go down on her knees--would tell him everything, if only he would consent.

When she found him on his bench, however, she passed him by. She had a terrible fear that he might go away if she put the thing to him first. He clung hard to his new identity.

So first she went to the staff and confronted them. They were men of courage, only declining to undertake what they considered hopeless work. The one man among them who might have done the thing with any chance of success lay stricken. Not one among them but would have given of his best--only his best was not good enough.

"It would be the Edwardes operation, wouldn't it?" demanded Carlotta.

The staff was bewildered. There were no rules to cover such conduct on the part of a nurse. One of them--Pfeiffer again, by chance--replied rather heavily:--

"If any, it would be the Edwardes operation."

"Would Dr. Edwardes himself be able to do anything?"

This was going a little far.

"Possibly. One chance in a thousand, perhaps. But Edwardes is dead. How did this thing happen, Miss Harrison?"

She ignored his question. Her face was ghastly, save for the trace of rouge; her eyes were red-rimmed.

"Dr. Edwardes is sitting on a bench in the hall outside!" she announced.

Her voice rang out. K. heard her and raised his head. His attitude was weary, resigned. The thing had come, then! He was to take up the old burden. The girl had told.

Dr. Ed had sent for Sidney. Max was still unconscious. Ed remembered about her when, tracing his brother's career from his babyhood to man's estate and to what seemed now to be its ending, he had remembered that Max was very fond of Sidney. He had hoped that Sidney would take him and do for him what he, Ed, had failed to do.

So Sidney was summoned.

She thought it was another operation, and her spirit was just a little weary. But her courage was indomitable. She forced her shoes on her tired feet, and bathed her face in cold water to rouse herself.

The night watchman was in the hall. He was fond of Sidney; she always smiled at him; and, on his morning rounds at six o'clock to waken the nurses, her voice was always amiable. So she found him in the hall, holding a cup of tepid coffee. He was old and bleary, unmistakably dirty too--but he had divined Sidney's romance.

"Coffee! For me?" She was astonished.

"Drink it. You haven't had much sleep."

She took it obediently, but over the cup her eyes searched his.

"There is something wrong, daddy."

That was his name, among the nurses. He had had another name, but it was lost in the mists of years.

"Get it down."

So she finished it, not without anxiety that she might be needed. But daddy's attentions were for few, and not to be lightly received.

"Can you stand a piece of bad news?"

Strangely, her first thought was of K.

"There has been an accident. Dr. Wilson--"

"Which one?"

"Dr. Max--has been hurt. It ain't much, but I guess you'd like to know it."

"Where is he?"

"Downstairs, in Seventeen."

So she went down alone to the room where Dr. Ed sat in a chair, with his untidy bag beside him on the floor, and his eyes fixed on a straight figure on the bed. When he saw Sidney, he got up and put his arms around her. His eyes told her the truth before he told her anything. She hardly listened to what he said. The fact was all that concerned her--that her lover was dying there, so near that she could touch him with her hand, so far away that no voice, no caress of hers, could reach him.

The why would come later. Now she could only stand, with Dr. Ed's arms about her, and wait.

"If they would only do something!" Sidney's voice sounded strange to her ears.

"There is nothing to do."

But that, it seemed, was wrong. For suddenly Sidney's small world, which had always sedately revolved in one direction, began to move the other way.

The door opened, and the staff came in. But where before they had moved heavily, with drooped heads, now they came quickly, as men with a purpose. There was a tall man in a white coat with them. He ordered them about like children, and they hastened to do his will. At first Sidney only knew that now, at last, they were going to do something--the tall man was going to do something. He stood with his back to Sidney, and gave orders.

The heaviness of inactivity lifted. The room buzzed. The nurses stood by, while the staff did nurses' work. The senior surgical interne, essaying assistance, was shoved aside by the senior surgical consultant, and stood by, aggrieved.

It was the Lamb, after all, who brought the news to Sidney. The new activity had caught Dr. Ed, and she was alone now, her face buried against the back of a chair.

"There'll be something doing now, Miss Page," he offered.

"What are they going to do?"

"Going after the bullet. Do you know who's going to do it?"

His voice echoed the subdued excitement of the room--excitement and new hope.

"Did you ever hear of Edwardes, the surgeon?--the Edwardes operation, you know. Well, he's here. It sounds like a miracle. They found him sitting on a bench in the hall downstairs."

Sidney raised her head, but she could not see the miraculously found Edwardes. She could see the familiar faces of the staff, and that other face on the pillow, and--she gave a little cry. There was K.! How like him to be there, to be wherever anyone was in trouble! Tears came to her eyes--the first tears she had shed.

As if her eyes had called him, he looked up and saw her. He came toward her at once. The staff stood back to let him pass, and gazed after him. The wonder of what had happened was growing on them.

K. stood beside Sidney, and looked down at her. Just at first it seemed as if he found nothing to say. Then:

"There's just a chance, Sidney dear. Don't count too much on it."

"I have got to count on it. If I don't, I shall die."

If a shadow passed over his face, no one saw it.

"I'll not ask you to go back to your room. If you will wait somewhere near, I'll see that you have immediate word."

"I am going to the operating-room."

"Not to the operating-room. Somewhere near."

His steady voice controlled her hysteria. But she resented it. She was not herself, of course, what with strain and weariness.

"I shall ask Dr. Edwardes."

He was puzzled for a moment. Then he understood. After all, it was as well. Whether she knew him as Le Moyne or as Edwardes mattered very little, after all. The thing that really mattered was that he must try to save Wilson for her. If he failed--It ran through his mind that if he failed she might hate him the rest of her life--not for himself, but for his failure; that, whichever way things went, he must lose.

"Dr. Edwardes says you are to stay away from the operation, but to remain near. He--he promises to call you if--things go wrong."

She had to be content with that.

Nothing about that night was real to Sidney. She sat in the anaesthetizing-room, and after a time she knew that she was not alone. There was somebody else. She realized dully that Carlotta was there, too, pacing up and down the little room. She was never sure, for instance, whether she imagined it, or whether Carlotta really stopped before her and surveyed her with burning eyes.

"So you thought he was going to marry you!" said Carlotta--or the dream. "Well, you see he isn't."

Sidney tried to answer, and failed--or that was the way the dream went.

"If you had enough character, I'd think you did it. How do I know you didn't follow us, and shoot him as he left the room?"

It must have been reality, after all; for Sidney's numbed mind grasped the essential fact here, and held on to it. He had been out with Carlotta. He had promised--sworn that this should not happen. It had happened. It surprised her. It seemed as if nothing more could hurt her.

In the movement to and from the operating room, the door stood open for a moment. A tall figure--how much it looked like K.!--straightened and held out something in its hand.

"The bullet!" said Carlotta in a whisper.

Then more waiting, a stir of movement in the room beyond the closed door. Carlotta was standing, her face buried in her hands, against the door. Sidney suddenly felt sorry for her. She cared a great deal. It must be tragic to care like that! She herself was not caring much; she was too numb.

Beyond, across the courtyard, was the stable. Before the day of the motor ambulances, horses had waited there for their summons, eager as fire horses, heads lifted to the gong. When Sidney saw the outline of the stable roof, she knew that it was dawn. The city still slept, but the torturing night was over. And in the gray dawn the staff, looking gray too, and elderly and weary, came out through the closed door and took their hushed way toward the elevator. They were talking among themselves. Sidney, straining her ears, gathered that they had seen a miracle, and that the wonder was still on them.

Carlotta followed them out.

Almost on their heels came K. He was in the white coat, and more and more he looked like the man who had raised up from his work and held out something in his hand. Sidney's head was aching and confused.

She sat there in her chair, looking small and childish. The dawn was morning now--horizontal rays of sunlight on the stable roof and across the windowsill of the anaesthetizing-room, where a row of bottles sat on a clean towel.

The tall man--or was it K.?--looked at her, and then reached up and turned off the electric light. Why, it was K., of course; and he was putting out the hall light before he went upstairs. When the light was out everything was gray. She could not see. She slid very quietly out of her chair, and lay at his feet in a dead faint.

K. carried her to the elevator. He held her as he had held her that day at the park when she fell in the river, very carefully, tenderly, as one holds something infinitely precious. Not until he had placed her on her bed did she open her eyes. But she was conscious before that. She was so tired, and to be carried like that, in strong arms, not knowing where one was going, or caring--

The nurse he had summoned hustled out for aromatic ammonia. Sidney, lying among her pillows, looked up at K.

"How is he?"

"A little better. There's a chance, dear."

"I have been so mixed up. All the time I was sitting waiting, I kept thinking that it was you who were operating! Will he really get well?"

"It looks promising."

"I should like to thank Dr. Edwardes."

The nurse was a long time getting the ammonia. There was so much to talk about: that Dr. Max had been out with Carlotta Harrison, and had been shot by a jealous woman; the inexplicable return to life of the great Edwardes; and--a fact the nurse herself was willing to vouch for, and that thrilled the training-school to the core--that this very Edwardes, newly risen, as it were, and being a miracle himself as well as performing one, this very Edwardes, carrying Sidney to her bed and putting her down, had kissed her on her white forehead.

The training-school doubted this. How could he know Sidney Page? And, after all, the nurse had only seen it in the mirror, being occupied at the time in seeing if her cap was straight. The school, therefore, accepted the miracle, but refused the kiss.

The miracle was no miracle, of course. But something had happened to K. that savored of the marvelous. His faith in himself was coming back--not strongly, with a rush, but with all humility. He had been loath to take up the burden; but, now that he had it, he breathed a sort of inarticulate prayer to be able to carry it.

And, since men have looked for signs since the beginning of time, he too asked for a sign. Not, of course, that he put it that way, or that he was making terms with Providence. It was like this: if Wilson got well, he'd keep on working. He'd feel that, perhaps, after all, this was meant. If Wilson died--Sidney held out her hand to him.

"What should I do without you, K.?" she asked wistfully.

"All you have to do is to want me."

His voice was not too steady, and he took her pulse in a most businesslike way to distract her attention from it.

"How very many things you know! You are quite professional about pulses."

Even then he did not tell her. He was not sure, to be frank, that she'd be interested. Now, with Wilson as he was, was no time to obtrude his own story. There was time enough for that.

"Will you drink some beef tea if I send it to you?"

"I'm not hungry. I will, of course."

"And--will you try to sleep?"

"Sleep, while he--"

"I promise to tell you if there is any change. I shall stay with him."

"I'll try to sleep."

But, as he rose from the chair beside her low bed, she put out her hand to him.

"K."

"Yes, dear."

"He was out with Carlotta. He promised, and he broke his promise."

"There may have been reasons. Suppose we wait until he can explain."

"How can he explain?" And, when he hesitated: "I bring all my troubles to you, as if you had none. Somehow, I can't go to Aunt Harriet, and of course mother--Carlotta cares a great deal for him. She said that I shot him. Does anyone really think that?"

"Of course not. Please stop thinking."

"But who did, K.? He had so many friends, and no enemies that I knew of."

Her mind seemed to stagger about in a circle, making little excursions, but always coming back to the one thing.

"Some drunken visitor to the road-house."

He could have killed himself for the words the moment they were spoken.

"They were at a road-house?"

"It is not just to judge anyone before you hear the story."

She stirred restlessly.

"What time is it?"

"Half-past six."

"I must get up and go on duty."

He was glad to be stern with her. He forbade her rising. When the nurse came in with the belated ammonia, she found K. making an arbitrary ruling, and Sidney looking up at him mutinously.

"Miss Page is not to go on duty to-day. She is to stay in bed until further orders."

"Very well, Dr. Edwardes."

The confusion in Sidney's mind cleared away suddenly. K. was Dr. Edwardes! It was K. who had performed the miracle operation--K. who had dared and perhaps won! Dear K., with his steady eyes and his long surgeon's fingers! Then, because she seemed to see ahead as well as back into the past in that flash that comes to the drowning and to those recovering from shock, and because she knew that now the little house would no longer be home to K., she turned her face into her pillow and cried. Her world had fallen indeed. Her lover was not true and might be dying; her friend would go away to his own world, which was not the Street.

K. left her at last and went back to Seventeen, where Dr. Ed still sat by the bed. Inaction was telling on him. If Max would only open his eyes, so he could tell him what had been in his mind all these years--his pride in him and all that.

With a sort of belated desire to make up for where he had failed, he put the bag that had been Max's bete noir on the bedside table, and began to clear it of rubbish--odd bits of dirty cotton, the tubing from a long defunct stethoscope, glass from a broken bottle, a scrap of paper on which was a memorandum, in his illegible writing, to send Max a check for his graduating suit. When K. came in, he had the old dog-collar in his hand.

"Belonged to an old collie of ours," he said heavily. "Milkman ran over him and killed him. Max chased the wagon and licked the driver with his own whip."

His face worked.

"Poor old Bobby Burns!" he said. "We'd raised him from a pup. Got him in a grape-basket."

The sick man opened his eyes.

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CHAPTER XXIVCarlotta dressed herself with unusual care--not in black this time, but in white. She coiled her yellow hair in a soft knot at the back of her head, and she resorted to the faintest shading of rouge. She intended to be gay, cheerful. The ride was to be a bright spot in Wilson's memory. He expected recriminations; she meant to make him happy. That was the secret of the charm some women had for men. They went to such women to forget their troubles. She set the hour of their meeting at nine, when the late dusk of summer had
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