Chapter XVII.

We have seen how it was with Doctor Hillhouse on the morning of the day fixed for the operation. The very danger that Mr. Carlton sought to avert in his rejection of Doctor Kline was at his door. Not having attended the party at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's, he did not know that Doctor Hillhouse had, with most of the company, indulged freely in wine. If a suspicion of the truth had come to him, he would have refused to let the operation proceed. But like a passenger in some swiftly-moving car who has faith in the clear head and steady hand of the engineer, his confidence in Doctor Hillhouse gave him a feeling of security.

But far from this condition of faith in himself was the eminent surgeon in whom he was reposing his confidence. He had, alas! tarried too long at the feast of wine and fat things dispensed by Mr. Birtwell, and in his effort to restore the relaxed tension of his nerves by stimulation had sent too sudden an impulse to his brain, and roused it to morbid action. His coffee failed to soothe the unquiet nerves, his stomach turned from the food on which he had depended for a restoration of the equipoise which the night's excesses had destroyed. The dangerous condition of Mrs. Ridley and his forced visit to that lady in the early morning, when he should have been free from all unusual effort and excitement, but added to his disturbance.

Doctor Hillhouse knew all about the previous habits of Mr. Ridley, and was much interested in his case. He had seen with hope and pleasure the steadiness with which he was leading his new life, and was beginning to have strong faith in his future. But when he met him on that morning, he knew by unerring signs that the evening at Mr. Birtwell's had been to him one of debauch instead of restrained conviviality. The extremity of his wife's condition, and his almost insane appeals that he would hold her back from death, shocked still further the doctor's already quivering nerves.

The imminent peril in which Doctor Hillhouse found Mrs. Ridley determined him to call in another physician for consultation. As twelve o'clock on that day had been fixed for the operation on Mrs. Carlton, it was absolutely necessary to get his mind as free as possible from all causes of anxiety or excitement, and the best thing in this extremity was to get his patient into the hands of a brother in the profession who could relieve him temporarily from all responsibility, and watch the case with all needed care in its swiftly approaching crisis. So he sent Doctor Angier, immediately on his return from his visit to Mrs. Ridley, with a request to Doctor Ainsworth, a physician of standing and experience, to meet him in consultation at ten o'clock.

Precisely at ten the physicians arrived at the house of Mr. Ridley, and were admitted by that gentleman, whose pale, haggard, frightened face told of his anguish and alarm. They asked him no questions, and he preceded them in silence to the chamber of his sick wife. It needed no second glance at their patient to tell the two doctors that she was in great extremity. Her pinched face was ashen in color and damp with a cold sweat, and her eyes, no longer wild and restless, looked piteous and anxious, as of one in dreadful suffering who pleaded mutely for help. An examination of her pulse showed the beat to be frequent and feeble, and on the slightest movement she gave signs of pain. Her respiration was short and very rapid. Mr. Ridley was present, and standing in a position that enabled him to observe the faces of the two doctors as they proceeded with their examination. Hope died as he saw the significant changes that passed over them. When they left the sick-chamber, he left also, and walked the floor anxiously while they sat in consultation, talking together in low tones. Now and then he caught words, such as "peritoneum," "lesion," "perforation," etc., the fatal meaning of which he more than half guessed.

They were still in consultation when a sudden cry broke from the lips of Mrs. Ridley; and rising hastily, they went back to her chamber. Her face was distorted and her body writhing with pain.

Doctor Hillhouse wrote a prescription hastily, saying to Mr. Ridley as he gave it to him: "Opium, and get it as quickly as you can."

The sick woman had scarcely a moment's freedom from pain of a most excruciating character during the ten minutes that elapsed before her husband's return. The quantity of opium administered was large, and its effects soon apparent in a gradual breaking down of the pains, which had been almost spasmodic in their character.

When Doctor Hillhouse went away, leaving Doctor Ainsworth in charge of his patient, she was sinking: into a quiet sleep. On arriving at his office he found Mr. Wilmer Voss impatiently awaiting his return.

"Doctor," said this gentleman, starting up on seeing him and showing considerable agitation, "you must come to my wife immediately."

Doctor Hillhouse felt stunned for an instant. He drew his hand tightly against his forehead, that was heavy with its dull, half-stupefying pain which, spite of what he could do, still held on. All his nerves were unstrung.

"How is she?" he asked, with the manner of one who had received an unwelcome message. His hand was still held against his forehead.

"She broke all down a little while ago, and now lies moaning and shivering. Oh, doctor, come right away! You know how weak she is. This dreadful suspense will kill her, I'm afraid."

Have you no word of Archie yet?" asked Doctor Hillhouse as he dropped the hand he had been holding against his forehead and temples.

"None! So far, we are without a sign."

"What are you doing?"

"Everything that can be thought of. More than twenty of our friends, in concert with the police, are at work in all conceivable ways to get trace of him, but from the moment he left Mr. Birtwell's he dropped out of sight as completely as if the sea had gone over him. Up to this time not the smallest clue to this dreadful mystery has been found. But come, doctor. Every moment is precious."

Doctor Hillhouse drew out his watch. It was now nearly half-past ten o'clock. His manner was nervous, verging on to excitement. In almost any other case he would have said that it was not possible for him to go. But the exigency and the peculiarly distressing circumstances attending upon this made it next to impossible for him to refuse.

"At twelve o'clock, Mr. Voss, I have a delicate and difficult operation to perform, and I have too short a time now for the preparation I need. I am sure you can rely fully on my assistant, Doctor Angler."

"No, no!" replied Mr. Voss, waving his hand almost impatiently. "I do not want Doctor Angier. You must see Mrs. Voss yourself."

He was imperative, almost angry. What was the delicate and difficult operation to him? What was anything or anybody that stood in the way of succor for his imperiled wife? He could not pause to think of others' needs or danger.

Doctor Hillhouse had to decide quickly, and his decision was on the side where pressure was strongest. He could not deny Mr. Voss.

He found the poor distressed mother in a condition of utter prostration. For a little while after coming out of the swoon into which her first wild fears had thrown her, she had been able to maintain a tolerably calm exterior. But the very effort to do this was a draught on her strength, and in a few hours, under the continued suspense of waiting and hearing nothing from her boy, the overstrained nerves broke down again, and she sunk into a condition of half-conscious suffering that was painful to see.

For such conditions medicine can do but little. All that Doctor Hillhouse ventured to prescribe was a quieting draught. It was after eleven o'clock when he got back to his office, where he found Mr. Ridley waiting for him with a note from Doctor Ainsworth.

"Come for just a single moment," the note said. "There are marked changes in her condition."

"I cannot! It is impossible!" exclaimed Doctor Hillhouse, with an excitement of manner he could not repress. Doctor Ainsworth can do all that it is in the power of medical skill to accomplish. It will not help her for me to go again now, and another life is in my hands. I am sorry, Mr. Ridley, but I cannot see your wife again until this afternoon.

"Oh, doctor, doctor, don't say that!" cried the poor, distressed husband, clasping his hands and looking at Doctor Hillhouse with a pale, imploring face. "Just for single moment, doctor. Postpone your operation. Ten minutes, or even an hour, can be of no consequence. But life or death may depend on your seeing my wife at once. Come, doctor! Come, for God's sake!"

Doctor Hillhouse looked at his watch again, stood in a bewildered, uncertain way for a few moments, and then turned quickly toward the door and went out, Mr. Ridley following.

"Get in," he said, waving his hand in the direction of his carriage, which still remained in front of his office. Mr. Ridley obeyed. Doctor Hillhouse gave the driver a hurried direction, and sprang in after him. They rode in silence for the whole distance to Mr. Ridley's dwelling.

One glance at the face of the sick woman was enough to show Doctor Hillhouse that she was beyond the reach of professional skill. Her disease, as he had before seen, had taken on its worst form, and was running its fatal course with a malignant impetuosity it was impossible to arrest. The wild fever of anxiety occasioned by her husband's absence during that dreadful night, the cold to which, in her delirium of fear, she had exposed herself, the great shock her delicate organism had sustained at a time when even the slightest disturbance might lead to serious consequences,--all these causes combined had so broken down her vitality and poisoned her blood that nature had no force strong enough to rally against the enemies of her life.

A groan that sounded like a wail of desperation broke from Mr. Ridley's lips as he came in with the doctor and looked at the death-stricken countenance of his wife. The two physicians gazed at each other with ominous faces, and stood silent and helpless at the bedside.

When Doctor Hillhouse hurried away ten minutes afterward he knew that he had looked for the last time upon his patient. Mr. Ridley did not attempt to detain him. Hope had expired, and he sat bowed and crushed, wishing that he could die.

The large quantity of opium which had been taken by Mrs. Ridley held all her outward senses locked, and she passed away, soon after Doctor Hillhouse retired, without giving her husband a parting word or even a sign of recognition.