Danger; or Wounded in the House of a Friend by T.S. Arthur
"It is too late, I am afraid," said Dr. Hillhouse as the two physicians rode away, "The case ought to have been seen last night. I noticed the call when I came home from Mr. Birtwell's, but the storm was frightful, and I did not feel like going out again. In fact, if the truth must be told, I hardly gave the matter a thought. I saw the call, but its importance did not occur to me. Late hours, suppers and wine do not always leave the head as clear as it should be."
"I do not like the looks of things," returned Dr. Angier. "All the symptoms are bad."
"Yes, very bad. I saw Mrs. Ridley yesterday morning, and found her doing well. No sign of fever or any functional disturbance. She must have had some shock or exposure to cold."
"Her husband was out all night. I learned that much from the nurse," replied Dr. Angier. "When the storm became violent, which was soon after ten o'clock, she grew restless and disturbed, starting up and listening as the snow dashed on the windowpanes and the wind roared angrily. 'I could not keep her down,' said the nurse. 'She would spring up in bed, throw off the clothes and sit listening, with a look of anxiety and dread on her face. The wind came in through every chink and crevice, chilling the room in spite of all I could do to keep it warm. I soon saw, from the color that began coming into her face and from the brightness in her eyes, that fever had set in. I was alarmed, and sent for the doctor.'"
"And did this go on all night?" asked Dr. Hillhouse.
"Yes. She never closed her eyes except in intervals of feverish stupor, from which she would start up and cry out for her husband, who was, she imagined, in some dreadful peril."
"Bad! bad!" muttered Dr. Hillhouse. "There'll be a death, I fear, laid at Mr. Birtwell's door."
"I don't understand you," said his companion, in a tone of surprise.
"Mr. Ridley, as I have been informed," returned Dr. Hillhouse, has been an intemperate man. After falling very low, he made an earnest effort to reform, and so far got the mastery of his appetite as to hold it in subjection. Such men are always in danger, as you and I very well know. In nine cases out of ten--or, I might say, in ninety-nine cases in a hundred--to taste again is to fall. It is like cutting the chain that holds a wild beast. The bound but not dead appetite springs into full vigor again, and surprised resolution is beaten down and conquered. To invite such a man to, an entertainment where wines and liquors are freely dispensed is to put a human soul in peril."
"Mr. Birtwell may not have known anything about him," replied Dr. Angier.
"All very true. But there is one thing he did know."
"That he could not invite a company of three hundred men and women to his house, though he selected them from the most refined and intelligent circles in our city, and give them intoxicating drinks as freely as he did last night, without serious harm. In such accompany there will be some, like Mr. Ridley, to whom the cup of wine offered in hospitality will be a cup of cursing. Good resolutions will be snapped like thread in a candle-flame, and men who came sober will go away, as from any other drinking-saloon, drunk, as he went out last night."
"Drinking-saloon! You surprise me, doctor."
"I feel bitter this morning; and when the bitterness prevails, I am apt to call things by strong names. Yes, I say drinking-saloon, Doctor Angier. What matters it in the dispensation whether you give away or sell the liquor, whether it be done over a bar or set out free to every guest in a merchant's elegant banqueting-room? The one is as much a liquor-saloon as the other. Men go away from one, as from the other, with heads confused and steps unsteady and good resolutions wrecked by indulgence. Knowing that such things must follow; that from every fashionable entertainment some men, and women too, go away weaker and in more danger than when they came; that boys and young men are tempted to drink and the feet of some set in the ways of ruin; that health is injured and latent diseases quickened into force; that evil rather than good flows from them,--knowing all this, I say, can any man who so turns his house, for a single evening, into a drinking-saloon--I harp on the words, you see, for I am feeling bitter--escape responsibility? No man goes blindly in this way."
"Taking your view of the case," replied Dr. Angier, "there may be another death laid at the door of Mr. Birtwell."
"Whose?" Dr. Hillhouse turned quickly to his assistant. They had reached home, and were standing in their office.
"Nothing has been heard of Archie Voss since he left Mr. Birtwell's last night, and his poor mother is lying insensible, broken down by her fears."
"Oh, what of her? I was called for in the night, and you went in my place."
"I found Mrs. Voss in a state of coma, from which she had only partially recovered when I left at daylight. Mr. Voss is in great anxiety about his son, who has never stayed away all night before, except with the knowledge of his parents."
"Oh, that will all come right," said Dr. Hillhouse. "The young man went home, probably, with some friend. Had too much to drink, it may be, and wanted to sleep it off before coming into his mother's pressence."
"There is no doubt about his having drank too much," returned Dr. Angier. "I saw him going along the hall toward the street door in rather a bad way. He had his overcoat on and his hat in his hand."
"Was any one with him?"
"I believe not. I think he went out alone."
"Into that dreadful storm?"
The countenance of Dr. Hillhouse became very grave:
"And has not been heard of since?"
"Have the police been informed about it?"
"Yes. The police have had the matter in hand for several hours, but at the time I left not the smallest clue had been found."
"Rather a bad look," said Dr. Hillhouse. "What does Mr. Voss say about it?"
"His mind seems to dwell on two theories--one that Archie, who had a valuable diamond pin and a gold watch, may have wandered into some evil neighborhood, bewildered by the storm, and there been set upon and robbed--murdered perhaps. The other is that he has fallen in some out-of-the-way place, overcome by the cold, and lies buried in the snow. The fact that no police-officer reports having seen him or any one answering to his description during the night awakens the gravest fears."
"Still," replied Dr. Hillhouse, "it may all come out right. He may have gone to a hotel. There are a dozen theories to set against those of his friends."
After remaining silent for several moments, he said:
"The boy had been drinking too much?"
"Yes; and I judge from, his manner, when I saw him on his way to the street, that he was conscious of his condition and ashamed of it. He went quietly along, evidently trying not to excite observation, but his steps were unsteady and his sight not true, for in trying to thread his way along the hall he ran against one and another, and drew the attention he was seeking to avoid."
"Poor fellow!" said Dr. Hillhouse, with genuine pity. "He was always a nice boy. If anything has happened to him, I wouldn't give a dime for the life of his mother."
"Nor I. And even as it is, the shock already received may prove greater than her exhausted system can bear. I think you had better see her, doctor, as early as possible."
"There were no especially bad symptoms when you left, beyond the state of partial coma?"
"No. Her respiration had become easy, and she presented the appearance of one in a quiet sleep."
"Nature is doing all for her that can be done," returned Dr. Hillhouse. "I will see her as early as practicable. It's unfortunate that we have these two cases on our hands just at this time, and most unfortunate of all that I should have been compelled to go out so early this morning. That doesn't look right."
And the doctor held up his hand, which showed a nervous unsteadiness.
"It will pass off after you have taken breakfast."
"I hope so. Confound these parties! I should not have gone last night, and if I'd given the matter due consideration would have remained at home."
"You know what that means as well as I do;" and Dr. Hillhouse held up his tremulous hand again. "We can't take wine freely late at night and have our nerves in good order next morning. A life may depend on a steady hand to-day."
"It will all pass off at breakfast-time. Your good cup of coffee will make everything all right."
"Perhaps yea, perhaps nay," was answered. "I forgot myself last night, and accepted too many wine compliments. It was first this one and then that one, until, strong as my head is, I got more into it than should have gone there. We are apt to forget ourselves on these occasions. If I had only taken a glass or two, it would have made little difference. But my system was stimulated beyond its wont, and, I fear, will not be in the right tone to-day."
"You will have to bring it up, then, doctor," said the assistant. "To touch that work with an unsteady hand might be death."
"A glass or two of wine will do it; but when I operate, I always prefer to have my head clear. Stimulated nerves are not to be depended upon, and the brain that has wine in it is never a sure guide. A surgeon must see at the point of his instrument; and if there be a mote or any obscurity in his mental vision, his hand, instead of working a cure, may bring disaster."
"You operate at twelve?"
"You will be all right enough by that time; but it will not do to visit many patients. I am sorry about this case of child-bed fever; but I will see it again immediately after breakfast, and report."
While they were still talking the bell rang violently, and in a few moments Mr. Ridley came dashing into the office. His face wore a look of the deepest distress.
"Oh, doctor, he exclaimed can't you do something for my wife? She'll die if you don't. Oh, do go to her again!"
"Has any change taken place since we left?" asked Dr. Hillhouse, with a professional calmness it required some effort to assume.
"She is in great distress, moaning and sobbing and crying out as if in dreadful pain, and she doesn't know anything you say to her."
The two physicians looked at each other with sober faces.
"You'd better see her again," said Dr. Hiilhouse, speaking to his assistant.
"No, no, no, Dr. Hillhouse! You must see her yourself. It is a case of life and death!" cried out the distracted husband. "The responsibility is yours, and I must and will hold you to that responsibility. I placed my wife in your charge, not in that of this or any other man."
Mr. Ridley was beside himself with fear. At first Dr. Hillhouse felt like resenting this assault, but he controlled himself.
"You forget yourself, Mr. Ridley," he answered in a repressed voice. We do not help things by passion or intemperance of language. I saw your wife less than half an hour ago, and after giving the utmost care to the examination of her case made the best prescription in my power. There has not been time for the medicines to act yet. I know how troubled you must feel, and can pardon your not very courteous bearing; but there are some things that can and some things that cannot be done. There are good reasons why it will not be right for me to return to your house now--reasons affecting the safety, it may be the life, of another, while my not going back with you can make no difference to Mrs. Ridley. Dr. Angier is fully competent to report on her condition, and I can decide on any change of treatment that may be required as certainly as if I saw her myself. Should he find any change for the worse, I will consider it my duty to see her without delay."
"Don't neglect her, for God's sake, doctor!" answered Mr. Ridley, in a pleading voice. His manner had grown subdued. Forgive my seeming discourtesy. I am wellnigh distracted. If I lose her, I lose my hold on everything. Oh, doctor, you cannot know how much is at stake. God help me if she dies!"
"My dear sir, nothing in our power to do shall be neglected. Dr. Angier will go back with you; and if, on his return, I am satisfied that there is a change for the worse, I will see your wife without a moment's delay. And in the mean time, if you wish to call in another physician, I shall be glad to have you do so. Fix the time for consultation at any hour before half-past ten o'clock, and I will meet him. After that I shall be engaged professionally for two or three hours."
Dr. Angier returned with Mr. Ridley, and Dr. Hillhouse went to his chamber to make ready for breakfast. His hands were so unsteady as he made his toilette for the day that, in the face of what he had said to his assistant only a little while before, he poured himself a glass of wine and drank it off, remarking aloud as he did so, as if apologizing for the act to some one invisibly present:
"I can't let this go on any longer."
The breakfast-bell rang, and the doctor sat down to get the better nerve-sustainer of a good meal. But even as he reached his hand for the fragrant coffee that his wife had poured for him, he felt a single dull throb in one of his temples, and knew too well its meaning. He did not lift the coffee to his mouth, but sat with a grave face and an unusually quiet manner. He had made a serious mistake, and he knew it. That glass of wine had stimulated the relaxed nerves of his stomach too suddenly, and sent a shock to the exhausted brain. A slight feeling of nausea was perceived and then came another throb stronger than the first, and with a faint suggestion of pain. This was followed by a sense of physical depression and discomfort.
"What's the matter, doctor?" asked his wife, who saw something unusual in his manner.
"A feeling here that I don't just like," he replied, touching his temple with a finger.
"Not going to have a headache?"
"I trust not. It would be a bad thing for me today."
He slowly lifted his cup of coffee and sipped a part of it.
"Late suppers and late hours may do for younger people," said Mrs. Hillhouse. "I feel wretched this morning, and am not surprised that your nerves are out of order, nor that you should be threatened with headache."
The doctor did not reply. He sipped his coffee again, but without apparent relish, and, instead of eating anything, sat in an unusually quiet manner and with a very sober aspect of countenance.
"I don't want a mouthful of breakfast," said Mrs. Hillhouse, pushing away her plate.
"Nor I," replied the doctor; "but I can't begin to-day on an empty stomach."
And he tried to force himself to take food, but made little progress in the effort.
"It's dreadful about Archie Voss," said Mrs. Hillhouse.
"Oh he'll come up all right," returned her husband, with some impatience in his voice.
"I hope so. But if he were my son, I'd rather see him in his grave than as I saw him last night."
"It's very easy to talk in that way; but if Archie were your son, you'd not be very long in choosing between death and a glass or two of wine more than he had strength to carry."
"If he were my son," replied the doctor's wife, "I would do all in my power to keep him away from entertainments where liquor is served in such profusion. The danger is too great."
"He would have to take his chances with the rest," replied the doctor. "All that we could possibly do would be to teach him moderation and self-denial."
"If there is little moderation and self-denial among the full-grown men and women who are met on these occasions, what can be expected from lads and young men?"
The doctor shrugged his shoulders, but made no reply.
"We cannot shut our eyes to the fact," continued his wife, "that this free dispensation of wine to old and young is an evil of great magnitude, and that it is doing a vast amount of harm."
The doctor still kept silent. He was not in a mood for discussing this or any other social question. His mind was going in another direction, and his thoughts were troubling him. Dr. Hillhouse was a surgeon of great experience, and known throughout the country for his successful operations in some of the most difficult and dangerous cases with which the profession has to deal. On this particular day, at twelve o'clock, he had to perform an operation of the most delicate nature, involving the life or death of a patient.
He might well feel troubled, for he knew, from signs too well understood, that when twelve o'clock came, and his patient lay helpless and unconscious before him, his hand would not be steady nor his brain, clear. Healthy food would not restore the natural vigor which stimulation had weakened, for he had no appetite for food. His stomach turned away from it with loathing.
By this time the throb in his temple had become a stroke of pain. While still sitting at the breakfast-table Dr. Angier returned from his visit to Mrs. Ridley. Dr. Hillhouse saw by the expression of his face that he did not bring a good report.
"How is she?" he asked.
"In a very bad way," replied Dr. Angier.
"Intense pain, rigors, hurried respiration and pulse up to a hundred and twenty. It looks like a case of puerperal peritonitis."
Dr. Hillhouse started from the table; the trouble on his face grew deeper.
"You had better see her with as little delay as possible," said Dr. Angier.
"Did you make any new prescription?"
Dr. Hillhouse shut his lips tightly and knit his brows. He stood irresolute for several moments.
"Most unfortunate!" he ejaculated. Then, going into his office, he rang the bell and ordered his carriage brought round immediately.
Dr. Angier had made no exaggerated report of Mrs. Ridley's condition. Dr. Hillhouse found that serious complications were rapidly taking place, and that all the symptoms indicated inflammation of the peritoneum. The patient was in great pain, though with less cerebral disturbance than when he had seen her last. There was danger, and he knew it. The disease had taken on a form that usually baffles the skill of our most eminent physicians, and Dr. Hillhouse saw little chance of anything but a fatal termination. He could do nothing except to palliate as far as possible the patient's intense suffering and endeavor to check farther complications. But he saw little to give encouragement.
Mr. Ridley, with pale, anxious face, and eyes in which, were pictured the unutterable anguish of his soul, watched Dr. Hillhouse as he sat by his wife's bedside with an eager interest and suspense that was painful to see. He followed him when he left the room, and his hand closed on his arm with a spasm as the door shut behind them.
"How is she, doctor?" he asked, in a hoarse, panting whisper.
"She is very sick, Mr. Ridley," replied Dr. Hillhouse. "It would be wrong to deceive you."
The pale, haggard face of Mr. Ridley grew whiter.
"Oh, doctor," he gasped, "can nothing be done?"
"I think we had better call in another physician," replied the doctor. "In the multitude of counselors there is wisdom. Have you any choice?"
But Mr. Ridley had none.
"Shall it be Dr. Ainsworth? He has large experience in this class of diseases."
"I leave it entirely with you, Dr. Hillhouse. Get the best advice and help the city affords, and for God's sake save my wife."
The doctor went away, and Mr. Ridley, shaking with nervous tremors, dropped weak and helpless into a chair and bending forward until his head rested on his knees, sat crouching down, an image of suffering and despair.