Chapter IX. In Which He Suffers a Defeat
 

The hands of the office clock were pointing to half after two, on a certain September night, when Burns came into his office, alone. The fire in the office fireplace, kept bright until nearly midnight, when his housekeeper had given up waiting for him and gone to bed, had burned to a few smouldering lumps of cannel-slag. A big leather easy-chair, its arms worn with much use, had been pulled into an inviting position before the fireplace, and the night-light by the desk was burning, as usual. All that could be expected had been done by the kind-hearted Cynthia, who comprehended, by signs she knew well and had been watching for several days, that affairs were going wrong with her employer.

But he needed more than could be given him by things inanimate - needed it woefully. He came in as a man comes who is not only physically' weary to the point of exhaustion, but heart sick and sore besides. He dropped his heavy surgical bags upon the floor by the desk as if he wanted never to take them up again, pulled off coat and cap and let them fall where they would, then stumbled blindly over to the big chair and sank into it with a great sigh, as if he had reached the end of all endeavour.

If it had been physical fatigue alone which had brought him to this pass he might have dropped asleep where he sat, and waked, after an hour or two, to drag himself away to bed, like one who had been drugged. For a short space, indeed, he lay motionless in the chair in the attitude of one so spent for sleep that he must needs find it in the first place his body touches. But there are times when the mind will not let the body rest. And this was one of them.

The scene he had left lately was burning before his tired eyes; the sounds he had lately heard were beating in his brain. For a week he had been putting every power he possessed into the attaining of an end for which it had more than once seemed to him that he would be willing to sacrifice his own life. He had dared everything, fought every one, had his own way in spite of every obstacle, believing to the last that he could win, as he had so often won before, by sheer contempt of danger. But this time he had failed.

That was all there was of it - he had failed, failed so absolutely, so humiliatingly, so publicly - this was the way he put it to himself - that he was in disgrace. He had operated when others advised against operation and had seemed to succeed, brilliantly and incredibly. Then the case had begun to go wrong. He had operated a second time - against all precedent, taking tremendous risks - and had lost.

But this was not the worst. He had lost cases before and had suffered keenly over them, but not as he was suffering now. In a world of death some cases must be lost, even by the most successful of all of his profession. But this was an unusual case. This was - O God how could he bear losing this one?

He had known her from a little girl of eight till now, when at sixteen, bright, beautiful, winsome sixteen, he had . . . what had he done? She might have had a chance for life - without operation. He had taken that chance away. And she had trusted him - how she had trusted him! Ah, there was the bitter drop in the cup the turn of the knife in the raw wound. When the others had opposed, she had looked up at him with that smile of hers - how could she smile when she was in such pain? - and whispered: "Please do whatever you want to, Doctor Burns." And he had answered confidently: "Good for you, Lucile - if only they'd all trust me like that I'd show them what I could do!"

Vain boast - wild boast! He had d been a fool - twice a fool - thrice a fool! He was a fool clear through - that was the matter with him - a proud fool who had thought that with a. thrust of his keen-edged tools he could turn Death himself aside.

And when he had tried his hand a second time, in the last futile effort to avert the impending disaster, she had trusted him just the same. When he had said to her, speaking close to her dull ear: "Dear little girl, I'm going to ask you to go to sleep again for me," she had turned her head upon the pillow, that tortured young head - he would not have thought she could move it at ail - and had smiled at him again . . . for the last time . . . He would remember that smile while he lived.

He got up from his chair as the intolerable memory smote him again, as it had been smiting him these three hours since the end had come. He began to pace the floor, back and forth back and forth. There were those who said that R. P. Burns threw off his cases easily, did not worry about them, did not take it to heart when they went wrong. It is a thing often said of the men who must turn from one patient to another, and show to the second no hint of how the first may be faring. Those who say it do not know - can never know.

The hours wore on. Burns could not sleep, could not even relax and rest. To the first agony of disappointment succeeded a depression so profound that it seemed to him he could never rise above it and take up his work again. A hundred times he went painfully over the details of the case, from first to last. Why had he done as he had? Why had he not listened to Grayson, to Van Horn, to Fields? Only Butler had backed him up in his decisions - and he knew well enough that Butler had done it only because of his faith in Burns himself and his remembrance of some of his extraordinary successes, not because his own judgment approved.

Five o'clock - six o'clock - he had thrown himself into the chair again, and had, at last, dropped into an uneasy sort of half slumber, when the office door quietly opened and Miss Mathewson came in. It was two hours before she was due. Burns roused and regarded her wonderingly, with eyes heavy and blood-shot. She stood still and looked down at him, sympathy in her face. She herself was pale with fatigue and loss of sleep, for she had been with him throughout the week of struggle over the case he had lost, and she knew the situation as no one else, even his professional colleagues, knew it. But she smiled wanly down at him, like a pitying angel.

"You didn't go to bed, Doctor," she said, very gently. "I was afraid you wouldn't. Won't you go now? You know there's a day's work before you."

He shook his head. "No - I'd rather get out in the air. I'm going now. I'd like to take the Imp and - drive to - " "

"No, no!" - She spoke quickly, coming closer, as if she understood and would not let him use the reckless, common phrase which sometimes means despair. "I thought you might be feeling like that - that's why I came early. Not that I can say anything to cheer you, Doctor Burns - I know you care too much for that. But there's one thing you must realize - you must say it over and over to yourself - you did your best. No human being can do more."

"A fool's best," he muttered. "Cold comfort that."

"Not a fool's best -a skilful surgeon s best."

He shook his head again, got slowly up from his chair, and stood staring down into the ashes of the long-dead fire. The usually straight shoulders were bent; the naturally well-poised head, always carried confidently erect, was sunk upon the broad chest.

Amy Mathewson watched him for a minute, her own face full of pain; then laid her hand, rather timidly, upon his arm. He looked round at her and tried to smile, but the effort only made his expression the more pitiful.

"Bless your heart," said he, brokenly, "I believe you'd stand by me to the last ditch of a failure."

Her eyes suddenly filled. "I'd let you operate - on my mother - to-day," said she, in a low voice.

He gazed into her working face for a long moment, seized her hand and wrung it hard, then strode away into the inner office and flung the door shut behind him.

A half-hour later he came out. He had himself sternly in hand again. His shoulders were squared, his head up; in his face was written a peculiar grim defiance which those who did not comprehend might easily mistake for the stoicism imputed to men of his calling under defeat. Miss Mathewson knew better, understood that it was taking all his courage to face his work again, and realized as nobody else could that the day before him would be one of the hardest he had yet had to live. But she was hopeful that little by little he would come back to the same recognition of that which she felt was really true, that, in spite of the results, he had been justified in the risk he had taken, and that he could not be blamed that conditions which only a superhuman penetration could have foreseen would arise to thwart him.

"Cynthia has your breakfast ready for you Doctor," Miss Mathewson said quietly, as he came out. She did not look up from the desk, where she was working on accounts. But as he passed her, on his way to the dining-room, he laid his hand for an instant on her shoulder, and when she looked up she met his grateful eyes. She had given him the greatest proof of confidence in her power, and it had been the one ray of light in his black hour.

"Won't you take just a taste o' the chops, Doctor?" urged his housekeeper, anxiously. She knew nothing of the situation, but she had not served him for eight years not to have learned something of his moods, and it was clear to her that he had had little sleep for many nights.

But he put aside the plate. "I know they're fine, Cynthia," said he in his gentlest way. "But the coffee's all I want, this morning. Another cup, please."

Cynthia hesitated, a motherly sort of solicitude in her homely face. "Doctor, do you know you've had four, a'ready? And it's awful strong."

"Have I! Well - perhaps that's enough. Thank you, Cynthia."

His housekeeper looked after him, as he left the room. "He's terrible blue, to be so polite as that," she reflected. "When he's happy he's in such a hurry he don't have time to thank a body. Of the two. I guess I'd rather have him hustlin' rude!"

In the middle of the day Burns met Van Horn.

"Sorry the case went wrong, Doctor," said his colleague. There was a peculiar sparkle in his eye as he offered this customary, perfunctory condolence.

"Thank you," replied Burns, shortly.

"I didn't wish to seem skeptical, and you certainly have had remarkable success in somewhat similar cases. But it seemed to me that in advising as I did I was holding the only safe ground. Personally I'm not in favour of taking chances and in this case it seemed to me they were pretty slim."

"They were."

"I did my best to assure the family that you were within your rights."

"Much obliged."

"I don't blame you for feeling broken up about it," declared the other man, soothingly. "But we all have to learn by experience, and conservatism is one of the hardest lessons."

An ugly light was growing in Red Pepper's eye. He got away without further words. Only last week Van Horn had been helped out of a serious and baffling complication by Burns himself, and no credit given to the rescuer. From him this sort of high and mighty sympathy was particularly hard to bear.

Around the corner he encountered Grayson. This, as it was so little to be desired, was naturally to be expected.

"Too bad, Doctor," Grayson began, stopping to shake hands. Van Horn had not even shaken hands. "I hoped till the last that we were all wrong and you were right. But that heart seemed dangerously shaky to me, though I know you didn't think so."

"I didn't."

"There was a queer factor in the case, one I felt from the first, though I couldn't put my finger on it. It was the thing that made me advise against operation."

"I understand."

"But of course there's no use crying over spilt milk; you did your best," continued Grayson cheerfully. "Pretty little girl - plucky, too. Sorry to see her go."

Burns nodded - and bolted. These Job's comforters - were they trying to make the thing seem even more unbearable than it already was? Certainly they were succeeding admirably. He went on about his work with set teeth, expecting at the next turn to run into Fields. He would undoubtedly find him at the hospital, ready to greet him with some croaking sympathy. True to his expectations Fields met him at the door. He himself was looking particularly prosperous and cheerful, as people have a way of appearing to us when our trouble is root theirs.

"Good morning, Doctor." Fields shook hands, evidently trying to modify his own demeanour of unusual good cheer over a list of patients all safely on the road to ultimate recovery. "I want to express my regret over the way things came out last night. Mighty pretty operation - if it had succeeded. Sorry it didn't. Better luck next time."

"Much obliged." Burns had a bull-dog expression now. Not the most discerning observer would have imagined he felt a twinge of regret over his failure.

"Would you mind telling me what made you so confident that the spleen had nothing to do with the complication?" Fields inquired in a deprecatory manner which made Burns long to twist his neck.

"Did you suggest that it did - beforehand?"

"I believe I did - if I remember."

"I believe you didn't - nor any other man till I got in and found it. You all observed it then - and so did I. Excuse me - I'm in too much of a hurry to stop to discuss the case now. I'm due upstairs." And once more Burns made good his escape.

"Sore," was Field's verdict, looking after the man who had been his successful rival for so long that this exception could hardly fail to afford a decided, if rather shame-faced satisfaction to a brother surgeon not above that quite human` sentiment.

But in the course of the day Burns met Buller. He had dreaded to meet him, but not for the same reason that he had dreaded the others. Meeting Buller was quite another story.

"Old boy, I'm so sorry I could cry, if it would do you any good," said Buller, his steady, honest gaze meeting his friend's miserable eyes. For the defiance had melted out of Burns's aspect and left it frankly wretched before the hearty friendship in this man's whole attitude; friendship which could be counted upon, like that of his office nurse's, to the end of all things.

Burns swallowed hard, making no reply, because he could not. But his hand returned the steady pressure of Butler's in a way that showed he was grateful.

"I knew you'd take it hard - much harder than common. And, of course, I understand why. Any man would. But I wish I could make you feel the way I do about it. There's not one particle of reason for you to blame yourself. I've thought the case over and over from start to finish, and I'm more and more convinced that she wouldn't have lived without the operation. You gave her her only chance. Take that in? I mean it. I went around there this morning and told the family so - I took that liberty. It was a comfort to them, though they believed anyway. They haven't lost a particle of faith in you."

Burns bit his lip till he had it under control, and could get out a word or two of gratitude.

"And now I want a favour of you," the other went on hurriedly. "A case I want you to see with me - possible operation within a day or two."

Burns hesitated an instant, changing colour. Then: "Are you sure you'd better have me?" he asked, a trifle huskily.

The other looked him in the eye. "Why not? I know of nobody so competent. Come, man put that Satan of unreasonable self-reproach behind you. When man becomes omniscient and omnipotent there'll be no errors in his judgment or his performance - and not before. Meanwhile we're all in the soup of fallibility together. I - I'm not much at expressing myself elegantly: but I trust I'm sufficiently forcible," smiled Buller. "Er - will you meet me at four at my office? We'll go to the Arnolds' together, and I'll give you the history of the case on the way. It's a corker, I assure you, and it's keeping me awake nights."

Proceeding on his way alone in the Imp he had not wanted even Johnny Caruthers's company to-day Burns found the heaviness of his spirit lifting slightly very slightly. Tenderness toward the little lost patient who had loved and trusted him so well began gradually to usurp the place of the black hatred of what he felt to be his own incompetency. Passing a florist's shop he suddenly felt like giving that which, as it had occurred to him before, had seemed to him would be only a mockery from his hands. He went in and selected flowers - dozens and dozens of white rosebuds, fresh and sweet - and sent them, with no card at all, to her home.

Then he drove on to his next patient, to find himself surrounded by an eager group of happy people, all rejoicing in what appeared to them to be a marvelous deliverance from a great impending danger, entirely due to his own foresight and skill. He knew well enough that it way Nature herself who had come to the rescue, and frankly told them so. But they continued to thrust the honour upon him, and be could but come away with a softened heart.

"I'll go on again," he said to himself. "I've got to go on. Last night I thought I couldn't, but, of course, that's nonsense. The best I can God knows I try . . . And I'll never make that mistake again . . . But oh! - little Lucile - little Lucille!"