It was the first day of the winter session, and the third year's man was
walking with the first year's man. Twelve o'clock was just booming out from the Tron Church.
"Let me see," said the third year's man. "You have never seen an operation?"
"Then this way, please. This is Rutherford's historic bar. A glass of sherry,
please, for this gentleman. You are rather sensitive, are you not?"
"My nerves are not very strong, I am afraid."
"Hum! Another glass of sherry for this gentleman. We are going to an operation now, you know."
The novice squared his shoulders and made a gallant attempt to look unconcerned.
"Nothing very bad—eh?"
"Well, yes—pretty bad."
"No; it's a bigger affair than that."
"I think—I think they must be expecting me at home."
"There's no sense in funking. If you don't go to-day, you must to-morrow.
Better get it over at once. Feel pretty fit?"
"Oh, yes; all right!" The smile was not a success.
"One more glass of sherry, then. Now come on or we shall be late. I want you
to be well in front."
"Surely that is not necessary."
"Oh, it is far better! What a drove of students! There are plenty of new men
among them. You can tell them easily enough, can't you? If they were going down
to be operated upon themselves, they could not look whiter."
"I don't think I should look as white."
"Well, I was just the same myself. But the feeling soon wears off. You see a
fellow with a face like plaster, and before the week is out he is eating his
lunch in the dissecting rooms. I'll tell you all about the case when we get to the theatre."
The students were pouring down the sloping street which led to the
infirmary—each with his little sheaf of note-books in his hand. There were pale,
frightened lads, fresh from the high schools, and callous old chronics, whose
generation had passed on and left them. They swept in an unbroken, tumultuous
stream from the university gate to the hospital. The figures and gait of the men
were young, but there was little youth in most of their faces. Some looked as if
they ate too little—a few as if they drank too much. Tall and short,
tweed-coated and black, round-shouldered, bespectacled, and slim, they crowded
with clatter of feet and rattle of sticks through the hospital gate. Now and
again they thickened into two lines, as the carriage of a surgeon of the staff
rolled over the cobblestones between.
"There's going to be a crowd at Archer's," whispered the senior man with
suppressed excitement. "It is grand to see him at work. I've seen him jab all
round the aorta until it made me jumpy to watch him. This way, and mind the whitewash."
They passed under an archway and down a long, stone-flagged corridor, with
drab-coloured doors on either side, each marked with a number. Some of them were
ajar, and the novice glanced into them with tingling nerves. He was reassured to
catch a glimpse of cheery fires, lines of white-counterpaned beds, and a
profusion of coloured texts upon the wall. The corridor opened upon a small
hall, with a fringe of poorly clad people seated all round upon benches. A young
man, with a pair of scissors stuck like a flower in his buttonhole and a
note-book in his hand, was passing from one to the other, whispering and writing.
"Anything good?" asked the third year's man.
"You should have been here yesterday," said the out-patient clerk, glancing
up. "We had a regular field day. A popliteal aneurism, a Colles' fracture, a
spina bifida, a tropical abscess, and an elephantiasis. How's that for a single haul?"
"I'm sorry I missed it. But they'll come again, I suppose. What's up with the old gentleman?"
A broken workman was sitting in the shadow, rocking himself slowly to and
fro, and groaning. A woman beside him was trying to console him, patting his
shoulder with a hand which was spotted over with curious little white blisters.
"It's a fine carbuncle," said the clerk, with the air of a connoisseur who
describes his orchids to one who can appreciate them. "It's on his back and the
passage is draughty, so we must not look at it, must we, daddy? Pemphigus," he
added carelessly, pointing to the woman's disfigured hands. "Would you care to stop and take out a metacarpal?"
"No, thank you. We are due at Archer's. Come on!" and they rejoined the
throng which was hurrying to the theatre of the famous surgeon.
The tiers of horseshoe benches rising from the floor to the ceiling were
already packed, and the novice as he entered saw vague curving lines of faces in
front of him, and heard the deep buzz of a hundred voices, and sounds of
laughter from somewhere up above him. His companion spied an opening on the
second bench, and they both squeezed into it.
"This is grand!" the senior man whispered. "You'll have a rare view of it all."
Only a single row of heads intervened between them and the operating table.
It was of unpainted deal, plain, strong, and scrupulously clean. A sheet of
brown water-proofing covered half of it, and beneath stood a large tin tray full
of sawdust. On the further side, in front of the window, there was a board which
was strewed with glittering instruments—forceps, tenacula, saws, canulas, and
trocars. A line of knives, with long, thin, delicate blades, lay at one side.
Two young men lounged in front of this, one threading needles, the other doing
something to a brass coffee-pot-like thing which hissed out puffs of steam.
"That's Peterson," whispered the senior, "the big, bald man in the front row.
He's the skin-grafting man, you know. And that's Anthony Browne, who took a
larynx out successfully last winter. And there's Murphy, the pathologist, and
Stoddart, the eye-man. You'll come to know them all soon."
"Who are the two men at the table?"
"Nobody—dressers. One has charge of the instruments and the other of the
puffing Billy. It's Lister's antiseptic spray, you know, and Archer's one of the
carbolic-acid men. Hayes is the leader of the cleanliness-and-cold-water school,
and they all hate each other like poison."
A flutter of interest passed through the closely packed benches as a woman in
petticoat and bodice was led in by two nurses. A red woolen shawl was draped
over her head and round her neck. The face which looked out from it was that of
a woman in the prime of her years, but drawn with suffering, and of a peculiar
beeswax tint. Her head drooped as she walked, and one of the nurses, with her
arm round her waist, was whispering consolation in her ear. She gave a quick
side-glance at the instrument table as she passed, but the nurses turned her away from it.
"What ails her?" asked the novice.
"Cancer of the parotid. It's the devil of a case; extends right away back
behind the carotids. There's hardly a man but Archer would dare to follow it. Ah, here he is himself!"
As he spoke, a small, brisk, iron-grey man came striding into the room,
rubbing his hands together as he walked. He had a clean-shaven face, of the
naval officer type, with large, bright eyes, and a firm, straight mouth. Behind
him came his big house-surgeon, with his gleaming pince-nez, and a trail of
dressers, who grouped themselves into the corners of the room.
"Gentlemen," cried the surgeon in a voice as hard and brisk as his manner,
"we have here an interesting case of tumour of the parotid, originally
cartilaginous but now assuming malignant characteristics, and therefore
requiring excision. On to the table, nurse! Thank you! Chloroform, clerk! Thank
you! You can take the shawl off, nurse."
The woman lay back upon the water-proofed pillow, and her murderous tumour
lay revealed. In itself it was a pretty thing—ivory white, with a mesh of blue
veins, and curving gently from jaw to chest. But the lean, yellow face and the
stringy throat were in horrible contrast with the plumpness and sleekness of
this monstrous growth. The surgeon placed a hand on each side of it and pressed
it slowly backwards and forwards.
"Adherent at one place, gentlemen," he cried. "The growth involves the
carotids and jugulars, and passes behind the ramus of the jaw, whither we must
be prepared to follow it. It is impossible to say how deep our dissection may
carry us. Carbolic tray. Thank you! Dressings of carbolic gauze, if you please!
Push the chloroform, Mr. Johnson. Have the small saw ready in case it is
necessary to remove the jaw."
The patient was moaning gently under the towel which had been placed over her
face. She tried to raise her arms and to draw up her knees, but two dressers
restrained her. The heavy air was full of the penetrating smells of carbolic
acid and of chloroform. A muffled cry came from under the towel, and then a
snatch of a song, sung in a high, quavering, monotonous voice:
"He says, says he, If you fly with me You'll be mistress of the
ice-cream van. You'll be mistress of the——"
It mumbled off into a drone and stopped. The surgeon came across, still
rubbing his hands, and spoke to an elderly man in front of the novice.
"Narrow squeak for the Government," he said.
"Oh, ten is enough."
"They won't have ten long. They'd do better to resign before they are driven to it."
"Oh, I should fight it out."
"What's the use. They can't get past the committee even if they got a vote in
the House. I was talking to——"
"Patient's ready, sir," said the dresser.
"Talking to McDonald—but I'll tell you about it presently." He walked back to
the patient, who was breathing in long, heavy gasps. "I propose," said he,
passing his hand over the tumour in an almost caressing fashion, "to make a free
incision over the posterior border, and to take another forward at right angles
to the lower end of it. Might I trouble you for a medium knife, Mr. Johnson?"
The novice, with eyes which were dilating with horror, saw the surgeon pick
up the long, gleaming knife, dip it into a tin basin, and balance it in his
fingers as an artist might his brush. Then he saw him pinch up the skin above
the tumour with his left hand. At the sight his nerves, which had already been
tried once or twice that day, gave way utterly. His head swain round, and he
felt that in another instant he might faint. He dared not look at the patient.
He dug his thumbs into his ears lest some scream should come to haunt him, and
he fixed his eyes rigidly upon the wooden ledge in front of him. One glance, one
cry, would, he knew, break down the shred of self-possession which he still
retained. He tried to think of cricket, of green fields and rippling water, of
his sisters at home—of anything rather than of what was going on so near him.
And yet somehow, even with his ears stopped up, sounds seemed to penetrate to
him and to carry their own tale. He heard, or thought that he heard, the long
hissing of the carbolic engine. Then he was conscious of some movement among the
dressers. Were there groans, too, breaking in upon him, and some other sound,
some fluid sound, which was more dreadfully suggestive still? His mind would
keep building up every step of the operation, and fancy made it more ghastly
than fact could have been. His nerves tingled and quivered. Minute by minute the
giddiness grew more marked, the numb, sickly feeling at his heart more
distressing. And then suddenly, with a groan, his head pitching forward, and his
brow cracking sharply upon the narrow wooden shelf in front of him, he lay in a dead faint.
When he came to himself, he was lying in the empty theatre, with his collar
and shirt undone. The third year's man was dabbing a wet sponge over his face,
and a couple of grinning dressers were looking on.
"All right," cried the novice, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "I'm sorry to
have made an ass of myself."
"Well, so I should think," said his companion.
"What on earth did you faint about?"
"I couldn't help it. It was that operation."
"Why, that cancer."
There was a pause, and then the three students burst out laughing. "Why, you
juggins!" cried the senior man, "there never was an operation at all! They found
the patient didn't stand the chloroform well, and so the whole thing was off.
Archer has been giving us one of his racy lectures, and you fainted just in the
middle of his favourite story."