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- Hilda Wade - 4/52 -
Twitches her hands the right way. Quick pulse, rapid perceptions, no meaningless unrest, but deep vitality. I don't doubt she'll stand it."
We explained to Number Fourteen the gravity of the case, and also the tentative character of the operation under lethodyne. At first, she shrank from taking it. "No, no!" she said; "let me die quietly." But Hilda, like the Angel of Mercy that she was, whispered in the girl's ear: "IF it succeeds, you will get quite well, and--you can marry Arthur."
The patient's dark face flushed crimson.
"Ah! Arthur," she cried. "Dear Arthur! I can bear anything you choose to do to me--for Arthur!"
"How soon you find these things out!" I cried to Hilda, a few minutes later. "A mere man would never have thought of that. And who is Arthur?"
"A sailor--on a ship that trades with the South Seas. I hope he is worthy of her. Fretting over Arthur's absence has aggravated the case. He is homeward-bound now. She is worrying herself to death for fear she should not live to say good-bye to him."
"She WILL live to marry him," I answered, with confidence like her own, "if YOU say she can stand it."
"The lethodyne--oh, yes; THAT'S all right. But the operation itself is so extremely dangerous; though Dr. Sebastian says he has called in the best surgeon in London for all such cases. They are rare, he tells me--and Nielsen has performed on six, three of them successfully."
We gave the girl the drug. She took it, trembling, and went off at once, holding Hilda's hand, with a pale smile on her face, which persisted there somewhat weirdly all through the operation. The work of removing the growth was long and ghastly, even for us who were well seasoned to such sights; but at the end Nielsen expressed himself as perfectly satisfied. "A very neat piece of work!" Sebastian exclaimed, looking on. "I congratulate you, Nielsen. I never saw anything done cleaner or better."
"A successful operation, certainly!" the great surgeon admitted, with just pride in the Master's commendation.
"AND the patient?" Hilda asked, wavering.
"Oh, the patient? The patient will die," Nielsen replied, in an unconcerned voice, wiping his spotless instruments.
"That is not MY idea of the medical art," I cried, shocked at his callousness. "An operation is only successful if--"
He regarded me with lofty scorn. "A certain percentage of losses," he interrupted, calmly, "is inevitable, of course, in all surgical operations. We are obliged to average it. How could I preserve my precision and accuracy of hand if I were always bothered by sentimental considerations of the patient's safety?"
Hilda Wade looked up at me with a sympathetic glance. "We will pull her through yet," she murmured, in her soft voice, "if care and skill can do it,--MY care and YOUR skill. This is now OUR patient, Dr. Cumberledge."
It needed care and skill. We watched her for hours, and she showed no sign or gleam of recovery. Her sleep was deeper than either Sebastian's or Hilda's had been. She had taken a big dose, so as to secure immobility. The question now was, would she recover at all from it? Hour after hour we waited and watched; and not a sign of movement! Only the same deep, slow, hampered breathing, the same feeble, jerky pulse, the same deathly pallor on the dark cheeks, the same corpse-like rigidity of limb and muscle.
At last our patient stirred faintly, as in a dream; her breath faltered. We bent over her. Was it death, or was she beginning to recover?
Very slowly, a faint trace of colour came back to her cheeks. Her heavy eyes half opened. They stared first with a white stare. Her arms dropped by her side. Her mouth relaxed its ghastly smile. . . . We held our breath. . . . She was coming to again!
But her coming to was slow--very, very slow. Her pulse was still weak. Her heart pumped feebly. We feared she might sink from inanition at any moment. Hilda Wade knelt on the floor by the girl's side and held a spoonful of beef essence coaxingly to her lips. Number Fourteen gasped, drew a long, slow breath, then gulped and swallowed it. After that she lay back with her mouth open, looking like a corpse. Hilda pressed another spoonful of the soft jelly upon her; but the girl waved it away with one trembling hand. "Let me die," she cried. "Let me die! I feel dead already."
Hilda held her face close. "Isabel," she whispered--and I recognised in her tone the vast moral difference between "Isabel" and "Number Fourteen,"--"Is-a-bel, you must take it. For Arthur's sake, I say, you MUST take it."
The girl's hand quivered as it lay on the white coverlet. "For Arthur's sake!" she murmured, lifting her eyelids dreamily. "For Arthur's sake! Yes, nurse, dear!"
"Call me Hilda, please! Hilda!"
The girl's face lighted up again. "Yes, Hilda, dear," she answered, in an unearthly voice, like one raised from the dead. "I will call you what you will. Angel of light, you have been so good to me."
She opened her lips with an effort and slowly swallowed another spoonful. Then she fell back, exhausted. But her pulse improved within twenty minutes. I mentioned the matter, with enthusiasm, to Sebastian later. "It is very nice in its way," he answered; "but . . . it is not nursing."
I thought to myself that that was just what it WAS; but I did not say so. Sebastian was a man who thought meanly of women. "A doctor, like a priest," he used to declare, "should keep himself unmarried. His bride is medicine." And he disliked to see what he called PHILANDERING going on in his hospital. It may have been on that account that I avoided speaking much of Hilda Wade thenceforth before him.
He looked in casually next day to see the patient. "She will die," he said, with perfect assurance, as we passed down the ward together. "Operation has taken too much out of her."
"Still, she has great recuperative powers," Hilda answered. "They all have in her family, Professor. You may, perhaps, remember Joseph Huntley, who occupied Number Sixty-seven in the Accident Ward, some nine months since--compound fracture of the arm--a dark, nervous engineer's assistant--very hard to restrain--well, HE was her brother; he caught typhoid fever in the hospital, and you commented at the time on his strange vitality. Then there was her cousin, again, Ellen Stubbs. We had HER for stubborn chronic laryngitis--a very bad case--anyone else would have died--yielded at once to your treatment; and made, I recollect, a splendid convalescence."
"What a memory you have!" Sebastian cried, admiring against his will. "It is simply marvellous! I never saw anyone like you in my life . . . except once. HE was a man, a doctor, a colleague of mine--dead long ago. . . . Why--" he mused, and gazed hard at her. Hilda shrank before his gaze. "This is curious," he went on slowly, at last; "very curious. You--why, you resemble him!"
"Do I?" Hilda replied, with forced calm, raising her eyes to his. Their glances met. That moment, I saw each had recognised something; and from that day forth I was instinctively aware that a duel was being waged between Sebastian and Hilda,--a duel between the two ablest and most singular personalities I had ever met; a duel of life and death--though I did not fully understand its purport till much, much later.
Every day after that, the poor, wasted girl in Number Fourteen grew feebler and fainter. Her temperature rose; her heart throbbed weakly. She seemed to be fading away. Sebastian shook his head. "Lethodyne is a failure," he said, with a mournful regret. "One cannot trust it. The case might have recovered from the operation, or recovered from the drug; but she could not recover from both together. Yet the operation would have been impossible without the drug, and the drug is useless except for the operation."
It was a great disappointment to him. He hid himself in his room, as was his wont when disappointed, and went on with his old work at his beloved microbes.
"I have one hope still," Hilda murmured to me by the bedside, when our patient was at her worst. "If one contingency occurs, I believe we may save her."
"What is that?" I asked.
She shook her head waywardly. "You must wait and see," she answered. "If it comes off, I will tell you. If not, let it swell the limbo of lost inspirations."
Next morning early, however, she came up to me with a radiant face, holding a newspaper in her hand. "Well, it HAS happened!" she cried, rejoicing. "We shall save poor Isabel Number Fourteen, I mean; our way is clear, Dr. Cumberledge."
I followed her blindly to the bedside, little guessing what she could mean. She knelt down at the head of the cot. The girl's eyes were closed. I touched her cheek; she was in a high fever. "Temperature?" I asked.
"A hundred and three."
I shook my head. Every symptom of fatal relapse. I could not imagine what card Hilda held in reserve. But I stood there, waiting.
She whispered in the girl's ear: "Arthur's ship is sighted off the Lizard."
The patient opened her eyes slowly, and rolled them for a moment as if she did not understand.
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