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Round The Red Lamp - His First Operation

1. Behind the Times

2. His First Operation

3. A Straggler of '15

4. The Third Generation

5. A False Start

6. The Curse of Eve

7. Sweethearts

8. A Physiologist's Wife

9. The Case of Lady Sannox

10. A Question of Diplomacy

11. A Medical Document

12. Lot No. 249

13. The Los Amigos Fiasco

14. The Doctors of Hoyland

15. The Surgeon Talks

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."

"An--an amputation?"

"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

"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

"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

"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,

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

"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

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

"All right," cried the novice, sitting up and
rubbing his eyes. "I'm sorry to have made an ass of

"Well, so I should think," said his companion.

"What on earth did you faint about?"

"I couldn't help it. It was that operation."

"What 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."

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