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Round The Red Lamp - The Curse of Eve

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

Robert Johnson was an essentially commonplace
man, with no feature to distinguish him from a
million others. He was pale of face, ordinary in
looks, neutral in opinions, thirty years of age, and
a married man. By trade he was a gentleman's
outfitter in the New North Road, and the competition
of business squeezed out of him the little character
that was left. In his hope of conciliating customers
he had become cringing and pliable, until working
ever in the same routine from day to day he seemed to
have sunk into a soulless machine rather than a man.
No great question had ever stirred him. At the end
of this snug century, self-contained in his own
narrow circle, it seemed impossible that any of the
mighty, primitive passions of mankind could ever
reach him. Yet birth, and lust, and illness, and
death are changeless things, and when one of these
harsh facts springs out upon a man at some sudden
turn of the path of life, it dashes off for the
moment his mask of civilisation and gives a glimpse
of the stranger and stronger face below.

Johnson's wife was a quiet little woman, with
brown hair and gentle ways. His affection for her
was the one positive trait in his character.
Together they would lay out the shop window every
Monday morning, the spotless shirts in their green
cardboard boxes below, the neckties above hung in
rows over the brass rails, the cheap studs glistening
from the white cards at either side, while in the
background were the rows of cloth caps and the bank
of boxes in which the more valuable hats were
screened from the sunlight. She kept the books and
sent out the bills. No one but she knew the joys and
sorrows which crept into his small life. She had
shared his exultations when the gentleman who was
going to India had bought ten dozen shirts and an
incredible number of collars, and she had been as
stricken as he when, after the goods had gone, the
bill was returned from the hotel address with the
intimation that no such person had lodged there. For
five years they had worked, building up the business,
thrown together all the more closely because their
marriage had been a childless one. Now, however,
there were signs that a change was at hand, and that
speedily. She was unable to come downstairs, and her
mother, Mrs. Peyton, came over from Camberwell to
nurse her and to welcome her grandchild.

Little qualms of anxiety came over Johnson as
his wife's time approached. However, after all,
it was a natural process. Other men's wives went
through it unharmed, and why should not his? He was
himself one of a family of fourteen, and yet his
mother was alive and hearty. It was quite the
exception for anything to go wrong. And yet in spite
of his reasonings the remembrance of his wife's
condition was always like a sombre background to all
his other thoughts.

Dr. Miles of Bridport Place, the best man in the
neighbourhood, was retained five months in advance,
and, as time stole on, many little packets of
absurdly small white garments with frill work and
ribbons began to arrive among the big consignments of
male necessities. And then one evening, as Johnson
was ticketing the scarfs in the shop, he heard a
bustle upstairs, and Mrs. Peyton came running down to
say that Lucy was bad and that she thought the doctor
ought to be there without delay.

It was not Robert Johnson's nature to hurry. He
was prim and staid and liked to do things in an
orderly fashion. It was a quarter of a mile from the
corner of the New North Road where his shop stood to
the doctor's house in Bridport Place. There were no
cabs in sight so he set off upon foot, leaving the
lad to mind the shop. At Bridport Place he was told
that the doctor had just gone to Harman Street to
attend a man in a fit. Johnson started off for
Harman Street, losing a little of his primness as he
became more anxious. Two full cabs but no empty ones
passed him on the way. At Harman Street he learned
that the doctor had gone on to a case of measles,
fortunately he had left the address--69 Dunstan Road,
at the other side of the Regent's Canal. Robert's
primness had vanished now as he thought of the women
waiting at home, and he began to run as hard as he
could down the Kingsland Road. Some way along he
sprang into a cab which stood by the curb and drove
to Dunstan Road. The doctor had just left, and
Robert Johnson felt inclined to sit down upon the
steps in despair.

Fortunately he had not sent the cab away, and he
was soon back at Bridport Place. Dr. Miles had not
returned yet, but they were expecting him every
instant. Johnson waited, drumming his fingers on his
knees, in a high, dim lit room, the air of which was
charged with a faint, sickly smell of ether. The
furniture was massive, and the books in the shelves
were sombre, and a squat black clock ticked
mournfully on the mantelpiece. It told him that it
was half-past seven, and that he had been gone an
hour and a quarter. Whatever would the women think
of him! Every time that a distant door slammed he
sprang from his chair in a quiver of eagerness.
His ears strained to catch the deep notes of the
doctor's voice. And then, suddenly, with a gush of
joy he heard a quick step outside, and the sharp
click of the key in the lock. In an instant he was
out in the hall, before the doctor's foot was over
the threshold.

"If you please, doctor, I've come for you," he
cried; "the wife was taken bad at six o'clock."

He hardly knew what he expected the doctor to do.
Something very energetic, certainly--to seize some
drugs, perhaps, and rush excitedly with him through
the gaslit streets. Instead of that Dr. Miles threw
his umbrella into the rack, jerked off his hat with a
somewhat peevish gesture, and pushed Johnson back
into the room.

"Let's see! You DID engage me, didn't you?"
he asked in no very cordial voice.

"Oh, yes, doctor, last November. Johnson the
outfitter, you know, in the New North Road."

"Yes, yes. It's a bit overdue," said the doctor,
glancing at a list of names in a note-book with a
very shiny cover. "Well, how is she?"

"I don't----"

"Ah, of course, it's your first. You'll know
more about it next time."

"Mrs. Peyton said it was time you were there,

"My dear sir, there can be no very pressing hurry
in a first case. We shall have an all-night
affair, I fancy. You can't get an engine to go
without coals, Mr. Johnson, and I have had nothing
but a light lunch."

"We could have something cooked for you--
something hot and a cup of tea."

"Thank you, but I fancy my dinner is actually on
the table. I can do no good in the earlier stages.
Go home and say that I am coming, and I will be round
immediately afterwards."

A sort of horror filled Robert Johnson as he
gazed at this man who could think about his dinner at
such a moment. He had not imagination enough to
realise that the experience which seemed so
appallingly important to him, was the merest everyday
matter of business to the medical man who could not
have lived for a year had he not, amid the rush of
work, remembered what was due to his own health. To
Johnson he seemed little better than a monster. His
thoughts were bitter as he sped back to his shop.

"You've taken your time," said his mother-in-law
reproachfully, looking down the stairs as he entered.

"I couldn't help it!" he gasped. "Is it over?"

"Over! She's got to be worse, poor dear, before
she can be better. Where's Dr. Miles!"

"He's coming after he's had dinner." The old
woman was about to make some reply, when, from
the half-opened door behind a high whinnying voice
cried out for her. She ran back and closed the door,
while Johnson, sick at heart, turned into the shop.
There he sent the lad home and busied himself
frantically in putting up shutters and turning out
boxes. When all was closed and finished he seated
himself in the parlour behind the shop. But he could
not sit still. He rose incessantly to walk a few
paces and then fell back into a chair once more.
Suddenly the clatter of china fell upon his ear, and
he saw the maid pass the door with a cup on a tray
and a smoking teapot.

"Who is that for, Jane?" he asked.

"For the mistress, Mr. Johnson. She says she
would fancy it."

There was immeasurable consolation to him in that
homely cup of tea. It wasn't so very bad after all
if his wife could think of such things. So light-
hearted was he that he asked for a cup also. He had
just finished it when the doctor arrived, with a
small black leather bag in his hand.

"Well, how is she?" he asked genially.

"Oh, she's very much better," said Johnson, with

"Dear me, that's bad!" said the doctor. "Perhaps
it will do if I look in on my morning round?"

"No, no," cried Johnson, clutching at his thick
frieze overcoat. "We are so glad that you have come.
And, doctor, please come down soon and let me know
what you think about it."

The doctor passed upstairs, his firm, heavy steps
resounding through the house. Johnson could hear his
boots creaking as he walked about the floor above
him, and the sound was a consolation to him. It was
crisp and decided, the tread of a man who had plenty
of self-confidence. Presently, still straining his
ears to catch what was going on, he heard the
scraping of a chair as it was drawn along the floor,
and a moment later he heard the door fly open and
someone come rushing downstairs. Johnson sprang up
with his hair bristling, thinking that some dreadful
thing had occurred, but it was only his mother-in-
law, incoherent with excitement and searching for
scissors and some tape. She vanished again and Jane
passed up the stairs with a pile of newly aired
linen. Then, after an interval of silence, Johnson
heard the heavy, creaking tread and the doctor came
down into the parlour.

"That's better," said he, pausing with his hand
upon the door. "You look pale, Mr. Johnson."

"Oh no, sir, not at all," he answered
deprecatingly, mopping his brow with his

"There is no immediate cause for alarm," said
Dr. Miles. "The case is not all that we could
wish it. Still we will hope for the best."

"Is there danger, sir?" gasped Johnson.

"Well, there is always danger, of course. It is
not altogether a favourable case, but still it might
be much worse. I have given her a draught. I saw as
I passed that they have been doing a little building
opposite to you. It's an improving quarter. The
rents go higher and higher. You have a lease of your
own little place, eh?"

"Yes, sir, yes!" cried Johnson, whose ears were
straining for every sound from above, and who felt
none the less that it was very soothing that the
doctor should be able to chat so easily at such a
time. "That's to say no, sir, I am a yearly tenant."

"Ah, I should get a lease if I were you. There's
Marshall, the watchmaker, down the street. I
attended his wife twice and saw him through the
typhoid when they took up the drains in Prince
Street. I assure you his landlord sprung his rent
nearly forty a year and he had to pay or clear out."

"Did his wife get through it, doctor?"

"Oh yes, she did very well. Hullo! hullo!"

He slanted his ear to the ceiling with a
questioning face, and then darted swiftly from the

It was March and the evenings were chill, so
Jane had lit the fire, but the wind drove the smoke
downwards and the air was full of its acrid taint.
Johnson felt chilled to the bone, though rather by
his apprehensions than by the weather. He crouched
over the fire with his thin white hands held out to
the blaze. At ten o'clock Jane brought in the joint
of cold meat and laid his place for supper, but he
could not bring himself to touch it. He drank a
glass of the beer, however, and felt the better for
it. The tension of his nerves seemed to have reacted
upon his hearing, and he was able to follow the most
trivial things in the room above. Once, when the
beer was still heartening him, he nerved himself to
creep on tiptoe up the stair and to listen to what
was going on. The bedroom door was half an inch
open, and through the slit he could catch a glimpse
of the clean-shaven face of the doctor, looking
wearier and more anxious than before. Then he rushed
downstairs like a lunatic, and running to the door he
tried to distract his thoughts by watching what; was
going on in the street. The shops were all shut, and
some rollicking boon companions came shouting along
from the public-house. He stayed at the door until
the stragglers had thinned down, and then came back
to his seat by the fire. In his dim brain he was
asking himself questions which had never intruded
themselves before. Where was the justice of it?
What had his sweet, innocent little wife done that
she should be used so? Why was nature so cruel? He
was frightened at his own thoughts, and yet wondered
that they had never occurred to him before.

As the early morning drew in, Johnson, sick at
heart and shivering in every limb, sat with his great
coat huddled round him, staring at the grey ashes and
waiting hopelessly for some relief. His face was
white and clammy, and his nerves had been numbed into
a half conscious state by the long monotony of
misery. But suddenly all his feelings leapt into
keen life again as he heard the bedroom door open and
the doctor's steps upon the stair. Robert Johnson
was precise and unemotional in everyday life, but he
almost shrieked now as he rushed forward to know if
it were over.

One glance at the stern, drawn face which met him
showed that it was no pleasant news which had sent
the doctor downstairs. His appearance had altered as
much as Johnson's during the last few hours. His
hair was on end, his face flushed, his forehead
dotted with beads of perspiration. There was a
peculiar fierceness in his eye, and about the lines
of his mouth, a fighting look as befitted a man who
for hours on end had been striving with the hungriest
of foes for the most precious of prizes. But there
was a sadness too, as though his grim opponent
had been overmastering him. He sat down and leaned
his head upon his hand like a man who is fagged out.

"I thought it my duty to see you, Mr. Johnson,
and to tell you that it is a very nasty case. Your
wife's heart is not strong, and she has some symptoms
which I do not like. What I wanted to say is that if
you would like to have a second opinion I shall be
very glad to meet anyone whom you might suggest."

Johnson was so dazed by his want of sleep and the
evil news that he could hardly grasp the doctor's
meaning. The other, seeing him hesitate, thought
that he was considering the expense.

"Smith or Hawley would come for two guineas,"
said he. "But I think Pritchard of the City Road is
the best man."

"Oh, yes, bring the best man," cried Johnson.

"Pritchard would want three guineas. He is a
senior man, you see."

"I'd give him all I have if he would pull her
through. Shall I run for him?"

"Yes. Go to my house first and ask for the green
baize bag. The assistant will give it to you. Tell
him I want the A. C. E. mixture. Her heart is too
weak for chloroform. Then go for Pritchard and bring
him back with you."

It was heavenly for Johnson to have something
to do and to feel that he was of some use to his
wife. He ran swiftly to Bridport Place, his
footfalls clattering through the silent streets and
the big dark policemen turning their yellow funnels
of light on him as he passed. Two tugs at the night-
bell brought down a sleepy, half-clad assistant, who
handed him a stoppered glass bottle and a cloth bag
which contained something which clinked when you
moved it. Johnson thrust the bottle into his pocket,
seized the green bag, and pressing his hat firmly
down ran as hard as he could set foot to ground until
he was in the City Road and saw the name of Pritchard
engraved in white upon a red ground. He bounded in
triumph up the three steps which led to the door, and
as he did so there was a crash behind him. His
precious bottle was in fragments upon the pavement.

For a moment he felt as if it were his wife's
body that was lying there. But the run had freshened
his wits and he saw that the mischief might be
repaired. He pulled vigorously at the night-bell.

"Well, what's the matter?" asked a gruff voice at
his elbow. He started back and looked up at the
windows, but there was no sign of life. He was
approaching the bell again with the intention of
pulling it, when a perfect roar burst from the wall.

"I can't stand shivering here all night," cried
the voice. "Say who you are and what you want or I
shut the tube."

Then for the first time Johnson saw that the end
of a speaking-tube hung out of the wall just above
the bell. He shouted up it,--

"I want you to come with me to meet Dr. Miles at a
confinement at once."

"How far?" shrieked the irascible voice.

"The New North Road, Hoxton."

"My consultation fee is three guineas, payable at
the time."

"All right," shouted Johnson. "You are to bring
a bottle of A. C. E. mixture with you."

"All right! Wait a bit!"

Five minutes later an elderly, hard-faced man,
with grizzled hair, flung open the door. As he
emerged a voice from somewhere in the shadows

"Mind you take your cravat, John," and he
impatiently growled something over his shoulder in

The consultant was a man who had been hardened by
a life of ceaseless labour, and who had been driven,
as so many others have been, by the needs of his own
increasing family to set the commercial before the
philanthropic side of his profession. Yet beneath
his rough crust he was a man with a kindly heart.

"We don't want to break a record," said he,
pulling up and panting after attempting to keep up
with Johnson for five minutes. "I would go quicker
if I could, my dear sir, and I quite sympathise with
your anxiety, but really I can't manage it."

So Johnson, on fire with impatience, had to slow
down until they reached the New North Road, when he
ran ahead and had the door open for the doctor when
he came. He heard the two meet outside the bed-room,
and caught scraps of their conversation. "Sorry to
knock you up--nasty case--decent people." Then it
sank into a mumble and the door closed behind them.

Johnson sat up in his chair now, listening
keenly, for he knew that a crisis must be at hand.
He heard the two doctors moving about, and was able
to distinguish the step of Pritchard, which had a
drag in it, from the clean, crisp sound of the
other's footfall. There was silence for a few
minutes and then a curious drunken, mumbling sing-
song voice came quavering up, very unlike anything
which be had heard hitherto. At the same time a
sweetish, insidious scent, imperceptible perhaps to
any nerves less strained than his, crept down the
stairs and penetrated into the room. The voice
dwindled into a mere drone and finally sank away into
silence, and Johnson gave a long sigh of relief, for
he knew that the drug had done its work and that,
come what might, there should be no more pain for the

But soon the silence became even more trying to
him than the cries had been. He had no clue now as
to what was going on, and his mind swarmed with
horrible possibilities. He rose and went to the
bottom of the stairs again. He heard the clink of
metal against metal, and the subdued murmur of the
doctors' voices. Then he heard Mrs. Peyton say
something, in a tone as of fear or expostulation, and
again the doctors murmured together. For twenty
minutes he stood there leaning against the wall,
listening to the occasional rumbles of talk without
being able to catch a word of it. And then of a
sudden there rose out of the silence the strangest
little piping cry, and Mrs. Peyton screamed out in
her delight and the man ran into the parlour and
flung himself down upon the horse-hair sofa, drumming
his heels on it in his ecstasy.

But often the great cat Fate lets us go only to
clutch us again in a fiercer grip. As minute after
minute passed and still no sound came from above save
those thin, glutinous cries, Johnson cooled from his
frenzy of joy, and lay breathless with his ears
straining. They were moving slowly about. They were
talking in subdued tones. Still minute after minute
passing, and no word from the voice for which he
listened. His nerves were dulled by his night of
trouble, and he waited in limp wretchedness upon his
sofa. There he still sat when the doctors came down
to him--a bedraggled, miserable figure with his face
grimy and his hair unkempt from his long vigil. He
rose as they entered, bracing himself against the

"Is she dead?" he asked.

"Doing well," answered the doctor.

And at the words that little conventional spirit
which had never known until that night the capacity
for fierce agony which lay within it, learned for the
second time that there were springs of joy also which
it had never tapped before. His impulse was to fall
upon his knees, but he was shy before the doctors.

"Can I go up?"

"In a few minutes."

"I'm sure, doctor, I'm very--I'm very----" he
grew inarticulate. "Here are your three guineas, Dr.
Pritchard. I wish they were three hundred."

"So do I," said the senior man, and they laughed
as they shook hands.

Johnson opened the shop door for them and heard
their talk as they stood for an instant outside.

"Looked nasty at one time."

"Very glad to have your help."

"Delighted, I'm sure. Won't you step round and
have a cup of coffee?"

"No, thanks. I'm expecting another case."

The firm step and the dragging one passed away to
the right and the left. Johnson turned from the door
still with that turmoil of joy in his heart. He
seemed to be making a new start in life. He felt
that he was a stronger and a deeper man. Perhaps all
this suffering had an object then. It might prove to
be a blessing both to his wife and to him. The very
thought was one which he would have been incapable of
conceiving twelve hours before. He was full of new
emotions. If there had been a harrowing there had
been a planting too.

"Can I come up?" he cried, and then, without
waiting for an answer, he took the steps three at a

Mrs. Peyton was standing by a soapy bath with a
bundle in her hands. From under the curve of a brown
shawl there looked out at him the strangest little
red face with crumpled features, moist, loose lips,
and eyelids which quivered like a rabbit's nostrils.
The weak neck had let the head topple over, and it
rested upon the shoulder.

"Kiss it, Robert!" cried the grandmother. "Kiss
your son!"

But he felt a resentment to the little, red,
blinking creature. He could not forgive it yet
for that long night of misery. He caught sight of a
white face in the bed and he ran towards it with such
love and pity as his speech could find no words for.

"Thank God it is over! Lucy, dear, it was

"But I'm so happy now. I never was so happy in
my life."

Her eyes were fixed upon the brown bundle.

"You mustn't talk," said Mrs. Peyton.

"But don't leave me," whispered his wife.

So he sat in silence with his hand in hers. The
lamp was burning dim and the first cold light of dawn
was breaking through the window. The night had been
long and dark but the day was the sweeter and the
purer in consequence. London was waking up. The
roar began to rise from the street. Lives had come
and lives had gone, but the great machine was still
working out its dim and tragic destiny.

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