Bear Sterling was tilted back in the desk chair. The half-egg-shell
ceiling light blazed in his face. He wore the surgeons’ apron in which
he had performed the autopsy. His lower jaw lay relaxed against the
cushions of his chins. His eyes were peacefully closed. He was asleep.
When the Elijah Wilson had been founded he had been the youngest
surgeon, and had learned to sleep between crises. He did it
automatically, naturally and silently.
Cub Sterling had twined himself around an uncomfortable office chair and
was smoking cigarettes. His left shoulder was hysterically high.
He watched his father’s innocent repose with a visible irritation. He
had struck no matches for over an hour. The smoking was incessant and
the old butt served to light the new cigarettes.
Dr. Sidney Mattus sat stiffly in a straight chair. His head rested upon
one corner of the back and his feet tucked into one of the chair rungs.
He watched all of the men and held his eyes past them, apparently upon
the coming dawn which could just be discerned through the high window.
Dr. Henry MacArthur sat across the double desk from Bear Sterling. He
had shielded his brow from the glaring light and was soothing it like a
man in constant pain. Occasionally he lifted his free hand and twisted
his left ear thoughtfully.
No man had spoken for many minutes.
The air of the room was heavy with smoke, tension, the odor of
formaldehyde and the chilliness of dawn.
It housed all the suppressed horror of a death chamber, and its
occupants had the appearance of men awaiting execution.
Dr. MacArthur’s shoulders were hunched as though prepared for a blow;
even in Bear Sterling’s slumber there was a sense of watchful waiting.
Cub was thinking. Shall I keep my mouth shut and watch that night
student nurse…? She is a niece of Miss Kerr … remember that … old
Dr. MacArthur raised his head as though to answer and said:
“What did your father say about the heart?”
Cub’s eyes met his and he responded:
“In normal condition, considering the history, sir.”
“Strange. Was that your understanding, Mattus?”
“Yes, Dr. MacArthur.”
Silence lay over the air again. MacArthur put his head back into his
hands and began checking it all over: Cub, Mattus, Bear, the student
nurse, the orderly, the Head Nurse in Medicine Clinic … the … was
there anybody else? Was it possible….
He stopped his mind and decided not to think until he had some facts.
There would be no sense in clouding his faculties with hysterical
superstitions. A clear head was what must be maintained.
The morning light was beginning to fill the room; it began to suffuse
the faces of the four men.
MacArthur straightened and turned to Cub Sterling and Mattus, and
“I’m sorry boys if I’ve been taciturn … but the Elijah Wilson is my
only child … and as a parent I guess I’m hopeless.”
“Good God, sir, we understand.”
Cub Sterling was upon his feet and towering over MacArthur. Mattus’
manner dropped from him and he became almost a schoolboy in his shyness.
“Of course we do,” he affirmed.
Bear Sterling stirred in his sleep and awoke. His steel-gray eyes were
softened by the coming dawn. All three men turned to him. His eyes
became pin points.
“Wish Heddis hadn’t gone to that damn convention.”
“I’ve telegraphed for him. Could that sleeping potion have been
administered hypodermically?” MacArthur’s voice was thin and old.
“Improbable. The order was for capsule,” Cub Sterling snapped.
“Then that puncture was from….” Mattus’ voice slid into the opening
each man’s brain had already made.
“Durn these pharmacologists!” Bear announced and closed his eyes.
MacArthur took his watch from his pocket and said:
“Boys, since all tests are being done upon those organs, it may be hours
yet. Go get some sleep and prepare for today. You’ll have a twenty-four
hour job ahead of you to sit on the suppressed hysteria in Medicine
Clinic … and you have _got_ to sit on it!”
Mattus and Cub Sterling rose. Patients, another day, … Tuesday! …
rounds, diagnoses … they had forgotten it all! And within three hours
it must be faced again.
They turned toward the door and it was opened in their faces by the
second assistant chemist.
He was a small damp man whose limp black hair sweated into his muddy
forehead. He said:
“Dr. MacArthur, Dr. Heddis and Dr. Maids are at the convention in
Cincinnati, so I did the tests upon the organs you sent over….”
His voice was matter-of-fact. Its uninterested monotony awakened Bear
He rivetted his eyes into the fellow and growled:
“Who in the hell are you?”
“A gentleman,” Dr. MacArthur said, “who is reporting upon some organs I
sent over to the chemical laboratory, Dr. Sterling. Dr. Heddis’ second
The chemist wiped his perspiring lip and continued in the voice of a
“None of the organs show traces of any foreign substance except the
ingredients of a sleeping potion, which I believe was administered in
powdered form, capsule probably. I have not proceeded with any obscure
tests. Dr. Heddis will be back this afternoon. I regret I can make no
further report until after a consultation with Dr. Heddis.”
Bear Sterling’s regular breathing was the only noise.
“Dr. Heddis is flying back. He should be here within two hours. Sorry to
have called you at such an hour. Please keep on searching and consult
Dr. Heddis immediately he returns. In the meantime, will you be so kind
as to have a typed report of your findings in my hands by nine this
morning? So kind of you!” Dr. MacArthur stated.
He ushered the chemist through the door and shut it after him. He turned
to face the three men. He stood so erect that his wife would have known
he had lost a battle and a tremendous one.
“Bear Sterling, did that body show a hypodermic puncture?”
“Then that syringe contained something … I can’t seem to make my brain
At nine-fifteen, Dr. Henry MacArthur sat in his own office chair and
peered intently at the innocuous findings of the second assistant
chemist and the addenda which Dr. Heddis had written an hour before.
His long brow was pleated with straight thin wrinkles.
He was reading Dr. Heddis’ supplement with fascinated horror. It
indicated, what he had feared, that the patient in Bed 11, Ward B,
Medicine Clinic had not died of a sleeping potion. That somewhere in the
His door into the corridor of the Administration Building was open.
Except during meetings it was always open.
His secretary appeared in it and said, “Here is your mail, Dr.
The tone of her voice braced him.
He smiled as she advanced and laid the letters upon the desk.
“I won’t dictate this morning, Miss Sadler. There is an important staff
meeting. Please call off my appointment with the Woman’s Board, and that
luncheon engagement with the man from the Duke Foundation … and …
take all telephone messages unless they come from the staff, or Dr.
He was interrupted by the tall shadow of Cub Sterling.
The secretary turned and passed out.
Cub took the proffered chair and said, “Can they all come, sir?”
“I’m afraid not. Your father is doing a brain tumor on the Bishop’s
aunt, Paton is scheduled for a hysterectomy on the president of the
Woman’s College, Peters is demonstrating his new retina operation before
some visiting medical students; but Hoffbein, Harrison, and Barton will
be here, and we have the others’ approval to go ahead. I’m sorry they
can’t come, but I do not feel I can assume the responsibility of
delaying the meeting. Is Mattus coming?”
“No, sir. He’s doing my teaching rounds with the students.”
Dr. MacArthur slid the typewritten findings toward Cub. The young man
lit a cigarette, looked away from them and frowned.
“Dr. MacArthur,” his voice had assumed its steely quality under which he
always hid his emotions. He held out an envelope.
MacArthur took it automatically and asked, “What is it, son?”
“My resignation, sir.”
MacArthur straightened as though he had been struck by an electric eel.
His blue eyes shot into Cub Sterling’s and he muttered:
“Are you afraid to face the music, Ethridge?”
“Then do it without hysterics,” MacArthur ordered, tearing the envelope
into shreds as Prissy Paton’s purring voice interrupted:
“What, am I the first one here, MacArthur? Good morning, Ethridge.
Pleasant morning. Cancerous through and through. No use removing
anything. Fine woman, and great influence in her generation. Sewed her
up again. No use. Will probably live several months. Are the rumors I
hear true? Has there been another? I thought it was that yesterday. I
said to myself, ‘it certainly has all the symptoms….’”
“Blow your bubbles out of the window, Boy Blue,” Dr. Harrison chuckled
easing Dr. Paton into a chair. Then he walked over and shook hands with
Ethridge Sterling, Junior, and with Dr. MacArthur.
He seated himself, took out his pipe and began talking of the tremendous
discoveries of the ruins of Roman towns which had recently been
ascertained in England by means of the airplane.
He filled the room with sanity. Dr. Paton went to his usual morning
manicure, and Dr. Barton came in quietly, nodded, sat down and joined
the listening group. Nobody noticed Flannel-feet Hoffbein’s entrance.
Dr. Harrison stopped and turned politely to Dr. MacArthur; like obedient
schoolboys the other four men turned to MacArthur also.
“Gentlemen, I know it is most unusual and inconvenient to be called to a
staff meeting without notice and at this hour. Still I believe the
occasion justifies the summons. The thing of which Ethridge told you
yesterday afternoon, is this morning…. At three A.M. the patient in
Bed 11, Ward B, Medicine Clinic was found … dead. There was an
unexplained puncture from a hypodermic syringe in the left arm.”
“MacArthur,” Dr. Harrison’s voice had become an august bass, “are you
MacArthur stood up and walked toward Dr. Harrison. In his extended hand
was the typewritten sheet. He was even straighter than he had been in
the autopsy room. For thirty-odd years his and Dr. Harrison’s great
passion had been the Elijah Wilson Hospital. Harrison rose. They met in
a patch of morning sunshine, which threw the sheen from Dr. Harrison’s
head into a mirror over the mantel and back into Prissy Paton’s eyes.
Prissy gave a hysterical gasp and prepared to scream. Dr. Barton, in the
voice he used with children, remarked, “Easy, sister. Easy!”
Nobody registered it.
Hoffbein breathed like a returning pearl diver and enunciated carefully,
“Read it, Harrison.”
As Dr. MacArthur returned to his chair and Dr. Harrison cleared his
throat, the door into the corridor opened slightly and Princeton Peters’
peach-blossom face vied with the morning sun. Cub Sterling saw it and
winced. Before any other man had taken it in, Princeton tiptoed into the
room and his lavender eyes had assumed their death-mask purple.
With a precision which carried the force of bass waves against a rock
ledge, Harrison began engraving into his brain and into theirs, the
report of the second assistant chemist. As he turned the page to Dr.
Heddis’ supplement, the men stirred nervously and Hoffbein’s eyes took
on a mountain-out-of-molehill scorn.
Dr. Heddis’ addition stated: “The routine tests, afore referred to, are
being checked by my first assistant, Dr. Maids, who returned with me; so
far they reveal nothing other than the ingredients of a sleeping potion.
These ingredients tally with those prescribed in the order filed upon
the patient’s chart. Toxicology, like other branches of the Profession,
is partly guess work. Since the cadaver bears evidence of a hypodermic
puncture, and indications are that the potion was not administered that
way, my belief is that this patient died of a syringe of some obscure
“Therefore I am immediately beginning upon the obscure tests. It may
take days to prove or disprove my conclusions. In the meantime, I
repeat, a sleeping potion prescribed in capsule form, which the pharmacy
compounded and the student nurse states she administered, explains
neither the syringe puncture nor the death.
“Indications, it seems to me, point to an obscure and deadly drug.
Possibly a drug which may be administered _per os_, and may have been so
administered in the two previous cases. Any findings will be immediately
reported to the General Staff or Dr. MacArthur.”
As the last words scraped into the consciousness of the men, a solemnity
comparable to that which shadows the faces of pallbearers as they watch
the coffin of a beloved comrade lowered, blanketed the staff. Whatever
their petty hates and puerile quarrels, so far as the reputation of the
Elijah Wilson was concerned, they agreed. It must not be damaged.
“He might be wrong,” Prissy quavered.
Nobody heard him.
“An obscure and deadly drug. Poison. And it may take days to discover
it. Something we never heard of, probably.” Dr. Harrison’s voice seemed
to be directed toward his own mind.
Dr. MacArthur replied:
“Let’s wait for Heddis on the chemistry, gentlemen. Ethridge and Mattus
have spent the last two hours searching texts. They could find nothing.
We would only waste time surmising.” Then, as though Prissy’s statement
had just reached his brain he turned to him and said, “Yes, he might be
wrong. But we can’t have this thing continue, and until he is proved
wrong….” He shook his head slowly, “The effect was obvious. The woman
For a full minute after Dr. MacArthur ceased speaking, no man spoke, and
it was Prissy’s high treble which cut into their consciences.
“Ethridge … er … how was she last night?”
“I saw her around seven,” his voice took on its protective clip. “Her
pulse was around a hundred. Considering her condition that was not odd.
Her spirits were excellent. Eager for Father to go ahead with the
operation. He saw her between eight and nine. Found condition quite in
line with the way she was when I saw her. Is that your understanding,
“And … er … by the way, where is your father?”
“He is doing a brain tumor, Dr. Paton,” Dr. MacArthur cut in.
“And how did your resident … Doctor … er?”
“Yes … thank you … Dr. Mattus, consider her?” Hoffbein slid his
question into Cub.
“He saw her before she went to sleep around nine. He reports her pulse
had dropped to around ninety; otherwise her condition remained
unchanged. Anything else, sir?”
Hoffbein never answered verbally questions which did not flatter him. He
shook his head thoughtfully.
By that time the staff had regained some measure of its equilibrium and
Dr. MacArthur continued.
“Between the time Mattus saw her and three A.M. she was … was….”
“I’m in favor of turning the whole thing over to the police,” Princeton
Peters said most righteously.
“I’m not!” Dr. Harrison was vehement. “Outside of this room … with the
exception of Bear Sterling and Heddis … no living person is aware of
the situation,” he pointed the paper at Peters’ face. “Some linen is too
foul to wash in public. Want to ruin the hospital, d’ye? We think we are
pretty good at death and birth … and we shall not be downed by….”
He waved the paper at them.
Then Dr. MacArthur realized he had expressed an opinion himself….
“What is your conclusion, gentlemen?” he hurried to say.
“Mistake to form one without an examination of the witnesses, I think
… if you can call them that … suh,” Dr. Barton interposed.
“Quite. Ethridge and I decided upon that during the autopsy. And I have
arranged with my secretary to call them quietly … and separately …
in order to avoid…. We would have questioned them minutely this
morning; but the seriousness of our decision … whatever it is … must
be a responsibility we _all_ bear. D’y’see?”
“The night student nurse on Ward B is waiting. Shall I have her brought
Hoffbein sensed a suppressed motion of Cub Sterling’s, a slight movement
in the chair, an intangible gathering of forces.
“Isn’t this rather cruel?” Dr. Harrison suggested.
“Terribly. But how else will we ever…?”
Princeton Peters interrupted Dr. MacArthur.
“Murder is cruel, too.”
It was the first time the word had been mentioned. It rushed into the
faces of the seven men like an angry wind.
During the ensuing vacuum, Dr. MacArthur lifted his telephone:
“Miss Sadler, will you please bring that pupil nurse to my office.”
The girl entered tensely.
Dr. Barton noticed her eyes were blue and too closely set; Prissy
thought the face was sweet; Princeton Peters felt she had been nicely
brought up; Dr. Harrison’s brain flashed “kitten lined with ox-hide”;
Cub noticed her feet were flat, and Dr. MacArthur was too benevolent for
a personal estimate.
“Won’t you sit down, Miss … er….”
“My name is Evelina Kerr.”
Her voice held a note of defiance as she took the proffered chair beside
“My child,” he said soothingly, “this is probably the most trying duty
you have had in your whole training … and we regret that it is
unavoidable. Will you please tell us plainly … and as minutely as you
can remember, exactly what happened after you went on duty in B Ward
She sat with her feet together, her hands folded in her lap, and a
sullen calm in her voice.
“At nine o’clock, Dr. MacArthur, I went on night duty on B Ward of
Medicine Clinic. Aunt Roenna … I mean Miss Kerr … was on the floor
and Miss Kexter, the white nurse, who had waited to give me my
“White nurse?” Princeton Peters’ voice was polite, but demanding.
“Slang for graduate floor nurse in charge,” Cub Sterling supplied.
The student nurse was silent in her resentment. Finally she continued:
“They left together. Then I took my temperatures, counted pulses,
prepared the patients for the night.”
“The patient in Bed 11, Miss Kerr,” Hoffbein began in his mesmerizing
voice. “How was she?”
The girl started and turned toward him with the underlying resentment of
a schoolboy stopped midway through the multiplication tables.
“She was all right, Dr. Hoffbein. She had no temperature and….”
“Her pulse?” he interrupted again.
Cub Sterling stirred restlessly and lit a cigarette.
“It was between ninety and a hundred. By nine-thirty I had given all of
“Did she have any medicine?”
“Yes, Dr. Hoffbein, she did. She had a prescription of Dr. Sterling,
Senior’s. A … a sleeping potion.”
“Do you know what it was?”
“No, sir. It came up from the pharmacy filled.”
“Wasn’t the duplicate on her chart?”
“It was pheno-barbital,” Cub Sterling cut in raspingly.
The girl hesitated. She seemed to have lost the thread of her thoughts.
“Go ahead with the story, child,” Dr. MacArthur soothed.
She sat silent a moment and then continued:
“By ten o’clock I had finished my medicines, temperatures and pulses.
The ward was quiet and I started to work upon the fever charts.
“The orderly was in the kitchen straightening up and fixing the
breakfast trays. Two patients called for bed-pans. The orderly came to
tell me that we were short two milk bottles. I telephoned the kitchens
“Otherwise the ward was perfectly quiet, except for an occasional cough.
“At ten-fifteen, Miss Willis, the night supervisor in Medicine, made her
rounds, and told me to watch the patient in Bed 11 very carefully.
“At eleven-forty I went to the medicine closet to prepare the hypodermic
Dr. Mattus had ordered for another patient.”
“What kind of hypodermic?” Dr. MacArthur inserted.
“A strophanthin mixture. She’s a cardiac case.”
“A dispensary case of cardiac insufficiency,” Cub Sterling cut in.
Miss Kerr’s resentment was again expressed by silence. She seemed to be
debating with herself.
“What happened?” Hoffbein demanded curtly.
For the first time since she had come into the room her speech came
“I … I … was boiling the syringe and had my back to the corridor
door, and suddenly I felt someone passing in the corridor and turned
around, and ran to the medicine closet door. There was no one in sight.
And then I remembered the boiling syringe and went back to turn it off.
I couldn’t leave until I had. It would have been ruined, and if the
patient didn’t get her dose in time she might die.
“So I made myself finish filling the syringe and then went into the
ward. There was nobody there, and all of the patients were sleeping,
except Mrs. Witherspoon, who is queer in the head.
“I asked her if she had seen anybody and she said, ‘Yes.’”
The girl’s speech died in her throat and the seven men held their
MacArthur regained his first.
“Whom did she say she saw, Miss Kerr?”
“She said she saw Dr. … Dr. … Sterling … Junior….”
The girl turned her close-set eyes, acid with hate, upon Cub Sterling.
Princeton’s lavender eyes, death-purple, Prissy’s green ones glinting,
Hoffbein’s black ones deep as wells and the brown eyes of Doctors Barton
and Harrison, gravely inquiring, turned upon Cub Sterling.
Only Dr. MacArthur’s eyes remained the same.
Cub Sterling answered the inquiry sharply.
“The patient is deranged, gentlemen. I was in my rooms.”
The door opened and Bear Sterling, his brows beetling, entered. Cub rose
and gave him his seat. Dr. Harrison pulled up a vacant chair and
motioned Cub into it. The chair was between his and Dr. Barton’s.
Prissy Paton looked at Princeton Peters and both of them decided they
had better not speak … now.
“And what happened next, Miss Kerr?” Hoffbein insisted.
“I went and asked the orderly if he had seen anybody and he said ‘No.’
So I went and looked at the patient in Bed 11 again. She was sleeping
Dr. Harrison leaned suddenly forward. His voice was acid:
“Did that deranged patient see anybody else?”
Then his voice stabbed:
The close eyes shifted quickly. Her response came instantly:
“No, Doctor Harrison.”
A silence began stretching. The girl continued abruptly:
“Then I went back to my desk and finished my fever charts.”
“You did not call your supervisor?”
“No, Dr. MacArthur. I finished the fever charts and then made the
midnight rounds. The patient in Bed 11 was still sleeping peacefully. I
called in the rounds to my night supervisor and began studying my
nursing manual. Three patients rang their bells between then and two.
One wanted a glass of water and two, bed-pans. At two I gave the special
medicines and then went back to my studying.”
“You did not look at the patient in Bed 11?”
“No, Dr. Harrison, she had no special medicine. At three I again made
rounds and found the patient in Bed 11 was dead. I called my supervisor
and failed to get her. I then called the general superintendent. She
told me to draw the curtains around Bed 11 and wait further orders until
Dr. Mattus came.
“He and Dr. Sterling, Junior, came within the next fifteen minutes. Dr.
Sterling and Dr. Mattus rolled the bed off of the ward and into the
“I did not see the patient again. I finished my ward duties by seven,
woke the remaining patients and told them that the patient in Bed 11 had
been operated on in the night and removed to the Surgical Clinic, like
Aunt Roenna told me to….”
“When did she tell you that?” Cub Sterling inquired.
The girl hesitated and flushed. For the moment she seemed to have lost
“She didn’t. I had forgotten. Miss Willis, the night supervisor told
“Thank you very much, Miss Kerr. Are there any questions any of you
gentlemen wish to ask Miss Kerr, before she is relieved?”
“How long have you been in training?”
“Two years and five months, Dr. Harrison. I finish in December.”
“Thank you again,” Dr. MacArthur said as she rose, and then finished:
“Of all the people concerned in this, Miss Kerr, you are the youngest.
Please do not forget that two years ago you took an oath concerning
Princeton Peters, who was sitting by the door, rose and opened it for
“Thank you, my dear!” he beamed.
No man felt she had told the entire truth.
After her departure, they sat silently awaiting the next witness. The
horror of the thing seemed to have enveloped them.
The night orderly on B Ward entered. A thin, tubercular looking man with
frightened eyes. Everything about him seemed collapsed, and yet still
able to move.
Dr. MacArthur looked up:
“Good morning, William. How are you?”
The man’s appreciation spread over him.
“Well as can be expected, thank you, Doctor. How’s yourself?”
He turned to Prissy, Bear, Cub, and Harrison with a respectful “Good
“William,” Dr. MacArthur began addressing him before he could enter into
a personal conversation with each man, “were you on duty last night?”
“Yes, sir, I was. As usual. And a frightful night, too, sir.”
“Well, Dr. MacArthur, to begin my rheumatism was bothering. And then
everything seemed to have hid itself. And then that girl just in here
was like a kitten on a brick, sir. Got my hair prickled, so to speak, by
running back and asking me if I’d seen anybody on the ward about
eleven-fifty and then saying she had _felt_ somebody.”
“Was there any basis for it?”
“None, sir, as I knows. It’s true I was in the kitchen during her
feeling spell, so to speak. But, if you will pardon my remarking, sir, I
been on that ward ten years coming August and it’s as hard to get past
me as a watchdog, sir.”
“Yes, William. I know it is.”
“Thank you, Dr. MacArthur. Thank you.”
“How many times did the nurse come back?” Hoffbein smiled encouragingly.
“Only wunst. And then when she found the woman dead, sir! I was resting
with my eyes shet, sir, and she well nigh scared me out of my wits!”
“Was she frightened?” Hoffbein insisted.
“It ain’t fur me to say, Doctor. I was too mad at having my rest ruined
and too scared myself to see, sir. It wasn’t till Dr. Mattus came that I
could stand away from the wall, sir. When Dr. Cub … begging your
pardon, son … Sterling got there I was all right again.
“I been in the hospital long as most of you and I seen death every day,
“And we know how proud you are of the hospital, William,” Dr. MacArthur
cut in, “and what a help you have always been to it. So you must promise
me, upon your oath, before these gentlemen, that you will not repeat to
any living soul a single word of what you know or suspect about the
Dr. MacArthur drew the old man’s eyes to his and William replied:
“I promise, sir.”
“Thank you, William.”
Dr. Peters held the door open.
The old man started toward it and turned midway.
“Dr. MacArthur, do I … do I…?”
“You do. Tonight and every night.”
It was apparent that every man felt from the minute William began
speaking that he was innocent. During his interrogation they had
In the interim between his exit and the entrance of Peter Rathbone,
Chief Pharmacist, the tension had fallen considerably.
“Baldy” Rathbone shook them out of a reverie.
He had a body like a triangle upside down. His wide shoulders showed
strength and assurance. He was a youngish middle-aged man. A spreading
part ran up the center of his scalp and connected his wide forehead with
the bald spot on top.
He had been raised an orphan and worked his way through college at
night, and then worked his way up at the Elijah Wilson. There was a
sense of definite knowledge about the face and figure. His eyes bore the
marks of childhood suffering, but his smile heartened the men.
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
His voice was a deep resonant baritone.
“Sit down, Baldy,” Dr. MacArthur motioned to the “witness chair”; then a
deep blush steeped his face, and he smiled. Rathbone returned the smile,
took the chair, and ran his eyes over the staff. He had never seen any
of them so perturbed.
Dr. MacArthur said carefully:
“Er … er … Rathbone, did you check the prescriptions?”
“As far as possible, sir. A compounded prescription, as you know, cannot
be checked as to relative quantities and so … but the ingredients from
the remainder (I understood from the order that I was to have two
capsules compounded, in case the first failed to take effect) were
checked. They tallied as to substance, perfectly.”
“Who compounded the prescription?” Dr. Hoffbein queried.
“McInnis, my first assistant, sir. He can be trusted.”
He was interrupted by the telephone bell. It jarred the men like a steam
siren. MacArthur’s, “Yes, Heddis. Are you sure? Soon as possible. Thank
you,” held the eight men to a dead silence. A silence which screamed for
Dr. MacArthur placed the hook too carefully upon the receiver, Hoffbein
thought, and then he spoke:
“Coniine, gentlemen. One of the deadliest poisons. Heddis will be over
in fifteen minutes.”
“Whew!” Dr. Harrison ejaculated.
“Hypodermic syringe, then,” Bear Sterling growled.
Cub Sterling jumped as though he had been shot.
They all turned toward him.
“What’s the matter, Ethridge?” Dr. Harrison put his hand on his knee….
“Nothing. Except she was giving hypodermics all night. She….”
Dr. MacArthur’s pointer nose had a dreadful struggle with his judicial
“We must make no decisions … nor allow ourselves any prejudices, until
we are in possession of all evidence.”
His voice was stern.
“You were saying, Baldy…?”
“That Dr. Heddis believes it was done … hypodermically. He suspected
coniine and called me twenty minutes ago, and as a result all of the
medicine closets in Medicine Clinic have just been checked. Nothing was
“Ever have any obscure poisons in the pharmacy?” Cub Sterling was
leaning arrogantly forward.
“Rarely. None, at present.”
“How can you account for the entry of this … coniine?” Cub Sterling
lowered his brows and scowled.
“_I_ can’t, Dr. Sterling,” Rathbone turned his body around and looked
through Cub searchingly. His doming forehead added weight to his eyes.
Cub shifted his position, and Bear Sterling who had missed the by-play
“Is it hard to obtain?”
“I said is coniine difficult to get?”
“Since we never have any use for it, I don’t know, Dr. Sterling,” he
hesitated as if endeavoring to hide his irritation and then continued,
“Shall I find out, sir?”
Dr. MacArthur interposed:
“Good idea. See where and in what quantities the big pharmaceutical
houses have sold coniine within the last year.”
“Perhaps we can trace the person quickly that way,” Dr. Barton affirmed.
Rathbone rose and turned, “Is there anything else, gentlemen? I’ll let
you know directly I find out. Do you wish all syringes in the hospital
checked, Dr. MacArthur?”
“Do you, gentlemen?” Dr. MacArthur turned toward Harrison and Bear
“Plenty of time for that,” Hoffbein inserted. “Check the supply sources
When Rathbone was gone they felt as though a strong support had been
removed. His incisive uprightness rested them; but he had shot them so
full of information they were still dazed when Miss Roenna Kerr entered.
She came, her hair waved, her face firmly set, the bust and rear
defiantly inflated, her enraged vitals midway between. She had been
there as long as any of them. Her work had always been perfect. She wore
her new pair of bunion-rest shoes.
Princeton Peters took her arm in his, patted her hand and murmured:
“Dear Miss Kerr, brace up!”
He eased her into the “witness chair” and tiptoed back to his own.
He was worth a million dollars to the Elijah Wilson … in his way. To
every other man in the room she had appeared _too_ braced!
In response to their “good morning,” she smiled, generally, cocked her
head on one side and said to MacArthur:
“You sent for me, Doctor?”
“Yes, Miss Kerr,” his slow methodical fairness was beating against his
natural inclinations. “We want you to tell us exactly what you know
about the death of the patient in Bed 11, Ward B, Medicine Clinic,
“The last one?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Well, before I begin I should like to say that the Elijah Wilson is as
dear to my heart as to any of yours, and my humiliation is….”
Again Princeton came to the rescue.
“We know it!”
She flopped her bosom, took a snort of air and continued.
“The patient in Bed 11, Ward B, was admitted Sunday as a patient of Dr.
Ethridge Sterling, Senior, under the observation of Dr. Ethridge
“Yes, Miss Kerr. But the thing I wish you to report upon is the
She flopped her bosom again and said:
“Miss Kexter, my white nurse on Ward B is one of the finest women I have
ever met in the nursing profession. And she had been most surpassingly
brave through this entire … investigation…. I think it has come to
“Trained with us?” Dr. Harrison asked.
“Yes. Stood second in her class. She has under her five student nurses
into whose records I have gone most thoroughly … and who have been
“Miss Kerr,” Dr. MacArthur interrupted, “we have all been cruelly
grilled as you call it. Please try to realize that it is not because we
suspect your department … any more than any other … that we are
“Dr. MacArthur,” she bit her lips, “my department has been my life; when
it is criticized….”
“We know you do! And so does everybody else concerned,” Dr. Harrison
interposed. “Really Miss Kerr, please stick to what has happened. Your
niece has night duty on Ward B, I believe?”
“She says you gave her orders about what to say to the patients about
the death. Did you?” Cub Sterling had forgotten his manners and become
“I wasn’t on duty, Dr. Ethridge.”
“Did you talk to her over the telephone?”
“Of course not. How should I know of the death?”
“Did you talk to her on the ward?”
She inflated entirely and said with a defiant calm:
“Doctor Ethridge, I just answered that question.”
“Then how do you explain her statement, Miss Kerr?”
A sudden terror flicked her china blue eyes. She dropped the lids
instantly and replied with studied slowness:
“The child has been through such an ordeal, she was rattled.”
Bear Sterling shifted, Dr. Harrison stroked his beard, Dr. MacArthur
frowned and took up the questioning before Cub Sterling had regained his
“Who has charge of the hypodermic syringes on your floors, Miss Kerr?”
“The white nurse in charge.”
“Who has access to them?”
“She and the student nurses on duty.”
“At all hours?” Bear Sterling rumbled.
“At _all_ hours, Dr. Sterling. _Night_ as well as day,” she defied.
His two words nicked her composure. She questioned shortly:
“Why aren’t you questioning my night supervisor?”
“She was not available when your niece discovered the murder, and
therefore her testimony would have no value.”
“Where was she?” Dr. Harrison drawled.
Miss Kerr began to turn purple.
“In the lavatory, Doctor.”
“What time did you get into the Clinic this morning, Miss Kerr?”
She turned her defiant eyes upon Cub Sterling and struck:
“At four sharp. The night superintendent had called me at three-thirty
and told me. I came over immediately. You were still with Dr. MacArthur,
Again his “Thank you” cut her down.
Dr. MacArthur realized she was useless, so he said:
“Thank you, Miss Kerr. You have been a great help. Of course I do not
have to ask a person of your integrity to realize the necessity of
Princeton took his cue and opened the door.
Miss Kerr rose majestically and smiled inclusively.
She left every man in the room irritated.
“Gentlemen,” Dr. MacArthur soothed, “that is all of the testimony,
except Mattus’ story, and Dr. Sterling, Ethridge and I went over it with
him while we were awaiting the autopsy findings. Any questions or
decisions before Heddis comes?”
“What was Mattus’ statement?” Dr. Harrison asked.
“That he found the patient in the condition Father and I did when he
made his rounds, and the next time he saw her, at three-five, she was
dead,” Cub Sterling responded.
“Could the murderer have any animus against the patients?” Barton asked
“Not likely,” Cub said. “One from out of town and genteel poor, second
dispensary admission, and the last old patient. Been in the hospital
He was interrupted by a knock upon the door and Dr. Heddis’ stout, round
body, with its piano-post legs and lion head protruded through the
opening. His wide-set yellow-brown eyes, even in repose, dominated his
highly intelligent face. Dr. MacArthur motioned him into the “witness
chair” and he began speaking in a high, tired voice which, because of
his increasing deafness, had a sing-song quality.
In ordinary conversation his impediment required a “raising” of his
questioner’s voice, so upon a subject of which men spoke in whispers any
information he had to give automatically became a soliloquy:
“’Morning, gentlemen. Luck, pure luck! Organs appeared perfectly normal.
Began the obscure tests alphabetically. It would have taken two days to
reach coniine, if my nose hadn’t been haunted by an almost imperceptible
odor; after about a half hour my brain finally diagnosed it.
“The tests are conclusive. She died of an infusion of coniine, C₈H₁₆NH,
_per os_ or hypodermically. Puncture makes syringe theory conclusive as
coniine administered _per os_ would be remarked by the patient. Smells
like mouse urine. Also acts locally as a caustic. Burning the mouth.
Itching of the throat. Dizziness. Nausea. Tormenting thirst. Paralysis
of the sural muscles…. The patient had none of these symptoms?”
He turned toward Cub Sterling questioningly. So did every other man in
the room. Cub’s “No” was verbal as well as muscular.
“You see,” the leonine head rolled heavily, “one and one-half to two
grains administered hypodermically would be fatal … in a very short
time … before a patient would have the agony symptoms penetrate to the
drug deadened nerve centers. Before she could rouse herself the
paralysis of the peripheral endings of the motor nerves had set in; also
the deadening of the sensory nerves had begun. The dominant action,
however, is upon the motor system. Death ensued from paralysis of
He stopped to draw breath and no man interrupted. Toxicology was only a
branch of the science upon which this man was an authority.
Dr. Heddis continued: “All organs appeared normal. The stomach content,
the organs rich in blood … liver, spleen, kidneys, lungs … appeared
healthy. But they … all … responded positively to the solubility,
crystallization and Melzer’s tests.”
Prissy could stand the tension no longer. He screamed, “Of what plant is
coniine the active principal?”
“The fatal hemlock!” Dr. Harrison’s voice was heavy as he quoted:
“‘Then Socrates lay down upon his back and the person who had
administered the poison went up to him and examined for a little time
his feet and legs and then squeezing his foot strongly, asked whether
he felt him.’”
Dr. Heddis, who never had any trouble understanding Harrison, also knew
his Plato. He nodded and continued:
“‘Socrates replied that he did not. He then did the same to his legs,
and proceeding upwards in this way, showed us that he was cold and
stiff, and he afterwards approached him and said to us that when the
effect of the poison reached the heart Socrates would depart….’”
Heddis threw out his hands helplessly.
Princeton, who was weak upon the classics, spoke.
“Sinister!” he breathed heavily.
“Used to be used for whooping cough,” Cub Sterling clipped gruffly.
The information, for the shadow of a second before Dr. Heddis began
speaking again, made the pupils of Hoffbein’s eyes dilate slightly. Bear
Sterling’s eyes were pin points needling themselves past the grave
figure of MacArthur and into the long face of Heddis, who continued:
“Can be prepared synthetically by means of the same cadaveric alkaloid,
or ptomaine, that is formed in putrefaction of cadavers, that is,
cadaverine or penta-methylene-diamine.”
Hoffbein began to squirm slightly.
“The injection, C₈H₁₆NH (_Conium maculatum_), presumably combined with
lactic acid is colorless and gradually turns yellow and brown in the
Dr. Barton rose and leaned close to Dr. Heddis’ ear.
“In your opinion would the person who gave this … drug … require a
knowledge of chemistry?”
Dr. Heddis pressed his plump thumb into his cheek.
“I can’t say, definitely. But … all that a man needs to know of
dynamite to destroy a city is that it will explode. Rathbone is checking
supply sources, I understand. I’m not hopeful….”
He shrugged his thick shoulders.
“A medical student with a flare for toxicology could have made it
synthetically. Anybody with a medical background could….”
“Then I suggest,” Dr. Harrison’s voice was patiently fighting the rising
tension, “that we separate and think it over privately until after
lunch. Men under a strain as long as this has been upon Ethridge and Dr.
MacArthur are not at their mental best … you both need rest; you have
borne up magnificently…. Let’s re-convene here at two, gentlemen?”
Dr. Heddis turned from the door:
“If you need me, MacArthur….”
Dr. Hoffbein blocked his exit. “One question before we go. Is there much
hysteria on the ward?”
“Nothing visible,” Cub Sterling snapped. “There is tension of course.”
A terrible desire to get away from it all for just fifteen minutes …
to forget! … to run away and rest … made Cub Sterling walk through
the ground floor of his clinic and start down the accident room steps
Halfway down he hesitated.
Three minutes later he walked through Ward B, ascertained from a student
nurse that Dr. James was at lunch and Dr. Mattus still with the
students. Then he opened the door of Room Two.
Rested, relaxed eyes, whose black shadows had disappeared, whose violet
shades sung against the white pillows, turned peacefully toward his
measuring brown ones.
The girl took a cigarette from between her lips and began:
“I slept like a lamb. My leg doesn’t hurt. I told the interne a nurse
brought me the cigarettes and they quieted my nerves, so your shirt-tail
is clear. She let me keep them…. I’ve been thinking a lot. Look here!
Today is Tuesday! There is absolutely no sense keeping me here,
Dr. Ethridge Sterling, Junior, closed the door sharply and strode over
to the bed. His features were flattening. His dark curly hair was
dishevelled. His voice had its “’Night!” quality.
“You are my patient and you are not to get out of that bed until I say
so. I know today is Tuesday just as well as you do. Possibly better!
What you seem never to realize is that I am a tremendously busy man. A
Physician-in-Chief works! You are not the only patient in this hospital
… but God knows you are the most petulant! Spending all your days
lying there thinking up problems to hound me with! Tying yourself in
knots of complications, instead of realizing you are a damned lot
luckier than you deserve!”
Her mouth had been contracting slowly. When Cub stopped for breath she
opened it quickly and began:
“You may be right about the luck, Doctor Sterling. But one thing
medicine has failed completely to teach you is that people without money
still have pride! Do you think I’ve enjoyed lying here for ninety-six
hours having you throw up to me that the Attorney-General will pay my
bills? Do you? There is a rumor that the Attorney-General is going to be
in the next Cabinet. I was riding with him to try and find out. If I had
found out, I’d have had a scoop big enough to pay all the damned-old
bills you care to sling at me….
“Well … I didn’t find out! But that doesn’t keep me from ‘growing the
bills.’ I’ve got to hold my job to meet them and I’ve got to get out to
do it! And all the medical hysterics you could ever throw doesn’t change
the facts. I….”
Her voice broke unexpectedly and she covered her head with a pillow.
Under the sheet Cub could see her body beginning to stiffen.
He reached over gently and took the cigarette from her fingers. Then he
looked around for an ash-tray, saw none, and vacantly placed the
cigarette between his own lips. The harassment of the morning had
drained from his face. A deep concern replaced it.
His voice was bantering and slow:
“Looks like the phlebitis is traveling to your mind, little Salscie.
Let’s take it step by step. The job; it’s intact. The doctor who asked
me to take you in has been talking to the City Editor about you every
day. Mistake was I ordered no visitors and no flowers and so you thought
they had abandoned you. You may stay a month so far as they are
concerned. The job will be there when you get back. If you stay a month,
probably by then our friction may have worn itself out and you’ll begin
to see how nice I really am. Want to try?”
The pillow remained inert, but the feet and legs began to relax. Cub cut
his eye over the body and began talking again. He decided silently that
when the breasts stopped rising, he’d quit talking….
He took the cigarette from his lips and moistened them:
“About the bills, I’ve been a rotter. I should have told you that the
paper was paying them, or the hospital, or … but I was pushed into the
situation uninformed. I didn’t know whether you were the king’s mistress
or the governor’s. I didn’t care a damn! And then some terribly,
horribly important situations arose in the hospital and instead of
thinking the thing out, I bungled it.”
The heaving in the breasts became slower, and Cub said:
“About the bills, I’ll do whatever you want me to. The hospital will
take your note, or I’ll lend you the money myself. There is only one
thing I will not do. I _will not_ let you walk out of this hospital
until I am absolutely sure that you are perfectly well. So make up your
mind to that! I’m sorry if I’ve been cruel…. I didn’t mean to!
Probably I’m just too stupid to be kind, Salscie!”
The heaves died completely. He sat absolutely silent.
With her left hand she caught the edge of the pillow case and pulled the
pillow beside her upon the bed. Her eyes looked straight and completely
into his. Her voice was contrite and admiring:
“You are the first man who ever offered to lend me money and didn’t paw
me at the same time!”
Cub laughed heartily, and then snapped:
“Maybe that’s because I’m stupid!”
Her dimples danced and then she sobered.
“When I’m well, will you come to see me…?”
Cub held her eyes to his and nodded emphatically.
“Whenever you say I may! As often as you’ll let me!”
She began lowering her lids and filled the silence with words:
Cub sat very still and curiosity made her raise her eyes to his again.
When they were safely locked, he said, slowly:
The little flecks of sunlight in the room began cascading around her
hair, an inside blush centered in her neck.
Cub sat perfectly still and watched her. She knew he was watching her
and she also knew that something which made her sick with joy was
squirming inside of her. She began speaking desperately and with
“We might have to hang your legs out of a window when you come to
dinner. When I get a card table up, there’s not much extra space, you
know … but … oh, by the way … could you steal a knife and fork
from the doctors’ dining room, do you think? Not steal, but….”
Cub laughed joyously.
Her face was sober.
He said, “Cigarettes, a knife and fork, … anything else, Salscie?”
“Yes, Cub. What’s the trouble you spoke about in the hospital?”
The banter slipped from his features and his left shoulder began to
“Nothing for you to worry about. Just … some … friction.”
She took her right hand from under the covers and reached over and
“Is it me?”
His eyes met hers and he increased his pressure on the hand.
“No! You can’t cause everything, Salscie!”
Then he rose abruptly.
“I’d better get back, though. Also I’ll make a survey of the knife and
fork situation. That pack of cigarettes will be gone by tonight, won’t
She lay back among the pillows and nodded slowly.
Cub beat his way through the singing air and closed the door securely