“The hospital is facing a future which cannot be prophesied. So far, we
are running no more than the usual deficit and our problem will not be
how to continue on our course, but rather how to meet the increasing
demands which, in such a year, automatically become our lot. That, from
the administrative side, is the situation, gentlemen.
“It is, of course, a condition of which you are too painfully aware; but
I conclude the conference with the mention of it, because it has been
upon the ability to cope with the desperate that the reputation of the
Elijah Wilson has been founded….” Dr. Henry MacArthur hesitated, his
eye-glasses carefully poised between his right thumb and forefinger.
“Have any of you some special problem you wish the staff to consider?
… If not….” His penetrating blue eyes and pointer nose questioned.
Men said he could sense a situation in the hospital with the certainty
of a dog.
The doctors around the long mahogany table shifted in their chairs and
prepared to rise, but Cub Sterling’s voice checked them:
“I have, Dr. MacArthur. A problem which I should like very much….” Cub
began unwinding his body and adjusting his bushy head, unconsciously
balancing that list in his left shoulder, Dr. Hoffbein,
Psychiatrist-in-Chief of the Elijah Wilson, noted.
“The matter you told me about yesterday?” There was a note of patience
in Dr. MacArthur’s question. “Why not wait until you are certain,
“No, sir. With your permission, I would rather….”
Words came out of his mouth as though shot by mental force. They were
chosen with a clarity, spoken with a certainty and uttered with a
velocity which tired the ears of these men whose minds had learned the
defense of slow speech.
Dr. James Harrison raised his shaggy brown eyebrows which had not turned
gray with his fringe of hair and his beard and reached for his watch.
Twenty years ago a smart-alec student had said he looked like Christ in
a Derby hat. But even that didn’t stick. A man whose hazel-brown eyes
had spent sixty-eight years laughing at life received no permanent
nicknames. After thirty years of urology and literature, he still
believed that the wages of sin were occasionally a damn good living.
Cub moistened his lips and hunched forward.
Dr. Harrison stroked his Vandyke beard and measured the intensity of
young Sterling’s excitement. Since Monday staff meetings usually lasted
from four to five and that was an hour when nobody ever died, he could
give the boy fifteen minutes. After five, the really sick patients
didn’t wait for an audience….
“Perhaps the best way to state the situation we suspect is through the
facts.” The eyes of the other seven members of the General Staff of the
Elijah Wilson Hospital turned to Dr. Ethridge Sterling, Junior,
temporarily Physician-in-Chief, aged thirty-eight, whose present
importance came about through the premature death of Dr. Merritt at
fifty-two, and the natural advantage of being his father’s son.
Cub continued, “Two patients in Medicine Clinic, B Ward, have died of
causes which seem to our staff not natural in origin and which cannot be
Dr. Harrison snapped his watch shut and interrupted:
“Ethridge, isn’t it possible you are taking your Hippocratic oath too
“Please, Dr. Harrison!” There was a note of almost childish pleading in
the man’s voice. “Dr. MacArthur has gone over all of this too, and he
thinks it is….”
MacArthur took his hands from his graying temples and stated: “The
deaths have occurred in the same bed.”
With that phrase the waters parted, and Cub’s father, Dr. Ethridge
Sterling, Senior, Dr. Harrison and Dr. Barton braced themselves for the
nervous antagonism which was rising in Doctors Peters, Paton and
“The same bed?” Doctors Peters and Hoffbein inhaled the phrase as a
patient does the ether.
Cub gave one of his quick, emphatic nods and continued:
“The first was a goitre I was preparing for Father. Normal case with a
good prognosis. Basal average, and nerves in excellent shape,
considering the nature of the ailment. The patient died suddenly and
“Who attended her?” cut in Flannel-feet Hoffbein, as he was known to
medical students, and Dr. Otto Hoffbein, Psychiatrist, to the world.
Cub Sterling’s internal barometer began to rise. The antagonism between
these two men was like that between a mule and a shetland pony.
“Dr. Mattus, resident, saw her Thursday morning, Father and I saw her
between seven and nine Thursday night and Dr. Sarah James saw her about
ten-thirty. She was dead by dawn.”
A grunt escaped the set lips of Dr. Harold Barton,
“Dr. James came to us from the Johns Hopkins Medical School and is one
of our best,” Cub defended.
The men held their peace.
“And the other death?” Dr. Virginus Peters, Ophthalmologist-in-Chief,
asked, fingering his Sons of Cincinnati rosette which in the private
opinion of the majority of the staff should have been a dollar mark. His
face was as open as a peach blossom.
With a careful politeness Cub Sterling answered:
“The second was a heart case of a certain type. Also a very good
prognosis. Nothing to interfere with an ultimate and complete recovery.
She was put in the bed the night after the goitre died. A whole day was
given to a complete and thorough examination and the findings were as
stated. Upon the second night, Saturday, the nurse saw her at twelve and
at one. She died, suddenly, between then and daylight.”
“Any autopsies?” Dr. Peters’ face photographed emotions as a stage does
lighting effects. It now held interest.
Cub stalled for self-control by lighting a cigarette. MacArthur and Bear
Sterling watched carefully. When the cigarette was smoking Cub replied:
“No, Dr. Peters. Not on the first one. We thought that was a ‘fade-out.’
Upon the second there was a thorough autopsy. Father did it.”
Princeton Peters turned his lavender eyes upon Dr. Ethridge Sterling,
The only man in the room who appeared to have no interest in the
question was Dr. Harrison. He was scrutinizing the shadows of the
afternoon sun upon the tops of the trees outside.
Doctors Peters, Hoffbein, Barton, and Paton sat, as much as their
respective builds allowed, upon the edges of their chairs, and looked at
Bear Sterling resembled his famous nickname. But as the years wore on,
it should have been changed to Polar-Bear. He riveted his decisive
steel-gray eyes into Peters and growled:
“There were no findings.”
The sentence fell upon the table.
MacArthur, who had sat by judicially, started to close the conference.
Prissy Paton, who had been an obstetrician and gynecologist so long that
the staff had grown to consider him partly feminine, blocked MacArthur’s
move with his high, soothing purr:
“What do you think is back of it, Ethridge?”
“Can’t seem to find anything, physically, sir.”
Dr. Harrison continued contemplating the leaves. Dr. MacArthur realized
the thing must be seen through and settled back in his chair.
Dr. Hoffbein, Psychiatrist, who was perfectly aware that the staff
didn’t think so much of “black magic”, therefore enunciated his words
with an incisive clarity and leaned forward:
“What is your personal impression, Sterling?”
He inserted his sentences the way other men did hypodermics.
Cub Sterling gave himself an angular brace and replied:
“Must be something other than natural causes, Doctor. Everything has
been checked. Everything! Dr. MacArthur and I have combed the
department. The superintendent of nurses has checked the supervisor, the
head nurse, the graduate floor nurse, and I’ve gone over my internes
thoroughly … man by man … and woman by woman…. The reason I’m
bringing it before the staff is I’m stumped. Your experience … then,
too, medical patients are often in the hospital six weeks to two months.
We can’t have the thing repeated….”
“Fear psychosis,” Hoffbein grunted.
Bear Sterling heaved his thick shoulders and began fingering his key
ring. Hoffbein and his foolishness!
This small oddly shaped brass key, and people dying when you least
expected, made him think of the door to the cupola of the Administration
Building: the door nobody had ever entered since that night so many
years ago when he had fixed Flossie Matthews for Ted Longstreet …
before he was old enough to see why a reputable surgeon never had any
Ted had held the chloroform rag, and after giving her a transfusion of
his own blood, had fainted and fallen against his operating hand so that
the scalpel punctured her femoral artery … and Flossie hemorrhaged;
and Ted lay in the pool of blood. When he came to, she was dead … of
chloroform. In the meantime he had tied the artery, somehow….
“Gone” … he could still hear Ted’s voice and see that hoggish splotch
of blood his coat made upon the white plaster wall as he leaned against
it and stretched his slim hands out toward the lids of Flossie’s staring
Murder! Murder! He’d slipped in operations since, but Ted Longstreet was
the first man he ever heard cry. That night, even now … they were all
so young! She was a Tribly, Ted an interne, and he….
Not all the honors in the world would ever make him forget how they got
the cadaver down the obscure winding stairway behind the Director’s
office, the Nursing office, the pharmacy, into the elevator and down to
the old cadaver vat…. Whew!
It was before they began ticketing stiffs and just after they changed
from the hook system and the vat was a slimy mass of bodies, under which
they were pushing, sliding, hiding….
Then that vile job of cleaning up the cupola. That blotch of blood Ted’s
back had left and which wouldn’t come off and Ted’s saying:
“Sterling, every sunset the sky will reflect that I’ve broken my Oath
And the next day Longstreet had committed suicide.
He had never been back to that cupola! Nobody had been there. The only
key remained upon his ring day and night. Since he was famous, he had
tried to believe that the blotch was faded, but there came spells still
where he’d lose the key in his dreams and hunt and hunt; when he
couldn’t make himself enter the hospital by the main entrance; when he
would be unable to look at the cupola.
It took ten years of dissecting medical students to finish Flossie; even
then her legs were perfect enough to carry over to the new pathology
building. They had a curve, even to the last … an irresistible
Why couldn’t he ever learn that he must not look backward? If he had
looked backward _then_, he could never have married old Dr. Jemison’s
daughter and been the proud father of Cub and honorary this and that.
The only people who had ever known were dead. Long dead….
Dr. Sterling was cut back into the tense antagonism which was rising
between his son and Hoffbein, when Hoffbein remarked:
“Have you no private conclusions, Ethridge?”
“This is no psychiatric examination, Hoffbein,” said Bear. Bear’s eyes
also knew the hypodermic trick.
“My son has told you the facts, and asked the staff’s aid. He suspects
an unnatural situation in his department, and asks, in relation to the
hospital, how our experience would lead us to handle it. That’s simple,
and like all simple things, complex enough, isn’t it?”
Dr. Harrison took his eyes from the leaves, looked at his watch and
rose. He had said nothing for minutes. His action had the effect of a
seine upon minnows.
They were caught in his force. He said:
“What is being done with the bed now, Ethridge?”
“It is in use, sir. A patient of Father’s.”
Then with the steady stroke of a masseur, he went on:
“I see nothing the staff collectively can contribute which Ethridge and
Dr. MacArthur have not already covered. Mysteries in medicine are more
frequent than recoveries and Ethridge has my profound respect for
acknowledging himself up against one. When one has toyed with homo
sapiens as long as Bear and I have, one realizes that they are so damn
full of mystery … after all, people will die!”
“After the most beautiful operations!” Bear exploded.
“And the ugliest babies,” Prissy Paton’s life-long impulse to fawn had
tricked him again.
With his remark, the opposition collapsed.
The most respected and the weakest member of the staff had declared
themselves. There was nothing more to be said.
With several passing pats upon Ethridge’s shoulders the meeting broke
Bear Sterling lowered his iceberg brows at the utterly self-righteous
bows with which Hoffbein and Princeton Peters retired and growled:
“Come on out to dinner, Mac, and I’ll tell you about the golf I shot
Flannel-feet Hoffbein drew his half-expended smile back into his facial
muscles and slithered out of the Administration Building and to the
right down the long corridor.
Princeton Peters pulled on his gray gloves and sailed into the main
lobby, past the statue of Elijah Wilson, founder, through the front door
of the Administration Building and into his waiting Packard. As the car
slid down Wilson Boulevard he turned his stately head and gave the
Administration Building a regretful stare. The architects had been at
variance about the period and the structure screamed their different
tastes. The four corner turrets were the desire of Elijah Wilson’s
engineering-brother. The cupola was the addition of a New York
consultant; and Princeton’s educated-man’s knowledge of the arts was
always upset by the bastard byzantine building. If he had been on hand
forty years ago….
The car slid down hill and he folded his hands sorrowfully.
Dr. Harold Barton squared his stocky body which had never outgrown the
reach of any child’s hand, and forged to the right down the corridor
behind, well behind, Hoffbein.
Prissy Paton stuck his smooth, pudgy and wonderfully capable hands into
his vest pockets, turned down the long corridor to the left and in what
his students called his “delivery walk,” caught up with the lengthy
stretch of Cub Sterling’s legs.
“Remember, Ethridge, my boy, we are behind you. We have every confidence
A group of internes passed and Prissy’s green eyes noted that Ethridge
barely acknowledged their greeting. Then that report about his never
speaking to anybody except with a nod was true. Too bad! Too bad! He had
been against his elevation from the first. Too young! Told Peters and
Hoffbein so; tried to tell MacArthur, but the meeting came the day, the
very hour the Governor’s wife….
“Great confidence, Lad,” he purred paternally and pattered away.
Cub gave the door of Medicine Clinic a shove and strode into the
Two minutes later he walked into Room Two, off Ward B, and closed that
door. The inclination to be comforted, when harassed, was new to him. He
thought he was being medical and “carrying on.”
Sally Ferguson turned over languidly and slit her eyes slightly.
She was damned tired of being poked at by that Jew resident and that hen
medic; of figuring out a career and a medical school for her famous
father; of taking cascara and mineral oil; of being a sport and trying
to like it.
Her long lashes raised. The slits widened.
Cub forgot his irritation and gazed helplessly.
Her lips began to part scornfully and she said:
“Well … at last! Unchaperoned and alone! Can I believe my own eyes?
Give me a cigarette while I regain my composure.”
“No, Miss Merriweather. You are much better, but you mustn’t smoke!”
She turned her back and lay utterly silent. Then in a husky pleading
voice she began:
“Of course you are too famous to be human! I didn’t know you were
famous. I ought to though! Famous, dictatorial, and snappish. So
overbearing flies won’t even bite you! One of these pure-women-men. No
smoking allowed in His Presence!”
Cub laughed spontaneously, and the girl flopped over furiously.
The eyes blacked and the lashes began to wilt:
Her voice had tears in it. Cub’s amusement fell through his lips:
She sat bolt up and every curl on her head shook:
“You devil! You….” Her face changed desperately and she fell backward.
“Where? Where was it?” Cub leaned over and demanded.
“In my leg. My left leg….” She sighed.
He threw back the sheet and began examining. His brows had knit heavily.
His mouth was inexpressive and controlled.
The girl bit her lips, but when her eyes caught his, she said, flatly:
“Come on. The truth. What is it?”
Cub’s medical cloak lowered. He replied cheerfully:
“Just a strain. These things crop up like bursting blisters after
Her voice was frighteningly quiet and shocked him out of his shell. She
“It doesn’t do any good to lie to a person without relatives. I report
murder trials, you know … and I have a hellish imagination. No truth
is as bad as imagination!”
Cub’s hand covered hers quickly. Their eyes locked and his voice was
calm and certain:
“It may be nothing. It may be a touch of phlebitis. In either event,
I’ll take no chances. That leg is to be bound and remain bound for
twenty-four hours. And you are to lie absolutely still and leave all of
the worrying to me.”
He gave the hand a squeeze and began sliding too deeply into her eyes.
He said banteringly:
“What brand do you smoke, Soph?”
Twinkles pleated around her nose, but her lips were sober:
Cub shook his head threateningly:
“My dear little question mark, won’t you ever relax?”
The twinkles burst through and she threw back:
“If I did, I’d be an exclamation point!”
Their laughter interlaced, and he switched the conversation and asked:
“How’s Dr. Merriweather?”
“Living with his second wife, still operating every morning, writing
textbooks in the afternoon…. No! he couldn’t do that…. Those bitches
would have to know the titles….”
Cub laughed uproariously:
The girl asked:
“How’s your father?” A fine radiance wakened her features, and she
continued, “I like your father. I heard him talk at the Medical
Convention Dinner last winter and I like him, tremendously.”
Cub bowed quickly. Then, to cover his embarrassment, asked:
“What were you doing there?”
She twisted her head in the pillows and replied, demurely:
“Oh, I was sitting among the medical wives and daughters.”
Cub laughed again, and the timbre of it made her blush. She said
“Truth is, if you remember, Doctor, that dinner took place the day after
New Years. I was in the Press box pinch-hitting for … believe it or
not … the star reporter!”
“Queer I didn’t see you.” The tone carried admiration.
“You couldn’t very well. I was behind a curtain trying to keep up with
your father’s mental ball-bearings.”
“They roll,” Cub said admiringly, then he asked, slowly:
“What’s your name … really…?”
Her mouth twitched slightly:
“According to medical records, Doctor, Sophie Merriweather. But
according to the church register, Sally Ferguson. To the reporters on
_The Call_, ‘Ferg’ … to my father I … was … ‘Salscie’ … I like
that best of all….”
Her body began to stiffen and Cub straightened the cover over her legs.
His voice was casual:
“She _sounds_ like a cigarette smoker. What’s the brand … Miss
She looked at him slowly. Then she smiled.
And Cub said, “Camels, Chesterfields, Old Golds…?”
She nodded and he repeated:
She nodded again, and he said:
“Try to get you a pack at Otto’s. Bring them over later.”
Her voice returned:
He walked to the door before he spoke and then he said:
“A bartender who gave me my first belt, first suspenders, first razor
… and my first drink! May be late tonight before I get over there.
After eleven, probably. My house staff meets in ten minutes. Then supper
and after that … rounds. Be a good child, Salscie….”
Her eyes and mouth broke into a natural smile, which followed him out of
When his footsteps echoed out of hearing, Sally Ferguson remembered that
she hadn’t asked him any of the things she had intended to find out.
When Dr. Ethridge Sterling, Junior, again appeared in the main corridor
he had changed to white hospital coat. The sun had left the trees in the
back garden of the great hospital and the nurses were switching past in
lines of five or six on their way to supper in the new Nurses’ Home.
Had he put it to his staff in the proper way? It was troublesome having
women in a meeting. No matter how hideous they were. They always
listened to what you said and divined what you didn’t say, and whatever
else came of this thing he had to stick by his staff. If for one half
second they suspected….
And in a time like this why in the hell…. If love was as easy to
diagnose as disease … if he could be perfectly sure! He had been
married to medicine for thirty-eight years and they had got along pretty
well…. Why not leave well enough alone! He glanced up at the corridor
clock and swung ’round and returned to Medicine Clinic again. This was
no time to walk along reflecting upon what a smile could mean. Better
tell Miss Kerr how things stood. If your head nurse got down on you….
He lit a cigarette and considered. The proper thing was to go to his own
office and send for Miss Kerr. But if he handled her with a touch of
gallantry, she was always easier.
As the corridor light threw his shadow across the doorsill, Miss Kerr
laid down her pen and carefully smiled. Before she did either of these
things one was always aware that she knew whom her eyes would appraise.
She always called him that. When he was “a darling little boy,” she had
come from Massachusetts General to “help make the Elijah Wilson.”
Cub folded his frame into a chair and adjusted it into angles of
“Miss Kerr, at the General Staff Meeting this afternoon I reported the
two unexplained deaths on B Ward.”
“Why, Dr. Ethridge! You … you … wasn’t it a little odd … to …
“I don’t believe so. Dr. MacArthur and I….”
“But you,” she interrupted him and Cub felt instinctively that the fire
had reached the ridgepole, “you put the nursing service in a _very
compromising_ position. A matter which reflects so unfavorably upon the
_whole_ medical unit should, I most emphatically feel, have been
discussed with the head of every department before being presented to
the General.” A sanctimonious note entered her heaves of indignation.
He scratched his nose with such care that unless Miss Kerr had been
painfully aware he was contemplating her large flat feet she would have
noticed it. He knew that the nurses since time immemorial had called her
“Foots,” and she knew he knew it.
“Discussed. Yes. Grilled, perhaps better suits what the nursing staff
has been subjected to. But before we were disgraced I do think….”
“You speak as though you alone were bearing the whole thing.”
“Really … er … er,” her pompadour and bosom ascended, “Dr. Merritt
always….” then her china blue eyes protruded and she snapped:
“_You_ speak as though you suspect my service, Doctor. In all the years
Dr. Merritt’s staff….”
“We suspect nobody, Miss Kerr. We do _expect_ the nursing service to
coöperate and do as it is ordered to by the medical. This is not a time
for disagreements. Wherever the blame, until that blame is placed we are
“Dr. MacArthur asked me before the meeting if there were any special
nurses on B Ward. Are there?”
“In what classes are the five student nurses?”
“Two in the class graduating in January, two in the next year’s class
and one entered training last fall. Really, Dr. Ethridge, hasn’t my
service been probed far enough? For you, Dr. MacArthur, the
superintendent of nurses, and the head of the training school, to
suspect my staff….”
Cub cut her short.
“We suspect nobody … and everybody, Miss Kerr.”
But woman roused without consent of will is always woman who will not
“But to humiliate me before Dr. Paton … he’s always been against me
… and dear Dr. Hoffbein and even in front of Dr. Peters … without
allowing me to utter one single word in my defense….”
“My dear Miss Kerr, will you never realize that you haven’t been, as you
call it, ‘humiliated’? As your line of duty in a crisis, your service
… like ours … is suspected of a failure … somewhere.”
He rose and turned.
She towered from her chair with the determination of a mule.
“The idea! After all of these years! I can answer now … and later,
Doctor, for _my_ staff … and _myself_.”
The last word came in two ascending notes of inquiry.
“I trust you are correct, Miss Kerr. Good evening.”
The water-off-a-duck’s-back nonchalance with which he quitted her office
left Miss Roenna Kerr, Class of ’90 M. G. and head nurse in Medicine
Clinic Elijah Wilson Hospital since 1900, with a sensation of standing
with her feet in a puddle.
As the elevator girl respectfully bore him to the top floor where his
early rounds began, Dr. Ethridge Sterling, Junior, slouched with his
tongue in the corner of his mouth. He was thinking:
“Could break her damn neck! Sex-repressed old maid.”
Miss Patricia Withers had been night superintendent of nurses so many
years that she had developed an hourly routine.
From two to four-thirty, after all of the clinics had checked-in their
midnight patient rounds, she read mystery stories.
After thirteen false clues and flukes, she had just reached the place
where the real murderer was to be revealed when her telephone bell
With an intensity, every motion of which was profane, she snatched up
“Well,” upon a rising note.
The voice at the other end quaked:
“General Superintendent’s office?”
Miss Withers checked her: “Yes. What do you want?”
“This is Medicine Clinic, Ward B, Miss Evelina Kerr, Student Nurse,
speaking. The telephone of the night supervisor Medicine Clinic does not
answer, so I am reporting to your office the death of Alice Tuck,
patient in Bed 11.”
“What?” Miss Withers’ breath pushed each letter through the receiver.
“Reporting the death….” the student nurse’s voice began to quaver it
“I heard you before, child! Are you sure? No pulse? No respiration? Draw
the curtains and leave everything exactly … exactly, you understand
until your superiors come….”
There seemed to be no response and Miss Withers feared the nurse had
“Can you hear me?” the authority in her voice would have revived the
dead woman, if she had been nearer.
“Yes’m,” the girl breathed.
“Then do as I order.”
The night operator of the hospital was interrupted in her regular
reverie as to whether she could get into the movies, by Miss Withers:
“Get Dr. Mattus. Get the morgue. Get Dr. Ethridge Sterling, Junior. Get
Dr. Sarah James … and get Miss Kerr.”
The telephone girl decided that was enough for the present and rang off.
“Hell-let-loose,” she muttered and began ringing Mattus’ ’phone.
Miss Withers sat drumming her desk. Again. That’s the third one!
Superstitions! Like three on a match!
Dr. Sidney Mattus turned over in his white iron bed in his “Germicidal
Cell,” and reached for the ringing telephone.
He spat the word with sleepy vehemence born of unconscious fatigue. The
contact between his ear and the receiver took several motions.
“Nayaa.” The inflection bore no interest, it was simply a sign that
contact had been established.
“Dr. Mattus?” Miss Withers’ voice was like a splash of cold water.
“What is it?” he was bluntly and resentfully awakening.
“Miss Withers, speaking. The woman in Medicine, Ward B, Bed 11, is
“Humh? Dead? Couldn’t be!”
“Alice Tuck, Bed 11, Ward B….”
Mattus now wide awake thundered, “Who says so?”
“The floor night student nurse has just reported to me. That’s the
Mattus, too, had realized that it was. He was busily pulling on his
pants. The receiver lay upon the pillow and he was calling into the
“Get Cub Sterling. Notify Dr. MacArthur. Keep the day staff off the
floor until notified. Call the morgue. Call…. My God, Miss Withers,
call everybody but the police! No you don’t. Don’t call anybody but
Sterling until I verify the nurse’s statement.”
He ran from the room, the telephone receiver still upon the bed and the
lights burning. He started around the octagonal hall toward the
stairway. Three flights below … in the center of the lobby … he
could see the statue of Elijah Wilson.
As he reached the second floor he finished buttoning his pants and
started toward the door of Dr. Sarah James, then remembered:
“Spending the night with her mother in Cincinnati. She would be!”
With an indignant grunt he had passed the statue and was letting out his
stride down the long corridor.
As neither Dr. Cub Sterling nor Dr. Henry MacArthur answered
immediately, the operator rang Miss Roenna Kerr.
Miss Kerr and Miss Withers were classmates at Mass. General and it
seemed only fair to tip her….
The bedroom of Miss Roenna Kerr was bare as an operating room. It was
also a front line trench, but the enemy in this case was age. Upon one
chair reposed a specially built corset to hide the collapsing stomach.
Under the bed stood, like a pair of dachshunds, two large white shoes
with built-in bunion-rests. Under her chin nestled a wrinkle strap and
her hair was in “papers.” Kid papers, too. She snored with heavy
For the first time since the fire in Ward M she was awakened by the
insistent clamor of her telephone. She arose, put on her wool wrapper,
loosened the chin strap, and walked over to the ’phone.
“Eeenie, the patient in Bed 11, Ward B, Medicine Clinic, is dead!”
As quickly as the voice had come it had gone and for the first time in
all the years she had been a nurse Miss Kerr stood inefficiently looking
into a silent telephone!
Then, in her highnecked nightgown, she assumed her military bearing and
“I don’t care whose son he is!”
As assistant to Dr. Merritt, Cub Sterling had occupied a series of rooms
on the second floor of the Administration Building. Graduated to “golden
oak,” the internes called it. The furniture had belonged to Elijah
Sterling still used the rooms.
When his telephone began ringing, he lay caticornered in his golden oak
double bed with a pillow nestled into his neck. He had reached that
second sleep where even an insistent telephone cannot cut the purple
But the night operator of the Elijah Wilson had awakened Cub before. She
began ringing in short hysterical jerks like the throbs of a bad heart.
The pillow—when he became aware it was a pillow—flew through a door and
landed in the bath tub.
He took his fury out upon the ’phone.
The result was the same as if he had said “Boo!”
Miss Withers actually lost her speech.
Cub repeated the process and then in exasperation rung off.
In the interim Dr. Mattus had cut in upon Miss Withers’ line.
“Miss Withers? Dr. Mattus. She’s dead!”
“Stone! Get Dr. Sterling … wherever he is … get him … quick!”
Cub had decided, now he was awake, to smoke a cigarette. The pillow was
no go … but that lovely little laugh when he handed her the
The ’phone interrupted him.
He repeated his “’Lo!”
“Dr. Sterling, Miss Withers,” the words were tumbling. “Pupil nurse
Medicine reported patient in Bed 11, Ward B, dead four minutes ago. Dr.
Mattus has confirmed the….”
The cigarette followed the pillow … but was aimed at a different
“Dead! You’re wrong. I saw her at rounds. About seven. Dead!” His
incredulity almost Stopped his speech. “Gimme Mattus!”
“Dr. Mattus is on Ward B….”
“All right. All right. Tell him to wait till I get over there before …
and Miss Withers, call Dr. MacArthur right away. It’s….”
He had started to say murder … but he hung up instead….
The night operator snapped to the exchange:
“Now keep on ringing and let me know when you get Riverside 7892, Dr.
“Say, what’s the trouble. Can’t you wait….”
“Listen, Pal,” the night operator responded. “You know as much as I do.
A woman ‘went out’ and the whole place is raisin’ hell….”
“Aw girlie, quit y’kiddin’. What did they expect her to do? That’s a
hospital, ain’t it?”
In what the architects refer to as “The Master’s chamber” of a white
colonial house replete with early American antiques—mostly genuine
pieces inherited from his wife’s mother—Dr. Henry MacArthur snored
peacefully. His wife was in Paris and he had spent from ten to midnight
propped up in bed, smoking cigarettes and sipping whiskey highballs. The
enjoyment of sprees is based upon comparison.
He lay with one arm against his head, the other thrown out, from habit,
toward his wife’s side. He snored with vehemence; he had had a grand
Upon a bedside table lay a volume of Osler’s essays and several medical
journals. They were dusty. Only the telephone appeared to have been used
within the last week.
The telephone was as necessary to Dr. MacArthur’s existence as his
eye-glasses. To be so excellent a director of so tremendous a hospital
demanded that at any moment of any hour he must be immediately available
and ready with a wise, sane, judicial decision upon any subject under
the sun. Therefore wherever he went, whenever he went, whyever he went
could be known by any head nurse who cared to inquire. That was why he
had enjoyed his spree.
It had been the servants’ night off.
It had been utterly private.
He was topping it off with uninterrupted snores.
But the night telephone operator at the hospital worked upon the
principle that all men past thirty snore. Therefore she took several
surreptitious puffs of a cigarette, cut in upon the exchange and settled
herself to the task of drowning out a snore … long, continuous,
vibrating, insistent, monotonous….
She was successful.
The monotony of the bell dripped through to Dr. MacArthur’s
consciousness. He turned over and put the pillow over his head.
The operator took several more puffs and began again … this time in
the angry insistence of a crying baby.
MacArthur succumbed and reached feebly for the receiver. It was no use.
She rang like a wrong number. But it was no use.
He was fully awake but kept his eyes shut, in an endeavor to keep them
from aching, which they did anyhow … terribly.
He fumbled the receiver off the hook.
His “yes,” was like a cow’s “moo.”
The voice which responded hit his brain with an impact. He opened his
eyes and listened:
“This is Cub Sterling. The patient in Bed 11, Ward B, is dead. Found by
the night nurse fifteen minutes ago.”
“Yes, sir. Mattus and I have both examined her. There are no signs of
… of anything. It….. What shall we do, Dr. MacArthur?”
“Remove the body to the autopsy room. Order immediate autopsy. Keep
entire staff intact. Notify your father. Keep everything and everybody
composed and wait for me.”
The clearness in his head seemed to recede and he crawled out of bed
with a horrible weariness.
He had fought death, deceit, politics, criticism, financial panics,
women … but this was his first experience with … murder!