“DEAD OF NIGHT” (2/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents.
“Dead of Night” is one of two stories from Misadventures which reappeared in Harvey’s The Arm of Mrs. Egan and Other Stories (1951). This explains its inclusion in modern editions of Harvey’s collected fiction. The other, “The Schalcken Replica,” was rewritten and republished as “Old Masters.” I believe that the copyright for all of these stories expired in 2007, but if there are any copyright issues with republishing “Dead of Night” on Tychy, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org Ed.]
At a quarter-past two the man in the bed next to Mr. Digby died. When Nurse Coates came into the room, she no longer heard the puffing, snoring breathing. She went to the telephone and rang up the night Sister.
“He died ten minutes ago,” she said. “Mr. Simpson said it was not necessary to call him.”
“He wasn’t in pain,” said the Sister. “He’d have been a long case to nurse, and you are short of beds. Tell Nurse Farrell to get a screen. I’m sending Nurse Allison off duty. She’s done up, poor girl, and I find that she had a wire this evening to say that her brother has been killed at the front. She hasn’t had a moment to herself since. I’ll send down the probationer from 17 to give Nurse Farrell a hand. Without lights it makes things very awkward. They say Mr. Cavendish in the theatre was simply awful because he couldn’t have the big headlight on. I’d like to see him left in charge of a ward with only an electric torch and a probationer. He’s still operating.”
“One, two, three” – Athelstan Digby listened to a man’s voice that seemed to come from the other side of nowhere; “now lift.” For the second time that night he felt pain, as his bruised body was seized none too gently and dropped into something that was harder than the bed. Where was he? In hospital, of course; in the Bradborough Infirmary, on whose weekly board of management he had sat for years. He had been knocked down; there were Zeppelins somewhere; his jaw had been broken. Hadn’t one of those young doctors said something about an operation? Now he was in the lift; now they were once again in the region of cold, stone-flagged corridors.
“Mr. Cavendish was in an awful temper to-night. He was throwing things all over the theatre. You should have heard him swearing at the Sister.”
“He’s all nerves, that’s what he is,” said the second voice. “I don’t blame him. He’s been operating since six o’clock, Mr. Darbyshire’s list as well as his own. This wouldn’t be a bad place to be in if they started to drop bombs. What sort of a smash was he in?”
“Knocked down by a taxi; two of them. The old cove got his jaw broke, while she only had her bonnet knocked off. Reminds me of a Saturday-night scrap with my missis. Steady on, George! Mind the swing doors. Now, on that table there when I say “lift.” Are you ready? Now! We’re keeping poor old Simeon busy. You’ve never seen him operate? Very neat; large, clean incisions, and no anaesthetics. I wonder if they’ve got permission from the old gentleman’s people. Do you remember that case six months ago and the row there was afterwards? You should have seen Simeon’s sewing up.”
“I’ve never been in here before,” said the other voice.
“No? Well, there’s nothing much to see. But wait till we’ve got the new buildings; marble-topped tables and tiled floors; beautifully cool in summer. I wonder if those Zepps are coming after all.”
Mr. Digby heard the doors swing to behind them and the footsteps die away down the echoing corridor. His brain had become clear; but how cold it was, and they had pulled the sheet over his face. He didn’t dread the operation, but it was very lonely there in the dark without even a nurse. What was it the man said about no anaesthetic? He must have been joking, of course, pulling the other fellow’s leg. Perhaps they would use local anaesthesia in a case like his. Anyhow, he hoped they would have enough light in the theatre to see properly.
Oh! but it was dark and cold! He hoped they would not keep him long; they might at least have sent a nurse.
Mr. Digby waited and waited, but no one came. The only sound he heard was the distant howling of a cat that cried like a baby in pain. He could not move; every bone in his body ached; never had he been so cold.
The cat ceased to howl. Half a minute later he heard a noise which he had only once heard in his life before, the dull, muffled boom of an exploding bomb.
When Mr. Digby regained consciousness, he found himself back again in the little private ward at the end of Ward 16. The lights were turned on; the fire was burning brightly. His feet felt the grateful warmth of a hot-water bottle. There were hot bottles under the blankets at his side. He smiled faintly at the night Sister, who was tucking in the blanket at the foot of the bed, and wondered why the nurse who was helping her had been crying.
“You’re feeling better?” said the night-nurse with a cheerfulness that somehow seemed to be assumed. “Now I want you to drink a little hot milk.” She put the spout of the feeding cup between his lips.
“And the operation? That’s over all right?”
“Come, don’t worry about operations, dad. It may not be necessary for you after all, and it’s bad for you to talk. Drink the milk and go to sleep. Look, I’ve brought my knitting, and I’m going to sit beside you for a little while.”
“She’s very kind to me,” thought Athelstan Digby as he closed his eyes, “very kind; but I wonder why she looks at me in that curious way, as if she were afraid of me.”
When on the following day it became known that the occupant of number 16 Private Ward was Mr. Digby, one of the members of the weekly board of management, and not Mr. Riley, of 28a, Redpole Street, Gilder and Picture-Frame Maker, the authorities of the Bradborough Infirmary were profuse in their apologies. The Secretary brought a large bunch of early daffodils and sent them to Mr. Digby with his compliments. The matron, white-capped and starched, arranged for a special nurse, and made a point of coming into the room herself to find fault with her for not having pulled down the blinds to shut out the sun. “Pull them up again,” said Mr. Digby as soon as she was gone, “and never mind what she says. An old bachelor like myself knows how to deal with matrons.”
The house surgeon who had called him “dad” tried to efface the impression he had made by referring to him as Mr. Danby, while giving the nurse wrong instructions as to details of nursing which she had already rightly carried out. Mr. Darbyshire found time to keep the whole of the theatre staff and his honorary anaesthetist waiting while he cheered Mr. Digby up with an account of his play on the links the previous afternoon. Even Samuel Travers managed to look in and condole with him as a humble physician on having fallen into the hands of surgeons.
None of his visitors stayed very long; all would like to have stayed longer, but they declared that rest and quiet were absolutely essential. Dr. Digby began to think that they were right.
In after years Mr. Digby declared that he learned more about hospital management during those days of tedious convalescence than he had during the whole of his ten years’ conscientious attendance on the weekly board. He watched the greater light that ruled by day and the lesser light that ruled by night. Names became personalities. He had known who got the credit; now he knew who did the work.
He saw comedy waiting impatiently behind the scenes until tragedy stepped off the boards. Sometimes he saw them together on the stage. Old men, white-haired and venerable, could go through life, he found, without having found the patience of a boy of sixteen. And he was quite certain that when the gramophone was turned on to “Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,” no one wanted to see the chaplain. He felt sorry for the chaplain. The priests of this temple all wore white coats. The outside of the cup and platter was always clean, and whenever they performed their rites, their hands, like the Pharisees’, were never defiled and unwashen. He was shocked, of course, to find that nurses smoked when they were off duty; he was more than shocked when first he heard a probationer swear; but from the bottom of his heart he admired them. So callous were they, and so kind. He was almost reconciled to the prospect of their getting a vote.
He learned much during those ten days in hospital, but not nearly all that he wished to learn. A curtain was drawn over the happenings of the first night. There were times when he wished to draw it aside; but in the evening, when all was quiet in the great ward beyond, something, no stronger perhaps than fear of the unknown, held him back, cowering before his surmises.
It was his last day in hospital. The Sister came in for the visit which she usually paid in the interval between Mr. Digby’s afternoon nap and her afternoon tea.
“You’ve treated me very well, Sister,” he said. “I shall never forget my time in the Infirmary.”
“I’m glad you think so, Mr. Digby,” she answered, smiling.
“Especially the first night,” he added. The smile vanished. Then there was something after all which they were concealing?
“Come,” he said, “what was it that really happened then? I bear no malice. Old men tell no tales.”
“I’m afraid I can’t say,” she answered. “I don’t quite know what you are referring to. You see…”
“There’s the matron. Yes, I know all about matrons; but I’m a member of the Weekly Board, you know; and though perhaps you’ll never forgive me if I say it, I helped to get the matron her job. However, I won’t press you; but you can tell me this. Is there a house surgeon called Simeon?”
The Sister smiled.
“Not that I’ve heard of,” she said.
“Then who is Simeon, who operates without anaesthetics and who… No, I won’t finish the sentence.”
“I believe,” said the Sister, “that the porter who helps in the post-mortem room is called Simeon.”
“And if you wait,” said Mr. Digby, “I believe I can tell you how you get there. You take the lift to the basement, turn to the right and again to the right, and then through two swing doors. No, I don’t bear any one a grudge. It’s a mistake that might so easily happen. Only, Sister, don’t let’s talk about it again; and if you were to invite me to share a cup of tea, I don’t think I should refuse. And I think I could do with another blanket on the bed. You see it was very cold, Sister, very cold.”