previous
next



  ― 173 ―

The Patient's Hand-Bell.

DR. LAWTON sat down to his dinner in a distinctly irritable frame of mind. He had only just come to —— Hospital as house-surgeon; and, in the midst of the hundred and one worries of settling down, he had by no means appreciated finishing a long day's work by having to dance attendance on a particularly fussy “honorary” as the latter made his rounds. Now he expended some of his accumulated vexation in a vicious thump on the knob of the hand-bell which stood within reach of his right hand. Unfortunately he did not derive the relief he expected, for the thing refused to ring, an additional grievance which resulted in the use of vigorous expletives. Luckily these were cut short by the entrance of the ward-maid bringing his dinner, and the meal began to work its due effect on the hungry animal.

Before long the house-surgeon had sufficiently recovered to take his usual amicable view of the world at large, and when the bell which had so firmly resisted his efforts obligingly rang of its own accord, he only looked amusedly surprised. Taking it up he examined it carefully. It was a slightly concave disc of brass on a stand; but he could neither move the knob at the top, nor the hammer underneath.

As he turned it slowly round a knock came to the door, and the matron entered.

“This is a nice useful sort of bell you've given me, Mrs. Boyce; you evidently don't mean me to become a nuisance by ringing it too often.”

The house-surgeon, in that beneficence of mood produced by the happy combination of a good dinner and an excellent digestion, spoke quite genially, and he was utterly surprised at the effect of


  ― 174 ―
his speech. The matron, a pleasant-looking, middle-aged woman, turned a chalky-white; then she flashed a glance at the ward-maid, who, with a frightened look on her face, was clearing the table, her trembling fingers jingling the glasses and china.

There was a little pause. Then the matron spoke quietly, but rather hoarsely.

“Did you find it hard to ring, doctor? All you have to do is to press the centre of the knob firmly. It is rather stiff,”—and she showed a small hollow in the knob.

“It's rather a complicated dodge for such a simple thing,” was the doctor's comment; “only don't blame me if you have the trouble of coming for nothing; it seems to have a little way of ringing all by itself,”—and Dr. Lawton put the bell on the mantelpiece as he prepared to follow the matron out of the room.

Amongst the private hobbies which Dr. Lawton rode with enthusiasm was the study of hypnotism. He possessed a certain degree of clairvoyance, and that and kindred subjects were of the keenest interest to him. His position at the hospital, while affording him ample experience, gave him plenty of time to pursue such studies.

One evening, a month or so after coming to the hospital, he was sprawling comfortably on his big, leather-covered sofa, enjoying a final pipe before turning in. He was ruminating in a lazy sort of way on various phases of his favourite subject; an extreme quietude pervaded the room, broken only by the striking of his erratic handbell. He was used by this time to its vagaries, which he put down to the fickleness of feminine gimcracks; and now, as it disturbed the silence, it only served to recall, in his semi-comatose condition, the fact that everyone connected with the hospital, whether matron, nurses, ward-maids, or porter, was obviously and undeniably scared at its ring. And …

The heavy smell of sleep hung over the long hospital ward, saturated though it was with the odours of iodoform and carbolic acid. The rows of beds veiled in mosquito nets, ranged against


  ― 175 ―
each wall, looked like ghostly catafalques, shrouding unreal forms made grotesque in the dim light by reason of the cradles and other surgical appliances. The figure of the night nurse, as she moved with soft deliberation from bed to bed, cast quaint shadows on the spotless floor. Now and then a patient moaned, hardly disturbing the quietude of the ward, and occasionally the tinkle of a bell called the nurse's attention. Nearly always this sound came from the bed at the farther end of a ward, and again and again the nurse went to the bed, shook up the pillows, smoothed the covering, and tried to soothe the querulous complaints of her patient.

She had done this for perhaps the twentieth time, when the matron appeared at the entrance to the ward. For a moment or two they stood in conversation. Presently the matron walked down the room, stopping to take some small object from the long table. Then she passed on to the bed where the wakeful patient lay feebly tinkling his bell. She, too, tried to soothe his restless complaints; but, seeing he was not in a condition to be reasoned with, she put the bell she carried in place of the one beside him, and turned away.

For a little while the man lay still, his emaciated features working with discontent. Presently, with a huge effort, making every joint in the bedstead creak and rattle, he rolled round, panting with the exertion, starting the perspiration in large drops on his forehead. With a gesture of peevish determination he stretched out his hand for the bell. Half puzzled, half annoyed, he was quick to detect the change. Instead of the handle which he had only to lift and shake, his hand covered an unfamiliar brass disc. An angry glitter came into the glassy eye as he half lifted, half dragged the bell from the locker to the bed. Resting for a few minutes after the exertion, he felt the bell all over with his long, thin fingers, unable to sound it. A purple flush came into his face as he raised himself up to examine it in the dim light, then, with a gurgling gasp, he fell back on his pillows. His jaws gaped, the bell dropped from his nerveless hand and rolled upon the floor, and the feeble, flickering life went out …




  ― 176 ―

It seemed to the house-surgeon that he was not more awake now, lying on his comfortable sofa, than he had been a few minutes before, when he so clearly saw the struggles of the dying man to ring his hand-bell.

There it stood on the table near him. Just then the hammer struck against the brass disc. The matron, entering the room, heard it, the usual scared look coming into her face at its sound. She had come to ask for a prescription the doctor had promised her, but she had hard work to steady her voice to make the request. Dr. Lawton went to the writing-table and wrote for a minute. Rising, he crossed to the matron, and spoke:

“Mrs. Boyce, can you tell me how this dent was made in the side of my bell?”

He was a resolute man, and, as he spoke, his voice sounded harshly, almost intimidatingly, in the woman's ear. She made no answer, and for a moment he stood looking compellingly into her eyes.

“It was given,” he went on, “to a patient in No. 3 ward, and in his death-struggle it rolled on the floor.”

A long, gasping shudder ran through the woman's frame. She threw up her hands as if to shield herself.

“Sir,” she said brokenly, “it was not our fault; we did not know. We had no idea he was so ill; the doctors even did not think he was in danger. It was hard to ring, and we often gave it to troublesome patients. They were just as pleased as long as they had a bell of some sort, and he was an extra troublesome one—just the wreck of a man, brought in to end his days in the hospital. He seemed likely to linger on for weeks; failure of the heart's action, the doctor said it was; but as there is a God above I hope and pray that worrying over that bell did not hasten the end. Sir, it has driven us almost demented. Put it where we would it rang, till it frightened the senses out of the patients and nurses. When you asked for a bell, I thought surely you had done no harm, and here it might be quiet,”—and the woman broke down, sobbing like one at last relieved of a burden too heavy to be borne.




  ― 177 ―

The next day, a typical Sydney summer day, a half-decked sailing boat was scudding down the harbour. In it were two persons, Dr. Lawton and the man who owned the boat. There was a fairly calm sea, and they turned between the Heads, and out into the ocean. There Dr. Lawton took a small and heavy packet from his coat pocket, and, going forward, quietly dropped it over the bows. Had he been asked, he would hardly have cared to state his reason; still less could he account for his very genuine feeling of relief as they put about.

F. M. W. G.

previous
next