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Two hours later, under her direction and with her efficient help, Cynthia and Johnny Carruthers in medical parlance had "stripped" the guest room, putting it into the cleared bare order most useful for the purpose needed. If Ellen's heart was heavy as she saw the change made she let nothing show. And when, presently, she called her husband from the couch where he had lain, feverish and beginning to be tortured by pain, and put him between the cool, fresh sheets, she had her reward in the look he gave, first at the room and then at her.
"Decks all cleared for action," he commented with persistent cheerfulness, "and the captain on deck. Well--let them begin to fire; we're ready. All I know is that I'm glad I'm on your ship. Just pray, Len, will you--that I keep my nerve?"
This was the beginning, as Burns himself had foreseen, of that which proved indeed to be a long fight. Strong of physique though he unquestionably was, pure as was the blood which flowed in his veins, the poison he had received unwittingly and therefore taken no immediate measures to combat was able to overcome his powers of resistance and take shattering hold upon his whole organism. There followed day after day and week after week of prostrating illness, during which he suffered much torturing pain in the affected hand and arm, with profound depression of mind and body, though he bore both as bravely as was to have been expected. Two nurses, Amy Mathewson and Selina Arden, alternated in attendance upon him, day and night, and Ellen herself was always at hand to act as substitute, or to share in the care of the patient when it was more than ordinarily exacting.
As she watched the powerful form of her husband grow daily weaker before the assaults of one of the most treacherous enemies modern science has to face, she felt herself in the grip of a great dread which could not be for an hour thrown off. She did not let go of her courage; but beneath all her serenity of manner--remarked often in wonder by the nurses and physicians--lay the fear which at times amounted to a conviction that for her had come the end of earthly happiness.
She was able to appreciate none the less the devoted and skillful attention given to Burns by his colleagues. Dr. Max Buller had long been his attached friend and ally, and of him such service as he now rendered was to have been counted on. But concerning Dr. James Van Horn, although Ellen well knew how deeply he felt in Burns's debt for having in all probability saved his life only a few months earlier, she had had no notion what he had to offer in return. She had not imagined how warm a heart really lay beneath that polished urbanity of manner with its suggestion of coldness in the very tone of his voice--hitherto. She grew to feel a distinct sense of relief and dependence every time he entered the door, and his visits were so many that it came to seem as if his motor were always standing at the curb.
"You know, Len, Van's a tremendous trump," Burns himself said to her suddenly, in the middle of one trying night when Doctor Van Horn had looked in unexpectedly to see if he might ease his patient and secure him a chance of rest after many hours of pain. "It seems like a queer dream, sometimes, to open my eyes and see him sitting there, looking at me as if I were a younger brother and he cared a lot."
"He does care," Ellen answered positively. "You would be even surer of it if you could hear him talk with me alone. He speaks of you as if he loved you--and what is there strange about that? Everybody loves you, Red. I'm keeping a list of the people who come to ask about you and send you things. You haven't heard of half of them. And to-day Franz telephoned to offer to come and play for you some night when you couldn't sleep with the pain. He begged to be allowed to do the one thing he could to show his sympathy."
"Bless his heart! I'd like to hear him. I often wish my ears would stretch to reach him in his orchestra." Burns moved restlessly as he spoke. A fresh invasion of trouble in his hand and arm was reaching a culmination, and no palliative measures could ease him long. "You've no idea, Len," he whispered as Ellen's hand strayed through his heavy coppery locks with the soothing touch he loved well, "what it means to me to have you stand by me like this. If I give in now it won't be for want of your supporting courage."
"It's you who have the courage, Red--wonderful courage."
He shook his head. "It's just the thought of you--and the Little-Un--and Bobby Burns--that's all. If it wasn't for you--"
He turned away his head. She knew the thing he had to fear--the thing she feared for him. Though his very life was in danger it was not that which made the threatening depths of black shadow into which he looked. If he should come out of this fight with a crippled right hand there would be no more work for him about which he could care. Neither Van Horn nor Buller would admit that there was danger of this; but Grayson, who had seen the hand yesterday; Fields, who was making blood counts for the case; Lenhart and Stevenson, who had come to make friendly calls every few days and who knew from Fields how things were going--all were shaking their heads and saying in worried tones that it looked pretty "owly" for the hand, and that Van Horn and Buller would do well if they pulled Burns through at all.
Outside of the profession Jordan King was closest in touch with Burns's case. He persistently refused to believe that all would not come out as they desired. He came daily, brought all sorts of offerings for the patient's comfort, and always ran up to see his friend, hold his left hand for a minute and smile at him, without a hint in his ruddy face of the wrench at the heart he experienced each time at sight of the steadily increasing devastation showing in the face on the pillow.
"You're a trump, Jord," Burns said weakly to him one morning. King had just finished a heart-warming report of certain messages brought from some of Burns's old chronic patients in the hospital wards, where it was evident the young man had gone on purpose to collect them. "Every time I look at you I think what an idiot I was ever to imagine you needed me to put backbone into you, last spring."
"But I did--and you did it. And if you think I showed more backbone to go through a thing that hardly took it out of me at all than you to stand this devilish slow torture and weakness--well, it just shows you've lost your usual excellent judgment. See?"
"I see that you're one of the best friends a man ever had. There's only one other who could do as much to keep my head above water--and he isn't here."
"Why isn't he? Who is he?" demanded King eagerly. "Tell me and I'll get him."
"No, no. He could do no more than is being done. I merely get to thinking of him and wishing I could see him. It's my old friend and chum of college days, John Leaver, of Baltimore."
"The big surgeon I've heard you and Mrs. Burns speak of? Great heavens, he'd come in a minute if he knew!"
"I've no doubt he would, but I happen to know he's abroad just now."
King studied his friend's face, saw that Burns was already weary with the brief visit, and soon went away. But it was to a consultation with Mrs. Burns as to the possibility of communicating with Doctor Leaver.
"I wrote his wife not long ago of Red's illness," Ellen said, "but I didn't state all the facts; somehow I couldn't bring myself to do that. They are in London; they go over every winter. I had a card only yesterday from Charlotte giving a new address and promising to write soon."
"Wasn't he the man you told me of who had a bad nervous breakdown a few years ago? The one Red had stay with you here until he got back his nerve?"
"Yes; and he has been even a more brilliant operator ever since."
"I remember the whole story; there was a lot of thrill in it as you told it. How Red made him rest and build up and then fairly forced him to operate, against his will, to prove to him that he had got his nerve back? Jove! Do you think that man wouldn't cross the ocean in a hurry if he thought he could lift his finger to help our poor boy?"
King's speech had taken on such a fatherly tone of late that Ellen was not surprised to hear him thus allude to his senior.
"Yes, Jack Leaver would do anything for Red, but I know Red would never let us summon him from so far."
"Summon him from the antipodes--I would. And we don't have to consult Red. His wish is enough. Leave it to me, Mrs. Burns; I'll take all the responsibility."
She smiled at him, feeling that she must not express the very natural and unwelcome thought that to call a friend from so far away was to admit that the situation was desperate. Burns had said many times that Doctor Van Horn was using the very latest and most acceptable methods for his relief, and that his confidence in him was absolute. None the less she knew that the very sight of John Leaver's face would be like that of a shore light to a ship groping in a heavy fog.
Within twenty-four hours Jordan King came dashing in to wave a cable message before her. "Read that, and thank heaven that you have such friends in the world."
At a glance her eyes took in the pregnant line, and the first tears she had shed leaped to her eyes and misted them, so that she had to wipe them away to read the welcome words again.
We sail Saturday. Love to Doctor and Mrs. Burns.
A week later, Burns, waking from an uneasy slumber, opened his eyes upon a new figure at his bedside. For a moment he stared uncomprehending into the dark, distinguished face of his old friend, then put out his uninjured hand with a weak clutch.
"Are you real, Jack?" he demanded in a whisper.
"As real as that bedpost. And mighty glad to see you, my dear boy. They tell me the worst is over, and that you're improving. That's worth the journey to see."
"You didn't come from--England?"
"Of course I did. I'd come from the end of the world, and you know it! Why in the name of friendship didn't somebody send me word before?"
"Who sent it now?"
"That's a secret. I hoped to be able to do something for you, Red, just to even up the score a little, but the thing that's really been done has been by yourself. You put your own clean blood into this tussle and it's brought you through."
"I don't feel so very far through yet, but I suppose I'm not quite so much of a dead fish as I was a week ago. There's only one thing that bothers me."
"I can guess. Well, Red, I saw Doctor Van Horn on my way upstairs, and he tells me you're going to get a good hand out of this. He'll be up shortly to dress it, and then I may see for myself."
"That will be a comfort. I've wished a thousand times you might, though nobody could have given me better care than these bully fellows have. But I've a sort of superstition that one look at trouble from Jack Leaver is enough to make it cut and run."
By and by Dr. John Leaver came downstairs and joined his wife and Ellen. His face was grave with its habitual expression, but it lighted as the two looked up. "He's had about as rough a time as a man can and weather it," he said; "but I think the trouble is cornered at last, and there'll be no further outbreak. And the hand will come out better than could have been expected. He will be able to use it perfectly in time. But it will take him a good while to build up. He must have a sea voyage--a long one. That will do you all kinds of good, too," he added, his keen eyes on the face of his friend's wife.
"She looks etherealized," Charlotte Leaver said, studying Ellen affectionately. "You've had a long, anxious time, haven't you, Len, darling?" Mrs. Leaver went on. "And we knew nothing--we who care more than anybody in the world. You can't imagine how glad we are to be here now, even though we can't help a bit."
"You can help, you do. And I know what it means to Red to have his beloved friend come to him."
"Then I hope you know what it means to me to come," said John Leaver.
The Leavers stayed for several days, while Burns continued to improve, and before they left they had the pleasure of seeing him up and partially dressed, the bandages on his injured hand reduced in extent, and his eyes showing his release from torture. His face and figure gave touching evidence of what he had endured, but he promised them that before they saw him again he would be looking like himself.
"I wonder," Burns said, on the March day when he first came downstairs and dropped into his old favourite place in a corner of the big blue couch, "whether any other fellow was ever so pampered as I. I look like thirty cents, but I feel, in spite of this abominable limpness, as if my stock were worth a hundred cents on the dollar. And when we get back from the ocean trip I expect to be a regular fighting Fijian."
"You look better every day, dear," Ellen assured him. "And when it's all over, and you have done your first operation, you'll come home and say you were never so happy in your life."
Burns laughed. He looked over at Jordan King, who had come in on purpose to help celebrate the event of the appearance downstairs. "She promises me an operation as she would promise the Little-Un a sweetie, eh? Well, I can't say she isn't right. I was a bit tired when this thing began, but when I get my strength back I know how my little old 'lab' and machine shop will call to me. Just to-day I got an idea in my head that I believe will work out some day. My word, I know it will!"
The other two looked at each other, smiling joyously.
"He's getting well," said Ellen Burns.
"No doubt of it in the world," agreed Jordan King.
"Sit down here where I can look at you both," commanded the convalescent. "Jord, isn't my wife something to look at in that blue frock she's wearing? I like these things she melts into evenings, like that smoky blue she has on now. It seems to satisfy my eyes."
"Not much wonder in that. She would satisfy anybody's eyes."
"That's quite enough about me," Ellen declared. "The thing that's really interesting is that your eyes are brighter to-night, Red, than they have been for two long months. I believe it's getting downstairs."
"Of course it is. Downstairs has been a mythical sort of place for a good while. I couldn't quite believe in it. I've thought a thousand times of this blue couch and these pillows. I've thought of that old grand piano of yours, and of how it would seem to hear you play it again. Play for me now, will you, Len?"
She sat down in her old place, and his eyes watched her hungrily, as King could plainly see. To the younger man the love between these two was something to study and believe in, something to hope for as a wonderful possibility in his own case.
When Ellen stopped playing Burns spoke musingly. Speech seemed a necessity for him to-night--happiness overflowed and must find expression.
"I've had a lot of stock advice for my patients that'll mean something I understand for myself now," he said. He sat almost upright among the blue pillows, his arm outstretched along the back of the couch, his long legs comfortably extended. It was no longer the attitude of the invalid but of the well man enjoying earned repose. "I wonder how often I've said to some tired mother or too-busy housewife who longed for rest: 'If you were to become crippled or even forbidden to work any more and made to rest for good, how happy these past years would seem to you when you were tired because you had accomplished something.' I can say that now with personal conviction of its truth. It looks to me as if to come in dog-tired and drop into this corner with the memory of a good job done would be the best fun I've ever had."
"I know," King nodded. "I learned that, too, last spring."
"Of course you did. And now, instead of going to work, I've got to take this blamed sea voyage of a month. Van and Leaver are pretty hard on me, don't you think? The consolation in that, though, is that my wife needs it quite as much as I do. I want to tan those cheeks of hers. Len, will you wear the brown tweeds on shipboard?"
"Of course I will. How your mind seems to run to clothes to-night. What will Your Highness wear himself?"
"The worst old clothes I can find. Then when I get back I'll go to the tailor's and start life all over again, with the neatest lot of stuff he can make me--a regular honeymoon effect." Burns laughed, lifting his chin with the old look of purpose and power touching his thin face.
"I'm happy to-night," he went on; "there's no use denying it. I'm not sorry, now it's over, I've had this experience, for I've learned some things I've never known before and wouldn't have found out any other way. I know now what it means to be down where life doesn't seem worth much, and how it feels to have the other fellow trying to pull you out. I know how the whisper of a voice you love sounds to you in the middle of a black night, when you think you can't bear another minute of pain. Oh, I know a lot of things I can't talk about, but they'll make a difference in the future. If I don't have more patience with my patients it'll be because memory is a treacherous thing, and I've forgotten what I have no business to forget--because the good Lord means me to remember!"
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