St. Peggotty’s annual ‘Senior’ dinner drew Keede from his south- eastern suburbs to listen to the Head of his old Hospital reviewing work and casualties for the past year.
Barring a few guests–I was one of Keede’s–the company represented, as the Press said, all branches of the healing art, from authoritative specialists to rural G.P.’s, whose faces told that they worked their practices in light cars. But they all cheered Sir James Belton’s speech as though they were students again. Its opening dealt guardedly with the Great Search on which the Hospital teams were engaged in the newly endowed and extended biological laboratories; and he was sure that all who had the Search at heart would be glad to know that since their Mr. C.R. Wilkett had resumed his old post of bacteriologist, a certain amount of exploration of promising avenues had been initiated.
He then spoke of St. Peggotty’s more domestic concerns. There were esoteric allusions here; professional similes, anecdotes, nicknames, and reminiscences which set some of the whiter heads shouting. But he was not wholly inaudible till he expounded his well-known views on the Pharmacopoeia Britannica, and, incidentally, the ‘Galenical Physician,’ or General Practitioner. Then his hearers overbore him with yells of applause or dissent according to their specialities, and called upon him by the honoured name of Howlieglass, which he had borne when they walked the hospitals, till, at last, they all went home, merry and made young again by good wine and memories renewed.
Keede had discovered in an eminent guest, a friend and a colleague of the War,–a dryish, clean-looking man, who kindly included me in his invitation to come and smoke a pipe with him at his diggings. These proved to be a large, well-administered house in Wimpole Street. He took us to a room at the back of things, where we found the tray set and the fire in order. Keede formally introduced him once as Sir Thomas Horringe, who, he said, specialised in ‘tripe.’ Otherwise and always he called him ‘Scree.’
‘He’s all right,’ Keede explained. ‘He doesn’t know anything really, except how to climb Matterhorns. I only ask him in to please the heirs. He’s as ignorant as the rest of these knife wallahs.’
Sir Thomas said that the darkness of the surgeon was as electric light beside the mediaeval murk of the ‘medicine-man,’ or General Practitioner, and was beginning to tell me what Keede really did and prescribed when he was a sixpenny doctor at Lambeth; but broke off to tell him that, even if they were not too old to fight with siphons, the wife would notice the mess on the rugs next morning, and he would catch it.
Keede then advised me that all surgeon-specialists look on every case as a surgical–‘that is to say, a carpenter’s’–job, whereas the G.P., who represents ‘the Galenical integrity of medicine–before these dam’ barbers wriggled into it’–considers each patient as a human being.
‘In other words,’ he concluded, ‘medicine and surgery is the difference between the Priest and the pew-opener.’
Again the other dissented, and the two carried on some discussion they had begun at dinner about the Great Search, and whether Mr. C.R. Wilkett, whom they called ‘Wilkie’ or ‘Wilks,’ had hit on the right line. The only flaw in this person’s perfection, according to Sir Thomas, was that he had once inclined to ‘Maldoni’s theory of the causation of indeterminate growths,’ which heresy he had now abandoned.
‘But he has got imagination,’ Sir Thomas pointed out. ‘That’s what’ his coming back to St. Peggotty’s will give the whole team. Howlieglass never lost sight of him. He wanted to get him back to the bug-run; and he did.’
‘He’s the only man who’d have had the nerve to do it. He’s worthy to be a G.P.’
‘In the name of the College of Surgeons, ever so many thanks for the compliment, Robin,’ Sir Thomas laughed. ‘Never mind. We’ve got him again. Howlieglass wants his head, not his feet.’
‘Or, for that matter, his hands. ‘Rummy thing! You never find a man of his type who really loves a neat job.’ Keede made a suggestive motion of the right hand above the left.
‘Who is Wilkett?’ I demanded, for these two were taking him very seriously.
‘Just now? The best man in his line at St. Peggotty’s. What he’ll be in ten years’ time, the Lord only knows; but Howlieglass is betting on it.’
Keede interrupted the other for my benefit.
‘He’s bugs–agar-agar–guinea-pigs–slides–slices. The microbe- game.’
‘The Lancet’s right,’ Sir Thomas meditated aloud. ‘You G.P.’s ought to learn to read sometimes, and try to catch up with what’s being done.’
‘And leave you knife-wallahs to kill our patients? We daren’t gut ’em and tell the widows they died of shock.’
Sir Thomas turned to me.
‘If you’ve had dealings with him, you’ll know what an impostor Keede is. He’s as good with the knife as–‘
‘Any other post-War assassin. But I don’t cut old ladies into bits because it didn’t kill youngsters in the pink of condition. I don’t pose as an expert because I had to take chances in the War. I don’t lecture and publish on insuff–‘
‘You’re right, Robin.’ Scree dropped a hand on his shoulder. ‘There has been a deal too much cut-and-thrust since the War. Specially among the youngsters.’
”Glad some of you know that, at any rate. It’s the same between Doctor and Patient as it is between Man and Woman. Do you want to prove things to her, or do you want to keep her?’
‘There’s a middle way, though,’ Scree observed. ‘Howlieglass wanted to keep Wilkie, but he had to prove a few things to him first.’
‘Why on earth was Wilks sent to the Front at all? ‘Sheer waste!’ said Keede angrily.
‘We knew it. Howlieglass did his best to have him kept back, but Wilkie thought it was his duty.’
‘Lummy! As if any of us could get out of that!’ Keede snorted.
‘The “duty” notion was part of the imaginative equipment, of course,’ said Scree. ‘They used him at the base for a while. He was all right there, because he had time to think.’
‘That’s the research-temperament. But there’s a time for all things.’ Keede spoke severely.
‘I don’t say he was even second-class in his surgery,’ Scree went on,’ but what did that matter under the circumstances? Only, as you say, Robin, that type of mind wants absolute results, one way or the other; or else absolute accuracy. You don’t get either at a Clearing Station. You’ve got to acknowledge the facts of life and your own limitations. Ambitious men won’t do that till they are broke–like Wilkie was.’
‘What was his trouble?’ I demanded.
Scree hesitated for a definition. Keede supplied it.
‘Bleedin’ vanity,’ said he.
‘Lambeth has spoken. The way Howlieglass would put it is a shade more refined.’
‘Let’s have it!’ Keede cried; then, to me ‘Scree’s splendid as Howlieglass. Listen!’
Here Sir Thomas Horringe, whom few would suspect of parlour-tricks, gave a perfect rendering of the Head of St. Peggotty’s thus:
‘Gen-tel-men. In our Pro-fession we are none of us Jee-ho-vahs. Strange as it may seem, not an-y of us are Jee-ho-vahs.’
In the few precisely articulated words, one could see Sir James himself–his likeness in face and carriage to the hawk-headed Egyptian god, the mobile pursed lips, and the stillness of the wonderful hands at his sides.
‘I ought to know,’ said Scree, after our compliments. ‘I was his dresser…Yes, Wilkie was sent up to the dog-fight, and it was too much for him.’
‘Why?’ I said, foolishly enough.
‘Robin’ll tell,’ was the reply. ‘He had it.’
I waited on Keede, who delivered himself at some length; his half-shut eyes on the past.
‘When you are at the Front, you are either doing nothing or trying to do ten times more than you can. When you are, you store up impressions for future use. When you aren’t, they develop. Either way, God help you! A C.C.S. has to be near railhead, hasn’t it?–to evacuate ’em. That means troops and dumps. That means bombing, don’t it?…The actual setting?…Oh! They take a couple of E.P. tents and join ’em together, and floor ’em with tarpaulins that have–been in use. Then they rig up a big acetylene over each operating table; your anaesthetist gets his dope and the pads ready; your nurses and orderlies stand by with the cutlery and odds and ends, and you’re ready for visitors. They’ve been tagged and labelled by some poor devil up under fire–I’ve been him, too!–and the Receiving Officer sends in the ones that look as if they had the best chance. About that time, Jerry drops an egg or so to steady your hand, and someone vomits.’
‘He does,’ said Scree.
‘Then your job begins. You’ve got to make up your mind what you are going to do, as soon as your man is on the table, because the others are waiting. Often, you lead off with a long break of identical gun- shot wounds in the head–shrapnel on tin-hats, advancing. Then the five-point-nines find ’em, and it’s abdominals. You have to explore and act on your own judgment–one down, t’other come on–till you drop.
‘The longest single stretch I ever put in was three and a half days, four hours’ sleep each night, after Second Vermuizendaal in ’16. The last thing I remember, before I rolled over behind the stores, was old “Duck” Ruthven sluicing off his fat arms in our tea-bucket, and quacking, “Fifteen minutes! My God! Fifteen minutes per capita!” He was the final London word in trephining, and he’d come out to show the young ‘uns how to do it. In his own theatre with his own troupe, he considered an hour and a quarter good going for one case; but Berkeley’s team, at the next table, had been polishing ’em off four to the hour for five hours. Talking of Ruthven, did you hear what he said when the Aussies broke into the milliner’s shop at Amiens, just before Villers Bretonneux, and dressed ’emselves lady-fashion all through? He had to cut three of ’em out of their undies afterwards.’
It was no language that Mr. Ruthven would use to a Harley Street patient; but it made us laugh. Keede took on again:
‘I’ve given you a rough notion of things. Six or seven teams working like sin; the stink of the carbide from the acetylene; and the dope; and the stink of your anaesthetist’s pipe–my man ought to have been hung!–mixed up with an occasional egg from Jerry.
‘And when you’ve dropped in your boots, not dead, but dead and buried, someone begins waggling your foot (the Inquisition invented that trick!) and whisperin’ to you to wake up and have a stab at some poor devil who has been warmed and slept off some of his shock, and there’s just a chance for him. Then you dig yourself up and carry on if you can. But God is great, as they say in Mespot. Sometimes you get a card from the base saying you didn’t stitch his diaphragm to his larynx, and he’s doing well. There was a machine-gunner (I remember his eyes) and he had twenty-three perforations of the intestines. I was pretty well all in by then, and my hands hadn’t belonged to me for two days. I must have left the bloke his stomach, but I fancy I made a clean sweep of everything below the duodenum. And now he’s a head-gardener near Plaxtol. ‘Pinches his employer’s celery and sends it to me in sugar-boxes.’
This reminded Scree of a man one-third of whose brain he had personally removed, who on recovery wished to show his gratitude by becoming his town chauffeur. As the two talked, the old Army oaths blossomed on their happy tongues, and coloured the rest of their speech for the night.
‘This Hell’s hoop-la was too much for Wilkie,’ said Keede, when, at last, I recalled him. ‘He hadn’t the time he needed to think things out; and he was afraid of injuring his own reputation (God knows he was no surgeon!) by doing the wrong thing. But I think what really coopered him, was being in charge of an S.I.W. show just before Armistice.’
‘What is an S.I.W.?’ I said.
‘A hospital for self-inflicted wounds. He had to look after a crowd who had blown off their big toes, and so on, and were due for court- martial as soon as they could stand. Enough to send a tank up the pole, ain’t it? And a week before the Eleventh, a Gotha going home had unloaded one on an outhouse, and a bit of tin or something had caught him through the boot and lodged near–‘ Keede gave the bones their proper names and showed the position of the wound on his own plump little instep. ‘It wasn’t anything that mattered. He picked it out with the forceps, cleaned it, and it healed. I got that from his colleague when I was sitting on a court of inquiry into missing medical comforts in that sector. (I was a Major then, by God!–so I was.) And that’s where I met Wilkie again. He hung on to himself till proceedings were over; and then he wrung his hands. ‘Don’t often see a man do that.’
‘They do it oftener than women,’ said Scree, which puzzled me till he gave a reason.
‘He said there was blood on everything that he ate. He said he’d been guilty of the murder of a certain number of men because he hadn’t operated on ’em properly. He had their names down in a pocket-book. He said he might have saved ’em if he hadn’t knocked off for a cigarette or a doss. He said he had kept himself going on rum sometimes, and was woozy when the pinch came; and he hadn’t waked up and carried on when the orderlies waggled his foot and asked him to take a long shot with a dog’s-chancer. He didn’t know that lot by name; but he had ’em numbered and dated. He wanted me to go through all his vellum cards, from the C.C.S., so he could prove it. And, of course, he was eternally damned. Liquor? Not enough to have flustered a louse! Besides–he couldn’t stand it. ‘Hairtrigger stomach. I’ve seen him. My worrd! He had ’em bad. Everything that a man’s brain automatically shoves into the background was out before the footlights, and dancing Hell’s fox-trot, with drums and horns.’
The simile seemed to convey something to Scree.
‘I didn’t know that,’ he said lazily. ‘Were there noises, then, from the first?’
‘Yes. That’s what made me take notice. Of course, I argued with him, but you know how much good that is against fixed notions! I told him we were all alike, and the conditions of our job hadn’t been human. I said there were limits to the machine. We’d been forced to go beyond ’em, and we ought to be thankful we’d been able to do as much as we had. Then he wrung his hands and said, “To whom much has been given, from the same much shall be required.” That annoyed me. I hate bookkeeping with God! It’s dam’ insolence, anyhow. Who was he to know how much had been given to the other fellow? He wasn’t the Almighty. I told him so. Oh, I know I was a fool…
‘The only thing that kept him at all anchored was his silly foot. That wound I told you about had broken out and was discharging. He dressed it himself twice a day. I reported on him, which I had no right to do, and his Colonel shipped him off to one of those nice “nervous” hospitals where they wore brown gloves and saluted their C.O.’s in case they should forget there had been a war. But I was so busy getting demobbed and trying to pick up what my locum-tenens had left of my practice, that I lost sight of him. He went off to live with his mother.’ Keede gave way to Scree at this point.
‘Yes, his mother kidnapped him. She didn’t know there had been a war, either. She was afraid neighbours might think he was insane, and there hadn’t been any insanity in her family, and she didn’t want the tradespeople to talk. So she hid him in the country and suppressed all letters. There were lots like her. I was trying to get back my practice, too. Do you suppose that mattered to Howlieglass? He had his new bug-runs built and endowed, but he hadn’t got his Wilkie to manage ’em, and he chose to damn my eyes for not producing him. He gave me the telling-off of my life the day I went up for my Knighthood. I told him I wasn’t a gynecologist, and he’d better make touch with the old lady and tackle her himself. No! He said that was my job, because I’d worked with Wilkie on some of the earlier research details. So I had to trace him.’
‘Is–er–Sir James that kind of person?’ I ventured.
”Don’t know what you mean by “person,”‘ said Scree. ‘But when Howlie begins to dissect his words, you generally attend to him. Luckily, I found a woman who had kept her eye on Wilkie’s whereabouts–mother or no mother. I gave Howlieglass the address, and he kindly let me go on with my practice.’
‘He didn’t me!’ said Keede. ‘He wrote me to report to him after consulting hours, and I went. He told me to look up Wilkie at once. It was only two hundred miles, and one night out. It was lodgings by the seaside, and his mother did social small-talk without daring to stop, and Wilkie played up to her. She said he was all right, and he swore he was.
‘And it rained. I got him let out for a walk on the beach with me. He went to bits behind a bathing-machine. It was the trephining work that had stuck on his mental retina. (Odd! It used to be abdominals with me, the first few months after.) He saw perspectives of heads–gunshot wounds–seen from above and a little behind, as they’d lie on the tables; with the pad over their mouths, but still they all accused him of murder. On off nights he had orderlies whispering to him to wake up and give some poor beggar a chance to live. Then they’d waggle his foot, and he’d wake up grateful for the pain, and change the dressings. His foot was in a filthy state. The thing had formed a sinus. ‘Acted as a safety valve, perhaps.’
‘None of your mediaeval speculations here, Robin,’ said Scree. ‘Facts are all that the ex-am-in-ers reequire, gen-tel-men.’
‘He was quite rational, apart from being damned, and walking down those perspectives, and hearing shouts of “Murder!” We had high tea, with a kerosene lamp and crossword puzzles after. She talked about the pretty walks in the neighbourhood. Great thing–mother-love, ain’t it? …I turned in my notes to Howlieglass, and he asked me to dinner. My worrd!’ Keede patted his round little pot. ‘And where does he get his champagne?’
‘From grateful appendices–same as your bloody ‘umble,’ said Scree. ‘G.P.’s are only entitled to birds and foie gras.’
‘Get out! I had a whole tin of salmon once from a kosher butcher… . We-ell! Howlie took me through Wilkie’s case for half an hour, on my notes. I can’t imitate him, but he said that none of us were Jee-ho- vahs, and if, in my considered judgment, Wilkie’s foot was tuberculous, the best thing would be to give him a bed in his old hospital, and have Scree operate. I hadn’t said a word about tubercle. I’d been working out mental symptoms…Where in Hell does hysteria shade into mania?’ Keede broke off.
‘Not on these premises, old man. I’m a knife-wallah,’ said Scree. ‘Carry on.’
‘Howlieglass told me that the best of us make mistakes; but a mistake made by a G.P. of my standing and antecedents would only be natural, and would not shake the faith of my flat-u-lent old ladies. Just that! He was prepared to abide by my verdict because I knew Wilkie’s constitutional needs; and if I recommended homeopathic treatment, he would bow to that, too.’
‘But you tumbled to it?’ said Sir Thomas Horringe, K.C.B., with a grin.
‘Not that very minute, because it was my third glass. But I noticed he was beginning to dissect his words, so I agreed at once. Then he said it might amuse Wilkie to conduct his own tubercle tests with guinea- pigs and culture in his own fetid atmosphere. That wasn’t my affair. I was to go back and tell the mother that the foot needed attention. He left the rest to my bedside-manner. You needn’t laugh, Scree. He said that you’d come in later as the “bungling amateur,” and–you dam’ well did.
‘Then I went back to the “British Riviera,” and convinced the old lady. She said the change might do him good. But Wilkie became the bacteriologist at once. He disputed the notion of tubercle; but when I told him he could put the question to the guinea-pigs, and examine the slides himself, he was willing to come up and show me what a fool I was. I say, Scree, was Wilkie always as offensive as he is?’
‘Pretty nearly. It’s his sniffle does it. But he’s a genius.’
‘I don’t care for geniuses. He came up with me, and I gave him a bed for the night. He began to see his heads when he was turning in; and, not having his mother to play up to, he let go aloud.’
”Was he playing up to you?’ Scree demanded.
‘How can one tell with a patient? I ‘phoned to Howlieglass to come and look. He stayed till nearly daylight, watching. Wilkie talked about being damned and having much required of him. Howlieglass never said a word till just as he was going. Then he told me he couldn’t afford to lose Wilkie’s intellect for the sake of his bleedin’ vanity. No, old man! That wasn’t Lambeth. It was Howlieglass said it.’
‘I apologise to Lambeth.’
‘And then, on the doorstep–he’d sent his car home, and my man waited for him just as he was getting in, he saw a star (you know how keen he is on astronomy) and he stared at Tweed for about half a minute, and then he said: “Oh, Lord! What do You expect for the money?” He was only questioning the general scheme of things, the way he does sometimes; but my man thinks he’s the Devil. He’s more afraid of him than I am…Oh, well, and then we put Wilkie into one of the new paying-rooms at the Hospital, and we hurried up the tests, and they showed unmistakable tubercle. Wilkie saw it for himself. He was fairly winded. What annoyed him more than anything was that it would have to be a Syme operation.’
‘Who is Syme?’ I asked.
‘He’s dead,’ said Scree, ‘but he begat rather a pretty operation on the foot.’ Bob Sawyer-like, he illustrated it with a folded sandwich. ‘Then you turn the flap under like this,’ he concluded, ‘and it makes a false heel that a man can walk about on very comfily.’
‘Then, why was Wilkie annoyed?’ I inquired. Keede answered the question.
‘Because he’d done a good few of ’em in the S.I.W. on chaps who had fired into their own insteps. He said it was a judgment on him for shirking. He was seeing his heads every night while he waited. Howlieglass never noticed ’em. He’d drop in and talk bugs with him however looney he was.’
‘I never knew Wilkie more brilliant than he was in his lucid intervals, then. He used to talk bugs to me, too,’ said Scree. ‘I operated, of course. Howlieglass came to look (he never thinks it makes a man nervous) and–I couldn’t help laughing–just as Wilks was going under–Howlie turned to one of the nurses and said: “Yes, my de- ar. The best of us can make mis-takes. We are none of us Je-ho-vahs– not even Mr. Wilkett.” All the same, I made rather a neat job of that Syme..’
‘You hadn’t to stand being kicked for it,’ said Keede. ‘We gave Wilks a week to pull round in. Then I called and told him that, if he’d been a patient, I should have held my tongue: but, as he was one of us–No, I said, as he had been one of us, and that made him wince–I had to confess that his foot was no more tuberculous than mine. I took full responsibility for the error…Do you want me to tell you what he really said to me?’
I did indeed.
‘He said: “You! What on earth do you matter? You’re only a G.P. The tests were scientific. They can’t lie. I’ll go into that later; but I’ll attend to you first.” He did. He ended up by annoying me a little, though I’m the meekest medico on the register. He said: “How could even you make such a ghastly blunder? You had all the time there was. You had whatever judgment you possess under your control. You weren’t hurried. Were you drunk?”
‘I said I wasn’t, but I didn’t say it with too much conviction. As I told you, he annoyed me. I said that his infernal heads’ nonsense and his hysteria must have biased me, but, if he was eternally damned, the mistake wasn’t worth fussing about. If he wasn’t, he knew as well as I did that errors of this kind happened under the most careful system; and he’d be hopping about on his Syme heel in no time; and at any rate he ought to be grateful I hadn’t diagnosed his trouble as something scandalous.’
‘Not bad, for the meekest medico on the register,’ said Scree approvingly.
‘I was annoyed,’ Keede confessed, ‘but I wasn’t as annoyed as Wilkie. When he’d polished me off, he wanted the slides and test records. I don’t know what hanky-panky they had worked; but a youth turned up from the bug-run and said there had been a mistake in the samples or the filing of the guinea-pigs, and they were tracing the responsibility in the basement. Meantime, here were the genuine articles.
‘Then Wilks began again on him: “But you had all the time you wanted! You had no reason to hurry! You were under no strain! You had only to label and number.” That showed what he had been suffering from, at the back of his mind, at the Front. But he went too far. He asked the pup how long he thought he would be allowed to hold his job after this disgraceful exposure.
‘I had to remind him that he was one blooming civil case in one blooming bed, and he would get his bill, and he could bring his civil action when he pleased, but he did not command the Hospital staff. The youth got out. I took the rest of the barrage. No mistake about it–it was a desperately important affair to Wilkie, damned or saved. Then that “bungling amateur,” Scree, came in.’
‘Was this all a put-up job?’ I asked.
‘Not in the least. It was Scree’s regular round. Wilkie wasn’t as offensive to him as he’d been to me. More professionally pained and shocked, you know. That put Scree on his high horse at once. He said he was an operative mason, not a speculative one.’
‘You infernal old liar,’ Scree broke in, passing over the siphon.
‘That was the sense of it, at any rate. Scree said he’d been told to operate on a foot reported as tuberculous, and it wasn’t his job to question me. Then he mentioned the figures that the crowned heads of Europe always paid him for cutting their corns, and he implied that being operated on by him was equivalent to a K.C.B. You ought to hear Scree’s top-note. It cowed the bacteriologist. And then he sat down by the old boy’s bed and began to talk Research with him, giving the impression that he was sitting at the feet of Gamaliel. It was–shut up, Scree! This is true!–the prettiest and kindest bit of work I’ve ever known even that hardened ruffian do. It had Wilkie steadied in five minutes, and in another five he was sailing away about Research, with his brain working like treacle.’
The tiny muscle that twitches when we feel certain sorts of shame showed itself beneath Scree’s lower eyelid.
‘In the middle of it Howlie came in, and Scree put up his hand to stop him speaking till Wilkie had finished.’
‘Wilkie was giving his reasons for having chucked Maldoni’s theory,’ said Scree in extenuation.
‘Then Howlieglass slid into the conference, and there they sat, with me playing bad boy in the corner, while they talked about taming spirochetes. Didn’t you, Scree?’
‘We talked, if you want to know, about the general administration of St. Peggotty’s New Biological Laboratories Extension,’ said Scree.
‘Did you? Then you can carry on,’ said Keede; and Sir James Belton was heard speaking through Scree’s lips: ‘”I am ver-ree sor-ree to say that there has been a mis-take, Mis-ter Wilkett, about your foot. It was due to an erroneous di-ag-nosis on the part of Mis-ter Keede, who is onlee a sub-urban Gen-eral Prac-titioner. We must not judge him too hard-ly.”‘
‘And then,’ Keede supplemented, ‘Scree, who might have had the decency to have kept out of it, said it was an infernal and grotesque blunder on my part.’
‘Sorry,’ said Scree, returning to his natural voice, ‘I thought you only wanted to know what Howlieglass said. Yes, of course I went for Keede for compromising my professional career that way. We all went for Keede.
‘I haven’t forgotten.’ Keede turned to me again. ‘I’m rather an exponent of the bedside manner, though you mightn’t think it; but for sheer bluff and tying a poor devil into knots I never heard anything within miles of that show round Wilkie’s bed. They had him apologising at last for owning a foot at all, and hoping he hadn’t given too much trouble.’
‘But how about the mix-up of the slides? Did they saddle you with it?’ said I.
‘Worse! Much worse! Wilkie was drawing up to the subject–he’d have apologised for that, too–but Howlieglass got in first, and–‘
Keede nodded towards the obedient Scree. Once more we heard the voice of the head of St. Peggotty’s, preciser than ever.
‘”If you had been at your post here after the War, Mis-ter Wil-kett, in-stead of relaxing your mind in rest-cures, this lit-tle af-fair, which we have ag-reed to for-get, would never have ta-ken place. I trust you will not al-low it to oc-cur again.” And, damn it all!’– Scree’s operating hand smacked on my knee–‘poor Wilk’s mouth went down at the corners like a child’s, and he said, “I see that now, sir. I’m so sorry, sir.”‘
‘Did it cure him?’ I asked later as we moved towards the taxi-cup.
‘Ab-so-bally-lutely,’ said Keede. ‘Not a head or a hoot since.’
‘And was the foot tuberculous?’ I persisted.
‘Anything with a sinus of long-standing may turn into anything. It’s always best to be on the safe side,’ was the response. ‘We were playing for the man’s reason–not his carcass.’
‘One more,’ I ventured. ‘How was the mix-up in the slides managed? It’s rather a grave matter to play with samples, isn’t it?’
‘By the same woman who knew where his mother had taken him. It wasn’t a job to trust to a man. A man would have said that he had a reputation or something to lose.’
‘Arising out of the reply to the previous question, does Mr. Wilkett realise about the lady?…’
‘No,’ said Sir Thomas Horringe very gravely to me; ‘that’s where he has made a mistake.’
‘Mistake! Poor devil! He has!’ said Keede with equal solemnity.