Off His Beat

STANTON tossed the evening paper to the floor and looked sombrely about the room. It was a large room, high-studded, paneled in dark dull oak, with bookcases built in flush and running up to the ceiling. He wondered idly what books those were, out of reach and forgotten, on the top shelves. Once, many years before, he had brought a ladder and climbed up, but he could n’t remember their titles now. There they were, lost forever, lifted far aloft like a little ledge of cliff dwellings.

The furniture was also of dark oak, with several imported and authentic antiques, bought by his wife from a very fashionable dealer, to replace the old mahogany that he had inherited from his father. There was a long, scarred refectory table, glowing like old port; a smaller table of the gatelegged type, holding a lamp adapted from a brown pottery vase, several novels, a silver cigarette box, and the current issue of Punch, Jacobean tables — were n’t they a little alien to America, a little conscious, perhaps? He preferred the familiar old mahogany that had seemed indigenous to the soil.

A bright wood fire burned on the hearth, and beyond it, half reclining on the green upholstered sofa, his wife Ethel was reading a novel. She looked very charming as she lay there, the warm light from a saffron-shaded lamp falling on her fair hair and rather childlike, narrow face. A white, manicured hand rested on the edge of the sofa, and he caught the flash of the diamond he had given her when they were engaged. Fifteen years. It was a long time. They had three children now, three little girls tucked up in bed upstairs. Well . . .

He got up and moved slowly about the room. There were his grandfather’s books, lined up in the dark oak shelves. The old boy had been a lover of good literature, something of a scholar. How the devil had he found the time for it? He had been a successful merchant — died rich, thank God. On the shelf at a level with his eye were the Spectator, Gibbon in handsome leather, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, and higher up some classical Frenchmen and three translations of the Iliad.

He took down a volume here and there, and turned over the leaves. There was a musty smell about them; the fine ribbed paper, indestructible as parchment, was yellowing at the edges. Pepys’s Diary, Boswell — there was treasure in these volumes, the reflections of rich and mellow minds. But how to get at it, men like himself? One had n’t the time, these days — even the sustained inclination. It was like a soft-handed man digging for gold — gold buried fifty feet down through frozen slag. One had to keep in training for that sort of thing. Fit. Sometimes on a wet Sunday afternoon he would take down several volumes and lie on the sofa. The prose was the best: it had more dignity and power — the servant rather than the master. Gibbon. . . . Sonorous, stalking sentences, rich and full like chords from an organ.

He moved along a few steps. The novels of Miss Charlotte Yonge: they ought to be on the top shelf. Alphonse Daudet in the original, bound in red morocco. He pulled out Sapho and turned over the pages. He had read it as a boy, and remembered how the young man with the blond beard carried the woman upstairs — four flights. Some schoolmate had had the book in a translation. They had all read it. His grandfather must have read it, too; there on the flyleaf was his name in the thin, sloping script of the time, and the date. The old chap must have been close to eighty.

‘What are you looking for, John?’

He shoved the book back into place and brushed the dust from his fingertips.

‘Just pottering about.’

His wife closed her book. ‘We’re dining with the Folwells to-morrow night,’ she said.

‘ What — again ? ’

She looked up at him. ‘We did n’t go the last time. You had a men’s dinner. Don’t you remember?’

He moved over and stood with his back to the fire.

‘Don’t you think we overdo this social business a bit?’ he asked. ‘Four dinners this week! And how many next ?’

‘Well, don’t you want to see people, your friends ? ’

‘I know, I know; but — they’re always the same people. It’s getting to be a routine, just like the office.’

His wife swung her slim silk legs to the floor.

‘Would you like to go away?’ she asked. ‘ We could go to Hot Springs for a week. The Hammonds are there, and you’d get some golf.’

‘Hot Springs? Lord, no! I don’t want to go away. And I can’t leave the office. There’s a new issue coming out.’ Her white brow, delicately troubled, smoothed out, and she got up gracefully, a rather thin figure in blue, a string of pearls about her neck.

‘There was something I wanted to ask you about. What was it now?’

‘ God knows. ’

‘Don’t be a beast! Oh yes — the new car. What color shall we have it painted? They telephoned to-day.’

‘Paint it black, and if you can induce Martin to keep the tires pipeclayed you’ll have the smartest car in town.’

‘ I rather like blue.’

‘Well, blue then. Blue, by all means.’

He turned to the door. ‘I think I ’ll go out and get some air before bed.’

Stanton strolled northward along the familiar street — blocks of conventional stolid houses of brownstone and brick, no two alike, their heterogeneous façade set back and protected from the commonalty of street and sidewalk by little plots of grass, enclosed jealously in stone copings. He knew who lived in many of them. Old Ashley, in the big corner house there, he saw downtown; with others he rarely exchanged more than a nod, although for years now he had been meeting them on his way to and from the office. He glanced up at the drawn yellow shades, smooth and noncommittal as the faces of men about a directors’ table.

Across the street, a man in evening dress stood in the light from an open doorway, while two fox terriers ran about on the pavement. Jeffries. He’d seen him that afternoon at the club.

‘Hi! Come in and have a drink.’

Stanton waved, quickening his step. ‘No, thanks. Not to-night.’

But a few blocks farther on he paused before a small, neat house. The light from a street lamp fell on a brass plate which bore the name, ‘Richard Bentham, M.D.,’ and by the curb stood a small enclosed car.

‘Must be in,’ he thought.

He rang, and stood tapping his stick until a gray-haired manservant in a black alpaca coat opened the door. The man smiled when he saw Stanton.

‘ Come in, sir,’ he said. ‘ The Doctor’s upstairs in the library.’

Stanton tossed his hat on a bench and went up one flight, to find his friend stretched out in a large leather chair, his feet in another.

Bentham rose heavily. ‘ Hullo, there,’ he said. ‘Come in.’

He was a robust, powerful man with thick graying hair and close-clipped moustache. He and Stanton had been classmates, but he looked ten years older.

‘I saw your car outside and thought I ’d stop in for a moment.’

‘Good. Sit down.’ He rummaged in a drawer for a box of cigars.

‘You did n’t come to Stevens’s dinner,’ Stanton remarked.

‘No. I had a case out of town.’

‘Stevens spread himself. Twenty men, champagne, and all the fixings.’

‘He must have been making money.’

‘Looks like it.’

Bentham bit off the end of his cigar and struck a match. ‘ How’s business ? ’

‘Oh, well enough. I get fed up at times — the routine. And this dining out, and bridge. Ethel likes it.’ He looked over at his friend. ‘I don’t suppose you could take six weeks off — five, at a pinch?’ he asked.

‘What’s on your mind?’

‘Oh, I had a vision of you and me in the South of France somewhere. Sunshine, palm trees, French cooking, atmosphere of elegant depravity. Damned agreeable, by George!’

‘It would be.’

‘Well, think it over.’

‘ I’m afraid not. . . . Another year I might manage it, though.’

The telephone on the table interrupted them. Bentham reached for the receiver.

‘Yes. . . . Yes. . . . Yes, I’ll come right up.’

He turned to Stanton. ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go out.’

‘Right.’

The two men went down the stairs together and stood by the car.

‘Come along if you like,’ Bentham said. ‘I may not be long, and you can walk home from there.’

They crossed the avenues and entered a district of ill-lighted, narrow streets, finally drawing up before a dark, threestoried house in a remote quarter of the city. Bentham went up the steps and was immediately admitted.

Stanton began to pace to and fro. It was another block of brick and brownstone houses, but these were sooty and neglected, and there was no protecting row of grass plots; the steep, narrow steps led directly up from the uneven bricks.

Once more he looked up at the house. The shutters were closed, with only a dim glow showing through the fanlight. Bentham might be there an hour. He’d better get home. But his ear caught the clanging of a gong far down the street. Fire? Patrol? A long gray vehicle glided round the corner, the man beside the driver scanning the numbers on the houses. It drew up behind Bentham’s car. The men jumped down, pulled out a stretcher, and went up the steps. They were greeted by a young woman.

Bentham must have found things in bad shape. He’d wait a bit; there was a certain drama in this. Presently the young woman reappeared on the threshold, pulled at a catch, and the double door swung open. The first stretcher bearer moved slowly through, and stopped. The steps were exceedingly steep; and Stanton heard Bentham’s voice from within call, ‘ Wait a moment.’ Then Bentham himself edged past and beckoned to him. ‘Lend a hand here,’ he called.

Stanton sprang up; and the four men, each holding a handle of the stretcher, moved down to the ambulance. As they slid the stretcher into place, he glanced at the face below him. An elderly man, muffled in the blankets, with dark cadaverous cheeks and glistening forehead.

Bentham drew Stanton aside.

‘ I’m going in the ambulance. Would you mind driving his daughter to the hospital in my car?’

‘Of course not.’

As the young woman came down the steps, Bentham led him over to her. ‘ I’m going with your father in the ambulance,’ he said. ‘My friend here will drive you to the hospital.’

He handed Stanton the key of his car and climbed briskly into the back of the ambulance. Stanton turned to the girl. ‘We’d better keep up with them,’ he said.

They glided through endless rows of narrow brick houses, houses shuttered for the most part, with occasional dingy delicatessen and tailor shops in the basements.

‘I hope your father is n’t seriously

ill.’

‘We don’t know. He’s very weak — and his heart —’

Her voice had an agreeable quality, poised, yet a little shy. In the glare of an arc light he saw she was looking straight ahead, as if fearful of losing sight of the ambulance. It turned down a side street, and was lost to view. Stanton increased their speed.

‘Bentham ’sa first-rate man,’he said.

‘Yes, I know.’

They found the ambulance drawn up before a great brick building with stone facing. The attendants had already withdrawn the stretcher and were shuffling with it through a wide lighted doorway beyond the main entrance.

‘They’re taking him up in the elevator,’ Stanton remarked. ‘We’d better go in here.’

But she had slipped out of the car and run ahead. He saw her standing by the stretcher as the doors closed. What should he do now? Wait? Or leave the key of the car at the office, and get home? He went into the entrance hall. The air had a heavy, acrid smell — disinfectants and steam heat. No one was about, but a few steps down the corridor a door stood ajar, a bright light shining within. The office, no doubt. Well, he’d wait for a few minutes. Bentham might come down. He took out his cigarette case, looked at it, and thrust it back.

There came a click of an elevator in the passage, the door opened, and Bentham and the girl stepped out. They turned in at another door, a waitingroom apparently, and he could hear Bentham’s low, even tones. Presently they ceased, and Bentham came out alone and crossed to where he stood.

‘Much obliged, old chap,’ he said. ‘No use your waiting about. See you in a day or two.’

‘How’s the old fellow upstairs?'

’Bad. We’ve got to operate. His heart’s the trouble.’

’Here’s the key to your car.'

‘Oh yes; thanks.’

‘ I ’ll wait for a bit. Can’t smoke here, I suppose?’

Bentham smiled and shook his head. ‘No, you can’t smoke.’

Stanton moved about the empty hallway. Who were these people? The gaunt old man upstairs, breathing in the ether, and his daughter there — waiting. . . . But it was n’t his affair. Why not get home?

A man came leisurely down the corridor, a stoutish pale-faced fellow in a nondescript gray suit, brown hat, and an overcoat unbuttoned, the collar turned up. He carried a thin leather bag, and was illegally smoking a cigarette. The door slammed behind him.

Doctors! He knew several besides Bentham fairly well. And he had had a good deal of experience with them professionally, particularly the fat, soft-spoken obstetrician who had brought his three daughters into the world — and charged him twelve hundred dollars a head. Service — service to humanity. That was their slogan — just like the automobile people. Service — and twelve-hundred-dollar fees. Well, why not? They spent a few years acquiring special knowledge and a little skill, and sold it to people who needed it — perfectly legitimate, just like plumbing or drawing up a deed. Funny how they all looked alike, though. Even without the leather bag you could spot them a mile off.

Slowly he paced the overheated, empty corridor. Through the half-open door of the office he saw an elderly woman in a nurse’s uniform busy with some papers. He glanced into the waiting-room. The girl had taken off her hat, and sat relaxed in a green wicker chair. What was her name? Bentham had n’t mentioned it, or he had forgotten. She looked up, without change of expression. He went down to the street to smoke a cigarette and see if Bentham’s car was all right.

This part of the city was far from his accustomed beat; it had a foreign quality. He felt a certain freedom. Freedom. Pity Bentham could n’t get away for a month or two. But why should n’t he go alone? Two months? Six months, by George! To sit in the sunshine amid the olives and palm trees, with the blue Mediterranean beyond, and well-dressed, leisurely people taking the air preparatory to an apéritif — people commonplace enough, doubtless, if you knew them, but he did n’t know them — did n’t have to. Freedom. And he’d read some of his grandfather’s books.

He went back into the entrance hall. That girl, now. How old was she? Twenty-three, perhaps. She probably worked at something. . . . He glanced at his watch. An hour had passed. They ought to be through by this time. Why had n’t he gone home at once? There was that new issue to-morrow; he ’d have to be on his toes.

He found the girl sitting in the green wicker chair. There was something gallant in her quiet control; only her eyes were harassed and restless. But it could n’t be long now. He moved across the room and sat down, the chair creaking under his weight. On the mantelpiece a small gilt clock ticked steadily, and then struck twelve brisk strokes.

The girl stirred, and there was a new intentness in her face; her eyes, unseeing, were focused on the glow of the lamp. Perhaps if he went out and spoke to the night superintendent he could get her a cup of coffee. He got up and, moving softly behind her, went out into the corridor. The office was empty; the gray-haired nurse was making her rounds, no doubt. He moved on a few steps. There might be a sitting-room beyond for the nurses on night duty. All the doors were closed, but he heard a step on the stairway. Bentham came slowly into the corridor.

‘Well?’ Stanton said.

‘No use.’

‘You don’t mean he’s dead!’

‘Yes.’

Involuntarily Stanton looked down toward the door of the waiting-room.

‘You’ll have to go and tell her,’ he said.

‘Naturally.’

Stanton watched him move down the corridor and turn in at the door. She would n’t grasp the full significance at first. No one ever did. What would she want to do? Go back to that house, or stay here in the hospital for the night? Bentham would arrange things. He’d better get home. But he’d have to pass the door of the waiting-room.

There was no sound of voices as he approached. Bentham, competent and watchful, stood by the mantelpiece, and the girl was on her feet, facing him. As he reached the hallway, he felt reluctant to leave, but what could he do? He’d only be in the way — an intrusion.

Slowly he went down the broad steps and turned westward. But from the corner he looked back. That gray façade with lights showing here and there. Those narrow rooms, the long dim wards. Life coming, life going. . . . A little old lady, settling into her pillow: ‘Oh, the morphia’s so good, so good, dearie.’ Amid the fumes of ether, a bandaged, broken figure stirring, groping. . . . A dark face staring out above the housetops. Cancer? They had n’t said it, but he knew it — and they knew he knew it. Quite so: one did n’t call these things by name; it would be like uttering an obscene word in a lady’s drawing-room. Someone was whistling in the next room. It was that boy. He was going out to-morrow, so the nurse said. Going out — back to the world of toiling, and getting, and begetting. Youth? What did it matter? But he would like for an hour to lie in warm grass on a cliff, and look out at the blue level of the horizon. For an hour — and smoke a cigar.

Somewhere, in some corner behind that gray wall, the stiffening body of that old man.

Stanton strode away — fled, the narrow empty street echoing to the sharp click of his footfalls. A district of dingy rooming-houses gave way to rows of cheap modern apartments with shining brass bells in lighted vestibules. He crossed a railroad bridge and entered a broad square flanked by a church — a towering, dank cliff. The streets beyond widened out, their smooth, clean-swept pavement gleaming like ice. He followed an elm-lined avenue and turned into his own street. There was old Ashley’s house on the corner, a window on the second floor open a few inches; old Ashley in there, snoring.

Slowly he went up the steps of his own house, feeling for his keys. Freedom? Before the outer door he paused and looked up and down the street. That girl — he would like to have said a word to her.

He let himself into the secure, warm hall. Freedom. . . . He felt as if he had come back from a great distance. The South of France? Two miles, scarcely, that hospital, that district of slatternly rooming-houses. He looked up at the mellow Dutch painting above the low fireplace of Caen stone. Reality? Unreality?

There had been a light in the library. He turned abruptly and went up the stairs.

His wife was lying on the sofa, the novel tossed on the floor beside her. She yawned delicately.

’W-ell,’ she said, ’I thought you were lost!’

‘No. Just chewing the rag with Bentham.’

She sat up and smoothed her hair. ’I’ve decided to have the car black.’

’What? . . . Oh, yes — the car. Black?’

He looked down at the hearth. The fire had gone out, leaving two charred sticks like gnawed bones lying across the irons. He kicked them back.

‘Black, my dear. Black, by all means.’