The Operation

Dr. Price was not entirely at ease in his mind as the two doctors drove rapidly from the hotel to Major Carteret’s. Himself a liberal man, from his point of view, he saw no reason why a colored doctor might not operate upon a white male child⁠—there are fine distinctions in the application of the color line⁠—but several other physicians had been invited, some of whom were men of old-fashioned notions, who might not relish such an innovation.

This, however, was but a small difficulty compared with what might be feared from Major Carteret himself. For he knew Carteret’s unrelenting hostility to anything that savored of recognition of the negro as the equal of white men. It was traditional in Wellington that no colored person had ever entered the front door of the Carteret residence, and that the luckless individual who once presented himself there upon alleged business and resented being ordered to the back door had been unceremoniously thrown over the piazza railing into a rather thorny clump of rosebushes below. If Miller were going as a servant, to hold a basin or a sponge, there would be no difficulty; but as a surgeon⁠—well, he wouldn’t borrow trouble. Under the circumstances the major might yield a point.

But as they neared the house the major’s unyielding disposition loomed up formidably. Perhaps if the matter were properly presented to Dr. Burns, he might consent to withdraw the invitation. It was not yet too late to send Miller a note.

“By the way, Dr. Burns,” he said, “I’m very friendly to Dr. Miller, and should personally like to have him with us tonight. But⁠—I ought to have told you this before, but I couldn’t very well do so, on such short notice, in Miller’s presence⁠—we are a conservative people, and our local customs are not very flexible. We jog along in much the same old way our fathers did. I’m not at all sure that Major Carteret or the other gentlemen would consent to the presence of a negro doctor.”

“I think you misjudge your own people,” returned Dr. Burns, “they are broader than you think. We have our prejudices against the negro at the North, but we do not let them stand in the way of anything that we want. At any rate, it is too late now, and I will accept the responsibility. If the question is raised, I will attend to it. When I am performing an operation I must be aut Caesar, aut nullus.”

Dr. Price was not reassured, but he had done his duty and felt the reward of virtue. If there should be trouble, he would not be responsible. Moreover, there was a large fee at stake, and Dr. Burns was not likely to prove too obdurate.

They were soon at Carteret’s, where they found assembled the several physicians invited by Dr. Price. These were successively introduced as Drs. Dudley, Hooper, and Ashe, all of whom were gentlemen of good standing, socially and in their profession, and considered it a high privilege to witness so delicate an operation at the hands of so eminent a member of their profession.

Major Carteret entered the room and was duly presented to the famous specialist. Carteret’s anxious look lightened somewhat at sight of the array of talent present. It suggested, of course, the gravity of the impending event, but gave assurance of all the skill and care which science could afford.

Dr. Burns was shown to the nursery, from which he returned in five minutes.

“The case is ready,” he announced. “Are the gentlemen all present?”

“I believe so,” answered Dr. Price quickly.

Miller had not yet arrived. Perhaps, thought Dr. Price, a happy accident, or some imperative call, had detained him. This would be fortunate indeed. Dr. Burns’s square jaw had a very determined look. It would be a pity if any acrimonious discussion should arise on the eve of a delicate operation. If the clock on the mantel would only move faster, the question might never come up.

“I don’t see Dr. Miller,” observed Dr. Burns, looking around the room. “I asked him to come at eight. There are ten minutes yet.”

Major Carteret looked up with a sudden frown.

“May I ask to whom you refer?” he inquired, in an ominous tone.

The other gentlemen showed signs of interest, not to say emotion. Dr. Price smiled quizzically.

Dr. Miller, of your city. He was one of my favorite pupils. He is also a graduate of the Vienna hospitals, and a surgeon of unusual skill. I have asked him to assist in the operation.”

Every eye was turned toward Carteret, whose crimsoned face had set in a look of grim determination.

“The person to whom you refer is a negro, I believe?” he said.

“He is a colored man, certainly,” returned Dr. Burns, “though one would never think of his color after knowing him well.”

“I do not know, sir,” returned Carteret, with an effort at self-control, “what the customs of Philadelphia or Vienna may be; but in the South we do not call negro doctors to attend white patients. I could not permit a negro to enter my house upon such an errand.”

“I am here, sir,” replied Dr. Burns with spirit, “to perform a certain operation. Since I assume the responsibility, the case must be under my entire control. Otherwise I cannot operate.”

“Gentlemen,” interposed Dr. Price, smoothly, “I beg of you both⁠—this is a matter for calm discussion, and any asperity is to be deplored. The life at stake here should not be imperiled by any consideration of minor importance.”

“Your humanity does you credit, sir,” retorted Dr. Burns. “But other matters, too, are important. I have invited this gentleman here. My professional honor is involved, and I merely invoke my rights to maintain it. It is a matter of principle, which ought not to give way to a mere prejudice.”

“That also states the case for Major Carteret,” rejoined Dr. Price, suavely. “He has certain principles⁠—call them prejudices, if you like⁠—certain inflexible rules of conduct by which he regulates his life. One of these, which he shares with us all in some degree, forbids the recognition of the negro as a social equal.”

“I do not know what Miller’s social value may be,” replied Dr. Burns, stoutly, “or whether you gain or lose by your attitude toward him. I have invited him here in a strictly professional capacity, with which his color is not at all concerned.”

Dr. Burns does not quite appreciate Major Carteret’s point of view,” said Dr. Price. “This is not with him an unimportant matter, or a mere question of prejudice, or even of personal taste. It is a sacred principle, lying at the very root of our social order, involving the purity and prestige of our race. You Northern gentlemen do not quite appreciate our situation; if you lived here a year or two you would act as we do. Of course,” he added, diplomatically, “if there were no alternative⁠—if Dr. Burns were willing to put Dr. Miller’s presence on the ground of imperative necessity”⁠—

“I do nothing of the kind, sir,” retorted Dr. Burns with some heat. “I have not come all the way from Philadelphia to undertake an operation which I cannot perform without the aid of some particular physician. I merely stand upon my professional rights.”

Carteret was deeply agitated. The operation must not be deferred; his child’s life might be endangered by delay. If the negro’s presence were indispensable he would even submit to it, though in order to avoid so painful a necessity, he would rather humble himself to the Northern doctor. The latter course involved merely a personal sacrifice⁠—the former a vital principle. Perhaps there was another way of escape. Miller’s presence could not but be distasteful to Mrs. Carteret for other reasons. Miller’s wife was the living evidence of a painful episode in Mrs. Carteret’s family, which the doctor’s presence would inevitably recall. Once before, Mrs. Carteret’s life had been endangered by encountering, at a time of great nervous strain, this ill-born sister and her child. She was even now upon the verge of collapse at the prospect of her child’s suffering, and should be protected from the intrusion of any idea which might add to her distress.

Dr. Burns,” he said, with the suave courtesy which was part of his inheritance, “I beg your pardon for my heat, and throw myself upon your magnanimity, as between white men”⁠—

“I am a gentleman, sir, before I am a white man,” interposed Dr. Burns, slightly mollified, however, by Carteret’s change of manner.

“The terms should be synonymous,” Carteret could not refrain from saying. “As between white men, and gentlemen, I say to you, frankly, that there are vital, personal reasons, apart from Dr. Miller’s color, why his presence in this house would be distasteful. With this statement, sir, I throw myself upon your mercy. My child’s life is worth more to me than any earthly thing, and I must be governed by your decision.”

Dr. Burns was plainly wavering. The clock moved with provoking slowness. Miller would be there in five minutes.

“May I speak with you privately a moment, doctor?” asked Dr. Price.

They withdrew from the room and were engaged in conversation for a few moments. Dr. Burns finally yielded.

“I shall nevertheless feel humiliated when I meet Miller again,” he said, “but of course if there is a personal question involved, that alters the situation. Had it been merely a matter of color, I should have maintained my position. As things stand, I wash my hands of the whole affair, so far as Miller is concerned, like Pontius Pilate⁠—yes, indeed, sir, I feel very much like that individual.”

“I’ll explain the matter to Miller,” returned Dr. Price, amiably, “and make it all right with him. We Southern people understand the negroes better than you do, sir. Why should we not? They have been constantly under our interested observation for several hundred years. You feel this vastly more than Miller will. He knows the feeling of the white people, and is accustomed to it. He wishes to live and do business here, and is quite too shrewd to antagonize his neighbors or come where he is not wanted. He is in fact too much of a gentleman to do so.”

“I shall leave the explanation to you entirely,” rejoined Dr. Burns, as they reentered the other room.

Carteret led the way to the nursery, where the operation was to take place. Dr. Price lingered for a moment. Miller was not likely to be behind the hour, if he came at all, and it would be well to head him off before the operation began.

Scarcely had the rest left the room when the doorbell sounded, and a servant announced Dr. Miller.

Dr. Price stepped into the hall and met Miller face to face.

He had meant to state the situation to Miller frankly, but now that the moment had come he wavered. He was a fine physician, but he shrank from strenuous responsibilities. It had been easy to theorize about the negro; it was more difficult to look this man in the eyes⁠—whom at this moment he felt to be as essentially a gentleman as himself⁠—and tell him the humiliating truth.

As a physician his method was to ease pain⁠—he would rather take the risk of losing a patient from the use of an anaesthetic than from the shock of an operation. He liked Miller, wished him well, and would not wittingly wound his feelings. He really thought him too much of a gentleman for the town, in view of the restrictions with which he must inevitably be hampered. There was something melancholy, to a cultivated mind, about a sensitive, educated man who happened to be off color. Such a person was a sort of social misfit, an odd quantity, educated out of his own class, with no possible hope of entrance into that above it. He felt quite sure that if he had been in Miller’s place, he would never have settled in the South⁠—he would have moved to Europe, or to the West Indies, or some Central or South American state where questions of color were not regarded as vitally important.

Dr. Price did not like to lie, even to a negro. To a man of his own caste, his word was his bond. If it were painful to lie, it would be humiliating to be found out. The principle of noblesse oblige was also involved in the matter. His claim of superiority to the colored doctor rested fundamentally upon the fact that he was white and Miller was not; and yet this superiority, for which he could claim no credit, since he had not made himself, was the very breath of his nostrils⁠—he would not have changed places with the other for wealth untold; and as a gentleman, he would not care to have another gentleman, even a colored man, catch him in a lie. Of this, however, there was scarcely any danger. A word to the other surgeons would insure their corroboration of whatever he might tell Miller. No one of them would willingly wound Dr. Miller or embarrass Dr. Price; indeed, they need not know that Miller had come in time for the operation.

“I’m sorry, Miller,” he said with apparent regret, “but we were here ahead of time, and the case took a turn which would admit of no delay, so the gentlemen went in. Dr. Burns is with the patient now, and asked me to explain why we did not wait for you.”

“I’m sorry too,” returned Miller, regretfully, but nothing doubting. He was well aware that in such cases danger might attend upon delay. He had lost his chance, through no fault of his own or of anyone else.

“I hope that all is well?” he said, hesitatingly, not sure whether he would be asked to remain.

“All is well, so far. Step round to my office in the morning, Miller, or come in when you’re passing, and I’ll tell you the details.”

This was tantamount to a dismissal, so Miller took his leave. Descending the doorsteps, he stood for a moment, undecided whether to return home or to go to the hotel and await the return of Dr. Burns, when he heard his name called from the house in a low tone.

“Oh, doctuh!”

He stepped back toward the door, outside of which stood the colored servant who had just let him out.

“Dat’s all a lie, doctuh,” he whispered, “ ’bout de operation bein’ already pe’fo’med. Dey-all had jes’ gone in de minute befo’ you come⁠—Doctuh Price hadn’ even got out ’n de room. Dey be’n quollin’ ’bout you fer de las’ ha’f hour. Majah Ca’te’et say he wouldn’ have you, an’ de No’then doctuh say he wouldn’t do nothin’ widout you, an’ Doctuh Price he j’ined in on bofe sides, an’ dey had it hot an’ heavy, nip an’ tuck, till bimeby Majah Ca’te’et up an’ say it wa’n’t altogether yo’ color he objected to, an’ wid dat de No’then doctuh give in. He’s a fine man, suh, but dey wuz too much fer ’im!”

“Thank you, Sam, I’m much obliged,” returned Miller mechanically. “One likes to know the truth.”

Truth, it has been said, is mighty, and must prevail; but it sometimes leaves a bad taste in the mouth. In the ordinary course of events Miller would not have anticipated such an invitation, and for that reason had appreciated it all the more. The rebuff came with a corresponding shock. He had the heart of a man, the sensibilities of a cultivated gentleman; the one was sore, the other deeply wounded. He was not altogether sure, upon reflection, whether he blamed Dr. Price very much for the amiable lie, which had been meant to spare his feelings, or thanked Sam a great deal for the unpalatable truth.

Janet met him at the door. “How is the baby?” she asked excitedly.

Dr. Price says he is doing well.”

“What is the matter, Will, and why are you back so soon?”

He would have spared her the story, but she was a woman, and would have it. He was wounded, too, and wanted sympathy, of which Janet was an exhaustless fountain. So he told her what had happened. She comforted him after the manner of a loving woman, and felt righteously indignant toward her sister’s husband, who had thus been instrumental in the humiliation of her own. Her anger did not embrace her sister, and yet she felt obscurely that their unacknowledged relationship had been the malignant force which had given her husband pain, and defeated his honorable ambition.

When Dr. Price entered the nursery, Dr. Burns was leaning attentively over the operating table. The implements needed for the operation were all in readiness⁠—the knives, the basin, the sponge, the materials for dressing the wound⁠—all the ghastly paraphernalia of vivisection.

Mrs. Carteret had been banished to another room, where Clara vainly attempted to soothe her. Old Mammy Jane, still burdened by her fears, fervently prayed the good Lord to spare the life of the sweet little grandson of her dear old mistress.

Dr. Burns had placed his ear to the child’s chest, which had been bared for the incision. Dr. Price stood ready to administer the anaesthetic. Little Dodie looked up with a faint expression of wonder, as if dimly conscious of some unusual event. The major shivered at the thought of what the child must undergo.

“There’s a change in his breathing,” said Dr. Burns, lifting his head. “The whistling noise is less pronounced, and he breathes easier. The obstruction seems to have shifted.”

Applying his ear again to the child’s throat, he listened for a moment intently, and then picking the baby up from the table, gave it a couple of sharp claps between the shoulders. Simultaneously a small object shot out from the child’s mouth, struck Dr. Price in the neighborhood of his waistband, and then rattled lightly against the floor. Whereupon the baby, as though conscious of his narrow escape, smiled and gurgled, and reaching upward clutched the doctor’s whiskers with his little hand, which, according to old Jane, had a stronger grip than any other infant’s in Wellington.