Chapter 6 | The Surgery Imp | The Bag of Diamonds

Dr Chartley sat in his consulting-room, with a glass jar, retort, receiver, and spirit-lamp before him. The lamp was on the table, and made with its shaded light and that of the fire a pleasant glow, which took off some of the desolation of the bare consulting-room on that bitter night.

He had been busy over his discovery, and confessed that it was not so far advanced as he could wish.

“There is a something wanting,” he had muttered more than once; and, wearied at last, he was thinking more seriously than usual of his son, of Richmond, and of James Poynter.

“It would place her above the reach of want,” he said dreamily; “she would be happy if anything befell me. Yes, money is a power, and we are now so poor, so poor, that life seems to have become one bitter struggle, in which I am too weak to engage.”

He sighed, and rose, walked into the miserably cold surgery, where Bob was diligently polishing the front out of the nest of drawers containing drugs, and having threads of cotton from the ragged duster hanging upon the broken knobs.

“Good boy—good industrious boy,” said the doctor, patting his head gently, before taking up a little graduated glass, pouring in a small quantity from a bottle at the top of the shelves, and after turning it into a medicine glass, he filled up with water and drank it.

Bob took the glass the doctor handed to him, smiling.

“Good for a weary troubled old man, boy,” he said, “but it will kill you. Don’t touch—don’t touch—don’t touch.”

He nodded and went back into the consulting-room, to compose himself upon the couch for his evening sleep, which he took according to custom, and from which he awoke refreshed and ready to work for hours, late into the night, at his wearisome chimerical task, with which he grew more infatuated the more his reason suggested that his work was vain.

The boy began to whistle very softly as the doctor disappeared. Then he washed and wiped the glass, and put it back in its place ready for use. After this he threw himself upon the settee, took hold of his right leg with his left hand, by the ankle, dragged it up, and held it across his body rigidly as if it were a banjo, and began to strum imaginary strings with his right hand, while in a whisper he sang a song about a yaller gal somewhere in the south, with close-shut eyes and a long wide mouth, and so on, through seven verses, with a chorus to each, all of which seemed to afford him the greatest gratification, and which he supplemented by leaping up and going round the surgery, holding out the imaginary instrument for contributions.

These were acknowledged with proper darky grimaces and grins, and seemed to be so abundant that Bob returned to the settee, and this time played the bones with a couple of pair saved from a brisket of beef, but without making a sound.

Another collection and another silent solo, this time on the tambourine, which the boy pretended to beat with frantic energy, ending by going on tiptoe to peep through the keyhole, and satisfy himself that the doctor was in a deep sleep.

There was no doubt about that, so the boy’s hour or two of indulgence, on which he regularly counted, began.

He dashed at the settee, threw it open, stooped down to take something out, but rose again, closed the lid, and listened as if afraid of being caught.

Then shaking his head, he ran to the door, which opened into the lobby and then into the street, from which place he came, helping himself along by the wall to the settee, upon which he sank, and after lying down and laying his leg out carefully, he began to play double parts, that of surgeon and patient. For, after feeling the leg and shaking his head, he said to himself, “Ah, we’ll soon put that right, my man.”

Jumping up, he ran to a drawer, from, which he brought splints and bandages, trotted back to the settee, and with ghastly minuteness—the result of having been present at an accident, and studious readings of Dr Chartley’s books—he proceeded to set a serious compound fracture, assuring himself that he bore it like a man, and that he need not be under the least apprehension, for in such a healthy subject the joint would knit together before long, and he would be as strong as ever.

All this was in company with the business he was carrying on of applying the splints and bandaging the broken leg; after which, by aid of the doctor’s walking-sticks, he limped to the door, as there was no one to carry him, thanked himself for his kindness, and in imagination departed, leaving himself in the character of the doctor, whose walk he imitated as he drew out a large pill-box, opened it, and took a small pinch of magnesia as if it were snuff.

Another peep at the doctor through the keyhole, and a run to the door, to make sure of there being no interruption there, and then the boy’s face assumed a very serious expression. He took the cloth from the little table in the corner, rolled up the hearthrug longwise, and tied it in two places with string, and then treating it as a patient, he laid it on the settee, and drew over it the table-cover.

He was not satisfied, though, and getting a square of paper, such as would be used to wrap up a bottle of medicine, he poked his finger through twice for eyes, made a slit for a mouth, and puckered the paper for a nose.

This rough mask he tied at the end of the long roll, drew the table-cover up to the face, and then came to see the patient, carried on an imaginary conversation with a colleague, and ended by going to a cupboard and getting out a long mahogany case.

Bob’s reading for the past two years had not been the wholesome and unwholesome literature provided for our youth, but the contents of the doctor’s little library, the Lancet, and the Medical Times. These proceedings were the offspring.

To carry out the next proceedings, Bob took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves; informed his colleague that it was a bad case—a diseased heart—and the only hope for the patient’s life was to take it out completely.

This Bob proceeded to do with goblin-like delight. He turned the table-cover half down before opening the mahogany case, which contained a set of long amputating knives; and these he tried one after the other, to satisfy himself about the edge before commencing the operation, with great gusto, cutting the string that bound the hearthrug, making an incision, and extracting the heart. Next the place was sewn up, the cover replaced, the knives put away with horrible realism, the patient’s pulse felt and a little stimulus administered—the boy taking this himself—to wit, a little ammonia and water.

Next the table-cover was drawn off, the hearthrug restored to its place; and, grinning now hugely, Bob went to a drawer, and got out the doctor’s tooth-drawing instruments—for the doctor belonged to the old school, and in distant times had not been above removing a decayed and aching molar from a patient’s jaw.

The boy flourished the instruments about with evident enjoyment, going as far as to take a good hold of one of his teeth, but he refrained from pulling, and rubbed his half-numbed hands.

It suddenly seemed to occur to him that he had not put on his jacket, and resuming this, and proving its many buttons to be a sham, for it fastened in a feminine manner by means of a series of hooks and eyes, he made a bound to the settee, grinning with pleasure as he threw it open, dived down, and brought out a glistening white human skull, handling it with a weird kind of delight painted in his face.

He took the ghastly object, and fixed it upon a knob, one of those upon the back of the old-fashioned chair in the middle of the room, draped it round with the table-cover; and drew back to admire his handiwork.

“Oh, if our ’Lisbeth would come in now!” he said, with a chuckle, as he rubbed his hands down his sides before proceeding to the greatest bit of enjoyment he had in his lonely life at the doctor’s.

From the very first the doctor’s surgery and consulting-room had had a strange fascination for him, and whenever he was missing, the maid-of-all-work, who rarely showed her face out of the dim kitchen, knew that the boy would not be playing truant from his work or playing with other lads of his age, but would be found reading, dusting, or amusing himself in the surgery, smelling bottles, opening drawers, or standing on a chair, gazing at the ghastly preparations in one or other of the row of glass jars.

His pranks he managed to keep secret, arranging to enjoy them when the doctor was asleep, and he was not likely to be disturbed.

The present was his favourite feat from its reality. There was something to go at, he always said, and for the hundredth time, perhaps, after performing the operation, and restoring with the help of a little gum, he took up the doctor’s tooth-key, fixed it carefully round a perfectly sound molar in the fine specimen upon whose excellences the doctor had before now lectured to students, and steadying the skull, the boy pretended to engage in a terrible struggle; then gave a quick twitch, and brought out the tooth, which he held with a smile as he struck an attitude before its silent owner.

The boy had seemed goblin-like before, but as he now stood there before the glistening relic of mortality, over which he had partly thrown the corner of the table-cloth, the scene was weird and grim in the extreme; for the one uncovered eye-socket seemed to leer at him in company with a ghastly pride, as if rejoicing at the relief the operation had afforded.

“Now yer better, ain’t yer?” said Bob. “Eh? Ah, I thought you would be. He was a tight ’un. Some ’un coming.”

Quick as thought, the boy snatched the skull from the back of the chair, slipped it into the long chest, closed the lid, thrust the tooth-key back into the drawer, and had thrown the cover on the table before the door at the end of the house-passage was opened, disclosing him, in spite of all his efforts, looking as if the mischief which lurked in the corners of his mouth, and flashed from his eyes, had been running to the full extent of its chain.