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4: The Room without a Telephone (part 1)


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« on: January 22, 2023, 03:39:13 am »

THE grate in Eldred's study had been elegantly boxed in, and painted milk white. Not far below the centre of the milky expanse the bars of a chromium-plated electric fire had the appearance of a grating. At present the thick and gleaming bars reflected the cold flame behind them, from which came a moderate heat. But the house was centrally heated.

Between lying and sitting, Paul Eldred, on a massive white leather chaise-longue, in a lightish new-looking suit, was stretched level with the fire. A large Buddha sat facing him, benignly gleaming. In a large chair, nearer than the idol, sat a visitor. This visitor was shabby but looked intelligent. He chain-smoked Philip Morris. Seven stubs were in the ash-tray beside him.

"The specialist I saw last week," said Eldred, "informed me that some toxin was destroying me."

Silence.

"Some toxin as yet to be identified."

The visitor then responded.

"Such assertions as that made by your specialist," he said, "are usually a prelude to the administration of a dangerous poison."

Paul Eldred gave vent, after a rumble which gathered strength over a space of some seconds, to a burst of stylized belly-jeers. This was a guttural growl rich in insult, simulating the spasms provoked by the comic.

"You think, do you, Evan, that the fellow proposes to poison me. Just for fun? I should have thought I might be of more use to him alive."

"Oh, he might not intend to hurt you at all. Doctors are malignant or benign, like tumours. However, their benignity is more terminological than real. It does not mean they are not dangerous."

"They admit their ignorance exceeds their knowledge, and where there is ignorance accidents are bound to occur."

Evan shook his head. "It is not their ignorance, it is their humanity. If you are sick, the problem is this: the knowledge and the skills, through the agency of which your health might be restored, are in the possession of certain men—doctors of medicine. But unfortunately they are not morally or intellectually responsible enough for the powers of life and death they wield. Many approach medicine as a business: and then in the very processes of salvation they become brutalized. So the problem is—'How on earth am I to get at the knowledge and the skills possessed by this small-time businessman by whom I am confronted, or by this callous brute?'"

"That is a pessimistic simplification, Evan, I cannot allow. I have known many very decent chaps who practised medicine. I know surgeons who are both intelligent and humane."

"Certainly such can be found," the visitor agreed. "Often G.P.s are quite good chaps. They are the journalists of medicine, who know a little about everything but nothing à fond. I can see, however, that your experience has been happier than mine. Medicine seems to me to attract a high percentage of irresponsible people."

"Most people are irresponsible anyway," Eldred objected. "Surely medicine does not absorb a higher percentage of irresponsibles than politics."

"Just as many," the visitor maintained. "If it is medical help you need, I would suggest you obtain a report from a private detective agency on your man. A report on his killings."

A belly-jeer broke out at this. Eldred gave his sardonic nature full play only with a few friends with whom he had been young. Their chat would be punctuated with coarse insulting noises, as they derided their enemies and mocked their friends or clients, as they sat and drank dry gin.

His present visitor was not of these, though a friend of his young days. He was one who despised the animal in man and would not sneer and jeer and wallow with an intimate. Eldred belly-jeered all the more and figuratively unbuttoned, without so much as a reciprocative chuckle. Furthermore Paul Eldred sensed the critic at watch in the friend. "Just for a handful of silver he left us, just for a ribbon to stick in his coat," was the reproach, Eldred knew, silently levelled at him by the accusing eyes, whenever the presence of his late wife's money accidentally obtruded, or whenever reaction, not to say "fascism", became indecently visible in his conversation.

Eldred sold himself as a fake antique. A thick veneer of age much in excess of what was biologically warranted had been serio-comically created. What the analytical visitor had to say about that may be summarized as follows. When young, Eldred developed a sensitive dread of ageing. His was a feminine make-up. In order to forestall the dreadful moment (and rob it of its sting) when people would whisper "Old Paul is getting on", he began acting old while still a young man. But if this was the true account, the mannerisms had become second-nature.

When Eldred spoke, it was slowly and portentously, in serio-comic judicial manner. With him all serious deliveries were serio-comic in style, so as to disarm mockery. Whenever an opportunity offered, he played the judge. He had collected a young high-brow following for himself as "creative historian": and to break off a young follower's engagement, for instance, to a young woman with money, such a feat would cause him to feel agreeably Mephistophelian—and should the poor little rich girl be discovered gassed or drowned, well, that would make him feel wickeder, that was all. He had no deep organ tones but with the deepest he could muster he would admonish that money was bad for people, especially if they were young creative historians—as all his followers were, hundreds of them. People laughed. However he did not need to be told that the more strikingly irrational his behaviour the better material it was for gossip: and Names are nourished with Gossip as plants are with manure, and Names can grow great big Names in an atmosphere of hot air too. He was a hard-boiled gardener, engaged in the cultivation of a certain Name. He had long ago realized that the manufacture of gossip was of far greater importance than the writing of history.

Finally, Dr. Paul Eldred belonged to the not inconsiderable number of more or less learned Englishmen who choose to believe that they are Dr. Johnson. A corollary was that some people saw him as that, regarded the dry comments on men and things, in a thudding delivery, as authentically Johnsonian.

"Once," the visitor said, "I was in a bladder and kidney hospital, in a room, not a ward."

"Indeed? How disagreeable."

"Yes. An unpleasant world, the bladder and kidney world. However the night nurse, knowing I was just a bladder case and not interested in kidneys, spoke with a minimum of reticence about the surgeon whose patient I was. I had said sleepily, "Mr. Bingham does not do kidney work, does he, Sister?" Whereupon she told me that he was not allowed to remove kidneys any more. Too many of his patients did not recover from their encounter with him in the operating theatre. He had attempted to bump me off, I may say, in mere high-spirits. He kept me under an anaesthetic for two hours and a half, afterwards informing me that a visiting Swedish doctor who had watched the proceedings had observed 'how brave he was'. And he really felt brave, too."

"Well!" Eldred enjoyed chatter about doctors just then and looked approvingly at his visitor.

"That particular doctor," the visitor proceeded, "began as a bladder quack in Harley Street, helping a big quack. But he had repented and gone back to orthodox surgery. Straight bladder surgery is plain sailing. It was essential, however, for him to get practice in removing kidneys which is within the speciality of the bladderman."

"I know nothing about it," Eldred said, "but do they not acquire the necessary skill by practising on the cadaver? I understand that is how innovations in surgery are arrived at. But this perhaps is different."

"I don't know either," the visitor answered. "Only the use of the living cadaver, so to speak, provides a man, I would think, with the necessary confidence to take on a patient and charge him two or three hundred guineas."

"Is it really possible that in a great London hospital such homicide could be tolerated!"

"This was not a great London hospital. It was small."

"Ah. You advise a very large hospital!" Eldred summed up.

"Probably it is a bit safer, yes. Personality is a great factor in doctoring. A big muscular high-spirited surgeon should be avoided like the plague."[Pg 115]

Eldred emitted a belly-jeer, of three vibrations.

"Mine," he said, "was a little runt of a man."

"A redhead?"

"No, he had once been black."

"Then perhaps you may survive. Bingham, the one I was speaking of, was big and muscular. He had been a rugger international and dodged about as he spoke to you as though dodging a tackle. He had all the qualifications for a popular surgeon, devil-may-care, a merry twinkle in his cold grey eye, his humour irrepressible for was he not a broth of a boy. His high-pitched boyish laugh charmed his victims and made them feel as safe as houses with him."

"However did you manage to escape him!"

"With women he was not such a success as one would have expected and I suppose the nurse who gossiped about him put me on my guard. No nurse liked him, he would treat a nurse as a piece of hospital furniture. He was cold and tough beneath the blarney and the smiling charm was only for the patient."

An appreciative spasm of belly-jeers broke forth, which Eldred rattled about upon a bed of phlegm; applause at the story of the bladderman, and mockery and insults for Bingham.

"Your hairbreadth escapes among the surgeons and the physicians, Evan, trouble me."

"What is your doctor's name, Paul?"

"Shaw-Vaughan," Eldred answered. "They are very partial, I have noticed, to double-barrelled names."

"Just for identification purposes," Evan Jones told him indifferently.

"The same problem which eternally confronts the Joneses!"

Lazily Eldred rolled a little towards his visitor, to deliver a friendly belly-jeer or two: to dimple his cheeks, archly to insert his mischievous mask into a thick ring of double-chin like a bird pushed into too tight a nest. This was a habitual disarming social gymnastic, when "saying it with a smile" (it being some barbed remark), or when being "well-bred" merely. Evan Jones was unable to decide whether Eldred actually believed him to suffer acutely because he was a Jones, or, on the other hand, whether he hoped to induce painful sensitiveness, and to score an advantage over him, by his smiles and dimples, the arching of his vulpine beak, and the fat insult of his double chin.

"Jones is not a name," Evan Jones said dryly and contemptuously. "It is like an algebraic symbol. You are wrong. Jones presents no problems. The anonymity is acceptable. No Jones worth talking about wants a name."

"Of course he doesn't," Eldred said soothingly and woundingly. "I am sorry old chap. I often wish I had not got a name. People sicken me by their name-snobbery."

Here he was rubbing in his fame, and a smile flickered in Jones's face. Annoyed at the smile, Eldred was just going to rub an extra dose of salt into the wound, when Evan Jones proceeded, didactic and unruffled.

"Is a man adequately described by a name—until he makes it mean something himself, like Napoleon, or shall we say Montgomery? And then what happens? Montgomery, as a Field-Marshal, becomes 'Monty'. Napoleon Bonaparte becomes 'Bony', or, in France still more simply, 'Lui'. Names that have been brought to life by their owners always get simplified. They are emptied of their pointless weightiness. Such men are often referred to by letters merely, like H.G. or G.B.S. On the other hand the Joneses start with those abstract advantages. And in my own case no one can pretend that my first name, Evan, adds to my identity."

"No. That is true enough. No one would say that. Yours is an almost perfect incognito."

Evan looked at his friend as youth gazes with scorn at corrupt, irresponsible, slothful age. Only a few years separated their birth-years in the same decade many decades ago, and the difference was in favour of Paul, not Evan. But for very long now Evan had had this attitude. Eldred lay dramatically haggard, a smile of deliberate derision on his face, which he affected to attempt to hide. (He wished to give the other the sensation of being underneath—rather ridiculously so, and felt cheated of something because apparently this sensation was not produced.) His hands were clasped upon his stomach. Out of the grey face stuck the acquisitively-hooked nose (stupidly acquisitive, Evan would have said) and the massive brow was the brain-trust in the service of the acquisitive will. Evan remembered when this thin man had first begun to feel like Dr. Johnson and when the appetite for petty pomp first showed itself. The shadow of the great lexicographer had fallen on him as he began to taste success, though his manner had been assumed with a cautious self-ridicule at the outset.

But now suddenly the visitor caught sight of a new feature in this room; on the wall on either side of the door was suspended what looked like a green matting.

"What is that? A tapestry?" he enquired.

"That," Eldred told him, a little aggressively he thought, "is in order to prevent the sound of the telephone in my secretary's office from disturbing me while I am working. They make it I believe from seaweed."

"Ah."

But Evan felt that evidence that his was a busy line would hardly be disagreeable to him. ROT 5959 was music in his ears, of that Evan felt sure. It must, on the contrary, be the long periods during which the telephone did not ring which depressed him. This seemed, as a first hypothesis only of course, the most likely explanation.

Eldred stretched out, with grandeur and languor, a bony hand, and pressed an electric button.

"You say you want a letter to Henri Meritrois. Why do you want a letter? Why not send your card up?"

Evan Jones did not answer. ("Your name weighs more than mine," or something, his friend hoped he would say, of course. He reckoned without the pride of the Joneses.)

Eldred's secretary appeared in the doorway.

"But you would rather have a letter. Miss Cosway, will you please..."

He stopped as through the open door a peremptory knock was heard. "That must be Dr. McLachlan," he observed.

Jones got to his feet. "Send me the letter will you?" he muttered as he moved resolutely towards the door, Miss Cosway moving out of his way with a smile he did not like.

Eldred sat up and in place of the belly-jeers reserved for male intimates there was an otherwordly unreadiness, an almost appealing weariness, as he seemingly attempted to gather his wits together in order to cope with a practical matter. The world sought him out in his seclusion with its importunities. Miss Cosway was his go-between—his considerate and sympathetic buffer. Miss Cosway knew quite well that he was never too busy to see some foreigner of no account; she played up, as the efficient secretary she was, to the dramatic resignation with which he consented. She looked tired and resigned herself. It would have been impossible for her not to realize that he took every step in his power to augment the number of these importunities and to swell his daily mail to the point where eighty per cent of it had to be dealt with by her, on occasion practically all. Into her epistolary style had crept the weariness of a long-suffering recluse, and she relished greatly mirroring his pomposity. She could not otherwise have acquitted herself with such efficiency as the secretary of this celebrated recluse, who required at times two secretaries to sustain his correspondence.

Eldred got to his feet, a ham act showing a patriarchal invalid dragging himself up, his iron will alone enabling him to do so. He stood bowed, gazing up sideways from under what should have been shaggy brows, at the visitor's back.

"It shall be sent on to you, Evan. Goodbye, good-bye!" (To Miss Cosway.) "Mr. Jones feels about doctors as some people do about cats."

Miss Cosway and her master exchanged polite gleams. For not only was she never allowed to hear his belly-jeers, but if he shared with her some highly innocuous mirth, the gleam he gave would be one of otherworldly tolerance and compassion, like a man looking back magnanimously from the gates of paradise upon the worldly scene. He had once, by inadvertence, given vent to a belly-jeer of scornful defiance in Miss Cosway's presence. He blushed and fell into an alarming fit of coughing, pretending of course that the unseemly sounds which had escaped him had been a novel prelude to a violent catarrhal convulsion.

The doctor entered, a maidservant appearing for a moment behind him. Dr. McLachlan was a Scot, who, trained at a famous London hospital, had learned in England to appear to forget that anything is serious, which certainly is most agreeable for all concerned. His attitude to his patients' complaints was that they were well-bred jokes. He spoke snobbishly in his throat without a trace of Scottish accent. Eldred's intellectual attainments he knew how to value, as no English doctor would have done: he accorded to his position a dignified deference which the Englishman because he felt "independent" would refuse, even if paid to look impressed. As a physician Eldred had a high opinion of him. Indeed, he regarded him as unique. Dr. McLachlan's reckless frankness astonished him at times. He would discuss a specialist's findings without fear and warn his patient if a diagnosis had a fishy look to him. There was only one class of specialists he was unsafe with, namely those belonging to the great hospital where he had been trained. Where they were concerned he became an orthodox general practitioner.

"Well," said Dr. McLachlan with his frosty professional smile, "how are you?"

Stiffly he seated himself. He was perhaps forty-five, Eldred thought, but his movements were studied and circumspect, like those of an elderly man. He sat down, as if his behind were made of glass and crossed his legs as though they were china legs. His version of the behaviour of a man of the world seemed to emanate from a book of etiquette. Such was the personality this doctor had evolved, though there was one other feature: the population of Rotting Hill probably would identify him most readily with his neckwear. There always appeared to be a lot of white collar about him. It was Eldred's theory that the collar served to conceal post-adolescent carbuncles, traces of which our doctor had been unable to banish from his face. Upon the completion of his training McLachlan had set up shop in Rotting Hill as general practitioner: he had built from zero a brilliant practice but his health had been the price he had had to pay. So, a still comparatively youthful wreck, there he sat frostily smiling with a somewhat startling levity at that most theatrical of wrecks, his haggard patient, as if to say "health to a gentleman is highly ridiculous".

However, he had something more concrete to say than that and he came immediately to the point.

"If," he said, "you care to rough it a little, Dr. Eldred, I can get you a bed in a small nursing-home tomorrow. But I promised to let the Matron know at once. They are nuns, it is non-profit-making, so it has the advantage of being cheap. Most of these places are, of course, extortionate today."

Eldred looked at him with his heavy judicial eye, weighing this proposition dubiously. Dr. McLachlan was a Catholic. Eldred believed it was a Catholic dentist McLachlan had sent him to, as he had seen some nuns at his surgery while his name was O'Toole. To Catholics he had no objection: but the Catholic community in England is small, and it is therefore unlikely that the best dentists, anaesthetists, nurses, radiologists, specialists, etc., are all Catholics even if the best G. P. was that.

"Tomorrow!" he intoned heavily. "I should, of course have to consult Miss Cosway, I should have to see what Miss Cosway had to say! Yes, it would be necessary to speak to Miss Cosway first."

"Of course." Dr. McLachlan was all understanding. A Prime Minister cannot leave the scene like an ordinary man at a moment's notice, and was not Dr. Eldred in the Prime Minister class? "Besides its cheapness, this place has one great advantage over other nursing-homes. There are no telephones in the rooms."

"No telephones!" Eldred shouted, horrified but incredulous. He recovered himself so swiftly, however, that the transition was hardly perceptible by which he reintegrated his factitious self. "No telephones, now that clinches it!" In the next breath, he exclaimed: "Please engage the room at once. I do hope the Matron has kept it for you."

"I am sure she has done so."

"How wonderful!"

"The room is not large," Dr. McLachlan warned.

"I do not care what its size is. It is a cell I suppose, is it not? It has no telephone—that is the essential! I had no idea that it was possible to find a room without a telephone." He pressed the bell-button on the table at his side. "Why did I never think of a nursing-home before? But it must be a Catholic institution, I take it. All the undisciplined communions, I am sure, have the beastly things within reach of their patients."

"I am afraid that is so," the Catholic doctor agreed, his cheeks pushed up into a chilly jollity. It was perfectly obvious to him why his patient had started violently when he had warned him the rooms had no telephone: and he had been much amused by the corrected reaction which had so promptly replaced the first impulse of consternation.

Miss Cosway entered. Her employer put on his wearier mask and prepared to communicate the big news, namely that the recluse had at last discovered a retreat where the world would be unable to molest him: a beautiful living grave. He passed his hand in an uncertain dithering arc over his lank hair, and, with an obvious effort, spoke.

"Oh, Miss Cosway, Dr. McLachlan wishes to use the telephone. He has been able to secure a bed for me."

"Oh, I am glad, Dr. Eldred!"

"It sounds too good to be true," he went on, "but the room will be without telephone."

These last words suddenly changed the expression of Miss Cosway's face. Its customary look was a genteel reflection of Eldred's weariness. Suddenly it became one of indescribable panic.

"It will only be for six or seven days," Dr. McLachlan informed her, and her glance fluttered in his direction almost with indignation.

Eldred all but allowed a belly-jeer to rumble out and the doctor showed his teeth frostily.

"You will have to get Miss Ford around for a week to help you: and her sister perhaps, too, if she is disengaged."

"I am afraid I shall, Dr. Eldred," she answered faintly.

When Dr. McLachlan returned from the telephone he had imposed upon the piece of wood he had for a face an expression of almost boyish professional satisfaction. Lightly rubbing his hands he went towards his chair.

"That is all arranged," he said. "They will have the room ready at noon or just after. As soon as you have had lunch you will have the first penicillin injection."

"Where is it? In Rotting Hill?"

The doctor coughed. "I am afraid not, but it is not so very far. Actually it is in Putney."

"You will inform O'Toole?"

"I have done so. I did so just now."

"Capital."

"He will be there at one on Wednesday for the extractions. You will have two injections tomorrow, and another the following morning."

"That will take care of the sepsis."

"Oh, entirely. It is a reinforced penicillin. Those are terrible teeth, Dr. Eldred. You should have had them out twenty years ago. Both Vaughan-Shaw and myself believe they may be responsible for your condition."

Eldred threw himself back. They relaxed, Dr. McLachlan permitting himself a filter-tip cigarette.

"What fools you doctors have been, handing yourself over unconditionally to those political monopolists."

"That is putting it mildly," said the doctor.

"They will have you tied hand and foot in a half-dozen years."

"Unless..."

"I am afraid there is no unless. Someone (who?) opened the gate to the enemy. An army of G.P.s will have the status of druggists' assistants."

McLachlan nodded, delicately puffing out a little smoke. "I should not be surprised," he said, "if in the end doctor and druggist became one."

"True. Yes, that would be it."

"An abbreviated hospital training, a rather longer pharmaceutical training. That is the logical evolution. A National Health Service doctor with his four thousand patients, dealing perfunctorily with each, ultimately would be supplied with a rigidly standardized set of labelled bottles, printed instructions for the patient on each bottle. Instead of a prescription (as now) the patient would receive a bottle. And the druggist-cum-doctor would waste no time on diagnosis. 'Pain bottom of the back? Here you are. Number 39. Next please.'"

"Ghastly." Eldred shook his head.

"Not very different from today, except that now there is the complexity of the large and often luxurious chemists' shops, to which the panel-patient takes a prescription. Also the doctor at present possesses a quite unnecessary amount of knowledge of the treatment of disease. The little state-clerk who diagnoses and dispenses in one movement will point to the instructions on the bottle if asked any questions. And people, of course, will wear spectacles from birth, and dental plates as soon as their teeth sprout up."

"You are giving a prognosis of the course the disease called socialism will take that is amazingly accurate."

"It does not require much skill to do so. At present they are splashing money around like water. I have just come from one of the big London hospitals. It is swarming with newly-appointed clerks."

"Jobs for the boys," said Eldred.

"I suppose so. In this hospital there used to be one clerk. All the bills went out to time, the patients' reports were punctually completed. Today there are fifteen clerks, and the clerical work is always in arrears. What is worse, a ward has been closed to provide accommodation for these clerks. There is a waiting list of one thousand sick for this one hospital. And they close a ward."

Dr. McLachlan delivered his propaganda with a desiccated gaiety. He paused, and they both laughed bitterly.

"So the vote is built up for the Party," Eldred commented. "The 'spoils system' in the United States was recklessly inflated under Franklin Roosevelt. Millions of unnecessary jobs were created for his supporters, or for those who had not been his supporters but thenceforth would undoubtedly be so in order to keep the job. A standing army of voters was thus enlisted, ranged under the banner of the New Deal. Our socialist administration here has learned much from the New Deal—and of course works in the closest harmony with Truman's 'Fair Deal'. German national socialism made every smug little political monopolist's mouth water and still serves as a model. The clerks you mention are the drones that the ruinous taxes pay for. It is the reckless bribery of the last days of parliamentary democracy."

The doctor listened with pleasure and respect. "Of course you as a historian, Dr. Eldred," he observed, "are conversant with the anatomy of many political techniques. You have a deductive grasp of these matters. I merely observe what is under my nose."

"You are a remarkable observer."

So these two malcontents had the little talk in which they usually indulged after Eldred's colon, his bladder or his insomnia had held their attention for a while. Several further illustrations of the iniquities of the administration of the National Health Act were furnished by the doctor. He was a tireless polemist against the Act, he had a big repertoire of atrocities. There was the case, for instance, of the wild-eyed young man who had come to the nuns, the day before, with tears in his eyes, and of course his prayers did not go unheeded, although the nuns themselves are short of beds and have to crowd extra people into their four small wards. The mother of this poor young man had suffered a paralytic stroke. She was helpless and among other things incontinent. He had appealed to every hospital in London but none would take her in. They did not regard themselves as places for the old to die in. And she was incontinent into the bargain. All the clinics were full as well. She now was recovering from her stroke in the care of the kind Sisters.

Dr. Eldred's indignation visibly waxed as he listened to this story.

"How outrageous it is the way in which they discriminate against the old," he exclaimed. "The majority of our Cabinet Ministers and Civil Service experts are old men, the most eminent hospital doctors likewise. But an old person will be turned away from a hospital as if he were a leper. It is to treat a man as if he were a machine. When a machine wears out you push it on to the scrap-heap. When a man's body wears out there is still a man inside it. And as for us as Christians it is the man that is valuable, not the machine. It is a heathen generation."

Dr. McLachlan gravely assented, though very doubtful whether his patient's sympathy for the old was anything but political.

"For myself," Eldred pursued, "I would rather have Ranke old than a million young machines. Life is not an economic machine. But when the mechanistic millennium is consummated they will superannuate at forty-five at latest—except in the case of politicians—and kill shortly afterwards. They may kill outright, or they may prefer to starve and torture to death, as they are beginning to do now."

The doctor looked up with a touch of alarm at his patient. The latter had been going far beyond what politics dictated. Could it be that his high blood-pressure was exposing him to an invasion of humanitarian bacilli? Not Paul Eldred! he decided. The cause must be looked for elsewhere. The doctor now rose, like a scrawny bird levitating from its nest, as he left his chair vertically.

"Well, I must be moving on," he said. "There are two women with pneumonia I have to go to first. Tomorrow I shall see you at the nursing-home. You will find your room as warm as even you could wish."

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