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Edge of Honor
By Gilbert Morris Zondervan
Copyright © 2000
All right reserved.
Chapter One Well, Quent Larribee will never win a prize for beauty, will he, Charlie?"
The speaker was a sharp-faced young man, one of twenty medical students who lined the balcony of the operating room. They were peering down on five doctors circled around a middle-aged woman with a pale, perspiring face. She lay rigidly on the operating table, her eyes quick with fear. "Quent always reminds me of old Abe Lincoln-when he was a younger man, of course."
"No, Rob. Quent's not quite as ugly as Abe." The pudgy student who sat beside the first speaker shrugged. The two students spoke in lowered tones, hoping to catch some of the conversation from the doctors gathered below. "Anyway, he doesn't have to look like one of Charles Dana's spiffy young men. He's got it made, Larribee has. Soon as he's fully qualified he'll start right at the top. I wish I had it so good!"
The sharp-faced Rob chewed on a petulant lower lip, studying the lanky figure of Larribee. Envy glowed in his eyes as he said, "I wouldn't mind being as homely as Quent if I could pull off what he's done. He'll have it made the rest of his life, Charlie."
"You're right about that. I'd marry old Doc Chambers's daughter myself if I could get his practice to go along with it. She's a good-looking woman, and Chambers is ready to step down."
The tallest doctor in the operating room below was also the youngest. At the age of twenty-eight, Quentin Larribee seemed overly tall and gangly among the other physicians, towering over them. He was wearing, as were the others, a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, revealing stringy but strong-looking forearms; his fingers were long and almost delicate. His hair was crisp brown, with a stubborn curl that insisted on falling over his forehead, and his sideburns were long, though not bushy as was the custom of the day. He had straight eyebrows under which warm, deep-set brown eyes studied the woman carefully. He did indeed look like a young Abe Lincoln, as his observer had mentioned. His features were homely enough: hollow cheeks, prominent cheekbones, and a pronounced lower lip. His nose was large, and twin creases led from it down beside his extremely wide mouth.
Quentin, seeming somewhat hesitant, glanced at Doctor Franklin Sutter. "Doctor, I would be glad to have you do the surgery today."
"Why, not at all, Larribee. This calls for younger hands than mine. I understand she's had oestrus cessation for over two months."
"Yes, sir. That is correct. The patient has one fairly sizable tumor on her uterus and possibly two on the left ovary."
Quentin turned suddenly and looked into the face of the frightened woman, chiding himself for speaking so unfeelingly about her condition while standing beside her; she was frightened enough as it was. Moving quickly to his right, he picked up a brown bottle and poured a small amount of clear liquid into a glass. "This morning, gentlemen," he said, looking up now and speaking to the gallery, "we're going to use a technique that I've found most helpful. This is absinthe. I've found it to be excellent in calming patients. A very fine preoperative, much more effective than laudanum. The dose is smaller, and I add some anise to calm the stomach."
"And why do you do that, sir?" The question came from another of the doctors gathered around the patient, Leslie Simmons, a short, stocky man with black hair and sharp black eyes. Simmons was already well aware of the reasons for the use of the drug, but he let no opportunity pass to call attention to himself.
Across the table Doctor Sutter studied Simmons, not surprised by his challenging manner toward Quentin Larribee. Sutter was well aware of the private drama developing between the two younger men. Then Sutter's eyes flicked to Oscar Chambers. Chambers is a rotten doctor, he thought sourly, but he's got a good bedside manner and he knows how to use other men to do his work for him. That's his real talent. Sutter himself was one of those men. For years he had done the difficult tasks that Doctor Oscar Chambers was unable to accomplish. But the arrangement had suited Sutter, for he liked the operating room best and was happy to leave the handholding and bedside manners up to Chambers.
Quentin Larribee regarded Simmons. "The anise," he said evenly, "calms the stomach so that there's less danger of the patient vomiting while under anesthesia." Moving to the head of the table, he murmured, "Mrs. Johnson, just lift your head and sip this."
The woman lifted her head obediently and drank the mixture. She made a face, then spoke in a thin whisper audible to all. "Doctor, am I going to die?"
"Certainly not, Mrs. Johnson. You're going to get very sleepy, and then Doctor Simmons here is going to give you an anesthetic. You'll go off to sleep, and when you wake up you will be fine." Quentin used the title "Doctor" even though neither he nor Simmons had yet been certified, feeling that it gave the patient confidence.
Like most patients who came under the knife in the year 1865, Matilda Johnson, age forty, was afraid of the men who surrounded her. Her eyes searched their faces for some assurance but found none. This tall young man, however, had warmth in his expression as he took her hand, his large fingers wrapping it completely. "You'll be just fine, Mrs. Johnson. Just lie quietly now and wait for the drugs to take effect."
Up in the gallery, the two young medical students were whispering as they watched. "Watch what he does now," Rob said, digging his elbow into his friend's side. "He'll go over and wash his hands."
"Wash his hands! What for?"
"He believes in everybody being as clean as possible. Some of the other doctors don't like it. Look at Simmons there. Ho, he looks like he's bit into a wormy apple!"
"I thought those two were good friends."
"They were until both of them started courting Oscar's daughter, Irene. Les can't believe a homely gent like Quent beat him out. He's like a bear with a sore tail!"
The late afternoon sunlight threw down lambent bars through the skylight as Larribee, accompanied by a reluctant Les Simmons, moved to a side table. Simmons dipped his hands gingerly into a basin provided by a nurse, muttering, "Blasted foolishness! That's what this is, Larribee!"
Accustomed to resistance from Les Simmons, Quentin Larribee did not reply. He cleaned his hands and forearms, then dried them on a towel that a nurse handed him. "Thank you, Agnes," he murmured. Turning back, he stood beside the patient whose eyes were already drooping from the powerful drug. He was aware, as he waited, of the pressure that always came with an operation. It was not only that the medical students upstairs were watching, nor that the doctors gathered with him were there to judge any false move he made. This was enough to disturb some men, but Quentin had learned to ignore it. He had, in fact, learned to block out everything but the needs of patients. During his brief medical career, he had seen many callous doctors who treated patients as sides of beef, never showing any interest or compassion. He prayed every day that he would never become one of them, and even now he prayed silently that God would give him sure hands and wisdom to do what was best for Mrs. Johnson.
Taking a deep breath, Quentin nodded. "All right, Doctor Simmons, you may administer the anesthetic." He watched as Simmons picked up a small bottle, put several drops of a yellow-green substance on a cloth, and then laid it across Mrs. Johnson's face. From that moment, Quentin Larribee became almost another man. His face grew stern and his voice clipped as he gave orders. Picking up a scalpel, he waited with one hand on the patient's pulse, then finally made the incision.
"Will you look at him go!" Rob whispered, nudging Charlie with an elbow. "How fast his hands are! He's got the best hands for a surgeon I ever saw."
Charlie nodded. "You're right about that. His hands are big, aren't they? I don't see how he manages to get inside like he does."
"He's born for it, I think. Some men are like that. You can either do surgery or you can't. If you can't, you'd better look for another line of work."
The room was quiet, broken only by the voice of Larribee as he performed the operation. By habit, he spoke directly to the students in the balcony, describing exactly what he was doing. Finally he straightened and stood absolutely rigid for a moment. His voice contained a note of satisfaction as he turned to the stubby physican standing beside him. "Doctor Chambers, I think we may congratulate ourselves on a successful surgery."
"A pleasure to work with you, my boy! A pleasure!" Oscar Chambers beamed.
The other doctors in that small group traded glances, each of them thinking, It must have been a pleasure for Chambers, all right-he never touched the patient.
Simmons made himself say heartily, "Fine job, Larribee."
"Thank you, Les."
Doctor Sutter put out his hand. "Fine job, Doctor."
"Why, that's good to hear from you, Doctor Sutter."
Sutter turned to leave but was stopped by Oscar Chambers, his eyes gleaming. "What did you think of that, Sutter?"
"I think he's got the surest touch of any young surgeon I've ever seen." He hesitated, then his eyes grew hard. "You will, of course, know how to take advantage of that."
Chambers was speechless for a moment, but then he cleared his throat before saying in a half-defensive tone, "Why, I want to give the young man every opportunity. He'll be my son-in-law, of course, so it'll all be in the family. Well, I've got to hurry." Wheeling, Chambers half ran to catch his future son-in-law. "You'd better get a move on, Quentin. If you're late to that ball tonight, Irene will skin you alive. She gave me strict orders to remind you to be at the house on time."
"Yes, sir. I will be." Larribee shook his head ruefully. "But I wish I could like dancing as much as I like surgery. I cut a poor figure, I'm afraid. Two left feet."
"Why, you do the surgery, I'll do the dancing, my boy," Chambers smiled. He laughed aloud, pleased with himself, reached up again and slapped Quentin on the back, then scurried away.
* * *
A keening wind rattled the windows, and Hannah Larribee felt a cold breath as the January gust forced its way through the cracks around the facing. A look of annoyance crossed her face, and she drew the faded, green woolen shawl around her shoulders. This did not suffice, and she glanced at the fireplace, finding with some surprise that the fire had guttered down to a single tiny yellow tongue. Shivering, she placed a faded ribbon carefully in the Bible she was reading. Putting the thick volume on the mahogany side table beside her chair, she rose, reaching for the worn crutch balanced against the Pembroke table. Slipping it under her arm, she moved across the room. She had used a crutch since she was ten, when she had lost most of the use of her right leg. Like all of her other dresses, the dark brown dress she wore was long, sweeping the floor, so that her crippled leg was not visible, and she had learned to use her crutch so effectively that she could cover ground almost as fast as a woman without her handicap. Moving to the fireplace, she picked up the bellows and blew the coals until they glowed like cherry and a yellow blaze sprang up. She blinked her eyes against the acrid fumes of coal. Picking up the brassbound, mahogany coal bucket, she scattered several chunks over the coals, then set the bucket down and straightened up.
A black-and-white marble mantel clock ticked solemnly with a stately cadence, its pendulum swinging from side to side. She stared at the hands, then murmured, "Quentin's late."
Only a few seconds later she heard the sound of whistling, and her eyes softened. "He's always whistling no matter what happens." She stood waiting a moment longer, a well-shaped woman of twenty-seven with direct, gray-green eyes set in an oval face. Her hair, when it was let down, reached below her belt, but she kept it braided and woven in a hair corona that framed her head. She never complained about her handicap. Still, there was something in her face that should not be there: a dissatisfaction over what she felt she had missed, a slight chronic look of discontent that she tried to mask but could not. She had seen her youthful companions grow up, marry, and now with children about their feet. She kept house for her brother, and long ago had buried all her youthful romantic dreams behind a rather stern exterior.
Now the door opened and she moved forward, saying, "You're late-and close that door. It's cold in here."
"Why have you let the fire go down?" Quentin jammed his soft, felt hat on a hook beside the door, then hung his gray woolen overcoat carelessly beside it. He cared little for clothes, and the suit he wore was too large, hanging loosely on his lanky frame. He gave the impression of a man who had grabbed up clothes to escape a burning building.
Going to the fireplace, he picked up the bucket of coals and dumped the remainder on the fire. He turned and grinned at his sister, saying lightly, "Now, that'll put some heat in here." He set the bucket down, then realized he hadn't removed his gloves, so he stripped them off and tossed them down beside the fireplace.
"Pick those up and put them in your pocket, Quentin!" Hannah Larribee spoke sharply, as was her custom. She moved away toward the kitchen, saying, "I'll fix you something to eat before you leave. I'll be bound you haven't had a bite all day."
"Oh, I grabbed a little at noon. Don't bother." He watched her, knowing that she paid him no heed. Her halting gait suddenly brought a pang to him and he wondered, as he had many times in the past, if she hadn't had that accident and been made a cripple, what would she have been like? He had no answer, despite his great love for this still-faced woman whose life might have been so different. "I'm going to get dressed," he called. "I'll eat just a bite."
He moved out of the living room and down the hall, turning into his bedroom. The apartment they had rented on Thirty-second Street was close to the hospital-which was almost its only virtue. It was stuffed with furniture the two of them had brought from their old homestead, for Hannah had insisted on saving as much as possible. Stripping off his clothes, Quentin whistled "Lorena," adding a few trills to what he considered a rather sad song. He knew that the troops, both Confederate and Federals, were singing the song, but he liked it for its tune rather than for any political reasons. Yanking open both doors of a George Third mahogany clothespress, he pulled out a white shirt and tossed it on the old bed, which dated back to his grandfather or, perhaps, even farther than that. It was made with walnut spindles and glowed with a rich sheen under the decrescent afternoon light that slanted in through the high window beside it. He put on fresh underwear, then stared doubtfully at the evening suit he had not worn for several years. Hannah had cleaned and pressed it, but as he put it on he was apprehensive. It was a square-cut, dress-coat evening suit with narrow skirts. The sleeves were close fitting, with turned-back cuffs, and under it he wore a single-breasted waistcoat with a V-shaped front. The trousers were narrow with a braid running down either side. He noticed with concern that they were too short for him-which shouldn't surprise him, since they had been too short when he had worn them before. He eyed the high, closed collar and struggled with a well-worn black cambric tie until finally he gave up in disgust. Leaving the room, he entered the combination kitchen and dining room where Hannah was setting food on the table.
"Hannah, help me tie this blasted thing, will you?"
Hannah set a steaming plate of beef down on the table, then came to stand before him. Balancing herself on her left foot and expertly keeping the crutch trapped under the pit of her right arm, she reached up and swiftly tied the narrow tie. "It's strange to me that a doctor who can tie a fine knot in a little cord with one hand can't tie his own necktie." She jerked at the ends of the tie and started to move away, but Quentin suddenly reached out and caught her by the arm. He grinned down at her, and said, "I have to leave something for you to do around here." He was used to her abrasive manner, having long understood that beneath it lay a heart that was quite different. It was a measure of their closeness that she sometimes allowed him to see this more tender side of her, since she showed it to no one else.
Hannah scowled at him and pulled back. "Stop pawing me!" she said sharply. "Let me see!" She looked at the suit, and said, "That's too small for you. Look at those sleeves. Are you going to a fancy ball in that ratty thing?"
"Reckon I'll have to." Quentin shrugged. He tried to pull the sleeves down but, seeing it was hopeless, gave an embarrassed laugh. "Irene will probably refuse to go with a tramp like me."
Excerpted from Edge of Honor by Gilbert Morris Copyright © 2000 by Gilbert Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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