As for his skill, there was no question that it ranked higher than that of his special rival. As for his success, it had steadily increased. And, as all who knew him could testify, when it came to that “last ditch” in which lay a human being fighting for his life, Burns’s reputation for standing by, sleeves rolled up and body stiff with resistance of the threatening evil, was such that there was no man to compete with him.
It was inevitable that in a city of the moderate size of that in which these two men practised there should arise situations which sometimes brought about a clash between them. The patient of one, having arrived at serious straits, often called for a consultation with the other. The very professional bearing and methods of the two were so different, strive though they might to adapt themselves to each other at least in the presence of the patient, that trouble usually began at once, veiled though it might be under the stringencies of professional etiquette. Later, when it came to matters of life and death, these men were sure to disagree radically. Van Horn, dignified of presence, polished of speech, was apt to impress the patient’s family with his wisdom, his restraint, his modestly assured sense of the fitness of his own methods to the needs of the case; while Burns, burning with indignation over some breach of faith occasioned by his senior’s orders in his absence, or other indignity, flaming still more hotly over being forced into a course which he believed to be against the patient’s interest, was likely to blurt out some rough speech at a moment when silence, as far as his own interests were concerned, would have been more discreet—and then would come rupture.
Usually those most concerned never guessed at the hidden fires, because even Burns, under bonds to his wife to restrain himself at moments of danger, was nearly always able to get away from such scenes without open outbreak. But more than once a situation had developed which could be handled only by the withdrawal of one or the other physician from the case—and then, whether he went or stayed, Burns could seldom win through without showing what he felt.
Now, however, he was feeling as he had never dreamed he could feel toward James Van Horn. The way in which the man was facing the present crisis in his life called for Burns’s honest and ungrudging admiration. With that same cool and unflurried bearing with which Van Horn was accustomed to hold his own in a consultation was he now awaiting the uncertain issue of his determination to end, in one way or the other, the disability under which he was suffering.
THE ONLY SAFE PLACE
When Red Pepper Burns visited James Van Horn, at the hospital, on the evening before the operation, he found him lying quietly in bed, ready for the night—and the morning. He looked up and smiled the same slightly frosty smile Burns knew so well, but which he now interpreted differently. As he sat down by the bedside the younger man’s heart was unbelievably warm.