On Distant Shores – Episode 33

The Bulfinch Operating Theatre was buzzing with surgeons, medical students, newspaper men and more than a few curious gawkers as Horace Wells prepared to take the stage. The operation was simple: a tooth extraction, which should be easy for Wells, since he’d trained as a dentist.

Even so, as he stood to the side of the stage waiting for Wells to begin, Ian felt a deep-seated pang of uneasiness and fear. Every eye would be trained on Wells as he performed the extraction. If it failed, it would be tomorrow’s joke in the newspapers, or worse.

He studied Wells discreetly. His eyes looked bloodshot and a little wild, and his hair and clothing were both in disarray.

Caroline’s words echoed in Ian’s mind. If Mr Wells cannot perform the operation, then you must do it. Yet how could he? It would be the grossest act of arrogance and betrayal to step in at such a moment and take all the acclaim when Wells had worked so hard for so long. And that was only if Wells permitted it.

Ian glanced at him again, saw his hands tremble as he straightened his cravat. A man could not operate with such shaky hands. His mind made up, Ian approached the other man.

“Mr Wells, are you sure you are all right?”

Wells glanced at him sharply, eyes bright with suspicion.

“Of course I am. Why should I not be?”

“You look rather unwell.”

Wells’s lip curled in a sneer.

“Now, Crombie, are you attempting to dissuade me from performing the extraction at this late hour? Let me guess. You wish to perform the procedure yourself.”

“I would do so if needed,” Ian replied steadily. “The most important thing is for the operation to succeed.”

“And it will. I have done the same a hundred times before.”

Frustration bubbled inside Ian. With his spirits sinking like a stone inside him, Ian watched as the chief of surgery introduced Wells to the crowd of spectators, and their chatter died to a hushed and expectant silence. The patient, a gentleman of about forty years old, was brought on to the stage, smiling rather dubiously.

Wells began to climb the short flight of stairs to the stage, and stumbled. Ian’s heart caught in his throat, and he reached out to steady his colleague, one hand on the man’s sleeve.

“Please, Horace,” he whispered urgently. “Do not let pride stand in your way at this important hour.”

Without looking at him, Wells jerked his arm away and ascended to the stage. Ian stepped back, concern and despair swamping him. Should he intervene? To do so now would create an inexcusable scene. He suddenly wished Caroline was here. He imagined her calm, smiling face, her steady advice, and longed fiercely for both.

Wells placed the glass globe of ether over the man’s face, and when his eyes fluttered he began to extract the tooth.

The ensuing scream of pain echoed through the theatre, and Wells was forced to step back as the man stumbled from the chair, one hand to his bleeding mouth.

“You said I wouldn’t feel a thing!” he exclaimed hoarsely, but Wells’s reply was lost amidst the eruption of howls and jeers among the spectators.

The experiment, Ian knew with a despairing certainty, had been a failure.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.