A Farewell to Arms CHAPTER XV

Nothing happened until afternoon. The doctor was a thin quiet little man who seemed disturbed by the war. He took out a number of small steel splinters from my thighs with delicate and refined distaste. He used a local an├Žsthetic called something or other “snow,” which froze the tissue and avoided pain until the probe, the scalpel or the forceps got below the frozen portion. The an├Žsthetized area was clearly defined by the patient and after a time the doctor’s fragile delicacy was exhausted and he said it would be better to have an X-ray. Probing was unsatisfactory, he said.

The X-ray was taken at the Ospedale Maggiore and the doctor who did it was excitable, efficient and cheerful. It was arranged by holding up the shoulders, that the patient should see personally some of the larger foreign bodies through the machine. The plates were to be sent over. The doctor requested me to write in his pocket notebook, my name, and regiment and some sentiment. He declared that the foreign bodies were ugly, nasty, brutal. The Austrians were sons of bitches. How many had I killed? I had not killed any but I was anxious to please—and I said I had killed plenty. Miss Gage was with me and the doctor put his arm around her and said she was more beautiful than Cleopatra. Did she understand that? Cleopatra the former queen of Egypt. Yes, by God she was. We returned to the little hospital in the ambulance and after a while and much lifting I was upstairs and in bed again. The plates came that afternoon, the doctor had said by God he would have them that afternoon and he did. Catherine Barkley showed them to me. They were in red envelopes and she took them out of the envelopes and held them up to the light and we both looked.

“That’s your right leg,” she said, then put the plate back in the envelope. “This is your left.”

“Put them away,” I said, “and come over to the bed.”

“I can’t,” she said. “I just brought them in for a second to show you.”

She went out and I lay there. It was a hot afternoon and I was sick of lying in bed. I sent the porter for the papers, all the papers he could get.

Before he came back three doctors came into the room. I have noticed that doctors who fail in the practice of medicine have a tendency to seek one another’s company and aid in consultation. A doctor who cannot take out your appendix properly will recommend to you a doctor who will be unable to remove your tonsils with success. These were three such doctors.

“This is the young man,” said the house doctor with the delicate hands.

“How do you do?” said the tall gaunt doctor with the beard. The third doctor, who carried the X-ray plates in their red envelopes, said nothing.

“Remove the dressings?” questioned the bearded doctor.

“Certainly. Remove the dressings, please, nurse,” the house doctor said to Miss Gage. Miss Gage removed the dressings. I looked down at the legs. At the field hospital they had the look of not too freshly ground hamburger steak. Now they were crusted and the knee was swollen and discolored and the calf sunken but there was no pus.

“Very clean,” said the house doctor. “Very clean and nice.”

“Um,” said the doctor with the beard. The third doctor looked over the house doctor’s shoulder.

“Please move the knee,” said the bearded doctor.

“I can’t.”

“Test the articulation?” the bearded doctor questioned. He had a stripe beside the three stars on his sleeve. That meant he was a first captain.

“Certainly,” the house doctor said. Two of them took hold of my right leg very gingerly and bent it.

“That hurts,” I said.

“Yes. Yes. A little further, doctor.”

“That’s enough. That’s as far as it goes,” I said.

“Partial articulation,” said the first captain. He straightened up. “May I see the plates again, please, doctor?” The third doctor handed him one of the plates. “No. The left leg, please.”

“That is the left leg, doctor.”

“You are right. I was looking from a different angle.” He returned the plate. The other plate he examined for some time. “You see, doctor?” he pointed to one of the foreign bodies which showed spherical and clear against the light. They examined the plate for some time.

“Only one thing I can say,” the first captain with the beard said. “It is a question of time. Three months, six months probably.”

“Certainly the synovial fluid must re-form.”

“Certainly. It is a question of time. I could not conscientiously open a knee like that before the projectile was encysted.”

“I agree with you, doctor.”

“Six months for what?” I asked.

“Six months for the projectile to encyst before the knee can be opened safely.”

“I don’t believe it,” I said.

“Do you want to keep your knee, young man?”

“No,” I said.


“I want it cut off,” I said, “so I can wear a hook on it.”

“What do you mean? A hook?”

“He is joking,” said the house doctor. He patted my shoulder very delicately. “He wants to keep his knee. This is a very brave young man. He has been proposed for the silver medal of valor.”

“All my felicitations,” said the first captain. He shook my hand. “I can only say that to be on the safe side you should wait at least six months before opening such a knee. You are welcome of course to another opinion.”

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I value your opinion.”

The first captain looked at his watch.

“We must go,” he said. “All my best wishes.”

“All my best wishes and many thanks,” I said. I shook hands with the third doctor, “Capitano Varini—Tenente Enry,” and they all three went out of the room.

“Miss Gage,” I called. She came in. “Please ask the house doctor to come back a minute.”

He came in holding his cap and stood by the bed. “Did you wish to see me?”

“Yes. I can’t wait six months to be operated on. My God, doctor, did you ever stay in bed six months?”

“You won’t be in bed all the time. You must first have the wounds exposed to the sun. Then afterward you can be on crutches.”

“For six months and then have an operation?”

“That is the safe way. The foreign bodies must be allowed to encyst and the synovial fluid will re-form. Then it will be safe to open up the knee.”

“Do you really think yourself I will have to wait that long?”

“That is the safe way.”

“Who is that first captain?”

“He is a very excellent surgeon of Milan.”

“He’s a first captain, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but he is an excellent surgeon.”

“I don’t want my leg fooled with by a first captain. If he was any good he would be made a major. I know what a first captain is, doctor.”

“He is an excellent surgeon and I would rather have his judgment than any surgeon I know.”

“Could another surgeon see it?”

“Certainly if you wish. But I would take Dr. Varella’s opinion myself.”

“Could you ask another surgeon to come and see it?”

“I will ask Valentini to come.”

“Who is he?”

“He is a surgeon of the Ospedale Maggiore.”

“Good. I appreciate it very much. You understand, doctor, I couldn’t stay in bed six months.”

“You would not be in bed. You would first take a sun cure. Then you could have light exercise. Then when it was encysted we would operate.”

“But I can’t wait six months.”

The doctor spread his delicate fingers on the cap he held and smiled. “You are in such a hurry to get back to the front?”

“Why not?”

“It is very beautiful,” he said. “You are a noble young man.” He stooped over and kissed me very delicately on the forehead. “I will send for Valentini. Do not worry and excite yourself. Be a good boy.”

“Will you have a drink?” I asked.

“No thank you. I never drink alcohol.”

“Just have one.” I rang for the porter to bring glasses.

“No. No thank you. They are waiting for me.”

“Good-by,” I said.


* * *

Two hours later Dr. Valentini came into the room. He was in a great hurry and the points of his mustache stood straight up. He was a major, his face was tanned and he laughed all the time.

“How did you do it, this rotten thing?” he asked. “Let me see the plates. Yes. Yes. That’s it. You look healthy as a goat. Who’s the pretty girl? Is she your girl? I thought so. Isn’t this a bloody war? How does that feel? You are a fine boy. I’ll make you better than new. Does that hurt? You bet it hurts. How they love to hurt you, these doctors. What have they done for you so far? Can’t that girl talk Italian? She should learn. What a lovely girl. I could teach her. I will be a patient here myself. No, but I will do all your maternity work free. Does she understand that? She will make you a fine boy. A fine blonde like she is. That’s fine. That’s all right. What a lovely girl. Ask her if she eats supper with me. No I won’t take her away from you. Thank you. Thank you very much, Miss. That’s all.”

“That’s all I want to know.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Leave the dressings off.”

“Will you have a drink, Dr. Valentini?”

“A drink? Certainly. I will have ten drinks. Where are they?”

“In the armoire. Miss Barkley will get the bottle.”

“Cheery oh. Cheery oh to you, Miss. What a lovely girl. I will bring you better cognac than that.” He wiped his mustache.

“When do you think it can be operated on?”

“To-morrow morning. Not before. Your stomach must be emptied. You must be washed out. I will see the old lady downstairs and leave instructions. Good-by. I see you to-morrow. I’ll bring you better cognac than that. You are very comfortable here. Good-by. Until to-morrow. Get a good sleep. I’ll see you early.” He waved from the doorway, his mustaches went straight up, his brown face was smiling. There was a star in a box on his sleeve because he was a major.