May 2004 thru Nov 2004 Book Review
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Copyright 1914, 1932, 1941, 1942
In Her autobiography, My Story, Mary Roberts Rinehart told a little
about her training as a nurse. She was seventeen years old when,
in 1893, she entered The Pittsburgh Training School to become one
of fewer than five hundred graduate trained nurses in America. She
never forgot what she learned there: the agonizingly long hours, the
depth of compassion a nurse must possess to meet human suffering,
and the wisdom she must learn in order to handle those almost sacred confidences brought out by pain or fear. Above everything else,
Mary Roberts Rinehart found in herself the quiet courage required to
cope with any emergency. Later she would advise young writers,
"Know the people you are writing about." She would say, "If you are a housewife living in the South, why try to tell a story of French Colonials
in North Africa?" About Hilda Adams, America's favorite nurse
detective, she knew a great deal.
The two short stories and two novels contained in this book are
presented chronologically, as they were written. Years elapsed
between Locked Doors and Miss Pinkerton.
More years passed before Mrs. Rinehart wrote Haunted Lady.
However, the fact that she kept drawing upon her own nursing
experienc gives the stories vitality and deep authenticity.
The Buckled Bag
I Have broken down in health lately--nothing serious; but a nurse lasts
only so long, and during the last five years I have been under a double
strain. Caring for the sick has been only a part of it. The other?
Well, put it like this: The world's pretty crowded after all. We are
always touching elbows, and there is never a deviation from the usual,
the normal, that is not felt all the way down the line. Stand a row of
dominoes on edge and knock down the end one. Do you see? And
generally somebody goes down for fair. We do not know much about
it among the poor; they have to manage the best way they can, and
maybe they are blunted--some of them. They have not the time for
mental agony. And the thing works both ways. Their lapses are
generally obvious--cause and result; motive and crime.
In the lower walks of life people are more elemental. But get up higher.
Crime exists there; but, instead of a passion, it is a craft. In its
detection it is brain against brain, not intellect against brute force or
instinct. If anything gives, it is the body.
Illness follows crime--it does not always follow the criminal; but
somebody goes down for fair. There is a breach in the wall. The doctor
and the cleryman come in then. One way and another they get the
story. There is nothing hidden from them. They get it, but they do not
want it. They cannot use it. The cleryman's vows and the medical
man's legal status forbid their using their knowledge; but, where a few
years ago there were only two, now each crisis, mental or physical,
finds three--the trained nurse.
Do you see what I mean? The thing is thrust at her. She does not
want the story either. Her business is bodies, doctor's orders,
nourishments; but unless she's a fool she ends by holding the family
secret in the hollow of her hand. It worries her. She needs her hands.
She gets rid of it as soon as she can and forgets it. She is safe; the
secret is safe. Without the clergyman's vows or the doctor's legal
status, she is as silent as either.
That is the ethical side. That is what the nurse does. There is
another side, which is mine. The criminal uses every means against
society. Why not society against the criminal? And this is my
defense. Every trained nurse plays a game, a sort of sporting
proposition--her wits against wretchedness. I play a double game--
the fight against misery and the fight against crime--like a man
running two chessboards at once.
I hated it in the beginning. It has me by the throat now. It is the
criminal I find absorbing. And I have learned some things--not new,
of the course: that to be honest because one is untempted is to be
strong with the strength of a child; that the great virtues often link
arms with the great vices; that the big criminal thinks big thoughts.
I have had my chance to learn and I know. A nurse gets under the
very skin of the soul. She finds a mind surrendered, all the crooked
little motives that have fired the guns of life revealed in their pitifulness.
Even now, sometimes, it hurts me to look back.
It is five years since George L. Patton was shot in the leg during a
raid on the Hengst Place, in Cherry Run. He is at the head of one
of the big private agencies now, but he was a county detective then;
and Hengst shot him from a cupboard. Well, that does not matter
particularly, except that Mr. Patton was brought to the hospital that
night and I was given the case.
He took it very calmly--said he guessed he would rest awhile, now
he had the chance, and slept eighteen hours without moving. I
made caps, I remember, and tried to plan what I would do when I left
the house. My time was about up and I dreaded private duty. I had
been accustomed to the excitement of a hospital, and there was
something horrible to me in the idea of spending the rest of my life
in darkened rooms, with the doctor's daily visit for excitement and
a walk round the block for recreation.
I gave Mr. Patton his dinner that night and we had our first clash. He
looked at the soup and toast, and demanded steak and onions.
"I'm sorry," I said. "You're to have light diet for a day or two. We don't
want any fever from that leg."
"Leg! What has my leg to do with my stomach? I want a medium
steak. I'll do without the onions if I have to."
"Doctor's orders," I said firmly. "You may have an egg custard if you
want it, or some cornstarch."
We had a downright argument and he took the soup. When he had
finished, he looked up at me and smiled.
"I don't like you," he said, "but darned if I don't respect you, young
woman. Absolute obedience to orders is about the hardest thing in
the world to get. And now send for that fool interne and we'll have a
steak for breakfast."
Well, he did; and pretty soon he was getting about everything the
hospital could give him. He was a politician, of course, and we
depended on our state appropriation for support; but he got nothing
from me without an order. He always said he did not like me, but I
think he did after a while. I could beat him at chess, for one thine.
"You have a good head, Miss Adams," he said to me one day when
he was almost well. "Are you going to spend the rest of your life
changing pillowslips and shaking down a thermometer?"
"I've thought of institutional work; I dare say I'd be changing nurses and
shaking down internes," I said with some bitterness.
"How old are you?--not, of course, for publication."
"The nearest relatives I have are two old aunts, in the country."
He was silent for a minute or two. Then: "I've been thinking of
something; I may take it up with you later. There's only one
objection--you're rather too good-looking."
"I'm not really good-looking at all," I admitted frankly. "I have too
high a forehead. It's the cap."
"Like 'em high!" said Mr. Patton.
I made an eggnog and brought it in to him. He was sitting propped
in a chair, and when I gave him the glass, he smiled up at me. He
had never attempted any sentimentalities with me, which is more
than can be said of the usual convalescent male over forty.
"It isn't all the cap," he said.
That afternoon he tried to learn from me something about the other
patients on the floor; but of course I would tell him nothing. He
seemed rather irritated and tried to bully me, but I was firm.
"Don't be childish, Mr. Patton!" I said at last. "We don't tell about
other patients. If you want to find out, get one of your men in here."
To my surprise he laughted.
"Good girl!" he said. "You've stood a cracking test and come through
A one. You've got silence and obedience to orders, and you have a
brain. I've mentioned the forehead. Now I'm going to make my
proposition. Has it ever occurred to you that every crisis, practically,
among the better classes, finds a trained nurse on hand?"
"Cause or result?"
"Result, of course. Upset the ordinary routine of a family, have a
robbery, and elopement or murder, and somebody goes to bed, with
a trained nurse in attendence. Fact, isn't it?" I admitted it. "It's a
fault of the tension people live under," he went on. "Any extra strain
and something snaps. And who is it who is in the very bosom of the
family? You know and I know. The nurse gets it all--the intimate
details that the police miss; the family disputes, the inner motives;
the--you go to your room and think it over. And when you decide, I
have a case for you."
I tried to object, but he cut me short; so I put the thermometer in his
mouth and managed to tell him how I felt.
"It just doesn't seem honest," I finished. "I'm in a position of
confidence and I violate it. That's the truth. A nurse is supposed to
work for good; if she has any place, it's an uplift--if you can see what
I mean. And to go into a house and pry out its secrets--"
He jerked the thermometer out wrathfully.
"Uplift!" he said. "Isn't it uplifting to place a criminal where he won't
injure society? If you can't see it that way, we don't want you. Now
go away and think about it."
I went up to my room and stood in front of the mirror, which is where
I do most of my thinking. I talk things over with myself, I suppose.
And I saw the lines beside my ears that said, "Twenty-nine, almost
thirty!" And I thought of institutional work, with its daily round of
small worries, its monotonous years, with my soul gradually
shrinking and shaping itself to fit a set of rules. And over against it
all I put Mr. Patton's offer.
I recall it all--the color that came to my face at the chance to use
my head instead of only a trained obedience to order; the prospect of adventure; the chance to pit my wits against other wits and perhaps
win out. I put on one of the new caps and went down to Mr. Patton's
"I'll do it!" I said calmly.
My time was up two days later. Mr. Patton was practically well and
gave me my instructions while I helped him pack his bag.
"Do the things the other nurses do," he advised. "Go to the Nurses'
Home, but don't register for cases right away. Make an excuse that
you're tired and need a few days' rest. When I telephone you, I shall
call myself Doctor Patton--not that I pretend to do any medical work,
but for extra caution."
"You said you had a case for me."
"I had, but it isn't big enough. I want you for something worth while,
and it will be along soon. It's about due."
"And--just one thing, Mr. Patton: I will take my first case on trial. If I
find that I am doing harm and not good by revealing the secrets of a
family, I shall give it up. A doctor would be answerable to the law for
doing the things I am about to do."
"You have no legal status."
"I have a moral status," I replied grimly, and he found no answer to
Before he left, however, he said something that rather cheered me.
"You will never be required to tell anything you learn, except what is
directly pertinent to the matter in hand," he said. "I would not give
such latitude to any other woman I know--but you have brains and
you will know what we want."
"I cannot work in the dark--I must know what you are after."
"We will lay all our cards on your table face up. I wouldn't insult you
by asking you to play blindfolded. And remember this, Miss Adams--
it's as high a duty to explore and heal the moral sores of a community
as it is to probe and dress, for instance, the wound of a man who has
been shot in the leg."
Two days later I left the hospital and took a room at the Nurses' Home
he had recommended. He would arrange with the secretary, he said,
that I should be called for any case on which he wished me placed.
I put in a bad week. One of the staff of the hospital located me and
called me to a case. I got out of it by saying I needed a few days' rest,
and he rang off irritably. Then, on the third day, I had my handbag cut
off my arm in a department store, and went home depressed and ill-
"You're a fine detective!" I said to myself in the mirror. "You're not so
clever as Mr. Patton thinks, and if you're honest, you'll go and tell him
I think I should have done so--I was so abashed; but our arrangement
was that I should not try to see him under any circumstances. There
was to be no suspicion on me in any way. He would see me when
necessary. I still had the strap of my bag, which had been left hanging
to my arm; and, as a constant reminder, I fastened it to the frame of
my mirror. Even now, when the department gives me its best cases,
and when I have been successful enough to justify a little pride, I look
at that bit of leather and become meek and normal again.........
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