Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Love Stories online

. (page 8 of 17)
Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartLove Stories → online text (page 8 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


she was, in spite of the sad droop of her lips - and found it hard to
say the thing he felt he must.

"After all," he remarked round the thermometer, "the thing is not
irrevocable. I can fix it up so that - - "

"Keep your lips closed about the thermometer!" she said sternly, and
snapped her watch shut.

The pulse and so on having been recorded, and "Very hungry" put down
under Symptoms, she came back to her chair by the window, facing
him. She sat down primly and smoothed her white apron in her lap.

"Now!" she said.

"I am to go on?"

"Yes, please."

"If you are going to change the pillows or the screen, or give me
any other diabolical truck to swallow," he said somewhat peevishly,
"will you get it over now, so we can have five unprofessional
minutes?"

"Certainly," she said; and bringing an extra blanket she spread it,
to his disgust, over his knees.

This time, when she sat down, one of her hands lay on the table near
him and he reached over and covered it with his.

"Please!" he begged. "For company! And it will help me to tell you
some of the things I have to tell."

She left it there, after an uneasy stirring. So, sitting there,
looking out into the dusty courtyard with its bandaged figures in
wheeled chairs, its cripples sunning on a bench - their crutches
beside them - its waterless fountain and its dingy birds, he told her
about the girl and the Lindley Grants, and even about the cabman and
the ring. And feeling, perhaps in some current from the small hand
under his, that she was knowing and understanding and not turning
away, he told her a great deal he had not meant to tell - ugly
things, many of them - for that was his creed.

And, because in a hospital one lives many lives vicariously with
many people, what the girl back home would never have understood
this girl did and faced unabashed. Life, as she knew it, was not all
good and not all bad; passion and tenderness, violence and peace,
joy and wretchedness, birth and death - these she had looked on, all
of them, with clear eyes and hands ready to help.

So Billy Grant laid the good and the bad of his life before her,
knowing that he was burying it with her. When he finished, her hand
on the table had turned and was clasping his. He bent over and
kissed her fingers softly.

After that she read to him, and their talk, if any, was impersonal.
When the orderly had put him back to bed he lay watching her moving
about, rejoicing in her quiet strength, her repose. How well she was
taking it all! If only - but there was no hope of that. She could go
to Reno, and in a few months she would be free again and the thing
would be as if it had never been.

At nine o'clock that night the isolation pavilion was ready for the
night. The lights in the sickroom were out. In the hall a nightlight
burned low, Billy Grant was not asleep. He tried counting the
lighted windows of the hospital and grew only more wakeful.

The Nurse was sleeping now in her own room across, with the doors
open between. The slightest movement and she was up, tiptoeing in,
with her hair in a long braid down her back and her wrapper sleeves
falling away loosely from her white, young arms. So, aching with
inaction, Billy Grant lay still until the silence across indicated
that she was sleeping.

Then he got up. This is a matter of difficulty when one is still
very weak, and is achieved by rising first into a sitting posture by
pulling oneself up by the bars of the bed, and then by slipping
first one leg, then the other, over the side. Properly done, even
the weakest thus find themselves in a position that by the aid of a
chairback may become, however shaky, a standing one.

He got to his feet better than he expected, but not well enough to
relinquish the chair. He had made no sound. That was good. He would
tell her in the morning and rally her on her powers as a sleeper. He
took a step - if only his knees - -

He had advanced into line with the doorway and stood looking through
the open door of the room across.

The Nurse was on her knees beside the bed, in her nightgown, crying.
Her whole young body was shaken with silent sobs; her arms, in their
short white sleeves, stretched across the bed, her fingers clutching
the counterpane.

Billy Grant stumbled back to his bed and fell in with a sort of
groan. Almost instantly she was at the door, her flannel wrapper
held about her, peering into the darkness.

"I thought I heard - are you worse?" she asked anxiously.

"I'm all right," he said, hating himself; "just not sleepy. How
about you?"

"Not asleep yet, but - resting," she replied.

She stood in the doorway, dimly outlined, with her long braid over
her shoulder and her voice still a little strained from crying. In
the darkness Billy Grant half stretched out his arms, then dropped
them, ashamed.

"Would you like another blanket?"

"If there is one near."

She came in a moment later with the blanket and spread it over the
bed. He lay very still while she patted and smoothed it into place.
He was mustering up his courage to ask for something - a curious
state of mind for Billy Grant, who had always taken what he wanted
without asking.

"I wish you would kiss me - just once!" he said wistfully. And then,
seeing her draw back, he took an unfair advantage: "I think that's
the reason I'm not sleeping."

"Don't be absurd!"

"Is it so absurd - under the circumstances?"

"You can sleep quite well if you only try."

She went out into the hall again, her chin well up. Then she
hesitated, turned and came swiftly back into the room.

"If I do," she said rather breathlessly, "will you go to sleep? And
will you promise to hold your arms up over your head?"

"But my arms - - "

"Over your head!"

He obeyed at that, and the next moment she had bent over him in the
darkness; and quickly, lightly, deliciously, she kissed - the tip of
his nose!


IV

She was quite cheerful the next day and entirely composed. Neither
of them referred to the episode of the night before, but Billy Grant
thought of little else. Early in the morning he asked her to bring
him a hand mirror and, surveying his face, tortured and disfigured
by the orderly's shaving, suffered an acute wound in his vanity. He
was glad it had been dark or she probably would not have - - He
borrowed a razor from the interne and proceeded to enjoy himself.

Propped up in his chair, he rioted in lather, sliced a piece out of
his right ear, and shaved the back of his neck by touch, in lieu of
better treatment. This done, and the ragged and unkempt hair over
his ears having been trimmed in scallops, due to the work being done
with curved surgical scissors, he was his own man again.

That afternoon, however, he was nervous and restless. The Nurse was
troubled. He avoided the subject that had so obsessed him the day
before, was absent and irritable, could not eat, and sat in his
chair by the window, nervously clasping and unclasping his hands.

The Nurse was puzzled, but the Staff Doctor, making rounds that day,
enlightened her.

"He has pulled through - God and you alone know how," he said. "But
as soon as he begins to get his strength he's going to yell for
liquor again. When a man has been soaking up alcohol for years - -
Drat this hospital cooking anyhow! Have you got any essence of
pepsin?"

The Nurse brought the pepsin and a medicine glass and the Staff
Doctor swallowed and grimaced.

"You were saying," said the Nurse timidly - for, the stress being
over, he was Staff again and she was a Junior and not even entitled
to a Senior's privileges, such as returning occasional badinage.

"Every atom of him is going to crave it. He's wanting it now. He has
been used to it for years." The Nurse was white to the lips, but
steady. "He is not to have it?"

"Not a drop while he is here. When he gets out it is his own affair
again, but while he's here - by-the-way, you'll have to watch the
orderly. He'll bribe him."

"I don't think so, doctor. He is a gentleman."

"Pooh! Of course he is. I dare say he's a gentleman when he's drunk
too; but he's a drinker - a habitual drinker."

The Nurse went back into the room and found Billy Grant sitting in a
chair, with the book he had been reading on the floor and his face
buried in his hands.

"I'm awfuly sorry!" he said, not looking up. "I heard what he said.
He's right, you know."

"I'm sorry. And I'm afraid this is a place where I cannot help."

She put her hand on his head, and he brought it down and held it
between his.

"Two or three times," he said, "when things were very bad with me,
you let me hold your hand, and we got past somehow - didn't we?"

She closed her eyes, remembering the dawn when, to soothe a dying
man, in the presence of the mission preacher, she had put her hand
in his. Billy Grant thought of it too.

"Now you know what you've married," he said bitterly. The bitterness
was at himself of course. "If - if you'll sit tight I have a fighting
chance to make a man of myself; and after it's over we'll fix this
thing for you so you will forget it ever happened. And I - - Don't
take your hand away. Please!"

"I was feeling for my handkerchief," she explained.

"Have I made you cry again?"

"Again?'

"I saw you last night in your room. I didn't intend to; but I was
trying to stand, and - - "

She was very dignified at this, with her eyes still wet, and tried
unsuccessfully to take her hand away.

"If you are going to get up when it is forbidden I shall ask to be
relieved."

"You wouldn't do that!"

"Let go of my hand."

"You wouldn't do that!!"

"Please! The head nurse is coming."

He freed her hand then and she wiped her eyes, remembering the
"perfect, silent, reliable, fearless, emotionless machine."

The head of the training school came to the door of the pavilion,
but did not enter. The reason for this was twofold: first, she had
confidence in the Nurse; second, she was afraid of contagion - this
latter, of course, quite _sub rosa_, in view of the above quotation.

The Head Nurse was a tall woman in white, and was so starchy that
she rattled like a newspaper when she walked.

"Good morning," she said briskly. "Have you sent over the soiled
clothes?" Head nurses are always bothering about soiled clothes;
and what becomes of all the nailbrushes, and how can they use so
many bandages.

"Yes, Miss Smith."

"Meals come over promptly?"

"Yes, Miss Smith."

"Getting any sleep?"

"Oh, yes, plenty - now."

Miss Smith peered into the hallway, which seemed tidy, looked at the
Nurse with approval, and then from the doorstep into the patient's
room, where Billy Grant sat. At the sight of him her eyebrows rose.

"Good gracious!" she exclaimed. "I thought he was older than that!"

"Twenty-nine," said the Nurse; "twenty-nine last Fourth of July."

"H'm!" commented the Head Nurse. "You evidently know! I had no idea
you were taking care of a boy. It won't do. I'll send over Miss
Hart."

The Nurse tried to visualise Billy Grant in his times of stress
clutching at Miss Hart's hand, and failed.

"Jenks is here, of course," she said, Jenks being the orderly.

The idea of Jenks as a chaperon, however, did not appeal to the head
nurse. She took another glance through the window at Billy Grant,
looking uncommonly handsome and quite ten years younger since the
shave, and she set her lips.

"I am astonished beyond measure," she said. "Miss Hart will relieve
you at two o'clock. Take your antiseptic bath and you may have the
afternoon to yourself. Report in L Ward in the morning."

Miss Smith rattled back across the courtyard and the Nurse stood
watching her; then turned slowly and went into the house to tell
Billy Grant.

Now the stories about what followed differ. They agree on one point:
that Billy Grant had a heart-to-heart talk with the substitute at
two o'clock that afternoon and told her politely but firmly that he
would none of her. Here the divergence begins. Some say he got the
superintendent over the house telephone and said he had intended to
make a large gift to the hospital, but if his comfort was so little
considered as to change nurses just when he had got used to one, he
would have to alter his plans. Another and more likely story,
because it sounds more like Billy Grant, is that at five o'clock a
florist's boy delivered to Miss Smith a box of orchids such as never
had been seen before in the house, and a card inside which said:
"Please, dear Miss Smith, take back the Hart that thou gavest."

Whatever really happened - and only Billy Grant and the lady in
question ever really knew - that night at eight o'clock, with Billy
Grant sitting glumly in his room and Miss Hart studying typhoid
fever in the hall, the Nurse came back again to the pavilion with
her soft hair flying from its afternoon washing and her eyes
shining. And things went on as before - not quite as before; for with
the nurse question settled the craving got in its work again, and
the next week was a bad one. There were good days, when he taught
her double-dummy auction bridge, followed by terrible nights, when
he walked the floor for hours and she sat by, unable to help. Then
at dawn he would send her to bed remorsefully and take up the fight
alone. And there were quiet nights when both slept and when he would
waken to the craving again and fight all day.

"I'm afraid I'm about killing her," he said to the Staff Doctor one
day; "but it's my chance to make a man of myself - now or never."

The Staff Doctor was no fool and he had heard about the orchids.

"Fight it out, boy!" he said. "Pretty soon you'll quit peeling and
cease being a menace to the public health, and you'd better get it
over before you are free again."

So, after a time, it grew a little easier. Grant was pretty much
himself again - had put on a little flesh and could feel his biceps
rise under his fingers. He took to cold plunges when he felt the
craving coming on, and there were days when the little pavilion was
full of the sound of running water. He shaved himself daily, too,
and sent out for some collars.

Between the two of them, since her return, there had been much of
good fellowship, nothing of sentiment. He wanted her near, but he
did not put a hand on her. In the strain of those few days the
strange, grey dawn seemed to have faded into its own mists. Only
once, when she had brought his breakfast tray and was arranging the
dishes for him - against his protest, for he disliked being waited
on - he reached over and touched a plain band ring she wore. She
coloured.

"My mother's," she said; "her wedding ring."

Their eyes met across the tray, but he only said, after a moment:
"Eggs like a rock, of course! Couldn't we get 'em raw and boil them
over here?"

It was that morning, also, that he suggested a thing which had been
in his mind for some time.

"Wouldn't it be possible," he asked, "to bring your tray in here and
to eat together? It would be more sociable."

She smiled.

"It isn't permitted."

"Do you think - would another box of orchids - - "

She shook her head as she poured out his coffee. "I should probably
be expelled."

He was greatly aggrieved.

"That's all foolishness," he said. "How is that any worse - any more
unconventional - than your bringing me your extra blanket on a cold
night? Oh, I heard you last night!"

"Then why didn't you leave it on?"

"And let you freeze?"

"I was quite warm. As it was, it lay in the hallway all night and
did no one any good."

Having got thus far from wedding rings, he did not try to get back.
He ate alone, and after breakfast, while she took her half-hour of
exercise outside the window, he sat inside reading - only apparently
reading, however.

Once she went quite as far as the gate and stood looking out.

"Jenks!" called Billy Grant.

Jenks has not entered into the story much. He was a little man,
rather fat, who occupied a tiny room in the pavilion, carried meals
and soiled clothes, had sat on Billy Grant's chest once or twice
during a delirium, and kept a bottle locked in the dish closet.

"Yes, sir," said Jenks, coming behind a strong odour of _spiritus
frumenti_.

"Jenks," said Billy Grant with an eye on the figure at the gate, "is
that bottle of yours empty?"

"What bottle?"

"The one in the closet."

Jenks eyed Billy Grant, and Billy eyed Jenks - a look of man to man,
brother to brother.

"Not quite, sir - a nip or two."

"At," suggested Billy Grant, "say - five dollars a nip?"

Jenks smiled.

"About that," he said. "Filled?"

Billy Grant debated. The Nurse was turning at the gate.

"No," he said. "As it is, Jenks. Bring it here."

Jenks brought the bottle and a glass, but the glass was motioned
away. Billy Grant took the bottle in his hand and looked at it with
a curious expression. Then he went over and put it in the upper
bureau drawer, under a pile of handkerchiefs. Jenks watched him,
bewildered.

"Just a little experiment, Jenks," said Billy Grant.

Jenks understood then and stopped smiling.

"I wouldn't, Mr. Grant," he said; "it will only make you lose
confidence in yourself when it doesn't work out."

"But it's going to work out," said Billy Grant. "Would you mind
turning on the cold water?"

Now the next twenty-four hours puzzled the Nurse. When Billy Grant's
eyes were not on her with an unfathomable expression in them, they
were fixed on something in the neighbourhood of the dresser, and at
these times they had a curious, fixed look not unmixed with triumph.
She tried a new arrangement of combs and brushes and tilted the
mirror at a different angle, without effect.

That day Billy Grant took only one cold plunge. As the hours wore on
he grew more cheerful; the look of triumph was unmistakable. He
stared less at the dresser and more at the Nurse. At last it grew
unendurable. She stopped in front of him and looked down at him
severely. She could only be severe when he was sitting - when he was
standing she had to look so far up at him, even when she stood on
her tiptoes.

"What is wrong with me?" she demanded. "You look so queer! Is my cap
crooked?"

"It is a wonderful cap."

"Is my face dirty?"

"It is a won - - No, certainly not."

"Then would you mind not staring so? You - upset me."

"I shall have to shut my eyes," he replied meekly, and worried her
into a state of frenzy by sitting for fifty minutes with his head
back and his eyes shut.

So - the evening and the morning were another day, and the bottle lay
undisturbed under the handkerchiefs, and the cold shower ceased
running, and Billy Grant assumed the air of triumph permanently.
That morning when the breakfast trays came he walked over into the
Nurse's room and picked hers up, table and all, carrying it across
the hall. In his own room he arranged the two trays side by side,
and two chairs opposite each other. When the Nurse, who had been
putting breadcrumbs on the window-sill, turned round Billy Grant was
waiting to draw out one of the chairs, and there was something in
his face she had not seen there before.

"Shall we breakfast?" he said.

"I told you yesterday - - "

"Think a minute," he said softly. "Is there any reason why we should
not breakfast together?" She pressed her hands close together, but
she did not speak. "Unless - you do not wish to."

"You remember you promised, as soon as you got away, to - fix
that - - "

"So I will if you say the word."

"And - to forget all about it."

"That," said Billy Grant solemnly, "I shall never do so long as I
live. Do you say the word?"

"What else can I do?"

"Then there is somebody else?"

"Oh, no!"

He took a step toward her, but still he did not touch her.

"If there is no one else," he said, "and if I tell you that you have
made me a man again - - "

"Gracious! Your eggs will be cold." She made a motion toward the
egg-cup, but Billy Grant caught her hand.

"Damn the eggs!" he said. "Why don't you look at me?"

Something sweet and luminous and most unprofessional shone in the
little Nurse's eyes, and the line of her pulse on a chart would have
looked like a seismic disturbance.

"I - I have to look up so far!" she said, but really she was looking
down when she said it.

"Oh, my dear - my dear!" exulted Billy Grant. "It is I who must look
up at you!" And with that he dropped on his knees and kissed the
starched hem of her apron.

The Nurse felt very absurd and a little frightened.

"If only," she said, backing off - "if only you wouldn't be such a
silly! Jenks is coming!"

But Jenks was not coming. Billy Grant rose to his full height and
looked down at her - a new Billy Grant, the one who had got drunk at
a club and given a ring to a cabman having died that grey morning
some weeks before.

"I love you - love you - love you!" he said, and took her in his arms.

* * * * *

Now the Head Nurse was interviewing an applicant; and, as the H.N.
took a constitutional each morning in the courtyard and believed in
losing no time, she was holding the interview as she walked.

"I think I would make a good nurse," said the applicant, a trifle
breathless, the h.n. being a brisk walker. "I am so sympathetic."

The H.N. stopped and raised a reproving forefinger.

"Too much sympathy is a handicap," she orated. "The perfect nurse is
a silent, reliable, fearless, emotionless machine - this little
building here is the isolation pavilion."

"An emotionless machine," repeated the applicant. "I see - an e - - "

The words died on her lips. She was looking past a crowd of birds on
the windowsill to where, just inside, Billy Grant and the Nurse in a
very mussed cap were breakfasting together. And as she looked Billy
Grant bent over across the tray.

"I adore you!" he said distinctly and, lifting the Nurse's hands,
kissed first one and then the other.

"It is hard work," said Miss Smith - having made a note that the boys
in the children's ward must be restrained from lowering a pasteboard
box on a string from a window - "hard work without sentiment. It is
not a romantic occupation."

She waved an admonitory hand toward the window, and the box went up
swiftly. The applicant looked again toward the pavilion, where
Billy Grant, having kissed the Nurse's hands, had buried his face in
her two palms.

The mild October sun shone down on the courtyard, with its bandaged
figures in wheel-chairs, its cripples sunning on a bench, their
crutches beside them, its waterless fountain and dingy birds.

The applicant thrilled to it all - joy and suffering, birth and
death, misery and hope, life and love. Love!

The H.N. turned to her grimly, but her eyes were soft.

"All this," she said, waving her hand vaguely, "for eight dollars a
month!"

"I think," said the applicant shyly, "I should like to come."




GOD'S FOOL


I

The great God endows His children variously. To some He gives
intellect - and they move the earth. To some He allots heart - and the
beating pulse of humanity is theirs. But to some He gives only a
soul, without intelligence - and these, who never grow up, but remain
always His children, are God's fools, kindly, elemental, simple, as
if from His palette the Artist of all had taken one colour instead
of many.

The Dummy was God's fool. Having only a soul and no intelligence, he
lived the life of the soul. Through his faded, childish old blue
eyes he looked out on a world that hurried past him with, at
best, a friendly touch on his shoulder. No man shook his hand in
comradeship. No woman save the little old mother had ever caressed
him. He lived alone in a world of his own fashioning, peopled by
moving, noiseless figures and filled with dreams - noiseless because
the Dummy had ears that heard not and lips that smiled at a
kindness, but that did not speak.

In this world of his there was no uncharitableness - no sin. There
was a God - why should he not know his Father? - there were brasses to
clean and three meals a day; and there was chapel on Sunday, where
one held a book - the Dummy held his upside down - and felt the
vibration of the organ, and proudly watched the afternoon sunlight
smiling on the polished metal of the chandelier and choir rail.

* * * * *

The Probationer sat turning the bandage machine and watching the
Dummy, who was polishing the brass plates on the beds. The plates
said: "Endowed in perpetuity" - by various leading citizens, to whom
God had given His best gifts, both heart and brain.

"How old do you suppose he is?" she asked, dropping her voice.

The Senior Nurse was writing fresh labels for the medicine closet,
and for "tincture of myrrh" she wrote absently "tincture of mirth,"


1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartLove Stories → online text (page 8 of 17)