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and had to tear it up.

"He can't hear you," she said rather shortly. "How old? Oh, I don't
know. About a hundred, I should think."

This was, of course, because of his soul, which was all he had, and
which, having existed from the beginning, was incredibly old. The
little dead mother could have told them that he was less than
thirty.

The Probationer sat winding bandages. Now and then they went
crooked and had to be done again. She was very tired. The creaking
of the bandage machine made her nervous - that and a sort of
disillusionment; for was this her great mission, this sitting in a
silent, sunny ward, where the double row of beds held only querulous
convalescent women? How close was she to life who had come to soothe
the suffering and close the eyes of the dying; who had imagined that
her instruments of healing were a thermometer and a prayer-book; and
who found herself fighting the good fight with a bandage machine
and, even worse, a scrubbing brush and a finetooth comb?

The Senior Nurse, having finished the M's, glanced up and surprised
a tear on the Probationer's round young cheek. She was wise, having
trained many probationers.

"Go to first supper, please," she said. First supper is the Senior's
prerogative; but it is given occasionally to juniors and
probationers as a mark of approval, or when the Senior is not
hungry, or when a probationer reaches the breaking point, which is
just before she gets her uniform.

The Probationer smiled and brightened. After all, she must be doing
fairly well; and if she were not in the battle she was of it.
Glimpses she had of the battle - stretchers going up and down in the
slow elevator; sheeted figures on their way to the operating room;
the clang of the ambulance bell in the courtyard; the occasional cry
of a new life ushered in; the impressive silence of an old life
going out. She surveyed the bandages on the bed.

"I'll put away the bandages first," she said. "That's what you said,
I think - never to leave the emergency bed with anything on it?"

"Right-oh!" said the Senior.

"Though nothing ever happens back here - does it?'

"It's about our turn; I'm looking for a burned case." The
Probationer, putting the bandages into a basket, turned and stared.

"We have had two in to-day in the house," the Senior went on,
starting on the N's and making the capital carefully. "There will be
a third, of course; and we may get it. Cases always seem to run in
threes. While you're straightening the bed I suppose I might as well
go to supper after all."

So it was the Probationer and the Dummy who received the new case,
while the Senior ate cold salmon and fried potatoes with other
seniors, and inveighed against lectures on Saturday evening and
other things that seniors object to, such as things lost in the
wash, and milk in the coffee instead of cream, and women from the
Avenue who drank carbolic acid and kept the ambulance busy.

The Probationer was from the country and she had never heard of
the Avenue. And the Dummy, who walked there daily with the
superintendent's dog, knew nothing of its wickedness. In his soul,
where there was nothing but kindness, there was even a feeling of
tenderness for the Avenue. Once the dog had been bitten by a terrier
from one of the houses, and a girl had carried him in and washed the
wounds and bound them up. Thereafter the Dummy had watched for her
and bowed when he saw her. When he did not see her he bowed to the
house.

The Dummy finished the brass plates and, gathering up his rags and
polish, shuffled to the door. His walk was a patient shamble, but he
covered incredible distances. When he reached the emergency bed he
stopped and pointed to it. The Probationer looked startled.

"He's tellin' you to get it ready," shrilled Irish Delia, sitting up
in the next bed. "He did that before you was brought in," she called
to Old Maggie across the ward. "Goodness knows how he finds out - but
he knows. Get the spread off the bed, miss. There's something
coming."

* * * * *

The Probationer had come from the country and naturally knew nothing
of the Avenue. Sometimes on her off duty she took short walks there,
wondering if the passers-by who stared at her knew that she was a
part of the great building that loomed over the district, happily
ignorant of the real significance of their glances. Once a girl,
sitting behind bowed shutters, had leaned out and smiled at her.

"Hot to-day, isn't it?" she said.

The Probationer stopped politely.

"It's fearful! Is there any place near where I can get some soda
water?"

The girl in the window stared.

"There's a drug store two squares down," she said. "And say, if I
were you - - "

"Yes?"

"Oh, nothing!" said the girl in the window, and quite unexpectedly
slammed the shutters.

The Probationer had puzzled over it quite a lot. More than once she
walked by the house, but she did not see the smiling girl - only,
curiously enough, one day she saw the Dummy passing the house and
watched him bow and take off his old cap, though there was no one in
sight.

Sooner or later the Avenue girls get to the hospital. Sometimes it
is because they cannot sleep, and lie and think things over - and
there is no way out; and God hates them - though, of course, there is
that story about Jesus and the Avenue woman. And what is the use of
going home and being asked questions that cannot be answered? So
they try to put an end to things generally - and end up in the
emergency bed, terribly frightened, because it has occurred to them
that if they do not dare to meet the home folks how are they going
to meet the Almighty?

Or sometimes it is jealousy. Even an Avenue woman must love some
one; and, because she's an elemental creature, if the object of her
affections turns elsewhere she's rather apt to use a knife or a
razor. In that case it is the rival who ends up on the emergency
bed.

Or the life gets her, as it does sooner or later, and she comes in
with typhoid or a cough, or other things, and lies alone, day after
day, without visitors or inquiries, making no effort to get better,
because - well, why should she?

And so the Dummy's Avenue Girl met her turn and rode down the street
in a clanging ambulance, and was taken up in the elevator and along
a grey hall to where the emergency bed was waiting; and the
Probationer, very cold as to hands and feet, was sending mental
appeals to the Senior to come - and come quickly. The ward got up on
elbows and watched. Also it told the Probationer what to do.

"Hot-water bottles and screens," it said variously. "Take her
temperature. Don't be frightened! There'll be a doctor in a minute."

The girl lay on the bed with her eyes shut. It was Irish Delia who
saw the Dummy and raised a cry.

"Look at the Dummy!" she said. "He's crying."

The Dummy's world had always been a small one. There was the
superintendent, who gave him his old clothes; and there was the
engineer, who brought him tobacco; and there were the ambulance
horses, who talked to him now and then without speech. And, of
course, there was his Father.

Fringing this small inner circle of his heart was a kaleidoscope of
changing faces, nurses, _internes_, patients, visitors - a wall of
life that kept inviolate his inner shrine. And in the holiest place,
where had dwelt only his Father, and not even the superintendent,
the Dummy had recently placed the Avenue Girl. She was his saint,
though he knew nothing of saints. Who can know why he chose her? A
queer trick of the soul perhaps - or was it super-wisdom? - to choose
her from among many saintly women and so enshrine her.

Or perhaps - - Down in the chapel, in a great glass window, the
young John knelt among lilies and prayed. When, at service on
Sundays, the sunlight came through on to the Dummy's polished choir
rail and candles, the young John had the face of a girl, with short
curling hair, very yellow for the colour scheme. The Avenue Girl had
hair like that and was rather like him in other ways.

And here she was where all the others had come, and where countless
others would come sooner or later. She was not unconscious and at
Delia's cry she opened her eyes. The Probationer was off filling
water bottles, and only the Dummy, stricken, round-shouldered,
unlovely, stood beside her.

"Rotten luck, old top!" she said faintly.

To the Dummy it was a benediction. She could open her eyes. The
miracle of speech was still hers.

"Cigarette!" explained the Avenue Girl, seeing his eyes still on
her. "Must have gone to sleep with it and dropped it. I'm - all in!"

"Don't you talk like that," said Irish Delia, bending over from the
next bed. "You'll get well a' right - unless you inhaled. Y'ought to
'a' kept your mouth shut."

Across the ward Old Maggie had donned her ragged slippers and a blue
calico wrapper and shuffled to the foot of the emergency bed. Old
Maggie was of that vague neighbourhood back of the Avenue, where
squalor and poverty rubbed elbows with vice, and scorned it.

"Humph!" she said, without troubling to lower her voice. "I've seen
her often. I done her washing once. She's as bad as they make 'em."

"You shut your mouth!" Irish Delia rose to the defence. "She's in
trouble now and what she was don't matter. You go back to bed or
I'll tell the Head Nurse on you. Look out! The Dummy - - "

The Dummy was advancing on Old Maggie with threatening eyes. As the
woman recoiled he caught her arm in one of his ugly, misshapen hands
and jerked her away from the bed. Old Maggie reeled - almost fell.

"You all seen that!" she appealed to the ward. "I haven't even spoke
to him and he attacked me! I'll go to the superintendent about it.
I'll - - "

The Probationer hurried in. Her young cheeks were flushed with
excitement and anxiety; her arms were full of jugs, towels,
bandages - anything she could imagine as essential. She found the
Dummy on his knees polishing a bed plate, and the ward in
order - only Old Maggie was grumbling and making her way back to bed;
and Irish Delia was sitting up, with her eyes shining - for had not
the Dummy, who could not hear, known what Old Maggie had said about
the new girl? Had she not said that he knew many things that were
hidden, though God knows how he knew them?

The next hour saw the Avenue Girl through a great deal. Her burns
were dressed by an _interne_ and she was moved back to a bed at the
end of the ward. The Probationer sat beside her, having refused
supper. The Dummy was gone - the Senior Nurse had shooed him off as
one shoos a chicken.

"Get out of here! You're always under my feet," she had said - not
unkindly - and pointed to the door.

The Dummy had stood, with his faded old-young eyes on her, and had
not moved. The Senior, who had the ward supper to serve and beds to
brush out and backs to rub, not to mention having to make up the
emergency bed and clear away the dressings - the Senior tried
diplomacy and offered him an orange from her own corner of the
medicine closet. He shook his head.

"I guess he wants to know whether that girl from the Avenue's going
to get well," said Irish Delia. "He seems to know her."

There was a titter through the ward at this. Old Maggie's gossiping
tongue had been busy during the hour. From pity the ward had veered
to contempt.

"Humph!" said the Senior, and put the orange back. "Why, yes; I
guess she'll get well. But how in Heaven's name am I to let him
know?"

She was a resourceful person, however, and by pointing to the Avenue
Girl and then nodding reassuringly she got her message of cheer over
the gulf of his understanding. In return the Dummy told her by
gestures how he knew the girl and how she had bound up the leg of
the superintendent's dog. The Senior was a literal person and not
occult; and she was very busy. When the Dummy stooped to indicate
the dog, a foot or so from the ground, she seized that as the key of
the situation.

"He's trying to let me know that he knew her when she was a baby,"
she observed generally. "All right, if that's the case. Come in and
see her when you want to. And now get out, for goodness' sake!"

The Dummy, with his patient shamble, made his way out of the ward
and stored his polishes for the night in the corner of a
scrub-closet. Then, ignoring supper, he went down the stairs, flight
after flight, to the chapel. The late autumn sun had set behind the
buildings across the courtyard and the lower part of the silent room
was in shadow; but the afterglow came palely through the
stained-glass window, with the young John and tall stalks of white
lilies, and "To the Memory of My Daughter Elizabeth" beneath.

It was only a coincidence - and not even that to the Dummy - but
Elizabeth had been the Avenue Girl's name not so long ago.

The Dummy sat down near the door very humbly and gazed at the
memorial window.


II

Time may be measured in different ways - by joys; by throbs of pain;
by instants; by centuries. In a hospital it is marked by night
nurses and day nurses; by rounds of the Staff; by visiting days; by
medicines and temperatures and milk diets and fever baths; by the
distant singing in the chapel on Sundays; by the shift of the
morning sun on the east beds to the evening sun on the beds along
the west windows.

The Avenue Girl lay alone most of the time. The friendly offices of
the ward were not for her. Private curiosity and possible kindliness
were over-shadowed by a general arrogance of goodness. The ward
flung its virtue at her like a weapon and she raised no defence. In
the first days things were not so bad. She lay in shock for a time,
and there were not wanting hands during the bad hours to lift a cup
of water to her lips; but after that came the tedious time when
death no longer hovered overhead and life was there for the asking.

The curious thing was that the Avenue Girl did not ask. She lay for
hours without moving, with eyes that seemed tired with looking into
the dregs of life. The Probationer was in despair.

"She could get better if she would," she said to the _interne_ one
day. The Senior was off duty and they had done the dressing
together. "She just won't try."

"Perhaps she thinks it isn't worth while," replied the _interne_,
who was drying his hands carefully while the Probationer waited for
the towel.

She was a very pretty Probationer.

"She hasn't much to look forward to, you know."

The Probationer was not accustomed to discussing certain things with
young men, but she had the Avenue Girl on her mind.

"She has a home - she admits it." She coloured bravely. "Why - why
cannot she go back to it, even now?"

The _interne_ poured a little rosewater and glycerine into the palm
of one hand and gave the Probationer the bottle. If his fingers
touched hers, she never knew it.

"Perhaps they'd not want her after - well, they'd never feel the
same, likely. They'd probably prefer to think of her as dead and let
it go at that. There - there doesn't seem to be any way back, you
know."

He was exceedingly self-conscious.

"Then life is very cruel," said the Probationer with rather shaky
lips.

And going back to the Avenue Girl's bed she filled her cup with ice
and straightened her pillows. It was her only way of showing
defiance to a world that mutilated its children and turned them out
to die. The _interne_ watched her as she worked. It rather galled
him to see her touching this patient. He had no particular sympathy
for the Avenue Girl. He was a man, and ruthless, as men are apt to
be in such things.

The Avenue Girl had no visitors. She had had one or two at
first - pretty girls with tired eyes and apologetic glances; a
negress who got by the hall porter with a box of cigarettes, which
the Senior promptly confiscated; and - the Dummy. Morning and evening
came the Dummy and stood by her bed and worshipped. Morning and
evening he brought tribute - a flower from the masses that came in
daily; an orange, got by no one knows what trickery from the
kitchen; a leadpencil; a box of cheap candies. At first the girl had
been embarrassed by his visits. Later, as the unfriendliness of the
ward grew more pronounced, she greeted him with a faint smile. The
first time she smiled he grew quite pale and shuffled out. Late that
night they found him sitting in the chapel looking at the window,
which was only a blur.

For certain small services in the ward the Senior depended on the
convalescents - filling drinking cups; passing milk at eleven and
three; keeping the white bedspreads in geometrical order. But the
Avenue Girl was taboo. The boycott had been instituted by Old
Maggie. The rampant respectability of the ward even went so far as
to refuse to wash her in those early morning hours when the night
nurse, flying about with her cap on one ear, was carrying tin basins
about like a blue-and-white cyclone. The Dummy knew nothing of the
washing; the early morning was the time when he polished the brass
doorplate which said: Hospital and Free Dispensary. But he knew
about the drinking cup and after a time that became his
self-appointed task.

On Sundays he put on his one white shirt and a frayed collar two
sizes too large and went to chapel. At those times he sat with his
prayer book upside down and watched the Probationer who cared for
his lady and who had no cap to hide her shining hair, and the
_interne_, who was glad there was no cap because of the hair. God's
fool he was, indeed, for he liked to look in the _interne's_ eyes,
and did not know an _interne_ cannot marry for years and years, and
that a probationer must not upset discipline by being engaged. God's
fool, indeed, who could see into the hearts of men, but not into
their thoughts or their lives; and who, seeing only thus, on two
dimensions of life and not the third, found the Avenue Girl holy and
worthy of all worship!

* * * * *

The Probationer worried a great deal.

"It must hurt her so!" she said to the Senior. "Did you see them
call that baby away on visiting day for fear she would touch it?"

"None are so good as the untempted," explained the Senior, who had
been beautiful and was now placid and full of good works. "You
cannot remake the world, child. Bodies are our business here - not
souls." But the next moment she called Old Maggie to her.

"I've been pretty patient, Maggie," she said. "You know what I mean.
You're the ringleader. Now things are going to change, or - you'll go
back on codliver oil to-night."

"Yes'm," said Old Maggie meekly, with hate in her heart. She loathed
the codliver oil.

"Go back and straighten her bed!" commanded the Senior sternly.

"Now?"

"Now!"

"It hurts my back to stoop over," whined Old Maggie, with the ward
watching. "The doctor said that I - - "

The Senior made a move for the medicine closet and the bottles
labelled C.

"I'm going," whimpered Old Maggie. "Can't you give a body time?"

And she went down to defeat, with the laughter of the ward in her
ears - down to defeat, for the Avenue Girl would have none of her.

"You get out of here!" she said fiercely as Old Maggie set to work
at the draw sheet. "Get out quick - or I'll throw this cup in your
face!"

The Senior was watching. Old Maggie put on an air of benevolence and
called the Avenue Girl an unlovely name under her breath while she
smoothed her pillow. She did not get the cup, but the water out of
it, in her hard old face, and matters were as they had been.

The Girl did not improve as she should. The _interne_ did the
dressing day after day, while the Probationer helped him - the Senior
disliked burned cases - and talked of skin grafting if a new powder
he had discovered did no good. _Internes_ are always trying out new
things, looking for the great discovery.

The powder did no good. The day came when, the dressing over and the
white coverings drawn up smoothly again over her slender body, the
Avenue Girl voiced the question that her eyes had asked each time.

"Am I going to lie in this hole all my life?" she demanded.

The _interne_ considered.

"It isn't healing - not very fast anyhow," he said. "If we could get
a little skin to graft on you'd be all right in a jiffy. Can't you
get some friends to come in? It isn't painful and it's over in a
minute."

"Friends? Where would I get friends of that sort?"

"Well, relatives then - some of your own people?"

The Avenue Girl shut her eyes as she did when the dressing hurt her.

"None that I'd care to see," she said. And the Probationer knew she
lied. The _interne_ shrugged his shoulders.

"If you think of any let me know. We'll get them here," he said
briskly, and turned to see the Probationer rolling up her sleeve.

"Please!" she said, and held out a bare white arm. The _interne_
stared at it stupefied. It was very lovely.

"I am not at all afraid," urged the Probationer, "and my blood is
good. It would grow - I know it would."

The _interne_ had hard work not to stoop and kiss the blue veins
that rose to the surface in the inner curve of her elbow. The
dressing screens were up and the three were quite alone. To keep his
voice steady he became stern.

"Put your sleeve down and don't be a foolish girl!" he, commanded.
"Put your sleeve down!" His eyes said: "You wonder! You beauty! You
brave little girl!"

Because the Probationer seemed to take her responsibilities rather
to heart, however, and because, when he should have been thinking of
other things, such as calling up the staff and making reports, he
kept seeing that white arm and the resolute face above it, the
_interne_ worked out a plan.

"I've fixed it, I think," he said, meeting her in a hallway where
he had no business to be, and trying to look as if he had not known
she was coming. "Father Feeny was in this morning and I tackled him.
He's got a lot of students - fellows studying for the priesthood - and
he says any daughter of the church shall have skin if he has to flay
'em alive."

"But - is she a daughter of the church?" asked the Probationer. "And
even if she were, under the circumstances - - "

"What circumstances?" demanded the _interne_. "Here's a poor girl
burned and suffering. The father is not going to ask whether she's
of the anointed."

The Probationer was not sure. She liked doing things in the open and
with nothing to happen later to make one uncomfortable; but she
spoke to the Senior and the Senior was willing. Her chief trouble,
after all, was with the Avenue Girl herself.

"I don't want to get well," she said wearily when the thing was put
up to her. "What's the use? I'd just go back to the same old thing;
and when it got too strong for me I'd end up here again or in the
morgue."

"Tell me where your people live, then, and let me send for them."

"Why? To have them read in my face what I've been, and go back home
to die of shame?"

The Probationer looked at the Avenue Girl's face.

"There - there is nothing in your face to hurt them," she said,
flushing - because there were some things the Probationer had never
discussed, even with herself. "You - look sad. Honestly, that's all."

The Avenue Girl held up her thin right hand. The forefinger was
still yellow from cigarettes.

"What about that?" she sneered.

"If I bleach it will you let me send for your people?"

"I'll - perhaps," was the most the Probationer could get.

Many people would have been discouraged. Even the Senior was a bit
cynical. It took a Probationer still heartsick for home to read in
the Avenue Girl's eyes the terrible longing for the things she had
given up - for home and home folks; for a clean slate again. The
Probationer bleached and scrubbed the finger, and gradually a little
of her hopeful spirit touched the other girl.

"What day is it?" the Avenue Girl asked once.

"Friday."

"That's baking day at home. We bake in an out-oven. Did you ever
smell bread as it comes from an out-oven?" Or: "That's a pretty
shade of blue you nurses wear. It would be nice for working in the
dairy, wouldn't it?"

"Fine!" said the Probationer, and scrubbed away to hide the triumph
in her eyes.


III

That was the day the Dummy stole the parrot. The parrot belonged to
the Girl; but how did he know it? So many things he should have
known the Dummy never learned; so many things he knew that he seemed
never to have learned! He did not know, for instance, of Father
Feeny and the Holy Name students; but he knew of the Avenue Girl's
loneliness and heartache, and of the cabal against her. It is one of
the black marks on record against him that he refused to polish the
plate on Old Maggie's bed, and that he shook his fist at her more


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Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartLove Stories → online text (page 9 of 17)