Now, had Billy Grant really died there would be no story. The story is to relate how he nearly died; and how, approaching that bourne to which no traveller may take with him anything but his sins--and this with Billy Grant meant considerable luggage--he cast about for some way to prevent the Lindley Grants from getting possession of his worldly goods.
Probably it would never have happened at all had not young Grant, having hit on a scheme, clung to it with a tenacity that might better have been devoted to saving his soul, and had he not said to the Nurse, who was at that moment shaking a thermometer: "Come on--be a sport! It's only a matter of hours." Not that he said it aloud--he whispered it, and fought for the breath to do even that. The Nurse, having shaken down the thermometer, walked to the table and recorded a temperature of one hundred and six degrees through a most unprofessional mist of tears. Then in the symptom column she wrote: "Delirious."
But Billy Grant was not delirious. A fever of a hundred and four or thereabout may fuse one's mind in a sort of fiery crucible, but when it gets to a hundred and six all the foreign thoughts, like seeing green monkeys on the footboard and wondering why the doctor is walking on his hands--all these things melt away, and one sees one's past, as when drowning, and remembers to hate one's relations, and is curious about what is coming when one goes over.
So Billy Grant lay on his bed in the contagious pavilion of the hospital, and remembered to hate the Lindley Grants and to try to devise a way to keep them out of his property. And, having studied law, he knew no will that he might make now would hold against the Lindley Grants for a minute, unless he survived its making some thirty days. The Staff Doctor had given him about thirty hours or less.
Perhaps he would have given up in despair and been forced to rest content with a threat to haunt the Lindley Grants and otherwise mar the enjoyment of their good fortune, had not the Nurse at that moment put the thermometer under his arm.
Now, as every one knows, an axillary temperature takes five minutes, during which it is customary for a nurse to kneel beside the bed, or even to sit very lightly on the edge, holding the patient's arm close to his side and counting his respirations while pretending to be thinking of something else. It was during these five minutes that the idea came into Billy Grant's mind and, having come, remained. The Nurse got up, rustling starchily, and Billy caught her eye.
"Every engine," he said with difficulty, "labours--in a low--gear. No wonder I'm--heated up!"
The Nurse, who was young, put her hand on his forehead.
"Try to sleep," she said.
"Time for--that--later," said Billy Grant. "I'll--I'll be a--long time--dead. I--I wonder whether you'd--do me a--favour."
"I'll do anything in the world you want."
She tried to smile down at him, but only succeeded in making her chin quiver, which would never do--being unprofessional and likely to get to the head nurse; so, being obliged to do something, she took his pulse by the throbbing in his neck.
"One, two, three, four, five, six----"
"Then--marry me," gasped Billy Grant. "Only for an--hour or--two, you know. You--promised. Come on--be a sport!"
It was then that the Nurse walked to the table and recorded "Delirious" in the symptom column. And, though she was a Smith College girl and had taken a something or other in mathematics, she spelled it just then with two r's.
Billy Grant was not in love with the Nurse. She was a part of his illness, like the narrow brass bed and the yellow painted walls, and the thermometer under his arm, and the medicines. There were even times--when his fever subsided for a degree or two, after a cold sponge, and the muddled condition of mind returned--when she seemed to have more heads than even a nurse requires. So sentiment did not enter into the matter at all; it was revenge.
"You--promised," he said again; but the Nurse only smiled indulgently and rearranged the bottles on the stand in neat rows.
Jenks, the orderly, carried her supper to the isolation pavilion at six o'clock--cold ham, potato salad, egg custard and tea. Also, he brought her an evening paper. But the Nurse was not hungry. She went into the bathroom, washed her eyes with cold water, put on a clean collar, against the impending visit of the Staff Doctor, and then stood at the window, looking across at the hospital and feeling very lonely and responsible. It was not a great hospital, but it loomed large and terrible that night. The ambulance came out into the courtyard, and an interne, in white ducks, came out to it, carrying a surgical bag. He looked over at her and waved his hand. "Big railroad wreck!" he called cheerfully. "Got 'em coming in bunches." He crawled into the ambulance, where the driver, trained to many internes, gave him time to light a cigarette; then out into the dusk, with the gong beating madly. Billy Grant, who had lapsed into a doze, opened his eyes.
"What--about it?" he asked. "You're not--married already--are you?"
"Please try to rest. Perhaps if I get your beef juice----"
"Oh, damn--the beef juice!" whispered Billy Grant, and shut his eyes again--but not to sleep. He was planning how to get his way, and finally, out of a curious and fantastic medley of thoughts, he evolved something. The doctor, of course! These women had to do what the doctor ordered. He would see the doctor!--upon which, with a precision quite amazing, all the green monkeys on the footboard of the bed put their thumbs to their noses at him.
The situation was unusual; for here was young Grant, far enough from any one who knew he was one of the Van Kleek Grants--and, as such, entitled to all the nurses and doctors that money could procure--shut away in the isolation pavilion of a hospital, and not even putting up a good fight! Even the Nurse felt this, and when the Staff Man came across the courtyard that night she met him on the doorstep and told him.
"He doesn't care whether he gets well or not," she said dispiritedly. "All he seems to think about is to die and to leave everything he owns so his relatives won't get it. It's horrible!"
The Staff Man, who had finished up a hard day with a hospital supper of steak and fried potatoes, sat down on the doorstep and fished out a digestive tablet from his surgical bag.
"It's pretty sad, little girl," he said, over the pill. He had known the Nurse for some time, having, in fact, brought her--according to report at the time--in a predecessor of the very bag at his feet, and he had the fatherly manner that belongs by right to the man who has first thumped one between the shoulder-blades to make one breathe, and who had remarked on this occasion to some one beyond the door: "A girl, and fat as butter!"
The Nurse tiptoed in and found Billy Grant apparently asleep. Actually he had only closed his eyes, hoping to lure one of the monkeys within clutching distance. So the Nurse came out again, with the symptom record.
"Delirious, with two r's," said the Staff Doctor, glancing over his spectacles. "He must have been pretty bad."
"Not wild; he--he wanted me to marry him!"
She smiled, showing a most alluring dimple in one cheek.
"I see! Well, that's not necessarily delirium. H'm--pulse, respiration--look at that temperature! Yes, it's pretty sad--away from home, too, poor lad!"
"You---- Isn't there any hope, doctor?"
"None at all--at least, I've never had 'em get well."
Now the Nurse should, by all the ethics of hospital practice, have walked behind the Staff Doctor, listening reverentially to what he said, not speaking until she was spoken to, and carrying in one hand an order blank on which said august personage would presently inscribe certain cabalistic characters, to be deciphered later by the pharmacy clerk with a strong light and much blasphemy, and in the other hand a clean towel. The clean towel does not enter into the story, but for the curious be it said that were said personage to desire to listen to the patient's heart, the towel would be unfolded and spread, without creases, over the patient's chest--which reminds me of the Irishman and the weary practitioner; but every one knows that story.
Now that is what the Nurse should have done; instead of which, in the darkened passageway, being very tired and exhausted and under a hideous strain, she suddenly slipped her arm through the Staff Doctor's and, putting her head on his shoulder, began to cry softly.
"What's this?" demanded the Staff Doctor sternly and, putting his arm round her: "Don't you know that Junior Nurses are not supposed to weep over the Staff?" And, getting no answer but a choke: "We can't have you used up like this; I'll make them relieve you. When did you sleep?"
"I don't want to be relieved," said the Nurse, very muffled. "No-nobody else would know wh-what he wanted. I just--I just can't bear to see him--to see him----"
The Staff Doctor picked up the clean towel, which belonged on the Nurse's left arm, and dried her eyes for her; then he sighed.
"None of us likes to see it, girl," he said. "I'm an old man, and I've never got used to it. What do they send you to eat?"
"The food's all right," she said rather drearily. "I'm not hungry--that's all. How long do you think----"
The Staff Doctor, who was putting an antiseptic gauze cap over his white hair, ran a safety pin into his scalp at that moment and did not reply at once. Then, "Perhaps--until morning," he said.
He held out his arms for the long, white, sterilised coat, and a moment later, with his face clean-washed of emotion, and looking like a benevolent Turk, he entered the sick room. The Nurse was just behind him, with an order book in one hand and a clean towel over her arm.
Billy Grant, from his bed, gave the turban a high sign of greeting.
"Allah--is--great!" he gasped cheerfully. "Well, doctor--I guess it's all--over but--the shouting."
Some time after midnight Billy Grant roused out of a stupor. He was quite rational; in fact, he thought he would get out of bed. But his feet would not move. This was absurd! One's feet must move if one wills them to! However, he could not stir either of them. Otherwise he was beautifully comfortable.
Faint as was the stir he made the Nurse heard him. She was sitting in the dark by the window.
"Water?" she asked softly, coming to him.
"Please." His voice was stronger than it had been.
Some of the water went down his neck, but it did not matter. Nothing mattered except the Lindley Grants. The Nurse took his temperature and went out into the hall to read the thermometer, so he might not watch her face. Then, having recorded it under the nightlight, she came back into the room.
"Why don't you put on something comfortable?" demanded Billy Grant querulously. He was so comfortable himself and she was so stiffly starched, so relentless of collar and cap.
"I am comfortable."
"Where's that wrapper thing you've been wearing at night?" The Nurse rather flushed at this. "Why don't you lie down on the cot and take a nap? I don't need anything."
He understood, of course, but he refused to be depressed. He was too comfortable. He was breathing easily, and his voice, though weak, was clear.
"Would you mind sitting beside me? Or are you tired? But of course you are. Perhaps in a night or so you'll be over there again, sleeping in a nice white gown in a nice fresh bed, with no querulous devil----"
"You'll have to be sterilised or formaldehyded?"
"Yes." This very low.
"Will you put your hand over mine? Thanks. It's--company, you know." He was apologetic; under her hand his own burned fire. "I--I spoke to the Staff about that while you were out of the room."
"About your marrying me."
"What did he say?" She humoured him.
"He said he was willing if you were. You're not going to move--are you?"
"No. But you must not talk."
"It's like this. I've got a little property--not much; a little." He was nervously eager about this. If she knew it amounted to anything she would refuse, and the Lindley Grants---- "And when I--you know---- I want to leave it where it will do some good. That little brother of yours--it would send him through college, or help to."
Once, weeks ago, before he became so ill, she had told him of the brother. This in itself was wrong and against the ethics of the profession. One does not speak of oneself or one's family.
"If you won't try to sleep, shall I read to you?"
"I thought--the Bible, if you wouldn't mind."
"Certainly," he agreed. "I suppose that's the conventional thing; and if it makes you feel any better---- Will you think over what I've been saying?"
"I'll think about it," she said, soothing him like a fretful child, and brought her Bible.
The clock on the near-by town hall struck two as she drew up her chair beside him and commenced to read by the shaded light. Across the courtyard the windows were dim yellowish rectangles, with here and there one brighter than the others that told its own story of sleepless hours. A taxicab rolled along the street outside, carrying a boisterous night party.
The Nurse had taken off her cap and put it on a stand. The autumn night was warm, and the light touch of the tulle had pressed her hair in damp, fine curves over her forehead. There were purple hollows of anxiety and sleeplessness under her eyes.
"The perfect nurse," the head of the training school was fond of saying, "is more or less of a machine. Too much sympathy is a handicap to her work and an embarrassment to her patient. A perfect, silent, reliable, fearless, emotionless machine!"
Poor Junior Nurse!
Now Billy Grant, lying there listening to something out of Isaiah, should have been repenting his hard-living, hard-drinking young life; should have been forgiving the Lindley Grants--which story does not belong here; should have been asking for the consolation of the church, and trying to summon from the depths of his consciousness faint memories of early teachings as to the life beyond, and what he might or might not expect there.
What he actually did while the Nurse read was to try to move his legs, and, failing this, to plan a way to achieve the final revenge of a not particularly forgiving life.
At a little before three o'clock the Nurse telephoned across for an interne, who came over in a bathrobe over his pajamas and shot a hypodermic into Billy Grant's left arm. Billy Grant hardly noticed. He was seeing Mrs. Lindley Grant when his surprise was sprung on her. The interne summoned the Nurse into the hall with a jerk of his head.
"About all in!" he said. "Heart's gone--too much booze probably. I'd stay, but there's nothing to do."
"Oh, you can try it if you like. It's like blowing up a leaking tire; but if you'll feel better, do it." He yawned and tied the cord of his bathrobe round him more securely. "I guess you'll be glad to get back," he observed, looking round the dingy hall. "This place always gives me a chill. Well, let me know if you want me. Good night."
The Nurse stood in the hallway until the echo of his slippers on the asphalt had died away. Then she turned to Billy Grant.
"Well?" demanded Billy Grant. "How long have I? Until morning?"
"If you would only not talk and excite yourself----"
"Hell!" said Billy Grant, we regret to record. "I've got to do all the talking I'm going to do right now. I beg your pardon--I didn't intend to swear."
"Oh, that's all right!" said the Nurse vaguely. This was like no deathbed she had ever seen, and it was disconcerting.
"Shall I read again?"
"No, thank you."
The Nurse looked at her watch, which had been graduation present from her mother and which said, inside the case: "To my little girl!" There is no question but that, when the Nurse's mother gave that inscription to the jeweller, she was thinking of the day when the Staff Doctor had brought the Nurse in his leather bag, and had slapped her between the shoulders to make her breathe. "To my little girl!" said the watch; and across from that--"Three o'clock."
At half-past three Billy Grant, having matured his plans, remarked that if it would ease the Nurse any he'd see a preacher. His voice was weaker again and broken.
"Not"--he said, struggling--"not that I think--he'll pass me. But--if you say so--I'll--take a chance."
All of which was diabolical cunning; for when, as the result of a telephone conversation, the minister came, an unworldly man who counted the world, an automobile, a vested choir and a silver communion service well lost for the sake of a dozen derelicts in a slum mission house, Billy Grant sent the Nurse out to prepare a broth he could no longer swallow, and proceeded to cajole the man of God. This he did by urging the need of the Nurse's small brother for an education and by forgetting to mention either the Lindley Grants or the extent of his property.
From four o'clock until five Billy Grant coaxed the Nurse with what voice he had. The idea had become an obsession; and minute by minute, panting breath by panting breath, her resolution wore away. He was not delirious; he was as sane as she was and terribly set. And this thing he wanted was so easy to grant; meant so little to her and, for some strange reason, so much to him. Perhaps, if she did it, he would think a little of what the preacher was saying.
At five o'clock, utterly worn out with the struggle and finding his pulse a negligible quantity, in response to his pleading eyes the Nurse, kneeling and holding a thermometer under her patient's arm with one hand, reached the other one over the bed and was married in a dozen words and a soiled white apron.
Dawn was creeping in at the windows--a grey city dawn, filled with soot and the rumbling of early wagons. A smell of damp asphalt from the courtyard floated in and a dirty sparrow chirped on the sill where the Nurse had been in the habit of leaving crumbs. Billy Grant, very sleepy and contented now that he had got his way, dictated a line or two on a blank symptom record, and signed his will in a sprawling hand.
"If only," he muttered, "I could see Lin's face when that's--sprung on him!"
The minister picked up the Bible from the tumbled bed and opened it.
"Perhaps," he suggested very softly, "if I read from the Word of God----"
Satisfied now that he had fooled the Lindley Grants out of their very shoebuttons, Billy Grant was asleep--asleep with the thermometer under his arm and with his chest rising and falling peacefully.
The minister looked across at the Nurse, who was still holding the thermometer in place. She had buried her face in the white counterpane.
"You are a good woman, sister," he said softly. "The boy is happier, and you are none the worse. Shall I keep the paper for you?"
But the Nurse, worn out with the long night, slept where she knelt. The minister, who had come across the street in a ragged smoking-coat and no collar, creaked round the bed and threw the edge of the blanket over her shoulders.
Then, turning his coat collar up over his unshaved neck, he departed for the mission across the street, where one of his derelicts, in his shirtsleeves, was sweeping the pavement. There, mindful of the fact that he had come from the contagious pavilion, the minister brushed his shabby smoking-coat with a whiskbroom to remove the germs!
Billy Grant, of course, did not die. This was perhaps because only the good die young. And Billy Grant's creed had been the honour of a gentleman rather than the Mosaic Law. There was, therefore, no particular violence done to his code when his last thoughts--or what appeared to be his last thoughts--were revenge instead of salvation.
The fact was, Billy Grant had a real reason for hating the Lindley Grants. When a fellow like that has all the Van Kleek money and a hereditary thirst, he is bound to drink. The Lindley Grants did not understand this and made themselves obnoxious by calling him "Poor Billy!" and not having wine when he came to dinner. That, however, was not his reason for hating them.
Billy Grant fell in love. To give the devil his due, he promptly set about reforming himself. He took about half as many whisky-and-sodas as he had been in the habit of doing, and cut out champagne altogether. He took up golf to fill in the time, too, but gave it up when he found it made him thirstier than ever. And then, with things so shaping up that he could rise in the morning without having a drink to get up on, the Lindley Grants thought it best to warn the girl's family before it was too late.
"He is a nice boy in some ways," Mrs. Lindley Grant had said on the occasion of the warning; "but, like all drinking men, he is a broken reed, eccentric and irresponsible. No daughter of mine could marry him. I'd rather bury her. And if you want facts Lindley will give them to you."
So the girl had sent back her ring and a cold little letter, and Billy Grant had got roaring full at a club that night and presented the ring to a cabman--all of which is exceedingly sordid, but rather human after all.
The Nurse, having had no sleep for forty-eight hours, slept for quite thirty minutes. She wakened at the end of that time and started up with a horrible fear that the thing she was waiting for had come. But Billy Grant was still alive, sleeping naturally, and the thermometer, having been in place forty minutes, registered a hundred and three.
At eight o'clock the interne, hurrying over in fresh ducks, with a laudable desire to make the rounds before the Staff began to drop in, found Billy Grant very still and with his eyes closed, and the Nurse standing beside the bed, pale and tremulous.
"Why didn't you let me know?" he demanded, aggrieved. "I ought to have been called. I told you----"
"He isn't dead," said the Nurse breathlessly. "He--I think he is better."
Whereon she stumbled out of the room into her own little room across the hall, locking the door behind her, and leaving the interne to hunt the symptom record for himself--a thing not to be lightly overlooked; though of course internes are not the Staff.
The interne looked over the record and whistled.
"Wouldn't that paralyse you!" he said under his breath. "'Pulse very weak.' 'Pulse almost obliterated.' 'Very talkative.' 'Breathing hard at four A.M. Cannot swallow.' And then: 'Sleeping calmly from five o'clock.' 'Pulse stronger.' Temperature one hundred and three.' By gad, that last prescription of mine was a hit!"
So now began a curious drama of convalescence in the little isolation pavilion across the courtyard. Not for a minute did the two people most concerned forget their strange relationship; not for worlds would either have allowed the other to know that he or she remembered. Now and then the Nurse caught Billy Grant's eyes fixed on her as she moved about the room, with a curious wistful expression in them. And sometimes, waking from a doze, he would find her in her chair by the window, with her book dropped into her lap and a frightened look in her eyes, staring at him.
He gained strength rapidly and the day came when, with the orderly's assistance, he was lifted to a chair. There was one brief moment in which he stood tottering on his feet. In that instant he had realised what a little thing she was, after all, and what a cruel advantage he had used for his own purpose.
When he was settled in the chair and the orderly had gone she brought an extra pillow to put behind him, and he dared the first personality of their new relationship.
"What a little girl you are, after all!" he said. "Lying there in the bed shaking at your frown, you were so formidable."
"I am not small," she said, straightening herself. She had always hoped that her cap gave her height. "It is you who are so tall. You--you are a giant!"
"A wicked giant, seeking whom I may devour and carrying off lovely girls for dinner under pretence of marriage----" He stopped his nonsense abruptly, having got so far, and both of them coloured. Thrashing about desperately for something to break the wretched silence, he seized on the one thing that in those days of his convalescence was always pertinent--food. "Speaking of dinner," he said hastily, "isn't it time for some buttermilk?"
She was quite calm when she came back--cool, even smiling; but Billy Grant had not had the safety valve of action. As she placed the glass on the table at his elbow he reached out and took her hand.
"Can you ever forgive me?" he asked. Not an original speech; the usual question of the marauding male, a query after the fact and too late for anything but forgiveness.
"Forgive you? For not dying?"
She was pale; but no more subterfuge now, no more turning aside from dangerous subjects. The matter was up before the house.
"For marrying you!" said Billy Grant, and upset the buttermilk. It took a little time to wipe up the floor and to put a clean cover on the stand, and after that to bring a fresh glass and place it on the table. But these were merely parliamentary preliminaries while each side got its forces in line.
"Do you hate me very much?" opened Billy Grant. This was, to change the figure, a blow below the belt.
"Why should I hate you?" countered the other side.
"I should think you would. I forced the thing on you."
"I need not have done it."
"But being you, and always thinking about making some one else happy and comfortable----"
"Oh, if only they don't find it out over there!" she burst out. "If they do and I have to leave, with Jim----"
Here, realising that she was going to cry and not caring to screw up her face before any one, she put her arms on the stand and buried her face in them. Her stiff tulle cap almost touched Billy Grant's arm.
Billy Grant had a shocked second.
"My little brother," from the table.
Billy Grant drew a long breath of relief. For a moment he had thought----
"I wonder--whether I dare to say something to you." Silence from the table and presumably consent. "Isn't he--don't you think that--I might be allowed to--to help Jim? It would help me to like myself again. Just now I'm not standing very high with myself."
"Won't you tell me why you did it?" she said, suddenly sitting up, her arms still out before her on the table. "Why did you coax so? You said it was because of a little property you had, but--that wasn't it--was it?"
"Or because you cared a snap for me." This was affirmation, not question.
"No, not that, though I----"
She gave a hopeless little gesture of despair.
"For one of the meanest reasons I know--to be even with some people who had treated me badly."
The thing was easier now. His flat denial of any sentimental reason had helped to make it so.
"A girl that you cared about?"
"Partly that. The girl was a poor thing. She didn't care enough to be hurt by anything I did. But the people who made the trouble----"
Now a curious thing happened. Billy Grant found at this moment that he no longer hated the Lindley Grants. The discovery left him speechless--that he who had taken his hate into the very valley of death with him should now find himself thinking of both Lindley and his wife with nothing more bitter than contempt shocked him. A state of affairs existed for which his hatred of the Lindley Grants was alone responsible; now the hate was gone and the state of affairs persisted.
"I should like," said Billy Grant presently, "to tell you a little--if it will not bore you--about myself and the things I have done that I shouldn't, and about the girl. And of course, you know, I'm--I'm not going to hold you to--to the thing I forced you into. There are ways to fix that."
Before she would listen, however, she must take his temperature and give him his medicine, and see that he drank his buttermilk--the buttermilk last, so as not to chill his mouth for the thermometer. The tired lines had gone from under her eyes and she was very lovely that day. She had always been lovely, even when the Staff Doctor had slapped her between the shoulders long ago--you know about that--only Billy Grant had never noticed it; but to-day, sitting there with the thermometer in his mouth while she counted his respirations, pretending to be looking out the window while she did it, Billy Grant saw how sweet and lovely and in every way adorable 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?"
"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!
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?"
"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."
"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?"
"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?"
"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?"
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."