Chapter XXVII
 

The autumn sun struggled palely through the windows of the Children's Hospital, and sent a beam across the high narrow bed where Chick Flathers lay, suspiciously watching the proceedings of the attendant nurses. He was not at all sure that he had done right in coming. For two days he had been made to stay in bed, and this morning he had suffered his third bath and been deprived of his breakfast. His being there at all was merely a concession to friendship. Mis' Queerington had persuaded him. He wouldn't have come for the Other One, the fat one who smiled and talked about The Willows Awful Home. He wouldn't even come for Aunt 'Telia, but Mis' Queerington was different; she understood fellows. She had said that the doctors would fix his throat so that he could yell louder than any boy on Billy-goat Hill! All the suppressed yells of a dozen years quivered on his lips at the thought of it! "Chick, here's a orange and some cookies I brought you." It was Aunt 'Telia who sat down by the bed and took his hand. "If you ever get well Aunt 'Tella's going to take you to the circus, or the seashore, or somewheres."

The seashore presented no concrete idea, so Chick preferred to dwell upon the circus, but even that alluring prospect could not hold his attention while so many disturbing things were taking place about him. One nurse had felt his pulse, another had put a glass tube in his mouth, and now a third was wheeling in a curious little bed on wheels.

He turned restlessly from the black-browed, anxious face bending over him to the door where Mrs. Queerington was entering. But he knew by experience that it would be some time before she reached him. All those other sick duffers would want her to talk to them, and the nurses would stop her, and the young house-doctor would claim a flower for his buttonhole. Chick hated them all indiscriminately. It seemed an hour before her bright, reassuring face bent over him, and he heard her say:

"It won't be long, now, Chicky Boy. Dr. Wyeth will be here soon, and they will give you a ride on this funny little wagon. I wonder what Skeeter Sheeley is doing about this time? Going to school, I expect."

This diverted Chick marvelously. The thought of Skeeter having to spend the morning in the schoolroom, made his own lot less hard.

"Is Number Seventeen prepared for the operation?" he heard some one ask, and at the same moment Aunt 'Tella's fingers closed on his like a vise.

Then the big doctor, who had brought him there, appeared at the foot of his bed.

"Ah, Mrs. Queerington!" he was saying, "the very sight of you ought to hearten up these youngsters. But you are still paler than I like to see you. Been overdoing again?"

She shook her head. "I'm all right, but what about your patient?"

The doctor stroked his chin and appeared to be interested in the ceiling. "Some rather grave complications. Very anemic. Very little to work on. Possibly an even chance. However--" he shrugged his broad shoulders. "Has he any people?"

"No, except this foster-aunt who supports him. Myrtella!"

But Myrtella had turned her back at sight of the doctor, and refused to look up.

Chick narrowly watching the two speakers at the foot of the bed, and trying vainly to understand what they were saying about him, was relieved when Dr. Wyeth handed Miss Lady a book and said lightly:

"You see that I, like everybody else, have fallen a victim to 'Khalil Samad.' I understand it is already in its tenth edition. Young Morley has a career before him, if he gets through this trial. Do you know when it is set for?"

"November the sixth."

"So soon as that? Well, I don't know the young man, but I hope he'll be cleared. I want him to write some more books for me to read. I'm sorry Kinner has charge of the prosecution. He'd rather convict an innocent man than a guilty one. All right, my boy, I guess we are ready."

"Don't try to get up!" admonished the nurse to Chick; "I'll lift you over."

But Chick scorned assistance. Hadn't he only last week valiantly bucked the center in a football game between the Bean Alley Busters, and the Shanty Boat Bums, and, covered with mud and blood and glory, been carried from the field? They needn't think because he was little and thin and couldn't talk that he was a baby! He got himself on to the wheeled stretcher, but refused to lie down.

"Let him sit up then," said Mrs. Queerington. "He likes to see where he is going, don't you, Chick? Here goes our automobile! Honk! Honk!"

The nurse wheeled him through the tall, gloomy halls, while Myrtella shambled at one side, clinging to his hand, and wiping her eyes. Miss Lady flitted along on the other, telling him about the new football that was going to be on his bed when he woke up.

Then they halted, and Myrtella bent over him wildly. "Chick!" she cried, her face suddenly contorted, "look at me just once more! Tell me you fergive me, Chicky! Oh, if they kill you--!"

The stretcher was shoved hastily into the elevator and the door closed on everybody but Chick and the nurse and the orderly.

It was about that time that Chick decided to lie down. Where were they taking him? What were they going to do with him? What did Aunt 'Tella mean by those strange words? Where had Mis' Squeerington gone? With sudden quaking terror he looked at the nurse and broke into hoarse interrogatory sounds.

"Here we are!" she cried soothingly, as the elevator came to a halt. "And here's Dr. Wyeth waiting for us."

"Well, my little man," said the large figure in white, taking a small cold hand in his large strong one, "we are going to put you to sleep and when you wake up, it will be all over. You are pretty game, aren't you?"

Chick, trying very hard to keep his knees from shaking the sheet, nodded emphatically.

"I thought so," lied the doctor cheerfully, looking into the terror- stricken eyes. "I can almost always tell when a fellow's made out of the right sort of stuff. You don't wear false teeth, do you?"

Chick's sudden, toothless smile revealed the futility of this question.

"That's good. No danger of your swallowing them. Now suppose you put this funnel over your mouth and take a big breath. That's right! Another one! That's right, once more!"

Chick felt a hot, sweet air rush into his throat, and began to choke. But the doctor's voice kept saying insistently, "Once more!" "Once more, my boy!" And the doctor thought he was game.

He shut his eyes and tried not to be afraid, but fearful things were happening! His skin was leaving his body; and he was going up in the air; lights danced before his eyes and he was suddenly in a terrible hurry about something. He had never been in such a hurry before! He was leaving doctors and nurses far below, he could hear their voices growing fainter every moment. Then suddenly the lights began to dance again, and the hurry came back, and all the breath was being squeezed out of him. No, he couldn't be game any longer! He must fight! Savagely, blindly, dumbly he struggled against this awful unknown thing that was mastering him. Then, after a last agonizing effort he sank helplessly into the abyss of sleep.

Meanwhile, on the floor below, sitting on the cold bare steps beside the door of the elevator, two white-faced women waited anxiously. All was silent in the high, narrow corridor except for the footsteps of passing nurses, and the occasional sharp cry of pain, or groan of weariness from some suffering patient.

"That's him!" cried Myrtella hysterically as one of these cries reached her.

"No, no. He is sound asleep by this time. He won't know anything until it is all over." Then as another cry brought Myrtella to her feet, Miss Lady added, "Please, Myrtella, don't be so frightened. Those cries come from the floor below."

Myrtella shook off her hand impatiently. "How long have they been gone? Why didn't you tell me they was going to keep him hours and hours?"

"It's only been twenty minutes. I know how anxious you are, but you must try to be calm. If you aren't they won't let you go in the room when they bring him down."

"Won't let me in the room!" Myrtella's face blazed with anger. "I'd like to see 'em stop me! Who's got a better right? The doctor? The nurse? You? There ain't none of you got the right to him I have. Ain't I his mother?"

Miss Lady looked at her with amazement, and shrank instinctively from the desperate, defiant woman.

"That's right!" cried Myrtella, almost beside herself. "Snatch your hand off my arm, shrink away from me like I was a leper! Tell everybody, tell the police that I throwed my baby in the ash barrel and abandoned it! It don't make no difference now, nothin' makes no difference but Chick. Oh, my God! How long have they been?"

"They will be down very soon now, Myrtella. Don't tear your handkerchief like that. Here, take mine."

But Myrtella's eyes were too full of terror for tears; she sat with her hands locked about her knees swaying to and fro.

"I've never told nobody," she went on wildly; "all these years I've kept it bottled up in my soul 'til it's eat it plumb out. I never done it to Chick! He wasn't Chick then. He was just somethin' that belonged to a devil. Then he growed to be Chick, and all my hate turned to love, and now God's gittin' even, I knowed He would! He wouldn't let him live now, just to spite me!"

"Myrtella!" Miss Lady's voice commanded indignantly. "Don't you dare say such things! Who knows but this very minute God's giving Chick back to you? Perhaps He is taking this way of showing you He forgives you. Pray to Him, Myrtella! Ask Him to do what's best for Chick, whatever it may be."

Myrtella's head had sunken on her knees, and her coarse, work-hardened hands were clinging to Miss Lady's slender ones.

Suddenly they both started. The elevator descended creakingly and halted beside them. There was a shuffling of feet and the stretcher was wheeled past with a small, white-sheeted form lying motionless upon it.

"It's all over," said Dr. Wyeth, following briskly. "He put up a pretty stiff fight while taking the anesthetic, but we downed him at last. The conditions were less serious than I anticipated. With care and good nursing he ought to get well right away now. Hello! Here's another patient!"

For Myrtella, glaring at him through her steel-rimmed spectacles, had dropped like a log straight across the corridor and lay unconscious with her fly-away hat crushed under one ear.

"Loosen her collar," directed Dr. Wyeth, "and bring me some ice water. There! She'll come around in a minute."

He knelt beside her with his hand on her pulse, looking at her curiously. Then he turned to Miss Lady:

"Queer how faces come back to you. I attended this woman twelve years ago, when I was interne in the maternity ward at the City Hospital."