God's Fool by Mary Roberts Rinehart
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," 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----"
"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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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 than once when the Senior was out of the ward.
And he knew of the parrot. That day, then, a short, stout woman with a hard face appeared in the superintendent's office and demanded a parrot.
"Parrot?" said the superintendent blandly.
"Parrot! That crazy man you keep here walked into my house to-day and stole a parrot--and I want it."
"The Dummy! But what on earth----"
"It was my parrot," said the woman. "It belonged to one of my boarders. She's a burned case up in one of the wards--and she owed me money. I took it for a debt. You call that man and let him look me in the eye while I say parrot to him."
"He cannot speak or hear."
"You call him. He'll understand me!"
They found the Dummy coming stealthily down from the top of the stable and haled him into the office. He was very calm--quite impassive. Apparently he had never seen the woman before; as she raged he smiled cheerfully and shook his head.
"As a matter of fact," said the superintendent, "I don't believe he ever saw the bird; but if he has it we shall find it out and you'll get it again."
They let him go then; and he went to the chapel and looked at a dove above the young John's head. Then he went up to the kitchen and filled his pockets with lettuce leaves. He knew nothing at all of parrots or how to care for them.
Things, you see, were moving right for the Avenue Girl. The stain was coming off--she had been fond of the parrot and now it was close at hand; and Father Feeny's lusty crowd stood ready to come into a hospital ward and shed skin that they generally sacrificed on the football field. But the Avenue Girl had two years to account for--and there was the matter of an alibi.
"I might tell the folks at home anything and they'd believe it because they'd want to believe it," said the Avenue Girl. "But there's the neighbours. I was pretty wild at home. And--there's a fellow who wanted to marry me--he knew how sick I was of the old place and how I wanted my fling. His name was Jerry. We'd have to show Jerry."
The Probationer worried a great deal about this matter of the alibi. It had to be a clean slate for the folks back home, and especially for Jerry. She took her anxieties out walking several times on her off-duty, but nothing seemed to come of it. She walked on the Avenue mostly, because it was near and she could throw a long coat over her blue dress. And so she happened to think of the woman the girl had lived with.
"She got her into all this," thought the Probationer. "She's just got to see her out."
It took three days' off-duty to get her courage up to ringing the doorbell of the house with the bowed shutters, and after she had rung it she wanted very much to run and hide; but she thought of the girl and everything going for nothing for the want of an alibi, and she stuck. The negress opened the door and stared at her.
"She's dead, is she?" she asked.
"No. May I come in? I want to see your mistress."
The negress did not admit her, however. She let her stand in the vestibule and went back to the foot of a staircase.
"One of these heah nurses from the hospital!" she said. "She wants to come in and speak to you."
"Let her in, you fool!" replied a voice from above stairs.
The rest was rather confused. Afterward the Probationer remembered putting the case to the stout woman who had claimed the parrot and finding it difficult to make her understand.
"Don't you see?" she finished desperately. "I want her to go home--to her own folks. She wants it too. But what are we going to say about these last two years?"
The stout woman sat turning over her rings. She was most uncomfortable. After all, what had she done? Had she not warned them again and again about having lighted cigarettes lying round.
"She's in bad shape, is she?"
"She may recover, but she'll be badly scarred--not her face, but her chest and shoulders."
That was another way of looking at it. If the girl was scarred----
"Just what do you want me to do?" she asked. Now that it was down to brass tacks and no talk about home and mother, she was more comfortable.
"If you could just come over to the hospital while her people are there and--and say she'd lived with you all the time----"
"That's the truth all right!"
"And--that she worked for you, sewing--she sews very well, she says. And--oh, you'll know what to say; that she's been--all right, you know; anything to make them comfortable and happy."
Now the stout woman was softening--not that she was really hard, but she had developed a sort of artificial veneer of hardness, and good impulses had a hard time crawling through.
"I guess I could do that much," she conceded. "She nursed me when I was down and out with the grippe and that worthless nigger was drunk in the kitchen. But you folks over there have got a parrot that belongs to me. What about that?"
The Probationer knew about the parrot. The Dummy had slipped it into the ward more than once and its profanity had delighted the patients. The Avenue Girl had been glad to see it too; and as it sat on the bedside table and shrieked defiance and oaths the Dummy had smiled benignly. John and the dove--the girl and the parrot!
"I am sorry about the parrot. I--perhaps I could buy him from you."
She got out her shabby little purse, in which she carried her munificent monthly allowance of eight dollars and a little money she had brought from home.
"Twenty dollars takes him. That's what she owed me."
The Probationer had seventeen dollars and eleven cents. She spread it out in her lap and counted it twice.
"I'm afraid that's all," she said. She had hoped the second count would show up better. "I could bring the rest next month."
The Probationer folded the money together and held it out. The stout woman took it eagerly.
"He's yours," she said largely. "Don't bother about the balance. When do you want me?"
"I'll send you word," said the Probationer, and got up. She was almost dizzy with excitement and the feeling of having no money at all in the world and a parrot she did not want. She got out into the air somehow and back to the hospital. She took a bath immediately and put on everything fresh, and felt much better--but very poor. Before she went on duty she said a little prayer about thermometers--that she should not break hers until she had money for a new one.
* * * * *
Father Feeny came and lined up six budding priests outside the door of the ward. He was a fine specimen of manhood and he had asked no questions at all. The Senior thought she had better tell him something, but he put up a white hand.
"What does it matter, sister?" he said cheerfully. "Yesterday is gone and to-day is a new day. Also there is to-morrow"--his Irish eyes twinkled--"and a fine day it will be by the sunset."
Then he turned to his small army.
"Boys," he said, "it's a poor leader who is afraid to take chances with his men. I'm going first"--he said fir-rst. "It's a small thing, as I've told you--a bit of skin and it's over. Go in smiling and come out smiling! Are you ready, sir?" This to the interne.
That was a great day in the ward. The inmates watched Father Feeny and the interne go behind the screens, both smiling, and they watched the father come out very soon after, still smiling but a little bleached. And they watched the line patiently waiting outside the door, shortening one by one. After a time the smiles were rather forced, as if waiting was telling on them; but there was no deserter--only one six-foot youth, walking with a swagger to contribute his little half inch or so of cuticle, added a sensation to the general excitement by fainting halfway up the ward; and he remained in blissful unconsciousness until it was all over.
Though the interne had said there was no way back, the first step had really been taken; and he was greatly pleased with himself and with everybody because it had been his idea. The Probationer tried to find a chance to thank him; and, failing that, she sent a grateful little note to his room:
Is Mimi the Austrian to have a baked apple? [Signed] WARD A.
P.S.--It went through wonderfully! She is so cheerful since it is over. How can I ever thank you?
The reply came back very quickly:
Baked apple, without milk, for Mimi. WARD A. [Signed] D.L.S.
P.S.--Can you come up on the roof for a little air?
She hesitated over that for some time. A really honest-to-goodness nurse may break a rule now and then and nothing happen; but a probationer is only on trial and has to be exceedingly careful--though any one might go to the roof and watch the sunset. She decided not to go. Then she pulled her soft hair down over her forehead, where it was most becoming, and fastened it with tiny hairpins, and went up after all--not because she intended to, but because as she came out of her room the elevator was going up--not down. She was on the roof almost before she knew it.
The interne was there in fresh white ducks, smoking. At first they talked of skin grafting and the powder that had not done what was expected of it. After a time, when the autumn twilight had fallen on them like a benediction, she took her courage in her hands and told of her visit to the house on the Avenue, and about the parrot and the plot.
The interne stood very still. He was young and intolerant. Some day he would mellow and accept life as it is--not as he would have it. When she had finished he seemed to have drawn himself into a shell, turtle fashion, and huddled himself together. The shell was pride and old prejudice and the intolerance of youth. "She had to have an alibi!" said the Probationer.
"Oh, of course," very stiffly.
"I cannot see why you disapprove. Something had to be done."
"I cannot see that you had to do it; but it's your own affair, of course. Only----"
"Please go on."
"Well, one cannot touch dirt without being soiled."
"I think you will be sorry you said that," said the Probationer stiffly. And she went down the staircase, leaving him alone. He was sorry, of course; but he would not say so even to himself. He thought of the Probationer, with her eager eyes and shining hair and her warm little heart, ringing the bell of the Avenue house and making her plea--and his blood ran hot in him. It was just then that the parrot spoke on the other side of the chimney.
"Gimme a bottle of beer!" it said. "Nice cold beer! Cold beer!"
The interne walked furiously toward the sound. Must this girl of the streets and her wretched associates follow him everywhere? She had ruined his life already. He felt that it was ruined. Probably the Probationer would never speak to him again.
The Dummy was sitting on a bench, with the parrot on his knee looking rather queer from being smuggled about under a coat and fed the curious things that the Dummy thought a bird should eat. It had a piece of apple pie in its claw now.
"Cold beer!" said the parrot, and eyed the interne crookedly.
The Dummy had not heard him, of course. He sat looking over the parapet toward the river, with one knotted hand smoothing the bird's ruffled plumage and such a look of wretchedness in his eyes that it hurt to see it. God's fools, who cannot reason, can feel. Some instinct of despair had seized him for its own--some conception, perhaps, of what life would never mean to him. Before it, the interne's wrath gave way to impotency.
"Cold beer!" said the parrot wickedly.
The Avenue Girl improved slowly. Morning and evening came the Dummy and smiled down at her, with reverence in his eyes. She could smile back now and sometimes she spoke to him. There was a change in the Avenue Girl. She was less sullen. In the back of her eyes each morning found a glow of hope--that died, it is true, by noontime; but it came again with the new day.
"How's Polly this morning, Montmorency?" she would say, and give him a bit of toast from her breakfast for the bird. Or: "I wish you could talk, Reginald. I'd like to hear what Rose said when you took the parrot. It must have been a scream!"
He brought her the first chrysanthemums of the fall and laid them on her pillow. It was after he had gone, while the Probationer was combing out the soft short curls of her hair, that she mentioned the Dummy. She strove to make her voice steady, but there were tears in her eyes.
"The old goat's been pretty good to me, hasn't he?" she said.
"I believe it is very unusual. I wonder"--the Probationer poised the comb--"perhaps you remind him of some one he used to know."
They knew nothing, of course, of the boy John and the window.
"He's about the first decent man I ever knew," said the Avenue Girl--"and he's a fool!"
"Either a fool or very, very wise," replied the Probationer.
The interne and the Probationer were good friends again, but they had never quite got back to the place they had lost on the roof. Over the Avenue Girl's dressing their eyes met sometimes, and there was an appeal in the man's and tenderness; but there was pride too. He would not say he had not meant it. Any man will tell you that he was entirely right, and that she had been most unwise and needed a good scolding--only, of course, it is never the wise people who make life worth the living.
And an important thing had happened--the Probationer had been accepted and had got her cap. She looked very stately in it, though it generally had a dent somewhere from her forgetting she had it on and putting her hat on over it. The first day she wore it she knelt at prayers with the others, and said a little Thank You! for getting through when she was so unworthy. She asked to be made clean and pure, and delivered from vanity, and of some use in the world. And, trying to think of the things she had been remiss in, she went out that night in a rain and bought some seed and things for the parrot.
Prodigal as had been Father Feeny and his battalion, there was more grafting needed before the Avenue Girl could take her scarred body and soul out into the world again. The Probationer offered, but was refused politely.
"You are a part of the institution now," said the interne, with his eyes on her cap. He was rather afraid of the cap. "I cannot cripple the institution."
It was the Dummy who solved that question. No one knew how he knew the necessity or why he had not come forward sooner; but come he did and would not be denied. The interne went to a member of the staff about it.
"The fellow works round the house," he explained; "but he's taken a great fancy to the girl and I hardly know what to do."
"My dear boy," said the staff, "one of the greatest joys in the world is to suffer for a woman. Let him go to it."
So the Dummy bared his old-young arm--not once, but many times. Always as the sharp razor nicked up its bit of skin he looked at the girl and smiled. In the early evening he perched the parrot on his bandaged arm and sat on the roof or by the fountain in the courtyard. When the breeze blew strong enough the water flung over the rim and made little puddles in the hollows of the cement pavement. Here belated sparrows drank or splashed their dusty feathers, and the parrot watched them crookedly.
The Avenue Girl grew better with each day, but remained wistful-eyed. The ward no longer avoided her, though she was never one of them. One day the Probationer found a new baby in the children's ward; and, with the passion of maternity that is the real reason for every good woman's being, she cuddled the mite in her arms. She visited the nurses in the different wards.
"Just look!" she would say, opening her arms. "If I could only steal it!"
The Senior, who had once been beautiful and was now calm and placid, smiled at her. Old Maggie must peer and cry out over the child. Irish Delia must call down a blessing on it. And so up the ward to the Avenue Girl; the Probationer laid the baby in her arms.
"Just a minute," she explained. "I'm idling and I have no business to. Hold it until I give the three o'clocks." Which means the three-o'clock medicines.
When she came back the Avenue Girl had a new look in her eyes; and that day the little gleam of hope, that usually died, lasted and grew.
At last came the day when the alibi was to be brought forward. The girl had written home and the home folks were coming. In his strange way the Dummy knew that a change was near. The kaleidoscope would shift again and the Avenue Girl would join the changing and disappearing figures that fringed the inner circle of his heart.
One night he did not go to bed in the ward bed that was his only home, beside the little stand that held his only possessions. The watchman missed him and found him asleep in the chapel in one of the seats, with the parrot drowsing on the altar.
Rose--who was the stout woman--came early. She wore a purple dress, with a hat to match, and purple gloves. The ward eyed her with scorn and a certain deference. She greeted the Avenue Girl effusively behind the screens that surrounded the bed.
"Well, you do look pinched!" she said. "Ain't it a mercy it didn't get to your face! Pretty well chewed up, aren't you?"
"Do you want to see it?"
"Good land! No! Now look here, you've got to put me wise or I'll blow the whole thing. What's my little stunt? The purple's all right for it, isn't it?"
"All you need to do," said the Avenue Girl wearily, "is to say that I've been sewing for you since I came to the city. And--if you can say anything good----"
"I'll do that all right," Rose affirmed. She put a heavy silver bag on the bedside table and lowered herself into a chair. "You leave it to me, dearie. There ain't anything I won't say."
The ward was watching with intense interest. Old Maggie, working the creaking bandage machine, was palpitating with excitement. From her chair by the door she could see the elevator and it was she who announced the coming of destiny.
"Here comes the father," she confided to the end of the ward. "Guess the mother couldn't come."
It was not the father though. It was a young man who hesitated in the doorway, hat in hand--a tall young man, with a strong and not unhandsome face. The Probationer, rather twitchy from excitement and anxiety, felt her heart stop and race on again. Jerry, without a doubt!
The meeting was rather constrained. The girl went whiter than her pillows and half closed her eyes; but Rose, who would have been terrified at the sight of an elderly farmer, was buoyantly relieved and at her ease.
"I'm sorry," said Jerry. "I--we didn't realise it had been so bad. The folks are well; but--I thought I'd better come. They're expecting you back home."
"It was nice of you to come," said the girl, avoiding his eyes. "I--I'm getting along fine."
"I guess introductions ain't necessary," put in Rose briskly. "I'm Mrs. Sweeney. She's been living with me--working for me, sewing. She's sure a fine sewer! She made this suit I'm wearing."
Poor Rose, with "custom made" on every seam of the purple! But Jerry was hardly listening. His eyes were on the girl among the pillows.
"I see," said Jerry slowly. "You haven't said yet, Elizabeth. Are you going home?"
"If--they want me."
"Of course they want you!" Again Rose: "Why shouldn't they? You've been a good girl and a credit to any family. If they say anything mean to you you let me know."
"They'll not be mean to her. I'm sure they'll want to write and thank you. If you'll just give me your address, Mrs. Sweeney----"
He had a pencil poised over a notebook. Rose hesitated. Then she gave her address on the Avenue, with something of bravado in her voice. After all, what could this country-store clerk know of the Avenue? Jerry wrote it down carefully.
"Sweeney--with an e?" he asked politely.
"With three e's," corrected Rose, and got up with dignity.
"Well, good-bye, dearie," she said. "You've got your friends now and you don't need me. I guess you've had your lesson about going to sleep with a cig--about being careless with fire. Drop me a postal when you get the time."
She shook hands with Jerry and rustled and jingled down the ward, her chin well up. At the door she encountered Old Maggie, her arms full of bandages.
"How's the Avenue?" asked Old Maggie.
Rose, however, like all good actresses, was still in the part as she made her exit. She passed Old Maggie unheeding, severe respectability in every line of her figure, every nod of her purple plumes. She was still in the part when she encountered the Probationer.
"It's going like a house afire!" she said. "He swallowed it all--hook and bait! And--oh, yes, I've got something for you." She went down into her silver bag and pulled out a roll of bills. "I've felt meaner'n a dog every time I've thought of you buying that parrot. I've got a different view of life--maybe--from yours; but I'm not taking candy from a baby."
When the Probationer could speak Rose was taking herself and the purple into the elevator and waving her a farewell.
"Good-bye!" she said. "If ever you get stuck again just call on me."
With Rose's departure silence fell behind the screen. The girl broke it first.
"They're all well, are they?"
"All well. Your mother's been kind of poorly. She thought you'd write to her." The girl clenched her hands under the bedclothing. She could not speak just then. "There's nothing much happened. The post office burned down last summer. They're building a new one. And--I've been building. I tore down the old place."
"Are you going to be married, Jerry?"
"Some day, I suppose. I'm not worrying about it. It was something to do; it kept me from--thinking."
The girl looked at him and something gripped her throat. He knew! Rose might have gone down with her father, but Jerry knew! Nothing was any use. She knew his rigid morality, his country-bred horror of the thing she was. She would have to go back--to Rose and the others. He would never take her home.
Down at the medicine closet the Probationer was carbolising thermometers and humming a little song. Everything was well. The Avenue Girl was with her people and at seven o'clock the Probationer was going to the roof--to meet some one who was sincerely repentant and very meek.
In the convalescent ward next door they were singing softly--one of those spontaneous outbursts that have their origin in the hearts of people and a melody all their own:
'Way down upon de S'wanee Ribber, Far, far away, Dere's wha my heart is turnin' ebber-- Dere's wha de old folks stay.
It penetrated back of the screen, where the girl lay in white wretchedness--and where Jerry, with death in his eyes, sat rigid in his chair.
"I--I guess I've been pretty far away."
"Don't tell me about it!" A cry, this.
"You used to care for me, Jerry. I'm not expecting that now; but if you'd only believe me when I say I'm sorry----"
"I believe you, Elizabeth."
"One of the nurses here says----Jerry, won't you look at me?" With some difficulty he met her eyes. "She says that because one starts wrong one needn't go wrong always. I was ashamed to write. She made me do it."
She held out an appealing hand, but he did not take it. All his life he had built up a house of morality. Now his house was crumbling and he stood terrified in the wreck. "It isn't only because I've been hurt that I--am sorry," she went on. "I loathed it! I'd have finished it all long ago, only--I was afraid."
"I would rather have found you dead!"
There is a sort of anesthesia of misery. After a certain amount of suffering the brain ceases to feel. Jerry watched the white curtain of the screen swaying in the wind, settled his collar, glanced at his watch. He was quite white. The girl's hand still lay on the coverlet. Somewhere back in the numbed brain that would think only little thoughts he knew that if he touched that small, appealing hand the last wall of his house would fall.
It was the Dummy, after all, who settled that for him. He came with his afternoon offering of cracked ice just then and stood inside the screen, staring. Perhaps he had known all along how it would end, that this, his saint, would go--and not alone--to join the vanishing circle that had ringed the inner circle of his heart. Just at the time it rather got him. He swayed a little and clutched at the screen; but the next moment he had placed the bowl on the stand and stood smiling down at the girl.
"The only person in the world who believes in me!" said the girl bitterly. "And he's a fool!"
The Dummy smiled into her eyes. In his faded, childish eyes there was the eternal sadness of his kind, eternal tenderness, and the blur of one who has looked much into a far distance. Suddenly he bent over and placed the man's hand over the girl's.
The last wall was down! Jerry buried his face in the white coverlet.
* * * * *
The interne was pacing the roof anxiously. Golden sunset had faded to lavender--to dark purple--to night.
The Probationer came up at last--not a probationer now, of course; but she had left off her cap and was much less stately.
"I'm sorry," she explained; "but I've been terribly busy. It went off so well!"
"Of course--if you handled it."
"You know--don't you?--it was the lover who came. He looks so strong and good--oh, she is safe now!"
"That's fine!" said the interne absently. They were sitting on the parapet now and by sliding his hand along he found her fingers. "Isn't it a glorious evening?" He had the fingers pretty close by that time; and suddenly gathering them up he lifted the hand to his lips.
"Such a kind little hand!" he said over it. "Such a dear, tender little hand! My hand!" he said, rather huskily.
Down in the courtyard the Dummy sat with the parrot on his knee. At his feet the superintendent's dog lay on his side and dreamed of battle. The Dummy's eyes lingered on the scar the Avenue Girl had bandaged--how long ago!
His eyes wandered to the window with the young John among the lilies. In the stable were still the ambulance horses that talked to him without words. And he had the parrot. If he thought at all it was that his Father was good and that, after all, he was not alone. The parrot edged along his knee and eyed him with saturnine affection.