“He just lies here tossing and moaning until he’s so weak that he sinks into a kind of coma,” said the boy’s father huskily. “There doesn’t seem anything particular the matter with him now but weakness. Only,” he choked, “that he doesn’t care much about getting well.”
Miss Beaver kept her eyes on that thin little body outlined by the fine linen sheet. She caught her breath and bit her lower lip to check its trembling. So pitiful, that small scion of a long line of highly placed aristocratic and wealthy forebears, that her cool, capable hand went out involuntarily to soothe the fevered childish brow. She wanted suddenly to gather the little body into her warm arms, against her kind breast. Her emotion, she realized, was far from professional; Frank Wiley IV had somehow laid a finger on her heartstrings.
“If you can rouse him from this lethargy and help him find some interest in living,” Frank Wiley III said thickly, “you won’t find me unappreciative, Miss Beaver.”
The nurse contemplated that small, apathetic patient in silence. Doctor Parris had warned her that unless the boy’s interest could somehow be stimulated, the little fellow would die from sheer lack of incentive to live. Her emotion moistened her eyes and constricted her throat muscles. She had to clear her throat before she could speak.
“I can only promise to do my very best for this dear little boy,” she said hurriedly. “No human being can do more than his best.”
“Doctor Parris tells me you have been uniformly successful with the cases he’s put you on. I hope,” the young father entreated, “that you’ll follow your usual precedent.”
“The doctor is too kind,” murmured Miss Beaver with slightly lifted brows. “I fear he gives me more credit than I deserve.”
“There I hope you’re wrong. He calls you an intuitive psychic. It is upon your intuitions that I’m banking now. My affection hampers me from fathoming Frank’s inner-most thoughts. If I were really sure what he needed most, I’d get it for him if it were a spotted giraffe,” declared his father passionately. “But I’m unable to go deeply enough into his real thoughts.”
“If his own father cannot think of something he would care for enough to make him want to live, how can an outsider find out what he might be wanting?” argued the nurse, a touch of resentment in her voice. “Would not his own mother know what would make him want to take hold on life?”
There was an awkward pause.
“His mother,” began Frank Wiley III and was interrupted by a light tap on the door panel, at which he went silent, turning away as if relieved to escape any explanation.
The door swung open, permitting the entrance of a young and very pretty woman, one who knew exactly what a charming picture she made in jade negligee over peach pajamas. About her exceedingly well-shaped head ash-blonde hair lay in close artificial waves. She was such a distinctively blonde type that Miss Beaver could not control her slightly startled downward glance at the dark child tossing on the bed. Her upward look of bewilderment was met by Frank Wiley’s faint smile.
“He takes after the founder of our family,” said he in a low, almost confidential voice. “His great-grandfather was said to have had Indian blood in his veins, as well as a touch of old Spain. The boy doesn’t look like his mother or me. He’s a real throw-back.”
The pretty woman had come across the room, pettishly lifting her silk clad shoulders. Through the straps of embroidered sandals red-tipped toes wriggled. At the tumbled bed and its small restless occupant she threw what appeared to Miss Beaver a distasteful glance, ignoring the nurse entirely although she had not met her previously and must have known that the strange young woman was the new night nurse.
“Do come to bed, Frank,” she urged crossly, placing a proprietary hand on her husband’s coat sleeve. “It won’t do you any good to moon around in here and it might disturb Francis.”
Miss Beaver stood by her patient’s bed, her clear gray eyes full upon young Mrs. Wiley. The nurse experienced a kind of disgust, together with one of those uncomfortable intuitions upon the reliability of which Doctor Parris was always depending. She knew, all at once, that Mrs. Wiley was that strange type of modern woman which makes a cult of personal beauty, taking wifehood lightly and submitting to maternity as infrequently as possible.
“I suppose you’re right, Florry,” the father conceded, with a last solicitous look at the exhausted child. “Miss Beaver... ?”
The nurse nodded, her lips a tight red line.
“It would be better for the patient if the room were quiet and darkened,” she said with decision.
When the door had closed behind the pair, Miss Beaver busied herself making the child more comfortable for the night. She smoothed out the cool linen sheets, drawing them taut under the wasted little body. She bathed the hot face with water and alcohol. To all her ministrations the child submitted in a kind of lethargy, speaking no word, making no sign that he had noticed a different attendant. When she had quite finished, he breathed a long sigh of relaxation; his quivering, weak little body went suddenly limp, and Miss Beaver had a good scare as she bent over him, trying to bring back that weary and reluctant spirit to its exhausted mortal domicile.
It was by then nearly half past seven. The child lay supine; heavy-lidded eyes half opened upon this tormentress who had somehow succeeded in calling him back into the dimly lighted room from the shadows of Lethe’s alluring banks. Miss Beaver, kneeling beside young Frank’s bed, talked tenderly to him in a soft monotone. She made all manner of gratuitous promises, if only Frank would try like a good boy to get well. She told him firmly that he could, if he wanted to. She made her suggestions with gently persuasive voice, coloring all she said with the warmth of a heart peculiarly open to the unknown needs of the listless child. To those unknown needs she opened wide her spirit, crying within for enlightenment and help.
While she was thus occupied, she became aware of that sensation of being watched that is so startling when one considers oneself alone. Without rising, she turned her face quickly from the pillow of young Frank and looked across the bed. A member of the household about whom Doctor Parris had neglected to tell her was standing there, one finger on his lips which, though firm, wore a reassuring smile that immediately conveyed his warm friendliness. He was a well preserved elderly gentleman of aristocratic mien, clad in a bright blue garment of odd cut, his neck wound about with spotlessly white linen in lieu of a starched collar. His high nose, raised cheek-bones, flashing black eyes and olive skin contrasted in lively fashion with a heavy mane of white hair. His eyes as well as his lips conveyed a kindliness which Miss Beaver’s answering smile reciprocated.
Tapping his lips again with admonitory forefinger, the old gentleman now produced, with a broad smile, something from beneath his right arm. Leaning down, he set this carefully beside the listless child. As he put it down, it gave a whining little cry.
Young Frank’s eyes widened incredulously. Miss Beaver kept him under intent regard as he turned his dark head on the pillow to see what it was that was sitting on the bed.
“Oh!” he cried in a kind of rapture and put one thin white hand outside the covers to touch the small creature that now stood wagging a brief tail in friendly fashion. “Is it mine?”
The child looked up at the old gentleman who once more, with serious mien and a significant movement of his head toward the door, gestured for silence. The boy’s eyes blinked once or twice; then with a weak but ecstatic smile he laid a pale hand upon the furry coat of the little dog that began to bounce about, licking the hand that caressed it.
Miss Beaver told herself that the old gentleman had found a way to lay hold on young Frank’s reluctant spirit. She watched color creep into the boy’s face as he cuddled the little dog blissfully, and she drew a deep breath of heart-felt relief when the heavy eyelids drooped and the boy slipped off into a natural sleep, nothing like the heavy coma from which she had struggled so hard to bring him back earlier that night.
She looked up thankfully to meet the understanding gaze of the old gentleman who with that gesture of admonishment bent over and picked up the dog, tucked it under his blue-sleeved arm and went across the room to the door. He did not speak but Miss Beaver received the vivid impression that his visit would be repeated the following night; it was as if her sensitive intuitions could receive and register a wordless message from that other sympathetic soul.
The following morning found the lad refreshed and improved. His first waking thought was for the dog and in reply to his cautiously whispered inquiry Miss Beaver whispered back that his grandfather (the strong family resemblance made her sure it had been the boy’s wise grandfather who had found a means of rousing the child from an all-but-fatal lethargy) had taken it with him but would bring it again that night. Miss Beaver wondered at herself for promising this but felt somehow sure that old Mr. Wiley would bring the pup without fail. She believed that she had read indomitable determination in those piercing black eyes; she knew inwardly that he would not rest until he had found that thing which would give young Frank renewed interest in living.
Although the child appeared, if anything, a trifle less apathetic the following day and Miss Beaver felt that each succeeding visit of old Mr. Wiley with the fox-terrier would give the lad another push toward convalescence, yet the nurse did not feel inclined to mention openly that secret visit in the dead of night. The old gentleman’s finger tapping his gravely smiling lips was one thing that restrained her; the other was the irritation betrayed, ingenuously enough, by the boy’s mother during her early morning visit to the sickroom.
Young Mrs. Wiley looked especially pretty in a pleated jade sports skirt, a white pullover sweater, a jade beret on her fair hair. Under one arm she carried a small white Pomeranian about whose neck flared a matching wide jade satin bow.
“Well, how is Francis this morning?” she inquired briskly with the determined manner of one dutifully performing an unpleasant task. “He looks better, doesn’t he?”
Miss Beaver, to whom this inquiry was addressed, nodded shortly.
The boy did not look at his pretty young mother after his first indifferent glance as she entered the room. He lay in silence with closed eyes and compressed lips, a most unchildlike expression on his thin boyish face.
“Look, Francis! See how sweet Kiki looks with this big green bow!”
Mrs. Wiley dropped the Pomeranian on the bed. The dog snarled and snapped viciously. Frank thrust out one hand and gave the animal a pettish push. Bestowing a hard, cold glare on her son, Mrs. Wiley snatched up the growling dog in high indignation.
“There! I ask you, nurse, if that child isn’t just unnatural. I thought boys liked dogs. Francis is queer. I believe he actually hates Kiki.” She lifted the dog against her face, permitting it to loll its pink tongue against her carefully rouged cheek. “Pwecious ... Was it muvver’s own pwecious ikkle Kiki? Francis,” she addressed her son sharply, “you’ll have to get over your nasty ugliness to poor little Kiki. It’s a shame, the way you hate dogs!”
“But I don’t hate dogs!” cried the boy vehemently, his voice breaking with indignant resentment. “It’s just Kiki. I’d love to have a little dog of my very own, Mother. If you’d only let me have a little dog of my very own!” The faint voice died away in a sick wail. The boy’s eyelids closed tightly against gushing tears.
Mrs. Wiley gave a short exclamation of impatience.
“Francis has the idea that a dirty mongrel would be nicer than a beautiful pedigreed dog like Kiki,” she cried disgustedly.
“But why not try letting him have a dog of his own?” asked Miss Beaver ill-advisedly, her interest getting the better of her. “Perhaps it would give him interest enough...”
“Nonsense!” snapped Mrs. Wiley sharply. “I won’t have street mutts wandering around the house to irritate poor little Kiki. Nasty smelly common mongrels with fleas. Indeed not. I’m surprised at you, nurse, for making the suggestion.”
With that, young Mrs. Wiley removed her vivid presence from the room, leaving Miss Beaver shrugging her shoulders and raising her eyebrows. And the little boy crying softly, the sheet pulled over his dark head.
“What’s all this, Frankie?” asked the father’s voice.
“She won’t let me have a dog of my own,” sobbed the boy, coming out from under the concealing sheet, lips a-quiver, eyes humid.
Miss Beaver’s lips compressed. He called his mother “She” as if she were an outsider...
Frank Wiley III stood for a moment looking at his son, then let himself gently down on the edge of the bed, laying one big palm on the little chap’s hot forehead. He did not speak, just sat and stroked the fevered brow with tenderness. On his face a dark look brooded. His eyes were absent, unhappy.
“Daddy, why couldn’t I have just a little puppy of my own?”
The father replied with obvious effort.
“You know, Frankie, we have one small dog already,” said he with forced lightness.
“Couldn’t you manage to make friends with Kiki?”
“She doesn’t really want Kiki to like me, Daddy.” (Wise beyond his years, marvelled Miss Beaver.) “Kiki doesn’t really like little boys.”
“Oh, my God, Frankie, don’t go to crying again! Don’t you see that Daddy can’t quarrel with Mother over a dog? Try to get well, old man, and we’ll see then what we can do. How about a pony, son?”
The little boy disappeared under the sheet, refusing to reply. Miss Beaver could not bear his convulsive, hardly-controlled sobs, and turned an accusing face upon Frank Wiley III.
“Is it possible,” she asked icily, “that Frank’s mother would actually refuse him so small a thing as a puppy, if it meant the merest chance of his getting better?”
The face turned to hers was gloomy, the voice impatient.
“Oh, good God! Was ever a man in such a damnable situation? My dear Miss Beaver, ask the doctor to tell you how much influence I have in this household, before you blame me for not taking a firm stand with a woman as nervous and temperamental as Mrs. Wiley. I’d give my life willingly to bring my boy back to health but unhappily I’m not like the founders of our family. Some day I’ll show you our family album. You’ll find it easy to trace the strong resemblance Frankie has to his forebears. Its the damnably high spirit he gets from them that is so stubbornly killing him now.”
He rose, wheeled about and went to the door. Paused. Still with that brooding dark look on his face he turned to her again.
“If my death would make it any easier for Frank, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment. I’m a failure. It wouldn’t matter. But I feel that by living and watching over him I’m standing between my boy’s development as an individual, and the subtlest, softest peril that could possibly threaten him. I would rather he died, if he cannot bring about what he wills for his own development. As for me, I ... I am a dead man walking futilely among the living.”
With that, he swung out of the room.
Miss Beaver knelt by the boy’s bed, murmuring persuasively to him as she strove to make him check his hysterical sobs.
“Frankie, you really must stop crying. You’re too big a chap to cry and it only makes you worse. If you’re a good boy to-day and eat your food, I’ll let your grandfather bring the little dog tonight,” she promised rashly.
The sheet turned down and Frank’s reddened face peered at her plaintively.
“That was my great-grandfather,” he assured her gravely.
“Well, great or great-great, it’s all the same,” she conceded good-humoredly.
“Do you really think he’ll bring Spot tonight?”
“Of course he will. But you must eat your meals, take a long nap, and stop crying.”
“Oh, I promise!” the boy cried eagerly.
The day, Miss Beaver was told later, was uneventful. She had remained with the day nurse until Doctor Parris had made his visit. The doctor had been much pleased to find his small patient in good spirits and congratulated himself upon having put Miss Beaver on the case.
“If our young friend continues to improve like this, Miss Beaver,” he joked, “we’ll have him playing football within a month.” He lowered his voice for her ear only. “Has anything particular come under your notice that might account for this agreeable change?”
Miss Beaver’s forehead wrinkled slightly. She regarded the doctor from narrowed, thoughtful eyes.
“Tell me, Doctor Parris, if it isn’t asking too much, why Mr. Wiley is a Man-Afraid-of-his-Wife?”
The doctor could not repress an involuntary chuckle.
“Come now, nurse, don’t you think you’re asking rather a good deal?”
“No, I don’t,” retorted Miss Beaver shortly. “Nor do you think so, either. What I’m trying to get at is, why Mr. Wiley lets Mrs. Wiley prevent him from giving Frank a puppy that he wants?”
The doctor regarded her thoughtfully.
“So it’s a pup the boy wants. Ha, hum!” he uttered.
“I’m asking you,” she repeated impatiently.
“Oh! Eh! Well! Mrs. Wiley, you have undoubtedly discerned, is one of those self-centered egotists who simply cannot permit people to live any way but her way. She won’t have another dog in the house because it might interfere with the comfort of that silly damn--excuse me--Pom of hers. If Frank were a bit older and could feign a penchant for the Pom and his mother got the idea that the animal’s affection might be alienated from her, she would at once get the child another dog, just to keep him away from Kiki.”
“All of which sounds subtle but isn’t very helpful,” decided Miss Beaver with unflattering directness. “I’ve told Mr. Wiley that I thought a dog might interest his son and Mr. Wiley replies that his wife won’t let him get one. There is something more behind this and it’s obvious you don’t want to tell me.”
“Oh, hang it, nurse! You always manage to get your own way with me, don’t you? I’ll probably have to marry you one of these days, so I can keep the upper hand,” he grinned. “Well, then, Wiley is a weak sister and oughtn’t to be. He’s completely under his chorus-girl wife’s thumb. He lost a good bit in Wall Street and what’s left is in her name, so he’s got to watch his step until he’s recouped his losses.