Black & White on White paper
Old Mr. Wiley and the dog came over every night … but were they real?
“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.
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