‘AND how are you this fine spring day?’ said a voice from the doorway.
Neal shut the book reluctantly. This was the first time since the operation six days ago that he had felt strong enough to read. But when he saw who it was he said, ‘Oh, hello, Mr. Bracken. Come on in and sit down.’
Mr. Bracken’s slippers made a slithering sound as he scuffled into the room. He stood with both hands thrust deep into the pockets of his faded brown bathrobe, a little gray bright-eyed man with hollow cheeks and a twinkle in his voice. ‘I hear you’ve been having a tough time of it these last few days,’ he said.
‘Well, I can’t say I enjoyed it,’ grinned Neal. ‘But the worst is over now, I guess.’
‘This is the last operation?’
‘Yes. I had my hip and the other knee done last winter.’
‘It’s been a long pull, hasn’t it? But it’s worth it if it gets you out of this bed, heh?’
‘And it will. It won’t be long before you’ll be doing a jig for us out here in the hall.’
But will you be here to see it? thought Neal. Strange to see him standing there, to hear him talk and laugh, and to think that in such a short time he would be dead. A knife hanging over his head, following him wherever he went, the first thing he saw when he woke up in the morning, and the last thing at night. Waiting, always waiting for the next stab of pain, wondering each time if it would be his last. Perhaps it was pricking him now as he stood there smiling. How could he be so unconcerned? But probably they had n’t told him. He could n’t know, Neal decided.
‘I ’ve got a lot of magazines down in my room,’ Mr. Bracken was saying. ‘I wondered if you’d like to see them.’
‘Thanks, I should . . .’ Mr. Bracken started toward the door. ‘But there’s no hurry. I should n’t be able to look at them now anyway. I ’m expecting someone.’
The old man came back into the room. ‘That little girl who comes to see you, maybe?’ he twinkled.
‘She has n’t been here for three days. They would n’t let anyone come while I was so sick.’
‘She’s a pretty one, all right. And she’s fond of you, too.’
Neal stared, wonderingly.
‘I happened to be going by as she came out of your room the other day and I saw her eyes,’ explained Mr. Bracken. ‘You’re lucky, my friend. And I hope you ’re as fond of her as she is of you.’
‘I ... I think I am,’ Neal stammered.
‘You think? Don’t you know, man?’
‘ I hope to marry her as soon as I get on my feet again.‘
‘Good. Have you told her so yet? Don’t be offended, my boy, if I talk right out. I ’m an old man, twice as old as you — how old are you, by the way?’
‘Yes, I’m well over twice your age, and I tell you, it warms me to see two young people getting together.’
Neal’s first impulse was to withdraw inside his shell. But he realized at once that to do so would be ridiculous. The old man’s interest was so plainly sincere, the natural manifestation of a genuine kindliness, that Neal’s heart went out to him. And he was really delighted to be able to talk about Gay to one who seemed to appreciate her so well. ‘I tried to ask her last time she was here.’ he laughed. ‘But she would n’t let me say a word, and then Miss Tupp came and made her go.’
‘She has real fire in her, that little girl. The real thing. I can tell pretty quick what people are like inside. And she’s the real thing. You’re lucky to have found one like her. Most of the people you meet in this world are afraid to have any honest feelings. All dried up inside. She’ll take some delicate handling, though. She has a bit of a temper, now, has n’t she?’
‘Well, sometimes she . . .’
‘And you have quite a few squabbles, heh?’
‘It’s true we don’t always understand each other. Our natures are so very different. We really have very little in common — too little, I think sometimes. It makes me afraid.’
‘Too little in common, is it? But what are you saying, my friend? You love each other, don’t you? And what more do you want than that?’
‘But. a man can’t do nothing but make love all day. “Sweet delights” have a way of turning pretty sour after a time. Not long ago I read a poem by Joseph Auslander. He speaks of “our dreary fashion of playing little games with passion.”’
‘Now don’t be twisting my meaning that way,’ broke in Mr. Bracken.
‘But it’s so easy to be carried away.’
‘Well, but good Lord, and why not, I’d like to know? You ought to thank God you still can be.’
‘The trouble is, though, that that sort of thing usually brings disillusionment afterward. And after you’ve been burnt a few times you can’t help growing more cautious in giving yourself.’
Mr. Bracken grunted. ‘Being burnt is seldom fatal. In fact, it may even do you a lot of good.’ He laughed, as at something uproariously funny, great silent heaves that shook his whole body. ‘But I think you’re inclined to be a bit sniffy, ain’t you?’
‘Not at all.’ Neal was beginning to bristle.
‘Now don’t you be thinking I mean to make fun of you. No, no — nothing of the kind. I see you take yourself very seriously. But there, you’ll get over that later on.’
‘I suppose love is the most important thing in life,’ said Neal slowly. ‘But it is n’t the only thing. There’s your relation with other people, and earning a living — and there’s art. A man has to do something.‘
‘Aye, that’s true enough. A man has to do something, if he’s got any gumption in him at all. But to deny love for these things, to put work, society, art, before love — ah, don’t fall into that error. A man must be crazy to do such a thing — unless he has to.’ The old man advanced a step and lifted his forefinger, almost menacingly.
‘ If I were God I would make denial of love the greatest sin of all, perhaps the only sin.’ He stopped short, and, breaking into a pitifully eager, selfdeprecating smile, he looked searchingly at Neal, as if seized with a suspicion that the other might be laughing at him.
‘I guess I feel as you do at bottom. But you know how it is. We waste ourselves straining after things that really mean nothing to us, and we never appreciate what we have got until we’ve lost it.’
‘Aye. Just take my word for it — if you’re lucky enough to have a real love offered you, don’t be stopping to look down its throat or ask a lot of questions. Snatch at it with both hands, and don’t let anything, not anything, get in your way — do you understand me, my friend? Whatever you do, don’t lay up regrets to haunt you when you’re old. Hold fast to that little girl of yours and be satisfied. Everything else is only children’s games to help pass the time of waiting — or to kill the pain of regret.’
‘But there must be, don’t you think, some solid foundation of understanding, of interests in common, if the love is to last?’
‘You talk very glibly of understanding, but what is it, after all ? My friend, no one ever understands anyone else — at least not so long as they keep on talking. The only understanding that’s worth a hoot comes in flashes — you may be total strangers passing in a crowd and know each other better in a single glance than people who live a whole lifetime together.’
Mr. Bracken walked back and forth a little. Then suddenly: ‘Listen. I’ll tell you something. Most young people think that love comes all complete from Heaven. They think all they have to do — if they think about it at all — is to get themselves legally tied together and then let Nature do the rest, while they each go on as usual about their own selfish concerns. But love — the only kind worth calling love — has got to be made, created; it’s a work of art, like a book, a painting, a song, only more so because it takes two to make it. And to make that kind of love you’ve got to have plenty of patience and faith, — maybe they’re the same thing, — but most of all you’ve got to be big.’
Again that humble eager little smile lit up his thin face. It was almost as if the old fellow were pleading with him, thought Neal. ‘But I guess I’ve preached enough for one day. You’ll be thinking I’m a tiresome old fool.’ Neal opened his mouth to dissent, but Mr. Bracken went right on. ‘But then it’s about the only real pleasure left us old ones, telling others how to live their lives — even though we’ve made a pretty sorry mess of our own.’ He moved toward the door. ‘ I ’ll get those magazines now. And do you like candy? I’ve got a big box. They would n’t let me eat sweets for a long time, but now the doctor says I can eat anything I like. These doctors . . .’ He chuckled and winked at Neal. ‘So I bought myself a big box — but you know, it’s a funny thing, I don’t seem to care much about it now.... I’ll be right back.’
Neal stared after him in numb astonishment. He does know, he thought. But how can he be so serene with that knowledge in the back of his head all the time? By midsummer he would be dead. And he knew it! But the old fellow knew something else, too, some secret of living which was still hidden from Neal. What was this knowledge that was stronger than the knowledge of pain and the death growing inside him?
‘Well, are n’t you ever going to say hello ? ’
Neal looked over the top of his book toward the voice.
’I must say you don’t seem very glad to see me,’ laughed Gay.
‘How long have you been standing there ? ’
‘ Five minutes.‘
‘That’s a lie.‘
‘Well, at leasl thirty seconds.’ She came in, but stopped in the middle of the room, where she stood gazing at him. ‘You look a lot better than the last time I saw you. How are you feeling?’
‘No, now really . . .’
‘I really do feel a lot stronger. But I never felt so weak in my life as I did the other day. Even talking was a tremendous effort.’
‘And still you insisted on trying to talk. You were so sweet. I wanted to hug you.’
‘Well, and who stopped you, I’d like to know?’
She wrinkled her nose at him. ‘Miss Tupp made me promise not to let you talk. She would n’t let me come in at all at first. But I hung around and kept bothering her so. . . . And now she just told me you were worse again afterward. She said you had a high temperature and much more pain for two days.’
‘Oh, don’t pay any attention to her.’
‘And all on my account.’
‘It was worth it.’
‘Oh, you! . . . It’s useless trying to talk seriously to you.‘
‘When I do try to talk seriously you shut me up.’
‘What was it you were going to tell me that day?’
Neal laughed. ‘Ho! I thought that was coming.’
‘It was nothing, really. I was only going to tell you that you are going to marry me as soon as I get on my feet, and that it won’t be long.’
Gay was suddenly looking at him through eyes shiny with tears. She turned and walked slowly to the bureau, where she set down her pocketbook. Then, moving very deliberately, she took off her coat and hat. Neal waited without impatience, laughing inside, as she gave a couple of little pokes at her hair, then turned again and, leaning against the bureau, stood looking at him.
‘ I read once that women always cry when they are proposed to,’ he said. ‘Tell me, why is that?’
She pulled a chair up close to the bed and sat down, bending forward with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her crossed hands. ‘I was n’t crying,’ she said. ‘And besides, I don’t call that a proposal. It sounded more like a statement, or a command.’ Her eyes were dancing gloriously now.
‘Call it what you like. But it’s a fact, anyway.’
She reached out and, taking his hand, gave it a little squeeze. ‘As soon as you can get around you must come and visit us. Mamma is going to take a cottage up at the Lake again. You ought to be able to come by the middle of the summer, don’t you think?’
‘Maybe by the end of July. It would be nice.’
‘We’ll go driving together, and I’ll take you out in the canoe. I ’m really a very good paddler now — remember how you used to laugh at me? And you can sit on the dock and watch me swimming. Maybe before the summer’s over you could go in, too.‘
‘That’s one of the things I look forward to most — to be able to swim, to feel water flowing over my skin. You don’t know what a privilege it will be just to be able to sit in a bathtub again. I often dream of it. But it seems almost too good to be true after all these years on my back.’
‘ You ’ll be able to, and soon. There’s no doubt of it.’
‘And will you let me have a little time every morning to write?’
Gay pretended to consider. ‘Well, I might let you have a few minutes.’
‘These last few days while I’ve been lying here I’ve been thinking of a novel I want to write. Shall I tell you about it?’
‘The main idea of it is the eternal quest for happiness — the quest that occupies every living thing every minute of its life from birth to death, whether it knows it or not. Of course every book is built round the same idea, though usually unconsciously. But in my book the seeking will be conscious. It will be divided into three parts, corresponding roughly to the movements of a symphony, with two main conflicting themes, the themes of love and death, running through the whole thing. I don’t mean death in a strictly literal sense so much as in Proust’s sense of our lives’ being a continual succession of little deaths. In the first part there will be a working out of these two themes in a series of incidents showing how the assurance and idealism of youth, with its hopes and dreams of love and its unlimited confidence in love’s power, are frustrated again and again by death, in the form of disillusionment, misunderstanding, despair. And this part will close on a note of wistful yearning and questioning.’
Neal spoke slowly, pausing every now and then for an appreciable interval while he searched for the exact word.
‘The second part will be more contemplative. It will be built up on slower, broader lines of action, and through it all will run a dark minor strain of brooding on the pain of daily death. Toward the end it rises to a mood of exalted serenity and faith. But this mood is shattered at its height by a sudden blind stroke of fate. And so the close will be in a rather subdued vein, on a note of ironic resignation. The last part I want to have rise gradually out of these dark depths into the light, into a grand reaffirmation of faith in the ultimate triumph of love over death.
‘Of course I’ll have to translate all this into terms of living people, people who talk and move convincingly. I can see the first two parts very clearly, but the last is still cloudy in my mind. I want it to work up to a big dramatic close, but I can’t see yet just how to do it. That will work itself out, though, I suppose, when the time comes. What do you think of it? I can hardly wait to begin work at it.’
Neal turned to Gay expectantly. Suddenly he knew that her approval meant a very great deal to him. But there was no doubt in his mind that she would approve.
Her eyes fell before his. Then abruptly she got to her feet and went slowly over to the bureau. He stared wonderingly while she fumbled in her pocketbook.
‘You must tell me frankly . . .’ he began.
Before he knew it she was halfway to the door. ‘Have to phone,’ she tossed over her shoulder. ‘. . . right back.’
Neal lay rigid, staring at the empty frame of the doorway. If she had reached out and slapped him he could not have felt more astonished, more hurt. So, all the while he had been telling her, she had been thinking of something else. Probably wishing he would hurry up and finish so she could go and telephone. His novel meant nothing to her. She’s interested in me only as a prospective husband, he thought, one who will play with her and make love to her — nothing more. He felt betrayed in the innermost depths of his being. His thoughts whirled in darkness round his dying dream.
He had no idea how long she had been gone. She came in laughing.
‘By the way, I meant to tell you,’ she said, ‘Phil Vallin is yelling up a party to go for a cruise on his yacht. They’ll be gone two months and he asked me to go.’
Neal looked at her blankly, still loo much preoccupied with his disappointment to comprehend. Then in a flash he saw it all. So that was why she had gone to telephone — to talk to Phil.
‘When do you go?’ he said. His voice sounded brittle, remote.
She stopped short and looked at him curiously. He noticed that she was carrying something in the cup of her hand, but could not see what it was.
I don’t know for certain when they’re going. Phil’s talking about sometime next week, though.‘
The tone in which she said this puzzled him. He searched her face for the hidden meaning. What had happened to them, anyway? But this was impossible! It was the same face, the same eyes, nose, and mouth, even the same little smile at the corner of her mouth, yet somehow it was different, oh, so different — there was now a coldness, an aloofness, where a few minutes ago there had been only tenderness. She stayed very still in the middle of the room, head drooping, her gaze apparently fixed on what she held in her hand. What was it, he wondered. But what had come over them both? They had been so close, so sure of each other. He would have sworn they could never be separate again. Yet here they were, staring like strangers. He wanted to say to her, ‘Let’s not be silly again, Gay.’ But the words would not come. He was changed too, frozen hard.
Something hard and immovable was standing there between them, more impenetrable than any wall of stone. Was it pride, merely? It was as if a spell had been put upon them, as if they had both been turned to stone — for denial of their love, perhaps, he thought in a flash of ironical whimsy, remembering Mr. Bracken. Yet she knew he loved her, and he knew she loved him.
This stiff silence was rapidly growing unbearable. What was going on inside that head, whose outer curves were so familiar to him? He realized with a shock that he had not the slightest idea. And she was nearer to him than any other person on earth! He shuddered in a kind of panicky terror as it came over him how ineluctably alone and separate he and she, and everyone, really were. But they could not go on in this moveless silence any longer. Something had to happen or in another minute he would begin to shout or laugh. Yet he knew deep down that he would do nothing of the sort.
Suddenly something else that Mr. Bracken had said came back to him: ‘Love, the only kind worth calling love, has got to be made, created . . . a real love is a work of art . . . but you’ve got to be big . . Yes, it was so. A real love was to be won only through pain and renunciation, through much sweating of blood. Was he big enough? But was it worth all the effort, all the torment? Suppose it meant the sacrifice of something deep down, the betrayal of your innermost integrity?
Neal found himself staring at the points of the small bow on the front of Gay’s dress formed by the crossed ends of her white piqué collar. They made him think of wings. But the bow had been twisted askew and the ends crumpled, probably by the pressure of her coat. And as he gazed he saw her standing before her mirror just before she came out that afternoon, pulling the bow into position, twisting, patting it till it was just so, and then pinning it in place with that small square of chrysoprase he himself had given her, and all the while smiling at her reflection in happy anticipation of his pleasure on seeing her.
But what was this precious pride of integrity worth to him in the presence of this hurt in her eyes? ’It is n’t easy, is it, Gay?’
Gay looked up at him, her eyes wide and very serious. For a moment they explored each other’s face, then she dropped her gaze again to her hand. Turning abruptly, she went to the bureau, where she stood apparently looking for something which was not there. Then she came back to the small table by the bed and, taking two chocolate candies from her hand, placed them on the prescription pad which Miss Tupp kept there. The candies had left a smudge of chocolate on the palm of her hand. Neal wanted to laugh and cry at the same time as she looked round in helpless indecision. But when she began to lick the chocolate off her hand his laughter suddenly burst forth. She smiled back at him through her fingers.
‘I was talking to a friend of yours,’she said. ‘The old man — he’s passing around a box of candy and says he’ll bring you what’s left in a little while — if there is any left. I thought I ’d better bring these while I could. I had mine outside.’
‘Why do we always have to hurt each other?’ He reached out and took her hand. ‘If you really want to go on the cruise, I won’t mind. But no, I will mind, — I’ll miss you like the devil, of course, — but I want you to do only what you want to do. And the change might do you a lot of good.’
‘I have no intention of going. I told Phil right off. I would n’t think of leaving you, especially now.’
‘But I thought . . .’
‘I just wanted to see what you’d say. It was silly of me, but I wanted you to get all excited and tell me I could n’t go. And then you only said, “When are you going?”—just as if you did n’t care whether I went or not.’
‘But that phone call?’ ‘Stupid! There wasn’t any phone call. You thought I was n’t interested in your novel, did n’t you? But it was n’t so. Only I was afraid if I stayed another second I’d start bawling like a baby — and I hate women who cry all the time.’
‘For heaven’s sake, why should you cry?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I guess because it seemed so . . . so . . . that you should feel that way after all you’ve been through . . .’
Neal laughed. ‘But just think how Beethoven suffered, and Mozart, and, for that matter, every great artist. Why, an artist has to suffer before he can create anything really worth while. . . . Life’s a queer business, is n’t it?’
Suddenly that little crumpled bow on her breast had somehow gathered into itself all the ineffable pathos and mystery of the entire universe, and for a single breathless second he went journeying out through eternity: He saw countless billions of living identities, sentient beings all, — human, subhuman, and perhaps superhuman too, — all groping ineffectually through a maze of fears and desires for countless ages past and to come, each one an individual consciousness pursuing its unique illusion, driven incessantly by needs whose satisfaction was of supreme importance to itself. . . .
‘Just think of all the couples like us who are groping blindly toward some bright ecstasy of contact — so anxious to please each other, and yet somehow always getting tangled up in misunderstandings, hurting each other in spite of themselves. . . . Why is it?’
‘We can’t expect to have things go smoothly all the time. There must be some bumps or we should n’t appreciate what we have.’
‘Yes, but how about all those who never have anything but bumps? Or perhaps one little moment, at best a handful of moments, of imperfect happiness bought by a lifetime of pain and doubt? It seems so futile, so monstrously cruel. Why must it be so ?’
‘You must know there is no answer.’
‘Oh yes, I know. But I can’t help wondering, just the same. It’s the way I’m made, I guess. It’s a need to seek, to explore the darkness that surrounds and shuts us in — a need to know, not because knowing matters in itself, but because we must keep on growing, looking for light, like the seed that seeks the sun and grows into a flower or a tree. “Ripeness is all.” Shakespeare knew.’
‘Well, then, why can’t you be content, like a flower, just to live in the sun and enjoy life while you can?’
‘Maybe because I’m not a flower. But I wonder if we ever shall be able to live free and easy without these perpetual misunderstandings. Maybe after we’ve lived together for a while . . .’
‘But you’ll always be a mystery to me. You’re like a bubble. One minute I think I know you and I reach out toward you, and poof—you’re a mystery again.’
‘I suppose it’s inevitable. In the end we’re alone and we might as well accept it. Yet I can’t help trying, just the same. It’s one of the fundamental ironies of life. Our heads may know that we can never escape from ourselves, but our hearts refuse to believe it. . . . The merest commonplace, of course, but immediately behind it lies the Ultimate Mystery.’
Neal heard a low gurgle and looked up. Gay’s head was nodding slowly with an air of grave acquiescence, but laughter was spilling from her eyes. He grinned.
‘Here I am, at it again. I guess I’m incurable.’
‘You’re looking for the Holy Grail.’
Neal stared. Did she really understand, after all?
‘But you’ll never find it. You can’t, because it does n’t exist, except in your head. Why can’t you be satisfied with what you have?’
‘What is life but restlessness? Everything, from Orion to the electron, is constantly on the move searching for something, something unimaginable which perhaps, as you say, does n’t even exist.’
Mr. Bracken appeared in the doorway. ‘Will you let me break in on you a minute? I brought what’s left of the candy.’
Gay went to take the box and several magazines which he had under his arm.
‘I see you two are already acquainted,’ said Neal.
‘Sure, we ’re old friends,’ he chuckled.
Gay stayed talking with him at the door for a time. His old gray face actually glowed with grateful pleasure. Neal watched them, thinking that he who stood there smiling would never again see autumn leaves shining in the sun. Long before the leaves began to fall he would be lying in his narrow box, staring sightless into blackness, all the wealth of practical wisdom nowstored inside that head snuffed out as if it had never existed. Or did the personality go on at some other level of existence? Anyway, the three of them could still talk and laugh now, and perhaps that was the only thing that really mattered. . . . But it was simply impossible to grasp the whole wonder of merely being alive!
Mr. Bracken went away.
‘He’s a nice old man,’ said Gay. ‘I like to talk to old men. But I always feel so sorry for them.’
‘He has cancer. The doctors give him only three months.’
Her eyes were suddenly full of tears. As she turned away, Neal marveled that she should be so touched by the knowledge that that old man, whom she had never laid eyes on until a few minutes before, had only three more months to live. Gay walked slowly to the window, stopping by the far side, where she stayed half-turned toward him but looking down into the street.
A jumble of city sounds came up from below. Presently he knew by the sudden alertness of her expression that something down there had caught her attention. He wondered what it was. She was absorbed, utterly lost in the feeling of the moment. Mr. Bracken was forgotten, he himself, the hospital, everything. If he could only get free from his own mental top-heaviness and live wholly in the present like her, without calculation or doubt! Perhaps if he watched her long enough he would some day learn her secret.
Then all at once Neal was aware that something wonderful had happened to him. The room was suddenly full of light and he saw with new eyes, as if a veil had been lifted. As he gazed at those familiar features, all of whose charms and dear deficiencies he thought he knew so well, he realized that he had never really seen her until this instant. Why, she was beautiful beyond any words!
She turned impulsively to him. Her eyes were dancing, her mouth was opening to tell him. But what she saw in his face made her stop short. Her eyes sobered, then flamed with unbelievable tenderness. Neal caught his breath in wonder and awe. For at least a minute they stayed so, without speaking, yet knowing each other more profoundly than ever before. Then Neal heard himself laughing out.
‘If you don’t come here and kiss me right away,’ he said, ‘I’ll bust into a thousand pieces.’
She came to him and, bending, touched his forehead with her lips. He tried to draw her closer, but she withdrew just beyond his reach.
‘I want a real one,’ he begged.
‘Nope, not to-day,’ she laughed, shaking her head emphatically. ‘When? To-morrow?’
‘Maybe. If you’re very good. But I ’m taking no chances on making you worse again.’
‘All right, then, I’ll wait till tomorrow. But come closer — I just want to touch you.’
She reached down and took his hand. ‘Why, your hand is cold as ice. Do you feel all right?’
‘Sure. Just a bit tired, perhaps.’
‘I’ve stayed too long. I’m going right away.’
He was about to urge her to stay longer, but checked the words. All at once he was conscious that he felt very sleepy. He could hardly keep his eyes open.
When she was gone, Neal lay with his eyes shut. Funny, but as soon as he closed his eyes he no longer felt sleepy. Slightly dizzy and very weak, but he would have to expect that for a few days yet. His mind, however, was curiously alert. It was pleasant to lie perfectly still and let his thoughts dart where they would, dipping, soaring, swerving abruptly, like swallows.
Yes, this was the only understanding worthy of the name, a communion of spirit through the blood, through pure feeling. The understanding of the head was vanity and illusion, a barren mockery. . . . This feeling that filled him entirely, he knew it now — this was what he had always been waiting for, the unconscious goal of all his seeking and striving. Here was no vanity or illusion; here at last was something real, perhaps the only real thing in life, something to cling fast to, something in which he could lose himself without loss of integrity. And was n’t that just what everyone was looking for at bottom? . . . No more straining to find answers where there could be no answers. Somehow all doubt, all questioning, had ceased, and he knew with absolute certainty: Love is enough! It is enough for her, and who am I that I should think I have to demand more from life? This is light enough for me.
Neal heard a step. He opened his eyes to see Miss Tupp entering the room. He smiled and opened his mout h to receive the thermometer. Closing his eyes again, he was conscious of the tips of her fingers touching his wrist. Suddenly he got the impression that she was finding his pulse not entirely as it should be. He hoped he was not going to run a temperature again — she would not let him see Gay to-morrow. He looked at her as she drew the thermometer from his mouth. But she turned aside so that he could not see her face.
‘Have you any pain?‘ she asked, after a long and impressively silent interval.
‘My knee has started to ache a little. And I have a bit of pain in my chest. But I feel all right otherwise.’
Miss Tupp shut the window, then went and lifted the covers to look at his feet.
‘Can you feel this?’ she said, squeezing the toes of his left foot.
‘Feel what? I don’t feel anything.’
Her face grew grave. She covered his feet quickly and went out. What was it? Oh, well, he was n’t going to worry about it. She was such a fuss-box sometimes.
When you came right down to it, he reflected, everything you did was merely a snatching at pretty bubbles that burst as soon as you touched them, or a shouting to bolster up your courage, and all was equal, and nothing mattered or everything mattered, depending on how you looked at things. Gay knew, all women knew in their heart of hearts. Women were so much wiser, so much more practical, than men. Men put on a solemn air and spouted their fine logic, but women — at least those who rested content in their instinctive womanhood — cut through all this vapor to the core of things and guessed the answer immediately by some primitive earth wisdom which men had lost — if they ever had it. Women seemed to lose it, too, as soon as they became infected with the disease of male restlessness and ambition. Thank Heaven, Gay was too wise for that.
He smiled, recalling how near they had come to quarreling. And for what? He could not even remember. In imagination he was talking to her again: —
‘I’ve been so stupid, Gay. Try to be patient with me. You know I’m just like a clam — or an oyster — the way I close up tight inside my shell at the slightest jolt.’
‘But oysters sometimes have pearls.’
‘Yes, if there is a grain of sand to irritate them. Ho! You are my grain of sand.’
‘And your novel will be the pearl.’
‘No. You are also the pearl. But for you I’d be only an oyster, indistinguishable from a million other oysters. And an oyster, in itself, is not very pretty.‘
He laughed and wished she were here now so that he could tell her. To-morrow he would. And she would laugh at him; he could almost hear her now. And he would say, ‘Whenever you see that oyster look coming into my eyes, just laugh at me, will you?’ Her laughter was the anchor that kept his bubble from losing itself in the clouds.
The pain in his chest was increasing rapidly. He also began to have trouble getting enough breath. He wished Miss Tupp would come back. He was on the point of calling her when she came in. She carried a hypodermic needle.
‘How is the pain — in your chest, I mean ? ‘
‘It’s getting worse all the time. What do you think it is?’
‘This ought to relieve it.’
Gratefully he breathed in the fresh clean smell of the alcohol. The needle pricked into his arm. The stuff burned a little as it went in. Just as she withdrew the needle Dr. Yerd, the House Surgeon, came in. He felt Neal’s pulse, then pulled a stethoscope out of his pocket and listened impassively as he moved the end of it slowly over his chest. After that, Miss Tupp uncovered Neal’s left foot again.
‘Can you move your toes?’ said Dr. Yerd.
Neal tried, but it was as if he had no toes on that foot. He studied Dr. Yerd’s face anxiously, but could tell nothing of his thoughts. Miss Tupp covered his foot again; then she and Dr. Yerd went out. She closed the door after her. Why had she closed the door? She knew he did n’t like being shut in this way. Something had gone wrong, that was plain. What was it? Then he remembered something: that woman across the hall a couple of months ago — she had been getting along so well after an operation, was expecting to go home in two more days, but something had happened to her, and within a few hours she was dead — embolus, they had called it.
Is that what has happened to me? But it would be too funny, after all my fine talk to-day. Fear suddenly gripped him. Is this the end?
Miss Tupp came back soon, shutting the door behind her. She drew up a chair and sat with her finger on Neal’s wrist.
‘How is the pain now?’
‘About the same. But it’s harder to get my breath.’
He wanted to ask her, but did n’t dare. This could n’t happen to me, he kept saying to himself over and over. Life could n’t be so cruel. But reason kept prodding him: Yet it does happen to others, every day, every minute of the day, somewhere. Why not to me? At last he could bear the uncertainty no longer.
‘Is it . . . is it anything serious?’
‘Now don’t you worry. Just close your eyes and try to relax.’
The tone in which she said this brought him some comfort. She did n’t sound worried. She seemed almost cheerful. He smiled inwardly. That tone of brisk professional cheerfulness had so often amused him.
His gaze, which had been fixed pleadingly upon her face, was caught by a beam of light. The waning sun had come round to strike directly on the two chocolate candies which still rested on the prescription pad just where Gay had placed them. Was it a sign, an omen that he would not die? He snatched at the notion eagerly and, though he scoffed at himself for being so childishly superstitious, felt more cheerful all the same. He nodded toward the candies.
‘You’d better move them out of the sun. They might melt.’ She moved the pad. ‘Won’t you have some? There’s a box over there,’ he said.
She shook her head negatively, and all at once a new doubt st ruck him like a blow. Would she tell him the truth? To-morrow the sun would be shining in that window again just as it did now, but would he be here to see it? Black terror descended on him again.
Death — it too was real! Was that the final answer? And was he going to learn that answer now, so soon?
‘O God,’ he breathed, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die! I’ve just learned how to live! . . .’
Ten minutes later Neal was dead.