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Thorne Smith


False Alarm

BY the time Sally had driven her chattering husband to the hospital she herself was a nervous wreck, while he had abandoned words in favour of weird noises. Forgetting utterly the rôle of prospective father she should have been playing on this occasion, she left Tim in the car and rushed through the entrance and addressed the reception clerk. That gentleman was busily engaged in sorting a seemingly endless stack of cards, from which he refused to lift his eyes when Sally spoke to him in the high, flurried tones of a hard-pressed woman.

"My husband wants to have a baby," she told the clerk.

"If he succeeds I'll give him an apple," the clerk answered, selecting a fresh card and scrutinising it closely. "It's quite out of the usual. In fact it seems silly. Your husband should be on the receiving end of the line. Now, if it were you, madam, I might be able to do a little something."

"No," protested Sally. "It's urgent. You don't understand."

"It's you who don't understand," put in the clerk. "If your husband is old enough to be married he should certainly know by this time that he can't have a baby. Perhaps you'd like his mind looked into. We have several fine alienists here, but, unfortunately, no paternity ward."

"But he's going to have a baby," said Sally helplessly. "I know it."

"Go back, lady," replied the clerk in a bored voice, "and tell him not to be so stupid. He can't steal your stuff and he should have better sense than to try it. He'll just be wasting a lot of time and it will all come to nothing."

"But he's having it out there in the automobile," protested Sally.

"Come, come," murmured the clerk. "This is going too far. I'd go away if I were in your place, or somebody'll come along and stick you in the psychopathic ward."

In the face of this possibility Sally remained silent. And all the time Tim was probably having his baby alone in the automobile. She was afraid to go back. Presently the clerk looked up and started slightly.

"Where did that woman get to?" he demanded. "Are you the gentleman who wanted to have a baby?"

"Are you mad, sir?" replied Sally in Tim's voice.

"I'm afraid so," answered the clerk. "What do you want?"

"My wife wants to have a baby," said Sally.

"Well, thank God for that, at any rate," remarked the clerk. "Had a woman in here just now whose husband was insisting on having a baby. Wouldn't take no for an answer. Fancy that. Poor sap doesn't know when he's well off. If men had to have babies there wouldn't be any sex life left."

"Perhaps Mr. Volstead would introduce an amendment for birth prohibition," Sally suggested.

"It would be a damn sight more popular than his other one," remarked the clerk. "But what about this wife of yours? How does she want to have this baby?"

"I didn't know there was a choice," said Sally, a little timidly.

"No, no," replied the clerk impatiently. "You don't seem to understand. I mean, does she want to have it in the ward, in a semi-private room, or do you want a special room for her?"

"Oh, I've already made all arrangements," said Sally. "Just telephoned them in. My name's Willows. Wife's Mrs. Sally Willows. Private room and all."

At this moment Tim came struggling up the stairs

"Say, Buddy," he called out. "Where's a good place to have a baby around here?" Then he spied Sally. "Oh, there you are," he continued irritably. "I could have had the whole Grand Army of the Republic out there in that damned car for all you cared."

"Is this your wife?" asked the clerk.

"It is," replied Sally, without any show of pride.

"Then ask her to stop smoking that cigar in the hallway, will you. It's against the rules."

Tim disgustedly tossed the cigar stub away and substituted a new one for it.

"Any objections to my chewing on the end of this thing?" he demanded.

The clerk looked slightly dazed. This Willows outfit struck him as being somewhat hard-boiled.

"No," he replied politely. "If your husband can stand for it I guess I can."

"He'll damn well have to stand for it," rasped Tim. "Think of what I have to stand for. Bet you wouldn't go through with it. All you have to do is to sit pretty and make a lot of poor women have a lot of poor babies. You're virtually a murderer, you are."

"Calm yourself, madam," said the clerk hastily. "I assure you I'm not responsible for all those babies."

"There you go," snapped Tim. "What did I tell you? You wash your hands of the whole business. You just sit pretty and——"

A woman, howling for "mommer," was dragged by at this moment between two sweating relatives. Tim forgot what he was saying and began to mop his forehead.

"My God!" he gasped. "This is worse than capital punishment. The Last Mile isn't in it with this charnel house."

The reception clerk summoned a nurse, and Tim, with Sally in attendance, was led to an elevator and thence to his private room. Sally was told to wait about in the hall until called for. She withdrew somewhat timidly and stood outside Tim's door, studying her strange surroundings. She felt very excited and at the same time low in her mind. Something fundamental in her nature kept telling her that by rights she should be having this baby. In a sort of dim way she seemed to realise that she was better equipped to go through with this thing than was Tim. In addition to this she felt that she really would like to bear Tim a child if only to be able to tell him he didn't know what pain and suffering really meant. She would have got a lot of presents and petting if she'd had this baby. And Sally wanted presents and petting. She didn't like being a father. She wanted to be a woman—herself—as nature had intended her to be. Talk about the "Well of Loneliness," she herself was in a bottomless pit. And she felt terribly afraid for Tim. She was actually suffering for him. If she could only change places now with the stupid old thing. It was terrible for him to have a baby. He was much too nervous and fastidious. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Tim's deep voice raised in bitter protest.

"For God's sake," she heard him saying, "you're not going to do a thing like that to me, are you?"

"But I have to," replied the nurse impatiently. "Don't be so stupid, Mrs. Willows."

"Perhaps I am," said Tim, "but if I had even so much as suspected you were going to subject me to this crowning humiliation you'd never have dragged me within a mile of this hospital. Who thought up this little indignity?"

"It has to be done, Mrs. Willows."

"Well, go ahead and do it, but please watch your step. This isn't a bit funny. What are you laughing at?"

"You're the silliest patient I've ever had," came the nurse's voice. "You don't seem to know a thing about this business."

"I know much more than I ever thought I would," replied Tim. "I could write a whole book about it and if I did I would strongly advise all women to leave their husbands at the altar, to have nothing whatever to do with them."

"Don't make me laugh, Mrs. Willows, and do hold still. I'd hate to hurt you."

"I believe I'd die if you did. Do you think I'm going to die? I wouldn't like to die, but I think I am. I think I'm going to die like a dog—like a dirty dog."

"You won't die, Mrs. Willows. They seldom do."

The woman who had entered the hospital calling lustily for "mommer" now began to summon the entire family at the top of her voice. It was a hair-raising sound. Even Sally shivered.

"That poor woman is most certainly dying like a dog," she heard Tim saying. "Don't tell me she can possibly live after making such sounds as those."

"Oh, she's all right," said the nurse reassuringly. "That woman will have her baby like an old veteran. We have her here almost every spring. Yelling like that is a tradition in her family. It's a good sign."

"Do you think I ought to yell a bit?" asked Tim.

"Not unless you feel like it," replied the nurse.

"I want to do what's right, you know," went on Tim. "You see, I shouldn't be having this baby at all."

"No?" said the nurse politely.

"Oh, no," replied Tim. "It's not in my line. I'm really a man."


"Yes indeed, nurse. I really am a man, all except my body and that belongs to my wife. It's all very confusing."

"You'll feel lots better in a little while, Mrs. Willows. Such ideas will pass away. There, I'm all finished. I'll have you ready in a couple of shakes."

Doctors, internes, and nurses. Nurses of various types and classes. Scared faces waiting on the dictates of inexorable nature. Adventure, expectancy, and stark primitive anguish. Triumph and safety. Shattered hopes and muffled hearts. Life and Death impatiently brushed elbows along the corridor of that ward. And men, like poor dumb beasts, waited guiltily wherever they were put, and vowed to themselves that if their wives only came safely through, they'd be much better husbands and try to understand the talkies. Then a quick change. With mother and child going well, off go those poor dumb beasts to receive grog and congratulations. Many a fearful hangover has been the result of a successful birth. Sally began to feel that every nurse that passed her was looking at her with scornfully accusing eyes. It wasn't fair. Women wanted to have babies just as much as men. As a matter of fact no end of women looked upon a baby as the ball to the chain—an anchor to keep the irresponsible old hulk from drifting into forbidden ports. And who could blame them? mused Sally. Men and women were merely animals that put their fur coats in storage or pawn instead of shedding them all over laps and landscapes.

Tim was being wheeled out on a table. A half-smoked cigar was clenched between his teeth. When he saw Sally he held out a hand and took hers.

"Just like an hors-d'œuvres wagon," he observed. "Only I'm more like a high tea. This is Baby's first ride."

"Pretty soft," said Sally, stooping down to kiss him.

"Yes?" drawled Tim, looking at his wife vindictively. "I'm glad you think so. You and Mr. Ram have got me in a nice fix. A pretty pair, the both of you. Like hell. And don't be too set up. How do you know you're the father of this child? Did you ever see our ice man? He has the loveliest moustache. Like the horns of a dilemma. One end points to heaven, the other goes to hell. I chose the low road and I hope you're satisfied. Tell my chauffeur to shove off for the delivery department or I'll begin to bawl for mommer."

Sally kissed the loquacious man again, but said nothing. As if fascinated she followed the table down the long hall. Tim kept telling anyone who would listen that these damn doctors and nurses were putting him on the spot as well as taking him for a ride. "Don't ever get with child," he warned a venerable gentleman with a flowing beard. "They'd cut Niagara Falls off as quick as wink." The old gentleman shuddered and repeated a few lines from the Talmud.

At the doors of the operating room Tim rose on one elbow and looked spitefully back at Sally.

"Don't think I'm reconciled to this, my fine lady," he sang out. "Don't think I bear child willingly. No, I tell you. A thousand times, no. Never will I be satisfied until I see you on one of these damn things. Shove off, nurse. California, here I come."

The doors closed on the still vociferating Tim, and Sally, feeling a trifle embarrassed, stood as close to them as possible.

"Hello, boys," she heard him saying to the doctors. "Stand and deliver! Snap to it."

There were a murmur of voices and the sound of swiftly moving feet, then Tim was speaking again.

"Look out there!" she heard him exclaim. "Quit mawling and hauling me about or I'll call this whole business off. What on earth are you doing with my feet? Leave those feet alone. You don't bear child with your feet. And I don't want to go bicycle riding, anyway. I suppose you'll be putting me on an electric horse next. Ouch! What you doing now? Well, of all the damn things. Have a heart, Doc."

"Would you be satisfied with two very small babies or would you rather have one fairly large one?" Tim demanded.

"Madam," replied the doctor, exasperated beyond measure, "I don't care if you have a yak so long as you have something."

"What!" Sally heard Tim shout. "A yak? What a queer mind you have, Doctor. Fancy having a yak. Is there any possibility of that? By God, there is. That devil, Ram, is capable of anything. Get me out of here, nurse. Quick. I don't feel at all like having a yak to-day."

"Calm down, Mrs. Willows," came the doctor's voice. "I was merely fooling."

"Sure," replied Tim. "I know you guys. You've got a swell sense of humour. You keep on asking me to do something down all the time. First it's bear down and then it's calm down. Next thing I know you'll be asking me to jump down. I'm not going to have that yak, that's all there is to it. Another day, perhaps. Might as well take me back now. Just what is a yak? I don't feel in the mood, anyway. I've changed my mind. That's a woman's privilege. Shove off, nurse. Are there any books in this dump?"

"Well, Mrs. Willows," said the doctor, "I can't very well make you have a baby."

"I'm afraid not, Doc.," replied Tim.

"Madam," came the voice of the doctor, "you're the hardest case that has ever come into my hands. Nurse, you should never have brought her in here in the first place. She isn't ready yet. Take her out and don't bring her back until you can get some sense into her head."

"Come on, nurse," said Tim. "Let's get ourselves out of his hands. I don't like the looks of this place. This obstetrician might get obstreperous. Try that when you're stewed, Doc."

Tim was wheeled back to his room and it was a matter of three days before he had his child. Those three days will never be forgotten by the staff of the maternity ward. Tim almost succeeded in disrupting the entire hospital. When Sally called on the morning of the third day she was met by the head nurse. Tim was not in his room.

"Where's the patient?" Sally demanded.

"Search me," the head nurse replied with a helpless toss of her hands. "We can't keep track of her, Mr. Willows. She might be anywhere in the hospital, for all we know. Last time I saw her she was playing pinochle with a couple of internes and smoking a big black cigar. She's a strange woman, your wife, Mr. Willows. We can't make her out. Seems to have absolutely no feminine instincts. Can't understand how she ever came to be having a baby. You'll have to say something to her. Indeed you will, sir. She's upsetting our hospital. We have to keep an eye on her all the time to see that she doesn't go lugging somebody else's baby off to her own room. Says she's practising up. Yesterday she had three of them at once. For a moment it looked as if she were trying to juggle them. And last night she stole some whisky from one of the laboratories and kept singing about someone who had made her what she was and who she hoped was satisfied. It's too bad, Mr. Willows, the way she goes on. Really it is."

Sally left the head nurse still talking and went in search of Tim. She found him at last, seated in a pantry-like arrangement, arguing passionately with two internes. In his hand were clutched some bills.

"What?" he snapped, glancing up from the table. "You back again?"

At the sight of Sally both of the internes rose.

"Mr. Willows," one of them began excitedly, "your wife is deliberately cheating us. She's got all our money and now she wants to play for our pants. When we tell her she's cheating she flies into a rage and tells us we're retarding her pregnancy. It's not fair. Look at all the money she has."

"It is fair," cried Tim. "You're not having a baby. I got to get something out of it, don't I?"

"We didn't ask you to have a baby, did we?" the interne shot back.

"Ask me to have a baby?" Tim laughed scornfully. "You'd have to chase me over seven counties to have a baby."

"And she keeps on changing her voice so rapidly that we don't know how many players are sitting in on the game," the other interne complained. "She gets us all rattled, Mr. Willows. Make her play fair."

Sally smiled in spite of herself and promised to make Tim behave. The upshot of it was that Tim grudgingly gave back to the internes a small percentage of his winnings and Sally got permission to take him out for a little walk.

"Take her for a long walk," urged the doctor. "In fact, Mr. Willows, we don't care how far you take her. If she wasn't your wife I'd suggest taking her down to the river and pushing her in. The other night she came barging into the operating room when a woman was having twins, and asked me if I had a nail file. Can you imagine that? And when I told her I hadn't she said I was a hell of a doctor. Last night she got one of our finest surgeons up at four o'clock in the morning just to find out whether she had a corn or an ingrowing toenail. A woman about to be a mother not knowing a simple thing like that ..."

Sally also left this person still talking and took the cause of dissension for a walk. The cause insisted on being taken to a movie and then complained loudly and bitterly because there was not sufficient room between the rows of seats.

"Don't they expect maternity cases ever to go to the movies?" Tim demanded. "There ought to be a law."

The picture was one of those charming underworld idyls in which everyone stood on the wrong spot and went riding in the wrong car. It was tastefully decorated with machine guns and dead bodies. In the midst of a particularly optimistic fusillade Tim emitted a gasp.

"That does it," he said. "Here comes baby. Oh, dear, what shall I do? Get me out of here, quick. Will you pardon me, mister? I'm going to have a baby. No. No. You'll have to do better than that. Get clean out into the aisle or I'll be having this baby in your lap. Hurry up, you lug."

It was like a bad dream for Sally. All Tim would do was to take frightened little hops and declare to the audience that he was going to have a baby. Somehow she managed to get him out of the place and into the automobile.

"A typical American birth," groaned Tim. "Bearing a baby to the music of machine guns. I suppose it will sleep on a sandbag and cut its teeth on a gat."

"Yes," agreed Sally, "and no doubt its favourite candy will be a nice box of bomb-bombs."

"Put your foot on it," pleaded Tim.

Ten minutes later they were back in the hospital and twenty minutes after that, to the relief of the entire organisation, Tim was delivered of his child and became by virtue of the achievement the first male mother on record.

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