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Thorne Smith


The Mystery of the Maternity Ward

THE nurse decided it was high time for the pseudo-Mrs. Willows to favour her baby with its first nursing. The baby, from the noises it was making, was evidently of the same opinion. Together they entered Tim's room. It was still quite early in the morning. Tim was sound asleep.

With the baby in her arms the nurse approached the bed and looked down. Then every vestige of colour and intelligence left her face. Even the baby stopped his bawling and looked a little shocked as well as disappointed. The nurse drew a scandalised breath and passed a hand across her forehead.

"Am I mad?" she asked herself. "Have I qualified as a full-fledged nurse after years of grim, grubby effort only to be deprived of my reason? I had better sit down on something quite safe and solid and pull myself compactly together."

She quietly left the bed, carefully sat down in a comfortable chair, and went into a huddle with the baby. This thing had to be thought out, and perhaps in this crisis two heads would be better than one. With fingers that trembled slightly she undid the infant's swaddling clothes and examined every inch of its body. Feeling somewhat reassured she proceeded to redress the baby. She had made no mistake regarding the child's sex. She was still capable of differentiating between the two. This was something. This was a lot. The nurse felt encouraged, but in no sense optimistic. She was still quite mad so far as the parentage of this child was concerned.

What the nurse had seen when she had looked down on that bed had been more than enough to make an entire hospital staff doubt its sanity. To state it baldly, what the nurse had seen was a man, a gross, self-satisfied man badly in need of a shave, sleeping luxuriously in a bed in which a wife and mother should have been. In fact, where a wife and mother must still be or else the entire universe was terribly, terribly wrong, and there was hope in neither science nor religion, and this baby was probably not a baby at all but a snake in the grass or the man in the moon or a couple of other guys. The nurse began to giggle nervously, bouncing the baby the while with increasing vigour. Why shouldn't she sing and dance and make a morning of it? Perhaps it would be amusing to find the head nurse and tear off all her clothes. It might be still funnier, though, to set fire to all the beds and squirt the extinguisher in the house doctor's eyes. The nurse was not sure. She was convinced, though, that she was getting worse, getting madder and madder by the minute. With a violent mental effort she pulled herself together and tried to fix her mind on the problem. To her eternal undoing the problem was sitting up in bed. Tim, wild-eyed and incredulous, was frantically examining his person.

"My God!" he cried, with a delighted smile. "I'm a man again. Fancy that, nurse."

"I don't care what you are," the nurse replied aggressively, "this baby's got to be nursed."

"I hope you don't think I'm going to nurse it?"

"You certainly are," replied the nurse. "You bore this child and now you're going to nurse it."

"What with?" asked Tim triumphantly.

The nurse paid no attention. She had lost her belief in everything. She clung tenaciously to one fact: this object in that bed, whether it was fish, flesh, or fowl, had given birth to a baby, and she, the nurse, was going to see that it suckled its baby or died in the attempt. Resolutely she approached the bed and thrust out the baby at Tim.

"Suckle this young," she said fiercely, "and make it snappy."

"What do you mean, suckle this young?" demanded Tim. "Have some sense, nurse."

"No," said the nurse, "I won't. I once had a little sense and this is what happened. It's much nicer being mad."

"Couldn't you get one of these mothers round here to lend the little chap some breakfast?" asked Tim. "Why not nurse it yourself?"

The nurse laughed sarcastically at this irregular suggestion.

"You must be a man," she replied. "You're so dull about such matters. Even if I could nurse that baby I wouldn't."

"Why not?" inquired Tim, shocked by the woman's bitterness. "I take that as very unfriendly, nurse."

"How do I know the thing is a baby?" she demanded. "It might be a lion or a tiger. It might suddenly turn into you."

"You embarrass me," replied Tim. "Let's change the subject."

"The subject doesn't need changing," said the nurse, beginning to laugh wildly. "I just changed the subject. See!" And she thrust the baby into Tim's face.

"Nurse, you're getting positively common," asserted Tim in a reproving voice. "What are we going to do about all this?"

"Want to know what I'm going to do?" demanded the nurse. "I'm going to take this child and chuck it out the window."

"My God! Don't do that!" cried Tim, springing from the bed.

He presented an appalling figure in his short hospital nightgown. The nurse took one look at him and then blinked rapidly as if trying to clear her eyes of some painful object that had lodged there.

"Why shouldn't I throw the child out of the window?" she asked. "You're not its mother."

"I know," retorted Tim, "but if you went about chucking through windows every child I didn't bear, the world would be littered with babies."

"Why should you care?" asked the nurse.

"I don't want to be a party to a murder," protested Tim.

"What you've done to me this morning," said the nurse, "is a whole lot worse than murder. Once I was a sane woman and an efficient nurse. Now I'm a gibbering idiot. I wish you could take a look at yourself. A regular scarecrow you are—a scarecrow with long, skinny toes."

Even at that tense moment Tim could not help wondering why his toes should always be singled out for criticism.

"What's the matter with the toes?" he demanded, turning them up for inspection.

"Everything," replied the nurse. "They should have been fingers. They look like withered asparagus."

"God!" gasped Tim. "How revolting. Try to be a little nicer."

She thrust the child into Tim's arms and left the room. While she was gone Sally came rushing in. She was every inch a woman. She took one long look at her husband, then snatched the baby from him.

"You certainly look a sight," was all she said. "Those toes."

"A hell of a lot of gratitude you show me for bearing your baby for you," he retorted.

"Ram is responsible for all," replied Sally, busily preparing to nurse the baby. "He's changed us back."

Tim disappeared behind the screen as the nurse entered the room. She was carrying a suitcase.

"Your wife must have sent this over," she began, then took one look at Sally. A piercing shriek followed.

"Oh, God, how did you get that way?" she shouted. "He's switched on me again."

She ran out of the room and fled screaming down the hall. Within a very few minutes the head nurse and the house surgeon arrived. Sally ducked behind the screen and pushed Tim into view.

"How did you manage it?" asked the surgeon.

"What?" asked the startled Tim.

"How did you manage to sneak into this hospital?" continued the surgeon, keeping a strong grip on himself.

"I didn't," replied Tim. "I've been here all the time."

"Then you must be a woman," said the surgeon.

"I am not," said Tim.

"You are so," snapped the surgeon. "Didn't you bear a child?"

"I did," replied Tim. "But I've just recently had a change of sex."

"I'll have to look into this," asserted the surgeon.

"You'll do nothing of the sort," snapped Tim.

"But you must be examined."

"I think you can trust me in this matter," replied Tim, with some show of dignity.

"But I'd like to see for myself." The surgeon's voice sounded somewhat wistful.

"Sir," replied Tim, "you don't know what you're asking. I'm afraid your interest is more personal than professional."

The surgeon left the room.

"This will all have to be hushed up," said the head nurse. "If you wanted to go gallivanting about I can't understand why you picked out a maternity ward. There's more here than meets the eye, I'm afraid."

"Lots," replied Tim. "And if you don't hurry up and leave this room you'll see it all. I'm going to get dressed."

The head nurse left the room and Sally reappeared. She put the baby down on the bed and took Tim into her arms. His own arms went round her.

"It's good to get you back," Sally murmured. "You horrid old thing."

"I've been through a lot," said Tim.

"I know you have," replied Sally, "but I'll make it up to you. I'll bear you a set of twins."

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