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Authors: A. J. Cronin

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BOOK: A Pocketful of Rye
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The remark silenced me. Frank's letter had not erred. This little runt really had something rather out of the ordinary, but I fancied he knew it, which made me want to take him down.

‘I'll give you a game some time. There's a decent full-sized board in the playroom.'

‘Oh, good. Do you play much?'

‘Well, off and on, so to speak,' I temporized. ‘As a matter of fact, there's a café in the village where you can always get a first-class game.'

‘How splendid. I'd like that. Can we now?'

‘Later, young fellow. We've got to have a proper look at you first.'

He got up at once and I took him round the main house to the small dispensary that adjoined the ward. He was nervous and tried not to show it, but kept stealing glances at the instrument cabinet and the rows of reagents on the test bench. I felt that Matron had been wise putting him with his mother in the chalet and not in the ward. Stripped to the waist there wasn't much of him. Precious little, in fact, no credit to his late departed sire. Still, most of the kids that came to us were like that, pinched little city sparrows, so almost automatically, or perhaps because I wanted no reproaches from the Caterina, I went over him with extra care: lungs, heart, joints: I gave him a good half hour. In fact, as I put away my stethoscope, he said:

‘You took longer than Dr Moore.'

‘He's your doctor?'

‘He's Dr Ennis's assistant. At present anyway. He's leaving for Canada.'

Another one, I thought, trying to escape from that damned nationalized medicine.

‘How is Dr Ennis?'

‘Quite well … I think.' He looked away. ‘At least, sometimes.'

‘I see.'

He was still lying on the couch and I bent over and took another look at the slightly swollen cervical gland. Apart from that fairly common manifestation of T.B. in children, I had not found anything, certainly nothing in the least degree serious. But I wanted to make sure. A well-equipped radiography room opened off the dispensary. Ample funds at the disposition of the Maybelle Trust had ensured that this essential diagnostic unit was completely up to date. Of course, as a rule most of the kids were scared to death of it, so I prepared him as casually as I could. ‘You don't mind if we go next door and take a picture of your ribs?'

‘X-ray?' he said quickly.

‘Nothing to alarm you.'

‘Oh, I'm not alarmed, Dr Laurence.' He added quickly: ‘May I call you that?'

Trying to play it brave, I thought, and making a play with first names. I gave no answer.

We went in, and after drawing the heavy curtains I screened him thoroughly. He blinked and turned pale as the current sparked on but beyond that kept perfectly still, and when it was over he said:

‘That was a very interesting experience.'

I gave him a hard look: I didn't at all go for this precocious, Little Lord Fauntleroy line of talk.

‘What should interest you is that there isn't a single spot on either of your lungs. They're absolutely clear.'

‘I'm not surprised,' he said mildly. ‘I understand that what I'm suffering from is the King's evil. You know,' he added: ‘ Scrofula.'

‘Who put you on to that medieval rot?' I said sharply.

‘My friend the Canon. We discussed it during a chess session. And I suppose it is rot. We were inclined to doubt the efficacy of the royal touch … as a cure.'

What could you do with that, except give him another hard look. He was beginning to annoy me.

‘Your cure will be to obey my orders. And for pity's sake stop sounding off as if you'd just swallowed the Children's Encyclopedia, or I'll begin to think you're just a little toad.'

His face fell. I had hurt him, but he tried to smile.

‘Couldn't you make it a tadpole … that sounds nicer? And I haven't
swallowed
the Children's Encyclopedia, I've only read it once. I'm sorry, Dr Laurence, I can't help being brainy, it's a bit of curse, but in spite of it I hope you can put up with me. You see, although I didn't like you at first, I'm rather inclined to like you now.'

Good Lord, what was he giving me? But I had to know.

‘Why didn't you like me at first?'

‘When I saw that the rude Swedish hostess was your girl-friend.'

That seemed to me enough for one session.

‘Get dressed,' I said, and began to write up his case history. He was cathectic and underweight, but that would be taken care of, and the gland was not painful or in any way adherent. No point in keeping him in bed. I would do a von Pirquet and watch his temperature.

‘Just a minute. Roll up your sleeve. I'm going to make a little scratch on your arm.'

‘Is that the treatment?' he inquired anxiously.

‘No, a test. Your treatment is lots of fresh air, gallons of milk, plenty to eat, and obligatory rest periods after lunch.'

When I had finished with him it was almost noon, and I had just time to do my routine ward visit before lunch. The Swiss take
Mittagessen
early, and as this is the main meal of the day, Matron and I always had it together. Today, laid for four, with a big pot of African violets, that speciality of Swiss florists, as a centre piece, the table had an unusually festive air. Cathy, dressed in a plain blouse and skirt, was already there and after I had said a pleasant word to her I did not fail to compliment the old dragon.

‘Ja, it is goot to have
Gästes.
' She smiled at the female guest, who sat with a quiet humility on her right. ‘Ven we are without the child-ern we are so much alone.'

Hmm! She hadn't objected to being alone with me before.

As we began on the thick, vegetable, deliciously-cheesy soup, I said:

‘You'll be relieved, I'm not too unhappy about your boy, Cathy. We'll get him right for you.'

‘Ach, that is goot, Herr Doktor. But your cousin also needs your care. She tells me this morning of much suffering from her huspand's loss and other bad chances. She must surely stay, also with Dan-iel, till she is better, yes?'

‘Oh, of course,' I agreed, choking on a spoonful. ‘Most welcome.'

Cathy raised her eyes towards Matron, then lowered them.

‘Only if you'll let me help you.'

‘
Jawohl, meine
Caterina.' She leaned over to execute a little arm patting.
‘Aber nur ein wenig.
'

Well, well, I thought, there's certainly been some fast work by Caterina in the kitchen this morning – a deduction fully endorsed when the next course appeared, borne in by Rosa the maid, as though it were a flaming boar's head. After some quite professional tasting, rolling a large spoonful around her double dentures and smacking her lips, Matron leaned back in her chair and clapped her hands.

‘Wunderbar, Caterina! It is so goot, your meence.'

‘I'll make it any time you wish,' Cathy said modestly. ‘ It's very nourishing, and inexpensive.'

‘It is like,' Matron rolled another full forkful down the hatch, ‘… like a goulash, a ragout.'

‘My Dan was very fond of it.'

‘Ach, so, the poor huspand.'

‘You like it, Cousin Laurence?' For the first time since her arrival she gave me a direct look, blank, yet just possibly one quarter satirical.

‘Best Scotsman's meence I ever tasted.'

After a short silence, encouraged by that glance, though I did not at all care for the cousinly appellation, I said:

‘Perhaps you'd like a short run in the station wagon this afternoon. Get the hang of the countryside.'

‘No thank you.' She refused instantly. ‘Matron thinks I ought to rest this afternoon.'

‘Ja, is besser to rest,' Matron agreed. ‘After the journeyings.'

‘But why don't you take Daniel? You'd like that wouldn't you, Danny?'

‘Oh, enormously.'

‘Daniel must lie down too,' I said firmly. ‘I'm going to stretch him out on the balcony, all wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy.'

‘But ven he arises?' Matron persisted.

I was on the point of saying ‘no' when I realized that I must for the moment swim with the tide.

‘Well, we'll see,' I grunted.

Chapter Seven

If the fact is not already evident I wish firmly to establish that I have no addiction whatsoever towards children. During our ‘health walks' when two by two the little blighters make a dismal procession struggling up the hills in the rain, their thin transparent plastic capes flapping around their bare skinny knees, peering into the cow barns, grabbing an occasional common wild sorrel and shouting ‘Idlewise', stopping to piddle or have their noses blown, or to show me blisters on their heels, then bursting into shrill sporadic song, well, I'll admit to a shade of what might be called compunction. For the sake of my job, too, I have to make a show of interest and sympathy, even a heartiness so foreign to my nature that it almost makes me puke. So do not accuse me of more than a grudging effort to fulfil an obligation when I state that at three o'clock, after I had written my monthly report for the committee, I went up to the balcony where I had planked the Davigan offspring, quite prepared to take him for a drive. He was awake.

‘Have you come to unwrap the mummy?' He smiled.

‘You didn't sleep?'

He shook his head. ‘After your remark at lunch I've been pretending I was one of the Pharaohs and that you'd have to dig me out of the tomb.'

‘What did it feel like?'

‘Very cold.' He broke into a fit of laughter and gave me his hand. It was half frozen. The
bise
had risen and I hadn't covered him well enough.

‘Why didn't you call out for more blankets?'

‘I can't speak Egyptian.'

This was going to kill me.

‘Never mind,' I said. ‘We'll walk to the village and I'll buy you a hot drink.'

On the way down, having been landed with this chore, I felt I might legitimately turn it to advantage.

‘Daniel,' I said chummily. ‘ It's so long since I've been in Levenford. Is the Davigan Housing Estate still going strong?'

‘Oh, yes. Extremely strong.' He gave me his upward sideways look. ‘ But not for the Davigans.'

‘Why not?' I asked quickly.

‘Didn't you know? It's ancient history. Grandpa Davigan failed and went bankrupt.'

‘I can't believe it.'

‘Only too true, unfortunately. The bank called in the big lot of money he'd borrowed. Before the houses were finished. It was a fearful mess. Everything was lost.'

‘Good heavens, Daniel!' I exclaimed, masking my satisfaction, drawing him out more. ‘But surely your father … before he got ill … I mean, wasn't he connected with the Estate?'

‘He was employed there by the new owners. But only as a working mason.'

I had no need to pretend surprise. I was astounded. Admittedly old Davigan was bone stupid, but he was crafty and he had known his job. Obviously he had got out of his depth and been swallowed by some bigger fish.

‘Hard luck, Daniel.'

‘Hard up, you mean.' He spoke philosophically. ‘That's what the boys shout after me at school. But at least there'll be no more chewing the fat over it at home now Father isn't there. That was never ending.'

‘Was your father's a sudden illness, Daniel?' I inquired tactfully.

He seemed to shrink under the question, but glanced up again, this time sharply.

‘It wasn't an illness. He was killed … An accident. But would you mind, Dr Laurence, if we don't talk any more about this … it upsets me even to think of it.'

I scarcely knew where to look, suddenly feeling guilty and ashamed. What a mean, underhand, dirty hound, sneaking information out of him. Although I was eaten up with curiosity, I said hurriedly:

‘We'll say no more about it, Daniel.' Adding, although I did not mean it: ‘ Never again.'

By this time we were approaching Schlewald Platz and, picking up, he began to look about him as we came along the river bank below the telepheric, crossed the bridge and came into the lower part of the village, which is mostly seventeenth-century Swiss and decidedly attractive. I could see that he liked it.

Outside Edelmann's I took his arm. It was thin as a chicken bone.

‘This is where we go in.'

As we entered he asked:

‘Is this the chess café?'

‘No. But it's one where the cakes are a lot better.'

Edelmann's, in fact, was known all over Switzerland.

His expression had cleared further at the sight of the superb display of patisserie in the long glass case beside the counter, and when I said: ‘ We each pick up one of these plates by the window, go over and stand at the counter and choose,' he actually laughed.

‘We're a couple of Mad Hatters.'

‘We're
what
…?'

‘Don't you remember, in Alice? He always carried an empty plate about with him in case someone offered him a cake.'

When we were seated he ate his cream sponge slowly, as if it were a new experience, savouring each small bite, and washing it down with the hot chocolate I had ordered for us both. When he had finished he remarked thoughtfully:

‘That is the best cake I have ever tasted in my entire life. Perfect ambrosia.'

‘It's the best I've ever tasted, and I've lived considerably longer than you. Have another go of ambrosia?'

‘I should imagine they're very expensive.'

‘We can stand it, this once.'

‘No, I think not. But perhaps you'll ask me another time, if you feel like it.'

Where had the kid got them, amongst the Davigan ruins – good manners? Cathy, perhaps, if so one good mark to her. Yet more probably they came from the old man in the wheel chair.

When we left I picked up my
Daily Telegraph
at the station bookstall where Gina, the girl there, regularly kept it for me. She was a dark-haired Italian, rather short in the gams but, with her black eyes and white teeth sporting a dazzling smile, chock full of brio. Although she wore a wedding ring there were no signs of a husband, which made her an interesting prospect. We had made quite a bit of progress already and, while the kid stood waiting, we traded a few repartees.

BOOK: A Pocketful of Rye
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