At nine in the morning, when all was fresh, the starched uniforms of the nurses bustled more briskly, their curious caps sat more pertly, and the illusion of sanitation and good cheer bloomed on the fifth floor of the Private Pavilion more brightly than at any hour of the day. Through the high glass doors at either end of the corridor the summer sun poured over the linoleum carpeting. A force of scrub women in apricot-colored dresses, softly chattering in the rapid language of Puerto Ricans, was wetting down the last mote of infectious dust. And the hygienic odors of the great hospital were suffused with the building momentum of nurses, tray-bearing orderlies, and interns, freshly shaven.
Merrill stood before the reception desk. Mrs. Doughty was reading Look Magazine and had not noticed him. A big man with a heavy fretful face neither old nor still identifiably young. He held his thick calves and shoulders of an athlete tense underneath the wrinkle-proof Dacron suit of which he was rather proud.
“Mrs. Dougherty,” he began presently. “I want to apologize for what I said last night. I’ve been on edge lately,” and he added, “—in this hot weather,” and now Merril judged he’d made his amends, formally enough, without obsequiousness or truckling.
Mrs. Dougherty, the Floor Supervisor, looked up and answered, as though she had been expecting this all morning. “I know you didn’t mean it, Mr. Merril,” she said.
Mrs. Dougherty, with whom he’d had the first of his humiliating colloquies the night before, was bestowing a motherly look. Merril knew that no words, nor scarcely any contrite deed, could serve as penance this morning. He felt, for an instant against his harsh better judgment, greatly humbled.
He had made up his mind last night never again to speak to Mrs. Dougherty beyond the perfunctory limits of civility.
Last night, after he laid down the poetry book and started to take his leave of Ellen, he had opened both her windows wide. But the July night hung outside with a moist oppressiveness that refused quite to surrender itself to the catharsis of a thunder shower. Merril cursed inwardly, always inwardly, the antiseptic mediocrity of this room. It faced onto an air shaft and the grated windows of the Men’s Ward. When Ellen was brought back to the hospital in June it had been the cheapest available, and yet Merril no longer dared to contemplate its pyramiding expense.
“At least they could get you a fan,” he said.
“You can’t expect to sleep this way, Ellen. God.”
“No—” She broke off long enough for Merril to hear her swallow and then moisten her lips. “Darling—it’s not worth it.”
“You have to sleep. You know that, Ellen.”
“Darling, don’t bother.”
“You’ll burn up!” He realized that he had raised his voice and that his own mouth was dry, that it was his own brow tingling.