The Deeper Melody
By Alice Morrey Bailey
Synopsis: Steven Thorpe, 150 miles from home on a selling campaign, has intuition that something is wrong with his three motherless children left in the care of a hired girl. His home telephone goes unanswered. Leaving his work, he goes home, to find his children neglected and his baby ill with pneumonia. Margaret Crain, a registered nurse, is sent by the doctor to take care of the baby.
Steve welcomed the nurse to his home with mingled relief at having help for the sick little Phyllis, alarm that she might not have the experience to give his baby sympathetic care, and chagrin at having the well-groomed girl see the confusion and actual dirt of his home. He felt his skin flush red, but made no apology.
“You must be Miss Crain,” he said perfunctorily, “the nurse Dr. Dunn sent.”
“I understand you have a sick child,” she said, by way of acknowledgment.
Her manner was a fine balance between concern and impersonality, a result of her training, no doubt. She did not look around the room with that quick look of appraisal Steve expected and dreaded, and he thought better of her when she stepped over Ilene’s doll bed and Davey’s dump truck with equanimity.
“I certainly do have a sick child,” he agreed, and led her to the bedside of Phyllis.
She probably saw homes like this often, neglected babies, too. He told her briefly what had happened, about his finding the children neglected and the baby sick.
“It was all my fault,” he finished. “I should have had the sense to know an untrained girl of seventeen could not possibly cope with the situation alone.”
Miss Crain flashed him a thoughtful look, but made no comment. She wasted no time, took off her cape and adjusted her cap without benefit of mirror, studying Phyllis as she did so.
Steve watched her critically for signs of incompetency, wondering if he dared trust his baby’s life to her training and care. Her hands were deft, taking the pulse and respiration, her eyes on the sweep-hand of her watch. Her hands had a sculptured beauty that came of capability, almost like machinery, with never a wasted motion. Her fingernails were short, colorless, and immaculate, and he compared them involuntarily with those of Miss Tate in the office, who wore hers long and painted. Miss Crain wore an engagement ring that was impressive in size, and which caught the light and reflected it in little prismatic points about the room. If she was in love, Steve thought, she probably wouldn’t have a thought for anyone except her sweetheart.
She stopped her work as if he had spoken his thoughts and faced him. “Mr. Thorpe,” she said, “you are wondering if you can trust me.”
He was so taken back that he could think of nothing to say. “I guess I have been peering at you rather critically. I didn’t think you saw me.”
“It was a feeling,” she said simply. “You were wondering if you could trust your baby with me. Please don’t worry, Mr. Thorpe. Dr. Dunn is a fine doctor, and has exceptional success with babies. He gives the kind of orders a good nurse likes to follow, and I am well trained, with six years of experience – nine, really, counting my three years of training.”
“Nine years!” Steve gave the girl a quick reappraisal. She couldn’t be the schoolgirl he had first thought, for Steve dimly remembered that a girl couldn’t go in training until she was eighteen.
“I’m twenty-eight,” she said drily.
“You’re uncanny,” countered Steve. “And almost as old as I. I’m thirty-one.” Not that it had any bearing, he thought, and flushed suddenly.
She had spoken without egotism or heat, just statements of fact. Tension went out of Steve. “I must say,” he told her, “that while I was watching you critically, it was with growing admiration. Now I feel that if anyone can make Phyllis well you can – you and Dr. Dunn.”
“That’s good,” she said. “Now I can do my best work.”
When the medicine came he helped her, holding the baby, his insides turning to jelly when Phyllis strained back and screamed at having her throat swabbed, nose drops, and earache medicine, and when the hypodermic needle pricked her.
Miss Crain’s face was impassive, showing no signs of emotion or sympathy, and she went unhesitatingly through the routine. When it was over, Phyllis settled back with obvious relief and closed her eyes with a little sigh.
“It looks as if she knows she is in competent hands at last,” Steve said. “I’d better go see why the others are so quiet and get lunch ready. When I can get away I’ll have to go to an agency and get a housekeeper, so if you’ll excuse me …”
“Certainly, Mr. Thorpe,” she murmured.
“Miss Crain, I – do you think Phyllis is going to be all right?” he asked.
She looked at him, compassion in her eyes. “I wish I could say,” she told him. “It depends on so many things. She is a very sick child. I don’t know how she will react to medicine and treatment. I can say this, though, I’ve seen sicker babies get well – and pneumonia isn’t the terrifying disease it used to be – not with the new drugs.”
Steve had to be content. At least, she didn’t try to give him false comfort, and that was good. In fact, everything she did was good. Dr. Dunn was certainly right when he said she was a fine nurse. Steve felt himself warming to her in real liking. She made a total conquest of Davey and Ilene. At lunchtime Phyllis was still sleeping, so Miss Crain came to the table. When Steve served the soup the children had pulled their chairs close on either side of her, where they announced they were going to sit.
“Well, you can’t do that,” Steve said, putting them at the ends of the table. “Miss Crain has to have room to eat her soup.”
“Ilene likes the pretty lady,” said Ilene, and Miss Crain colored with pleasure.
“Well, I like you, Ilene,” she said. “You too, Davey.”
“The pretty lady is my mama,” Davy informed Ilene.
“No, my mama,” asserted Ilene.
Steve wriggled in embarrassment. “Don’t pay any attention to them,” he said. “They call all women mama. They even called Gloria that.”
Miss Crain looked at their bright little faces with deep pity. “I’ll be mama for both of you,” she said, and they attacked their soup happily.
“Tell me about their mother,” she asked Steve.
She was matter-of-fact, as if asking about the weather, and he found it easy to talk, even good to talk. Somehow it eased the tight ache in this heart. His relatives and friends had considered it a subject not to be broached, fearing it would hurt him too much, but Miss Crain encouraged him with questions, probed gently until he poured out details that had long twisted pain within him.
“Pardon me for being so personal, but aren’t there any women in your family who could help with the children?”
“Mother did, for a while, but her health wouldn’t take it. Ellen’s mother died ten years ago. Ellen was the only girl. My sister Geneve would take them, but her husband doesn’t like children.” Steve finished a little savagely, “The truth is, I don’t want anyone else to have them. I want them myself. This is my family.”
“That’s rather an unusual attitude for a man,” Miss Crain observed. She looked at him with new interest, as if seeing him for the first time.
“Thanks,” said Steve, shortly. “The rebuke to the sex is well earned. You take a woman left with children like this, and she’ll keep them together if she has to scrub nights for a living, but a man! He’ll usually try to get out from under the load. You’re always reading about a father deserting a family. When a mother does, it makes the headlines.”
Davey and Ilene were nodding over their empty plates, so Steve took them to the other bedroom and tucked them in for their afternoon nap.
“I’m going right now to hunt a housekeeper,” he said as he returned. “Tell me what time you will be leaving. Nurses work eight hours a day, don’t they?”
“I usually do,” she answered hesitantly. “This time, though, under the circumstances, if you don’t mind, I’ll stay on until Phyllis gets better. It seems to me she has been left to new hands a few times too often. It builds a dangerous sense of insecurity in a little one, especially a sick child.”
“Then I’ll pay you for three shifts,” said Steve, beside himself with gratitude.
“You may pay me for two,” she decided. “You can sit with her while I sleep, but I’ll be here if you need me. I’ve been thinking,” she went on, “my mother is at my apartment. My father died a few months ago and she came to live with me. It’s lonesome for her there, and I think she would dearly love to come and help.”
Steve looked at her, trying to find words to express his appreciation for such a magnificent solution to his complex problem.
Mrs. Crain was a small, energetic woman, nearing sixty, with black eyes and iron-gray hair. She surveyed the house like a general anticipating a field of battle, clucked her tongue in disapproval, and attacked the vital spot, the kitchen. Steve put himself at her services, and the headway they made was phenomenal.
Dinner, plans for sleeping, the routine of undressing the other children, all passed as in a dream. Steve sat with the baby until midnight while Mrs. Crain slept, only awakening her when it was time for medications and hypodermics.
Watching Phyllis alone was an ordeal, for the child lay inert, her cheeks too bright. It seemed as if her whole strength went into breathing. Conviction that she was going to die crept upon Steve. Self-blame was heavy upon him, and Miss Crain’s coming at midnight to relieve him was a blessed reprieve. She told him to go to bed, and Steve went, for it had been a long twenty hours since he had awakened at the Kettle Creek mine. He went to sleep instantly on the living room couch, but jumped up in alarm several hours later, when the nurse entered the room.
“The baby’s temperature is down this morning,” she told him. “She is tolerating the drugs, and if her temperature doesn’t go too high this afternoon, it will look encouraging. Why don’t you get back to your work?”
“I will if you’re sure it’s all right,” said Steve, relief flooding over him.
Nevertheless, he didn’t go to work. He had shaved, showered, and eaten breakfast, was just ready to step out the door when the telephone rang. It was J.T.
“Steve, that Kettle Creek deal fell through,” he growled.
“J.T., I’m sorry. I thought it was a sure thing. I’ll be right down.”
“You thought!” snorted J.T. “As for coming back, you can save yourself the bother. I counted on you to put that deal through. I knew you could do it, but an unreliable man is no better than an incompetent one.”
Steve had been on the verge of pleading his case, but these words stung his pride.
“All right, J.T., so I’m fired,” he said coldly, and hung up.
He sat staring at the telephone. The bottom had dropped out of his already leaky world. What was he going to do now, in a strange town, with a family to support, a sick baby, and no job?
“Why didn’t you tell him about the baby?” Miss Crain asked behind him.
“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” she hastened to add. “I couldn’t help hearing, and I think he is unfair.”
“I don’t blame J.T. That would have been a twenty thousand dollar profit, and it is gone. I can’t imagine what happened. That much money doesn’t grow on trees. It isn’t the first time I’ve had to leave company business because of family affairs. Maybe I’m wrong not to give the children up to Geneve, Felix or no Felix.”
“No! You’re not wrong!” said Miss Crain forcefully.
Steve shrugged discouraged shoulders. “I have a baby sick through neglect, and I’ve been fired, which would seem to prove it.”