A Medical CrisisAround the proud lawyer's burgeoning table had gathered a distinguished company. In addition to the celebrated writer and lexicographer, Dr. Johnson, and his friend the lawyer, James Boswell, there were three Nobel Prize winners: Cherry Ames, the perky and enterprising nurse who had at long last found the cure for AIDS; Dr. Bess Marvin, renowned for her amazing and clever contributions to number theory and cryptography; and former President of the United States, folksy Jimmy Carter, winner of the Prize for Peace. Half the senior lawyers in River Heights were also present, along with a number of lesser scientific dignitaries. There was even a smattering of artists and authors, including Oscar Wilde, the River Heights darling playwright and man-about-town; Hilda Bingen, poet, musician, and religious mystic extraordinaire; and Laura Hughes, whose latest illustrated, prophetic novel written entirely for the internet was widely acknowledged to be the beginning of a new and ground-breaking art form.
Dr. Johnson was an elderly portly man, shaggy and with the look and manners of a parasite-infested bear. As Nancy walked round behind him to pour him some wine, she noticed that he smelled as though he hadn't showered or bathed in more than two weeks. She was glad that she was not a guest, stuck at the head of the table next to the odoriferous literary lion. Then she noticed who his companions were. On one side, Boswell, busily writing in shorthand on the Drews' stiffly starched linen napkins. Prematurely wizened for a young man, Boswell looked diseased. On the other side was Bess. Poor finicky Bess! Nancy noticed that underneath Bess's seemingly polite exterior, she was looking decidedly uncomfortable, almost seasick.
On the other side of Bess was Mr. Drew. He was looking relaxed and hostlike in a anthracite-colored dinner jacket. On his left was Rosalyn Carter, then Oscar Wilde. Wilde was a tall, fleshy man of early middle age, who dressed after a fashion that seemed both extravagantly sophisticated and gothically juvenile. Everything about him was pressed and polished to perfection, from his enormous projecting black lapels to his crimson vest. He wore an immaculate lily in his buttonhole, and his whole person smelled like a spring garden at Eastertide. Further left, President Carter beamed a bright toothy smile, as he always did. Then there was Laura Hughes, looking a little shyand awkward in a long, dark sheath of evening dress. Cherry Ames, stuck on Boswell's right was also writing, but not on napkins. Her medium of written communication was a prescription pad.
Nancy instinctively walked over to stand behind her nursing friend. She was rewarded with pieces of paper inconspicuously slipped into the pocket of her apron.
After everyone else had been seated Dr. Nickerson wheeled George to the table in a bath chair that he had found in the Drew lumber room. George was seated next to Hilda Bingen at the foot of the table. In a spirit of leveling Nancy started serving these lesser dignitaries first.
"The highest blessing is found in female form," pronounced Hilda sweetly as she greeted the expectant mother at her side. "For God is made human in a lovely and blessed virgin."
George did not know how to react to this gnostic greeting. She had the feeling the mild-looking, elderly lady was quoting something and meant to be gracious, but she found the religious and prophetic language unsettling. The idea of her having gods in her belly made her feel a bit Rosemary's Babyish. And she wasn't sure what to make of the word virgin. Was there a barb somewhere in the strange woman's remarks?
"I am expecting twins," George replied drily. "I'm going to name them both Bobby Watson."
George's conversation-killing gambit worked. The discomposed religious lady turned her attention to the piping hot french onion soup that Nancy had just placed before her.
As it turned out the folks at the lower end of the table did not have to rely on their own local conversational resources for entertainment. Dr. Johnson's unmodulated, booming voice could be heard throughout the vast prandial chamber.
"When a man is tired of New London, he is tired of life; for there is in New London all that life can afford. What do you say Oscar?"
"Dr. Johnson, please do not provoke me into disputation," Oscar Wilde replied in a softer but equally penetrating voice. "Arguments are to be avoided. They are always vulgar and often convincing. I can say nothing good or bad about New London. Except that when good Rhode Islanders die they go to New London."
"I expected a better return volley from you, sir," rejoined the visiting guest of honor. He turned his pitted, rotund face away from that of his verbal sparring partner and took in the entire table with one magnificent sweep of his ursine eyes. "I apologize, good people. Oscar is naturally dull. But it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity is not in nature."
Wilde looked conspiratorially down the table. "You can hear why, though Dr. Johnson hasn't an enemy in the world, none of his friends like him."
"Such a personal attack is the re-action I seek," declared Johnson with a smug grin. "I never think I have hit hard unless it rebounds."
"I agree with you there, good Doctor. There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about," proclaimed the River Heights dandy.
"Oscar, I said exactly the same thing long before you were born!"
"Doctor, I am horrified to learn this. For, in this case, you will know precisely what I mean, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood."
Laura Hughes acidly interjected, "I hope that the people who think they can dominate this River Heights dinner-table do not suppose they can dominate the rest of the world."
Dr. Johnson and Oscar Wilde were silenced by this unexpected intrusion. Although Ms. Hughes was notorious for her orphic sayings, she usually confined them to print.
Amid more desultory conversation Nancy finished distributing the soup. She immediately retired, ostensibly to seek further instructions from martinetish Hannah Gruen. In the hall she paused to examine Cherry's prescription-pad note.
There were two slips of paper in her apron. One was written in a characteristic nearly-unreadable medical scrawl, which Nancy's trained eye could nevertheless accurately interpret. The other, more legible, was for her: "Nancy, get Ned to go to your Dad's study and give him the other note. Then go and fetch Mr. Boswell. Tell him he has a phone call and that he can take it in the study. Get Ned to lock the study door. It is imperative that Ned examine this fellow immediately. Boswell's life, and the lives of others, may depend upon it."
The intrepid servant-girl was galvanized into action by this urgent missive. After running back to the kitchen to warn Hannah to send in the hired girl, Lucy, with the next course, Nancy reentered the dining hall and touched Ned on the shoulder from behind, then leaned over and whispered in his ear. Ned got up as quietly as he could and followed Nancy to the study. He read Cherry's note with deep concern. As he picked up the phone he turned to Nancy and signaled for her to speedily fetch the patient. As she left the room she could hear him being connected to the River Heights hospital.
"Emergency department, please. This is Dr. Nickerson calling. I have a code green situation here. Alert the CDC."
Boswell readily followed the obsequious maid when she told him he had an urgent phone call. When Dr. Johnson's amanuensis had entered the study, Ned smartly closed the door. Nancy tested the knob from the hall. It was safely locked. She then went to the front door to greet and direct the medical assistance that she knew would be arriving within a few minutes. Looking down the marble hall, she saw Lucy and Hannah wheeling the food trollies across into the refectory. She felt a momentary stab of bitterness at having being consigned to the liminal world of servitude. But then, remembering Bess, she realized where she might otherwise have been placed. And she well understood that in emergencies such as this one, her present status gave her much more useful and unnoticed freedom of movement.
Ned had clearly told the hospital to dispatch the ambulance with no sirens or lights flashing, as the emergency crew was at the door before Nancy had noticed their stealthy approach. They brought in a gurney with an intravenous bag already installed and ready to operate. One orderly knocked on the study door and Ned swiftly let them into Carson's sanctum. He stepped outside the door as his assistants went to work and signaled for Nancy to approach.
"Mr. Boswell is extremely sick and the disease is contagious, though fortunately the virus is not transmissable through the air. Go fetch Cherry and tell her to bag everything that the poor fellow has touched-just in case. And tell her to bring the stuff and come with us. And fetch me Dr. Johnson's water glass. I want to make sure that we don't have to hospitalize yet another guest. Send it with Cherry. Make haste. We will be ready to leave in just a few minutes."
"Yes, Dr. Nickerson," replied Nancy in echt-downstairs demeanour.
"Nancy, save the maid stuff for the party down the hall."
She then approached to give him a more friendly acknowledgement.
"No, Nancy, I dare not kiss you, or even touch you, right now. Hurry."
Nancy ran back towards the dining room, but stopped to resume her unhurried gait just before she could be spotted by the guests. As she entered she could hear that Johnson and Wilde were sparring again.
"Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions," Dr. Johnson was saying, "nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment."
"Sammy, I have always found that the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," Wilde interjected. "I can resist everything except temptation."
"My good man," said an impatient Johnson, "wickedness is always easier than virtue, for it takes the short cut to everything."
"Conscience and cowardice are really the same things," Wilde contended. "There is no sin except stupidity."
"If you really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when you leave this house Mr. Drew had better count his spoons."
As she walked up behind the guests Nancy chuckled to herself. Not so much at the cut and thrust of Dr. Johnson's remark as at the mental image it conjured up of her dignified father counting the dining room cutlery. Now, Hannah, however, she might just have a metal detector installed inside the marble pillars in the entry hall! Nancy struggled to suppress a broad grin at this latest speculation.
Nancy touched Cherry on the shoulder and her friend swiftly got up without asking the reason. The sleuth could see that Boswell's place setting was entirely empty and that Cherry's handbag looked unusually well-stuffed. There's where Dad should look for the missing spoons! Nancy thought. Its odd how life imitates art. But Nancy wasted no time on her musings. She quickly insinuated herself behind Dr. Johnson, holding her nose at the same time.
"Excuse me, sir," she said nasally, and with these words, Nancy switched the celebrated guest's half-empty water glass for one that was fresh, full, and garnished with a slice of lime. As she left the room bearing her medical evidence at arms length, Dr. Johnson was making yet another sally into the breach.
"Were it not for imagination, sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as a duchess."
I wonder how much imagination Ned has, thought Nancy wryly. She wondered wryly if she ought to occasionally attire herself as a countess.
"Dr. Johnson, I'd like you to imagine me as a marauding pirate," Laura Hughes invited.
"Ms. Hughes, you could certainly buckle my swash," intervened Wilde.
"Mr. Drew, I invite you to count the spoons now!" Dr. Johnson ejaculated.
Laura catapulted her own spoon with such amazing accuracy that she dislodged the lexicographer's lime without scratching his glass. It landed where Boswell's setting had once been. Thus the sick man's spoon was not missed.
"Rosalyn and I . . ." murmured Jimmy Carter.
Ned met Nancy just around the corner in the hall.
"Thanks for the glass," he said ernestly as he sealed it up in a plastic biohazard container. "Now go wash your hands vigorously with antiseptic soap. I left a supply in the study lavatory." Then he smiled. "And, just to make sure, run down to the Crystal Palace restaurant and take a ride through their new dishwashing machine. No known germs can survive that."
Nancy was about to make a pert reply, when she felt an unmistakeable sharp touch on her shoulder. She turned around and was confronted with her father's choleric visage.
"Nancy, what have you done with half my guests?"