IN WHICH MARGARET MACLEAN REVIEWS A MEMORY
As Margaret MacLean climbed the stairs to Ward C—she rarely took the lift, it was too remindful of the time when she could not climb stairs—her mind thought back a step for each step she mounted. When she had reached the top of the first flight she was a child again, back in one of the little white iron cribs in her own ward; and it was the day when the first stringent consciousness came to her that she hated Trustee Day.
The Old Senior Surgeon—the present one, of whom Saint Margaret’s felt inordinately proud, was house surgeon then—had come into Ward C for a peep at her, and had called out, according to a firmly established custom, “Hello, Thumbkin! What’s the news?”
She had been “Thumbkin” to him ever since the night he had carried her into the hospital, a tiny mite of a baby; and he had woven out of her coming a marvelous story—fancy-fashioned. This he had told her at least twice a week, from the time she was old enough to ask for it, because it had popped into his head quite suddenly that this morsel of humanity would some day insist on being accounted for.
The bare facts concerning her were rather shabby ones. She had been unceremoniously dumped into his arms by a delegate from the Foundling Asylum, who had found him the most convenient receptacle nearest the door; and he had been offered the meager information that she belonged to no one, was wrong somehow, and a hospital was the place for her.
One hardly likes to pass on shabby garments, much less shabby facts, to cover another’s past. So the Old Senior Surgeon had forestalled her inquisitiveness with a tale adorned with all the pretty imaginings that he, “a clumsy-minded old gruffian,” could conjure up.
Margaret MacLean remembered the story—word for word—as we remember “The House That Jack Built.” It began with the Old Senior Surgeon himself, who heard a pair of birds disputing in one of the two trees which sentineled the hospital. They had built a nest therein; it was bedtime, and they wished to retire, only something prevented. Upon investigation he discovered the cause—“and there you were, my dear, no bigger than my thumb!”
This was the nucleus of the story; but the Old Senior Surgeon had rolled it about, hither and yon, adding adventure after adventure, until it had assumed gigantic proportions. As she grew older she took a hand in the adventure-making herself, he supplying the bare plot, she weaving the threads therefrom into a detailed narrative which she retold to him later, with a few imaginings of her own added. This is what had established the custom for the Old Senior Surgeon to take a peep into Ward C at day’s end and call across to her: “Hello, Thumbkin! What’s the news?” or, “What’s happened next?” And until this day the answer had always been a joyous one.