“Oh, Mr. Curtis—don’t—don’t let them take Jacky! Oh, Mr. Curtis!” She flung herself upon him, sobbing frantically. “Don’t let them—I’ll kill them if they touch Jacky! Oh, my soul and body! He’ll die if they take him—I won’t let them take him—” She was shaking and stammering and gasping. “I won’t have him touched.... You got to stop them—”
“Lily, don’t! What’s the matter?”
“This woman downstairs ’s about crazy, because she has three children. I hope they all catch it and die and go to hell! She’s shut up there with ’em in her flat. She won’t put her nose outside the door! She come up here this morning, and saw Jacky, and she said it was scarlet fever. Seems she knew what it was, ’cause she had a boy die of it—glad he did! And she sent—the slut!—a complaint to the Board of Health—and the doctor, he come this afternoon, and said it was! And he said he was going to take Jacky to-night!”
Her voice made him cringe; her yellow tigress eyes blazed at him; he had known that Lily, for all her good humor, had occasional sharp gusts of temper, little squalls that raced over summer seas of kindliness! But he had never seen this Lily: A ferocious, raucous Lily, madly maternal! A Lily of the pavements.... “An’ I said he wasn’t going to do no such thing! An’ I said I’d stop it: I said I’d take the law to him; I said I’d get Jacky’s father: I—”
“Good God! Lily—”
“Oh, what do I care about you? I ain’t goin’ to kill Jacky to protect you! You got to stop them taking him!” She clutched his arm and shook it: “I never asked nothing of you, yet. I ask it now, and you’ll do it, or I’ll tell everybody in town that he’s yours—” Her menacing voice broke and failed, but her lips kept moving; those kind, efficient hands of hers, clutching at him, were the claws of a mother beast. Maurice took her arm and guided her into the little parlor, where a row of hyacinths on the window sill made the air overpoweringly sweet; he sat down beside her on the sofa.
“Get steady, Lily, and tell me: I’ll see what can be done. But there’s to be no father business about it, you understand? I’m just a ‘friend.’”
So, stammering and breaking into sobs and even whispered screams, and more outrageous abuse of her fellow tenant, she told him: It was scarlet fever, and there were children in the house. The Board of Health, “sicked on by that damned woman,” said that Jacky must go to the hospital—to the contagious ward. “And the doctor said he’d be better off there; he said they could do for him better than me—me, his mother! They’re going to send a ambulance—I telegraphed you at four o’clock—and here it is six! You must have got it by five—why didn’t you come? Oh—my God, Jacky!” Her suffering was naked; shocking to witness! It made Maurice forget his own dismay.
“I was out,” he began to explain, “and—”