It was unwise, however, to accept this neatly folded and virginal bundle without investigation. It might contain what the chit demanded; or it might not. Before you could carry it off you must yourself initial, and finally bid farewell to, the chit: thereby certifying that you had got what you claimed. To make sure of this you would be well advised to undo the bundle, and (as far as was practicable in a jostling crowd of fellow-orderlies similarly employed) run through the whole of its contents, computing them with precision: twenty sheets, twelve pillow-cases, nine bolster-cases—it is only too easy to miss the difference in the sizes of these—seventeen hand-towels, two operating-aprons, eleven handkerchiefs, ten pyjama trousers, ten sleeping-jackets, and so on. When you had ticked-off all these separate items in the list you scribbled your initials thereon and fled with your bundle—to find, as often as not, that Sister, sorting the things into her cupboard, could discover a mistake after all. This meant a humble return to the Clean Linen Store to beg for the mistake’s rectification; and the sergeant in charge had merely to take your chit from his file, and show you your own initials on it, to prove that you were in the wrong.
It is conceivable that by means of a ward stocktaking and a reference of the results to the figures in the sergeant’s huge ledger, you might have proved that you were not in the wrong. But the only time I ever knew one of these disputes to be thus put to the test I admit I wished that I had refrained from so temerarious an adventure. Somehow or other I had managed to come back to the ward with three clean pillow-cases fewer than the tale of dirty ones I had taken away. And Sister was exceedingly cross. The particular Sister whose drudge I was at that period was rather apt to be cross; and this was one of her crossest days. She threatened to “report” me, and in fact did so. I was not—as she seemed to expect—shot at dawn. I merely underwent a formal reproof from a high authority who perhaps (but this is a surmise) knew Sister’s idiosyncrasies even better than I did. There remained, nevertheless, the pressing problem of the three strayed pillow-cases. These Sister commanded me to obtain from the Clean Linen Store. But you cannot go to the Clean Linen Store and say “Please give me three pillow-cases.” The Clean Linen Store either says “Why?” (a question which, under the circumstances, is flatly unanswerable), or else tells you, in language both firm and ornamental, that you have already had them: your initialed chit testifies the fact.
At all events, after some parley, the Clean Linen Store sergeant (who was less of an ogre than he pretended) offered to strike a bargain with me. If I would count all the pillow-cases, in and out of use, in my ward, and bring him the total, he would compare the said total with the figures in his ledger. Those figures he would not divulge to me. But if the number I announced was three short of the number in his ledger, he would give me the three, and say no more about it.