"What do you mean, was? He isn't dead, is he? You said you just sent him a plant."
"Oh, no. But he's very, very ill. Poor Clarence." She lowered her voice to a whisper, as if her news were scandalous. "He had a, you know, a growth."
Cancer, thought Natalie. How often she had heard the relatives of her father's patients refuse to say the word.
"Of course, he's much older than I am," Anna Talbot quickly pointed out, as if she were thereby eliminating the possibility of its happening to her. "You know"—and she was speaking in a semiwhisper again—"there was a feeling, in the town, after Clarence's wife died two years ago, that perhaps he and I—well." She took a tiny pair of scissors from her knitting basket, snipped off her yarn, and held up a finished mitten. "That was silly, of course. Clarence and I have been friends for years. He's a dear man. Perhaps I mentioned that already. But he's much older than I. I think he's at least eighty.
"It's dreadful that he's all alone now. They lost their only child very young, and then Mary passed away—such a crowd at her funeral, dear. They were such loved people in this town. But he has no family left, and that's why I took it upon myself to send the plant. I wouldn't want you to think it was anything more than that, dear." Anna Talbot looked up shyly, and she was blushing. Natalie felt a surge of affection and pity for the woman.
"Where is he, Mrs. Talbot?"
"Oh, he's in the hospital, dear. The Simmons' Mills Community Hospital, just beyond the mill, on the river road."
"Do you think I could see him?"
Mrs. Talbot's face wrinkled into a frown. "I couldn't say. I understand he's very bad now. Is it terribly important?"
Natalie nodded. "Yes," she said, "it really is."
"Let me think," said Mrs. Talbot. "I'll call Winnie Bailey if you like. She's one of the nurses at the hospital. She'd know."
"Oh, would you? Thank you."
Anna Talbot picked up the phone on the table by her chair and dialed. Natalie poured more tea into both their cups.
"Winnie, dear? It's Anna Talbot. I hope I haven't taken you away from one of your programs.
"Well, I'll just be a minute. I wanted to ask how Clarence is.
"Yes, I know, isn't it sad? Of course he's older than we are, Winnie.
"Do you happen to know if he received the plant I sent over on Tuesday? No, well, there's no reason he would mention it, of course. I'm sure he has scads of flowers. It is in an especially nice green pot, though, if you should happen to notice.
"Well, I have a guest here, Winnie, who would like to see him.
"I'm not sure. No, she isn't related, I don't think. But she would just like to talk to him for a minute."
Anna Talbot covered the receiver with one hand and whispered to Natalie. "It wouldn't take long, would it, dear?" Natalie shook her head no.
"All right, Winnie, I'll tell her that. Thank you. You go back to your television now, dear. Goodbye."
Anna Talbot was quiet for a minute, and then she sighed. "It's as I thought. He's doing very poorly. Poor Clarence."
"But I can see him for a minute?" asked Natalie.
"You're to go over around eleven in the morning, dear. Ask for Winnie Bailey, and she'll take you in."
Natalie finished her tea and suddenly she was over-whelmingly exhausted. She stood up. "Mrs. Talbot, I can't thank you enough. You've been such a help to me. Now I have to get some sleep."
"Of course, dear. If you want an extra blanket, they're in the chest in your room. And I wonder, dear, if you would do one small favor for me?"
"When you see Clarence, would you point out to him the coleus in the green pot? And tell him that it's from Anna Talbot?"
FRIDAY WAS CLEAR and cloudless over Simmons' Mills, with a sky so blue it could have been colored in by a child who had saved his very best crayon for the effect. Natalie left her car at Mrs. Talbot's and walked to the hospital.
The town, brightened by the sun in morning, seemed less gray than it had the night before. The buildings on the main street were old ones, but the wood was painted, the bricks were clean, and there were people entering and leaving the few stores, the bank, the library, and the post office. At night, it had seemed a movie-set town, left behind after the actors had gone away; in the daytime, Natalie realized, walking toward the mill that dominated the north edge of the town with its silhouette, it was simply an ordinary small town, one in which lives were being lived, it appeared, with contentment and a kind of quiet charm.
My mother walked here, she thought, waiting for me to be born.
The hospital was new: modern, stark, and efficient, with the vaguely antiseptic smell that bright-figured draperies and Matisse prints never seem to dispel in hospitals. Entering by the front door, Natalie saw in the lobby a young doctor, bearded, and smiled. Imagine being examined by a man with a beard, Mrs. Talbot had said. He smiled at her with interest in return, but she turned away, to the woman behind the information desk.
"I'm looking for someone named Winnie Bailey," she said. "A nurse."
The woman nodded. "Second floor," she said, pointing to a flight of stairs. "Up there and to your left."
Winnie Bailey was behind the nursing station on the second floor, and she looked up and nodded when Natalie appeared. "You're the one Anna called about," she said.
"Yes. My name is Natalie Armstrong."
"You know, Dr. Therrian is very ill," the woman said.
"He hasn't been allowed visitors. But he's been feeling a little better for the past two days, and I've checked with his doctors. It's all right if you see him, but only briefly. Of course you won't be upsetting him, will you? You haven't brought bad news?"
"Oh, I don't think so," said Natalie. "I just need a little information that I think he has, about someone who was a patient of his a long time ago."
Winnie Bailey wrinkled her forehead. "Goodness. That might be a problem. He's feeling pretty well this morning, but of course he's on a lot of medication, and his mind does wander. You may find that he won't be able to understand what it is you want."
Oh, he has to, thought Natalie. He must. "I'll just have to try," she said. "It's so important to me."
"Would you like me to go in with you?"
"I don't think so," said Natalie. "It will be all right."
"Well then, it's room 234, just down the hall there. I wouldn't stay more than fifteen minutes." Winnie Bailey smiled and picked up some folders and her pen.
The door to room 234 was partially open, and hung with signs, no visitors, no smoking. Natalie pushed it gently with her hand and looked inside to where on old man lay alone. His eyes were closed, his face pale against the pillow, and a bottle of glucose dangled from its rack beside his bed, attached to his left arm by the narrow plastic tube that dripped the solution in measured drops into his vein. There were vases of flowers on the wide windowsill, and among them was the green pot of coleus. Natalie smiled. She went closer to the bed.
"Dr. Therrian?" she said softly.
He turned his head and blinked his eyes. He stared at her for a moment, and then looked around the room as if he had lost his bearings, as if he were reassessing where he was.
"I'm sorry to wake you," Natalie said.
The old man turned to her again, looked at her carefully, looked at her hair, at her face, moved his eyes along her blue sweater, back to her face again. Then he reached out his hand, and took hers, and smiled.
"Julie?" he said.
THIS IS SO HARD, thought Natalie. How can I torment this old, tired, sick man with my questions? He can't even understand what's going on. His mind is wandering. He thinks I'm someone else. He's probably in pain. I should just leave him alone.
But I have come all this way. And he's the only one who can help me.
She said gently, "Dr. Therrian. My name is Natalie."
"Julie?" he said again.
"No," she answered. "I'm not Julie. My name is Natalie. I've come a long way to see you. Can you hear me?"
"I can't stay long because the nurse said that you need to rest. So I'll try to explain this quickly."
He was watching her intently, and his hand was still in hers. It was cold, and she held it tightly to warm it.
"You delivered me, Dr. Therrian. Seventeen years ago."
He smiled. "Many," he said.
"Yes, you delivered many babies. Is that what you mean?"
"I was special, in a way, though, because for some reason my mother couldn't keep me." It was hard for her to say it.
He closed his eyes and nodded his head again.
"You remember her, don't you, Dr. Therrian?"
"Blue eyes," the old man said.
Natalie bit her lip. "Yes. They said she had blue eyes and dark hair. Dr. Therrian, I want very much to find her now."
He was watching her again, and he didn't say anything. "Would you tell me her name? Do you remember her name?"
He gripped her hand suddenly, and she realized from his face, as it drew tight and his eyes closed, that a spasm of pain had overwhelmed him. She waited, and felt pain herself, for this man who was so alone and so close to death.
Finally he relaxed. "Dr. Therrian," Natalie said, "I'm so sorry that I have to bother you like this. But there is no one else who knows; do you understand?"
He nodded, and said softly, "You look like her. I thought you were Julie."
The short sentences had tired him, she could tell. He was breathing deeply, and he took his hand away from hers, as if he wanted to go to sleep. Natalie felt agony for him, and desperation for herself. She tried again.
"Please don't talk. I'll just ask you questions, and you can nod your head yes or no. Maybe that will be easier."
He sighed and nodded.
"You do remember my mother," Natalie began.
"She came to you because she was going to have a baby. She had blue eyes. I look like her; that's why you called me Julie when I came in?"
There is so much, Natalie thought, that I am not going to be able to ask him. What kind of woman was she? Did she work? Did she have other children? He doesn't have the strength to answer questions like that. I must find out from him who she is; then I can ask her those things.
"You helped to arrange my adoption, with Foster Goodwin. Do you remember?"
"What about my father? Did you know him, too? Did he come with her to your office?"
The old man stared at her. His head didn't move.
"Was it that the woman—Julie—wasn't married, Dr. Therrian? Is that why she had to give me away?"
"I have to ask you to tell me one more thing, Dr. Ther-rian, so that I can find her. Can you tell me Julie's last name?"
It was an effort, she could tell, for him to speak. He was exhausted. But he said, "Jeffries. Julie Jeffries."
So there it was. Her mother's name. I have come such a long way, thought Natalie, as she had thought before, and it was for those two words.