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The mix-up

     "Come right in, Doctor Matthews, we were afraid you wouldn't get here on time," said Miss Proctor, wiping her hands on her crisp nurse's uniform. Her slight tone of sarcasm went unnoticed.
     "Then I AM on time, thank God." The doctor was quite relieved.
     He waddled into the velvet and damask chamber, feeling vaguely uncomfortable in the sumptuous room. Even in this, the Royal Bedroom, the walls were covered with somber portraits of the long-dead. Candlelight, the room's only illumination, fell on them faintly, showing clearly only the eyes, giving him the impression of being stared at by malevolent ghosts. To add to his feeling of ill-ease, the heavy draperies covering the high narrow windows were lazily moving back and forth, whispering to each other across the dim room.
     The chandelier in the center of the room sent a chill through him. It was of ebony, and it seemed to glow faintly by the light of the flickering candles. Two dim hollows and a jagged crack across its bottom gave it the appearance of an ominous, moon-faced skull. He hurried to a small table beside the bed and quietly set down his bag.
     He knew that it would certainly ruin his reputation if he were late for the birth of the royal twins. Ever since he had just barely passed the crucial exams that got him his doctorate, he had aimed for perfection. Habitually untidy and lazy, he had found this aim almost unattainable. It had been only by a great sustained effort that he had kept his long black coat from getting a brownish coating from the dusty roads of the small European country. Conscientiously, he had tried to keep his shoes from losing their black gloss; it had seemed that they always needed dusting and polishing.
     All his efforts had been made bearable, however, when he had been called in by the King of Nestonia to attend the forthcoming Royal Birth. And now that the twins were about to be born---but then he disliked thinking about the twins. He shrank inwardly as he recalled the King's anger when His Majesty had heard of the publicity given to the fact that the old X-ray machine had revealed the presence of twins.
     "Do you know what you've done, you blundering idiot," the King had roared. Even though the red-faced doctor had NOT known what he had done, he couldn't appease the irate king. He recalled how the King had been ready to dismiss him, but then the Queen had gently excused the despairing doctor for his thoughtlessness.
     "How could I have known that, when I told the people of the country about the twins---"
     "Doctor Matthews, the Queen wishes to see you now; it's almost time." Miss Proctor crept up behind him, like a cat behind a bird, and then verbally sprang. The stethoscope he was holding in his hand clattered to the floor, and he turned to see her smiling sardonically as he bent over to pick them up. Her gray-white hair was pinned up tightly in a long, thin bun on the back of her neck. He was amazed by its thinness; he could see small patches of scaly pink scalp peeping through the fragile webbing of hair. He hated obesity, and her piggish eyes, bulbous red nose, and slightly mustached lips were imbedded in great welts of fat. Short, stubby fingers depended from hands that were almost wristless in their roundness. Revolting was almost a flattering word for her, he decided. However, he could not help but marvel at the calm, cold efficiency that simply dripped from her clipped voice and starched dress. He envied her coolness and cunning, and he wished he could feel half as capable as she looked: he was definitely frightened. As he tiptoed to the crimson-canopied bed, he felt the palms of his hands grow moist, and his knees seemed a bit unstable under him. With a visible shudder, he straightened himself up, squared his shoulders, and frantically prayed that nothing would go wrong. One error might break him!
     He smiled down at the pale, thin face in the over-large bed and whispered in the regal ear: "Everything is going to be just fine." He was assuring himself as well as his patient.
     The Queen could only nod and smile wanly, and then her face contorted into a mask of pain. "Oh, Doctor," she gasped, her hand clenched on his sleeve-cuff, "I think it's about---time." With the last word, her hand fell to the sheets, and she tried to lift herself off the bed.
     Miss Proctor appeared behind the doctor and supervised the other nurses and the anesthetist in the placement of the tables, trays, sterilizer, anesthetics, and rows of sparkling surgical instruments. Although there would be no use for over half of the equipment, the ministers to the Queen wanted no chance for anything to go amiss.
     All was in readiness. Bright operating lamps were carried in from the hall: everything had been hidden from the Queen's eyes; Her Majesty, above all things, had to be kept calm.
     The dull whooshing sound of the gas mask filled the room, and Doctor Matthews started the most important operation of his life. In a calm, even voice he asked for material. Soon the pace quickened; minute by minute, the sound of the Queen's breath became more sporadic.
     Of a normally frail disposition, the Queen was going downhill into a severe state of shock. Doctor Matthews was getting panicky: the King had ordered that, if ever the choice came between the life of the Queen and the lives of the children, the Doctor was to do all in his power to save the children---any male child, in particular.
     There was a clatter behind him, and Doctor Matthews, sponge in hand, turned from the operating table. One of the nurses was leaning against the wall, rubbing her eyes with the backs of her wrists, instruments scattered at her feet. As he looked at her, she slowly appeared as two images, which faded, moved apart, then slipped together again. He blinked his eyes and saw the other nurse bracing herself over the instrument tray; she was asleep standing up.
     The smell of ether pervaded the room---unnoticed until now, it was putting half the staff to sleep.
     Doctor Matthews stood in the middle of the room, his feet frozen to the floor. His mouth worked, and his eyes darted from person to person. "The ether," he gasped, not knowing what to say. "The ether."
     "My God, what have I done?" The voice came from beneath him. Fighting to keep his vision clear, the Doctor looked down to see the anesthetist tightening the valve on a nearly empty tank of ether.
     "I thought it was empty, sir, I thought it was empty," said the anesthetist. "I switched the oxygen mask from one tank to the other, and I was so worried about the Queen's condition that I didn't bother to shut the first tank's valve. I---I thought it was empty, sir," he repeated.
     "Shut UP, everything's all right now." The Doctor was far from convinced of the truth of his words. The odor seemed more bearable, now, but his hands were trembling, and his head throbbed so much he felt his skull would burst.
     "I can't go on with the operation," he thought, clenching and unclenching his quivering hands. "I can't do it; I might kill her." This horrible thought further paralyzed a mind already numbed by the ether.
     "Doctor, please." The quiet, urgent voice floated through the layers of his consciousness. He looked in the vague direction of the operating table. The entire room seemed filled with a dense fog, through which he could make out objects only dimly. A motion on the table focused his eyes, and filled the center of his vision. A tunnel seemed to be cut in the fog, and he saw the head of the first-born child protruding from the mutilated loins of the Queen. The difficulties the Doctor had operated to prevent hadn't occurred at all. All his---butchery had been unnecessary: the birth was taking place naturally.
     "Doctor. Doctor, PLEASE." The nurse was cradling the tiny head in her bloody hands. The fog closed in again as he stepped toward the table. Almost by instinct he assisted in the birth. Without thinking he gave the oxygen-giving slap on the rear; there was a strangled cry, and the wrinkled wet arms of the baby flailed the air weakly.
     "Take him, Miss Proctor, take these scissors and cut the cord---I---I can't see---my glasses---"
     She looked at his clear, unspotted glasses with disdain and took the proffered scissors. As he turned away from the table and walked across the swaying room, he heard the snip as the scissors bit through the living flesh. He could visualize the rush of blood, the glint of the clamp under the lamps, the way the skin of the cord was squeezed like putty as the clamp pinched it.
     With a wheezing sigh he sank down in a velvet-seated chair, arranged the pillow comfortably under the small of his back, and let his shoulders and arms fall limp over the armrests. Tiny needles of pain darted through his calves, and he could feel the muscles under his knees relax as he eased them out in front of him. Exhaustion of nerves and mind was about to send him into sleep, when there was the smart slap of a gloved hand and a weak cry of distress from newly opened lungs.
     The room swam hazily before him, growing progressively darker. An indefinite period of time passed while the Doctor hovered in a semi-coma---his anxiety over the Queen and children preventing sleep. At one moment he drew his hands up onto the armrest in preparation to lift himself out of the chair, but after an instant of poised tension, they fell back at his sides. He had to see what was happening. He was the Doctor in charge, and he hadn't done anything.
     An indistinct form looming over his chair pulled him back into wakefulness. "Well, Doctor Matthews, the BOYS are born, and doing fine." His vision was too dim to see the expression on her face, but her voice told him that she had nothing but contempt for his actions.
     "And the Queen? How is she?" He needed to know if everything had gone well. His reputation might yet be saved if the Queen pulled through without after-effects.
     "She's sleeping naturally; she'll be all right." Her frown told him what her mind was adding: "No thanks to you."
     The last worry that had kept his eyes open and his conscious mind functioning had been removed; almost instantly his head fell forward on his chest and he breathed deeply in sleep.
     It was far from a peaceful sleep: his unconscious mind took over and Doctor Matthews was plagued with horrible dreams. He was standing in the darkened Town Square, surrounded by hordes of towns-people, milling around, shouting and brandishing torches. There was the unimaginable confusion and turmoil which can only be found in a nightmare. The crowd gradually divided itself into two factions, each one screaming for their leader, each one insisting that their leader was King.
     Into the midst of this chaos suddenly appeared the visage of the King---grown very much older, but as dominant as ever.
     "My people," his sepulchral voice rolled over the crowd, quieting them. "My people, here is the man who is the cause of this great War. HERE is the man." Suddenly a thousand arms were reaching with hands like claws toward the terrified Doctor. Whirling around, Doctor Matthews saw the King pointing at him again and again, with each new charge.
     "Here is the man who has split this country in two parts. Here is the man who assisted at the birth of my sons, your leaders. Here is the man who mixed them up. Here is the man responsible for all this bloodshed and tears!" The crowd boiled around him; hands shot out of the mass of semi-animals, hands mad for his death.
     "No, no, I didn't do it; I didn't do it." His screams were drowned by the surging cries of the crowd.
     "Kill him, kill him," they shrieked. He twisted in agony, and struggled hopelessly as he felt a coil of hemp being placed around his neck. The coil grew tighter, and he felt himself running in the progress-less, tortured way of dreams. The crowd pressed closer, shouting in his ears, drawing the noose ever tighter---he was clawing for breath---sweating; and then with a start and a cry he awoke, covered with sweat, his collar gathered around his neck, pulled tight when he slumped down in the chair. The noise of the crowed still dinned in his ears, until he realized that there was actually a crowd outside the palace, clamoring for news of the royal births.
     He rose from his chair almost guiltily. He certainly hadn't meant to fall asleep. Still trembling from his dream, he glared over his shoulder at the newly pleated coat that had become hopelessly wrinkled under his bulk as he slept. He endeavored to press out the creases with the palms of his wet hands, to no avail. He thought miserably that he would never live up to the neat standards demanded of his position. Stepping out from behind the screen that had been thoughtfully placed in front of his chair by the attendants, he was immediately greeted by a hasty finger placed to the pursed lips of Miss Proctor, who was seated at the Queen's bedside. The doctor hunched forward and crept to the bed in a manner found only in silent films.
     Raising and lowering his hands---which were extended from his sides as if for balance---he clumsily brushed two bookends and a number of small books off an end table. The nurse flounced off her straight-backed chair, pushed her clenched fists toward the floor in a gesture of dismay, and sent him a swift glance of scorn and anger.
     "Doctor, you MUST be more quiet, the Queen is sleeping off the effects of the anesthetics." Doctor Matthews could feel her rating of him spiraling downward. He fervently wished that he had never been chosen as the Queen's Doctor. Then he remembered the books scattered about and made a haphazard attempt to recover them. While he was hunched down in a very undignified manner, the Queen chose to wake from her sleep. Doctor Matthews stared uncomprehendingly at the figure in the bed for a second and then hastily shoved the books under a nearby desk. He strode in a falsely brisk manner toward the Queen, futilely trying to brush the lint off his knees.
     "How do you feel, My Lady?" he asked indulgently. "Everything is just fine," he smiled. "Your twin boys are everything you could hope for."
     "Oh, sons---twins." Some of her maternal joy was drowned by queenly concern for the good of the kingdom. "What---what are we going to do?"
     At this moment the King entered with a theatrical flourish, saw his wife had awakened, and went to the Doctor.
     "Is the nurse keeping them straight. I want to avoid all the complications I can." As at a cue, another white-capped nurse entered the room with two bundles in her arms and a wide grin on her young face.
     "Announcing the entry of the Princes Royal." She stopped, embarrassed, when she saw the King and Queen in the room. "Oh, I---I'm---" she stammered, making as good a curtsy as she could. "I didn't know---" Speechless, she carefully placed her charges in their crib, tried to extinguish a fiery blush and said, "Miss Proctor handed them to me after the births and told me definitely that this one," she touched a red, bald, crying head, "was the first to arrive."
     "I know I kept them straight." Executing a much more energetic curtsy than she had before, she practically ran from the room.
     As Miss Proctor wheeled the crib to the bed for the proud mother to see, the door opened again to allow the meticulously scrubbed and polished anesthetist into the room.
     "Anything I can do for Your Majesties?" His sweeping bow was accompanied by an unconcealed stare in the direction of the blue-bunting-covered crib.
     "Are the Princes sleeping?" Remembering his own curiosity when he was that age, Doctor Matthews braved the glare of Miss Proctor and led the young man across the room to the babies.
     "And this is the next King of Nestonia," Doctor Matthews said proudly, motioning toward the infant on the right. Miss Proctor instantly interposed.
     "That one is not. I looked at them very closely while handling them, and I am sure of it." She glided to the side of the crib and indicated the baby on the left. "THIS is the next King of Nestonia."
     "Well," said the assistant, looking very authoritative, "I have PROOF that the one on the right is the first born. In the interval between the first and second birth I had the privilege of being near the operating table. I distinctly saw that the first-born had a small mark on the bottom of his foot." He gently raised the outside foot of the baby on the right and triumphantly showed the nurse a small, round, reddish-brown mark on the sole of the foot.
     Miss Proctor began turning a livid red. "See here, you young upstart," she said contemptuously. "Are you trying to confuse those babies? I am quite sure that I did not make a mistake when I told the other nurse which one was the first-born; if there has been a mistake made, it was SHE who made it."
     "But---but Miss Proctor," he was clearly dismayed and indignant. "Jane---the other nurse, I mean---took special care to distinguish between the two. In fact, I was there nearly all the time and she kept the first-born in one and the second in a completely different crib." He waved his hand ineffectually and muttered. "There wasn't any chance of a mix-up."
     Forgetting the presence of the Queen, Miss Proctor stamped her foot and pointed furiously at the door. "Get OUT," she cried, and then, catching a forward movement of the King out of the corner of her eye, she added, "You're disturbing EVERYONE."
     Opening his mouth for a last retort, but seeing the futility of argument, he stalked out of the room, forgetting even to pay his respects to the royal parents.
     Miss Proctor turned to the bed of the Queen with a small shrug of her shoulders. "I don't know why he insists that I am wrong: I know I gave the correct one to the nurse---Jane---first. Of course if SHE confused them somehow---well." She let the sentence dangle expressively.
     Doctor Matthews regarded her with an inward frown. If only she weren't so infallible, he thought with resentment. He almost wished that it would be discovered that she had interchanged the Princes. The feeling of inferiority he had felt earlier in the morning deepened, and now he couldn't look at her squarely, without a feeling of being penetrated by her somehow sarcastic eyes.
     Just as he was about to look at something more pleasing, she caught him staring at her. With her eyes boring into him, he forcefully recollected one of his childhood experiences: he had once been cornered by a wild boar.
     "I don't think anyone is exempt from mistakes." The King was annoyed when anyone ignored his presence for any great length of time. He felt it was his duty to add to the conversation---wasn't HE the one to take command of things? "Miss Proctor, I want you bring everyone who had anything to do with the care of the twins in here at once."
     "And you," he said turning on his heel to question the doctor, who prayed that he might conveniently fall through the floor, "YOU were in charge here, weren't you? You delivered the babies, didn't you? You should have seen the mark on that foot, shouldn't you have?
     "Or weren't you on the job?"
     There it was! The question was more of an indictment. Well, there went his reputation. He knew that everything had turned out too well for a while. Now the perfection was at an end. For a fleeting second he contemplated making a dash for the door and going to another country and starting all over again. There was surely no future for him in Nestonia. Once the King heard of his negligence, he would never treat another Nestonian again.
     "I---I'm s-sorry," he began, feeling the beads of perspiration start on his forehead. "No, I---I wasn't there when the babies were born. I thought that everything would be all right---there was a long operation---and I---I was tired---so I sat down in the chair---over there." He motioned vaguely behind him, not taking his eyes off the King's huge dark eyes---fearing any moment to be shoved, kicked or pummeled by the infuriated King. "I didn't see the births," he added, with grim finality.
     There was no time for either apology by the Doctor or violence by the glowering King, for the door swung open at that moment. Doctor Matthews was saved a severe dressing-down, at least for a while.
     Into the room came the anesthetist, who was positive of the marked one being the first-born; Jane, the nurse, who was certain that she didn't get them mixed up; and finally Miss Proctor, who had regained the smug and self-assured attitude that had been so shaken by the testimony of the young man.
     For a few moments the room was silent---even the babies were sleeping peacefully, unconcerned with the events that had so much to do with their future life.
     The King cleared his throat, scanned the four people in front of him. "You," he commanded of the young man, "what did you have to do with my sons?"
      "Well, Your Majesty, frankly I didn't have too much to do with the twins. There are a few things I could say, though: when the first baby was born, I foresaw this confusion, so I looked for some sort of distinguishing marks on one or the other. I am almost certain that the first-born had a small, brown mark on his foot. You all saw the mark on that foot. And then, since I was with Jane all the while she was handling the twins, I can vouch for her carefulness in handling them. I won't---shouldn't---say anything more. That's what I saw; I have my own conclusions."
     Miss Proctor started from her chair at the obvious implications of his speech, but then settled back and waited her turn.
     The King turned to Jane and said, "Now, Miss Horton, it seems you were the one who handled the twins. Do you admit of the possibility that you made a mistake? You handled them from the very beginning. If they ARE confused, wouldn't you be the only one who had a chance to confuse them?"
     If Jane was inwardly frightened, she gave no outward impression of being so. In a calm voice she answered, "No, I was NOT the only one who had a chance to mix them up. Miss Proctor was the primary assistant at the birth: she had a very good chance to get them confused."
     All eyes in the room turned to Miss Proctor, who sat, now pale and shaking, in her chair. A look of relief suddenly flashed over her pasty face. Pointing triumphantly to Doctor Matthews, she said frostily, "The good Doctor was mistaken when he said he hadn't assisted in the births; it was only after he handed me the first-born that he left the operating area." She nodded slightly to the Doctor. He felt that the weight was shifted onto his shoulders in a singularly sly way.
     "Of course I was present at the first birth, how stupid of me to forget. I saw it all---I was on the job all the time," the Doctor blurted, without really thinking of the immediate consequences. All that flashed thorough his troubled mind was that his reputation had been saved by the last person in the world from whom he had expected help. But then the full import of his admission came to him as the King turned on him, fairly boiling with rage.
     "Then of course you know which of the twins is the first-born," he whispered, sarcasm dripping like acid on the Doctor's weakening self-confidence.
     He drew himself upright, preparing himself for the worst. "Naturally, I know which is the first-born. If it had been the one with the mark on the foot, I would have noticed it." He paused, and in the second's silence his feverish eyes took in the sincere bewilderment in the eyes of the nurse, Jane, and the assistant, but it also took in the smug, self-contented, fleshy smile on Miss Proctor's face as she saw herself being substantiated. Disgusted, the Doctor yelled in a loud voice: "And I DID notice it."
     At this sudden turn of events, Miss Proctor jerked from her chair with amazing agility despite her weight. As she did, the cap fell from her head, and Doctor Matthews felt a violent distaste for the reddening scalp showing through her sparse hair. "He's LYING!" She fairly screamed her accusation at the King.
     "He didn't see the mark on his foot, because IT WASN'T THERE!" Her voice rose to a maddening screech. In a blind frenzy the Doctor reached toward the massive, white-clothed nurse, but was stopped by a howl from the crib of the Princes.
     The image of what he saw dimmed by tears of frustration burning hot in his eyes, he made his way to the blue blur of the crib. One of the babies was crying loudly, kicking about and waving his arms; the other lay silent on the satin sheets. He patted the crying baby on its squalling head, and reached toward the other Prince. His fury at Miss Procter suddenly dissipating, he turned back to the center of the room.
     "I'm very sorry, but---" In the middle of his statement an enraged outcry from the nurse split the air of the bedroom.
     "Don't you DARE contradict ME." Her harsh voice so grated on his nerves that he felt capable of anything.
     Summoning his last ounce of willpower, he calmed himself and spoke almost in a whisper. "I was going to say---" Mistaking his quiet voice for a sign of weakness, the infuriated nurse pressed her attack.
     "You call yourself a Doctor, you pig!" Her voice broke; she swallowed and continued. "YOU confused the Princes, YOU mixed them up. You mangled the Queen, then left ME to take care of the twins. You---you---you BUTCHER." His will snapped.
     "You fat hag, you incompetent old bitch." Trembling with horrible rage, he poured invective upon insult, until her purple face swam before his eyes like the bloated face of a plump, dead fish. Her features contorted under his abuse until he felt that she might burst like a blood-filled balloon which had been pumped too full. An inarticulate shriek distending her puffy lips, she stumped on her tree-trunk legs to the crib and roughly lifted the crying baby off its quilts. It squacked, chicken-like, as Miss Proctor held it in front of her.
     "This one doesn't have the birthmark." Her constricted throat made her voice hoarse with anger. "This one is the oldest, this is the next King." She trembled in rage, and suddenly she was grabbing with hands wet with sweat at the smooth garments of the Prince. He twisted unnaturally in her grasp and slipped to the floor with a rustle of limp silk.
     To the Doctor the walls of the room seemed to draw back with a dizzying ascent in terror of the deed. A strangled cough came from the crimson mouth of the nurse before she collapsed.
     The floor heaved and buckled under the Doctor as he reached for the tiny, white bundle. Even before he picked up the baby, he saw that its skull had been crushed by the fall. He closed his eyes tightly, and said in a barely audible whisper:
     "The only thing I wanted to say---was that the baby who was so quiet---,"---the Queen gasped---, "---had died."