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In the Children's Hospital by Jacob A. Riis


The fact was printed the other day that the half-hundred children or more who are in the hospitals on North Brother Island had no playthings, not even a rattle, to make the long days skip by, which, set in smallpox, scarlet fever, and measles, must be longer there than anywhere else in the world. The toys that were brought over there with a consignment of nursery tots who had the typhus fever had been worn clean out, except some fish horns which the doctor frowned on, and which were therefore not allowed at large. Not as much as a red monkey on a yellow stick was there left on the island to make the youngsters happy.

That afternoon a big, hearty-looking man came into the office with the paper in his hand, and demanded to see the editor. He had come, he said, to see to it that those sick youngsters got the playthings they were entitled to; and a regular Santa Claus he proved to the friendless little colony on the lonely island; for he left a crisp fifty-dollar note behind when he went away without giving his name. The single condition was attached to the gift that it should be spent buying toys for the children on North Brother Island.

Accordingly, a strange invading army took the island by storm three or four nights ago. Under cover of the darkness it had itself ferried over from One Hundred and Thirty-eighth Street in the department yawl, and before morning it was in undisputed possession. It has come to stay. Not a doll or a sheep will ever leave the island again. They may riot upon it as they please, within certain well-defined limits, but none of them can ever cross the channel to the mainland again, unless it be the rubber dolls who can swim, so it is said. Here is the muster-roll:—

Six sheep (four with lambs), six fairies (big dolls in street dress), twelve rubber dolls (in woollen jackets), four railroad trains, twenty-eight base-balls, twenty rubber balls, six big painted (Scotch plaid) rubber balls, six still bigger ditto, seven boxes of blocks, half a dozen music-boxes, twenty-four rattles, six bubble (soap) toys, twelve small engines, six games of dominos, twelve rubber toys (old woman who lived in a shoe, etc.), five wooden toys (bad bear, etc.), thirty-six horse reins.

As there is only one horse on the island, and that one a very steady-going steed in no urgent need of restraint, this last item might seem superfluous, but only to the uninstructed mind. Within a brief week half the boys and girls on the island that are out of bed long enough to stand on their feet will be transformed into ponies and the other half into drivers, and flying teams will go cavorting around to the tune of “Johnny, Get your Gun,” and the “Jolly Brothers Gallop,” as they are ground out of the music-boxes by little fingers that but just now toyed feebly with the balusters on the golden stair.

That music! When I went over to the island it fell upon my ears in little drops of sweet melody, as soon as I came in sight of the nurses' quarters. I listened, but couldn't make out the tune. The drops seemed mixed. When I opened the door upon one of the nurses, Dr. Dixon, and the hospital matron, each grinding his or her music for all there was in it, and looking perfectly happy withal, I understood why.

They were all playing different tunes at the same time, the nurse “When the Robins Nest Again,” Dr. Dixon “Nancy Lee,” and the matron “Sweet Violets.” A little child stood by in open-mouthed admiration, that became ecstasy when I joined in with “The Babies on our Block.” It was all for the little one's benefit, and she thought it beautiful without a doubt.

The storekeeper, knowing that music hath charms to soothe the breast of even a typhus-fever patient, had thrown in a dozen boxes as his own gift. Thus one good deed brings on another, and a good deal more than fifty dollars' worth of happiness will be ground out on the island before there is an end of the music.

There is one little girl in the measles ward already who will eat only when her nurse sits by grinding out “Nancy Lee.” She cannot be made to swallow one mouthful on any other condition. No other nurse and no other tune but “Nancy Lee” will do—neither the “Star-Spangled Banner” nor “The Babies on our Block.” Whether it is Nancy all by her melodious self, or the beautiful picture of her in a sailor's suit on the lid of the box, or the two and the nurse and the dinner together, that serve to soothe her, is a question of some concern to the island, since Nancy and the nurse have shown signs of giving out together.

Three of the six sheep that were bought for the ridiculously low price of eighty-nine cents apiece, the lambs being thrown in as makeweight, were grazing on the mixed-measles lawn over on the east shore of the island, with a fairy in evening dress eying them rather disdainfully in the grasp of tearful Annie Cullum. Annie is a foundling from the asylum temporarily sojourning here. The measles and the scarlet fever were the only things that ever took kindly to her in her little life. They tackled her both at once, and poor Annie, after a six or eight weeks' tussle with them, has just about enough spunk left to cry when anybody looks at her.

Three woolly sheep and a fairy all at once have robbed her of all hope, and in the midst of it all she weeps as if her heart would break. Even when the nurse pulls one of the unresisting muttonheads, and it emits a loud “Baa-a,” she stops only just for a second or two and then wails again. The sheep look rather surprised, as they have a right to. They have come to be little Annie's steady company, hers and her fellow-sufferers' in the mixed-measles ward. The triangular lawn upon which they are browsing is theirs to gambol on when the sun shines, but cross the walk that borders it they never can, any more than the babies with whom they play. Sumptuary law rules the island they are on. Habeas corpus and the constitution stop short of the ferry. Even Comstock's authority does not cross it: the one exception to the rule that dolls and sheep and babies shall not visit from ward to ward is in favor of the rubber dolls, and the etiquette of the island requires that they shall lay off their woollen jackets and go calling just as the factory turned them out, without a stitch or shred of any kind on.

As for the rest, they are assigned, babies, nurses, sheep, rattles, and railroad trains, to their separate measles, scarlet fever, and diphtheria lawns or wards, and there must be content to stay. A sheep may be transferred from the scarlet-fever ward with its patron to the mixed-measles or diphtheria, when symptoms of either of these diseases appear, as they often do; but it cannot then go back again, lest it carry the seeds of the new contagion to its old friends.

Even the fairies are put under the ban of suspicion by such evil associations, and, once they have crossed the line, are not allowed to go back to corrupt the good manners of the babies with only one complaint.

Pauline Meyer, the bigger of the two girls on the mixed-measles stoop,—the other is friendless Annie,—has just enough strength to laugh when her sheep's head is pulled. She has been on the limits of one ward after another these four months, and has had everything, short of typhus fever and smallpox, that the island affords.

It is a marvel that there is one laugh left in her whole little shrunken body after it all; but there is, and the grin on her face reaches almost from ear to ear, as she clasps the biggest fairy in an arm very little stouter than a boy's bean blower, and hears the lamb bleat. Why, that one smile on that ghastly face would be thought worth his fifty dollars by the children's friend, could he see it. Pauline is the child of Swedish emigrants. She and Annie will not fight over their lambs and their dolls, not for many weeks. They can't. They can't even stand up.

One of the railroad trains, drawn by a glorious tin engine, with the name “Union” painted on the cab, is making across the stoop for the little boy with the whooping-cough in the next building. But it won't get there; it is quarantined. But it will have plenty of exercise. Little hands are itching to get hold of it in one of the cribs inside. There are thirty-six sick children on the island just now, about half of them boys, who will find plenty of use for the balls and things as soon as they get about. How those base-balls are to be kept within bounds is a hopeless mystery the doctors are puzzling over.

Even if nines are organized in every ward, as has been suggested, it is hard to see how they can be allowed to play each other, as they would want to, of course, as soon as they could toddle about. It would be something, though, a smallpox nine pitted against the scarlets or the measles, with an umpire from the mixed ward!

The old woman that lived in a shoe, being of rubber, is a privileged character, and is away on a call in the female scarlet, says the nurse. It is a good thing that she was made that way, for she is very popular. So are Mother Goose and her ten companion rubber toys. The bear and the man that strike alternately a wooden anvil with a ditto hammer are scarcely less exciting to the infantile mind; but, being of wood, they are steady boarders permanently attached each to his ward. The dominos fell to the lot of the male scarlets. That ward has half a dozen grown men in it at present, and they have never once lost sight of the little black blocks since they first saw them.

The doctor reports that they are getting better just as fast as they can since they took to playing dominos. If there is any hint in this to the profession at large, they are welcome to it, along with humanity.

A little girl with a rubber doll in a red woollen jacket—a combination to make the perspiration run right off one with the humidity at 98—looks wistfully down from the second-story balcony of the smallpox pavilion, as the doctor goes past with the last sheep tucked under his arm.

But though it baa-a ever so loudly, it is not for her. It is bound for the white tent on the shore, shunned even here, where sits a solitary watcher gazing wistfully all day toward the city that has passed out of his life. Perchance it may bring to him a message from the far-away home where the birds sang for him, and the waves and the flowers spoke to him, and “Unclean” had not been written against his name. Of all on the Pest Island he alone is hopeless. He is a leper, and his sentence is that of a living death in a strange land.


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