It was some time before he ventured to comment on the situation. "Manschoff is a damned good diagnostician," he murmured. Then he sat up. "Are you a patient here?"
She shook her head. "Don't ask questions, Harry. Can't you be satisfied with things as they are?"
"You're just what the doctor ordered, all right." He gazed down at her. "But don't you even have a name?"
"You can call me Sue."
He bent to kiss her but she avoided him and rose to her feet. "Got to go now."
She nodded and moved towards the bushes above the bank.
"But when will I see you again?"
"Coming swimming tomorrow?"
"Maybe I can get away for more occupational therapy then."
She stooped behind the bushes, and Harry saw a flash of white.
"You are a nurse, aren't you," he muttered. "On the staff, I suppose. I should have known."
"All right, so I am. What's that got to do with it?"
"And I suppose you were telling the truth when you said Manschoff sent you here. This is just part of my therapy, isn't it?"
She nodded briefly as she slipped into her uniform. "Does that bother you, Harry?"
He bit his lip. When he spoke, his voice was low. "Yes, damn it, it does. I mean, I got the idea-at least, I was hoping-that this wasn't just a matter of carrying out an assignment on your part."
She looked up at him gravely. "Who said anything about an assignment, darling?" she murmured. "I volunteered."
And then she was gone.
Then she was gone, and then she came back that night in Harry's dreams, and then she was at the river the next day and it was better than the dreams, better than the day before.
Sue told him she had been watching him for weeks now. And she had gone to Manschoff and suggested it, and she was very glad. And they had to meet here, out in the open, so as not to complicate the situation or disturb any of the other patients.
So Harry naturally asked her about the other patients, and the whole general setup, and she said Dr. Manschoff would answer all those questions in due time. But right now, with only an hour or so to spare, was he going to spend it all asking for information? Matters were accordingly adjusted to their mutual satisfaction, and it was on that basis that they continued their almost daily meetings for some time.
The next few months were perhaps the happiest Harry had ever known. The whole interval took on a dreamlike quality-idealized, romanticized, yet basically sensual. There is probably such a dream buried deep within the psyche of every man, Harry reflected, but to few is it ever given to realize its reality. His early questioning attitude gave way to a mood of mere acceptance and enjoyment. This was the primitive drama, the very essence of the male-female relationship; Adam and Eve in the Garden. Why waste time seeking the Tree of Knowledge?
And it wasn't until summer passed that Harry even thought about the Serpent.
One afternoon, as he sat waiting for Sue on the river bank, he heard a sudden movement in the brush behind him.
"Darling?" he called, eagerly.
"Please, you don't know me that well." The deep masculine voice carried overtones of amusement.
Flushing, Harry turned to confront the intruder. He was a short, stocky, middle-aged man whose bristling gray crewcut almost matched the neutral shades of his gray orderly's uniform.
"Expecting someone else, were you?" the man muttered. "Well, I'll get out of your way."
"That's not necessary. I was really just daydreaming, I guess. I don't know what made me think-" Harry felt his flush deepen, and he lowered his eyes and his voice as he tried to improvise some excuse.
"You're a lousy liar," the man said, stepping forward and seating himself on the bank next to Harry. "But it doesn't really matter. I don't think your girl friend is going to show up today, anyway."
"What do you mean? What do you know about-"
"I mean just what I said," the man told him. "And I know everything I need to know, about you and about her and about the situation in general. That's why I'm here, Collins."
He paused, watching the play of emotions in Harry's eyes.
"I know what you're thinking right now," the gray-haired man continued. "At first you wondered how I knew your name. Then you realized that if I was on the staff in the wards I'd naturally be able to identify the patients. Now it occurs to you that you've never seen me in the wards, so you're speculating as to whether or not I'm working out of the administration offices with that psychiatric no good Manschoff. But if I were, I wouldn't be calling him names, would I? Which means you're really getting confused, aren't you, Collins? Good!"
The man chuckled, but there was neither mockery, malice, nor genuine mirth in the sound. And his eyes were sober, intent.
"Who are you?" Harry asked. "What are you doing here?"
"The name is Ritchie, Arnold Ritchie. At least, that's the name they know me by around here, and you can call me that. As to what I'm doing, it's a long story. Let's just say that right now I'm here to give you a little advanced therapy."
"Then Manschoff did send you?"
The chuckle came again, and Ritchie shook his head. "He did not. And if he even suspected I was here, there'd be hell to pay."
"Then what do you want with me?"
"It isn't a question of what I want. It's a question of what you need. Which is, like I said, advanced therapy. The sort that dear old kindly permissive Father-Image Manschoff doesn't intend you to get."
Harry stood up. "What's this all about?"
Ritchie rose with him, smiling for the first time. "I'm glad you asked that question, Collins. It's about time you did, you know. Everything has been so carefully planned to keep you from asking it. But you were beginning to wonder just a bit anyway, weren't you?"
"I don't see what you're driving at."
"You don't see what anyone is driving at, Collins. You've been blinded by a spectacular display of kindness, misdirected by self-indulgence. I told you I knew everything I needed to know about you, and I do. Now I'm going to ask you to remember these things for yourself; the things you've avoided considering all this while.
"I'm going to ask you to remember that you're twenty-eight years old, and that for almost seven years you were an agency man and a good one. You worked hard, you did a conscientious job, you stayed in line, obeyed the rules, never rebelled. Am I correct in my summary of the situation?"
"Yes, I guess so."
"So what was your reward for all this unceasing effort and eternal conformity? A one-room apartment and a one-week vacation, once a year. Count your blessings, Collins. Am I right?"
"Then what happened? Finally you flipped, didn't you? Tried to take a header out of the window. You chucked your job, chucked your responsibilities, chucked your future and attempted to chuck yourself away. Am I still right?"
"Good enough. And now we come to the interesting part of the story. Seven years of being a good little boy got you nothing but the promise of present and future frustration. Seven seconds of madness, of attempted self-destruction, brought you here. And as a reward for bucking the system, the system itself has provided you with a life of luxury and leisure-full permission to come and go as you please, live in spacious ease, indulge in the gratification of every appetite, free of responsibility or restraint. Is that true?"
"I suppose so."
"All right. Now, let me ask you the question you asked me. What's it all about?"
Ritchie put his hand on Harry's shoulder. "Tell me that, Collins. Why do you suppose you've received such treatment? As long as you stayed in line, nobody gave a damn for your comfort or welfare. Then, when you committed the cardinal sin of our present-day society-when you rebelled-everything was handed to you on a silver platter. Does that make sense?"
"But it's therapy. Dr. Manschoff said-"
"Look, Collins. Millions of people flip every year. Millions more attempt suicide. How many of them end up in a place like this?"
"They don't, though. That's just Naturalist propaganda. Dr. Manschoff said-"
"Dr. Manschoff said! I know what he said, all right. And you believed him, because you wanted to believe him. You wanted the reassurance he could offer you-the feeling of being unique and important. So you didn't ask him any questions, you didn't ask any questions of yourself. Such as why anybody would consider an insignificant little agency man, without friends, family or connections, worth the trouble of rehabilitating at all, let alone amidst such elaborate and expensive surroundings. Why, men like you are a dime a dozen these days-Vocational Apt can push a few buttons and come up with half a million replacements to take over your job. You aren't important to society, Collins. You aren't important to anyone at all, besides yourself. And yet you got the red-carpet treatment. It's about time somebody yanked that carpet out from under you. What's it all about?"
Harry blinked. "Look here, I don't see why this is any of your business. Besides, to tell the truth, I'm expecting-"
"I know who you're expecting, but I've already told you she won't be here. Because she's expecting."
"It's high time you learned the facts of life, Collins. Yes, the well-known facts of life-the ones about the birds and the bees, and barefoot boys and blondes, too. Your little friend Sue is going to have a souvenir."
"I don't believe it! I'm going to ask Dr. Manschoff."
"Sure you are. You'll ask Manschoff and he'll deny it. And so you'll tell him about me. You'll say you met somebody in the woods today-either a lunatic or a Naturalist spy who infiltrated here under false pretenses. And Manschoff will reassure you. He'll reassure you just long enough to get his hands on me. Then he'll take care of both of us."
"Are you insinuating-"
"Hell, no! I'm telling you!" Ritchie put his hand down suddenly, and his voice calmed. "Ever wonder about those other two big buildings on the premises here, Collins? Well, I can tell you about one of them, because that's where I work. You might call it an experimental laboratory if you like. Sometime later on I'll describe it to you. But right now it's the other building that's important; the building with the big chimney. That's a kind of an incinerator, Collins-a place where the mistakes go up in smoke, at night, when there's nobody to see. A place where you and I will go up in smoke, if you're fool enough to tell Manschoff about this."
"I wish to God I was, for both our sakes! But I can prove what I'm saying. You can prove it, for yourself."
"Pretend this meeting never occurred. Pretend that you just spent the afternoon here, waiting for a girl who never showed up. Then do exactly what you would do under those circumstances. Go in to see Dr. Manschoff and ask him where Sue is, tell him you were worried because she'd promised to meet you and then didn't appear.
"I can tell you right now what he'll tell you. He'll say that Sue has been transferred to another treatment center, that she knew about it for several weeks but didn't want to upset you with the news of her departure. So she decided to just slip away. And Manschoff will tell you not to be unhappy. It just so happens that he knows of another nurse who has had her eye on you-a very pretty little brunette named Myrna. In fact, if you go down to the river tomorrow, you'll find her waiting for you there."
"What if I refuse?"
Ritchie shrugged. "Why should you refuse? It's all fun and games, isn't it? Up to now you haven't asked any questions about what was going on, and it would look very strange if you started at this late date. I strongly advise you to cooperate. If not, everything is likely to-quite literally-go up in smoke."
Harry Collins frowned. "All right, suppose I do what you say, and Manschoff gives me the answers you predict. This still doesn't prove that he'd be lying or that you're telling me the truth."
"Wouldn't it indicate as much, though?"
"Perhaps. But on the other hand, it could merely mean that you know Sue has been transferred, and that Dr. Manschoff intends to turn me over to a substitute. It doesn't necessarily imply anything sinister."
"In other words, you're insisting on a clincher, is that it?"
"All right." Ritchie sighed heavily. "You asked for it." He reached into the left-hand upper pocket of the gray uniform and brought out a small, stiff square of glossy paper.
"What's that?" Harry asked. He reached for the paper, but Ritchie drew his hand back.
"Look at it over my shoulder," he said. "I don't want any fingerprints. Hell of a risky business just smuggling it out of the files-no telling how well they check up on this material."
Harry circled behind the smaller man. He squinted down. "Hard to read."
"Sure. It's a photostat. I made it myself, this morning; that's my department. Read carefully now. You'll see it's a transcript of the lab report. Susan Pulver, that's her name, isn't it? After due examination and upon completion of preliminary tests, hereby found to be in the second month of pregnancy. Putative father, Harry Collins-that's you, see your name? And here's the rest of the record."
"Yes, let me see it. What's all this about inoculation series? And who is this Dr. Leffingwell?" Harry bent closer, but Ritchie closed his hand around the photostat and pocketed it again.
"Never mind that, now. I'll tell you later. The important thing is, do you believe me?"
"I believe Sue is pregnant, yes."
"That's enough. Enough for you to do what I've asked you to. Go to Manschoff and make inquiries. See what he tells you. Don't make a scene, and for God's sake don't mention my name. Just confirm my story for yourself. Then I'll give you further details."
"But when will I see you?"
"Tomorrow afternoon, if you like. Right here."
"You said he'd be sending another girl-"
Ritchie nodded. "So I did. And so he'll say. I suggest you beg to be excused for the moment. Tell him it will take a while for you to get over the shock of losing Sue this way."
"I won't be lying," Harry murmured.
"I know. And I'm sorry. Believe me, I am." Ritchie sighed again. "But you'll just have to trust me from now on."
"Trust you? When you haven't even explained what this is all about?"
"You've had your shock-therapy for today. Come back for another treatment tomorrow."
And then Ritchie was gone, the gray uniform melting away into the gray shadows of the shrubbery above the bank.
A short time later, Harry made his own way back to the center in the gathering twilight. The dusk was gray, too. Everything seemed gray now.