One March morning, at the end of a day’s journey by train, Giuseppe Corte arrived in the city where the famous nursing home was located. He had a slight fever, but chose none the less to walk from the station to the hospital, carrying his overnight bag himself.
Detected in an early stage and negligible though his infection was, Giuseppe Corte had been counselled to seek treatment at the renowned sanatorium, to which sufferers from his disease were the only ones admitted. This thereby guaranteed exceptional competence on the part of the doctors and the soundest disposition of facilities within the hospital itself.
As he caught sight of it from a distance—recognizable from a photograph he had once seen in a prospectus—Giuseppe Corte was most favorably impressed. With a façade of projecting wings, the white seven-storeyed structure bore a vague resemblance to a hotel. It was surrounded by a girdle of tall trees.
After a brief physical examination, with promise of a more careful, more thorough one to follow, Giuseppe Corte was assigned to a cheerful room on the seventh and uppermost floor. His furniture there, like the wall paper, was bright and clean, and the armchairs were of wood with cushions upholstered in a polychrome material. His view dominated one of the loveliest quarters of the city. All was tranquil, hospitable and reassuring.
Giuseppe Corte slipped into bed at once and, turning on the light above the bolster, began to read a book he had brought with him. Presently a nurse entered to ask if there were anything he desired.
No, nothing at all; but he quickly seized upon the opportunity to engage the girl in conversation, to question her about the nursing home. It was thus that he came to hear of its unique arrangement. The patients were distributed on various floors depending upon the gravity of their cases. On the seventh—that is, on the top floor—were those whose inflections were very slight. The sixth handled cases which, if not grave, could by no means be neglected. Cases treated on the fifth floor were serious; and so on, all the way down, floor by floor. The condition of patients on the second, for instance, was extremely critical. And the first was reserved for those for whom there could be no hope.
This singular stratification, apart from greatly accelerating the hospital service, insured mildly infected patients against being disturbed by neighbors in agony, and guaranteed in each ward a homogeneous atmosphere. Moreover, it lent itself to a perfect graduation of treatment, the achievement of optimum results.
It followed, then, that the patients were divided into seven progressive castes. Each floor was like a little world in itself, with its own rules and special traditions which were meaningless on other floors. And since each section was under the direction of a different doctor, there had developed, but on an absolutely minor scale, subtle differences in the method of treatment, despite the fact that the director general had established in the institution one fundamental procedure.
When the nurse left, Giuseppe Corte, feeling that his temperature had subsided to normal, went to the window and looked out, not so much to view the city, new though it was to him, as in hope of catching a glimpse of other patients through the windows on the floors below. The structure of the building, with its projecting wings and recesses, lent itself to this sort of observation. Mostly, Giuseppe Corte’s attention was focussed on the windows of the first floor, which looked to him to be very far away and were seen only slant-wise. But there was nothing of interest. Nearly all of the windows were shuttered tight with grey, sliding persiennes.
Corte then noticed that a man had appeared at a window next to his. The two men looked at each other for some time with a growing sense of fellow-feeling, but neither knew just how to break the silence. At length, Giuseppe Corte summoned courage enough to ask:
“Have you just arrived yourself?”
“Oh no,” answered the other. “I’ve been here for two months now…” He was silent for a moment or so, and then, uncertain how to continue, added: “I was looking at my brother.”
“Yes,” explained the stranger. “We entered together—quite an exceptional case, ours; but he got worse. Just think, he’s already on the fourth!”
“Yes, the fourth floor,” explained the man, enunciating these words with accents of such commiseration and horror as to evoke in Giuseppe Corte a feeling almost of terror.
“Is it really so serious on the fourth floor?” he ventured cautiously.
“Goodness,” said the other, slowly shaking his head, “they’re not desperate, those cases, but there’s precious little to rejoice about.”
“But then,” pursued Corte, with the playfully detached manner of one who alludes to tragic events of no concern to him, “well, if they’re that serious on the fourth floor, whom do they put on the first?”
“Oh,” said the other, “the first is for patients who are dying—actually dying. In fact, down there the doctors don’t have a thing to do. The only person that’s kept busy is the priest. Naturally—”
“But there’s hardly anybody there, anyway,” interrupted Corte, as if eager for confirmation; “nearly all the rooms are closed.”
“True, there aren’t many at the moment, but they had a number this morning,” replied the stranger, with a subtle smile. “Wherever you see that the persiennes are drawn, it means that someone has just died. Anyway, you can see, can’t you, that the shutters on the other floors are all open?... But you’ll excuse me now,” he said, slowly withdrawing. “It’s growing a bit chilly, I feel. I’m going back to bed. I wish you luck... the best of luck!”
The man disappeared from the sill and the window was closed energetically; a light came on in his room. Giuseppe Corte remained at his window, motionless, his eyes fixed on the drawn persiennes of the first floor; he stared at them with morbid intensity, trying to imagine the funereal secrets of that dreadful floor where patients were assigned to die; and a sense of relief pervaded him, knowing that he was so far away. Evening settled over the city. One by one, lights appeared at the thousand windows of the sanatorium; from a distance one might have mistaken it for a hotel-party. Only on the first floor, at the foot of the precipice, were there windows, scores of them, that remained blind and dark.
The results of his thorough physical examination reassured Giuseppe Corte. Inclined as a rule to expect the worst, he was already inwardly prepared for a harsh verdict, and would not, indeed, have been surprised if they had declared that he would have to be sent to the floor below. In fact his fever, though his general condition continued good, had shown no signs of subsiding. The doctor, however, chose to speak to him in terms that were amicable and encouraging. There was certainly, he said, an incipient trace of the disease but it was very slight and would no doubt clear up in two or three weeks.
“Then I’m to remain on the seventh?” Giuseppe Corte had asked, anxious, at this juncture.
“Why, of course!” the doctor had replied, patting him in a friendly fashion on the shoulder. “Where did you expect to go? Certainly, not to the fourth?” he laughed, as if this were the worst, the most absurd of possibilities.
Giuseppe Corte, in fact, remained in the room to which he had originally been assigned. He came to know some of his fellow patients in the hospital on those rare occasions, in the afternoon, when he was permitted out of bed. He attended scrupulously to his treatment, doing his very utmost to hasten recovery; yet, despite his efforts, his condition seemed to remain unchanged.
About ten days had elapsed when the chief attendant of the seventh floor introduced himself to Giuseppe Corte. He wanted to know if Corte would grant him a favor, a purely personal favor: a lady with two children was scheduled to arrive the following day; they happened to have two free rooms, on either side of Corte’s as it was, but they needed a third. Would Signor Corte mind moving to another, but equally comfortable, room?
Giuseppe Corte had, naturally, no objection; one room or another was quite the same to him, and there was a chance that he might find himself with a new and prettier nurse.
“Thanks ever so much,” said the chief attendant, bowing lightly. “But from a person like you, I admit, so kind and gentlemanly a gesture scarcely surprises me. In an hour, then, if that is suitable to you, we’ll proceed with the transfer. You realize that you’ll have to go down to the next floor,” he added, offhand, as if this were a detail hardly worth mention. “Unfortunately, we do not have any other vacant rooms on this floor. But this is only a temporary arrangement,” he went on quickly, observing that Corte, suddenly sitting up in bed, was about to protest. “An absolutely temporary arrangement. Just as soon as we have a free room, and I believe we shall within two or three days, you’ll be able to come back up.”
“I must say,” said Giuseppe Corte, smiling, to make it quite clear that he was not a child, “I must say that a transfer of this sort does not please me in the least...”
“But it is not being made on any medical grounds whatever; I understand perfectly what you mean, but this is no more than a gesture of courtesy toward a lady who does not wish to be separated from her children... Really,” he added, laughing aloud, “you mustn’t even think that there are other reasons.”
“Very well,” said Giuseppe Corte. “Only, it looks to me like a bad sign.”
Thus, Signor Corte went to the sixth floor. And although convinced that his transfer was in no way due to a worsening of his condition, he felt uneasy at the thought that between him and the world at large, the world of healthy people, an obstacle had been interposed. On the seventh floor, at the port of arrival, one still had contact somehow with the society of man; it might even be considered a kind of annex to the everyday world. But on the sixth, one had then entered the hospital proper: the mentality of the doctors, of the nurses and of the patients themselves was already a little different. Here, it was admitted, was a ward for real, for genuinely ill patients, slight though their infections were. In fact, from his first discussions there, with patients in the neighboring rooms, with attendants and doctors, Giuseppe Corte remarked the way the seventh floor was dismissed as a joke, as a place reserved for amateur patients suffering largely from imaginary complaints; only on the sixth did the hospital, so to speak, really begin.
And Giuseppe Corte understood that before returning upstairs, to his rightful place, according with the characteristics of his particular case, he would encounter, certainly, some difficulties; to return to the seventh floor, he would have to set in motion a complicated organism, however slight was the effort required of it; doubtless, had he not spoken up, no one would have dreamed of returning him to the floor of the “amateurs.”
He was determined therefore not to yield on any of his rights, and not to let himself fall prey to habit. He was fond of pointing out to his ward mates that he would be with them for only a few days, that it had been merely his desire to accommodate a lady that accounted for his presence there, and that as soon as they had an empty room upstairs he was leaving them. His listeners would nod assent, but skeptically.