MARY E. WILKINS-FREEMAN
"The Debtor," "A Humble Romance," "The Heart's Highway," "Pembroke," Etc.
Illustrated in Water-Colors by FRANK T. MERRILL
Copyright, 1906, by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman
H.L. MOORE SPECIAL EDITION, For Sale exclusively by us in Rahway, N.J.
NEW YORK AND LONDON THE AUTHORS AND NEWSPAPERS ASSOCIATION 1906
COPYRIGHT, 1906, BY MARY E. WILKINS-FREEMAN.
Entered at Stationers' Hall. All rights reserved.
Composition and Electrotyping by J.J. Little & Co. Printed and bound by Manhattan Press, New York.
It was very early in the morning, it was scarcely dawn, when the young man started upon a walk of twenty-five miles to reach Alton, where he was to be assistant to the one physician in the place, Doctor Thomas Gordon, or as he was familiarly called, "Doc." Gordon. The young man's name was James Elliot. He had just graduated, and this was to be his first experience in the practice of his profession of medicine. He was in his twenties. He was small, but from the springiness of his gait and the erectness of his head he gave an impression of height. He was very good-looking, with clearly-cut features, and dark eyes, in which shone, like black diamonds, sparks of mischief. They were honest eyes, too. The young fellow was still sowing his wild oats, but more with his hands than with his soul. He was walking because of a great amount of restless energy; he fairly revelled in stretching his legs over the country road in the keen morning air. The train service between Gresham, his home place, and Alton was very bad, necessitating two changes and waits of hours, and he had fretted at the prospect. When a young man is about to begin his career, he does not wish to sit hours in dingy little railroad stations on his way toward it. It was much easier, and pleasanter, to walk, almost run to it, as he was doing now. His only baggage was his little medicine-case; his trunk had gone by train the day before. He was very well dressed, his clothes had the cut of a city tailor. He was almost dandified. His father was well-to-do: a successful peach-grower on a wholesale scale. His great farm was sprayed over every spring with delicate rosy garlands of peach blossoms, and in the autumn the trees were heavy with the almond-scented fruit. He had made a fortune, and aside from that had achieved a certain local distinction. He was then mayor of Gresham, which had a city government. James was very proud of his father and fond of him. Indeed, he had reason to be. His father had done everything in his power for him, given him a good education, and supplied him liberally with money. James had always had a sense of plenty of money, which had kept him from undue love of it. He was now beginning the practice of his profession, in a small way, it is true, but that he recognized as expedient. "You had better get acclimated, become accustomed to your profession in a small place, before you launch out in a city," his father had said, and the son had acquiesced. It was the natural wing-trying process before large flights were attempted, and the course commended itself to his reason. James, as well as his father, had good reasoning power. He whistled to himself as he walked along. He was very happy. He had a sensation as of one who has his goal in sight. He thought of his father, his mother, and his two younger sisters, but with no distress at absenting himself from them, although he lived in accord with his family. Twenty-five miles to his joyous youth seemed but as a step across the road. He had no sense of separation. "What is twenty-five miles?" he had said laughingly to his mother, when she had kissed him good-by. He had no conception of her state of mind with regard to the break in the home circle. He who was the breaker did not even see the break. Therefore he walked along, conscious of an immense joy in his own soul, and wholly unconscious of anything except joy in the souls of those whom he had left behind. It was a glorious morning, a white morning. The ground was covered with white frost, the trees, the house-roofs, the very air, were all white. In the west a transparent moon was slowly sinking; the east deepened with red and violet tints. Then came the sun, upheaving above the horizon like a ship of glory, and all the whiteness burned, and glowed, and radiated jewel-lights. James looked about with the delight of a discoverer. It might have been his first morning. He begun to meet men going to their work, swinging tin dinner-pails. Even these humble pails became glorified, they gave back the sunlight like burnished silver. He smelled the odors of breakfast upon the men's clothes. He held up his head high with a sort of good-humored arrogance as he passed. He would have fought to the death for any one of these men, but he knew himself, quite innocently, upon superior heights of education, and trained thought, and ambition. He met a man swinging a pail; he was coughing: a wretched, long rattle of a cough. James stopped him, opened his little medicine-case, and produced some pellets.
"Here, take one of these every hour until the cough is relieved, my friend," said he.
The man stared, swallowed a pellet, stared again, in an odd, suspicious, surly fashion, muttered something unintelligible and passed on.
There were three villages between Gresham and Alton: Red Hill, Stanbridge, and Westover. James stopped in Red Hill at a quick-lunch wagon, which was drawn up on the principal street under the lee of the town hall, went in, ordered and ate with relish some hot frankfurters, and drank some coffee. He had eaten a plentiful breakfast before starting, but the keen air had created his appetite anew. Beside him at the counter sat a young workingman, also eating frankfurters and drinking coffee. Now and then he gave a sidelong and supercilious glance at James's fine clothes. James caught one of the glances, and laughed good-naturedly.
"These quick-lunch wagons are a mighty good idea," said he.
The man grunted and took a swallow of coffee.
"Where do you work?" asked James.
"None of your d—— business!" retorted the other man unexpectedly. "Where do you work yourself?"
James stared at him, then he burst into a roar. For a second the man's surly mouth did not budge, then the corners twitched a little.
"What in thunder are you mad about?" inquired James. "I am going to work for Doctor Gordon in Alton, and I don't care a d—— where you work." James spoke with the most perfect good nature, still laughing.
Then the man's face relaxed into a broad grin. "Didn't know but you were puttin' on lugs," said he. "I am about tired of all those damned benefactors comin' along and arskin' of a man whot's none of their business, when a man knows all the time they don't care nothin' about it, and then makin' a man take somethin' he don't want, so as to get their names in the papers." The man sniffed a sniff of fury, then his handsome blue eyes smiled pleasantly, even with mischievous confidence into James's, and he swallowed more coffee.
"I am no benefactor, you can bet your life on that," said James. "I don't mean to give you anything you want or don't want."
"Didn't know but you was one of that kind," returned the man.
The man eyed James's clothes expressively.
"Oh, you mean my clothes," said James. "Well, this suit and overcoat are pretty fair, but if I were a benefactor I should be wearing seedy clothes, and have my wallet stuffed with bills for other folks."
"You bet you wouldn't," said the other man. "That ain't the way benefactors go to work. What be you goin' to do at Doc Gordon's?"
"Drive," replied James laconically.
"Guess you can't take care of hosses in no sech togs as them."
"I've got some others. I'm going to learn to doctor a little, too, if I can."
The man surveyed him, then he burst into a great laugh. "Well," said he, "when I git the measles I'll call you in."
"All right," said James, "I won't charge you a red cent. I'll doctor you and all your children and your wife for nothing."
"Guess you won't need to charge nothin' for the wife and kids, seein' as I ain't got none," said the man. "Ketch me saddled up with a woman an' kids, if I know what I'm about. Them's for the benefactors. I live in a little shanty I rigged up myself out of two packin' boxes. I've got 'em on a man's medder here. He let me squat for nothin'. I git my meals here, an' I work on the railroad, an' I've got a soft snap, with nobody to butt in. Here, Mame, give us another cup of coffee. Mame's the girl I want, if I could hev one. Ain't you, Mame?"
The girl, who was a blonde, with an exaggerated pompadour fastened with aggressive celluloid pins, smiled pertly. "Reckon I h'ain't no more use for men than you hev for women," said she, as she poured the coffee. All that could be seen of her behind the counter was her head, and her waist clad in a red blouse, pinned so high to her skirt in the rear that it almost touched her shoulder blades. The blouse was finished at the neck with a nice little turn-over collar fastened with a brooch set with imitation diamonds and sapphires.
"Now, Mame, you know," said the man with assumed pathos, "that it is only because I'm a poor devil that I don't go kerflop the minute I set eyes on you. But you wouldn't like to live in boxes, would you? Would you now?"
"Not till my time comes, and not in boxes, then, less I'm in a railroad accident," replied the girl, with ghastly jocularity.
"She's got another feller, or you might git her if you've got a stiddy job," the man said, winking at James with familiarity.
"Just my luck," said James. He looked at the girl, and thought her pretty and pathetic, with a vulgar, almost tragic, prettiness and pathos. She was anaemic and painfully thin. Her blouse was puffed out over her flat chest. She looked worn out with the miserable little tediums of life, with constant stepping over ant-hills of stupidity and petty hopelessness. Her work was not, comparatively speaking, arduous, but the serving of hot coffee and frankfurters to workingmen was not progressive, and she looked as if her principal diet was the left-overs of the stock in trade. She seemed to exhale an odor of musty sandwiches and sausages and muddy coffee.
The man swallowed his second cup in fierce gulps. He glanced at his Ingersoll watch. "Gee whiz!" said he. "It's time I was off! Good-by, Mame."
The girl turned her head with a toss, and did not reply. "Good-by," James said.
The man grinned. "Good-by, Doc," he said. "I'll call you when I git the measles. You're a good feller. If you'd been a benefactor I'd run you out."
The man clattered down the steps of the gaudily painted little structure. The girl whom he had called Mame turned and looked at James with a sort of innocent boldness. "He's a queer feller," she observed.
"He seems to be."
"He is, you bet. Livin' in a house he's built out of boxes when he makes big money. He's on strike every little while. I wouldn't look at him. Don't know what he's drivin' at half the time. Reckon he's—" She touched her head significantly.
"Lots of folks are," said James affably.
"That's so." She stared reflectively at James. "I'm keepin' this quick lunch 'cause my father's sick," said she. "I see a lot of human nature in here."
"I suppose you do."
"You bet. Every kind gits in here first and last, tramps up to swells who think they're doin' somethin' awful funny to git frankfurters and coffee in here. They must be hard driv."
"I suppose they are sometimes."
Mame's eyes, surveying James, suddenly grew sharp. "You ain't one?" she asked accusingly.
"You bet not."
Mame's grew soft. "I knew you were all right," said she. "Sometimes they say things to me that their fine lady friends would bounce 'em for, but I knew the minute I saw you that you wasn't that kind if you be dressed up like a gent. Reckon you've been makin' big money in your last place."
"Considerable," admitted James. He felt like a villain, but he had not the heart to accuse himself of being a gentleman before this pathetic girl.
Mame leaned suddenly over the counter, and her blonde crest nearly touched his forehead. "Say," said she, in a whisper.
"What?" whispered James back.
"What he said ain't true. There ain't a mite of truth in it."
"What he said," repeated James vaguely.
Mame pouted. "How awful thick-headed you be," said she. "What he said about my havin' a feller." She blushed rosily, and her eyes fell.
James felt his own face suffused. He pulled out his pocket-book, and rose abruptly. "I'm sorry," he said with stupidity.
The rosy flush died away from the girl's face. "Nobody asked you to be sorry," said she. "I could have any one of a dozen I know if I jest held out my little finger."
"Of course, you could," James said. He felt apologetic, although he did not know exactly why. He fumbled over the change, and at last made it right with a quarter extra for the girl.
"It's a quarter too much," said she.
"Keep it, please."
She hesitated. She was frowning under her great blonde roll, her mouth looked hurt.
"What a fuss about a quarter," said James, with a laugh. "Keep it. That's a good girl."
Mame took a dingy handkerchief out of the bosom of her blouse, untied a corner, and James heard a jingle of coins meeting. Then she laughed. "You're an awful fraud," said she.
"You can't cheat me, if you did Bill Slattery."
"I think I don't know what you mean."
"You're a gent."
The girl's thin, coarse laughter rang out after James as he descended the steps of the quick-lunch wagon. She opened the door directly after he had closed it, and stood on the top step with the cold wind agitating her fair hair. "Say," she called after him.
James turned as he walked away. "What is it?"
"Nothin', only I was foolin' you, and so was Bill. I've got a feller, and Bill's him."
"I'll make you a present when you're married," James called back with a laugh.
"It's to come off next summer," cried the girl.
"I won't forget," answered James. He knew the girl lied; that she was not about to marry the workingman. He said to himself, as he strode on refreshed with his coarse fare, that girls were extraordinary: first they were bold to positive indecency, then modest to the borders of insanity.
James walked on. He reached Stanbridge about noon. Then he was hungry again. There was a good hotel there, and he made a substantial meal. He had a smoke and a rest of half an hour, then he resumed his walk. He soon passed the outskirts of Stanbridge, which was a small, old city, then he was in the country. The houses were sparsely set well back from the road. He met nobody, except an occasional countryman driving a wood-laden team. Presently the road lay between stately groves of oaks, although now and then they stood on one side only of the highway. Nearly all the oaks bore a shag of dried leaves about their trunks, like mossy beards of old men, only the shag was a bright russet instead of white. The ground under the oaks was like cloth-of-gold under the sun, the fallen leaves yet retained so much color. James heard a sharp croak, then a crow flew with wide flaps of dark wings across the road and perched on an oak bough. It cocked its head, and watched him wisely. James whistled at it, but it did not stir. It remained with its head cocked in that attitude of uncanny wisdom.
Suddenly James saw before him the figure of a girl, moving swiftly. She must have come out of the wood. She went as freely as a woodland thing, although she was conventionally dressed in a tailor suit of brown. Her hat, too, was brown, and a brown feather curled over the brim. She walked fast, with evidently as much enjoyment of the motion as James himself. They both walked like winged things.
Suddenly James had a queer experience. One sense became transposed into another, as one changes the key in music. He heard absolutely nothing, but it was as if he saw a noise. He saw a man standing on the right between him and the girl. The man had not made the slightest sound, he was sure. James had good ears, but sound and not sight was what betrayed him, or rather sound transposed into sight. He stood as motionless as a tree himself. James knew that he had been looking at the girl. Now she was looking at him. James felt a long shudder creep over him. He had never been afraid of anything except fear. Now he was afraid of fear, and there was something about the man which awakened this terror, yet it was inexplicable. He was a middle-aged man, and distinctly handsome. He was something above the medium height, and very well dressed. He wore a fur-lined coat which looked opulent. He had gray hair and a black mustache. There was nothing menacing in his face. He was, indeed, smiling a curious retrospective smile, as if at his own thoughts. Although his eyes regarded James attentively, this smiling mouth seemed entirely oblivious of him. The man gave an odd impression, as of two personalities: the one observant, with an animal-like observance for his own weal or woe, the other observant with intelligence. It was possibly this impression of a dual personality which gave James his quick sense of horror. He walked on, feeling his very muscles shrink. Just before James reached the man he emerged easily, with not the slightest appearance of stealth, from the wood, and walked on before him with a rapid, swinging stride. There were then three persons upon the road: the girl in brown, the strange man in the fur-lined coat, and James Elliot. James quickened his pace, but the other man kept ahead of him, and reached the girl. He stopped and James broke into a run. He saw the man place a hand upon the girl's shoulder, and make a motion as if to turn her face toward his. James came up with a shout, and the man disappeared abruptly, with a quick backward glance at James, into the wood.
The girl looked at James, and her little face under her brown plumed hat was very white. "Oh," she gasped, as if she had always known him, "I am so glad you are here! He frightened me terribly."
She tried to smile at James, although her poor little mouth was quivering. "Who was he?" she asked.
"I don't know."
A sudden suspicion flashed into her eyes. "He wasn't with you?"
"No. I saw him on the edge of the woods back there, and I didn't like his looks. When he started to follow you I hurried to catch up."
"Oh, thank you," said the girl fervently. "Do forgive me for asking if you were with him. I knew you were not the minute I saw you. I did not turn my face, although he tried to make me. I don't know why, but I do know he was something terrible and wicked." The girl said this last with a shudder. She caught hold of James's arm innocently, as a frightened child might have done. "You don't think he will come back?"
"No, and if he does I will take care of you."
"He may be—armed."
Suddenly the girl reeled. "Don't let me faint away. I won't faint away," she said in an angry voice. James saw that she was actually biting her lips to overcome the faintness.
"If you will sit down on that rock for a moment," said James, "I have something in my medicine-case which will revive you. I am a doctor."
"I shall faint away if I sit down and give up to it, if I swallow your whole case," said the girl weakly. "I know myself. Let me hold your arm and walk, and don't make me talk, then I can get over it." She was biting her lips almost to bleeding.
James walked on as he was bidden, with the slender little brown-clad figure clinging to him. He realized that he had fallen in with a girl who had a will which was possibly superior to anything in his medicine-case when it came to overcoming fright.
They walked on until they came in sight of a farm-house, when the girl spoke again, and James saw that the color was returning to her face. "I am all right now," said she, and withdrew her hand from his arm. She gave her head an angry, whimsical shake. "I am ashamed of myself," said she, "but I was horribly frightened, and sometimes I do faint. I can generally get the better of myself, but sometimes I can't. It always makes me so angry. I do hope you don't think I am such an awful coward, because I am not."
"I think most girls whom I have known would have made much more fuss than you did," said James. "You never screamed."
"I never did scream in my life," said the girl. "I don't think I could. I don't know how. I think if I did scream, I should certainly faint."
James stopped and opened his medicine-case. "I think you had better take just a swallow of brandy," said he.
The girl thrust back the bottle which he offered her with high disdain. "Brandy," said she, "just because I have been frightened a little! I should be ashamed of myself if I did such a thing. I am ashamed now for almost fainting away, but I should never forgive myself if I took brandy because of it. If I haven't nerve enough to keep straight without brandy, I should be a pretty poor specimen of a girl." She looked at him indignantly, and James saw what he had not seen before (he had been so engrossed with the strangeness of the situation), that she was a beautiful girl with a singular type of beauty. She was very small, but she gave the impression of intense springiness and wiriness. Although she was thin, no one could have called her delicate. She looked as much alive as a flame, with nerves on the surface from head to heel. Her eyes were blue, not large, but full of light, her hair, which tossed around her face in a soft fluff, was ash-blonde. Brown was the last color, theoretically, which she should have worn, but it suited her. The ash and brown, the two neutral tints, served to bring out the blue fire of her eyes and the intense red of her lips. However, her beauty lay not so much in her regular features as in the wonderful flame-like quality which animated them, and which they assumed when she spoke or listened. In repose, her face was as neutral as a rock or dead leaf. It was neither beautiful nor otherwise. When it was animated, it was as if the rock gave out silver lights of mica and rosy crystal under strong light, and as if the dead leaf leapt into flame. James thought her much prettier than any of his sisters or their friends, but he was led quite unknowingly into this opinion, because of his own position as her protector. That made him realize his own male gorgeousness and strength, and he really saw the girl with such complacency instead of himself.
They walked along, and all at once he stopped short. Something occurred to him, which, strange to say, had not occurred before. He was not in the least cowardly. He was brave almost to foolhardiness. All at once it occurred to him that he ought to follow the man.
"Good Lord!" said he and stopped.
"What is the matter?" asked the girl.
"Why, I must follow that man. He is a suspicious character. He ought not to be left at large."
"I suppose you don't care if you leave me alone," said the girl accusingly.
James stared at her doubtfully. There was that view of the situation.
"I am going to see my friend Annie Lipton, who lives in Westover. There is half a mile of lonely road before I get there. That man, for all I know, may be keeping sight of us in the woods over there. While you are going back to chase him, he may come up with me. Well, run along if you want to. I am not afraid." But the girl's lips quivered, and she paled again.
James glanced at the stretch of road ahead. There was not a house in sight. Woods were on one side, on the other was a rolling expanse of meadowland covered with dried last year's grass, like coarse oakum-colored hair.
"I think I had better keep on with you," James said.
"You can do exactly as you choose," the girl replied defiantly, but tremulously. "I am not in the least dependent upon men to escort me. I wander miles around by myself. This is the first time I have seemed to be in the slightest danger. I dare say there was no danger this time, only he came up behind like a cat, and—"
"He didn't say anything?"
"No, he didn't speak. He only tried to make me turn my head, so he could see my face, and directly it seemed to me that I must die rather than let him. He was trying to make me turn my head. I think maybe he was an insane man."
"I will go on with you," said James.
They walked on for the half mile of which the girl had spoken. A sudden shyness seemed to have come over both of them. Then they began to come in sight of houses. "I am not afraid now," said the girl, "but I do think you are very foolish if you go back alone and try to hunt that man. Ten chances to one he is armed, and you haven't a thing to defend yourself with, except that medicine-case."
"I have my fists," replied James indignantly.
"Fists don't count much against a revolver."
"Well, I am going to try," said James with emphasis.
"Good-by, then. You are treating me shamefully, though."
James stared at her in amazement. She was actually weeping, tears were rolling over her cheeks.
"What do you mean?" said he. "Don't feel so badly."
"You can't be very quick-witted not to see. If you should meet that man, and get killed, I should really be the one who killed you and not the man."
"Why, no, you would not."
The girl stamped her foot. "Yes, I should, too," said she, half-sobbing. "You would not have been killed except for me. You know you would not."
She spoke as if she actually saw the young man dead before her, and was indignant because of it, and he burst into a peal of laughter.
"Laugh if you want to," said she. "It does not seem to me any laughing matter to go and get yourself killed by me, and my having that on my mind my whole life. I think I should go mad." Her voice shook, an expression of horror came into her blue eyes.
James laughed again. "Very well, then," he said, "to oblige you I won't get killed."
He, in fact, began to consider that the day was waning, and what a wild-goose chase it would probably be for him to attempt to follow the man. So again they walked on until they reached the main street of Westover.
Westover was a small village, rather smaller than Gresham. They passed three gin-mills, a church, and a grocery store. Then the girl stopped at the corner of a side street. "My friend lives on this street," said she. "Thank you very much. I don't know what I should have done if you had not come. Good-by!" She went so quickly that James was not at all sure that she heard his answering good-by. He thought again how very handsome she was. Then he began to wonder where she lived, and how she would get home from her friend's house, if the friend had a brother who would escort her. He wondered who her friends were to let a girl like that wander around alone in a State which had not the best reputation for safety. He entertained the idea of waiting about until she left her friend's house, then he considered the possible brother, and that the girl herself might resent it, and he kept on. The western sky was putting on wonderful tints of cowslip and rose deepening into violet. He began considering his own future again, relegating the girl to the background. He must be nearing Alton, he thought. After a three-mile stretch of farming country, he saw houses again. Lights were gleaming out in the windows. He heard wheels, and the regular trot of a horse behind him, then a mud-bespattered buggy passed him, a shabby buggy, but a strongly built one. The team of horses was going at a good clip. James stood on one side, but the team and buggy had no sooner passed than he heard a whoa! and a man's face peered around the buggy wing, not at James, but at his medicine-case. James could just discern the face, bearded and shadowy in the gathering gloom. Then a voice came. It shouted, one word, the expressive patois of the countryside, that word which may be at once a question and a salute, may express almost any emotion. "Halloo!" said the voice.
This halloo involved a question, or so James understood it. He quickened his pace, and came alongside the buggy. The face, more distinct now, surveyed him, its owner leaning out over the side of the buggy. "Who are you? Where are you bound?"
James answered the latter question. "I am going to Alton."
"To Doctor Gordon's?"
"Then you are Doctor Elliot?"
James climbed into the buggy. The other man took up the reins, and the horse resumed his quick trot.
"You didn't come by train?" remarked the man.
"No. You are Doctor Gordon, I suppose?"
"Yes, I am. Why the devil did you walk?"
"To save my money," replied James, laughing. He realized nothing to be ashamed of in his reply.
"But I thought your father was well-to-do."
"Yes, he is, but we don't ride when it costs money and we can walk. I knew if I got to Alton by night, it would be soon enough. I like to walk." James said that last rather defiantly. He began to realize a certain amazement on the other man's part which might amount to an imputation upon his father. "I have plenty of money in my pocket," he added, "but I wanted the walk."
Doctor Gordon laughed. "Oh, well, a walk of twenty-five miles is nothing to a young fellow like you, of course," he said. "I can understand that you may like to stretch your legs. But you'll have to drive if you are ever going to get anywhere when you begin practice with me."
"I suppose you have calls for miles around?"
"Rather." Doctor Gordon sighed. "It's a dog's life. I suppose you haven't got that through your head yet?"
"I think it is a glorious profession," returned James, with his haughty young enthusiasm.
"I wasn't talking about the profession," said the doctor; "I was talking of the man who has to grind his way through it. It's a dog's life. Neither your body nor your soul are your own. Oh, well, maybe you'll like it."
"You seem to," remarked James rather pugnaciously.
"I? What can I do, young man, but stick to it whether I like it or not? What would they do? Yes, I suppose I am fool enough to like a dog's life, or rather to be unwilling to leave it. No money could induce me anyhow. I suppose you know there is not much money in it?"
James said that he had not supposed a fortune was to be made in a country practice.
"The last bill any of them will pay is the doctor's," said Doctor Gordon. Then he added with a laugh, "especially when the doctor is myself. They have to pay a specialist from New York, but I wait until they are underground, and the relatives, I find, stick faster to the monetary remains than the bark to a tree. If I hadn't a little private fortune, and my—sister a little of her own, I expect we should starve."
James noticed with a little surprise the doctor's hesitation before he spoke of his sister. It seemed then that he was not married. Somehow, James had thought of him as married as a matter of course.
Doctor Gordon hastened to explain, as if divining the other's attitude. "I dare say you don't know anything about my family relations," said he. "My widowed sister, Mrs. Ewing, keeps house for me. I live with her and her daughter. I think you will like them both, and I think they will like you, though I'll be hanged if I have grasped anything of you so far but your medicine-case and your voice. Your voice is all right. You give yourself away by it, and I always like that."
James straightened himself a little. There was something bantering in the other's tone. It made him feel young, and he resented being made to feel young. He himself at that time felt older than he ever would feel again. He realized that he was not being properly estimated. "If," said he, with some heat, "a patient can make out anything by my voice as to what I think, I miss my guess."
"I dare say not," said Doctor Gordon, and his own voice was as if he put the matter aside.
He spoke to the horse, whose trot quickened, and they went on in silence.
At last James began to feel rather ashamed of himself. He unstiffened. "I had quite an exciting and curious experience after I left Stanbridge," said he.
"Did you?" said the other in an absent voice.
James went on to relate the matter in detail. His companion turned an intent face upon him as he proceeded. "How far back was it?" he asked, and his tone was noticeably agitated.
"Just after I left the last house in Stanbridge. We went on together to Westover. She mentioned something about going to see a friend there. I think Lipton was the name, and she left me suddenly."
"What was the girl like?"
"Small and slight, and very pretty."
"Dressed in brown?"
"How did the man look?" Doctor Gordon's voice fairly alarmed the young man.
"I hardly can say. I saw him distinctly, but only for a second. The impression he gave me was of a middle-aged man, although he looked young."
"My God, no!" said James, as the man's face seemed to loom up before him again. "He looked like the devil."
"A man may look like the devil, and yet be distinctly handsome."
"Well, I suppose he was; but give me the homeliest face on earth rather than a face like that man's, if I must needs have anything to do with him." The young fellow's voice broke. He was very young. He caught the other man by his rough coat sleeve. "See here, Doctor Gordon," said he, "my profession is to save life. That is the main end of it but, but—I don't honestly know what I should think right, if I were asked to save that man's life."
"Was he well dressed?"
"More than well dressed, richly, a fur-lined coat—"
"Yes, above the medium, but he stooped a little, like a cat, sort of stretched to the ground like an animal, when he hurried along after the girl in front of me."
Doctor Gordon struck the horse with his whip, and he broke into a gallop. "We are almost home," said he. "I shall have to leave you with slight ceremony. I have to go out again immediately."
Doctor Gordon had hardly finished speaking before they drew up in front of a white house on the left of the road. "Get out," he said peremptorily to James. The front door opened, and a parallelogram of lighted interior became visible. In this expanse of light stood a tall woman's figure. "Clara, this is the new doctor," called out Doctor Gordon. "Take him in and take care of him."
"Have you got to go away again?" said the woman's voice. It was sweet and rich, but had a curious sad quality in it.
"Yes, I must. I shall not be gone long. Don't wait supper."
"Aren't you going to change the horse?"
"Can't stop. Go right in, Elliot. Clara, look after him."
James Elliot found himself in the house, confronting the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, as the rapid trot of the doctor's horse receded in vistas of sound.
James almost gasped. He had never seen such a woman. He had seen pretty girls. Now he suddenly realized that a girl was not a woman, and no more to be compared with her than an uncut gem with one whose facets take the utmost light.
The boy stood staring at this wonderful woman. She extended her hand to him, but he did not see it. She said some gracious words of greeting to him, but he did not hear them. She might have been the Venus de Milo for all he heard or realized of sentient life in her. He was rapt in contemplation of herself, so rapt that he was oblivious of her. She smiled. She was accustomed to having men, especially very young men, take such an attitude on first seeing her. She did not wait any longer, but herself took the young man's hand, and drew him gently into the room, and spoke so insistently that she compelled him to leave her and attend. "I suppose you are Doctor Gordon's assistant?" she said.
James relapsed into the tricks of his childhood. "Yes, ma'am," he replied. Then he blushed furiously, but the woman seemed to notice neither the provincial term nor his confusion. He found himself somehow, he did not know how, divested of his overcoat, and the vision had disappeared, having left some words about dinner ringing in his ears, and he was sitting before a hearth-fire in a large leather easy-chair. Then he looked about the room in much the same dazed fashion in which he had contemplated the woman. He had never seen a room like it. He was used to conventionality, albeit richness, and a degree even of luxury. Here were absolute unconventionality, richness, and luxury of a kind utterly strange to him. The room was very large and long, extending nearly the whole length of the house. There were many windows with Eastern rugs instead of curtains. There were Eastern things hung on the walls which gave out dull gleams of gold and silver and topaz and turquoise. There were a great many books on low shelves. There were bronzes, jars, and squat idols. There were a few pieces of Chinese ivory work. There were many skins of lions, bears, and tigers on the floor, besides a great Persian rug which gleamed like a blurred jewel. Besides the firelight there was only one great bronze lamp to illuminate the room. This lamp had a red shade, which cast a soft, fiery glow over everything. There were not many pictures. The rich Eastern stuffs, and even a skin or two of tawny hue, covered most of the wall-spaces above the book-cases, giving backgrounds of color to bronzes and ivory carvings, but there was one picture at the farther end of the room which attracted James's notice. All that he could distinguish from where he sat was a splash of splendid red.
He gazed, and his curiosity grew. Finally he rose, traversed the room, and came close to the picture. It was a portrait of the woman who had met him at the door. The red was the red of a splendid robe of velvet. The portrait was evidently the work of no mean artist. The texture of the velvet was something wonderful, so were the flesh tones; but James missed something in the face. The portrait had been painted, he knew instinctively, before some great change had come into the woman's heart, which had given her another aspect of beauty.
James turned away. Then he noticed something else which seemed rather odd about the room. All the windows were furnished with heavy wooden shutters, and, early as it was, hardly dark, all were closed, and fastened securely. James somehow got an impression of secrecy, that it was considered necessary that no glimpse of the interior should be obtained from without after the lamp was lit. They sat often carelessly at his own home of an evening with the shades up, and all the interior of the room plainly visible from the road. An utter lack of secrecy was in James's own character. He scowled a little, as he returned to his seat by the fire. He was too confused to think clearly, but he was conscious of a certain homesickness for the wonted things of his life, when the door opened and the woman reentered.
James rose, and she spoke in her sweet voice. It was rather lower pitched than the voices of most women, and had a resonant quality. "Your room is quite ready, Doctor Elliot," said she. "Your trunk is there. If you would like to go there before dinner, I will pilot you. We have but one maid, and she is preparing the dinner, which will be ready as soon as you are. I hope Doctor Gordon and Clemency will have returned by that time, too."
By Clemency James understood that she meant her daughter, of whom Doctor Gordon had spoken. He wondered at the unusual name, as he followed his hostess. His room was on the same floor as the living-room. She threw open a door at the other side of the hall, and James saw an exceedingly comfortable apartment with a hearth-fire, with book-shelves, and a couch-bed covered with a rug, and a desk. "I thought you would prefer this room," said the woman. "There are others on the second floor, but this has the advantage of your being able to use it as a sitting-room, and you may like to have your friends, whom I trust you will find in Alton, come in from time to time. You will please make yourself quite at home."
James had not yet fairly comprehended the beauty of the woman. He was still too dazzled. Had he gone away at that time, he could not for the life of him have described her, but he did glance, as a woman might have done, at her gown. It was of a soft heavy red silk, trimmed with lace, and was cut out in a small square at the throat. This glimpse of firm white throat made James wonder as to evening costume for himself. At home he never dreamed of such a thing, but here it might be different. His hostess divined his thoughts. She smiled at him as if he were a child. "No," said she, "you do not need to dress for dinner. Doctor Gordon never does when we are by ourselves."
Then she went away, closing the door softly after her.
James noticed that over the windows of this room were only ordinary shades, and curtains of some soft red stuff. There were no shutters. He looked about him. He was charmed with his room, and it did away to a great extent with his feeling of homesickness. It was not unlike what his room at college had been. It was more like all rooms. He had no feeling of the secrecy which the great living-room gave him, and which irritated him. He brushed his clothes and his hair, and washed his hands and face. While he was doing so he heard wheels and a horse's fast trot. He guessed immediately that the doctor had returned. He therefore, as soon as he had completed the slight changes in his toilet, started to return to the living-room. Crossing the hall he met Doctor Gordon, who seized him by the shoulder, and whispered in his ear, "Not a word before Mrs. Ewing about what happened this afternoon."
James nodded. "More mystery," thought he with asperity.
"You have not spoken of it to her already, I hope," said Doctor Gordon with quick anxiety.
"No, I have not. I have scarcely seen her."
"Well, not a word, I beg of you. She is very nervous."
The doctor had been removing his overcoat and hat. When he had hung them on some stag's horn in the hall, he went with James into the living-room.
There, beside the fire, sat the girl in brown whom James had met that afternoon on the road.
She looked up when he entered, and there was in her young girl face the very slightest shade of recognition. She could not help it, for Clemency was candor itself. Then she bowed very formally, and shook hands sedately when Doctor Gordon introduced James as Doctor Elliot, his new assistant, and carried off her part very well. James was not so successful. He colored and was somewhat confused, but nobody appeared to notice it. Clemency went on relating how glad she was that Uncle Tom met her as she was coming home from Annie Lipton's. "I am never afraid," said she, and her little face betrayed the lie, "but I was tired, and besides I was beginning to be cold, for I went out without my fur."
"You should not have gone without it. It grows so cold when the sun goes down," said Mrs. Ewing. Then a chime of Japanese bells was heard which announced dinner.
"Doctor Elliot will be glad of dinner," said Doctor Gordon. "He has walked all the way from Gresham."
Clemency looked at him with approval, and tried to look as if she had never seen him walking in her life. "That is a good walk," said she. "Twenty-five miles it must be. If more men walked instead of working poor horses all the time, it would be better for them."
"That is a hint for your Uncle Tom," said Gordon laughingly.
"I never hint," said Clemency. "It is just a plain statement. Men are walking animals. They could travel as well as horses in the course of time if they only put their minds to it."
"Well, your old uncle's bones must be saved, even at the expense of the horse's," said Doctor Gordon.
"Bones are improved by use," said Clemency severely, as she took her seat at the dinner-table. They all laughed. The girl herself relaxed her pretty face with a whimsical smile. It was quite evident that Clemency was the spoiled and petted darling of the house, and that she traded innocently upon the fact. The young doctor, although his first impression of the elder woman was still upon him, yet realized the charm of the young girl. The older woman was, as it were, crowned with an aureole of perfection, but the young girl was crowned with possibilities which dazzled with mystery. She looked prettier, now that her outer garments were removed, and her thick crown of ash-blonde hair was revealed. The lamp lit her eyes into bluer flame. She was a darling of a young girl, and more a darling because she had the sweetest confidence in everybody thinking her one.
However, James Elliot, sitting in the well-appointed dining-room, which was more like a city house than a little New Jersey dwelling, did not for a second retreat from his first impression of Mrs. Ewing. Behind the coffee-urn sat the woman with whom he had not fallen in love, that was too poor a term to use. He had become a worshipper. He felt himself, body and soul, prostrate before the Divinity of Womanhood itself. He realized the grandeur of the abstract in the individual. What was any spoiled, sweet young girl to that? And Mrs. Ewing was, in truth, a wonderful creature. She was a large woman with a great quantity of blue-black hair, which had the ripples one sees in antique statues. Her eyes, black at first glance, were in reality dark blue. Her face gave one a never-ending surprise. James had not known that a woman could be so beautiful. Vague comparisons with the Greek Helen, or Cleopatra, came into his head. Now and then he stole a glance at her. He dared not often. She did not talk much, but he was rather pleased with that fact, although her voice was so sweet and gracious. Speech in a creature like that was not an essential. It might even be an excrescence upon a perfection. It did not occur to the dazed mind of her worshipper that Mrs. Ewing might have very simple and ordinary reasons for not talking—that she might be tired or ill, or preoccupied. But after a number of those stolen glances, James discovered with a great pang, as if one should see for the first time that the arms of the Venus were really gone, when his fancy had supplied them, that the woman did not look well. In spite of her beauty, there was ill-health evident in her face. James was a mere tyro in his profession as yet, but certain infallible signs were there which he could not mistake. They were the signs of suffering, possibly of very great suffering. She ate very little, James noticed, although she made a pretense of eating as much as any one. James saw that Doctor Gordon also noticed it. When the maid was taking away Mrs. Ewing's plate, he spoke with a gruffness which astonished the young man. "For Heaven's sake, why don't you eat your dinner, Clara?" said he. "Emma, replace Mrs. Ewing's plate. Now, Clara, eat your dinner." To James's utter astonishment, Mrs. Ewing obeyed like a child. She ate every morsel, although she could not restrain her expression of loathing. When the salad and dessert were brought on she ate them also.
Doctor Gordon watched her with what seemed, to the young man, positive brutality. His mouth under his heavy beard quivered perceptibly whenever he looked at his sister eating, his forehead became corrugated, and his deep-set eyes sparkled. James was heartily glad when dinner was over, and, at Doctor Gordon's request, he followed him into his office.
Doctor Gordon's office was a small room at the back of the house. It had an outer door communicating with a path which led to the stable. Two sides of the room were lined with medical books, and two with bottles containing diverse colored mixtures. A hanging lamp was over the center of a long table in the middle of the room. Around it dangled prisms, which cast rainbow colors over everything. The first thing which struck one on entering the room was the extraordinary color scheme: the dull gleams of the books, the medicine bottles which had lights like jewels, and over all the flickers of prismatic hues. The long table was covered with corks, empty bottles, books, a medicine-case, and newspapers, besides a mighty inkstand and writing materials. There were also a box of cigars, a great leather tobacco pouch, and, interspersed among all, a multitude of pipes. The doctor drew a chair beside this chaotic table lit with rainbow lights, and invited James to sit down. "Sit down a moment," he said. "Will you have a pipe or a cigar?"
"Cigar, please," replied James. The doctor pushed the box toward him. James realized immediately a ten-cent cigar at the least when he began to smoke. Doctor Gordon filled a pipe mechanically. His face still wore the gloomy, almost fierce, expression which it had assumed at table. He was a handsome man in a rough, sketchy fashion. His face was blurred with a gray grizzle of beard. He wore his hair rather long, and he had a fashion of running his fingers through it, which made it look like a thick brush. He dressed rather carelessly, still like a gentleman. His clothes were slouchy, and needed brushing, but his linen was immaculate.
Doctor Gordon smoked in silence, which his young assistant was too shy to break. The elder man finished his pipe, then he rose with an impatient gesture and shook himself like a great shaggy dog. "Come, young man," said he, "we don't want to spend the evening like this. Get your hat and coat."
James obeyed, and the two men left the office by the outer door which opened on the stable. As they came around by the front of the house Clemency stood in the doorway.
"Are you going out, you and Doctor Elliot, Uncle Tom?" she called.
"Yes, dear; why?"
"No; we are going down to Georgie K.'s. Tell your mother to go to bed at once."
When the two men were out in the street, walking briskly in the keen frosty air, James ventured a question. "Mrs. Ewing is not well, is she?" he said. He fairly started at the way in which his question was received. Doctor Gordon turned upon him even fiercely.
"She is perfectly well, perfectly well," he replied.
"She does not look—" began James.
"When you are as old as I am you can venture to diagnose on a woman's looks," said Gordon. "Clara is perfectly well."
James said no more. They walked on in silence under a pale sky. Above a low mountain range on their right was a faint light which indicated the coming of the moon. The ground was frozen in hard ridges. James walked behind the doctor on the narrow blue stone walk which served as sidewalk.
"This town has made no provision whatever for courting couples," said Doctor Gordon suddenly, and to James's astonishment his whole manner and voice had changed. It was far from gloomy. It was jocular even.
James laughed. "Yes, it would be difficult for two to walk arm in arm, however loving," he returned.
"Just so," said the doctor, "and the funny part of it is that this narrow sidewalk was intentional."
"Not for such a purpose?"
"Exactly so. It was given to the town by a rich spinster who died about twenty years ago. It was given in her will on condition that it should not be more than two feet wide."
"For that reason?"
"Just that reason. She had been jilted in her youth, and her heart had been wrung by the sight of her rival passing her very window where she sat watching for her lover, arm in arm with him. It was in summer, and the dirt sidewalk was dry. She made up her mind, then and there, that that sort of thing should be prevented."
They had just reached a handsome old house standing close to the narrow sidewalk. In fact, its windows opened directly upon it.
"This is the house," the doctor said in corroboration. James laughed, but he wondered within himself if he were being told fish tales. Doctor Gordon made him feel so very young that he resented it. He resented it the more when he realized the new glow of adoration in his heart for that older woman whom they had left behind. He began wondering about her: how much older she was. He said to himself that he did not care if she were old enough to be his mother, his grandmother even, there was no one in the whole world like her.
Then they came to the hotel, the Evarts House. It was rather pretentious, well built, with great columns in front supporting double verandas. It was also well lighted. It was evidently far above the usual order of a road house. Doctor Gordon entered, with James at his heels. They went into the great low room at the right of the door, which was the bar-room. Behind the bar stood an enormous man, yellow haired and yellow bearded, dispensing drinks. The whole low interior was dim with tobacco smoke, and scented with various liquors and spices. There was on one side a great fireplace, in which stood earthen pitchers, in which cider was being mulled with red-hot pokers, eager vinous faces watching. Nobody was intoxicated, but there was a general hum of hilarity and gusto of life about the place, an animal enjoyment of good cheer and jollity. It was in truth not respectable to get entirely drunk in Alton. It was genteel to become "set up," exhilarated, but the real gutter form of inebriety was frowned upon to a much greater extent than in many places where there was less license.
"Hullo!" sang out Doctor Gordon as he entered. Immediately a grin of comradeship overspread the pink face of the yellow-haired giant behind the bar. "Hullo!" he responded. "Just step into the other room, and I'll be there right away."
James followed Doctor Gordon into what was evidently the state parlor of the hotel. There was haircloth furniture, and a mahogany table, with various stains of conviviality upon its polished surface. There was a fire on the hearth, and on the mantel stood some gilded vases and a glass case of wax-flowers, also a stuffed canary under a glass shade, pathetic on his little twig. Doctor Gordon pointed to the flowers and the canary. "Poor old man lost his wife, when he had been married two years," he said. "She and the baby both died. That was before I came here. Damned if I wouldn't have pulled them through. That was her bird, and she made those fool flowers, poor little thing. I suppose if the hotel were to take fire Georgie K. would go for them before all the cash in the till."
"He hasn't married again?"
"Married again! It's my belief he'd shoot the man that mentioned it."
Then Georgie K. entered, his rosy face distended with a smile of the most intense hospitality, and before Doctor Gordon had a chance to introduce James, he said, "What'll you take, gentlemen?"
"This is my new assistant, from Gresham, Doctor Elliot," said Gordon. Georgie K. made a bow, and scraped his foot at the same time with a curiously boyish gesture. "What'll you take?" he asked again. That was evidently his formula of hospitality, which must never be delayed.
"Apple-jack," responded Doctor Gordon promptly. "You had better take apple-jack too, young man. Georgie K. has gin that beats the record, and peach brandy, but when it comes to his apple-jack—it's worth the whole State of New Jersey."
"All right," answered James.
Soon he found himself seated at the stained old mahogany table with the two men, and between two glasses, a bottle, and a pitcher of hot water. Doctor Gordon dealt a pack of dirty cards while the hotel keeper poured the apple-jack. James could not help staring at the elder doctor with more and more amazement. He seemed to assimilate perfectly with his surroundings. The tormented expression had gone from his face. He was simply convivial, and of the same sort as Georgie K. He no longer looked even a gentleman. He had become of the soil, the New Jersey soil. As they drank and played, he told stories, and roared with laughter at them. The stories also belonged to the soil, they were folk lore, wild, coarse, but full of humanity. Although Doctor Gordon drank freely of the rich mellow liquor, it did not apparently affect him. His cheeks above his gray furze of beard became slightly flushed, that was all.
James drank rather sparingly. The stuff seemed to him rather fiery, and he remembered the goddess in the doctor's house. He could imagine her look of high disdain at him should he return under the influence of liquor. Besides, he did not particularly care for the apple-jack.
It was midnight before they left. Georgie K. went to the door with them, and he and the doctor shook hands heartily. "Come again," said Georgie K., "and the sooner the better, and bring the young Doc. We'll make him have a good time."
Until they were near home, Doctor Gordon continued his strangely incongruous conversation, telling story after story, and shouting with laughter. When they came in sight of the house Gordon stopped suddenly and leaned against a great maple beside the road. He stared at the house, two of the upper windows of which were lighted, and gave a great sigh, almost a groan. James stopped also and stared at him. He wondered if the apple-jack had gone to the doctor's head after all. "What is the matter?" he ventured.
"Nothing, except the race is at a finish, and I am caught as I always am," replied Doctor Gordon.
"The race—" repeated James vaguely.
"Yes, the race with myself. Myself has caught up with me, God help me, and I am in its clutches. The time may come when you will try to race with self, my boy. Let me tell you, you will never win. You will tire yourself out, and make a damned idiot of yourself for nothing. I shall race again to-morrow. I never learn the lesson, but perhaps you can, you are young. Well, come along. Please be as quiet as you can when you go into the house. My sister may be asleep. She is perfectly well, but she is a little nervous. I need not repeat my request that you do not mention your adventure with Clemency this afternoon to her."
"Certainly not," said James. He walked on beside the doctor, and entered the house, more and more mystified. James was not sure, but he thought he heard the faintest little moan from upstairs. He glanced at Doctor Gordon's face, and it was again the face of the man whom he had seen before going to Georgie K.'s.
The next morning after breakfast, at which Mrs. Ewing did not appear, Doctor Gordon observed that she always took her rolls and coffee in bed. James followed Doctor Gordon into his office. Clemency, who had presided at the coffee urn, had done so silently, and looked, so James thought, rather sulky, as if something had gone wrong. Directly James was in the office, the doctor's man, Aaron, appeared. He was a tall, lank Jerseyman, incessantly chewing. His lean, yellow jaws appeared to have acquired a permanent rotary motion, but he had keen eyes of intelligence upon the doctor as he gave his orders.
"Put in the team," said Gordon. "We are going to Haver's Corner. Old Sam Edwards is pretty low, and I ought to have gone there yesterday, but I didn't know whether that child with diphtheria at Tucker's Mill would live the day out. Now he has seen the worst of it, thank the Lord! But to-day I must go to Haver's. I want to make good time, for there's something going on this afternoon, and I want an hour off if I can get it." Again the expression of simple jocularity was over the man's face, and James remembered what he had said the night before about again running a race with himself the next day.
After Aaron had gone out Gordon turned to James. He pointed to his great medicine-case on the table. "You might see to it that the bottles are all filled," he said. "You will find the medicines yonder." He pointed to the shelf. "I have to speak to Clemency before I go."
James obeyed. As he worked filling the bottles he heard dimly Gordon's voice talking to Clemency on the other side of the wall. The girl seemed to be expostulating.
When Doctor Gordon returned Aaron was at his heels with an immense bottle containing a small quantity of red fluid. "S'pose you'll want this filled?" he said to Gordon with a grin which only disturbed for a second his rotary jaws.
"Oh, yes, of course," replied Gordon, "we want the aqua."
James stared at him as he poured a little red-colored liquid from one of the bottles on the shelves into the big one. "Now fill it up from the pump, and put it in the buggy; be sure the cork is in tight," he said to Aaron.
Gordon looked laughingly at James when the man had gone. "I infer that you are wondering what 'aqua' may be," he said.
"I was brought up to think it was water," said James.
"So it is, water pure and simple, with a little coloring matter thrown in. Bless you, boy, the people around here want their medicines by the quart, and if they had them by the quart, good-by to the doctor's job, and ho for the undertaker! So the doctor is obliged to impose upon the credulity of the avariciously innocent, and dilute the medicine. Bless you, I have patients who would accuse me of cheating if I prescribed less than a cupful of medicine at a time. They have to be humored. After all, they are a harmless, good lot, but stiffened with hereditary ideas, worse than by rheumatism. If I should give a few drops in half a glass of water, and order a teaspoonful at a time, I should fly in the face of something which no mortal man can conquer, sheer heredity. The grandfathers and great-grandfathers of these people took their physic on draft, the children must do likewise. Sometimes I even think the medicine would lose its effect if taken in any other way. Nobody can estimate the power of a fixed idea upon the body. All the same, it is a confounded nuisance carrying around the aqua. I will confess, although I see the necessity of yielding, that I have less patience with men's stiff-necked stupidity than I have with their sins."
James drove all the morning with Doctor Gordon about the New Jersey country. It was a moist, damp day, such as sometimes comes even in winter. It was a dog day with an atmosphere slightly cooler than that of midsummer. Overcoats were oppressive, the horses steamed. The roads were deep with red mud, which clogged the wheels and made the hoofs of the horses heavy. "It's a damned soil," said Doctor Gordon. This morning after appearing somewhat saturnine at breakfast, he was again in his unnatural, rollicking mood. He hailed everybody whom he met. He joked with the patients and their relatives in the farmhouses, approached through cart-tracks of mire, and fluttered about by chickens, quacking geese, and dead leaves. Now and then, stately ranks of turkeys charged in line of battle upon the muddy buggy, and the team, being used to it, stood their ground, and snorted contemptuously. The country people were either saturnine with an odd shyness, which had something almost hostile in it, or they were effusively hospitable, forcing apple-jack upon the two doctors. James was much struck by the curious unconcern shown by the relatives of the patients, and even by the patients themselves. In only one case, and that of a child suffering from a bad case of measles, was much interest evinced. The majority of the patients were the very old and middle-aged, and they discussed, and heard discussed, their symptoms with much the same attitude as they might have discussed the mechanism of a wooden doll. If any emotion was shown it was that of a singular inverted pride. "I had a terrible night, doctor," said one old woman, and a smirk of self-conceit was over her ancient face. "Yes, mother did have an awful night," said her married daughter with a triumphant expression. Even the children clustering about the doctor looked unconsciously proud because their old grandmother had had an awful night. The call of the two doctors at the house was positively hilarious. Quantities of old apple-jack were forced upon them. The old woman in the adjoining bedroom, although she was evidently suffering, kept calling out a feeble joke in her cackling old voice.
"Those people seem positively elated because that old soul is sick," said James when he and the doctor were again in the buggy.
"They are," said Doctor Gordon, "even the old woman herself, who knows well enough that she has not long to live. Did you ever think that the desire of distinction was one of the most, perhaps the most, intense purely spiritual emotion of the human soul? Look at the way these people live here, grubbing away at the soil like ants. The most of them have in their lives just three ways of attracting notice, the momentary consideration of their kind: birth, marriage, sickness and death. With the first they are hardly actively concerned, even with the second many have nothing to do. There are more women than men as usual, and although the women want to marry, all the men do not. There remains only sickness and death for a stand-by, so to speak. If one of them is really sick and dies, the people are aroused to take notice. The sick person and the corpse have a certain state and dignity which they have never attained before. Why, bless you, man, I have one patient, a middle-aged woman, who has been laid up for years with rheumatism, and she is fairly vainglorious, and so is her mother. She brags of her invalid daughter. If she had been merely an old maid on her hands, she would have been ashamed of her, and the woman herself would have been sour and discontented. But she has fairly married rheumatism. It has been to her as a husband and children. I tell you, young man, one has to have his little footstool of elevation among his fellows, even if it is a mighty queer one, or he loses his self-respect, and self-respect is the best jewel we have."
They were now out in the road again, the team plodding heavily through the red shale. "It's a damned soil," said the doctor for the second time. He looked down at the young man beside him, and James again felt that resentful sense of youth and inexperience. "I don't know how you've been brought up," said the elder man. "I don't want to infuse heretic notions into your innocent mind."
James straightened himself. He tried to give the other man a knowing look. "I have been about a good deal," he said. "You need not be afraid of corrupting me."
Doctor Gordon laughed. "Well, I shall not try," he said. "At least, I shall not mean to corrupt you. I am a pessimist, but you are so young that you ought not to be influenced by that. Lord, only think what may be before you. You don't know. I am so far along that I know as far as I am concerned. I did not know but you had been brought up to think that whatever the Lord made was good, and that in saying that this red, gluey New Jersey soil was darned bad, I was swearing the worst way. I don't want to have millstones and that sort of thing about my neck. I was quite up in the Scriptures at one time."
"You need not be afraid," said James with dignity; "I think the soil darned bad myself." He hesitated a little over the darned, but once it was out, he felt proud of it.
"Yes, it is," said Doctor Gordon, "and if the Lord made it, he did not altogether succeed, and I see no earthly way of tracing the New Jersey soil back to original sin and the Garden of Eden."
"That's so," said James.
Doctor Gordon's face grew sober, his jocular mood for the time had vanished. He was his true self. "Did it ever occur to you that disease was the devil?" he asked abruptly. "That is, that all these infernal microbes that burrow in the human system to its disease and death, were his veritable imps at work?"
James shook his head, and looked curiously at his companion's face with its gloomy corrugations.
"Well, it has to me," said the doctor, "and let me ask you one thing. You have been brought up to believe that the devil's particular residence was hell, haven't you?"
James replied in a bewildered fashion that he had.
"Well," said Doctor Gordon, "if the devil lives here, as he must live, when there's such failures in the way of soil, and such climates, and such fiendish diseases, and crimes, why, this is hell."
James stared at him.
Doctor Gordon nodded half-gloomily, half-whimsically. "It's so," he said. "We call it earth; but it's hell."
James said nothing. The doctor's gloomy theology was too much for him. Besides, he was not quite sure that the elder man was not chaffing him.
"Well," said Doctor Gordon presently, "hell it is, but there are compensations, such as apple-jack, and now and then there's something doing that amuses one even here. I am going to take you to something that enlivens hell this afternoon, if somebody doesn't send a call. I am trying to get my work done this morning, the worst of it, so as to have an hour this afternoon."
The two returned a little after twelve, and found luncheon waiting for them. Mrs. Ewing took her place at the table, and James thought that she did not look quite so ill as she had done the evening before. She talked more, and ate with some appetite. Doctor Gordon's face lightened, not with the false gayety which James had seen, but he really looked quite happy, and spoke affectionately to his sister.
"What do you think, Tom," said she, "has come over Clemency? I don't know when there has been a morning that she has not gone for a tramp, rain or shine, but she has not stirred out to-day. She says she feels quite well, but I don't know."
"Oh, Clemency is all right," said Doctor Gordon, but his face darkened again. As for Clemency, she bent over her plate and looked sulkier than ever. She fairly pouted.
"She can go out this afternoon," said Mrs. Ewing. "It looks as if it were going to clear off."
"No, I don't want to go," said Clemency. "I am all out of the humor of it." She spoke with an air of animosity, as if somebody were to blame, but when she saw Mrs. Ewing's anxious eyes she smiled. "I would much prefer staying with you, dear," she said, "and finish Annie's Christmas present." She spoke with such an affectionate air, that James looked admiringly at her. She seemed a fellow-worshipper. He thought that he, too, would much prefer staying with Mrs. Ewing than going with Doctor Gordon on the mysterious outing which he had planned.
However, directly after luncheon Gordon led James out into the stable and called Aaron. "Are they ready, Aaron?" inquired the doctor.
Aaron grinned, opened a rude closet, and produced a number of objects, which James recognized at once as dummy pigeons. So Doctor Gordon was to take him to a pigeon-shooting match. James felt a little disgusted. He had, in fact, taken part in that sport with considerable gusto himself, but, just now, he being fairly launched, as it were, upon the serious things of life, took it somewhat in dudgeon that Doctor Gordon should think to amuse him with such frivolities. But to his amazement the elder man's face was all a-quiver with mirth and fairly eager. "Show the pigeons to Doctor Elliot, Aaron," said Doctor Gordon. James took one of the rude disks called pigeons from the hand of Aaron with indifference, then he started and stared at Doctor Gordon, who laughed like a boy, fairly doubling himself with merriment. Aaron did not laugh, he chewed on, but his eyes danced.
"Why, they are—" stammered James.
"Just so, young man," replied Doctor Gordon. "They are wood. Aaron made them on a lathe, and not a soul can tell them from the clay pigeons unless they handle them. Now you are going to see some fun. Jim Goodman, who is the meanest skunk in town, has cheated every mother's son of us first and last, and this afternoon he is going to shoot against Albert Dodd, and he's going to get his finish! Dodd knows about it. He'll have clay pigeons all right. Goodman has put up quite a sum of money, and he stands fair to lose for once in his life."
"Come on, Aaron, put the bay mare in the buggy. We'll drive down to the field. We haven't got much time to spare."
Aaron backed the mare out of her stall and hitched her to the mud-bespattered buggy, and the two men drove off with the wooden pigeons under the seat. They had not far to go, to a large field intersected with various footpaths and with, a large bare space, which evidently served as a football gridiron. "This field is used like town property," explained the doctor, "but the funny part of it is, it belongs to an old woman who is, perhaps, the richest person in Alton, and asks such a price for the land that nobody can buy it, and it has never occurred to her to keep off trespassers. So everybody trespasses, and she pays the taxes, and we are all satisfied, especially as there are plenty of better building sites in Alton to be bought for less money. That old woman bites her nose off every day, and never knows it."
On this barren expanse, intersected with the narrow footpaths, covered between with the no color of last year's dry weeds and grass, were assembled some half dozen men and boys. They rushed up as the doctor's buggy came alongside. "Got 'em?" they cried eagerly. Doctor Gordon fumbled under the seat and drew out the batch of wooden pigeons, which one young fellow, who seemed to be master of ceremonies, grasped and rushed off with to the queer-looking machine erected in the centre of the football clearing, for the purpose of making them take wing. The others went with him. Doctor Gordon got out of his buggy, accompanied by James, and they, too, joined the little group. "Got the others?" asked Gordon in a half whisper.
"Yes, you bet. We've got the others all right," said the young fellow, and everybody laughed.
Men and boys began to gather until the field was half filled with them. They all wore grinning countenances. "For Heaven's sake, boys, don't act as if it were so awful funny, or you'll spoil the whole thing," said the young fellow who had come for the pigeons.
Only one face was entirely sober, even severe, as with resolve, and that was the face of a small, mean-looking man between forty and fifty. He carried a gun, and looked at once important and greedy. "That's Jim Goodman," whispered Doctor Gordon to James, "and he's a crack shot, too. Albert isn't as sure, though he's pretty good, too."
James began to catch the spirit of it himself. He felt at once disgusted and uneasy about the doctor, but as for himself he was only a young man, after all, and sport was still sweet to his soul. He shouted with the rest when the first pigeon was launched into the air, and Albert Dodd, a tall, serious young man, fired. He hit the bird, which at once flew into fragments, as a clay pigeon properly should.
Georgie K. came up and joined them. He was evidently not in the secret, for he looked intensely puzzled when Jim Goodman, who had next shot, hit his bird fairly, but it only hopped about and descended unbroken. "What the deuce!" he said.
"Hush up, Georgie K.," said Doctor Gordon. The other man turned and looked at him keenly, but the doctor's imperturbable, smiling face was on the sport. Georgie K.'s great pink face grew grave. Every time Albert Dodd fired the pigeons dropped in pieces, every time Jim Goodman fired they hopped as if they were alive. Jim Goodman swore audibly. He looked to his cartridges. The whole field was in an uproar of mirth. The gunshots were hardly audible for the yells and wild halloos of merriment. The match at last was finished. Jim Goodman's last pigeon hopped, and he was upon it in a rage. He took it up and examined it. It was riddled with shot. He felt it, weighed it. Then his face grew fairly black. From being only mean, he looked murderous. He was losing money, and money was the closest thing to his soul. He looked around at the yelling throng, one man at bay, and he achieved a certain dignity, even in the midst of absurdity.
"This darned pigeon is wood," said he. "They are all wood, all I have shot. This is a put-up job! It ain't fair." He turned to the young fellow who had taken the pigeons, and who acted as referee.
"See here, John," he said, "you ain't going to see me done this way, be you? You know it ain't a fair deal. Albert Dodd's shot clay pigeons, and I've shot wood. It ain't fair."
"No, it ain't fair," admitted the young fellow reluctantly, with a side glance at Doctor Gordon. Gordon made a movement, but Georgie K. was ahead of him. James saw a roll of bills pass from his hands to Jim Goodman's. Gordon came up to Georgie K.
"See here!" he said.
"Well," replied Georgie K., without turning his head.
"I can't stop. Excuse me, Doc." Georgie K. jumped into a light wagon on that side of the field, and was gone with a swift bounce over the hollow which separated it from the road. Doctor Gordon hurried back to his own buggy, with James following, got in and took the road after Georgie K. "He mustn't pay that money," said Gordon. James said nothing.
"I never thought of such a thing as that," said Doctor Gordon, driving furiously, but they did not catch up with Georgie K. until they reached the Evarts House, and he was out of his wagon.
Doctor Gordon approached him, pocketbook in hand. "See here, Georgie K.," he said, "I owe you a hundred."
"Owe me nothing," said Georgie K. It had seemed impossible for his great pink face to look angry and contemptuous, but it did. "I don't set up for much," said he, "but I must say I like a square deal."
"Good Lord! so do I," said Gordon. "Here, take this money. I had Aaron make those darned wooden pigeons. Jim Goodman has skinned enough young chaps here to deserve the taste of a skin himself."
"He ain't skinned you."
"Hasn't he? He owes me for two wives' last sicknesses, to say nothing of himself and children, and he's living with his third, and I shall have to doctor her for nothing or let her die. But that wasn't what I did it for."
Georgie K. turned upon him. "What on earth did you do it for, Doc?" said he.
"Because I felt the way you have felt yourself."
"When the woman that made those wax-flowers, and loved that little stuffed bird in there, died."
Georgie K.'s face paled. "What's the matter, Doc?"
"Nothing, I tell you."
"Nothing. Who said there was anything? I had to have my little joke. I tell you, Georgie K., I've got to have my little joke, just as I've got to have my game of euchre with you and my glass of apple-jack; a man can't be driven too far. I meant to make it right with him. He's a mean little cuss, but I am not mean. I intended to spend a hundred on my joke, and you got ahead of me. For God's sake, take the money, Georgie K."
Georgie K., still with a white, shocked, inquiring face, extended his hand and took the roll of bills which the doctor gave him.
"Come in and take something," said he, and Doctor Gordon and James accepted. They went again into the state parlor on whose shelf were the wax-flowers and the stuffed canary, and they partook of apple-jack.
Then Doctor Gordon and James took leave. Georgie K. gave Gordon a hearty shake of the hand when he got into the buggy. Gordon looked at James again with his gloomy face, as he took up the lines. "Failed in the race again," he said. "Now we've got to hustle, for I have eight calls to make before dinner, and it's late. I ought to change horses, but there isn't time."
The weeks went on, and James led the same life with practically no variation. The sense of a mystery or mysteries about the house never left him, and it irritated him. He was not curious; he did not in the least care to know in what the mystery consisted, but the fact of concealment itself was obnoxious to him. As for himself, he never concealed anything, and when it came to mystery, he had a vague idea of something shameful, if not criminal. Doctor Gordon's incomprehensible changes of mood, of almost more than mood, of character even, disturbed him. Why a man should be one hour a country buffoon, the next an absorbed gentleman, he could not understand. And he could not understand also why Clemency had never left the house since he had met her on the day of his arrival. She evidently was herself angry and sulky at being housed, but she did not attempt to resist, and whenever Mrs. Ewing expressed anxiety about her health, she laughed it off, and made some excuse, such as the badness of the roads, or some Christmas work which she was anxious to finish. However, at last Mrs. Ewing's concern grew so evident that Doctor Gordon at dinner one day gave what seemed a plausible reason for Clemency remaining indoors. "If you will have it, Clara," he said, "Clemency has a slight pain in her side, and pleurisy and pneumonia are all about, and I told her that she had better take no chances, and the weather has been raw."
Mrs. Ewing turned quite white. "Oh, Tom," she murmured, "why didn't you tell me?"
"I did not tell you, Clara dear, because you would immediately have had the child in a galloping consumption, and it is really nothing at all. I only want to be on the safe side."
"It is a very little pain, mother dear," said Clemency. When Clemency spoke to Mrs. Ewing, her voice had a singing quality. At such times, although the young man's very soul was possessed of the mother, he could not help viewing the daughter with favor. But he was puzzled about the pleurisy. The girl seemed to him entirely well, although she was losing a little of her warm color from staying indoors. Still, after all, a pain is as invisible as a spirit. Her friend, Annie Lipton, spent a few days with her, and then James saw very little of Clemency. The two girls sat together in Clemency's room, and only the Lord of innocence and ignorance knew what they talked about. They talked a great deal. James, whenever he was in the house, was conscious of the distant murmur of their sweet young voices, although he could not distinguish a word. Annie Lipton was a prettier girl than Clemency, though without her personal charm. Her beauty seemed to abash her, and make her indignant. She was a girl who should have been a nun, and viewed love and lovers from behind iron bars. She treated James with exceeding coolness.
"Annie Lipton is an anomaly," Doctor Gordon remarked once over his after-dinner pipe, when they sat in the study listening to the feminine murmur on the other side of the wall. It sounded like the gentle ripple of a summer sea.
"Why?" returned James.
"She defies her sex," replied Doctor Gordon, "and still there is nothing mannish about her. She is a woman angry and ashamed at her womanhood. If she ever marries, it will be at the cost of a terrible mental struggle. There are women-haters among men, and there are a very few—so few as to rank with albinos and white blackbirds in scarcity—man-haters among women. Annie is a man-hater."
"She is very pretty, too," said James.
"If you attempt the conquest, I'll warn you there will be scaling ladders and all the ancient paraphernalia of siege needed," said Doctor Gordon laughingly. James colored.
"It may be that I am a woman-hater," he replied, and looked very young. Doctor Gordon again laughed.
A little later they went to Georgie K.'s. They went nearly every evening while Annie Lipton was with Clemency. After she had left they did not go so often. "It is pretty dull for Clemency," Doctor Gordon would say, and they would remain at home and play whist with the two ladies. James began to be quite sure that Doctor Gordon's visits to Georgie K.'s were mostly made when Mrs. Ewing looked worse than usual and did not eat her dinner. James became convinced in his own mind that Mrs. Ewing was not well, although he never dared broach the subject again to the doctor, and although it made no difference whatever in his own attitude toward her. As well might he have turned his back upon the Venus, because of some slight abrasion which her beautiful body had received from the ages.
But one day, having come in unexpectedly alone, he found her on the divan in the living-room, evidently weeping, and his heart went out to her. He flung himself down on his knees beside her.
"Oh, what is it? What is the matter?" he whispered.
Her whole body was writhing. She uncovered her eyes and looked at him pitifully, and yet with a certain dignity. Those beautiful eyes, brimming with tears, were not reddened, and their gaze was steady. "If I tell you, will you keep my secret?" she whispered back, "or, rather, it is not a secret since Doctor Gordon knows it. I wish he did not, but will you keep your knowledge from him?"
"I promise you I will," said James fervently.
"I am terribly ill," said Mrs. Ewing simply. "I suffer at times tortures. Don't ask me what the matter is. It is too dreadful, and although I have no reason to feel so, it seems to me ignominious. I am ashamed of being so ill. I feel disgraced by it, wicked." She covered her face again and sobbed.
"Don't, don't," said James, out of his senses completely. "Don't, I can't bear it. I love you so. Don't! I will cure you."
"You cannot. Doctor Gordon does not admit that my case is hopeless, but he gives no hope, and you must have noticed how he suffers when he sees me suffer. He runs away from me because he can do nothing to help me. That is the worst of it all. I could bear the pain for myself, but for the others, too! Oh, I wish there was some little back door of life out of which one could slip, and no blame to anybody, in a case like this. But there is nothing but the horrible front door, which means such agony to everybody who is left, as well as the one that goes." Mrs. Ewing had completely lost control of herself. She sobbed again and moaned.
James covered one of her cold hands with kisses. "Don't, don't," he begged. "Don't, I love you."
Suddenly Mrs. Ewing came to the comprehension of what he said. She looked at his bent head—James had a curly head like a boy's—and a strange look came into her eyes, as if she were regarding him across an immeasurable gulf. Nobody had ever seemed quite so far away in the world as this boy with his cry of love to the woman old enough to be his mother. It was not the fact of her superior age alone, it was her disease, it was her sense of being done forever with anything like this that gave her, as it were, a view of earth from outside, and yet she had a sense of comfort. James was even weeping. She felt his tears on her hand. It did her good that anybody could love her so little as to be able to stay by and see her suffer, and weep for her, and not rush forth in a rage of misery like Thomas Gordon. In a second, however, she had command of herself. She drew her hand away. "Doctor Elliot," she said, "you forget yourself."
"No, no, I don't," protested James. "It is not as if I—I were thinking of you in that way. I am not. I know you could not possibly think of me as a girl might. It is only because I love you. I have never seen anybody like you."
"You must put me out of your head," said Mrs. Ewing. "I am old enough to be your mother; I am ill unto death. You must not love me in any way."
"I cannot help it"
Mrs. Ewing hesitated. "I have a mind to tell you something," she said in a low voice. "Can I rely upon you?"
"I would die before I told, if you said I was not to," cried James.
"It might almost come to that," said the woman gravely. "A very serious matter is involved, otherwise there would not be this secrecy. I cannot tell you what the matter is, but I can tell you something which will cure you of loving me."