THE GATES BETWEEN.
ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS,
"THE GATES AJAR," "GYPSY BREYNTON," Etc
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter. REVELATION.
WARD, LOCK AND Co.,
LONDON, NEW YORK, AND MELBOURNE.
[All rights reserved].
THE GATES BETWEEN.
If the narrative which I am about to recount perplex the reader, it can hardly do so more than it has perplexed the narrator. Explanations, let me say at the start, I have none to offer. That which took place I relate. I have had no special education or experience as a writer; both my nature and my avocation have led me in other directions. I can claim nothing more in the construction of these pages than the qualities of a faithful reporter. Such, I have tried to be.
It was on the twenty-fifth of November of the year 187-, that I, Esmerald Thorne, fell upon the event whose history and consequences I am about to describe.
Autobiographies I do not like. I should have been positive at any time during my life of forty-nine years, that no temptation could drag me over that precipice of presumption and illusion which awaits the man who confides himself to the world. As it is the unexpected which happens, so it is the unwelcome which we choose. I do not tell this story for my own gratification. I tell it to fulfil the heaviest responsibility of my life. However I may present myself upon these pages is the least of my concern; whether well or ill, that is of the smallest possible consequence. Touching the manner of my telling the story, I have heavy thoughts; for I know that upon the manner of the telling will depend effects too far beyond the scope of any one human personality for me to regard them indifferently. I wish I could. I have reason to believe myself the bearer of a message to many men. This belief is in itself enough, one would say, to deplete a man of paltry purpose. I wish to be considered only as the messenger, who comes and departs, and is thought of no more. The message remains, and should remain, the only material of interest.
Owing to some peculiarities in the situation, I am unable to delegate, and do not see my way to defer, a duty—for I believe it to be a duty—which I shall therefore proceed to perform with as little apology as possible. I must trust to the gravity of my motive to overcome every trifling consideration in the mind of my readers; as it has solemnly done in my own.
In order to give force to my narrative, it will be necessary for me to be more personal in some particulars than I could have chosen, and to revert to certain details of my early history belonging to that category which people of my profession or temperament are wont to dismiss as "emotional." I have had strange occasion to learn that this is a deep and delicate word, which can never be scientifically used, which cannot be so much as elementally understood, except by delicacy and by depth. These are precisely the qualities of which this is to be said,—he who most lacks them will be most unaware of the lack.
There is a further peculiarity about such unconsciousness; that it is not material for education. You can teach a man that he is not generous, or true, or able. You can never teach him that he is superficial, or that he is not fine.
I have been by profession a physician; the son of a chemist; the grandson of a surgeon; a man fairly illustrative of the subtler significance of these circumstances; born and bred, as the children of science are;—a physical fact in a world of physical facts; a man who rises, if ever, by miracle, to a higher set of facts; who thinks the thought of his father, who does the deed of his father's father, who contests the heredity of his mother, who shuts the pressure of his special education like a clasp about his nature, and locks it down with the iron experience of his calling.
It was given to me, as it is not given to all men of my kind, to know a woman strong enough—and sweet enough—to fit a key unto this lock.
Strong enough or sweet enough, I should rather have said. The two are truly the same. The old Hebrew riddle read well, that "out of strength shall come forth sweetness." There is the lioness behind the rarest honey.
Like others of my calling, I had seen the best and the worst and the most of women. The pathological view of that complex subject is the most unfortunate which a man can well have. The habit of classifying a woman as neuralgic, hysteric, dyspeptic, instead of unselfish, intellectual, high-minded, is not a wholesome one for the classifier. Something of the abnormal condition of the clientele extends to the adviser. A physician who has a healthy and natural view of women has the making of a great man in him.
I was not a great man. I was only a successful lector; more conscious in those days of the latter fact, and less of the former, be it admitted, than I am now. A man's avocation may be at once his ruin and his exculpation. I do not know whether I was more self-confident or even more wilful than other men to whom is given the autocracy of our profession, and the dependence of women which accompanies it. I should not wish to have the appearance of saying an unmanly thing, if I add that this dependence had wearied me.
It is more likely to be true that I differed from most other men in this: that in all my life I have known but one woman whom I loved, or wished to make my wife. I was forty-five years old before I saw her.
Who of us has not felt at the Play, the strong allegorical power in the coming of the first actress before the house? The hero may pose, the clown dance, the villain plot, the warrior, the king, the merchant, the page, fuddle the attention for the nonce: it is a dreary business; it is like parsing poetry; it is a grammatical duty; the Play could not, it seems, go on without these superfluities. We listen, weary, regret, find fault, and acquire an aversion, when lo! upon the monotonous, masculine scene, some slender creature, shining, all white gown and yellow hair and soft arms and sweet curves comes gliding—and, hush! with the Everwomanly, the Play begins.
I do not think this feeling is one peculiar to our sex alone; I have heard women express the same in the strongest terms.
So, I have sometimes thought it is with the coming of the Woman upon the stage of a man's life. If the scenes have shifted for a while too long, monopolized by the old dismal male actors whose trick and pose and accent he knows so well and understands too easily,—and if, then, half-through the drama, late and longed-for, tardily and splendidly, comes the Star, and if she be a fine creature, of a high fame, and worthy of it,—ah, then look you to her spectator. Rapt and rapturous she will hold him till the Play is done.
So she found me—held me—holds me. The best of it, thank God, is the last of it. So, I can say, she holds me to this hour, where and as we are.
It was on this wise. On my short summer vacation of that year from which I date my happiness, and which I used to call The Year of my Lady, as others say The Year of Our Lord, I tarried for a time in a mountain village, unfashionable and beautiful, where my city patients were not likely to hunt me down. Fifty-three of them had followed me to the seashore the year before, and I went back to town a harder-worked man than I left it. Even a doctor has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of a vacation, and that time I struck out for my rights. I cut adrift—denied my addresses even to my partner—and set forth upon a walking tour alone, among the hills. Upon one point my mind was made up: I would not see a sick woman for two weeks.
I arrived at this little town of which I speak upon a Saturday evening. I remember that it was an extraordinary evening. Thunder came up, and clouds of colours such as I found remarkable. I am not an adept in describing these things, but I remember that they moved me. I went out and followed the trout-brook, which was a graceful little stream, and watched the pageant in the skies above the tops of the forest. The trees on either side of the tiny current had the look of souls regarding each other across a barrier, so solemn were they. They stood with their gaze upon the heavens and their feet rooted to the earth, and seemed like sentient creatures who knew why this was as it was.
I, walking with my eyes upon them, feet unguarded, and fancy following a cloud of rose-colour that hung fashioned in the outline of a mighty wing above me, caught my foot in a gnarled old hickory root and fell heavily. When I tried to rise I found that I was considerably hurt.
I was a well, vigorous man, not accustomed to pain, which took a vigorous form with me; and I was mortified to find myself quite faint, too much so even to disturb myself over the situation, or to wonder who would be likely to institute a searching-party for me,—a stranger, but an hour since, registered at the hotel.
With that ease which I condemned so hotly in my patients I abandoned myself to the physical pang, got back somehow against the hickory, and closed my eyes; devoid even of curiosity as to the consequences of the accident; only "attentive to my sensations," as a great writer of my day put it. I had often quoted him to nervous people whom I considered as exaggerating their sufferings; I did not recall the quotation at that moment.
"Oh! you are hurt!" a low voice said.
I was a bit fastidious in voices at that time of my life. To say that this was the sweetest I had ever heard would not express what I mean. It was the dearest I had ever heard. From that first moment,—before I saw her face,—drowned as I was in that wave of mean physical agony, given over utterly to myself, I knew, and to myself I said: "It is the dearest voice in all this world."
A woman on the further side of the trout-brook stood uncertain, pitifully regarding me. She was not a girl,—quite a woman; ripe, and self-possessed in bearing. She had a beautiful head, and bright dark hair; her head was bare, and her straw mountain-hat hung across one arm by the strings. She had been bathing her face in the water, which was of a pink tint like the wing above it. As she stood there, she seemed to be shut in and guarded by, dripping with, that rose-colour,—to inhale it, to exhale it, to be a part of it, to be it. She looked like a blossom of the live and wonderful evening.
"You are seriously hurt," she repeated. "I must get to you. Have patience; I will find a way. I will help you."
The bridge was at some distance from us, and the little stream was brawling and strong.
"But it is not deep," she said. "Do not feel any concern. It will do me no harm." As she spoke, she swung herself lightly over into the brook, stepping from stone to stone, till these came to an abrupt end in the current. There for an instant poised, but one could not say uncertain, she hung shining before me—for her dress was white, and it took and took and took the rose-colour as if she were a white rose, blushing. She then plunged directly into the water, which was knee-deep at least, and waded straight across to me.
As she climbed the bank, her thick wet dress clinging to her lovely limbs, and her hands outstretched as if in hurrying pity, I closed my eyes again before her. I thought, as I did so, how much exquisite pleasure was like perfect pain.
She climbed the bank and stooped from her tall height to look at me; knelt upon the moss, and touched me impersonally, like the spirit that she seemed.
"You are very wet!" I cried. "The water is cold. I know these mountain brooks. You will be chilled through. Pray get home and send me—somebody."
"Where are you hurt?" she answered, with a little authoritative wave of the hand, as if she waved my words away. She had firm, fine hands.
"I have injured the patella—I mean the knee-pan," I replied. She smiled indulgently. She did not take the trouble to tell me that my lesson in elementary anatomy was at all superfluous. But when I saw her smile I said:—
"That was unconscious cerebration."
"Why, of course," she answered, nodding pleasantly.
"Go home," I urged. "Go and get yourself out of these wet things. No lady can bear it; it will injure you." She lifted her head,—I thought she carried it like a Greek,—and regarded me with her wide, grave eyes. I met hers firmly, and for a moment we considered each other.
"It is plain that you are a doctor," she said lightly, with a second smile. "I presume you never see a well woman; at least—believe you see one now. I shall mind this wetting no more than if I were a trout or a gray squirrel. I am perfectly able to give you whatever help you require. And by your leave, I shall not go home and get into a dry dress until I see you properly cared for. Now! Can you step? Or shall I get a waggon, and a farm-hand? I think we could back a horse down almost to this spot. But it would take time. So?—Will you try it? Gently. Slowly. Don't let me hurt you, or blunder. I see that you are in great pain. Don't be afraid to lean on me. I am quite strong. I am able. If you can crawl a few steps"—
Steps! I would have crawled a few miles. For she put her sweet arms about me as simply and nobly as if I had been a wounded child; and with such strength of the flesh and unconsciousness of the spirit as I had never beheld in any woman, she did indeed support me out of the forest in such wise that my poor pain of the body became a great and glorified fact, for the joy of soul that I had because of her.
It had begun to be easy, in my day, to make a mock at many dear and delicate beliefs; not those alone which pertain to the life eternal, but those belonging to the life below. The one followed from the other, perhaps. That which we have been accustomed to call love was an angel whose wings had been bruised by our unbelieving clutch. It was not the fashion to love greatly. One of the leading scientists of my time and of my profession had written: "There is nothing particularly holy about love." So far as I had given thought to the subject, I had, perhaps, agreed with him. It is easy for a physician to agree to anything which emphasizes the visible, and erases the invisible fact. If there were any one form of the universal delusion more than all others "gone out" in the days of which I speak, it was the dear, old-fashioned delirium called loving at first sight. I was never exactly a scoffer; but I had mocked at this fable as other men of my sort mock,—a subject for prophylactics, like measles or scarlet fever; and when you said that, you had said the whole. Be it, then, recorded, be it admitted, without let or hindrance, that I, Esmerald Thorne, physician and surgeon, forty-five years old, and of sane mind, did love that one woman, and her only, and her always, from the moment that my unworthy eyes first looked into her own, as she knelt before me on the moss beside the mountain brook,—from that moment to this hour.
Thus half in perfect poetry, part in simplest prose, opened the first canto of that long song which has made music in me; which has made music of me, since that happy night. Of the countless words which we have exchanged together in times succeeding, these, the few of our first meeting are carved upon my brain as salutations are carved in stone above the doorways of mansions. He that has loved as I did, may say why this should be so, if he can. I cannot. Time and storm beat against these inscriptions, and give them other colouring,—the tints of years and weather; but while the house lasts and the rock holds the salutation lives. In most other matters, the force of recurring experience weakens association. He who loves cherishes the first words of the beloved as he cherishes her last.
The situation was simple enough: an injured man and a lovely woman, guests of the same summer hotel; a slow recovery; a leisurely sweet acquaintance; the light that never was on hill or shore; and so the charm was wrought. My accident held me a prisoner for six weeks. But my love put me in chains in six minutes.
Her name was Helen; like hers of old
"Who fired the topmost towers of Ilium."
I liked the stately name of her, for she was of full womanhood,—thirty-three years old; the age at which the French connoisseur said that a charming woman charmed the most.
Upon the evening before we parted, I ventured—for we sat at the sheltered end of the piazza, away from the patterers and chatterers, a little by ourselves—to ask her a brave question. I had learned that one might ask her anything; she had originality; she was not of the feminine pattern; she had no paltriness nor pettiness in her thoughts; she looked out, as men do, upon a subject; not down, as women are wont. She was a woman with whom a man could converse. He need not adapt himself and conceal himself, and play the part of a gallant at real matters which were above gallantry. He could confide in her. Now it was new to me to consider that I could confide in any person. In my calling, one becomes such a receptacle of human confidence,—one soaks up other people's lives till one becomes a great sponge, absorptive and absorbing for ever, as sponges should. Who notices when the useful thing gets too full? That is what it is there for. Pour on—scalding hot, or freezing cold, or pure or foul—pour away. If one day it refuses to absorb any more, and lies limp and valueless—why, the Doctor has broken down; or the Doctor is dead. Who ever thought anything could happen to the Doctor? One thing in the natural history of the sponge is apt to be overlooked. When the process of absorption reaches a certain point, let the true hand touch the wearied thing, and grasp it in the right way, and lo! back rushes the instinct of confidence, out, not in.
Something of this sort had happened to me. The novelty of real acquaintance with a woman who did not need me had an effect upon me which perhaps few outside of my profession can understand. This woman truly needed nothing of me. She had not so much as a toothache or a sore throat. If she had cares or troubles they were her own. She leaned upon me no more than the sunrise did upon the mountain. She was as radiant, as healthful, as vivid, and as calm; she surrounded me, she overflowed me like the colour of the air. Nay, beyond this it was I who had need; it was she who ministered. It was I who suffered the whims and longings of weakness,—the thousand little cravings of the sick for the well. It was I who learned to know that I had never known the meaning of what is called "diversion." I learned to suspect that I had yet to learn the true place of sympathy in therapeutics. I learned, in short, some serious professional lessons which were the simplest human ones.
But the question that I spoke of was on this wise. It did not indeed wear the form, but she gave it the hospitality, of a question.
"I wish I knew," I said, "why you have not married. I wish you thought me worthy to know."
"The whole world might know," she answered, with her sweet straightforward look.
"And I, then, as the most unworthy part of it?" For my heart sank at the terms upon which I was admitted to the answer.
"I have never seen any man whom I wished to marry. I have no other reason."
"Nor I," I said, "a woman"— And there I paused. Yes, precisely there, where I had not meant to; for she gave me a large, grave look, upon which I could no more have intruded than I could have touched her.
This was in September. The year had made the longest circuit of my life before I gathered the courage to finish that sentence, broken by the weight of a delicate look; before I dared to say to her:—
"Nor I a woman—until now."
I hope I was what we call "above" the petty masculine instinct which values a woman who is hard to win chiefly for that circumstance. Perhaps I was not as I thought myself. But it seemed to me that the anguish of wooing in doubt overcame all paltry sense of pleasure in pursuit of my delight. My thoughts of her moved like slow travellers up the sides of a mountain of snow. That other feeling would have been a descent to me. So wholly did she rule my soul—how could I stoop to care the more for hers, because she was beyond my reach?
Be this as it may, beyond my reach for yet another year she did remain. Gently as she inclined toward me, to love she made no haste. The force of my feeling was so great at times, it seemed incredible that hers did not rush to meet me like part of the game incoming wave broken by a coast island and joining—seemingly two, but in reality one—upon the shoreward side. For the first time in my life, in that rising tide of my great love, I truly knew humility. My unworthiness of her was more present with me even than my longing for her. If I could have scourged my soul clear of all unfitness for her as our Saviour was said to have scourged the tradesmen out of the Temple, I should have counted myself blessed, even though I never won her; though I beat out my last hope of her with the very blows which I inflicted upon myself.
In the vibrations of my strong emotion it used to surprise me that my will was such a cripple against the sensibilities of that delicate creature. I was a man of as much will as was naturally good for me; and my training had made it abnormal like a prize-fighter's bicepital muscle. People of my profession need some counter-irritant, which they seldom get, to the habit of command. To be the ultimate control for a clientele of a thousand people, to enforce the personal opinion in every matter from a broken constitution to a broken heart, deprives a man of the usual human challenges to an athletic will. In his case, if ever, motion follows least resistance. His will-power grows by a species of pommelling; not by the higher tactics of wrestling.
But I, who gave the fiat on which life or death hung poised as unhesitatingly as I controlled the fluctuations of an influenza; and I, to whom the pliability of the feminine will had long since become an accepted and somewhat elemental fact, like the nature of milk-toast; I, Dr. Thorne, who had the habit of success, who expected to make his point, who was accustomed to receive obedience, who fought death or hysteria, an opposing school or a tricky patient, with equal fidelity, as one who pursues the avocation of life,—I stood, conquered before this slender woman whose eyes, like the sword of flame, turned this way and that, guarding the barred gates of the only Eden I had ever chosen to enter.
In short, for the first time in my life I found myself a suppliant; and I found myself thus and there for the sake of a feeling.
It was not for science' sake, it was not for the sake of personal fame, or for the glory of an idea, or for the promulgation of a discovery. I had not been overcome upon the intellectual side of my nature. I had been conquered by an emotion. I had been beaten by a thing for which, all my life, I had been prescribing as confidently as I would for a sprain. Medical men will understand me, and some others may, when I say that I experienced surprise to come face to face at last, and in this unanswerable personal way, with an invisible, intangible power of the soul and of the body, which could not be treated as "a symptom."
I loved her. That was enough, and beyond. I loved her. That was the beginning and end. I loved her. I found nothing in the Materia Medica that could cure the fact. I loved her. Science gave me no explanation of the phenomenon. I did not love her scientifically. I loved her terribly.
I was a man of middle age, and had called myself a scientist and philosopher. I had thought, if ever, to love soberly and philosophically. Instead of that I loved as poets sing, as artists paint, as the statues look, as the great romances read, as ideals teach,—as the young love.
As the young do? Nay. What young creature ever loved like that?
They know not love who sip it at the spring. Youth is a fragile child that plays at love, Tosses a shell, and trims a little sail, Mimics the passion of the gathered years, And is a loiterer on the shallow bank Of the great flood that we have waited for.
I do not think of any other thing which a man cannot do better at forty, than at twenty. Why, then, should he not the better love?
My lady had a stately soul; but she gave it sweet graciousness and little womanly appeals and curves, that were to my heart as the touch of her hand was to my pulse. I was so happy in her presence that I could not believe I had ever been sad; and I longed so for her in absence that I could scarcely believe I had become happy. She was to my thoughts as the light is to the crystal. She came into my life as the miracles came to the unbelieving. She moved through my days and through my dreams, as the rose-cloud moved upon the mountain sky. She floated between me and my sick. She hovered above me and my dying. She was a mist between me and my books. Once when I took the knife for a dangerous operation, the steel blade caught a sunbeam and flashed; and I looked at the flash—it seemed to contain a new world—and I thought: "She is my own. I am a happy man!" But I was sorry for my patient. I was not rough with him. And the operation succeeded.
What is to be said? I loved her. Love is like faith. He who has it understands before you speak. But to him who has it not, it cannot be explained.
A year from the time of my most blessed accident beside the trout-brook,—in one year and two months from that day, upon a warm and wonderful September afternoon, my lady and I were married, and I brought her from her mother's house to the mountain village where first we saw each other. There we spent the first week of our happiness. It was as near to Eden as we could find. The village was left almost to its own rare resources; the summer tourists were well-nigh gone; the peaceful roads gave no stare of intrusion to our joy. The hills looked down upon us and made us feel how high love was. The forest inclosed us, and made us understand that love was large. The holiness of beauty was the hostess of our delight. Oh, I had won her! She was my wife. She was my own. She loved me.
If I cherished her as my own soul, what could I give her back, who had given herself to me?
I said, "I will make you the happiest woman who was ever beloved by man upon this earth."
"But you have," she whispered, lifting her dear face. "It is worth being alive for, if it came to an end to-morrow."
"Love has no end," I cried. "Happiness is life. It cannot die. It has an immortal soul. If ever I make you sad, if I am untender to you,—may God strike me"—
"Hush," she cried, clinging to me, and closing my lips with a kiss for which I would have died; "Hush, love! hush!"
It ought to be said, at this point in my story, that I had never been what would be called an even-tempered man. Truth to tell, I was a spoiled boy. My mother was a saint, but she was a soft-hearted one. My father was a scholar. Like many another boy of decided individuality, I came up anyhow. Nobody managed me. At an early age my profession made it my duty to manage everybody else. I had a nervous temperament to start on; neither my training nor my occupation had poised it. I do not think I was malicious nor even ill-natured. As men go, I was perhaps a kind man. The thing which I am trying to say is, that I was an irritable one.
As I look back upon the whole subject I can see, from my present point of view, that this irritability had seldom struck me as a personal disadvantage. I do not think it usually makes that impression upon temperaments similarly vitiated. As nearly as I can remember, I thought of myself rather as the possessor of an eccentricity, than as the victim of a vice. My father was an overworked college professor,—a quick-tempered man; my mother,—so he told me with streaming tears, upon the day that he buried her,—my mother never spoke one irritated word to him in all her life: he had chafed and she had soothed, he had slashed and she had healed, from the beginning to the end of their days together. A boy imitates for so many years before he reflects, that the liberty to say what one felt like saying appeared to me a mere identification of sex long before it occurred to me that mine might not be the only sex endowed by nature with this form of expression. I regarded it as one regards a beard, or a waistcoat,—simple signs of the variation of species.
My mother—Heaven rest her sweet soul—did not, that I recall, obviously oppose me in this view. After the time of the first moustache she obeyed her son, as she had obeyed her husband.
As has been already said, the profession to which I fell heir failed to recommend to me a different personal attitude toward the will of others. My sick people were my pawns upon the chess-board of life. I played my game with humane intentions, not wholly, I believe, with selfish ones. But I suffered the military dangers of character, without the military apologies for them. He whose duty to God and men requires him to command all with whom he comes in contact should pray God, and not expect men, to have mercy on his soul.
It is possible, I do not deny, that I put this view of the case without what literary critics call "the light touch." It is quite possible that I emphasize it. Circumstances have made this natural; and if I need any excuse for it I must seek it in them. Whether literary or not, it is not human to cherish a light view of a heavy experience.
I loved my wife. This, I think, I have sufficiently made plain. I loved her as I might have discovered a new world; and I tried to express this fact, as I should have learned a new, unworldly language. I could no more have spoken unkindly to her than I could vivisect a humming-bird. I obeyed her lightest look as if she had given me an anaesthetic. Her love intoxicated me. I seemed to be the first lover who had ever used this phrase. My heart originated it, with a sense of surprise at my own imaginative quality. I was chloroformed with joy. Oh, I loved her! I return to that. I find I can say nothing beyond it. I loved her as other people loved,—patients, and uninstructed persons. I, Esmerald Thorne, President of the State Medical Society, and Foreign Correspondent of the National Evolutionary Association, forty-six years old, and a Darwinian,—I loved my wife like any common, ardent, unscientific fellow.
It is easy to toss words and a smile at it all, now. There have been times when either would have been impossible from very heart-break. There, again, is another of the phrases to which experience has been my only vocabulary. My patients used to talk to me about their broken hearts. I took the temperature and wrote a prescription. I added that she would be better to-morrow; I would call again in a week. I assured her that I understood the case. I was as well fitted to diagnose the diseases of the Queen of some purple planet which the telescope has not yet given to astronomy.
I have said that I found it impossible to be irritable to my dear wife. I cannot tell the precise time when it became possible. When does the dawn become the day upon the summer sky? When does the high tide begin to turn beneath the August moon? Rather, I might say, when does the blue become the violet, within the prism? Did I love her the less, because the distance of the worshipper had dwindled to the lover's clasp?
I could have shot the scoffer who told me so. What then? What shall I call that difference with which the man's love differs when he has won the woman? Had the miracle gone out of it? God forbid.
It was no longer the marvel of the fire come down from heaven to smite the altar. It was the comfortable miracle of the daily manna. Had my goddess departed from her divinity, my queen from her throne, my star from her heaven? Rather, in becoming mine she had become myself, and if there were a loss, that loss was in my own nature. I should have risen by reason of hers. If I descended, it was by force of my own gravitation. Her wing was too light to carry me.
It is easier to philosophize about these things than it is to record them in cold fact. With shame and sorrow do I say it, but say it I must: My love went the way of the love of other men who feel (this was and remains the truth) far less than I. I, who had believed myself to love like no other before me, and none to come after me, and I, who had won the dearest woman in all the world—I stooped to suffer myself to grow used to my blessedness, like any low man who was incapable of winning or of wearing it.
It cannot be said, it shall not be said, that I loved my wife less than the day I married her. It must be written that I became accustomed to my happiness.
That ideal of myself, which my ideal of her created in me, and which no emergency of fate could have shaken, slipped in the old, fatal quicksand of use. Our ideal of ourselves is to our highest life like the heart to the pulsation. It is the divinest art of the love of woman for man that she clasps him to his vision of himself, as breath and being are held together.
Until the time mentioned at the beginning of my narrative, I had in no sense appreciated the state of the case, as it lay between my ideal and my fact. That I had been more or less impatient of speech in my own home for some time past, is probably true. The ungoverned lip is a terrible master; and I had been a slave too long. I was in the habit of finding fault with my patients. I was accustomed to be what we call "quick" with servants. Neither had, I thought, as a rule, seemed to care the less for me on this account. If I lost a patient or a coachman now and then, I could afford to. The item did not trouble me. I was inconsiderate at times with personal friends. They said, It is his way, and bore with me. People usually bore with me; they always had. I looked upon this as one of the rights of temperament, so far as I looked upon it at all. I do not think this indulgence had occurred to me as other than a tribute. It is common enough in dealing with men of my sort. (And alas, there are enough of my sort; I must be looked upon rather as a type than a specimen.) Such indulgence is a movement of self-defence, or else of philosophy, upon the part of those who come in contact with us. To this view of the subject I had given no attention.
I had lived to be almost fifty years old, and no person had ever said: "Esmerald Thorne, you trust your attractive qualities too far. Power and charm do not give a man a permit to be disagreeable. Your temperament does not release you from the common-place human duty of self-restraint. A gentleman has no more right to get uncontrollably angry than he has to get drunk. The patience with which others receive you is not a testimony to your strength; it is a concession to your weakness. You are living upon concessions like disease, or childhood, or age."
No one had said this—surely not my wife. I can recall an expression of bewilderment at times upon her beautiful face, which for the moment perplexed me. After I had gone out, I would remember that I had been nervous in my manner. I do not think I had ever spoken with actual roughness to her, until this day of which I write. That I had been sometimes cross enough, is undoubtedly the case.
On that November day I had been overworked. This was no novelty, and I offer it as no excuse. I had been up for two nights with a dangerous case. I had another in the suburbs, and a consultation out of town. There was a quarrel at the hospital, and a panic in Stock Street. I had seen sixty patients that day. I had been attacked in the "Therapeutic Quarterly" upon my famous theory of Antisepsis. Perhaps I may add the circumstance that my baby was teething.
This was, naturally, less important to me than to his mother, who thought the child was ill. I knew better, and it annoyed me that my knowledge did not remove her apprehension. In point of fact, he had cried at night for a week or two, more than he ought to have done. She could not understand why I denied him a Dover's powder. I needed sleep, and could not get it. We were both worn, and—I might fill my chapter to the brim with the little reasons for my great error. Let it suffice that they were small and that it was large.
We had been married three years, and our boy was a year old. He was a fine fellow. Helen lost her Greek look and took on the Madonna expression after he was born. Any woman who is fit to be a mother gains that expression with her first child. My wife was a very happy mother.
She was sitting in the library when I came in that evening. It was a warm, red library, with heavy curtains and an open fire—a deep room that absorbed colour. I fancied the room, and it was my wife's pleasure to await me in it with the child each evening at the earliest hour when I might by any chance be expected home. She possessed to the full the terrible power of waiting which women have. She could do nothing when she expected me. Although three years married, she could not read, or write, or play when she was listening for my step. I do not mean that she told me this. I found it out. She never called my attention to such little feminine weaknesses. She was never over-fond. My wife had a noble reserve. I had never seen the hour when I felt that her tenderness was a treasure to be lightly had, or indifferently treated.
It should be said that the library opened from the parlours, and was at that time separated from them by a heavy portiere of crimson stuff, the doors not being drawn. This drapery she was in the habit of folding apart at the hours of my probable return, and as I came through the long parlours my eyes had the first greeting of her, before my voice or arms. Upon this evening, as upon others, I entered by the parlour door, and came—more quickly than usual—toward the library. I was in a great hurry; one of the acute attacks of the chronic condition which besets the busy doctor. As I crossed the length of the thick carpet, the rooms shook beneath my tread; I burst into, rather than entered, the library,—not seeing her, I think, or not pausing to see her, in the accustomed manner. When I had come to her I found that the child was not with her, as usual. She was sitting alone by the library table under the drop-light, which held a shade of red lace. She had a gown of white wool trimmed with ermine; a costume which gave me pleasure, and which she wore upon cool evenings, not too often for me to weary of it. She regarded my taste in dress as delicately and as delightedly as she did every other wish or will of mine.
She had been trying to read; but the magazine lay closed upon her knee below her folded hands. Her face wore an anxious look as she turned the fine contours of her head toward me.
"Oh," she cried, "at last!"
She moved to reach me, swiftly, murmuring something which I did not hear, or to which I did not attend; and under the crimson curtains met me, warm and dear and white, putting up her sweet arms.
I kissed her carelessly—would to God that I could forget it! I kissed her as if it did not matter much, and said:—
"Helen, I must have my dinner this instant!"
"Why, surely," she said, retreating from me with a little shock of pained surprise, "It is all ready, Esmerald. I will ring."
She melted from my arms. Oh, if I had known, if I had known! She stirred and slipped and was gone from me, and I stood stupidly looking at her; her figure, against the tall, full book-cases, shone mistily, while she touched the old-fashioned bell-rope of gold cord.
"Really, I hadn't time to come home at all," I added testily. "I am driven to death. I've got to go again in ten minutes. But I supposed you would worry if I didn't show myself. It is a foolish waste of time. I don't know how I am ever going to get through. I wish I hadn't come."
She changed colour—from fair to flush, from red to white again—and her hand upon the gold cord trembled. I remembered it afterward, though I was not conscious of noticing it at the time.
"You need not," she replied, in her low, controlled voice, "on my account. You need never come again."
"It is easier to come," I answered irritably, "than to know that you sit here making yourself miserable because I don't."
"Have I ever fretted you about coming, Esmerald? I did not know it."
"It would be easier if you did fret!" I cried crossly. "I'd rather you'd say a thing than look it. Any man would."
Indeed, it would have been a paltry satisfaction to me just then if I could have found her to blame. Her blamelessness irritated my self-complacence as the light irritates defective eyes.
"I am due at the hospital in twenty-two minutes," I went on, excitedly. "Chirugeon is behaving like Apollyon. If I'm not there to handle him, nobody will. The whole staff are afraid of him—everybody but me. We sha'n't get the new ward built these two years if he carries the day to-night. I've got a consultation at Decker's—the old lady is dying. It's no sort of use dragging a tired man out there; I can't do her any good; but they will have it. I'm at the beck and call of every whim. Isn't that dinner ready? I wish I had time to change my boots! They are wet through. My head aches horribly. Brake telegraphed me to get down to Stock Street before two o'clock to save what is left of that Santa Ma stock. I couldn't go. I had an enormous office—forty people. I've lost ten thousand dollars in this panic. I've got to see Brake on my way to Decker's. I lost a patient this morning—that little girl of the Harrowhart's. She was a poor little scrofulous thing. But they are terribly cut up about it.... Chowder? I wish you'd had a good clear soup. I don't feel as if I could touch chowder. I hope you have some roast beef, better than the last. You mustn't let Parsnip cheat you. Quail? There's no nourishment in a quail for a man in my state. The gas leaks. Can't you have it attended to? Hurry up the coffee. I must swallow it and go. I've got more than ten men could do."
"It is more than one woman can do"—she began gently, when I came to the end of this outbreak and my breath together.
"What did you say? Do speak louder!"
"I said it seems to be more than one woman can do, to rest you."
"Yes," I said carelessly, "it is. You can't do the first thing for me, except to do me the goodness to ring for a decent cup of coffee. I can't drink this."
"Oh, what? I can't stop to talk. There, I've burned my tongue, now. If there's anything I can't stand, it is going to a consultation with a burned tongue."
"How tired you are, Esmerald! I was only going to say that I am sorry. I can't let you go without saying that."
"I can't see that it helps it any. I am so tired I don't want to be touched. Never mind my coat. I'll put it on myself. Tell Joe—no. I left the horse standing. I don't want Joe. I suppose Donna is uneasy by this time. She won't stand at night—she's got to. I'll get that whim out of her. Now, don't look that way. The horse is safe enough. Don't you suppose I know how to drive? You're always having opinions of your own against mine. There. I must be off."
"Where's the baby, Helen?" I turned, with my hand upon the latch of my heavy oaken door, and jerked the question out, as cross men do.
"The baby isn't just right, somehow, Esmerald. I bated to bother you, for you never think it is anything. I dare say he will be better, but I thought I wouldn't let him come out of the nursery. Jane is with him. I've been a little troubled about him. He has cried all the afternoon."
"He cries because you coddle him!" I exploded. "It is all nonsense, Helen. Nothing ails the child. I won't encourage this sort of thing. I'll see him when I come home. I can't possibly wait—I am driven to death—for every little whim"—
But at the door I stopped. If the baby had been a patient he would have seen no doctor that night. But the father in me got the better of me, and without a word further to my wife I ran up to the nursery.
She stayed below; she perceived (Helen was always quick), although I had not said so, that I did not wish her to follow me. I examined the child hastily. The little fellow stopped crying at the sight of me, and put up both arms to be taken. I said:—
"No, Boy. Papa can't stop now," and put him gently back into his crib. When I had reached the nursery door I remember that I returned and kissed him. I was very angry, but I could not be angry with my baby. With the touch of his little lips, dewy and sweet, upon mine, I rushed down to my wife, and tempestuously began again:—
"Helen, I must have an end to this nonsense. Nothing ails the baby; he is only a trifle feverish with a new tooth. It really is very unpleasant to me that you make such a fuss over him. If you had married a greengrocer it might have been pardonable. Pray remember that you have married a physician who understands his business, and do leave me to manage it. Take the child out of the nursery. Carry him downstairs as usual for a few minutes. He will sleep better. There! I'm eight minutes behindhand already, all for this senseless anxiety of yours. It is a pity you can't trust me, like other men's wives! I wish I'd married a woman with a little wifely spirit!—or else not married at all."
I shut the door; I am afraid I slammed it. I cleared the steps at a bound, and ran fiercely out into the night air. The wind was rising, and the weather was growing sharp. It was frosty and noisy. Donna, my chestnut mare, stood pawing the pavement in high temper, and called to me as she heard my step. She had dragged at her weight a little; she was thoroughly displeased with the delay. It occurred to me that she felt as I had acted. It even occurred to me to go back and tell my wife that I was ashamed of myself.
I turned and looked in through the parlour windows. The shades were up, and the gas was low. Dimly beyond, the bright panel of the lighted library arose between the crimson curtains. She stood against it, midway between the two rooms. Her hands had dropped closed one into the other before her. Her face was toward the street. She seemed to be gazing at me, whom she could not see. Her white dress, which hung in thick folds, the pallor of her face and her delicate hands, gave her the look of a statue; its purity, and to my fancy at that moment its permanence. She seemed to be carved there, like something that must stay.
I turned to go back—yes, I would have gone. It is little enough for a man to say for himself under circumstances like these; but perhaps I may be allowed to say it, since to exculpate myself is the last of my motives. I had made a stop or two up the flagging between the deep grass-plots that fronted the house, when the mare, disturbed beyond endurance at a movement of delay which she too well understood, gave a shrill whinny, and reared, pulling and dragging at her weight fiercely. She was a powerful creature, and the weight yielded, hitting at her heels. In an instant she had cramped the wheels, and I saw that the buggy would go over. To spring back, reach the bit, snatch the reins, leap over the wheel, and whirl away in the reeling carriage was the work of some thing less than a thought; it was the elemental instinct by which a man must manage his horse, come life or death.
Like most doctors, I was something of a horseman, and the idea of being thwarted by any of Donna's whims had never occurred to me. I knew that the horse was pulling hard, but beyond that, I could not be said to have knowledge, much less fear; the mad conflict between the brute and the man possessed me to the exclusion of intelligence.
It was some moments before it struck me that my own horse was running away with me.
My first, perhaps I may say my only emotion at the discovery was one of overpowering rage.
I did not mean to strike her. No driver, ever if an angry one, would have done that. But I had the whip in my hand, around which the reins were knotted for the struggle, and when the horse broke into a gallop the jerk gave her a flick. I was not in the habit of whipping her. She felt herself insulted. It was now her turn to be angry; and an angry runaway means a bad business. Donna put down her head, struck out viciously from behind, and kicked the dasher flat. From that moment I lost all control of her.
"She is headed down town. At this rate, in five minutes she will be in the thick of travel. I have so many minutes more."
For how long I cannot tell, I had beyond this no other intelligent idea. Then I thought;—
"I should not like to be the man who has got to tell Helen." This repeated itself dully: "I should not care to be the fellow who will be sent to tell Helen."
I had ceased to call to the mare; it only made matters worse; but there was great hubbub in the streets as we leaped on. There were several attempts to head her off, I think. One man caught at her bridle. This frightened her; she threw him off, and threw him down. I think she must have hurt him. We were now well down town. Window lights and carriage lights flared by deliriously. The wind, which was high, at speed like that seemed something demoniac. I remember how much it added to my sense of danger. I remember that my favourite phrase occurred to me:—
"I am driven to death."
Suddenly I saw approaching an open landau. The street was full of vehicles, some of which I was sure to run down; but none of them seemed to give me concern except this one carriage. It contained a lady and a little boy, patients of mine. I recognized them forty feet away. He was a pretty little fellow, and she was fond of me; sent for me for everything; trusted me beyond reason; could not live without her doctor—that kind of patient. She had been a great sufferer. It seemed infernal to me that it should be they.
I shouted to her coachman:—
"Henry! For God's sake—to the left! To the left!"
But Henry stared at me like one struck dead. I thought I heard him say;—
"Marm, it's the doctor!" and after that I heard no more.
As the crash came, I saw the woman's face. She had recognized me with her look of sweet trustfulness; it froze to mortal horror. She clasped the child. I saw his cap come off from his yellow curls, and one little hand tossed out as the landau went over. The mare, now mad as any maniac, ran on.
Something had broken, but it mattered little what. I think we turned a corner. I think she struck a lamp-post or a tree. At all events, the buggy went over; and, scooped into the top, and dragged, and blinded, and stunned, I came to the ground.
As I went down, I uttered the two words of all that are human, most solemn; perhaps, one may add, most automatic. Believer or sceptic, saint or sinner, mortal danger hurls them from us, as it wrests the soul from out our bodies.
I said, "My God!" precisely as I threw out my arms, to catch at whatever could hold me when I could no longer hold myself.
How long I had lain stunned upon the pavement I had no means of knowing; I thought not long. I was surprised, on coming to myself, to find that my injuries were not more severe.
My head felt uncomfortable, and I had a certain numbness or stiffness, as one does from the first trial of long-disused limbs. I had always limped a trifle since that accident beside the trout-brook; and, as I staggered to my feet, I thought:—
"This will play the mischief with that old injury. I shouldn't wonder if it came to crutches."
On the contrary, when I had walked some dozen steps I found that an interesting thing had happened. The shock had dispersed the limp.
It was with a perfectly even and natural gait, although, as I say, rather a weak one, that I trod the pavement to try what manner of man the runaway had left me. I said:—
"It is one of those cases of nervous rearrangement. The shock has acted like a battery upon the nerve-centres. Instead of a broken neck, I have a cured leg. I'm a lucky fellow."
Having already, however, considered myself a lucky fellow for the greater part of my life, this conclusion did not impress me with the force which it might some other men; and, laughing lightly, as lucky people do, at fortune, I turned to examine the condition of my horse and carriage.
Donna was not to be seen. She had broken the traces, the breeching, the shafts, everything, in short, she could, and cleared herself. I had been unconscious long enough to give her time to make herself invisible, and she had made the most of it; in what direction she had gone, it was impossible for me to tell. The buggy was a wreck. No one was in sight who seemed to have interest or anxiety in the matter. I wondered that I did not find myself the victim of a gaping crowd. But I reflected that the mishap had taken place in a quiet dwelling street, not travelled at that hour, and that my fate, therefore, had attracted no attention. I remembered, too, my patient, Mrs. Faith, and her boy, and that dolt of a Henry's helpless face—the whole thing came to mind, vividly. It occurred to me that the crowd might be at the scene of an accident so terrible that no loafer was left to regard my lesser misfortune. It was they who had been sacrificed. It was I who escaped.
My first thought was to go at once and learn the worst; but I found myself a little out of my way. I really did not recognize the street in which I stood. I had been for so many years accustomed to driving everywhere that, like other doctors, I hardly knew how to walk; and by the time I made my way back to the great thoroughfare where I had collided with Mrs. Faith's carriage, no trace of the tragedy was to be found; or at least I could not find any. After looking in vain, for a while, I stopped a man, and asked him if there had not been a carriage accident there within half an hour. He lifted his eyes to me stupidly, and went on. I put the same question to some one else—a lazy fellow, who was leaning against an iron railing and staring at me. But he shook his head decidedly.
A young priest passed by, at this moment, saying an Ave with moving lips and unworldly eyes, and I made inquiries of him whether a lady and a child had just been injured in that vicinity by a runaway.
"Nay," he said, gazing at me with a luminous look. "Nay, I see nothing."
After an instant's hesitation the priest made the sign of the cross both upon himself and me; and then stretched his hands in blessing over me, and silently went his way. I thought this very kind in him; and I bowed, as we parted, saying aloud:—
"Thank you, Father," for my heart was touched, despite myself, at the manner of the young devotee.
It had surely been my intention, on failing to find any traces of the accident in the spot where I supposed that it had taken place, to go at once to the house of Mrs. Faith, and inquire for her welfare and the boy's. It was the least I could do, under the circumstances.
Apparently, however, I myself was more shaken than I had thought; for after my brief interview with the priest I speedily lost my way, and could not find my patient's street or number. I searched for it for some time confusedly; but the brain was clearly still affected by the concussion—so much so that it was not long before I forgot what I was searching for, and went my ways with a dim and idle purpose, such as must accompany much of the action of those in whom the relation between mind and body has become, for any cause, disarranged.
After an interval—how long I cannot tell—of this suspended intelligence, my brain grew more clear and natural, and I remembered that I was very late at the hospital, at the consultation, at Brake's, at every appointment of the evening; so late that my accustomed sense of haste now began to possess me to the exclusion of everything else. I remembered my wife, indeed, and wondered if I had better go back and tell her that I was not hurt. But it did not strike me as necessary. Donna, if she had not broken her neck somewhere, by this time, would run straight for the stable; she would not go home. The buggy was a wreck, and the police might clear it away. There was no reason to suppose that Helen would hear of the accident, that I could see, from any source. There would be no scare. I had better go about my business, and tell her when I got home. News like this would keep an hour or two, and everybody the better for the keeping.
Reasoning in this manner, if it can be said to be reasoning, I took my way to the hospital as fast as possible. I did not happen to find a cab; and I gave myself the unusual experience of hailing a horse-car. The car did not stop for my signal, and I flung myself aboard as best I might; for a man so recently shaken up, with creditable ease, I thought.
Trusting to this circumstance, when we reached the hospital I leaped from the car, which was going at full speed; it was not till I was well up the avenue that I recalled having forgotten to offer my fare, which the conductor had forgotten to demand.
"My head is not straight yet," I said. The little incident annoyed me.
In the hospital I found, as I expected, a professional cyclone raging. The staff were all there except myself, and so hotly engaged in discussion that my arrival was treated with indifference. This was undoubtedly good for me, but it was not, therefore, agreeable to me; and I entered at once with some emphasis upon the dispute in hand.
"You are entirely wrong," I began, turning upon my opponents. "This institution had seven hundred more applicants than it could accommodate last year. We are not chartered to turn away suffering. We exist to relieve it. It is our business to find the means to do so, as much as it is to find the true remedy for the individual case. It is"—
"It is an act of financial folly," interrupted my most systematic professional enemy, a certain Dr. Gazell. He had a bland voice which irritated me like sugar sauce put upon horse-radish. "It cannot be done without mortgaging ourselves up to our ears—or our eaves. I maintain that the hospital can better bear to turn off patients than to turn on debt."
"And I maintain," I cried, tempestuously, "that this hospital cannot bear to do either! If the gentlemen gathered here to-night—the members of this staff, representing, as they do, the wealthiest and most influential clienteles in the city—if we cannot among us pledge from our patients the sum needed to put this thing through, I say it is a poor show for ourselves. I, for one, am ready to raise fifteen thousand dollars within three months. If the rest of you will do your share in proportion"—
"Dr. Thorne has always been a little too personal, in this matter," said Gazell, reddening; he did not look at me, for embarrassment, but addressed the chairman of the meeting with a vague air of being in earnest, if any one could be got to believe it.
"No doubt about that," said one of the staff in an undertone. "Thorne is"—I thought I caught the added words, "unreasonable fellow," but I would not give myself the appearance of having done so.
"But we can't afford to quarrel with him altogether," suggested Chirugeon, still in a tone not meant for me to overhear. And with this they went at it again, till the discussion reached such warmth, and the motion to leave the subject with the trustees, such favour, that, in disgust, I seized my hat and strode out of the room.
Smarting, I rushed away from them, and angrily out-of-doors again. I was exceedingly angry; but this gave me no more, perhaps (though I thought, a little), than the usual discomfort.
From the hospital I hurried to the consultation; where I was now well over-due. I found the attendant physician about to leave; in fact, I met him on the stairs, up which I had run rapidly, as soon as my ring was answered in the familiar house. This man was followed by old Madam Decker's daughter, who was weeping.
"She died at six o'clock, Dr. Halt," Miss Decker sobbed, "at six precisely, for I noticed. We didn't expect it so soon."
"Nor I, either," said Halt, soothingly, "I did not anticipate"—
"Dead!" I cried. "Mrs. Decker dead? I did my best—I have met with an accident. I could not come till now. Did she ask for me?"
"She talked of Dr. Thorne," sobbed Miss Decker, "as long as she could talk of anything. She wondered if he knew, she said, how sick she was."
I hastened to explain, to protest, to sympathize, to say the idle words with which we waste ourselves and weary mourners, at such times; but the daughter paid little attention to me. She was evidently hurt at my delay; and, thinking it best to spare her my presence, I bowed my head in silence, and left the house.
Halt followed me, and we stood together for a moment outside, where his carriage and driver awaited him.
"Was she conscious to the end?" I asked.
"Yes," he murmured. "Yes, yes, yes. It is a pity. I'm sorry for that girl."
Nodding shortly in my direction, he sprang into his coupe, and drove away.
I had now begun to be very restless to get home. It seemed suddenly important to see Helen. I felt, I knew not why, uneasy and impatient, and turned my steps toward town.
"But I must stop at Brake's," I thought. This seemed imperative; so much so that I went out of my course a little, to reach his house, a pretty, suburban place. I remember passing under trees; and the depth of their shadow; it seemed like a bay of blackness into which the night flowed. I looked up through it at the sky; stars showed through the massed clouds which the wind whipped along like a flock of titanic celestial creatures. I had not looked up before, since the accident. The act gave me strange sensations, as if the sky had lowered, or I had risen; the sense of having lost the usual scale of measurement. This reminded me that I was still not altogether right.
"I have really hurt my head," I thought, "I ought to get home. I must hurry this business with Brake. I must get to Helen."
But Brake was not at home. As I went up the steps, his servant was ushering out some one, to whom I heard the man say that Mr. Brake had left word not to expect him to-night.
"Does he ever stay late at the office?" I asked, thinking that the panic might render this possibly.
The man turned the expressionless countenance of a well-trained servant upon me; and repeated:—
"Mr. Brake is not at home. I know nothing further about Mr. Brake's movements."
This reply settled the matter in my own mind, and I made my way to Stock Street as fast as I might. I could not make it seem unnecessary to see Brake. But Helen—Helen— The sooner this wretched detention was over, the sooner to see her. I had begun to be as nervous as a woman; and, I might add, as unreasonable as a sick one. I had got myself under the domination of one of those fixed ideas with which I had so little patience in the sick. I could not see Helen till I had seen Brake: this was the delusion. I succumbed to it, and knew that I succumbed to it, and could not help it, and knew that I could not help it, and did the deed it bade me. As I hurried on my way, I thought:—
"There has been considerable concussion. But Helen will take care of me. It's a pity I spoke so to Helen."
Stock Street, when I reached it, had a strange look to me. I was not used to being there at such an hour; few of us are. The relative silence, the few passers, the long empty spaces in the great thoroughfare, told me that the hour was later than I thought. This added to my restlessness, and I sought to look at my watch, for the first time since the accident; it was gone. I glanced at the high clock at the head of the street; but the light was imperfect, and with the vertigo which I had I did not make out the hour. It might, indeed, be really late. This troubled me, and I hastened my steps till I broke into a run.
It occurred to me, indeed, that I might be arrested for the suspicions under which such a pace, at such an hour and in such a street, would place me. But as I knew most of the members of the force in that region more or less well, this did not trouble me. I ran on, undisturbed, passing a watchman or two, and came quickly to Brake's place. It was locked.
This distressed me. I think I had confidently expected to find him there. It did not seem to me possible to go home without seeing my broker. I stood, uncertain, rattling at the heavy door with imbecile impatience. This act brought the police to the spot in three minutes.
It was Inspector Drayton who came up, the well-known inspector, so long on duty in Stock Street; a man famed for his professional shrewdness and his gentlemanly manner.
"I wish," I said, "Mr. Inspector, that you would be good enough to let me in. I want to see Brake. I have reason to believe he is in his office. I must get in."
"It is very important," I added; for the inspector did not answer immediately, but looked at me searchingly.
"There was certainly some one meddling with this lock," he said, after a moment's hesitation, looking stealthily up and down and around the street.
"It was I," I replied, eagerly. "It was only I, Dr. Thorne. Come, Drayton, you know me. I want to see Brake. I must see Brake. It is a matter brought up by this panic—you know—the Santa Ma. He sent for me. I absolutely must see Brake. It is a matter of thousands to me. Let me in, Mr. Inspector."
"Come," for he still delayed and doubted, "let me in somehow. You fellows have a way. Communicate with his watchman—do the proper thing—anyhow—I don't care—only let me in."
"I will see," murmured the inspector, with a perplexed air; he had not his usual cordial manner with me, though he was still as polished as possible, and wore the best of kid gloves. I think the inspector touched one of their electric signals—I am not clear about this—but at any rate, a sleepy watchman came from within, holding a safety lantern before him, and gingerly opened the huge door an inch or two.
"Let me come in," said the inspector, decidedly. "It is I—Drayton. I have a reason. I wish to go to Mr. Brake's rooms, if you please."
The inspector slipped in like a ghost, and I followed him. Neither of us said anything further to the watchman; we went directly to Brake's place. He was not there.
"I will wait a few minutes," I said. "I think he will be here. I must see Brake."
The inspector glanced at me as one does at a fellow who is behaving a little out of the common course of human conduct; but he did not enter into conversation with me, seeing me averse to it. I sank down wearily upon Brake's biggest brown leather office chair, and put my head down upon his table. I was now thoroughly tired and confused. I wished with all my heart that I had gone straight home to Helen. The inspector and the watchman busied themselves in examining the building, for some purpose to which I paid no attention. They conversed in low tones, "I heard a noise at the door, sir, myself," the watchman said.
"Why don't you tell him it was I?" I called; but I did not lift my head. I was too tired to trouble myself. I must have fallen into a kind of stupor.
I do not know how long I had remained in this position and condition, whether minutes or hours; but when at last I roused myself, and looked about, a singular thing had happened.
The inspector had gone. The watchman had gone. I was alone in the broker's office. And I was locked in.
So often and so idly it is our custom to say, I shall never forget! that the words scarcely cause a ripple of comment in the mind; whereas, in fact, they are among the most audacious which we ever take upon our lips. How know we what law of selection our memories will obey in that system of mental relations which we call "forever"?
I, who believe myself to have obtained some especial knowledge upon this point, not possessed by all my readers, and to be more free than many another to use such language, still retreat before the phrase, and content myself with saying, "I have never forgotten." Up to this time I have never been able to forget the smallest detail of that night whose history I am now to record. It seems to me impossible in any set of conditions that memory could blot that experience from my being; but of that what know I? No more than I know of the politics of a meteor.
Upon discovering my predicament I was, of course, greatly disturbed. I tried the door, and tried again; I urged the latch violently; I exerted myself till the mere moral sense of my helplessness overcame my strength. I called to the watchman, whose distant steps I heard, or fancied that I heard, pacing the corridors. There was a Safe Deposit in the basement, and the great building was heavily guarded. I shouted for my liberty, I pleaded for it, I demanded it; but I did not get it. No one answered me. I ran to the barred windows and shook the iron casement as prisoners and madmen do. Nobody heard me. I bethought me of the private telegraph which stood by Brake's desk, mute and mysterious, like a thing that waited an order to speak. I could not help wondering, with something like superstition, what would be the next words which would pass the lips of the silent metal. It occurred to me, of course, to telegraph for relief; but I did not know how, and a kind of respect for the intelligence and power of the instrument deterred me from meddling with it to no visible end. Suddenly I remembered the electric signal which so often communicates with watchman or police in places of this kind. This, after some search, I found in a corner, over the desk of Brake's assistant, and this I touched. My effort brought no reply. I pressed the button again with more force and more desperation; I might say, with more personality.
"Obey me!" I cried, setting my teeth, and addressing the electric influence as a man addresses a menial.
Instantly a thrill passed from the wire to the hand. A distant sound jarred upon the air. Steps shuffled somewhere beyond the massive walls. I even thought that I heard voices, as of the watchman and others in possible consultation. No one approached the broker's door. I urged the signal again and again. I became quite frantic, for I had now begun to think with dismay of the effect of all this upon my wife. I railed upon that signal like a delirious patient at the order of a physician. A commotion seemed to follow, in some distant part of the building. But no one came within hearing of my voice; the noise soon ceased, and my efforts at freedom with it.
It having now become evident that I must spend the night where I was, I proceeded to make the best of it; and a very bad best it was. I was exhausted, I was angry, and I was distressed.
The full force of the situation was beginning to fall upon me. The inspector had put a not unnatural interpretation upon my condition; he thought so little of a gentleman who had dined too freely; it was a perfectly normal incident in his experience. He had mistaken the character of the stupor caused by my accident, and left me in that office for a drunken man. The fact that he was not accustomed to view me in such a light in itself probably explained the originality of his method. We were on pleasant terms. Drayton was a good fellow. Who knew better than he what would be the professional significance of the circumstance that Dr. Thorne was seen intoxicated down town at midnight? The city would ring with it in twelve hours, and it would not be for me, though I had been the most popular doctor in town, to undo the deed of that slander, if once it so much as lifted its invisible hand against the proud and pure reputation in whose shelter I lived and laboured, and had been suffered to become what we call "eminent." It was possible, too, that the inspector had some human regard for my family in this matter, and reasoned that to spare them the knowledge of my supposed disgrace was the truest kindness wherewith it was in his power to serve me. He meant to leave me where I was and as I was to sleep it off till morning. He would return in good season and release me quietly, and nobody the wiser but the watchman; who could be feed. This was plainly the purpose and the programme.
I returned to the table near which I had been sitting, and took the office chair again, and tried, like a reasonable creature, to calm myself.
What would Helen think by this time? I looked about the office stupidly. At first the dreary scene presented few details to me; but after a time they took on the precision and permanence which trifles acquire in emergencies. The gas was not lighted, but I could see with considerable ease, owing to the overwrought brain condition. It occurred to me that I saw like a cat or a medium; I noted this, as indicative of a certain remedy; and then it further occurred to me that I might as well doctor myself, having nothing better to do; and plainly there was something wrong. I therefore put my hand in my pocket for my case. It was gone.
Now, a physician of my sort is as ill at ease without his case as he would be without his body; and this little circumstance added disproportionately to my discomfort. With some irritable exclamation on my lips I leaned back in the chair, and once more regarded my environment. It was a rather large room, dim now, and as solitary as a graveyard after twilight. Before me stood the table, an oblong table covered with brown felt. A blue blotter, of huge dimensions, was spread from end to end; it was a new blotter, not much blurred. Inkstand, pens, paper-weight, calendar, and other trifles of a strictly necessary nature stood upon the blotter. Letters on file, and brokers' memoranda neatly stabbed by the iron stiletto—I forget the name of the thing—for that purpose made and provided, attracted my sick attention. An advertisement from a Western mortgage firm had escaped the neat hand of the clerk who put the office in order for the night, and fell fluttering to my feet. It would be impossible to say how important this seemed to me. I picked it up conscientiously and filed it, to the best of my remembrance, with an invitation to the Merchant's Banquet, and a subscription list in behalf of the blind man who sold tissue-paper roses at the head of the street.
In one corner of the room, as I have said, was the clerk's desk; the electric signal shone faintly above it; it had, to my eyes, a certain phosphorescent appearance. Opposite, the steam radiator stood like a skeleton. There was a grate in the room, with a Cumberland coal fire laid. On the wall hung a map of the State, and another setting forth the proportions of a great Western railroad. At the extreme end of the room stood chairs and settees provided for auctions. Between myself and these, the high, guarded public desk of the broker rose like a rampart.
In this sombre and severe place I now abandoned myself to my thoughts; and these gave me no mercy.
My wife was a reasonable woman; but she was a loving and sensitive one. I was accustomed to spare her all unnecessary uncertainty as to my movements—being more careful in this respect, perhaps, than most physicians would be; our profession covers a multitude of little domestic sins. I had not taken the ground that I was never to be expected till I came. A system of affectionate communication as to my whereabouts existed between us; it was one of the pleasant customs of our honeymoon which had lasted over. The telegraph and the messenger boy we had always with us; it was a little matter for a man to take the trouble to tell his wife why and where he was kept away all night. I do not remember that I had ever failed to do so. It was a bother sometimes, I admit, but the pleasure it gave her usually repaid me; such is the small, sweet coin of daily love.
As I sat there at the broker's desk, like a creature in a trap, all that long and wretched night, the image of my wife seemed to devour my brain and my reason.
The great clock on the neighbouring church struck one with a heavy and a solemn intonation, of which I can only say that it was to me unlike anything I had ever heard before. It gave me a shudder to hear it, as if I listened to some supernatural thing. The first hour of the new day rang like a long cry. Some freak of association brought to my mind that angel in the Apocalypse who proclaimed with a mighty voice that Time should be no more. I caught myself thinking this preposterous thing: Suppose it were all over? Suppose we never saw each other again? Suppose my wife were to die? To-night? Suppose some accident befell her? If she tripped upstairs? If the child's crib took fire and she put it out, and herself received one of those deadly shocks from burns not in themselves mortal?
Suppose—she herself opening the door to let in the messenger expected from me—that some drunken fellow, or some tramp—
"This," I said aloud, "is the kind of thing she does when I am delayed. This is what it means to wait. Men don't do it often enough to know what it is. I wonder if we have any scale of measurement for what women suffer?"
What she, for instance, by that time was suffering, oh, who in the wide world else could guess or dream? There were such suffering cells in that exquisite nature! Who but me could understand?
I brought my clinched hand down upon the broker's blue blotting-paper, and laid my heavy head upon it.
Suppose somebody had got the news to her that the horse had been seen dashing free of the buggy, or had returned alone to the stable, panting and cut?
Suppose Helen thought that my unaccountable absence had something to do with that scene between us? Suppose she thought—or if she suspected—perhaps she imagined—
I hid my face within my shaking hands and groaned. A curse upon the cruel words that I had spoken to the tenderest of souls, to the dearest and the gentlest of women! A curse upon the lawless temper that had fired them! Accursed the hot lips that had uttered them, the unmanly heart that could have let them slip!
I thought of her face—I really had not thought of her face before, that wretched night. I had not strictly dared. Now I found that daring had nothing to do with it. I thought because I had to think. I dwelt upon her expression when I spoke to her—God forgive me!—as I did; her attitude, the way her hands fell, her silence, the quiver in her delicate mouth. I saw the dim parlour, the lighted room beyond her, the scarlet shade upon the gas; she standing midway, tall and mute, like a statue carved by one stroke of a sword.
My own words came back to me; and I was not apt to remember things I said to people. So many impressions passed in and out of my mind in the course of one busy day, that I became their victim rather than their master. But now my language to my wife that unhappy evening returned to my consciousness with incredible vividness and minuteness. It will be seen from the precision with which I have already recorded it, how inexorable this minuteness was.
It occurred to me that I might as well have struck her.
In this kind of moral pommelling which sensitive women feel—as they do—how could I have indulged! I, who knew what a sensitive woman is, what fearful and wonderful nervous systems these delicate creatures have to manage; I, with what I was pleased to term my high organization and special training—I, like any brutal hind, had berated my wife. I, who was punctilious to draw the silken portiere for her, who could not let her pick up so much as her own lace handkerchief, nor allow her to fold a wrap of the weight of a curlew's feather about her own soft throat—I had belaboured her with the bludgeons that bruise the life out of women's souls. I wondered, indeed, if I should have been a less amiable fellow if I had worn cow-hide boots and kicked her.
My reproaches, my remorses, my distresses, it is now an idle tale to tell. That night passed like none before it, and none which have come after it. My mind moved with a piteous monotony over and over and about the aching thought: to see Helen—to see Helen—to be patient till morning, and tell Helen—Only to get through this horrible night, and hurry, rushing to the morning air, to the nearest cab dashing down the street, and making the mad haste of love and shame, to see my wife—to tell my wife—
As never in all our lives before, I should tell her how dear she was; how unworthy was I to love her; how I loved her just as much as if I were worthy, and could not help it though I tried—or (as we say) could not help it though I died! I should run up, ringing the bell, never waiting to find the latch-key—for I could wait for nothing. I should spring into the house, and find her upstairs, in our own room; it would be so early; she would be only half-dressed yet, pale and lovely, looking like a spirit, far across the rich colours of the room, her long hair loose about her. I should gather her to my heart before she saw me; my arms and lips should speak before my breaking voice. I should kiss my soul out on her lifted face. I should love her so, she should forgive me before I could so much as say, Forgive! And when I had her—to myself again—when these arms were sure of their own, and these lips of hers, when her precious breath was on this cheek again, and I could say;—
"Helen, Helen, Helen"—
and could say no more, for love and shame and sorrow, but only—
"Yes," said the watchman's voice in the corridor. "It is all right, sir. Me and Inspector Drayton, we thought we beard a noise, last night, and we considered it safe to look about. We had a thorough search. We thought we'd better. But there wasn't nothing. It's all straight, sir."
It was morning, and Brake's clerk was coming in. It was very early, earlier than he usually came, perhaps; but I could not tell. He did not notice me at first, and, remembering Drayton's hypothesis, I shrank behind the tall desk, and instinctively kept out of sight for a few uncertain minutes, wondering what I had better do. The clerk called the janitor, and scolded a little about the fire, which he ordered lighted in the grate. It was a cold morning. He said the room would chill a corpse. He had the morning papers in his hand. He unfolded the "Herald," and laid it down upon his own desk, as if about to read it.
At that instant, the telegraph clicked, and he pushed the damp, fresh paper away from him, and went immediately to the wires. The young man listened to the message with an expression of great intentness, and wrote rapidly. Moved by some unaccountable impulse, I softly rose and glanced over his shoulder.
The dispatch was dated at midnight, and was addressed to Henry Brake. It said:
"Have you seen my husband, to-night?" and it was signed, "Helen Thorne."
Oh, poor Helen!...
Now, maniac with haste to get to her, it occurred to me that the moment while the clerk was occupied in recording this message was as good a time as I could ask for in which to escape unobserved, as I greatly wished to do. As quietly as I could—and I succeeded in doing it very quietly—I therefore moved to leave the broker's office. As I did so, my eye caught the heading, in large capitals, of the morning news in the open "Herald" which lay upon the desk behind the clerk. I stopped, and stooped, and read. This is what I read:—
TERRIBLE TRAGEDY. RUNAWAY AT THE WEST END.
The eminent and popular physician. Dr. Esmerald Thorne,
At this moment, the broker entered the office.
With the "Herald" in my hand, I made haste to meet him.
"Brake!" I cried, "Mr. Brake! Thank Heaven, you have come! I have passed such a night—and look here! Have you seen this abominable canard? This is what has come of my being locked into your"—
The broker regarded me with a strange look; so strange, that for very amazement I stood still before it. He did not advance to meet me; neither his hand nor his eyes gave me the human sign of welcome; he looked over me, he looked through me, as a man does at one whose acquaintance he has no desire to recognize.
"Drayton has crammed him. He too believes that I was shut in here to sleep it off. The story will get out in two hours. I am doomed in this town henceforth for a drunken doctor. I'd better have been killed instantly, as this infernal paper says."
But I said,—
"Mr. Brake? You don't recognize me, I think. It is I, Dr. Thorne. I couldn't get here before two. I went to your house last evening. I got the impression you were here, so I came after you. I was locked in here by your confounded watchman. They have this minute let me free. I am in a great hurry to get home. Nice job this is going to be! Have you seen that?"
I put my shaking finger upon the "Herald's" fiery capitals, and held the column folded towards him.
"Jason," he said, after an instant's pause, "pick up the 'Herald,' will you? A gust of wind has blown it from the table. There must be a draught. Please shut the door."
To say that I know of no earthly language which can express the sensation that crawled over me as the broker uttered these words is to say little or nothing about it. I use the expression "crawled" with some faint effort to define the slowness and the repulsiveness with which the suspicion of that to which I dared not and did not give a name, made itself manifest to my mind.
"Excuse me, Brake," I said with some agitation, "you did not hear what I said. I was locked in. I am in a hurry to get home. Ask Drayton. Drayton let me in. I must get home at once. I shall sue the 'Herald' for that outrageous piece of work— What do you suppose my wife— Good God! She must have read it by this time! Let me by, Brake!"
"Jason," said the broker, "this is a terrible thing! I feel quite broken up about it."
"Brake!" I cried, "Henry Brake! Let me pass you! Let me home to my wife! You're in my way—don't you see? You're standing directly between me and the door. Let me pass!"
"There's a private dispatch come," said the clerk Badly. "It is for you, sir. It is from Mrs. Thorne herself."
"Brake!" I pleaded, "Brake, Brake!—Jason!—Mr. Brake! Don't you hear me?"
"Give me the message, Jason," said Brake, holding out his hand; he seated himself, as he did so, at the office table, where I had sat the night out; he looked troubled and pale; he handled the message reluctantly, as people do in the certainty of bad news.
"In the name of mercy, Henry Brake!" I cried, "what is the meaning of this? Don't you hear a word I say? Don't you feel me?—There!" I gripped the broker by the shoulder, and clinched both hands upon him with all my might. "Don't you feel me? God Almighty! don't you see me, Brake?"
"When did this dispatch come, Jason?" said the broker. He laid Helen's message gently down; he had tears in his eyes.
"Henry Brake," I pleaded brokenly, for my heart failed me with a mighty fear, "answer me, in human pity's name. Are you gone deaf and blind? Or am I struck dumb? Or am I"—
"It came ten minutes ago, sir," replied Jason. "It is dated, I see, at midnight. They delivered it as soon as anybody was likely to be stirring, here; a bit before, too; considering the nature of the message, I suppose, sir."
"It is a terrible affair!" repeated the broker nervously. "I have known the doctor a good many years. He had his peculiarities; but he was a good fellow. Say—Jason!"
"How does it happen that Mrs. Thorne— You say this message was dated at midnight?"
"At midnight, sir. 12.15."
"How is it she didn't know by that time? I pity the fellow who had to tell her. She's a very attractive woman.... The 'Herald' says— Where is that paper?"
"The 'Herald' says," answered Jason decorously, "that he was scooped into the buggy-top, and dragged, and dashed against— Here it is."
He handed his employer the paper, as I had done, or had thought I did, with his finger on the folded column. The broker took the paper, and slowly put on his glasses, and slowly read aloud:—
"'Dr. Thorne was dragged for some little distance, it is thought, before the horse broke free. He must have hit the lamp-post, or the pavement. He was found in the top of the buggy, which was a wreck. The robe was over him, and his face was hidden. His medicine case lay beneath him; the phials were crushed to splinters. Life was extinct when he was discovered. His watch had stopped at five minutes past seven o'clock. It so happened that he was not immediately identified, though our reporter could not learn the reason of this extraordinary mischance. By some unpardonable blunder, the body of the distinguished and favourite physician was taken to the Morgue'"—
"That accounts for it," said Jason.
—"'Was taken to the Morgue,'" read on Mr. Brake with agitated voice. "'It was not until midnight that the mistake was discovered. A messenger was dispatched at twenty minutes after twelve o'clock to the elegant residence of the popular doctor, in Delight Street. The news was broken to the widow as agreeably as possible. Mrs. Thorne is a young and very beautiful woman, on whom this shocking blow falls with uncommon cruelty.
"'The body was carried to Dr. Thorne's house at one o'clock. The time of the funeral is not yet appointed. The "Herald" will be informed as soon as a decision is reached.
"'The death of Dr. Thorne is a loss to this community which it is impossible to,'—hm—m—'his distinguished talents'—hm—m—hm—m."
The broker laid down the paper, and sighed.
"I sent for him yesterday, to consult about his affairs," he observed gently. "It is a pity for her to lose that Santa Ma. She will need it now. I'm sorry for her. I don't know how he left her, exactly. He did a tremendous business, but he spent as he went. He was a good fellow—I always liked the doctor! Terrible affair! Terrible affair! Jason! Where is that advertisement of Grope County Iowa Mortgage? You have filed it in the wrong place! Be more careful in future."