THE WEB OF LIFE
AUTHOR OF "THE GOSPEL OF FREEDOM," "THE MAN WHO WINS," "LITERARY LOVE-LETTERS AND OTHER STORIES"
TO G. R. C.
"Hear from the spirit world this mystery: Creation is summed up, O man, in thee; Angel and demon, man and beast, art thou, Yea, thou art all thou dost appear to be!"
THE WEB OF LIFE
The young surgeon examined the man as he lay on the hospital chair in which ward attendants had left him. The surgeon's fingers touched him deftly, here and there, as if to test the endurance of the flesh he had to deal with. The head nurse followed his swift movements, wearily moving an incandescent light hither and thither, observing the surgeon with languid interest. Another nurse, much younger, without the "black band," watched the surgeon from the foot of the cot. Beads of perspiration chased themselves down her pale face, caused less by sympathy than by sheer weariness and heat. The small receiving room of St. Isidore's was close and stuffy, surcharged with odors of iodoform and ether. The Chicago spring, so long delayed, had blazed with a sudden fury the last week in March, and now at ten o'clock not a capful of air strayed into the room, even through the open windows that faced the lake.
The patient groaned when the surgeon's fingers first touched him, then relapsed into the spluttering, labored respiration of a man in liquor or in heavy pain. A stolid young man who carried the case of instruments freshly steaming from their antiseptic bath made an observation which the surgeon apparently did not hear. He was thinking, now, his thin face set in a frown, the upper teeth biting hard over the under lip and drawing up the pointed beard. While he thought, he watched the man extended on the chair, watched him like an alert cat, to extract from him some hint as to what he should do. This absorption seemed to ignore completely the other occupants of the room, of whom he was the central, commanding figure. The head nurse held the lamp carelessly, resting her hand over one hip thrown out, her figure drooping into an ungainly pose. She gazed at the surgeon steadily, as if puzzled at his intense preoccupation over the common case of a man "shot in a row." Her eyes travelled over the surgeon's neat-fitting evening dress, which was so bizarre here in the dingy receiving room, redolent of bloody tasks. Evidently he had been out to some dinner or party, and when the injured man was brought in had merely donned his rumpled linen jacket with its right sleeve half torn from the socket. A spot of blood had already spurted into the white bosom of his shirt, smearing its way over the pearl button, and running under the crisp fold of the shirt. The head nurse was too tired and listless to be impatient, but she had been called out of hours on this emergency case, and she was not used to the surgeon's preoccupation. Such things usually went off rapidly at St. Isidore's, and she could hear the tinkle of the bell as the hall door opened for another case. It would be midnight before she could get back to bed! The hospital was short-handed, as usual.
The younger nurse was not watching the patient, nor the good-looking young surgeon, who seemed to be the special property of her superior. Even in her few months of training she had learned to keep herself calm and serviceable, and not to let her mind speculate idly. She was gazing out of the window into the dull night. Some locomotives in the railroad yards just outside were puffing lazily, breathing themselves deeply in the damp, spring air. One hoarser note than the others struck familiarly on the nurse's ear. That was the voice of the engine on the ten-thirty through express, which was waiting to take its train to the east. She knew that engine's throb, for it was the engine that stood in the yards every evening while she made her first rounds for the night. It was the one which took her train round the southern end of the lake, across the sandy fields, to Michigan, to her home.
The engine puffed away, and she withdrew her gaze and glanced at the patient. To her, too, the wounded man was but a case, another error of humanity that had come to St. Isidore's for temporary repairs, to start once more on its erring course, or, perhaps, to go forth unfinished, remanded just there to death. The ten-thirty express was now pulling out through the yards in a powerful clamor of clattering switches and hearty pulsations that shook the flimsy walls of St. Isidore's, and drew new groans from the man on the chair. The young nurse's eyes travelled from him to a woman who stood behind the ward tenders, shielded by them and the young interne from the group about the hospital chair. This woman, having no uniform of any sort, must be some one who had come in with the patient, and had stayed unobserved in the disorder of a night case.
Suddenly the surgeon spoke; his words shot out at the head nurse.
"We will operate now!"
The interne shrugged his shoulders, but he busied himself in selecting and wiping the instruments. Yet in spite of his decisive words the surgeon seemed to hesitate.
"Was there any one with this man,—any friend?" he asked the head nurse.
In reply she looked around vaguely, her mind thrown out of gear by this unexpected delay. Another freak of the handsome surgeon!
"Any relative or friend?" the surgeon iterated peremptorily, looking about at the attendants.
The little nurse at the foot of the patient, who was not impressed by the irregularity of the surgeon's request, pointed mutely to the figure behind the ward tenders. The surgeon wheeled about and glanced almost savagely at the woman, his eyes travelling swiftly from her head to her feet. The woman thus directly questioned by the comprehending glance returned his look freely, resentfully. At last when the surgeon's eyes rested once more on her face, this time more gently, she answered:
"I am his wife."
This statement in some way humanized the scene. The ward tenders and the interne stared at her blankly; the nurses looked down in unconscious comment on the twisted figure by their side. The surgeon drew his hands from his pockets and stepped toward the woman, questioning her meanwhile with his nervous, piercing glance. For a moment neither spoke, but some kind of mute explanation seemed to be going on between them.
She kept her face level with his, revealing it bravely, perhaps defiantly. Its tense expression, with a few misery-laden lines, answered back to the inquiry of the nonchalant outsiders: 'Yes, I am his wife, his wife, the wife of the object over there, brought here to the hospital, shot in a saloon brawl.' And the surgeon's face, alive with a new preoccupation, seemed to reply: 'Yes, I know! You need not pain yourself by telling me.'
The patient groaned again, and the surgeon came back at once to the urgent present—the case. He led the way to one side, and turning his back upon the group of assistants he spoke to the woman in low tones.
"This man, your husband, is pretty badly off. He's got at least two bullets in bad places. There isn't much chance for him—in his condition," he explained brusquely, as if to reconcile his unusual procedure with business-like methods.
"But I should operate," he continued; "I shall operate unless there are objections—unless you object."
His customary imperious manner was struggling with a special feeling for this woman before him. She did not reply, but waited to hear where her part might come in. Her eyes did not fall from his face.
"There's a chance," the surgeon went on, "that a certain operation now will bring him around all right. But to-morrow will be too late."
His words thus far had something foolish in them, and her eyes seemed to say so. If it was the only chance, and his custom was to operate in such cases,—if he would have operated had she not been there, why did he go through this explanation?
"There may be——complications in his recovery," he said at last, in low tones. "The recovery may not be complete."
She did not seem to understand, and the surgeon frowned at his failure, after wrenching from himself this frankness. The idea, the personal idea that he had had to put out of his mind so often in operating in hospital cases,—that it made little difference whether, indeed, it might be a great deal wiser if the operation turned out fatally,—possessed his mind. Could she be realizing that, too, in her obstinate silence? He tried another explanation.
"If we do not operate, he will probably have a few hours of consciousness—if you had something to say to him?"
Her face flushed. He humiliated her. He must know that she had nothing to say to him, as well as if he had known the whole story.
"We could make him comfortable, and who knows, to-morrow might not be too late!" The surgeon ended irritably, impatient at the unprofessional frankness of his words, and disgusted that he had taken this woman into his confidence. Did she want him to say: 'See here, there's only one chance in a thousand that we can save that carcass; and if he gets that chance, it may not be a whole one—do you care enough for him to run that dangerous risk?' But she obstinately kept her own counsel. The professional manner that he ridiculed so often was apparently useful in just such cases as this. It covered up incompetence and hypocrisy often enough, but one could not be human and straightforward with women and fools. And women and fools made up the greater part of a doctor's business.
Yet the voice that said, "I am his wife," rang through his mind and suggested doubts. Under the miserable story that he had instinctively imaged, there probably lay some tender truth.
"There's a chance, you see!" he resumed more tenderly, probing her for an evidence. "All any of us have, except that he is not in a condition for an operation."
This time her mouth quivered. She was struggling for words. "Why do you ask me?" she gasped. "What—" but her voice failed her.
"I should operate," the surgeon replied gently, anticipating her question. "I, we should think it better that way, only sometimes relatives object."
He thought that he had probed true and had found what he was after.
"It is a chance," she said audibly, finding her voice. "You must do what you think—best. I have nothing to say to him. You need not delay for that."
"Very well," the surgeon replied, relieved that his irregular confidence had resulted in the conventional decision, and that he had not brought on himself a responsibility shared with her. "You had best step into the office. You can do no good here."
Then, dismissing the unusual from his mind, he stepped quickly back to the patient. The younger nurse was bathing the swollen, sodden face with apiece of gauze; the head nurse, annoyed at the delay, bustled about, preparing the dressings under the direction of the interne.
The wife had not obeyed the doctor's direction to leave the room, however, and remained at the window, staring out into the soft night. At last, when the preparations were completed, the younger nurse came and touched her. "You can sit in the office, next door; they may be some time," she urged gently.
As the woman turned to follow the nurse, the surgeon glanced at her once more. He was conscious of her calm tread, her admirable self-control. The sad, passive face with its broad, white brow was the face of a woman who was just waking to terrible facts, who was struggling to comprehend a world that had caught her unawares. She had removed her hat and was carrying it loosely in her hand that had fallen to her side. Her hair swept back in two waves above the temples with a simplicity that made the head distinguished. Even the nurses' caps betrayed stray curls or rolls. Her figure was large, and the articulation was perfect as she walked, showing that she had had the run of fields in her girlhood. Yet she did not stoop as is the habit of country girls; nor was there any unevenness of physique due to hard, manual labor.
As she passed the huddle of human flesh stretched out in the wheel-chair, a wave of color swept over her face. Then she looked up to the surgeon and seemed to speak to him, as to the one human being in a world of puppets. 'You understand; you understand. It is terrible!'
The surgeon's brown eyes answered hers, but he was puzzled. Had he probed her aright? It was one of those intimate moments that come to nervously organized people, when the petty detail of acquaintanceship and fact is needless, when each one stands nearly confessed to the other. And then she left the room.
The surgeon proceeded without a word, working intently, swiftly, dexterously. At first the head nurse was too busy in handling bowls and holding instruments to think, even professionally, of the operation. The interne, however, gazed in admiration, emitting exclamations of delight as the surgeon rapidly took one step after another. Then he was sent for something, and the head nurse, her chief duties performed, drew herself upright for a breath, and her keen, little black eyes noticed an involuntary tremble, a pause, an uncertainty at a critical moment in the doctor's tense arm. A wilful current of thought had disturbed his action. The sharp head nurse wondered if Dr. Sommers had had any wine that evening, but she dismissed this suspicion scornfully, as slander against the ornament of the Surgical Ward of St. Isidore's. He was tired: the languid summer air thus early in the year would shake any man's nerve. But the head nurse understood well that such a wavering of will or muscle must not occur again, or the hairbreadth chance the drunken fellow had——
She watched that bared arm, her breath held. The long square fingers closed once more with a firm grip on the instrument. "Miss Lemoris, some No. 3 gauze." Then not a sound until the thing was done, and the surgeon had turned away to cleanse his hands in the bowl of purple antiseptic wash.
"My!" the head nurse exclaimed, "Dr. Trip ain't in it." But the surgeon's face wore a preoccupied, sombre look, irresponsive to the nurse's admiration. While she helped the interne with the complicated dressing, the little nurse made ready for removal to the ward. Then when one of the ward tenders had wheeled the muffled figure into the corridor, she hurried across to the office.
"It's all over," she whispered blithely to the wife, who sat in a dull abstraction, oblivious of the hospital flurry. "And it's going to be all right, I just know. Dr. Sommers is so clever, he'd save a dead man. You had better go now. No use to see him to-night, for he won't come out of the opiate until near morning. You can come tomorrow morning, and p'r'aps Dr. Sommers will get you a pass in. Visitors only Thursdays and Sunday afternoons usually."
She hurried off to her duties in the ward. The woman did not rise at once. She did not readjust her thoughts readily; she seemed to be waiting in the chance of seeing some one. The surgeon did not come out of the receiving room; there was a sound of wheels in the corridor just outside the office door, followed by the sound of shuffling feet. Through the open door she could see two attendants wheeling a stretcher with a man lying motionless upon it. They waited in the hall outside under a gas-jet, which cast a flickering light upon the outstretched form. This was the next case, which had been waiting its turn while her husband was in the receiving room,—a hand from the railroad yards, whose foot had slipped on a damp rail; now a pulpy, almost shapeless mass, thinly disguised under a white sheet that had fallen from his arms and head. She got up and walked out of the room. She was not wanted there: the hospital had turned its momentary swift attention to another case. As she passed the stretcher, the bearers shifted their burden to give her room. The form on the stretcher moaned indistinctly.
She looked at the unsightly mass, in her heart envious of his condition. There were things in this world much more evil than this bruised flesh of what had once been a human being.
The next morning Dr. Sommers took his successor through, the surgical ward. Dr. Raymond, whose place he had been holding for a month, was a young, carefully dressed man, fresh from a famous eastern hospital. The nurses eyed him favorably. He was absolutely correct. When the surgeons reached the bed marked 8, Dr. Sommers paused. It was the case he had operated on the night before. He glanced inquiringly at the metal tablet which hung from the iron cross-bars above the patient's head. On it was printed in large black letters the patient's name, ARTHUR C. PRESTON; on the next line in smaller letters, Admitted March 26th. The remaining space on the card was left blank to receive the statement of regimen, etc. A nurse was giving the patient an iced drink. After swallowing feebly, the man relapsed into a semi-stupor, his eyes opening and closing vacantly.
As he lay under the covering of a sheet, his arms thrust out bare from the short-sleeved hospital shirt, his unshaven flushed face contrasting with the pallid and puffy flesh of neck and arms, he gave an impression of sensuality emphasized by undress. The head was massive and well formed, and beneath the bloat of fever and dissipation there showed traces of refinement. The soft hands and neat finger-nails, the carefully trimmed hair, were sufficient indications of a kind of luxury. The animalism of the man, however, had developed so early in life that it had obliterated all strong markings of character. The flaccid, rather fleshy features were those of the sensual, prodigal young American, who haunts hotels. Clean shaven and well dressed, the fellow would be indistinguishable from the thousands of overfed and overdrunk young business men, to be seen every day in the vulgar luxury of Pullman cars, hotel lobbies, and large bar-rooms.
The young surgeon studied the patient thoughtfully. He explained the case briefly to his successor, as he had all the others, and before leaving the bed, he had the nurse take the patient's temperature. "Only two degrees of fever," he commented mechanically; "that is very good. Has his wife—has any one been in to see him?" The head nurse, who stood like an automaton at the foot of the bed, replied that she had seen no one; in any case, the doorkeeper would have refused permission unless explicit orders had been given.
Then the doctors continued their rounds, followed by the correct head nurse. When they reached the end of the ward, Dr. Sommers remarked disconnectedly: "No. 8 there, the man with the gun-shot wounds, will get well, I think; but I shouldn't wonder if mental complications followed. I have seen cases like that at the Bicetre, where operations on an alcoholic patient produced paresis. The man got well," he added harshly, as if kicking aside some dull formula; "but he was a hopeless idiot."
The new surgeon stared politely without replying. Such an unprofessional and uncalled-for expression of opinion was a new experience to him. In the Boston hospital resident surgeons did not make unguarded confidences even to their colleagues.
The two men finished their inspection without further incident, and went to the office to examine the system of records. After Sommers had left his successor, he learned from the clerk that "No. 8" had been entered as, "Commercial traveller; shot three times in a saloon row." Mrs. Preston had called,—from her and the police this information came,—had been informed that her husband was doing well, but had not asked to see him. She had left an address at some unknown place a dozen miles south.
The surgeon's knowledge of the case ended there. As in so many instances, he knew solely the point of tragedy: the before and the after went on outside the hospital walls, beyond his ken. While he was busy in getting away from the hospital, in packing up the few things left in his room, he thought no more about Preston's case or any case. But the last thing he did before leaving St. Isidore's was to visit the surgical ward once more and glance at No. 8's chart. The patient was resting quietly; there was every promise of recovery.
He left the grimy brick hospital, and made his way toward the rooms he had engaged in a neighborhood farther south. The weather was unseasonably warm and enervating, and he walked slowly, taking the broad boulevard in preference to the more noisome avenues, which were thick with slush and mud. It was early in the afternoon, and the few carriages on the boulevard were standing in front of the fashionable garment shops that occupied the city end of the drive. He had an unusual, oppressive feeling of idleness; it was the first time since he had left the little Ohio college, where he had spent his undergraduate years, that he had known this emptiness of purpose. There was nothing for him to do now, except to dine at the Hitchcocks' to-night. There would be little definite occupation probably for weeks, months, until he found some practice. Always hitherto, there had been a succession of duties, tasks, ends that he set himself one on the heels of another, occupying his mind, relieving his will of all responsibility.
He was cast out now from his youth, as it were, at thirty-two, to find his place in the city, to create his little world. And for the first time since he had entered Chicago, seven months before, the city wore a face of strangeness, of complete indifference. It hummed on, like a self-absorbed machine: all he had to do was not to get caught in it, involved, wrecked. For nearly a year he had been a part of it; and yet busy as he had been in the hospital, he had not sought to place himself strongly. He had gone in and out, here and there, for amusement, but he had returned to the hospital. Now the city was to be his home: somewhere in it he must dig his own little burrow.
Unconsciously his gait expressed his detachment. He sauntered idly, looking with fresh curiosity at the big, smoke-darkened houses on the boulevard. At Twenty-Second Street, a cable train clanged its way harshly across his path. As he looked up, he caught sight of the lake at the end of the street,—a narrow blue slab of water between two walls. The vista had a strangely foreign air. But the street itself, with its drays lumbering into the hidden depths of slimy pools, its dirty, foot-stained cement walks, had the indubitable aspect of Chicago.
Along the boulevard carriages were passing more frequently. The clank of metal chains, the beat of hoofs upon the good road-bed, sounded smartly on the ear. The houses became larger, newer, more flamboyant; richly dressed, handsome women were coming and going between them and their broughams. When Sommers turned to look back, the boulevard disappeared in the vague, murky region of mephitic cloud, beneath which the husbands of those women were toiling, striving, creating. He walked on and on, enjoying his leisure, speculating idly about the people and the houses. At last, as he neared Fortieth Street, the carriages passed less frequently. He turned back with a little chill, a feeling that he had left the warm, living thing and was too much alone. This time he came through Prairie and Calumet Avenues. Here, on the asphalt pavements, the broughams and hansoms rolled noiselessly to and fro among the opulent houses with tidy front grass plots and shining steps. The avenues were alive with afternoon callers. At several points there were long lines of carriages, attending a reception, or a funeral, or a marriage.
The air and the relaxation of all purpose tired him. The scene of the previous evening hung about his mind, coloring the abiding sense of loneliness. His last triumph in the delicate art of his profession had given him no exhilarating sense of power. He saw the woman's face, miserable and submissive, and he wondered. But he brought himself up with a jerk: this was the danger of permitting any personal feeling or speculation to creep into professional matters.
* * * * *
In his new rooms on Twenty-Eighth Street, there was an odor of stale tobacco, permeating the confusion created by a careless person. Dresser had been occupying them lately. He had found Sam Dresser, whom he had known as a student in Europe, wandering almost penniless down State Street, and had offered him a lodging-place.
"How did it come out?" Sommers asked the big, blond young man with a beer-stained mustache.
The big fellow stopped, before answering, to stuff a pipe with tobacco, punching it in with a fat thumb.
"They'll give me a job—mean one—three dollars a day—nine to five—under the roof in a big loft, tenth story—with a lot of women hirelings. Regular sweatshop—educational sweatshop."
Sommers took up some letters from the table and opened them.
"Well, I've got to scare up some patients to live on, even to make three dollars a day."
"You!" Dresser exclaimed, eying the letters with naive envy. "You are pals with the fat-fed capitalists. They will see that you get something easy, and one of these days you will marry one of their daughters. Then you will join the bank accounts, and good-by."
He continued to rail, half jestingly, half in earnest, at McNamara and Hills,—where he had obtained work, thanks to a letter which Sommers had procured for him,—at his companion's relations with the well-to-do, which he exaggerated offensively, and at the well-to-do themselves.
"It was lucky for you," Sommers remarked good-humoredly, "that I was thick enough with the bloodsuckers to get you that letter from Hitchcock. One of us will have to stand in with the 'swilling, fat-fed capitalist.'"
"Are those Hitchcocks rich?" Dresser asked, his eye resting wistfully on a square note that the young doctor had laid aside.
"I suppose so," Sommers answered. "Shall we go and have some beer?"
Dresser's blue eyes still followed the little pile of letters—eyes hot with desires and regrets. A lust burned in them, as his companion could feel instinctively, a lust to taste luxury. Under its domination Dresser was not unlike the patient in No. 8.
When they turned into the boulevard, which was crowded at this hour of twilight, men were driving themselves home in high carts, and through the windows of the broughams shone the luxuries of evening attire. Dresser's glance shifted from face to face, from one trap to another, sucking in the glitter of the showy scene. The flashing procession on the boulevard pricked his hungry senses, goaded his ambitions. The men and women in the carriages were the bait; the men and women on the street sniffed it, cravingly, enviously.
"There's plenty of swag in the place," Dresser remarked.
The Hitchcocks and the Sommerses came from the same little village in Maine; they had moved west, about the same time, a few years before the Civil War: Alexander Hitchcock to Chicago; the senior Dr. Sommers to Marion, Ohio. Alexander Hitchcock had been colonel of the regiment in which Isaac Sommers served as surgeon. Although the families had seen little of one another since the war, yet Alexander Hitchcock's greeting to the young doctor when he met the latter in Paris had been more than cordial. Something in the generous, lingering hand-shake of the Chicago merchant had made the younger man feel the strength of old ties.
"I knew your mother," Colonel Hitchcock had said, smiling gently into the young student's face. "I knew her very well, and your father, too,—he was a brave man, a remarkable man."
He had sympathetically rolled the hand he still retained in his broad palm.
"If Marion had only been Chicago! You say he died two years ago? And your mother long ago? Where will you settle?"
With this abrupt question, Dr. Sommers was taken at once into a kindly intimacy with the Hitchcocks. Not long after this chance meeting there came to the young surgeon an offer of a post at St. Isidore's. In the vacillating period of choice, the successful merchant's counsel had had a good deal of influence with Sommers. And his persistent kindliness since the choice had been made had done much to render the first year in Chicago agreeable. 'We must start you right,' he had seemed to say. 'We mustn't lose you.'
Those pleasant days in Paris had been rendered more memorable to the young doctor by the friendship that came about between him and Miss Hitchcock—a friendship quite independent of anything her family might feel for him. She let him see that she made her own world, and that she would welcome him as a member of it. Accustomed as he had been only to the primitive daughters of the local society in Marion and Exonia, or the chance intercourse with unassorted women in Philadelphia, where he had taken his medical course, and in European pensions, Louise Hitchcock presented a very definite and delightful picture. That it was but one generation from Hill's Crossing, Maine, to this self-possessed, carefully finished young woman, was unbelievable. Tall and finished in detail, from the delicate hands and fine ears to the sharply moulded chin, she presented a puzzling contrast to the short, thick, sturdy figure of her mother. And her quick appropriation of the blessings of wealth, her immediate enjoyment of the aristocratic assurances that the Hitchcock position had given her in Chicago, showed markedly in contrast with the tentativeness of Mrs. Hitchcock. Louise Hitchcock handled her world with perfect self-command; Mrs. Hitchcock was rather breathless over every manifestation of social change.
Parker Hitchcock, the son, Sommers had not seen until his coming to Chicago. At a first glance, then, he could feel that in the son the family had taken a further leap from the simplicity of the older generation. Incidentally the young man's cool scrutiny had instructed him that the family had not committed Parker Hitchcock to him. Young Hitchcock had returned recently to the family lumber yards on the West Side and the family residence on Michigan Avenue, with about equal disgust, so Sommers judged, for both milieux. Even more than his sister, Parker was conscious of the difference between the old state of things and the new. Society in Chicago was becoming highly organized, a legitimate business of the second generation of wealth. The family had the money to spend, and at Yale in winter, at Newport and Beverly and Bar Harbor in summer, he had learned how to spend it, had watched admiringly how others spent their wealth. He had begun to educate his family in spending,—in using to brilliant advantage the fruits of thirty years' hard work and frugality. With his cousin Caspar Porter he maintained a small polo stable at Lake Hurst, the new country club. On fair days he left the lumber yards at noon, while Alexander Hitchcock was still shut in behind the dusty glass doors of his office. His name was much oftener in the paragraphs of the city press than his parents': he was leading the family to new ideals.
Ideals, Sommers judged, that were not agreeable to old Colonel Hitchcock, slightly menacing even in the eyes of the daughter, whose horizon was wider. Sommers had noticed the little signs of this heated family atmosphere. A mist of undiscussed views hung about the house, out of which flashed now and then a sharp speech, a bitter sigh. He had been at the house a good deal in a thoroughly informal manner. The Hitchcocks rarely entertained in the "new" way, for Mrs. Hitchcock had a terror of formality. A dinner, as she understood it, meant a gathering of a few old friends, much hearty food served in unpretentious abundance, and a very little bad wine. The type of these entertainments had improved lately under Miss Hitchcock's influence, but it remained essentially the same,—an occasion for copious feeding and gossipy, neighborly chat.
To-night, as Sommers approached the sprawling green stone house on Michigan Avenue, there were signs of unusual animation about the entrance. As he reached the steps a hansom deposited the bulky figure of Brome Porter, Mrs. Hitchcock's brother-in-law. The older man scowled interrogatively at the young doctor, as if to say: 'You here? What the devil of a crowd has Alec raked together?' But the two men exchanged essential courtesies and entered the house together.
Porter, Sommers had heard, had once been Alexander Hitchcock's partner in the lumber business, but had withdrawn from the firm years before. Brome Porter was now a banker, as much as he was any one thing. It was easy to see that the pedestrian business of selling lumber would not satisfy Brome Porter. Popularly "rated at five millions," his fortune had not come out of lumber. Alexander Hitchcock, with all his thrift, had not put by over a million. Banking, too, would seem to be a tame enterprise for Brome Porter. Mines, railroads, land speculations—he had put his hand into them all masterfully. Large of limb and awkward, with a pallid, rather stolid face, he looked as if Chicago had laid a heavy hand upon his liver, as if the Carlsbad pilgrimage were a yearly necessity. 'Heavy eating and drinking, strong excitements—too many of them,' commented the professional glance of the doctor. 'Brute force, padded superficially by civilization,' Sommers added to himself, disliking Porter's cold eye shots at him. 'Young man,' his little buried eyes seemed to say, 'young man, if you know what's good for you; if you are the right sort; if you do the proper thing, we'll push you. Everything in this world depends on being in the right carriage.' Sommers was tempted whenever he met him to ask him for a good tip: he seemed always to have just come from New York; and when this barbarian went to Rome, it was for a purpose, which expressed itself sooner or later over the stock-ticker. But the tip had not come yet.
As Sommers was reaching the end of his conversational rope with Porter, other guests arrived. Among them was Dr. Lindsay, a famous specialist in throat diseases. The older doctor nodded genially to Sommers with the air of saying: 'I am so glad to find you here. This is the right place for a promising young man.'
And Sommers in a flash suspected why he had been bidden: the good-natured Miss Hitchcock wished to bring him a little closer to this influential member of his profession.
"Shall we wait for them?" Dr. Lindsay asked, joining Sommers. "Porter has got hold of Carson, and they'll keep up their stories until some one hauls them out. My wife and daughter have already gone down. How is St. Isidore's?"
"I left to-day. My term is up. I feel homesick already," the young doctor answered with a smile. "Chicago is so big," he added. "I didn't know it before."
"It's quite a village, quite a village," Dr. Lindsay answered thoughtfully. "We'll have some more talk later, won't we?" he added confidentially, as they passed downstairs.
The Hitchcock house revealed itself in the floods of electric light as large and undeniably ugly. Built before artistic ambitions and cosmopolitan architects had undertaken to soften American angularities, it was merely a commodious building, ample enough for a dozen Hitchcocks to loll about in. Decoratively, it might be described as a museum of survivals from the various stages of family history. At each advance in prosperity, in social ideals, some of the former possessions had been swept out of the lower rooms to the upper stories, in turn to be ousted by their more modern neighbors. Thus one might begin with the rear rooms of the third story to study the successive deposits. There the billiard chairs once did service in the old home on the West Side. In the hall beside the Westminster clock stood a "sofa," covered with figured velours. That had once adorned the old Twentieth Street drawing-room; and thrifty Mrs. Hitchcock had not sufficiently readjusted herself to the new state to banish it to the floor above, where it belonged with some ugly, solid brass andirons. In the same way, faithful Mr. Hitchcock had seen no good reason why he should degrade the huge steel engraving of the Aurora, which hung prominently at the foot of the stairs, in spite of its light oak frame, which was in shocking contrast with the mahogany panels of the walls. Flanking the staircase were other engravings,—Landseer's stags and the inevitable Queen Louise. Yet through the open arch, in a pleasant study, one could see a good Zorn, a Venom portrait, and some prints. This nook, formerly the library, had been given over to the energetic Miss Hitchcock. It was done in Shereton,—imitation, but good imitation. From this vantage point the younger generation planned an extended attack upon the irregular household gods.
Sommers realized for the first time how the Aurora and the Queen Louise must worry Miss Hitchcock; how the neat Swedish maids and the hat-stand in the hall must offend young Hitchcock. The incongruities of the house had never disturbed him. So far as he had noticed them, they accorded well with the simple characters of his host and hostess. In them, as in the house, a keen observer could trace the series of developments that had taken place since they had left Hill's Crossing. Yet the full gray beard with the broad shaved upper lip still gave the Chicago merchant the air of a New England worthy. And Alexander, in contrast with his brother-in-law, had knotty hands and a tanned complexion that years of "inside business" had not sufficed to smooth. The little habit of kneading the palm which you felt when he shook hands, and the broad, humorous smile, had not changed as the years passed him on from success to success. Mrs. Hitchcock still slurred the present participle and indulged in other idiomatic freedoms that endeared her to Sommers. These two, plainly, were not of the generation that is tainted by ambition. Their story was too well known, from the boarding-house struggle to this sprawling stone house, to be worth the varnishing. Indeed, they would not tolerate any such detractions from their well-earned reputation. The Brome Porters might draw distinctions and prepare for a new social aristocracy; but to them old times were sweet and old friends dear.
As the guests gathered in the large "front room," Alexander Hitchcock stood above them, as the finest, most courteous spirit. There was race in him—sweetness and strength and refinement—the qualities of the best manhood of democracy. This effect of simplicity and sweetness was heightened in the daughter, Louise. She had been born in Chicago, in the first years of the Hitchcock fight. She remembered the time when the billiard-room chairs were quite the most noted possessions in the basement and three-story brick house on West Adams Street. She had followed the chairs in the course of the Hitchcock evolution until her aunt had insisted on her being sent east to the Beaumanor Park School. Two years of "refined influences" in this famous establishment, with a dozen other girls from new-rich families, had softened her tones and prolonged her participles, but had touched her not essentially. Though she shared with her younger brother the feeling that the Hitchcocks were not getting the most out of their opportunities, she could understand the older people more than he. If she sympathized with her father's belief that the boy ought to learn to sell lumber, or "do something for himself," yet she liked the fact that he played polo. It was the right thing to be energetic, upright, respected; it was also nice to spend your money as others did. And it was very, very nice to have the money to spend.
To-night, as Sommers came across the hall to the drawing-room, she left the group about the door to welcome him. "Weren't you surprised," she asked him with an ironical laugh, "at the people, I mean—all ages and kinds? You see Parker had to be appeased. He didn't want to stay, and I don't know why he should. So we gave him Laura Lindsay." She nodded good-naturedly in the direction of a young girl, whose sharp thin little face was turned joyfully toward the handsome Parker. "And we added our cousin Caspar, not for conversation, but to give an illusion of youth and gayety. Caspar is the captain of the polo team. By the way, what do you think of polo?"
"I never had occasion to think," the young doctor replied, scrutinizing a heavy, florid-faced young man whom he took to be Caspar Porter.
"Well, polo is with us at breakfast and dinner. Papa doesn't approve, doesn't believe in young men keeping a stable as Caspar does. Mamma doesn't know what she believes. I am arbitrator—it's terrible, the new generation," she broke off whimsically.
"Which has the right of it?" Sommers asked idly. "The fathers who made the money, or the sons who want to enjoy it?"
"Both; neither," she laughed back with an air of comfortable tolerance. She might have added, 'You see, I like both kinds—you and Parker's set.'
"Do you know, Dr. Lindsay is here?"
Sommers smiled as he replied,—
"Yes; was it arranged?"
The girl blushed, and moved away.
"He was anxious to meet you."
"Of course," the doctor replied ironically.
"I could tell you more," she added alluringly.
"I have no doubt. Perhaps you had better not, however."
Miss Hitchcock ceased to smile and looked at him without reply. She had something on the tip of her tongue to tell him, something she had thought of pleasantly for the last three days, but she suspected that this man was not one who would like to take his good fortune from a woman's hand.
"Dr. Lindsay is an old friend; we have known him for years." She spoke neutrally. Sommers merely nodded.
"He is very successful, very," she added, giving in to her desire a little.
"Chicago is a good place for a throat specialist."
"He is said to be the most—"
"You know—has the largest income of any doctor in the city." Sommers did not reply. At length the girl ventured once more.
"I hope you will be nice to him."
"There won't be any question of it."
"You can be so stiff, so set; I have counted a great deal on this."
"Politics, politics!" Sommers exclaimed awkwardly. "Who is the man with Mr. Porter?"
"Railway Gazette Carson? That's what he is called. He swallows railroads—absorbs 'em. He was a lawyer. They have a house on the North Side and a picture, a Sargent. But I'll keep the story. Come! you must meet Mrs. Lindsay."
"Politics, politics!" Sommers murmured to himself, as Miss Hitchcock moved across the room.
At the table there were awkward silences, followed by spasmodic local bursts of talk. Sommers, who sat between Miss Hitchcock and Mrs. Lindsay, fell to listening to his host.
"I was taken for you to-day, Brome," Mr. Hitchcock said, with a touch of humor in his voice.
Porter laughed at the apparent absurdity of the accusation.
"I was detained at the office over at the yards. The men and the girls had pretty nearly all gone. I was just about to leave, when a fellow opened the door—he looked like a Swede or a Norwegian.
"'Is the boss here?' he asked.
"'Yes,' said I; 'what can I do for you?'
"'I wants a yob, a yob,' he shouted, 'and no foolin'. I worked for de boss ten years and never lost a day!'
"I thought the man was drunk. 'Who did you work for?' I asked. 'For Pullman, in de vorks,' he said; then I saw how it was. He was one of the strikers, or had lost his job before the strike. Some one told him you were in with me, Brome, and a director of the Pullman works. He had footed it clear in from Pullman to find you, to lay hands on you personally."
Porter laughed rather grimly.
"That's the first sign!" Carson exclaimed.
"They'll have enough of it before the works open," Porter added.
Parker Hitchcock looked bored. Such things were not in good form; they came from the trade element in the family. His cousin Caspar had Miss Lindsay's attention. She was describing a Polish estate where she had visited the preceding summer.
"Did you send him round to our office?" Porter asked jokingly.
Sommers's keen eyes rested on his host's face inquiringly.
"No-oh," Alexander Hitchcock drawled; "I had a talk with him."
"They are rather dangerous people to talk with," Dr. Lindsay remarked.
"He was a Norwegian, a big, fine-looking man. He was all right. He couldn't talk much English, but he knew that his folks were hungry. 'You gif me a yob,' he kept saying, until I explained I wasn't in the business, had nothing to do with the Pullman works. Then he sat down and looked at the floor. 'I vas fooled.' Well, it seems he did inlaying work, fine cabinet work, and got good pay. He built a house for himself out in some place, and he was fired among the first last winter,—I guess because he didn't live in Pullman."
"That's the story they use," Brome Porter said sceptically. "You should call the watchman; they're apt to be dangerous."
"A crowd of 'em," put in Carson, "were at the Pullman office this morning; wanted to arbitrate."
He spoke deprecatingly of their innocence, but Porter's tones were harsh.
"To arbitrate! to arbitrate! when we are making money by having 'em quit."
Miss Hitchcock turned apprehensively to her companion. Her handsome, clear face was perplexed; she was distressed over the way the talk was going.
"It's as bad as polo!" she exclaimed, in low tones. But the doctor did not hear her.
"Is it so," he was asking Colonel Hitchcock, "that the men who had been thrifty enough to get homes outside of Pullman had to go first because they didn't pay rent to the company? I heard the same story from a patient in the hospital."
By this time Caspar Porter had turned his attention to the conversation at the other end of the table. His florid face was agape with astonishment at the doctor's temerity. Parker Hitchcock shrugged his shoulders and muttered something to Miss Lindsay. The older men moved in their chairs. It was an unhappy topic for dinner conversation in this circle.
"Well, I don't know," Colonel Hitchcock replied, a slight smile creeping across his face. "Some say yes, and some say no. Perhaps Porter can tell you."
"We leave all that to the superintendent," the latter replied stiffly. "I haven't looked into it. The works isn't a hospital."
"That's a minor point," Carson added, in a high-pitched voice. "The real thing is whether a corporation can manage its own affairs as it thinks best or not."
"The thrifty and the shiftless," interposed Dr.
Lindsay, nodding to his young colleague.
"Well, the directors are a unit. That settles the matter," Porter ended dogmatically. "The men may starve, but they'll never get back now."
The young doctor's face set in rather rigid lines. He had made a mistake, had put himself outside the sympathies of this comfortable circle. Miss Hitchcock was looking into the flowers in front of her, evidently searching for some remark that would lead the dinner out of this uncomfortable slough, when Brome Porter began again sententiously:
"The laborer has got some hard lessons to learn. This trouble is only a small part of the bigger trouble. He wants to get more than he is worth. And all our education, the higher education, is a bad thing." He turned with marked emphasis toward the young doctor. "That's why I wouldn't give a dollar to any begging college—not a dollar to make a lot of discontented, lazy duffers who go round exciting workingmen to think they're badly treated. Every dollar given a man to educate himself above his natural position is a dollar given to disturb society."
Before Sommers could accept the challenge in this speech, Miss Hitchcock asked,—
"But what did you do with your visitor, papa?"
"Well, we had some more talk," he replied evasively. "Maybe that's why I missed you, Brome, at the club. He stayed most an hour."
"Did he go then?" the girl pressed on mischievously.
"Well, I gave him a 'yob' over at the yards. It wasn't much of a 'yob' though."
This speech aroused some laughter, and the talk drifted on in little waves into safer channels. The episode, however, seemed to have made an undue impression upon Sommers. Miss Hitchcock's efforts to bring him into the conversation failed. As for Mrs. Lindsay, he paid her not the slightest attention. He was coolly taking his own time to think, without any sense of social responsibility.
"What is the matter?" his companion said to him at last, in her low, insistent voice. "You are behaving so badly. Why won't you do anything one wants you to?"
Sommers glanced at his companion as if she had shaken him out of a dream. Her dark eyes were gleaming with irritation, and her mouth trembled.
"I had a vision," Sommers replied coolly.
"Well!" The man's egotism aroused her impatience, but she lowered her head to catch every syllable of his reply.
"I seemed to see things in a flash—to feel an iron crust of prejudice."
The girl's brow contracted in a puzzled frown, but she waited. The young doctor tried again to phrase the matter.
"These people—I mean your comfortable rich—seem to have taken a kind of oath of self-preservation. To do what is expected of one, to succeed, you must take the oath. You must defend their institutions, and all that," he blundered on.
"I don't know what you mean," the girl replied coolly, haughtily, raising her head and glancing over the table.
"I am not very clear. Perhaps I make a great deal of nothing. My remarks sound 'young' even to me."
"I don't pretend to understand these questions. I wish men wouldn't talk business at dinner. It is worse than polo!"
She swept his face with a glance of distrust, the lids of her eyes half lowered, as if to put a barrier between them.
"Yes," Sommers assented; "it is harder to understand."
It was curious, he thought, that a woman could take on the new rights, the aristocratic attitude, so much more completely than a man. Miss Hitchcock was a full generation ahead of the others in her conception of inherited, personal rights. As the dinner dragged on, there occurred no further opportunity for talk until near the end, when suddenly the clear, even tones of Miss Hitchcock's voice brought his idle musing to an end.
"I hope you will talk with Dr. Lindsay. He is a very able man. And," she hesitated a moment and then looked frankly at him, "he can do so much for a young doctor who has his way to make."
"Don't you think that might make it harder for me to talk to him?" Sommers asked, irritated by her lack of tact.
The girl's face flushed, and she pressed her lips together as if to push back a sharp reply.
"That is unfair. We are going now—but sometime we must talk it out."
The men stretched themselves and rearranged their chairs in little groups. Parker Hitchcock, Carson, and young Porter—were talking horses; they made no effort to include the young doctor in their corner. He was beginning to feel uncomfortably stranded in the middle of the long room, when Dr. Lindsay crossed to his side. The talk at dinner had not put the distinguished specialist in a sympathetic light, but the younger man felt grateful for this act of cordiality. They chatted about St. Isidore's, about the medical schools in Chicago, and the medical societies. At last Dr. Lindsay suggested casually, as he refilled his liqueur-glass:
"You have made some plans?"
"No, not serious ones. I have thought of taking a vacation. Then there is another hospital berth I could have. Head of a small hospital in a mining town. But I don't like to leave Chicago, on the whole."
"You are right," the older physician remarked slowly. "Such a place would bury you; you would never be heard of."
Sommers smiled at the penalty held out, but he did not protest.
"There isn't any career in hospital work, anyway, for a steady thing. You get side-tracked."
"I like it better than family practice," Sommers jerked out. "You don't have to fuss with people, women especially. Then I like the excitement of it."
"That won't last long," the older man smiled indulgently. "And you'll have a wife some day, who will make you take a different view. But there are other things—office practice."
He dilated on the advantages of office practice, while the younger man smoked and listened deferentially. Office practice offered a pleasant compromise between the strenuous scientific work of the hospital and the grind of family practice. There were no night visits, no dreary work with the poor—or only as much as you cared to do,—and it paid well, if you took to it. Sommers reflected that the world said it paid Lindsay about fifty thousand a year. It led, also, to lectureships, trusteeships—a mass of affairs that made a man prominent and important in the community.
Sommers listened attentively without questioning the agreeable, tactful doctor. He could see that something was in the air, that Lindsay was not a man to talk with this degree of intimacy out of pure charity or vanity. But the great specialist said nothing very definite after all: he let fall, casually, the fact that good men for office work—men of experience who were skilful and tactful—were rare. He had just lost a valuable doctor from his staff.
When the men returned to the drawing-room, Parker Hitchcock and his cousin took themselves off. The Lindsays went soon after. Sommers, who had regained his good sense; tried to make his apologies to Miss Hitchcock.
"Don't go yet," she answered cordially. "They will all be disposed of soon, and we can have that talk. Go and look at my prints."
In a few moments she came up behind him as he was studying the brush work of a little canvas. "I have been thinking of what you said at the table, Dr. Sommers. I have tried to think what you mean, but I can't."
Her eyes opened in frank, tolerant inquiry. Sommers had seen her like this a few times, and always with a feeling of nearness.
"I don't believe that I can make you understand," he began.
"The feelings that make us act are generally too vague to be defended. All that I could do would be to describe a mood, a passion that takes me now and then, and makes me want to smash things."
She nodded her head comprehendingly.
"Yes, I know that."
"Not from the same reason," Sommers laughed.
"I will tell you what it is: you think the rich are unfair. You didn't like Uncle Brome's talk about the Pullman people."
"No, and more than that," he protested; "I don't know anything about the Pullman matter; but I hate the—successful. I guess that's about it."
"You think they are corrupt and luxurious and all that?"
As she spoke she waved one hand negligently toward the Aurora in the hall. They both laughed at the unspoken argument.
"If you feel like that here—"
"I feel that way pretty much all the time in America," he said bluntly. "It isn't this house or that, this man's millions or that man's; it's the whole thing."
Miss Hitchcock looked nonplussed.
"Life is based on getting something others haven't,—as much of it as you can and as fast as you can. I never felt that so constantly as I have the last few months. Do you think," he went on hastily, "that Lindsay, that any doctor, can earn fifty thousand a year?"
"I don't know. I hate views." Her voice sounded weary and defeated.
Sommers rose to his feet, exclaiming, "I thought there were some pretty definite ones, this evening."
Miss Hitchcock started, but refused to take the challenge.
They faced each other for a moment without speaking. Sommers could see that his blundering words had placed him in a worse position than before. At the same time he was aware that he regretted it; that "views" were comparatively unimportant to a young woman; and that this woman, at least, was far better than views.
"Good night," she murmured, lowering her eyes as she gave him her hand. He hesitated a moment, searching for an intelligent word, but finally he turned away without any further attempt to explain himself.
It was good to be out in the soft March night, to feel once more the free streets, which alone carry the atmosphere of unprivileged humanity. The mood of the evening was doubtless foolish, boyish, but it was none the less keen and convincing. He had never before had the inner, unknown elements of his nature so stirred; had never felt this blind, raging protest. It was a muddle of impressions: the picture of the poor soul with his clamor for a job; the satisfied, brutal egotism of Brome Porter, who lived as if life were a huge poker game; the overfed, red-cheeked Caspar, whom he remembered to have seen only once before, when the young polo captain was stupid drunk; the silly young cub of a Hitchcock. Even the girl was one of them. If it weren't for the women, the men would not be so keen on the scent for gain. The women taught the men how to spend, created the needs for their wealth. And the social game they were instituting in Chicago was so emptily imitative, an echo of an echo!
There was Carson: he was your image of modern power—the lean, hungry, seamed face, surmounted by a dirty-gray pall. He was clawing his way to the top of the heap.
Sommers stopped to laugh at himself. His fury was foolish, a mere generalization of discontent from very little data. Still, it was a relief to be out in the purring night sounds. He had passed from the affluent stone piles on the boulevard to the cheap flat buildings of a cross street. His way lay through a territory of startling contrasts of wealth and squalor. The public part of it—the street and the sidewalks—was equally dirty and squalid, once off the boulevard. The cool lake wind was piping down the cross streets, driving before it waste paper and dust. In his preoccupation he stumbled occasionally into some stagnant pool.
Should he take Lindsay's job, if he had the chance? Obstinately his mind reverted to a newspaper paragraph that had caught his eye months before: on the occasion of some disturbance over women students in the Western Medical College, Dr. Lindsay had told the men that "physicians should be especially considerate of women, if for no other reason, because their success in their profession would depend very largely on women." Certainly, if he had to decide to-night, he would rather return to Marion, Ohio, than join his staff. Such a retreat from the glories of Chicago would be inconceivable to old Hitchcock and to the girl. He reflected that he should not like to put himself away from her forever.
St. Isidore's loomed ahead in the quiet street, its windows dark except for the night light in the ward kitchens. He should like to turn in there for a few minutes, to see how the fellow was coming on. The brute ought not to pull through. But it was too late: a new regime had begun; his little period of sway had passed, leaving as a last proof of his art this human jetsam saved for the nonce. And there rose in his heated mind the pitiful face of a resolute woman, questioning him: "You held the keys of life and death. Which have you given me?"
The Athenian Building raises its knife-like facade in the centre of Chicago, thirteen stories in all; to the lake it presents a broad wall of steel and glass. It is a hive of doctors. Layer after layer, their offices rise, circling the gulf of the elevator-well. At the very crown of the building Dr. Frederick H. Lindsay and his numerous staff occupy almost the entire floor. In one corner, however, a small room embedded in the heavy cornice is rented by a dentist, Dr. Ephraim Leonard. The dentist's office is a snug little hole, scarcely large enough for a desk, a chair, a case of instruments, a "laboratory," and a network of electric appliances. From the one broad window the eye rests upon the blue shield of lake; nearer, almost at the foot of the building, run the ribboned tracks of the railroad yards. They disappear to the south in a smoky haze; to the north they end at the foot of a lofty grain elevator. Beyond, factories quietly belch sooty clouds.
Dr. Lindsay coveted this office, but Dr. Leonard clung tenaciously to his little strip, every inch that he could possibly pay rent for. He had been there since that story was finished. The broad view rested him. When he ceased to peer into a patient's mouth, he pushed up his spectacles and took a long look over the lake. Sometimes, if the patient was human and had enough temperament to appreciate his treasure, he would idle away a quarter of an hour chatting, enjoying the sun and the clear air of the lake. When the last patient had gone, he would take the chair and have the view to himself, as from a proscenium box.
The little office was a busy place: besides the patients there were coming and going a stream of people,—agents, canvassers, acquaintances, and promoters of schemes. A scheme was always brewing in the dentist's office. Now it was a plan to exploit a new suburb innumerable miles to the west. Again it was a patent contrivance in dentistry. Sometimes the scheme was nothing more than a risky venture in stocks. These affairs were conducted with an air of great secrecy in violent whisperings, emphasized by blows of the fist upon the back of the chair. The favored patients were deftly informed of "a good thing," the dentist taking advantage of the one inevitable moment of receptivity for his thrifty promotions. The schemes, it must be said, had never come to much. If Dr. Leonard had survived without any marked loss a dozen years of venturing, he might be said to have succeeded. He had no time for other games; this was his poker. They were always the schemes of little people, very complex in organization, needing a wheel here, a cog there, finally breaking down from the lack of capital. Then some "big people" collected the fragments to cast them into the pot once more. Dr. Leonard added another might-have-been and a new sigh to the secret chamber of his soul. But his face was turned outward to receive the next scheme.
This time it happened to be a wonderful new process of evolving gas from dirt and city refuse. He had been explaining it gently to a woman in the chair, from pure intellectual interest, to distract the patient's mind. He was not tinkering with teeth this time, however. The woman was sitting in the chair because it was the only unoccupied space. She had removed her hat and was looking steadily into the lake. At last, when the little office clerk had left, the talk about the gas generator ceased, and the woman turned her wistful face to the old dentist. There was a sombre pause.
"Yes," the dentist muttered finally, "I saw it in the paper Tuesday, no, Monday—it was Monday, wasn't it? and I hoped you'd come in."
The woman moved her hands restlessly, as if to ask where else she could go.
"They most always do turn up," he continued bluntly; "them that no one wants, like your husband. What are you going to do?"
The woman turned her face back to the lake; it was evident that she had no plan.
"I thought," the dentist began, recalling her story, "I thought when you'd started in the schools—it was a mighty hard thing to do to get you in; it took all my pull on Mahoney."
The woman's face flushed. "I know," she murmured. "They don't want married women. But if it hadn't been for Mahoney—"
"Then," interrupted the dentist, "he'd been good enough to let you alone for most a year, and I thought you were out of your troubles."
"I knew he would come back," she interposed quietly.
"But now he comes back just as everything is nice, and worse, you come across him when he is nigh bein' shot to death. Then, worse yet, by what the papers said, you went to the hospital with him and gave the whole thing away. When I saw the name, Alves Preston, printed out, I swore."
Mrs. Preston smiled at his vehemence.
"Tell me, Alves," the old man asked in a rambling manner, "how did you ever come to marry him? I've wanted to ask you that from the first."
Mrs. Preston rose from the chair and pulled her cloak about her.
"I couldn't make you understand; I don't myself now."
"D'yer love him?" the dentist persisted, not ungently.
"Should I be here if I did?" she flashed resentfully. "I was a country girl away at school, more foolish than one of those dumb Swedes in my class, and he—"
But she turned again to the window, with an impatient gesture.
"It is something wrong in a woman," she murmured. "But she has no chance, no chance. I can't tell you now all the things."
"Well," the dentist said soothingly, "let's see just how bad it is. Has your boss, the superintendent, or the principal spoke to you, turned you out? I see the reporter went around to the school, nosing after something."
"They'd just transferred me—miles south," she answered indifferently. "I was glad of it. I don't have to meet the spying, talking teachers, and think all the time the pupils know it from their parents. They're all foreigners where I am now. They say the Everglade school is the next thing to the last. It's a kind of Purgatory, where they keep you for a few months before they dismiss you."
"I didn't know any one was ever dismissed from a Chicago school," the dentist remarked.
"Oh, sometimes when the superintendents or the supervisors don't want you. There is a supervisor in the Everglade district—" she stopped a moment, and then continued tranquilly—"he was very intimate at first. I thought he wanted to help me to get on in the school. But he wanted—other things. Perhaps when he doesn't—succeed—that will be the end."
"It'll blow over," the dentist said encouragingly. "If the supervisor troubles you much, I'll see Mahoney. You've changed your boarding-place?"
"Yes—but," she admitted in a moment, "they know it at the hospital."
Dr. Leonard rubbed his bristly face irritably.
"I've been to see him—it seemed I ought to—I was the only one who WOULD in the whole world—the only one to speak a word to him."
"That makes it worse," the dentist commented depressingly. "I don't know as you could get free now if you wanted to. You've put your hand to the plough again, my girl, and it's a long furrow."
"What do you mean?"
"The hospital folks know you're his wife, and they'll expect you to take him in when he gets better."
"I suppose so," Mrs. Preston admitted. "But I suppose, anyway, I should take care of him until he can go away."
Dr. Leonard threw up his hands in disgust.
"Alves, why don't you go straight off and get a divorce—for desertion?"
Mrs. Preston opened the heavy lids of her eyes; her face slowly flushed.
"That would be the end of it?" she asked, in a low voice.
"Of course! I'll give you the money, and testify for you. Go right ahead, now he is laid up, and have it all ready when he gets out."
"I couldn't do that," Mrs. Preston answered, the color fading from her face, and the white lids closing over the eyes. "Besides, he may never recover fully. I don't think they expect him to at the hospital."
"All the more reason," protested the dentist. "It's mighty hard," he added sympathetically. "Women are mostly children, the better sort, and you feel bad, even when they're in trouble through their own foolishness."
"There is no release, no divorce," Mrs. Preston continued. "A thing is done, and it's done. There's no ending it in this life. You can run away, or close your eyes, but you don't escape. He has been—my husband."
"That's silly! Now let me tell you what I'll do." The dentist squared himself and raised the little lignum-vitae mallet, which he used to drive home his fillings.
"Don't you fool round any more. You can't love that fellow,—think you never did now,—and he's given you no reason to be very nice to him. You just drop him where you are, and start out alone and make the best of it. You can't do that in Chicago now. Get out of Chicago to-morrer. Go east. Take your maiden name; no one is goin' to be hurt by not knowin' you're married. I guess you ain't likely to try it again."
He paused for objections, and evidently found one himself.
"If you ain't got the money handy, I'll just fix you up. That gas generator I was talking to you about is going to make me mints of money. You can go right away to my sister-in-law in Worcester, Ohio. Guess he won't trouble you much there. What do you say?"
She had nothing very cogent to say, but the dentist felt an impalpable obstruction of will, unintelligible and persistent. His enthusiasm grew as he perfected the details of his plan. It was a new kind of scheme, in which he took the artistic delight of the incorrigible promoter. His imagination once enlisted for the plan, he held to it, arguing, counselling, bullying. "If it's the money," he ended, "you needn't bother. I'll just put it on the bill. When I am rich, it won't make no difference, nor when you are, either."
Mrs. Preston took one of his furry hands in hers, and pressed it. She knew that the ventures had not yet made him rich. Thirty years in Chicago had not filled his purse.
"I'd do it for you, same as for one of my daughters. It's just as easy as having a tooth out, and you start over as good as new."
"It isn't that," she smiled. "You can't start over as good as new if you are a woman. I couldn't run away. I've put myself into it a second time, without thinking. I chose then just as before, when I followed him to the hospital. When the doctor asked me if he should try to save his life, I wanted him to die—oh, how I longed that the doctor would refuse to try! Well, he's alive. It is for life."
She seemed to see before her a long, toilsome ascent, to which she had been driven to put her feet.
"Think it over," the dentist counselled at last, despondently. "Sleep on it. There's Worcester, Ohio, and my sister-in-law."
Mrs. Preston smiled, and put on her hat.
"I've taken a lot of your time."
"That's no account, but I can't see what you came for. You won't let a feller help you."
"There wasn't any good reason. I came because I was awfully lonely. There isn't a soul that I can speak out to, except you. You don't know what that means. I go about in the schoolroom, and up and down the streets, and see things—horrible things. The world gets to be one big torture chamber, and then I have to cry out. I come to you to cry out,—because you really care. Now I can go away, and keep silent for a long time."
"You make too much of it," the dentist protested. He busied himself in putting the little steel instruments into their purple plush beds and locking the drawers.
"Yes, I make too much of it," Mrs. Preston acknowledged quietly, as she opened the door. "Good night."
"I guess she loves him still and don't like to own it. Women are generally so," the dentist commented, when he was left alone. He picked up a sheaf of stock certificates and eyed them critically. "They're nicer than the Placer Mining ones. They just look fit to eat."
He locked the certificates of stock in the new company into a tiny safe, and prepared to pull down the shade. In the railroad yards below, the great eyes of the locomotives glared though the March dusk. As the suburban trains pulled out from minute to minute, thick wreaths of smoke shot up above the white steam blasts of the surrounding buildings. The smoke and steam were sucked together into the vortex of a cross street.
'I wished I hadn't let her go alone,' the dentist mused. 'Some day she'll just go over there into the lake.'
When Mrs. Preston shut the dentist's door behind her, an office door on the opposite side of the hall opened abruptly, and a young man strode into the hall. She recognized him as the young surgeon who had operated upon her husband at St. Isidore's. She stepped behind the iron grating of the elevator well and watched him as he waited for the steel car to bob up from the lower stories. She was ashamed to meet him, especially now that she felt committed to the sordid future.
The little car arrived; the doctor stepped in and disappeared. The door from which he came was covered with a long list of names. She read the name freshly painted in at the bottom,—Dr. Howard Sommers.
For Sommers had joined the staff of the great specialist, and resorted daily to the busy offices in the Athenian Building. A brief vacation had served to convince him of the folly that lay in indulging a parcel of incoherent prejudices at the expense of even that somewhat nebulous thing popularly called a "career." Dr. Lindsay made flattering offers; the work promised to be light, with sufficient opportunity for whatever hospital practice he cared to take; and the new aspect of his profession—commercial medicine he dubbed it—was at least entertaining. If one wished to see the people of Chicago at near range,—those who had made the city what it is, and were making it what it will be,—this was pretty nearly the best chance in the world.
When he had mentioned Lindsay's offer to Dresser, who was rising at laborious hours and toiling in the McNamara and Hill's offices, he realized how unmentionable and trifling were his grounds for hesitation. Dresser's enthusiasm almost persuaded him that Lindsay had given him something valuable. And if he found it difficult to explain his distaste for the thing to Dresser, what would he have to say to other people—to the Hitchcocks? Yet he made his reservations to himself at least: he was not committed to his "career"; he should be merely a spectator, a free-lance, a critic, who keeps the precious treasure of his own independence. Almost at the start, however, he was made to realize that this nonchalance, which vindicated himself in his own eyes, could not be evident to others. As he was entering the Athenian hive one morning, he passed the Hitchcock brougham drawn up by the curb near a jeweller's shop. Miss Hitchcock, who was preparing to alight, gave him a cordial smile and an intelligent glance that was not without a trace of malice. When he crossed the pavement to speak to her, she fulfilled the malice of her glance:
"You find Dr. Lindsay isn't so bad, after all?" There was no time for explanation. She passed on into the jeweller's with another smile on her mobile face. He had to do his stammering to himself, annoyed at the quip of triumph, at the blithe sneer, over his young vaporings. This trivial annoyance was accentuated by the effusive cordiality of the great Lindsay, whom he met in the elevator. Sommers did not like this camaraderie of manner. He had seen Lindsay snub many a poor interne. In his mail, this same morning, came a note from Mrs. E. G. Carson, inviting him to dinner: a sign that something notable was expected of his career, for the Carsons were thrifty of their favors, and were in no position to make social experiments. Such was the merry way of the world, elsewhere as here, he reflected, as he turned to the routine of the day.
The office was in full blast: the telephones rang sharply every few minutes, telling in their irritable little clang of some prosperous patient who desired a panacea for human ailments; the reception-room was already crowded with waiting patients of the second class, those who could not command appointments by telephone. Whenever the door into this room opened, these expectant ones moved nervously, each one hoping to be called. Then, as the door into the private offices closed, the ones left behind fell back with sighs to the magazines and illustrated papers with which they sought to distract their fears or their ennui.
The thin, tall building shivered slightly at the blows of the fresh April wind. The big windows of the reception-room admitted broad bands of sunlight. The lake dazzled beneath in gorgeous green and blue shades. Spring had bustled into town from the prairies, insinuating itself into the dirty, cavernous streets, sailing in boisterously over the gleaming lake, eddying in steam wreaths about the lofty buildings. The subtle monitions of the air permeated the atmosphere of antiseptics in the office, and whipped the turbulent spirits of Sommers until, at the lunch hour, he deserted the Athenian Building and telephoned for his horse.
This saddle horse was one of the compensations for conformity. He had been too busy lately, however, to enjoy it. From the bellow of the city he cantered down the boulevards toward the great parks. As he passed the Hitchcock house he was minded to see if Miss Hitchcock would join him. In the autumn she had ridden with him occasionally, waiving conventionalities, but lately she had made excuses. He divined that Parker Hitchcock had sneered at such countrified behavior. She was to go away in a few days for a round of visits in the South, and he wanted to see her; but a carriage drew up before the house, and his horse carried him briskly past down the avenue. From one boulevard to another he passed, keeping his eyes straight ahead, avoiding the sight of the comfortable, ugly houses, anxious to escape them and their associations, pressing on for a beyond, for something other than this vast, roaring, complacent city. The great park itself was filled with people, carriages, bicycles. A stream of carts and horse-back riders was headed for the Driving Club, where there was tennis and the new game of golf. But Sommers turned his horse into the disfigured Midway, where the Wreck of the Fair began. He came out, finally, on a broad stretch of sandy field, south of the desolate ruins of the Fair itself. The horse picked his way daintily among the debris of staff and wood that lay scattered about for acres. A wagon road led across this waste land toward the crumbling Spanish convent. In this place there was a fine sense of repose, of vast quiet. Everything was dead; the soft spring air gave no life. Even in the geniality of the April day, with the brilliant, theatrical waters of the lake in the distance, the scene was gaunt, savage. To the north, a broad dark shadow that stretched out into the lake defined the city. Nearer, the ample wings of the white Art Building seemed to stand guard against the improprieties of civilization. To the far south, a line of thin trees marked the outer desert of the prairie. Behind, in the west, were straggling flat-buildings, mammoth deserted hotels, one of which was crowned with a spidery steel tower. Nearer, a frivolous Grecian temple had been wheeled to the confines of the park, and dumped by the roadside to serve as a saloon.
Sommers rose in his stirrups and gazed about him over the rotting buildings of the play-city, the scrawny acres that ended in the hard black line of the lake, the vast blocks of open land to the south, which would go to make some new subdivision of the sprawling city. Absorbed, charmed, grimly content with the abominable desolation of it all, he stood and gazed. No evidence of any plan, of any continuity in building, appeared upon the waste: mere sporadic eruptions of dwellings, mere heaps of brick and mortar dumped at random over the cheerless soil. Above swam the marvellous clarified atmosphere of the sky, like iridescent gauze, showering a thousand harmonies of metallic colors. Like a dome of vitrified glass, it shut down on the illimitable, tawdry sweep of defaced earth.
The horse started: a human figure, a woman's dress, disturbing here in the desert expanse, had moved in front of him. Sommers hit the horse with his crop and was about to gallop on, when something in the way the woman held herself caught his attention. She was leaning against the wind, her skirt streaming behind her, her face thrust into the air. Sommers reined in his horse and jumped down.
"How is your husband?" he asked brusquely.
Mrs. Preston looked up with a smile of glad recognition, but she did not answer immediately.
"You remember, don't you?" the doctor said kindly. "You are Mrs. Preston, aren't you? I am the doctor who operated on your husband a few weeks ago at the hospital."
"Yes, I remember," she replied, almost sullenly.
"How is he? I left St. Isidore's the next day. Is he still in the hospital?"
"They discharged him last Monday," Mrs. Preston answered, in the same dull tone.
"Ah!" The doctor jerked the bridle which he held in his left hand and prepared to mount. "So he made a quick recovery."
"No, no! I didn't say that," she replied passionately. "You knew, you knew that couldn't be. He has—he is—I don't know how to say it."
Sommers slipped the bridle-rein over the horse's head and walked on by her side. She looked down at the roadway, as if to hide her burning face.
"Where is he now?" the doctor asked, finally, more gently.
"With me, down there." Mrs. Preston waved her hand vaguely toward the southern prairie. They began to walk more briskly, with a tacit purpose in their motion. When the wagon road forked, Mrs. Preston took the branch that led south out of the park. It opened into a high-banked macadamized avenue bordered by broken wooden sidewalks. The vast flat land began to design itself, as the sun faded out behind the irregular lines of buildings two miles to the west. A block south, a huge red chimney was pouring tranquilly its volume of dank smoke into the air. On the southern horizon a sooty cloud hovered above the mills of South Chicago. But, except for the monster chimney, the country ahead of the two was bare, vacant, deserted. The avenue traversed empty lots, mere squares of sand and marsh, cut up in regular patches for future house-builders. Here and there an advertising landowner had cemented a few rods of walk and planted a few trees to trap the possible purchaser into thinking the place "improved." But the cement walks were crumbling, the trees had died, and rank thorny weeds choked about their roots. The cross streets were merely lined out, a deep ditch on either side of an embankment.
"My God, what a place!" the young doctor exclaimed. "The refuse acres of the earth."
The woman smiled bitterly, tranquilly, while her glance roamed over the familiar landscape.
"Yet it is better than the rest, back there," she protested, in a low voice. "At least, there is something open, and a little green in spring, and the nights are calm. It seems the least little bit like what it used to be in Wisconsin on the lake. But there we had such lovely woodsy hills, and great meadows, and fields with cattle, and God's real peace, not this vacuum." Her voice grew faint.
"You liked it there?" the doctor asked musingly.
"It's all that I have ever known that was—as it should be. My father had a farm," she explained more easily, "and until he died and I was sent to Rockminster College to school, my life was there, by the lake, on the farm, at the seminary on the hill, where my brother was studying—"
The visions of the past developed with endless clews, which she could not follow aloud. After waiting for her to resume, Sommers asked tentatively:
"Why don't you go back, then?"
She flashed a rapid, indignant glance at him.
"Now! Go back to what?—With him!"
Her lips set tight. He had been stupid, had hit at random.
"No, no," she continued, answering her own heart; "they would never understand. There is never any going back—and, sometimes, not much going ahead," she ended, with an effort to laugh.
They stopped while the horse nibbled at a tall weed in the roadway. They had got fairly into the prairie, and now at some distance on left and right gawky Queen Anne houses appeared. But along their path the waste was unbroken. The swamp on either side of the road was filled with birds, who flew in and out and perched on the dry planks in the walks. An abandoned electric-car track, raised aloft on a high embankment, crossed the avenue. Here and there a useless hydrant thrust its head far above the muddy soil, sometimes out of the swamp itself. They had left the lake behind them, but the freshening evening breeze brought its damp breath across their faces.
"How came you to get into this spot?" the doctor asked, after his searching eyes had roamed over the misty landscape, half swamp, half city suburb.
"I was transferred—about the time of the operation. My school is over there," she pointed vaguely toward the southwest. "I could not afford to live any distance from the school," she added bluntly. "Besides, I wanted to be alone."
So she taught, Sommers reflected, yet she had none of the professional air, the faded niceness of face and manner which he associated with the city school-teacher.
"I haven't taught long," she volunteered, "only about a year. First I was over by Lincoln Park, near where I had been living."
"Do you like the teaching?" Sommers asked.
"I hate it," she remarked calmly, without any show of passion. "It takes a little of one's life every day, and leaves you a little more dead."
They walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Mrs. Preston suddenly stopped.
"Why do you come?" she exclaimed. "Why do you want to know? It can do no good,—I know it can do no good, and it is worse to have any one—you—know the hateful thing. I want to crush it in myself, never to tell, no,—no one," she stopped incoherently.
"I shall go," the doctor replied calmly, compassionately. "And it is best to tell."
Her rebellious face came back to its wonted repose.
"Yes, I suppose I make it worse. It is best to tell—sometime."
As they proceeded, more briskly now, she talked of her life in the Chicago schools. She had taken the work when nothing else offered in the day of her calamity. She described the struggle for appointment. If it had not been for her father's old friend, a dentist, she would never have succeeded in entering the system. A woman, she explained, must be a Roman Catholic, or have some influence with the Board, to get an appointment. Qualifications? She had had a better education in the Rockminster school than was required, but if a good-natured schoolteacher hadn't coached her on special points in pedagogy, school management, nature-study, etc., she would never have passed the necessary examinations.
In an impersonal way she described the life of a teacher in a great American school system: its routine, its spying supervision, its injustices, its mechanical ideals, its one preeminent ambition to teach as many years as it was necessary to obtain a pension. There were the superintendents, the supervisors, the special teachers, the principals—petty officers of a petty tyranny in which too often seethed gossip, scandal, intrigue. There were the "soft places"; the deceitful, the easy, the harsh principals; the teachers' institutes to which the poor teacher was forced to pay her scanty dollars. There were bulletins, rules, counter-rules. As she talked, Sommers caught the atmosphere of the great engine to which she had given herself. A mere isolated atom, she was set in some obscure corner of this intricate machine, and she was compelled to revolve with the rest, as the rest, in the fear of disgrace and of hunger. The terms "special teachers," "grades of pay," "constructive work," "discipline," etc., had no special significance to him, typifying merely the exactions of the mill, the limitations set about the human atom.
Her manner of telling it all was unpremeditated, incoherent, and discursive, and yet strangely effective. She described the contortions of her kaleidoscope as they came to mind haphazard, with an indifference, a precise objectivity that made the picture all the more real and universal, not the special story of the special case.
"The first weeks I was nearly lost; the drawing teacher didn't like me, and reported my room for disorder; the 'cat'—that is what they call the principal—kept running in and watching, and the pupils—there were seventy-five—I could barely keep them quiet. There was no teaching. How could one teach all those? Most of our time, even in 'good' rooms, is taken up in keeping order. I was afraid each day would be my last, when Miss M'Gann, who was the most friendly one of the teachers, told me what to do. 'Give the drawing teacher something nice from your lunch, and ask her in to eat with you. She is an ignorant old fool, but her brother is high up in a German ward. And give the cat taffy. Ask him how he works out the arithmetic lessons, and about his sassing the assistant superintendent, and make yourself agreeable.'
"I did as I was told," she ended with a smile, "and things went better for a time. But there was always the married teachers' scare. Every month or so some one starts the rumor that the Board is going to remove all married teachers; there are complaints that the married women crowd out the girls—those who have to support themselves."
They both laughed at the irony of the argument, and their laugh did much to do away with the constraint, the tension of their mood. More gayly she mentioned certain farcical incidents.
"Once I saw a principal hurl a book at a sleepy teacher, who was nodding in his lecture at the Institute. Poor woman! she is so nearly deaf that she can hear nothing, and they say she can never remember where the lessons are: the pupils conduct the recitations. But she has taught in that school for twenty-three years, and she is a political influence in the ward. Imagine it!"
They laughed again, and the world seemed lighter. Sommers looked at his companion more closely and appreciatively. Her tone of irony, of amused and impartial spectatorship, entertained him. Would he, caught like this, wedged into an iron system, take it so lightly, accept it so humanly? It was the best the world held out for her: to be permitted to remain in the system, to serve out her twenty or thirty years, drying up in the thin, hot air of the schoolroom; then, ultimately, when released, to have the means to subsist in some third-rate boarding-house until the end. Or marry again? But the dark lines under the eyes, the curve of experience at the mouth, did not warrant that supposition. She had had her trial of that alternative.