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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 4
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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 4 Post by :sweetsuccess Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :2626

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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 4

Part I Chapter IV


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.

"Try!"

"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_?"

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