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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 8
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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 8 Post by :pearsonbrown Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :1002

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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 8

Part I Chapter VIII

"Shall we go in?" the doctor asked at last.

Mrs. Preston started, and her hand closed instinctively upon the gate, as if to bar further entrance to her privacy. Then without reply she opened the gate, led the way across the tiny lawn, and unlocked the cottage door. They entered a large room, from which some narrow stairs led to the chambers above. Floor and walls were bare, and the only furniture consisted of two wooden chairs, a small coal-stove, and a pine table of considerable size. This was covered with books, school exercises, and a few dishes. Mrs. Preston brusquely flung off her cape and hat, and faced the doctor.

"I might as well tell you the main thing before you see him. He--"

"That is scarcely necessary," Sommers replied gently. "I probably know what you are thinking of."

A flush, caused by the revealed shame, crept over her face, lighting it to the extreme corners under the temples and ears. As she stood there, humiliated, yet defiant of him and of the world, Sommers remembered the first time he had seen her that night at the hospital. He read her, somehow, extraordinarily well; he knew the misery, the longing, the anger, the hate, the stubborn power to fight. Her deep eyes glanced at him frankly, willing to be read by this stranger out of the multitude of men. They had no more need of words now than at that first moment in the operating room at St. Isidore's. They were man and woman, in the presence of a fate that could not be softened by words.

"You are right," she said softly. "Yet sometime I want to tell you things--not now. I will go and see how he is."

When she had left the room, Sommers examined the few objects about him in the manner of a man who draws his conclusions from innumerable, imponderable data. Then he took a chair to the window and sat down. She was very real to him, this woman, and compelling, with her silences, her broken phrases. Rarely, very rarely before in his life, had he had this experience of intimacy without foreknowledge, without background--the sense of dealing with a human soul nakedly.

"Will you come now?"

Mrs. Preston had returned and held the stair-door open for him. Sommers looked at her searchingly, curious to find where this power lay. Her face had grown white and set. The features and the figure were those of a large woman. Her hair, bronzed in the sunlight as he remembered, was dark in the gloom of this room. The plain, symmetrical arrangement of the hair above the large brow and features made her seem older than she was. The deep-set eyes, the quivering lips, and the thin nostrils gave life to the passive, restrained face. The passions of her life lay just beneath the surface of flesh.

"He is very talkative, and wanders--"

The doctor nodded and followed her up the steep stairs, which were closed at the head by a stout door. The upper story was divided about equally into two rooms. The east room, to which Mrs. Preston opened the door, was plainly furnished, yet in comparison with the room below it seemed almost luxurious. Two windows gave a clear view above the little oak copse, the lines of empty freight cars on the siding, and a mile of low meadow that lay between the cottage and the fringe of settlement along the lake. Through another window at the north the bleak prospect of Stoney Island Avenue could be seen, flanked on one side by a huge sign over a saloon. Near this window on a lounge lay the patient.

Preston's personal appearance had not improved during his illness: his face, over the lower half of which a black beard had grown rankly, was puffy with convalescent fat. His hands that drummed idly against the couch were white and flabby. As he half rose and extended his hand to the doctor, he betrayed, indefinably, remote traces of superior breeding.

"Excuse me, doctor," he said apologetically. "Mrs. Preston keeps me a close prisoner. But she won't have the whip-hand very long."

He laughed boisterously, as Sommers shook hands and sat down.

"Women know they've got you while you are sick. They like to keep an eye on a man, eh?"

He laughed again, confidentially, as if the doctor, being a man, would appreciate the point. Then he continued, nervously, without pause:

"But I have some business to attend to. I must get out of this as soon as you can patch me up so I can walk straight. I ought to have been in Denver a month ago. There's a man out there, who comes in from his ranch two hundred miles to see me. He is a fine fellow, strapping, big six-footer. _He knows how to put in his time day and night, when he gets to town. I remember one time we were in Frisco together--ever been in Frisco? It's a great place for a good dinner, and all you want to drink. Drink--my! I've seen the time--"

He rambled on, now and then pausing to laugh boisterously at some recollection. As his whirligig tale touched upon indecent episodes, his voice lowered and he sought for convenient euphemisms, helped out by sympathetic nods. Mrs. Preston made several attempts to interrupt his aimless, wandering talk; but he started again each time, excited by the presence of the doctor. His mind was like a bag of loosely associated ideas. Any jar seemed to set loose a long line of reminiscences, very vaguely connected. The doctor encouraged him to talk, to develop himself, to reveal the story of his roadside debaucheries. He listened attentively, evincing an interest in the incoherent tale. Mrs. Preston watched the doctor's face with restless eyes.

Finally Preston ended his husky monotone in a querulous entreaty. "I need a little whiskey to keep me going. Tell _her_, won't you?--to let me have a little drink. My regular allowance was a pint a day, and I haven't had a drop for four weeks. Your Chicago whiskey is rotten bad, though, I tell you. I just stepped into a place to get a drink with Joe Campbell--his father owns a big pulp mill in Michigan--well--we had one or two drinks, and the first thing I knew there was shooting all over the place, and some one grabbed me, and I was thrown into the street--"

Mrs. Preston exclaimed, "Do you want to hear _more_?"

Sommers rose. "I'll come again to see you, Mr. Preston, and I will leave something that will help you. Good night."

"It was good of you to take this interest, doctor. I am glad to have met you, Doctor--?"

"Sommers," suggested the doctor, smiling at the evidences of forgotten breeding that cropped out of the general decay.

"Well, Dr. Sommers, I hope we shall meet again when I am more myself."

When they returned to the room below, Mrs. Preston lit a lamp. After some minutes Sommers asked, "How long has this been going on?"

"For years--before he left college; he was taken out of Yale because of it. All I know is what he tells when he is not--responsible."

"Ah!" the doctor exclaimed involuntarily.

"_I never knew," Mrs. Preston added quickly, "until we had been married a year. He was away so much of the time, and he was very different then--I mean he didn't ramble on as he does now. He was not flabby and childish, not before the operation."

The doctor turned his face away.

"About two years ago some of the men he was with brought him home, drunk. Afterward he didn't seem to care. But he was away most of the time, travelling, going from place to place, always living in hotels, always drinking until some illness brought him back."

"And this time?" the doctor asked.

Mrs. Preston shut her lips, as if there were things she could not say yet.

"I was not living with him." In a few moments, she continued quietly: "I suppose I should have been but for one thing. He told me he was going to New York, and I found him with another woman, living in a hotel not a mile from our home. I don't know why I should have made so much of that. I had suspected for months that there were other women; but seeing it, knowing that he knew I had seen it! I nearly starved before I got work."

Confession, the details, the whole story, appealed to her evidently as obvious, typical, useless. She tried to select simple words, to leave the facts undimmed by passionate speech.

"As I told you, an old friend of my father's helped me to get work. That kept me from ending it just there. As the months went on and he did not try to find me, I got used to the round, to the school, the living on, dead and alive. I thought of getting a divorce, of finding some country school in another state. Dr. Leonard urged me to. I might have--I don't know. But accidentally _he was brought back. I was going home from a teachers' meeting that night. I saw him lying on the pavement, thrown out of the saloon, as he told you. A crowd gathered. He was unconscious. I wanted to run away, to leave him, to escape. He groaned. I couldn't--I couldn't."

She sighed wearily at the memory of her illogical act. The doctor nodded sympathetically. It was a fatal moment, the point of decision in her life. He understood what it meant to her.

"There was no one else to take him--to be responsible. He had been mine. After all, the divorce would have made no difference; it never can. You have to take your failures; you have to endure."

"Has he any relatives?" Sommers asked.

"A few; they were done with him long ago. They had money, and they wanted to get rid of him. They put him into a business that would keep him away from them; that would give him the best chance to kill himself--going about everywhere, always travelling, always with men who drink and live in hotels as he has. They shoved him into the world to let the world, or any one who would, take care of him."

It had been her lot, because of the error of her incompetent heart, to take charge of this flotsam. That was so evident that she had given up seeking for escape.

"He is helpless now," she added, as for excuse. "It would be cruel."

For a moment the doctor's face looked hard. Was it, he seemed to be turning over in his mind, that she loved him a little in the depths of her heart? That was an irritating trait of feminine stupidity. But one intelligent glance at her calm face rendered that supposition impossible. She was merely largely human, with a sense of remote claims.

"And now what will you do?" he asked.

Her eyes were brooding on that now. Finally she exclaimed with an impatient gesture:

"How can I tell! He may get strong enough to leave me--in peace. He may come back again to rest and get well. And that may go on and on until one of us dies, or I am discharged. As I told you, they are trying now to exclude married teachers from the schools. And I am married!"

Sommers saw that she had faced the sordid situation; that she expected no relief from the clouds. He got up and looked at his watch.

"I shall come again. We will see what can be done."

This was a convention of the profession. Nothing could be done for that man, and he knew it. She knew it also. She smiled mournfully as they shook hands. Yet as he moved toward the door she asked in a low tone:

"Won't you tell me what you call it? There is no use in not telling me."

"Paresis," Sommers replied shortly. As her face was still inquiring, he added: "Brain trouble. In his case a kind of decay of the tissue; perhaps inherited, certainly hastened by his habits, probably precipitated by the operation."

His glance met hers, and they both fell silent before the common thought. In the practice of his profession he had done this for her, in obedience to the cowardly rules of that profession. He had saved life--animation--to this mass of corruption. Except for his skill, this waste being would have gone its way quietly to death, thereby purifying all life by that little. He added at last in a mechanical tone:

"That results sometimes from such an operation. You can't tell how it will affect the brain, especially when the history of the case is a bad one. He will have to be sent away to an institution if--; but the only thing now is to wait to see what will happen. Good night. I shall see you in a few days," he concluded abruptly.

He was determined to speculate no more, to give her no hopes that might prove groundless. The future was uncertain: the patient might have convulsions, paralysis, locomotor ataxia, mere imbecility with normal physical functions, or intermittent insanity. It was highly unprofessional to speculate in this loose fashion about the outcome of an operation.

Mrs. Preston watched him as he crossed the lawn and untied his horse. She had not thanked him for coming, for promising to come again, he reflected with relief. She was no weak, dependent fool. He rode down the sodded lane, and as his horse picked his way carefully toward the avenue where the electric cars were shooting back and forth like magnified fireflies, he turned in his saddle to look once more at the cottage. One light gleamed from the room he had just left. He could see the outline of the woman's form standing by the open window. The place was lonely and forbidding enough, isolated and withdrawn as the life of the woman within it. She was set apart with the thing that had been man stretched out above in stupor, or restlessly babbling over his dirty tale. God knew why! Yet, physician and unsentimental thinker that he was, he felt to a certain degree the inevitableness of her fate. The common thing would be to shake the dirt from one's shoes, to turn one's back on the diseased and mistaken being, "to put it away where it would not trouble,"--but she did not seek to escape.

And he had been the instrument to execute for her this decree of fate, to bind it permanently, a lifetime curse.

The frogs were making merry in the marshy fields along the avenue. Their robust chorus mingled with the whir of the cars. Soft, dark clouds were driving lakeward. The blast furnaces of the steel works in South Chicago silently opened and belched flame, and silently closed again. A rosy vapor, as from some Tartarean breathing, hovered about the mouths of the furnaces. Moment by moment these mouths opened and belched and closed. It was the fiery respiration of a gigantic beast, of a long worm whose dark body enveloped the smoky city. The beast heaved and panted and rested, again and again--the beast that lay on its belly for many a mile, whose ample stomach was the city, there northward, hid in smoke.

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