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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 11
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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 11 Post by :Brian_B Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :754

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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 11

Part II Chapter XI

During the next two years the country awoke from its torpor, feeling the blood tingle in its strong limbs once more, and rubbing its eyes in wonder at its own folly. Some said the spirit of hope was due to the gold basis; some said it was the good crops; some said it was the prospect of national expansion. In any event the country got tired of its long fit of sulks; trade revived, railroads set about mending their tracks, mills opened--a current of splendid vitality began to throb. Men took to their business with renewed avidity, content to go their old ways, to make new snares and to enter them, all unconscious of any mighty purpose. Those at the faro tables of the market increased the stakes and opened new tables. New industrial companies sprung up overnight like mushrooms, watered and sunned by the easy optimism of the hour. The rumors of war disturbed this hothouse growth. But the "big people" took advantage of these to squeeze the "little people," and all worked to the glory of the great god. In the breast of every man on the street was seated one conviction: 'This is a mighty country, and I am going to get something out of it.' The stock market might bob up and down; the gamblers might gain or lose their millions; the little politicians of the hour might talk blood and iron by the pound of _Congressional Record_; but the great fact stared you in the face--every one was hopeful; for every one there was much good money somewhere. It was a rich time in which to live.

Remote echoes of this optimism reached Sommers. He learned, chiefly through the newspapers, that Mr. R. G. Carson had emerged from the obscurity of Chicago and had become a celebrity upon the metropolitan stage after "the successful flotation of several specialties." Mr. Brome Porter, he gathered from the same source, had built himself a house in New York, and altogether shaken the dust of Chicago from his feet. Sommers passed him occasionally in the unconsolidated air of Fifth Avenue, but the young doctor had long since sunk out of Brome Porter's sphere of consciousness. Sommers thought Porter betrayed his need of Carlsbad more than ever, and he wondered if the famous gambler had beguiled Colonel Hitchcock into any of his ventures. But Sommers did not trouble himself seriously with the new manifestations of gigantic greed. Unconscious of the fact that from collar-button to shoe-leather he was assisting Mr. Carson's industries to yield revenues on their water-logged stocks, he went his way in his profession and labored. For the larger part of the time he was an assistant in a large New York hospital, where he found enough hard work to keep his thoughts from wandering to Carson, Brome Porter, and Company. In the feverish days that preceded the outbreak of the Cuban war, he heard rumors that Porter had been caught in the last big "flotation," and was heavily involved. But the excitement of those days destroyed the importance of the news to the public and to him.

Sommers resolved to find service in one of the military hospitals that before long became notorious as pestholes. From the day he arrived at Tampa, he found enough to tax all his energies in trying to save the lives of raw troops dumped in the most unsanitary spots a paternal government could select. In the melee created by incompetent officers and ignorant physicians, one single-minded man could find all the duties he craved. Toward the close of the war, on the formation of a new typhoid hospital, Sommers was put in charge. There one day in the heat of the fight with disease and corruption he discovered Parker Hitchcock, who had enlisted, partly as a frolic, an excuse for throwing off the ennui of business, and partly because his set were all going to Cuba. Young Hitchcock had come down with typhoid while waiting in Tampa for a transport, and had been left in Sommers's camp. He greeted the familiar face of the doctor with a welcome he had never given it in Chicago.

"Am I going to die in this sink, doctor?" he asked, when Sommers came back to him in the evening.

"I can't say," the doctor replied, with a smile. "You are a good deal better off on this board floor than most of the typhoids in the camps, and we will do the best we can. Shall I let your people know?"

"No," the young fellow said slowly, his weak, white face endeavoring to restrain the tears. "The old man is in a bad place--Uncle Brome, you know--and I guess if it hadn't been for my damn foolishness in New York--"

He went off into delirious inconsequence, and on the way back Sommers stopped to telegraph Miss Hitchcock. A few days later he met her at the railroad station, and drove her over to the camp. She was worn from her hurried journey, and looked older than Sommers expected; but the buoyancy and capability of her nature seemed indomitable. Sommers repeated to her what Parker had said about not letting his people know.

"It's the first time he ever thought of poor papa," she said bluntly.

"I thought it might do him good to fight it out by himself. But loneliness kills some of these fellows."

"Poor Parker!" she exclaimed, with a touch of irony in her tone. "He thought he should come home a hero, with flags flying, all the honors of the season, and forgiveness for his little faults. The girls would pet him, and papa would overlook his past. The war was a kind of easy penance for all his sins. And he never reached Cuba even, but came down with typhoid--due to pure carelessness, I am afraid."

"That is a familiar story," the doctor observed, with a grim smile, "especially in his set. They took the war as a kind of football match--and it is just as well they did."

"You are the ones that really know what it means--the doctors and the nurses," Miss Hitchcock said warmly.

"Here is our San Juan," Sommers replied dryly, pointing to the huddle of tents and pine sheds that formed the hospital camp.

After they had visited Parker Hitchcock, Sommers conducted her over the camp. Some of the cots were occupied by gaunt figures of men whom she had known, and at the end of their inspection, she remarked thoughtfully:

"I see that there is something to do here. It makes me feel alive once more."

The next month, while Parker dragged slowly through the stages of the disease, Miss Hitchcock worked energetically with the nurses. Sommers met her here and there about the camp and at their hurried meals. The heat and the excitement told upon her, but her spirited, good-humored mood, which was always at play, carried her on. Finally, the convalescents were sent north to cooler spots, and the camp was closed. Parker Hitchcock was well enough to be moved to Chicago, and Sommers, who had been relieved, took charge of him and a number of other convalescents, who were to return to the West.

The last hours of the journey Sommers and Miss Hitchcock spent together. The train was slowly traversing the dreary stretches of swamp and sand-hills of northern Indiana.

"I remember how forlorn this seemed the other time--four years ago!" Sommers exclaimed. "And how excited I was as the city came into view around the curve of the lake. That was to be my world."

"And you didn't find it to your liking," Miss Hitchcock replied, with a little smile.

"I couldn't understand it; the thing was like raw spirits. It choked you."

"I think I understand now what the matter has always been," she resumed after a little interval. "You thought we were all exceptionally selfish, but we were all just like every one else,--running after the obvious, common pleasures. What could you expect! Every boy and girl in this country is told from the first lesson of the cradle, over and over, that success is the one great and good thing in life. The people here are young and strong, and you can't blame them if they interpret that text a little crudely. But I am beginning to understand what you feel."

"We can't escape the fact, though," Sommers responded. "Life must be based, to a large extent, on gain, on mere living. Nature has ordered it."

"Only in cases like yours," she murmured. "_I can never free myself from the order of nature. I shall always be the holder of power accumulated by some one else."

As Sommers refrained from making the platitudinous reply that such a remark seemed to demand, they were silent for several minutes. Then she asked, with an air of constraint:

"What will you do? I mean after your visit to us, for, of course, you must rest."

Sommers smiled ironically.

"That is the question every one asks. 'What will you do? what will you do?' Suppose I should say _'Nothing'_? We are always planning. No one is ready to wait and turn his hand to the nearest job. To-morrow, next month, in good time, I shall know what that is."

"It puts out of the question a career, personal ambition."

"Yes," he answered quickly. "And could you do that? Could you care for a man who will have no career, who has no 'future'?"

Sommers's voice had taken a new tone of earnestness, unlike the sober speculation in which they had been indulging. Miss Hitchcock turned her face to the faded landscape of the suburban fields, and failed to reply.

"I have lived out my egotism," he continued earnestly. "What you would call ambition has been dead for long months. I haven't any lofty ambition even for scientific work. Good results, even there, it seems to me, are not born of personal desire, of pride. I am content to be a failure--an honest failure," he ended sharply.

"Don't say that!" she protested, looking at him frankly. "I shall never agree to that."

The people around them began to bestir themselves with the nervous restlessness of pent-up energy. Parker Hitchcock came into the car from the smoking-room.

"We can get off at Twenty-second Street," he called out eagerly. "You're coming, doctor?"

Sommers shook his head negatively, and Miss Hitchcock, who was putting on her veil, did not urge him to join them. The Hitchcock carriage was waiting outside the Twenty-second Street station, and, as the train moved on, Sommers could see Colonel Hitchcock's bent figure through the open window.

When Sommers left the train at the central station, the September twilight had already fallen; and as he crossed the strip of park where the troops had bivouacked during the strike, the encircling buildings were brilliantly outlined in the evening mist by countless points of light. The scene from Twelfth Street north to the river, flanked by railroad yards and grim buildings, was an animated circle of a modern inferno. The cross streets intersecting the lofty buildings were dim, canon-like abysses, in which purple fog floated lethargically. The air was foul with the gas from countless locomotives, and thick with smoke and the mist of the lake. And through this earthy steam, the myriad lights from the facades of the big buildings shone with suffused splendor. It was large and vague and, above all, gay, with the grim vivacity of a city of shades. Streams of people were flowing toward the railroad, up and down the boulevard, in and out of the large hotels. A murmur of living, striving humanity rose into the murky air; and from a distance, through the abysses of the cross streets, sounded the deeper roar of the city.

The half-forgotten note of the place struck sharply upon the doctor's ear. It excited him in some strange way. Two years had dropped from his life, and again he was turning, turning, with the beat of the great machine.

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