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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 5
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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 5 Post by :chipper Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :2068

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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 5

Part II Chapter V

A change, even so small a change as from one boarding-house to another, is caused by some definite force, some shock that overcomes the power of inertia. The eleventh of June Sommers had gone to meet Alves at their usual rendezvous in the thicket at the rear of Blue Grass Avenue. The sultry afternoon had made him drowse, and when he awoke Alves was standing over him, her hands tightening nervously.

"They have dropped you," he said, reading the news in her face.

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, until they had plodded down the avenue for several blocks.

"Why did they do it!" she murmured rebelliously. "They gave me no reason. It isn't because I teach badly. It isn't because of the married teachers' talk: there are hundreds of married women in the schools who haven't been dismissed."

"Well," Sommers responded soothingly, "I shouldn't hunt for a rational reason for their act. They have merely hastened the step we were going to take some day."

"What shall we do!" she gasped, overpowered by the visions her practical mind conjured up. "We could just get along with my forty dollars, and now--Oh! I've been like a weight about your neck. I have cut you off from your world, the big world where successes are made!"

Her large eyes filled with pleading tears. She was generously minded to take the burden of their fate upon herself.

"You seem to have been making most of the success," he responded lightly. "The big world where Dresser is succeeding doesn't call me very hard. And it's a pretty bad thing if a sound-bodied, well-educated doctor can't support himself and a woman in this world," he added more gloomily. "I _will_, if I have to get a job over there."

He jerked his head in the direction of the South Chicago steel works. But the heavens seemed to repel his boast, for the usual cloud of smoke and flame that hung night and day above the blast furnaces was replaced by a brilliant, hard blue sky. The works were shut down. They had reached the end of Blue Grass Avenue at the south line of the park. It was a spot of semi-sylvan wildness that they were fond of. The carefully platted avenues and streets were mere lines in the rough turf. A little runnel of water, half ditch, half sewer, flowed beside the old plank walk.

They sat down to plan, to contrive in some way to get a shelter over their heads. From the plank walk where they sat nothing was visible for blocks around except a little stucco Grecian temple, one of those decorative contrivances that served as ticket booths or soda-water booths at the World's Fair. This one, larger and more pretentious than its fellows, had been bought by some speculator, wheeled outside the park, and dumped on a sandy knoll in this empty lot. It had an ambitious little portico with a cluster of columns. One of them was torn open, revealing the simple anatomy of its construction. The temple looked as if it might contain two rooms of generous size. Strange little product of some western architect's remembering pencil, it brought an air of distant shores and times, standing here in the waste of the prairie, above the bright blue waters of the lake!

"That's the place for us!" Sommers exclaimed, gazing intently at the time-stained temple. Alves looked at the building sceptically, for woman-wise she conceived of only conventional abiding-places. But she followed him submissively into the little stucco portico, and when he spoke buoyantly of the possibilities of the place, of the superb view of park and lake, her worn face gained color once more. The imitation bronze doors were ajar, and they made a thorough examination of the interior. With a few laths, some canvas, and a good cleaning, the place could be made possible--for the summer.

"That's four months," Sommers remarked. "And that is a long time for poor people to look ahead."

The same evening they hunted up the owner and made their terms, and the next day prepared to move from the Keystone. They had some regrets over leaving the Keystone Hotel. The last month Sommers had had one or two cases. The episode with Dr. Jelly had finally redounded to his credit, for the woman had died at Jelly's private hospital, and the nurse who had overheard the dispute between the two doctors had gossiped. The first swallow of success, however, was not enough to warrant any expenditure for office rent. He must make some arrangement with a drug store near the temple, where he could receive calls.

They invited Miss M'Gann, Webber, and Dresser to take supper with them their first Sunday in the temple. Alves had arranged a little kitchen in one corner of the smaller of the two rooms. This room received the pompous name of "the laboratory"; the other room--a kind of hall into which the portico opened--was bedroom and general living room.

"We will throw open the temple doors," she explained to Sommers, "and have supper on the portico between the pillars."

From that point the lake could be seen, a steely blue line on the horizon. But it rained on Sunday, and the visitors arrived so bedraggled by the storm that their feast seemed doomed. Sommers produced a bottle of Scotch whiskey, and they warmed and cheered themselves. The Baking Powder clerk grew loquacious first. The Baking Powder Trust was to be reorganized, he told them, as soon as good times came. There was to be a new trust, twice as big as the present one, capitalized for millions and millions. The chemist of the concern had told him that Carson was engineering the affair. The stock of the present company would be worth double, perhaps three times as much as at present. He confided the fact that he had put all his savings into the stock of the present company at its greatly depressed present value. The company was not paying dividends; he had bought at forty. His air of financial success, of shrewd speculative insight impressed them all. Miss M'Gann evidently knew all about this; she smiled as if the world were a pretty good place.

Dresser, too, had his boast. He had finally been given charge of _The Investor's Monthly_, which had absorbed the _La Salle Street Indicator_. The policy of the papers was to be changed: they were to be conservative, but not critical, and conducted in the interests of capital which was building up the country after its financial panic.

"In the prospective return of good times many new interests will seek public patronage," he explained to the company. "A new era will dawn--the era of business combinations, of gigantic cooperative enterprises."

"Vulgarly known as trusts," Sommers interjected. "And your paper is going to boom Carson's companies. Well, well, that's pretty good for Debs's ex-secretary!"

"You must understand that people of education change their views," Dresser retorted uncomfortably. "I have had a long talk with Mr. Carson about the policy of the paper. He doesn't wish to interfere, not in the least, merely advises on a general line of policy agreeable to him and his associates, who, I may say, are very heavily engaged in Chicago enterprises. We are interested at present in the traction companies which are seeking extensions of their franchises."

"He's joined the silk-hat brigade," Webber scoffed. "The Keystone ain't good enough for him any longer. He's going north to be within call of his friends."

"How is Laura Lindsay?" Sommers asked.

"I saw her last night, and I met Mr. Brome Porter and young Polot, too."

"Did you tell 'em where you were going to-night?" Sommers asked, rather bitterly.

"Say, Howard," Dresser replied, pushing back his chair and resting one arm confidentially on the table, "you must have been a great chump. You had a soft thing of it at Lindsay's--"

"I suppose Miss Laura has discussed it with you. I didn't like the set quite as well as you seem to."

"Well, it's no use making enemies, when you can have 'em for friends just as easily as not," Dresser retorted, with an air of superior worldly wisdom.

* * * * *

Miss M'Gann had drawn Alves out of the talk among the men, and they sat by themselves on the lower step of the temple.

"I saw Dr. Leonard the other day at a meeting of the Cymbals Society," Miss M'Gann told Alves. "He asked where you were."

"I hope he'll come to see us."

Miss M'Gann looked at the men and lowered her voice.

"I think he knows what was the reason for dismissing you. He wouldn't tell me; but if I see him again, I am going to get it out of him."

"Why, what did he say?" Alves asked.

"Nothing much. Only he asked very particularly about you and the doctor; about what kind of man the doctor was, and just when you were married and where."

Alves moved nervously.

"Where were you married, Alves?" Miss M'Gann pursued anxiously. "Here or in Wisconsin? You were so dreadfully queer about it all."

"We were not married," Alves replied, in a quiet voice, "at least not in a church, with a ceremony and all that. I didn't want it, and we didn't think it necessary."

The younger woman gasped.

"Alves! I'd never think it of you--you two so quiet and so like ordinary folks!"

"We are like other people, only we aren't tied to each other by a halter. He can go when he likes," Alves retorted. "I want him to go," she added fiercely, "just as soon as he finds he doesn't love me enough."

"Um," Miss M'Gann answered. "Lucky you haven't any children. That's where the rub comes."

Alves straightened herself with a little haughtiness.

"It wouldn't make any difference to _him_. He would do right by them if he had them."

"I don't see how he could, at present," Miss M'Gann proceeded, with severe logic. "It's all very well so long as things go easily. _But I had rather have the ring."

After a little silence, she continued: "It must have had something to do with that, I guess, your being dropped. Did any one know?"

"I never said anything about it," Alves replied coldly. She would have liked to add an entreaty, for his sake, that Miss M'Gann keep this secret. But her pride prevented her.

"That Ducharme woman must have been talking," Miss M'Gann proceeded acutely. "I saw her around last year, looking seedy, as if she drank."

"Possibly," Alves assented, "though she didn't know anything."

"Well, my advice to you is to make that right just as soon as ever you can. He's willing?"

"I should never let him," Alves exclaimed vehemently; "least of all now!"

"Well, I suppose folks must live their own way. But you don't catch me taking a man in that easy fashion, so that he can get out when he wants to."

Alves tried to change the subject, but her admission had so startled her friend that the usual gossip was impossible. When the visitors rose to go, Sommers proposed showing them the way back by a wagon road that led to the improved part of the park, across the deserted Court of Honor. He and Alves accompanied them as far as the northern limits of the park. The rain clouds were gone, and a cold, clear sky had taken their place. On their return along the esplanade beside the lake Sommers chatted in an easy frame of mind.

"I guess Webber will get Miss M'Gann, and I am glad of it. Dresser wouldn't do anything more than fool with her. He will get on now; those promoters and capitalists are finding him a clever tool. They will keep him steady. It isn't the fear of the Lord that will keep men like Dresser in line; it's the fear of their neighbors' opinions and of an empty stomach!"

"Don't you--wish you had a chance like his?" Alves asked timidly.

The young doctor laughed aloud.

"You don't know me yet. It isn't that I don't want to. It's because I _can't_--no glory to me. But, Alves, we are all right. I can get enough in one way or another to keep the temple over our heads, and I can work now. I have something in view; it won't be just chasing about the streets."

This reference to his own work both pleased and saddened her. The biologist, who had befriended him before, had given him some work in his laboratory. The work was not well paid, but the association with the students, which aroused his intellectual appetites, had given him a new spur. What saddened her was that it was all entirely beyond her sphere of influence, of usefulness to him. Living, as they should, in an almost savage isolation, she dreaded his absorption in anything apart from her. There were other reliefs, consolations, and hopes than those she held. He was slipping away into a silent region--man's peculiar world--of thought and dream and speculation, an intangible, ideal, remote, unloving world. Some day she would knock at his heart and find it occupied.

She leaned heavily upon his arm, loath to have his footsteps so firm, his head so erect, his eyes so far away, his voice so silent.

"You are not sorry," she murmured, ashamed of iterating this foolish question, that demanded one answer--an answer never wholly satisfying.

"For what?" he asked, interrupting his thought and glancing out into the black waters.

"For me--for all this fight for life alone away from the people who are succeeding, for grinding along unrecognized--"

He stopped and kissed her gently, striving to quiet her excited mood.

"For if you did, I would put myself _there_, in the water beside the piers," she cried.

He smiled at her passionate threat, as at the words of an emotional child. Underneath his gentleness, his kindness, his loving ways, she felt this trace of scepticism. He did not bother his head with what was beginning to wring her soul. In a few minutes she spoke again:

"Miss M'Gann thinks Dr. Leonard knows why I was dismissed. Mrs. Ducharme, she said, had been hanging about the Everglade School district. I remember having seen her several times."

Sommers dropped her arm and strode forward.

"What did _she know?" he asked harshly.

"I don't see how she could know anything except suspicions. You know she was queer and a great talker."

Sommers's face worked. He was about to speak when Alves went on.

"I told Jane we had never been married; she asked me _where we were married. I suppose I ought not to have told her. I didn't want to."

"It is of no importance," Sommers answered. "It's our own business, anyway; but it makes no difference as we live now whether she knows it or not."

"I am glad you feel so," Alves replied with relief. Then in a few moments she added, "I was afraid she might tell people; it might get to your old friends."

Sommers replied in the same even tone,

"Well? and what can they do about it?"

"I wonder what a woman like Miss Hitchcock thinks about such matters,--about us, if she knew."

"She would not think. She would avoid the matter as she would a case of drunkenness."

The arm within his trembled. She said nothing more until they reached the little portico. She paused there, leaning against one of the crumbling columns, looking out into the night. From the distance beyond the great pier that stretched into the lake came the red glare of the lighthouse.

Sommers had gone in and was preparing the room for the night. She could hear him whistle as he walked to and fro, carrying out dishes, arranging the chairs and tables. He maintained an even mood, took the accidents of his fate as calmly as one could, and was always gentle. He had some well of happiness hidden to her. She went in, took off her cloak, and prepared to undress. His clothes, the nicety he preserved about personal matters, had taught her much of him. Her clothes had always been common, of the wholesale world; he had had his luxuries, his refinements, his individual tastes. Gradually, as his more expensive clothes had worn out, he had replaced them with machine-made articles of cheap manufacture. His belongings were like hers now. She was bringing him a little closer to her in such ways,--food and lodging and raiment. But not in thought and being. Behind those deep-set eyes passed a world of thought, of conjecture and theory and belief, that rarely expressed itself outwardly.

She let down her hair and began to take off her plain, unlovely clothes. Thus she approached the common human basis, the nakedness and simplicity of life. Her eyes lingered thoughtfully on her body; she touched herself as she unbuttoned, unlaced, cast aside the armor of convention and daily life.

"Howard!" she cried imperiously. He stopped his whistling and looked at her and smiled.

"Do you like me, Howard?" She blushed at the childishness of her eager question. But she demanded the expected answer with the insistence of unsatisfied love. And when he failed to reply at the moment, surprised by her mood, she knelt by his chair and grasped his knees.

"Isn't it _all that you want, just the temple and me? Am I not enough to make up for the world and success and pleasure? I can make you love, and when you love you do not think."

She rose and faced him with gleaming eyes, stretching out her bare arms, deploying her whole woman's strength and beauty in mute appeal.

"Why do you ask?" he demanded, troubled.

"O Howard, you do not feel the mist that creeps in between us, though we are close together. Sometimes I think you are farther away than even in the old times, when I first saw you at the hospital. You think, think, and I can't get at your thought. Why is it so?"

He yielded to her entreating arms and eyes, as he had so often before in like moments, when the need to put aside the consciousness of existence, of the world as it appears, had come to one of them or both. Yet it seemed that this love was like some potent spirit, whose irresistible power waned, sank, each time demanding a larger draught of joy, a more delirious tension of the nerves.

"Nothing makes any difference," he answered. "I was born and lived for this."

She had charmed the evil mood, and for the time her heart was satisfied.

But when she lay by his side at night her arm stole about his, as if to clutch him, fearful lest in the empty reaches of sleep he might escape, lest his errant man's thoughts and desires might abandon her for the usual avenues of life. Long after he had fallen into the regular sleep of night, she lay awake by his side, her eyes glittering with passion and defeat. Even in these limits of life, when the whole world was banned, it seemed impossible to hold undisturbed one's joy. In the loneliest island of the human sea it would be thus--division and ultimate isolation.

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