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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 6
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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 6 Post by :vdorazio Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :1899

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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 6

Part II Chapter VI

The summer burned itself out, and the autumn winds pierced the rotten staff walls of the temple. They were no nearer to moving into better quarters than they had been in the spring. The days had come when there was little food, and the last precarious dollar had been spent. They lived on the edge of defeat, and such an existence to earnest people is sombre.

Finally the tide turned. The manager of a large manufacturing plant in Burnside, one of the little factory hamlets south of the city, asked Sommers to take charge of an epidemic of typhoid that had broken out among the operatives. The regular physician of the corporation had proved incompetent, and the annual visitation of the disease threatened to be unprecedented. Sommers spent his days and nights in Burnside for several weeks. When he had time to think, he wondered why the manager employed him. If the Hitchcocks had been in the city, he should have suspected that they had a hand in the matter. But he remembered having seen in a newspaper some months before that the Hitchcocks were leaving for Europe. He did not trouble himself greatly, however, over the source of the gift, thankful enough for the respite, and for the chance of renewed activity. When the time for settlement came, the manager liberally increased the amount of the doctor's modest bill. The check for three hundred dollars seemed a very substantial bulwark against distress, and the promise of the company's medical work after the new year was even more hopeful. Alves was eager to move from the dilapidated temple to an apartment where Sommers could have a suitable office. But Sommers objected, partly from prudential reasons, partly from fear that unpleasant things might happen to Alves, should they come again where people could talk. And then, to Alves's perplexity, he developed strange ideas about money getting.

"The physician should receive the very minimum of pay possible for his existence," he told her once, when she talked of the increase in his income. "He works in the dark, and he is in luck if he happens to do any good. In waging his battle with mysterious nature, he only unfits himself by seeking gain. In the same way, to a lesser degree, the law and the ministry should not be gainful professions. When the question of personal gain and advancement comes in, the frail human being succumbs to selfishness, and then to error. Like the artist, the doctor, the lawyer, the clergyman, the teacher should be content to minister to human needs. The professions should be great monastic orders, reserved for those who have the strength to renounce ease and luxury and power."

The only tangible comfort that Alves derived from this unusually didactic speech was the assurance that he would not be drawn away from her. She bowed to his conception, and sought to help him. While he was attending the cases in Burnside, she did some work as nurse. Beginning casually to help on an urgent case, she went on to other cases, training herself, learning to take his place wherever she could. She thought to come closer to him in this way, but she suspected that he understood her motive, that her work did not seem quite sincere to him. She was looking for payment in love.

When she was not engaged in nursing, she was more often alone than she had been the year before. The Keystone people visited the temple rarely. Miss M'Gann seemed always a little constrained, when Alves met her, and Dresser was living on the North Side. One December morning, when Alves was alone, she noticed a carriage coming slowly down the unfinished avenue. It stopped a little distance from the temple, and a woman got out. After giving the coachman an order, she took the foot-path that Alves and Sommers had worn. Alves came out to the portico to meet the stranger, who hastened her leisurely pace on catching sight of a person in the temple. At the foot of the rickety steps the stranger stopped.

"You are Miss Hitchcock," Alves said quickly. "Won't you come in?"

"How did you know!" Miss Hitchcock exclaimed, and added without waiting for a reply: "Let's sit here on the steps--the sun is so warm and nice. I've been a long time in coming to see you," her voice rippled on cordially, while Alves watched her. "But we've been out of the city so much of the time,--California, North Carolina, and abroad."

Alves nodded. The young woman's ease of manner and luxurious dress intimidated her. She sat down on the step above Miss Hitchcock, and she had the air of examining the other woman without committing herself.

"But, how did you know me?" Miss Hitchcock exclaimed, with a little laugh of satisfaction.

"Dr. Sommers has told me about you."

"Did he! He didn't tell any one of his marriage." The bluntness of the speech was relieved by the confidential manner in which Miss Hitchcock leaned forward to the other woman.

"It was sudden," Alves replied coolly.

"I know! But _we_, my father and I, had a right to feel hurt. We knew him so well, and we should have liked to know you."

"Thank you."

"But we had no cards--you disappeared--hid yourselves--and you turn up in this unique place! It's only by chance that I've found you now."

"We didn't send out cards. We are such simple people that we don't expect--"

Miss Hitchcock blushed at the challenge, and interrupted to save the speech from its final ungraciousness.

"Of course, but we are different. We have always been so interested in Dr. Sommers. He was such a promising man."

Alves made no effort to reply. She resented Miss Hitchcock's efforts to reach her, and withdrew into her shell. This young woman with her attendant brougham belonged to the world that she liked to feel Sommers had renounced for her sake. She disliked the world for that reason.

"Is he doing well?" Miss Hitchcock asked bluntly. "He was so brilliant in his studies and at the hospital! I was sorry that he left, that he felt he ought to start for himself. He had a good many theories and ideals. We didn't agree,"--she smiled winningly at the grave woman, "but I have had time to understand somewhat--only I couldn't, I can't believe that my father and his friends are _all wrong." Miss Hitchcock rushed on heedlessly, to Alves's perplexity; she seemed desperately eager to establish some kind of possible understanding between them. But this cold, mature woman, in her plain dress, repelled her. She could not prevent herself from thinking thoughts that were unworthy of her.

Why had he done it! What had this woman to give that the women of her set could not equal and more than equal? The atmosphere of her brougham, of her costly gown and pretty hat contrasted harshly with the dingy temple and dead weeds of the waste land. Dr. Lindsay had said much, and insinuated more, about the entanglement that had ruined the promising young surgeon. Was it this woman's sensual power--she rejected the idea on the instant. Dr. Sommers was not that kind, in spite of anything that Lindsay might say. She could not understand it--his devotion to this woman, his giving up his chances. It was all a part of some scheme beyond her power to grasp fully.

"I want to know you," she said at last, after an awkward silence. "Won't you let me?"

Alves leaned slightly forward, and spoke slowly.

"You are very kind, but I don't see any good in it. We don't belong to your world, and you would show him all the time what he has to get along without. Not that he wouldn't do it again," she added proudly, noticing the girl's lowered gaze. "I don't think that he would like to have me say that he had given up anything. But he's got his way to make, _here_, and it is harder work than you imagine."

"I don't see, then, why you refuse to let me--his old friends--help him." Miss Hitchcock spoke impatiently. She was beginning to feel angry with this impassive woman, who was probably ignorant of the havoc she had done.

"He doesn't want any help!" Alves retorted. "We are not starving now. _I can help him. I will help him and be enough for him. He gave it up for me."

"Can you get him friends and practice?" Miss Hitchcock asked sharply. "Can you make it possible for him to do the best work, and stand high in his profession? Will you help him to the place where he can make the most of himself, and not sell his soul for bread?"

These questions fell like taunts upon the silent woman. She seemed to feel beneath them the boast, 'I could have done all that, and much more!' These words were like the rest of this fashionable young woman--her carriage, her clothes, her big house, her freshness of person--all that she did not have. Alves retorted:

"He won't let any one push him, I know. What he wants, he will be glad to get by himself. And," she added passionately, "I will help him. If I stand in his way,--and he can't do what he wants to do,--I will take myself out of his life."

Boast for boast, and the older woman's passionate words seemed to ring the stronger. They looked at each other defiantly. At last Miss Hitchcock pulled her wrap about her, and rose to go. A final wave of regret, of yearning not to be thrust out in this way from these lives made her say:

"I am sorry you couldn't have let me be a little friendly. I wanted to have you to dinner,"--she smiled at the dull practicality of her idea; "but I suppose you won't come."

"He may do as he likes," Alves said, in a more conciliatory manner.

"But he can't!" the girl smiled back good-humoredly. "One doesn't go to dinner without one's wife, especially when one's wife doesn't like the hostess."

Alves laughed at the frank speech. She might have liked this eager, fresh young woman, who took things with such dash and buoyancy, if she could have known her on even terms. As they stood facing each other, a challenge on Miss Hitchcock's face, Alves noticed the doctor's figure in the road beyond.

"I think that is Dr. Sommers coming. He can answer your question for himself."

Sommers was approaching from Blue Grass Avenue; his eyes were turned in the direction of the lake, so that he did not see the women on the steps of the temple until Miss Hitchcock turned and held out her hand. Then he started, perceptibly enough to make Alves's lips tighten once more.

"I have been calling on your wife," Miss Hitchcock explained, talking fast. "But she doesn't like me, won't ask me to come again."

"We shall be very glad to see you," Alves interposed quickly. "But I make no calls."

Miss Hitchcock declined to sit down, and Sommers accompanied her to the waiting carriage. Alves watched them. Miss Hitchcock seemed to be talking very fast, and her head was turned toward his face.

Miss Hitchcock was answering Sommers's inquiries about Colonel and Mrs. Hitchcock. The latter had died over a year ago, and Colonel Hitchcock had been in poor health.

"He has some bitter disappointments," Miss Hitchcock said gravely. "His useful, honorable, unselfish life is closing sadly. We have travelled a good deal; we have just come back from Algiers. It is good to be back in Chicago!"

"I have noticed that the Chicagoan repeats that formula, no matter how much he roams. He seems to travel merely to experience the bliss of returning to the human factory."

"It isn't a factory to me. It is home," she replied simply.

"So it is to us, now. We are earning our right to stay within its gates."

"Are things--going better?" Miss Hitchcock asked hesitatingly. She scanned the doctor's face, as if to read in the grave lines the record of the year.

"We are alive and clothed," he replied tranquilly.

"What a frightful way to put it!"

"The lowest terms--and not very different from others." His eye rested upon the glossy horses and the spotless victoria.

"No!" Miss Hitchcock answered dispiritedly. "But I _won't think of it that way. I am coming to see you again, if I may?"

"You were very good to look us up," he answered evasively.

They lingered, speaking slowly, as if loath to part in this superficial manner. He told her of his employment in Burnside, and remarked slowly,

"I wonder who could have put the manager on my track."

"I wonder," she repeated, looking past him.

"You see I didn't start quite at the scratch," he added, his face relaxing into a smile.

"I shouldn't quarrel about _that handicap."

"No, I am not as ready to quarrel as I once was."

Her face had the eager expression of interest and vitality that he remembered. She seemed to have something more that she wanted to say, but she simply held out her hand, with a warm "good-by," and stepped into the carriage.

When he returned to the temple, Alves was busy getting their dinner. She paused, and glancing at Sommers remarked, "How beautiful she is!"

"She is a good woman. She ought to marry," he responded.

"Why?"

"Because she is so sound and fine at bottom."

"You were glad to see her again."

"Did I show it unduly?"

"I knew you were, and she knows it."

When he looked at her a few moments later, her eyes were moist.

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