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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 8
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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 8 Post by :MrChange Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :2437

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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 8

Part II Chapter VIII


One still, frozen winter day succeeded another in changeless iteration. The lake was a solid floor of gray ice as far as one could see. Along the shore between the breakwaters the ice lay piled in high waves, with circles of clear, shining glass beyond. A persistent drift from the north and east, day after day, lifted the sheets of surface ice and slid them over the inner ledges. At night the lake cracked and boomed like a battery of powerful guns, one report starting another until the shore resounded with the noise. The perpetual groaning of the laboring ice, the rending and riving of the great fields, could be heard as far inshore as the temple all through the still night.

Early every morning Sommers with Alves would start for the lake. At this hour only an occasional fisherman could be seen, cutting fresh holes in the ice and setting his lines. Sommers preferred to skate in the mornings, for later in the day the smooth patches of inshore ice were frequented by people from the city. He loved solitude, it seemed to Alves, more and more. In the Keystone days he had been indifferent to the people of the house; now he avoided people except as they needed him professionally. She attributed it, wrongly, to a feeling of pride. In reality, the habit of self-dependence was gaining, and the man was thrusting the world into the background. For hours Sommers never spoke. Always sparing of words, counting them little, despising voluble people, he was beginning to lose the power of ready speech. Thus, living in one of the most jostling of the world's taverns, they lived as in the heart of the Arizona desert.

They skated in these long silences, enjoying the exhilaration of the exercise, the bitter air, the views of the huge, silent city. Now and then they paused instinctively to watch the scene, without speaking, like great lovers that are mute. Starting from the sheltered pool, where the yachts lay in summer, they skirted the dark piles of the long pier, around which the black water gurgled treacherously. Beyond the pier there was a snakelike, oozing crack, which divided the inshore ice from the more open fields outside. This they followed until they found a chance to cross, and then they sped away toward the little island made by the "intake" of the water works.

These windless mornings the bank of city smoke northward was like gray powder, out of which the skyscrapers stretched their lofty heads. The buildings along the shore, etched in the transparent air, breathing silently white mists of steam, lay like a mirage wonderfully touched with purplish shadows. The great steel works rose to the south, visibly near, mysteriously remote. The ribbons of fiery smoke from their furnaces were the first signs of the city's awakening from its lethargic industrial sleep. The beast was beginning to move along its score of miles of length. But out here in the vacancies of the lake it seemed still torpid.

Eastward, beyond the dot which the "intake" made, the lake was a still arctic field, furrowed by ice-floes, snowy here, with an open pool of water there, ribbed all over with dark crevasses of oozing water. In the far east lay the horizon line of shimmering, gauzy light, as if from beyond the earth's rim was flooding in the brilliance of a perpetual morning. North and south, east and west, along the crevasses the lake smoked in the morning sun, as the vapor from the water beneath rose into the icy air. Savage, tranquil, immense, the vast field of ice was like the indifferent face of nature, like unto death.

One morning, as they waited breathlessly listening to the silence of the ice sea, the lake groaned close beside them, and suddenly the floe on which they stood parted from the field nearer shore. In a few minutes the lane of open water was six feet in width. Sommers pointed to it, and without a word they struck out to the north, weaving their way in and out of the floes, now clambering over heaved-up barriers of ice, now flying along an unscarred field, again making their way cautiously across sheets of shivered surface ice that lay like broken glass beside a crevasse. Finally, they reached the inner field. Sommers looked at his watch, and said:

"We might as well go ashore here. That was rather a narrow chance. I must look in at the Keystone to see how Webber is. I shouldn't wonder if he had typhoid."

"I wish we could go on," Alves replied regretfully. "I was hoping the lane ran on and on for miles."

She put her hands under his coat and leaned against him, looking wistfully into the arctic sea.

"Let me go back!" she pleaded. "I should like to skate on, on, for days!"

"You can't go back without me. Some day, if this weather keeps up, we'll try for the Michigan shore."

"I should like to end things in this way," she continued musingly; "just us two, to plunge on and on and on into that quiet ice-field, until, at last, some pool shot up ahead--and then! To go out like that, quenched right in the heat of our lives; not chilled, piece by piece."

Sommers moved impatiently.

"It isn't time for that."

"No?" she asked rather than assented, and turned her face to the city. "I am not sure; sometimes I think it is the ripe time. There can be nothing more."

Sommers did not answer, but began to skate slowly. Half an hour later they climbed over the hills of shore ice, and he hurried away to the Keystone. Alves walked slowly south on the esplanade. The gray sea of ice was covered now with the winter sun. The pools and crevasses sent up sheets of steam. Her eyes followed the ice lingeringly. Once she turned back to the lake, but finally she started across the frozen grass plots in the direction of the temple. She could see from a distance a black figure seated on the portico, and she hastened her steps. She recognized the familiar squat, black-clothed person of Mrs. Ducharme. There, in the sunlight between the broken pillars, this gloomy figure seemed of ill omen. Alves regretted that she had turned back from the ice.

Mrs. Ducharme showed no sign of life until Alves reached the steps. She was worn and unkempt. A ragged straw hat but partly disguised her rumpled hair. Alves recalled what Miss M'Gann had said about her drinking.

"I've been to see you two, three times," Mrs. Ducharme said, in a hoarse, grumbling tone; "but you'se always out. This time I was a-going to wait if I'd stayed all night."

"Come in," Alves answered, unlocking the door. The woman dragged herself into the temple.

"Not so tidy a place as you and the other one had," she remarked mournfully.

Alves waited for her to declare her errand; but as she seemed in no haste to speak, she asked,

"Did you ever find Ducharme?"

The Duchesse nodded sombrely, closing her eyes.

"The woman shook him time of the strikes, when his money was gone."

"Well, isn't that what you wanted?"

Mrs. Ducharme nodded her head slowly.

"She made him bad. He drinks, awful sometimes, and whenever I say anything, he says he's going back to Peory, to that woman."

Alves waited for the expected request for money. "They'se awful, these men; but a woman can't get on without _'em_, no more than the men without _us_. Only the men don't care much which one. Any one will do for a time. Do you find the new one any better?"

"I am very happy," Alves replied with a flush; "but I don't care to talk about my affairs."

"You needn't be so close," the woman exclaimed irritably. "I know all about _you_. The _real one was a fine gentleman, even if he did liquor bad."

"I told you," Alves repeated, "that I didn't care to talk of my affairs. What do you want?"

"I've come here to talk of your affairs," Mrs Ducharme answered insolently. "And I guess you'll listen. He,--I don't mean the doctor,--the real 'un, came of rich, respectable folks. He told me all about it, and got me to write 'em for money, and his sister sent him some."

"So that was where he obtained the money to drink with when he got out of the cottage!" Alves exclaimed.

The woman nodded, and added, "He gave me some, too."

Alves rose and opened the door.

"I don't see why you came here," she said briefly, pointing to the door.

But Mrs. Ducharme merely laughed and kept her seat.

"Did he, the doctor feller, ever ask you anything about his death?" she asked.

Alves looked at her blankly.

"When he signed that paper you gave the undertaker?" continued the Duchesse.

"I don't know what you mean!" Alves exclaimed, closing the door and walking away from the woman.

"How did _he die?" Mrs. Ducharme whispered.

"You know as well as I," Alves cried, terrified now by the mysterious air the woman assumed.

"Yes!" Mrs. Ducharme whispered again. "I know as well as you. I know, and I can tell. I know how the wife gave him powders,--sleeping powders the doctor ordered,--the doctor who was hanging around, and ran off with her just after the funeral."

The woman's scheme of extracting blackmail flashed instantly into Alves's mind.

"You foul creature," she gasped, "you know it is an abominable lie--"

"Think so? Well, Ducharme didn't think so when I told him, and there are others that 'ud believe it, if I should testify to it!"

Alves walked to and fro, overwhelmed by the thoughts of the evil which was around her. At last she faced Mrs. Ducharme, who was watching her closely.

"I see what it means. You want money--blackmail, and you think you've got a good chance. But I will not give you a cent. I will tell Dr. Sommers first, and let him deal with you."

"The doctor! What does he say about his dying quiet and nice as he did? I guess the doctor'll see the point."

Alves started. What did Sommers think? What were his half-completed inquiries? What did his conduct the night of Preston's death mean? This wretched affair was like a curse left to injure her by the miserable creature she had once been tied to. But Sommers would believe her! She had given Preston but _one powder, and he had said two were safe. She must tell him exactly what she had done.

"You had better go now," she said to the woman more calmly. "I shall let Dr. Sommers know what your story is. He will answer you."

"Better not tell him," the woman replied, with a laugh. "He _knows all he wants to--or I'd 'a' gone to him at once. When he hears about the scrape, he'll run and leave you. You ain't married, anyway!"

"Go," Alves implored.

Mrs. Ducharme rose and stood irresolutely.

"I don't want much, not to trouble you. I'll give you a day to think this over, and to-morrer morning I'll be here at nine sharp to get your answer."

When the woman had gone, Alves tried to reason the matter out calmly. She had been too excited. The charge was simply preposterous, and, inexperienced as she was, she felt that nothing could be made of it in any court. But the mere suggestion of a court, of a public inquiry, alarmed her, not for herself but for Sommers, who would suffer grievously. And it did not seem easy to discuss the matter with him as she must now; it would bring up distressing scenes. Her face burned at the thought. The woman's tale was plausible. Had Sommers wondered about the death? Gradually it came over her that Sommers had always suspected this thing. She was sure of it. He had not spoken of it because he wished to protect her from her own deed. But, now, he would not believe her. The Ducharme woman's tale would fit in with his surmises. No! he _must believe her. And beside this last fear, the idea of publicity, of ventilating the old scandal, thus damning him finally and hounding him out of his little practice, faded into inconsequence. The terrible thing was that for eighteen months he had carried this belief about her in his heart.

She tried to divert her excited mind from the throng of suspicions and fears by preparing dinner. One o'clock came, then two, and Sommers did not arrive. Mrs. Ducharme might have waited for him at the entrance to the avenue, and he might have turned back to debate with himself what he should do. But she acquitted him of that cowardice.

* * * * *

As the afternoon wore on, her mind turned to the larger thoughts of their union. She saw with sudden clearness what she had done to this man she loved. She had taken him from his proper position in the world; she had forced him to push his theories of revolt beyond sane limits. She had isolated him, tied him, and his powers would never be tested. A man like him could never be happy, standing outside the fight with his equals. Worse yet, she had soiled the reverences of his nature. What was she but a soiled thing! The tenderness of his first passion had sprung amid the rank growth of her past with its sordid little drama. And the soil in her fate had tarnished their lives ever since, until this grievous...

And what had she given him? Love,--every throb of her passionate body, every desire and thought. Was this enough? There sounded the sad note of defeat: it was not, could not be, would never be enough! No man ever lived from love alone. Passion was a torrid desert. Already she had felt him fading out of her life, withdrawing into the mysterious recesses of his soul. He did not know it; he did not willingly put her away. But as each plant of the field was destined to grow its own way, side by side with its fellows, so human souls grew singly by themselves from some irresistible inner force. And she was but the parasite that fed upon this soul.

The room stifled her. She fetched her cape and hat. They were lying upon his table, and as she took them she could see the sheets of an unfinished letter. The writing was firm and fine, with the regular alignment and spacing of one who is deft about handwork. Her eye glanced over the page; the letter was in answer to a doctor in Baltimore, who had asked him to cooperate in preparing a surgical monograph. "I should like extremely to be with you in this," ran the lines, like the voice of the speaking man, "but--and the refusal pains me more than you know--I cannot in honesty undertake the work. I have not suitable conditions. It is eighteen months since I entered a hospital, and I am behind the times. And, for the present, I see no prospect of being in a condition to undertake the work. I advise you to try Muller, or--" There the letter broke off, unfinished. She raised it to her lips and kissed it. This was another sign, and she would heed it. To be a full man he must return to the poor average world, or be less than the trivial people he had always despised.

When she opened the door, the level rays of the western sun blinded her. There was no wind. Eastward the purple shadows had thickened, effacing the line of light along the horizon. The frozen lake stretched, ridged and furrowed, into the gloom. Toward it she walked,--slowly, irresistibly drawn by its limitless bosom.

She had boasted to Miss Hitchcock, "I will take myself out of his life, if need be." It was not an empty, woman's boast. She was strong enough to do what she willed. The time had come. She would not see him again. To break with words the ties between them would but dishonor them both. They must not discuss this thing. At the shore of the pool where they had put on their skates in the morning she paused, shaken with a new thought. The woman would come back on the morrow, and, without one word of denial from her, would tell him that terrible lie, confirming his old suspicions. She must see him,--she could not leave him with that foul memory,--and she returned to the temple in the hope that he was already there. The little building, however, was empty and desolate, and she sat down by the fire to wait.

The story, the denial of it, no longer seemed important. She would write him what she had to say, and go away. She would tell him that she had not poisoned her husband like a sick dog, and he would believe the solemn last words. She took a sheet of paper from his table and wrote hesitatingly:

"Dear Howard: I am leaving you----forever." Then she began again and again, but at last she came back to the first words and wrote on desperately: "I cannot make you understand it all. But one thing I must tell you, and you must believe it. That horrible woman, Mrs. Ducharme, was here this morning and told me that I had given opiates to my husband when he was ill in the cottage, and had killed him, _and that you knew it_. Somehow I remembered things that made me know you thought so, had always thought so. Perhaps you will still think it must have been so, her story is so terribly probable.

"O Howard, you used to think that it would be right--but I couldn't. I might have in time, but I couldn't then. I did nothing to hasten his death. Believe this, if you love me the least.

"That isn't the sole reason why I leave you. But it is all like that. I ruin the world for you. Love is not all,--at least for a man,--and somehow with me you cannot have the rest and love. We were wrong to rebel--I was wrong to take my happiness. I longed so! I have been so happy!

"Alves."

It seemed pitifully inadequate--a few wavering lines--to tell the tale of the volumes in her heart. But with a sigh she pushed back the chair and gathered her hat and cape. Once more she hesitated, and seeing that the fire in the stove was low, replenished it. Then she turned swiftly away, locked the door,--putting the key where they hid it, in the hollow of a pillar,--and walked rapidly in the direction of the lake.

It was already nearly dusk. Little groups of skaters were sauntering homeward from the lagoons and the patches of inshore ice. The lake was gray and stern. She gained the esplanade, with a vague purpose of walking into the city, of taking the train for Wisconsin. But as she passed the long pier, the desire to walk out on the ice seized her once more. With some difficulty she gained the black ice after scrambling over the debris piled high against the beach. When she reached the clear spaces she walked slowly toward the open lake. The gloom of the winter night was already gathering; as she passed the head of the pier, a park-guard hailed her, with some warning cry. She paid no attention, but walked on, slowly picking her way among the familiar ice hills, in and out of the floes.

Once beyond the head of the pier she was absolutely alone in the darkening sea of ice. The cracks and crevasses were no longer steaming; instead, a thin shell of ice was coating over the open surfaces. But she knew all these spots and picked her way carefully. The darkness had already enveloped the shore. Beyond, on all sides, rose small white hills of drifted ice, making a little arctic ocean, with its own strange solitude, its majestic distances, its titanic noises; for the fields of ice were moving in obedience to the undercurrents, the impact from distant northerly winds. And as they moved, they shrieked and groaned, the thunderous voices hailing from far up the lake and pealing past the solitary figure to the black wastes beyond. This tumult of the lake increased in fury, yet with solemn pauses of absolute silence between the reports. At first Alves stood still and listened, fearful, but as she became used to the noise, she walked on calm, courageous, and strangely at peace in the clamor. Once she faced the land, where the arc lights along the esplanade made blue holes in the black night. Eastward the radiant line of illumined horizon reappeared, creating a kind of false daybreak.

So this was the end as she had wished it--alone in the immensity of the frozen lake. This was like the true conception of life--one vast, ever darkening sphere filled with threatening voices, where she and others wandered in sorrow, in regret, in disappointment, and, also, in joy. Oh! that redeemed it. Her joy had been so beautiful, so true to the promise of God in the pitiful heart of man. She said to herself that she had tasted it without sin, and now had the courage to put it away from her before it turned to a draught bitter to her and to others. There were more joys in this life than the fierce love for man: the joy over a child, which had been given to her and taken away; the joy of triumph, the joy--but why should she remember the others? Her joy had its own perfection. For all the tears and waste of living, this one passion had been given--a joy that warmed her body in the cold gloom of the night.

There loomed in her path a black wall of broken ice. She drew herself slowly over the crest of the massed blocks. Beyond lay a pleasant blackness of clear water, into which she plunged,--still warm with the glow of her perfect happiness.

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