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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    It was so much easier to dispose of the friendless dead than the friendless living, Olney thought, with a sardonic perception of one of the bitterest truths in the world; and he was not consoled by the reflection that it is often the man readiest to do all for a woman who can do nothing for her. At the same time he hurried along imagining a scene in which Rhoda owned her love for him, and for his sake and her own, consented to throw convention to the winds, and to unite her fate with his in a marriage truly solemnized by the presence of death. He was aroused from this preposterous melodrama by a voice that said, with liking and astonishment, "Why, Dr. Olney!" and he found himself confronted with Mrs. Atherton, whom he had known as Miss Clara Kingsbury. In another moment she had flooded him with inquiry and explanation, from which he emerged with the dim consciousness that he had told her how he happened not to be in Florence, and had heard how she happened to be in Boston. Her presence in the city at such an untimely season was to be accounted for by the eccentric spirit in which she carried on her visiting for the Associated Charities; she visited her families in the summer, while most people looked after their families only in [107] the winter. She excused herself by saying that Beverly was so near, and sometimes it gave her a chance for a little bohemian lunch with Mr. Atherton.

    Olney laid his trouble before her. He knew from of old that if he could not count upon her tact, he could count upon her imagination, and he was quite prepared for the sympathy with which she rushed to his succor, a sympathy that in spite of the circumstances could not be called less than jubilant.

    "Why, the poor, forlorn, little helpless creature!" she exulted. "I'll go to the hotel at once with you, doctor; and she must come down to Beverly with me, and stay till her friends come on for her."

    The question whether he was not bound in honor to tell Mrs. Atherton just what Miss Aldgate was, crazily visited him, and became a kind of longing before he could rid himself of it; he dismissed it only upon the terms of a self-promise to entertain it some other time; and he availed himself of her good offices almost as joyfully as she proposed them. He had to submit to the romantic supposition which he was aware Mrs. Atherton was keeping out of her words and looks, and he joined her in the conspicuous pretence she made throughout the affair that he was acting from the most disinterested, the most scientific motives.

    It was not so hard as he had fancied it might be to get Miss Aldgate's consent to Mrs. Atherton's hospitality. It was the only possible thing for her, and she acquiesced simply, like one accustomed to favors; she expressed a sense of the kindness done her, with [108] a delicate self-respect which Olney hardly know how to account for upon the theory that Mrs. Meredith had spoken to her.    Apparently she appreciated all the necessities of the case, and she did not troublesomely interpose any of the reluctanaces of grief which he had expected. If he could have wished any difference in her it would have been for rather less composure; but then this might have been the apathy following the great shock she had received. He willingly accepted Mrs. Atherton's theory, hurriedly whispered at parting, that she did not realize what had happened yet; Mrs. Atherton seemed to prize her the more for it.

    He came back from seeing them off on the train to the hotel, where he found a telegram from Mrs. Meredith's connections in St. Louis. They were very sorry; they were unable to come on; they would write. Olney felt a grateful lift of the heart in thinking of Miss Aldgate in Mrs. Atherton's affectionate keeping, as he crumpled the despatch in his hand and tossed it on his dismal white-marble hearth. He believed that he read between its words a revelation of the fact that the dead woman's husband had not kept Rhoda's secret from his family, and that these unable friends, whatever they wrote, were not likely to urge any claim to comfort the girl.

    It was Mrs. Bloomingdale who came to do this with several of her large and passive daughters, about as long after the evening papers came out as would take her to drive over from the Vendome. Olney had been able to persuade the reporters who got hold of the case [109] that there was nothing to work up in it, and the paragraph that Mrs. Bloomingdale saw was discreet enough; it attributed Mrs. Meredith's death to an overdose of the soporific prescribed for her, and it connected Olney's name with the matter as the physician who happened to be stopping in the hotel with the unfortunate lady.

    "I came the instant I read it," Mrs. Bloomingdale explained, "for I couldn't believe the evidence of my senses," and she added such a circumstantial statement of her mental struggle with the fact projected into her consciousness as could leave no doubt that the fact itself was far less important than the effect produced upon her.

    As Olney listened he lost entirely a lurking discomfort he had felt at Miss Aldgate's refusal to let those people have anything to do with her or for her in her calamity. Whatever the son might be, the mother was a vulgarly selfish woman, posing before him as a generous benefactress, who was also a martyr. "I asked for you, doctor," she went on, at the end of her personal history in connection with the affair, "because I preferred not to intrude upon that poor young creature without learning just how I ought to approach her. As I said to my daughter Roberta, in coming along"--she put the tallest and serenest of the big, still blondes in evidence with a wave of her hand--"I would be ruled entirely by what you said of the newspaper report."

    Olney said of it dryly that it was quite correct. [110]

    "Oh, I am so relieved, doctor!" said Mrs. Bloomingdale. "I didn't know, don't you know--I thought perhaps that there were facts--details which you preferred to keep from the public; that there were peculiar circumstances--aberration, don't you know; and that kind of thing. But I'm so glad there wasn't!"

    Olney felt a malicious desire to disturb this crowing complacency which he believed was the cover of mean anxieties and suspicions. He asked, "Do you mean suicide?"

    "Well, no; not that exactly. But--" She stopped, and he merely said:

    "There was no evidence of suicidal intent."

    "Oh! " said Mrs. Bloomingdale, but, as he intended, .not so crowingly this time. "And then -you think I can ask for Miss Aldgate?"

    "Miss Aldgate is not here--" Olney began.

    "Not here!"

    "She is with Mrs. Atherton, at Beverly. She couldn't remain here, you know."

    "And may I ask--do I understand--Why didn't Miss Aldgate let us know?"

    Olney rejoiced to be able to say, "I suggested that, but she preferred not to disturb you."

    "And why did she prefer that? " said Mrs. Bloomingdale, with rising crest.

    "I'm sorry, I don't know. It was by accident that I met Mrs. Atherton on the street; she is a well- known lady here, and she at once took Miss Aldgate home with her." [111]

    At the bottom of his heart Olney did not feel altogether easy at what he knew of Miss Aldgate's relations to the Bloomingdale family. He would have liked to blind himself to facts that proved her weak or at least light-mindedly fond of any present pleasure at the cost of any future complication, but he was not quite able to do so, much as he wished to inculpate the Bloomingdales. He was silent, and attempted no farther explanation or defence of Rhoda's refusal to see them.

    "I presume, Dr. Olney," Mrs. Bloomingdale went on, "that you know nothing of the circumstances of our acquaintance with Miss Aldgate; and I can't expect you to sympathize with my--my--surprise that she should have turned from us at such a time. But I must say that I am very greatly surprised. Or not surprised, exactly. Pained."

    "I am very sorry," Olney said again. "I have no right to intervene in any matter so far beyond my functions as Mrs. Meredith's physician, but I venture to suggest that the blow which has fallen on Miss Aldgate is enough to account for what seems strange to you in--"

    "Of course. Certainly. I make allowance for that," said Mrs. Bloomingdale; and Olney was aware of receiving this proof of her amiability, her liberality, with regret; he would have so willingly had it otherwise, in justification of Miss Aldgate. "And I know that the past year has been one of great anxiety both to Mrs. Meredith and Miss Aldgate. You knew they had lost their money?" [112]

    "No," said Olney, with a joyful throb of the heart, "I didn't."

    "I have understood so. Miss Aldgate will be left without anything--in a manner. But that would have made no difference to us. We should have been only too glad to prove to her that it made no difference. But if she prefers not to see us--We expect my son by Wednesday's steamer in New York." She added this suddenly and with apparent irrelevance, but Olney perceived that she wished to test his knowledge of the whole case, and she had instantly learned from his face that he knew much more than he would own. But he made no verbal concession to her curiosity. "I think you met my son in Florence?" she said.

    "I saw him at Professor Garofalo's one night."

    "He was there a great deal. It was there he met Mrs. Meredith." Olney said nothing, and Mrs.
Bloomingdale rose, and as with the same motion her large daughters rose. " May I ask, Dr. Olney, that you will give Miss Aldgate our love, and say to her that if there is anything we can do, we shall be so--I suppose you have had to communicate with Mrs. Meredith's--or Mr. Meredith's rather--family?"


    "They will be at the funeral, of course; and if --"

    "They are not coming," said Olney. " They have telegraphed that they are unable to come."

    "Oh," said Mrs. Bloomingdale; and after a little pause she said, "Good-afternoon," and led her girls out. [113]

    Olney felt that he had parted with an enemy, and that though he had in one sort tried to keep a conscientious neutrality, he had discharged himself of an offensive office in a hostile manner, that he had made her his enemy if not Miss Aldgate's enemy. She suspected him  he knew that, of having somehow come between her and Miss Aldgate of his own will as well as Rhoda's. In view of this fact he had to ask himself to be very explicit as to his feelings, his hopes, his intentions; and after a season of close question, the response was very clear. He could not doubt what he wished to do; the only doubt he had was as to how and where and whether he could do it. [114]

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