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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    THE day of the funeral Bloomingdale arrived. None of his family had come to the last rites, though Olney had made it a point both of conscience and of honor to let them know when and where the ceremony would take place. He felt that their absence was an expression of resentment, but that it was a provisional resentment merely. There was a terrible provisionality about the whole business, beginning with the provisional deposition of the dead in the receiving-vault at Mount Auburn, till it could be decided where the long-tormented clay was finally to rest. Every decision concerning the affair seemed postponed, but he did not know till when; death had apparently decided nothing; he did not see how life should.

    Bloomingdale came to see him in the evening, after dinner. His steamer had been late in getting up to her dock, and he had missed the first train on to Boston. He explained the fact briefly to Olney, and he said he had come directly to see him. He recalled their former meeting in Florence, but said, with somehow an effect of disappointment, that he had taken an older man whom he had seen at Professor Garofalo's for Dr. Olney. On his part, Olney could have owned to an equal disappointment. He remembered perfectly [115] that Mr. Bloomingdale was a slight, dark man; but the composite Bloomingdale type, from the successive impressions of his mother's and sisters' style, was so deeply stamped in his consciousness that he was surprised to find the young minister himself neither large nor blond. His mind wandered from him to the father whom he had never seen, but who had left so distinct a record of himself in his son, and not in his daughters, as fathers are supposed usually to do. Then Olney's thoughts turned to that whole vexed question of heredity, and he lost himself deeply in conjecture of Rhoda's ancestry, while Bloomingdale was feeling his way forward to inquire about her through explanation and interest concerning Mrs. Meredith, and a fit sympathy, a most intelligent and delicate appreciation of the situation in all its details. Before the fact formulated itself in his mind, Olney was aware of feeling that this man was as different from his family in the most essential and characteristic qualities as he was different from them in temperament and complexion.

     "And now about Miss Aldgate, Dr. Olney," he said, with a kind of authority, which Olney instinctively, however unwillingly, admitted. " I shall have to tell you why I am so very anxious to know how she is--how she bears this blow. I am afraid my mother betrayed to you the hurt which she felt, that Miss Aldgate should not have turned to her in her trouble; but I can understand how impossible it was she should. Without reflecting upon my mother at all for her [116] feeling--for I can see how she would feel as she does--I must say I don't share it. While Miss Aldgate was still uncertain about--about myself--it was simply impossible that she should receive any sort of favor or kindness from my family even in such an exigency as this. It would have been indelicate; it must have been infinitely easier for her to accept the good offices of a total stranger, as she has done. Dr. Olney, I have to ask your good offices--and I have first to make you a confidence, as my reason for asking them. I'm sure you will understand me! "

    In the fervor of his feeling the young man's voice trembled, and Olney felt himself moved with a curious involuntary kindness for him--the sort of admiring pity which men have been said to feel toward a brave foeman they mean to fight to the death. 'I had a very great hope--and I think I had grounds for my hope--that Miss Aldgate would have consented to be my wife when she met me, if this terrible visitation--if all had gone well." The words sent a cold thrill through Olney's heart, and the mere suggestion that Rhoda could be anybody's wife but his own steeled it against this pretender to her love. "I offered myself to her in Liverpool before she sailed, and she was to have given me her answer here when we met. Now, I don't know what to do. I don't know anything. The whole world seems tumbled back into chaos. I can't urge anything upon her at such a time. I'm not even sure that I can decently ask to see her. And yet if I don't, what may not she think? Can't you [117] help me in this matter? You were Mrs. Meredith's physician, and you stand in a sort of relation to Miss
Aldgate that would authorize you to let her know that I am here, and very anxious to know what her wish--her will--is as to our meeting. It might not be professional, exactly, but--I came to you with the hope that it might be possible. Does it seem asking too much? I should be very sorry--"

    Olney saw that the man's sensitiveness was taking fire, and in spite of his resentment of a request which set aside all his own secret hopes and intentions as non-existent, he could not forbear a concession to his unwitting rival's generous feeling. "Not at all," he said; "but I doubt my authority to intervene in any way. I have no right--"

    "Only the right I've suggested," the young man urged. " I wouldn't have you assume anything for my sake. But I know that the circumstances are more than ordinarily distressing, and that Mrs. Meredith's death came in a way that might make Miss Aldgate afraid that--that--there might be some shadow of change in me on account of them. At such times we have misgivings about everybody; but I wish it to be understood that no circumstance could influence my feeling toward her."

    "I don't know whether I understand you exactly," said Olney, with a growing dread of the man's generosity.

    "Why, I suppose, from what I am able to learn, that poor Mrs. Meredith committed suicide." [118]

    "Not at all,"Olney promptly returned. "There is no evidence of that. There's every indication that she simply took an overdose of the medicine I prescribed. It wouldn't have killed her of itself, but her forces were otherwise weakened."

    "I'm glad, for her sake, to hear it," said Bloomingdale, "but it would have made no difference with me if it had been different. If she had taken her life in a fit of insanity, as I inferred it would only have made me more constant in the feeling. There is no conceivable disadvantage which would not have endeared Miss Aldgate more to me. I could almost wish for the direst misfortune, the deepest disgrace," he went on, while the tears sprang to his eyes, "to befall her, if only that I might show her that it counted nothing against her, that it counted everything for her!"

    Olney's heart sank within him, and he felt guilty before this unselfish frankness, which, if a little boyish, was still so noble. He knew very well that if such a lover could be told everything, it would not matter the least to him; that the girl might be as black as ebony, and his passion would paint her divinely fairer than the lily. Olney knew this from his own thoughts as well as from the other's words; he was himself like the spirit he conceived:

        "Du gleichst dem Geist dem du begreifst."

But he was aware of an instant purpose not to let his rival be brought to the test; and he was aware at the same time of a duty he had to let him somehow have [119] his chance. "After all," he reflected, "what reason have I to suppose that she ever cared a moment for me, or ever could care? Very likely she likes this fellow ; he is lovable; he is a fine fellow, though I hate him so; and what right have I to stand between them? He must have his chance." When he came to this point, he said aloud, coldly, "I don't understand what you expect me to do."

    "Nothing! Only this: to let me go and see the lady with whom Miss Aldgate is staying, and learn from her whether and when Miss Aldgate will see me. That's all I can reasonably ask. I ought to ask as much if I meant to give her up--and it's all that I ask meaning never to give her up. Yes, that's all I can ask!" he repeated, desperately.

    "That will be a very simple matter," said Olney. "Miss Aldgate is with Mrs. Atherton, at Beverly. I
can give you her address, and my card to her."

    "Yes,yes! Thank you--thank you ever so much.But--but if I present myself without explanation, what will this lady think?"

    "She'll give your name to Miss Aldgate, and that will be explanation enough," said Olney, finding something a little superfine in this hesitation, and refusing to himself to be the bearer of any sort of confidences to Mrs. Atherton, who would be only too likely to take a romantic interest in the devoted young minister. Olney meant to give him an even chance, but nothing more.

    "True! " said Bloomingdale, nervously gnawing his [120] lip. "True!" He clrew a long breath, and added, "Of course, I can't go now till morning."

    Olney said nothing as to this. He was writing on his card Mrs. Atherton's address and the introduction for Bloomingdale which he combined with it. He had resolved to go down himself that night. Bloomingdale clung fervently to his hand in parting.

    "I can never thank you enough!" he palpitated.

    "You have verv little to thank me for," said Olney.

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