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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    IF Mrs. Atherton thought it strange of Dr. Olney, to drive up to her sea-side door at half-past nine, out of a white fog that her hospitable hall lamp could pierce only a few paces down the roadway, she dissembled her surprise so well that he felt he was doing the most natural thing, not to say the most conventional thing, in the world. She was notoriously a woman of no tact, but of so much heart that where it was a question at once of friendship and of romance, as the question of Dr. Olnev and of  Miss Aldgate was with her, she exercised a sort of inspiration in dealing with it. She put herself so wholly at the service of their imagined exigency that she now made Olney feel his welcome most keenly: a welcome which expressed that she would have been equally glad and equally ready to receive him in her sweet-matted, warm-rugged, hearth-fire-lit little drawing-room, if he had suddenly appeared at half-past two in the morning. The Japanese portiere had not ceased tinkling behind him when she appeared through it, with outstretched hand. She promptly refused his excuses. "I really believe I was somehow expecting you to-night; and I'm ashamed that Mr. Atherton isn't up to bear witness to my presentiment. But he's had rather a tiresome day, in [122] town, and he's gone to bed early. I'm glad to say that Miss Aldgate has gone to her room, too. She's feeling the reaction from the tension she's been in, and I hope it will be a complete letting down for her. Have you heard anything more from those strange people? Very odd they shouldn't any of them have come on!"

    Mrs. Atherton meant the St. Louis connections of Mrs. Meredith, and Olney said, with an embarrassed frown, " No, they haven't made any sign yet."

    "The strange thing about a tragedy of this kind is," Mrs. Atherton remarked, " that you never can realize that it's ended. You always think there's going to be something more of it. I suppose I was thinking that you had heard something disagreeable from those people, though I don't know what they could say or do to heighten the tragedy."

    "I don't either," Olney answered. " But something else has happened, Mrs. Atherton. You were quite right in your foreboding that the end was not yet." He paused with a gloomier air than he knew, for Bloomingdale's appearance was to him bv far the most tragical phase of the affair. Then he went on thoughtfully. "I hardly know how to approach the matter without seeming to meddle in it more than I mean to do. I wish absolutely to put myself outside of it. But there's a kind of necessity that I should tell you about it." As he said this the kind of necessity that he had thought there was instantly vanished, and left him feeling rather blank. There was no [123] necessity at all that he should tell Mrs. Atherton what relation Bloomingdale bore, and wished to bear, toward Miss Aldgate. All that he had to do, if he had to do anything, was to tell her that he had given him his card to her, and that she might expect him in the morning, and so leave her to her conjectures. If he went beyond this, he must go very far beyond it, and not make any confidence for Bloomingdale without making a much ampler confidence for himself.  "The fact is, I wish to submit a little case of conscience to you."

    Mrs. Atherton was delighted; and if she had been drowsy before, this would have aroused her to the most vigilant alertness. She knew that the case of conscience must somehow have something to do with Miss Aldgate; she believed that it was nothing but a love affair in disguise, and a love affair, with a strong infusion of moral question in it, promised a pleasure to Mrs. Atherton's sympathetic nature which nothing else could give. "Yes?" she said.

    "Mrs. Atherton," Olnev resumed, "how far do you think a man is justified in pursuing an advantage which another has put in big hands unknowingly--say that another, who did not know that I was his enemy, had put in my hands? "

    "Not very far, Dr. Olney," she answered, promptly. "In fact, not at all. That is, you might justify such a man, if the case were some one else's. But you couldn't justify him if the case were yours."

    "I was afraid you would say so; I knew you would [124] say so. Well, the case is mine," said Olney," and it's this. I've run down here to-night to tell you that I've given my card to a gentleman who will call here in the morning."

    Olney paused, and Mrs. Atherton said, "I'm sure I shall be glad to see any friend of yours, Dr. Olney."

    "He isn't my friend," Olney returned, gloomily.

    "Then, any enemy," Mrs. Atherton suggested.

    Olney put the little pleasantry by."The day before Mrs. Meredith died, she told me something that I need not speak of except as it relates to this Mr. Bloomingdale."

    "It's Mr. Bloomingdale who's coming, then?"

    "Yes. Do you know anything about him?"

    "Oh, no! Only it's a very floral kind of name."

    "I wish I could be light about the kind of person he is. But I can't. He's a very formidable kind of person: very sensible, very frank, very generous."

    Mrs. Atherton shook her head with a subtle intelligence. " These might be very disheartening traits--in another."

    "They are. They complicate the business for me. This Mr. Bloomingdale has offered himself to Miss Aldgate." Mrs. Atherton's attentive gaze expressed no surprise; probably she had divined this from the beginning. 'He was to have had his answer when he met her in Boston," Olney said, with an effect of finding the words a bad taste in his mouth.  That was the arrangement in Liverpool. But, of course, now--" [125]

    He stopped, and Mrs. Atherton took the word, with a lofty courage:

    "Of course now he has all the greater right to it."

    "Yes," said Olney, though he did not see why.

    "I shall be glad to see Mr. Bloomingdale when he comes," Mrs. Atherton went on; "and though it's an embarrassing moment, I must manage to prepare Miss Aldgate for his coming. She will certainly have her mind made up by this time."

    There was something definitive in Mrs. Atherton's tone that made Olney feel as if he had transacted his business, and he rose. He had felt that he ought to tell Mrs. Atherton of his own hopes or purposes in regard to Miss Aldgate; but now that he had given Bloomingdale away, this did not seem necessary. In fact, by a sudden light that flashed upon it, he perceived that it would be allowing his rival a fairer chance if he let him have it without competition. Afterwards when he got out of the house he thought he was a fool to do this; but he could not go back and make his confession without appearing a greater fool; and he kept on to the station, and waited there till the last train for town came lagging along, and then he put himself beyond temptation, at least for the night.

    He spent what was left of it in imaginary interviews, now with Mrs. Atherton, now with Bloomingdale, now with Rhoda, and now with all of them in various combinations, and constructed futures varying in character from the gayest happiness to the gloom of the [126] darkest tragedy, lit by the one high star of self-renunciation. Olney got almost as much satisfaction out of the renunciation as out of the fruition of his hopes. It is apt to be so in these hypothetical cases; perhaps it is often so in experience.

    He waited heroically about all the next day to hear from Mrs. Atherton. Something in the pressure of her hand at parting had assured him that she understood everything, and that she was his friend; that they were people of honor, who were bound to do this thing at any cost to him, but that a just Providence would probably not let it cost him much, or at least not everything.

    When her letter came at last, hurried forward by a special delivery stamp that spoke volumes in itself, it brought intelligence which at first made Olney feel that he must somehow have been guilty of an unfairness towards Bloomingdale, that he had tacitly if not explicitly prejudiced his case.  There was a little magnanimous moment in which he could not rejoice that Miss Aldgate had absolutely refused to see Mr. Bloomingdale; that she had shown both surprise and indignation at his coming; and that no entreaty or argument of Mrs. Atherton's had prevailed with her to show him the slightest mercy, or to send him any message but that of abrupt refusal, which Mrs. Atherton softened to him as best she could. She wrote now that she was sure there must be some misunderstanding but that in Miss Aldgate's state of nervous exaltation, it was perfectly useless to urge anything in [127] excuse of him, and she had to resign herself to the girl's decision. She coincided with Olney in his idea
of Bloomingdale's character.   She owned to a little fancy for him, and to a great deal of compassion. He had borne the severe treatment he received very manfully, and at the same time gently. He seemed to accept it as final, and he did not rebel against it by the slightest murmur.   Olney perceived that Mrs. Atherton had been recognized as his rival's confidante far enough to be authorized to pour balm into his wounds, and that she probably had not spared the balm. [128]

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