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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    Olney was very homesick for Italy that Sunday night. After two days in Boston, mostly spent in exploring the once familiar places in it, and discovering the new and strange ones, he hardly knew which made him feel more hopelessly alien. He had been five years away, and he perceived that the effort to repatriate himself must involve wounds as sore as those of the first days of exile. The tissues then lacerated must bleed again before his life could be reunited with the stock from which it had been torn. He felt himself unable to bear the pain; and he found no attraction of novelty in the future before him. He knew the Boston of his coming years too well to have any illusions about it; and he had known too many other places to have kept the provincial superstitions of his nonage and his earlier manhood concerning its primacy. He believed he should succeed, but that it would be in a minor city, after a struggle with competitors who would be just, and who might be generous, but who would be able, thoroughly equipped, and perfectly disciplined. The fight would be long, even if it were victorious; its prizes would be hard to win, however splendid. Neither the fight nor the prizes seemed so attractive now as they had seemed at a distance. He [9] wished he had been content to stay in Florence, where he could have had the field to himself, if the harvest could never have been so rich. But he understood, even while he called himself a fool for coming home, that he could not have been content to stay without first coming away.

    When he went abroad to study, he had a good deal of money, and the income from it was enough for him to live handsomely on anywhere; in Italy it was enough to live superbly on. But the friend with whom he left his affairs, had put all of Olney's eggs into one basket. It was the Union Pacific basket which he chose, because nearly every one in Boston was choosing it at the same time, with the fatuous faith of Bostonians in their stocks. Suddenly Olney's income dropped from five or six thousand a year to nothing at all a year; and his pretty scheme of remaining in Italy and growing up with the country in a practice among the nervous Americans who came increasingly abroad every year, had to be abandoned, or at least it seemed so at the time. Now he wished he had sold some of his depreciated stock, which everybody said would be worth as much as ever some day, and taken the money to live on till he could begin earning some. This was what Garofalo, his friend and fellow-student in Vienna, and now Professor of the Superior Studies at Florence, urged him to do; and the notion pleased him, but could not persuade him. It was useless for Garofalo to argue that he would have to get the means of living in Boston in some such [10] way, if he went home to establish himself; Olney believed that he should begin earning money in larger sums if not sooner at home. Besides, he recurred to that vague ideal of duty which all virtuous Americans have, and he felt that he ought, as an American, to live in America. He had been quite willing to think of living in Italy while he had the means, but as soon as he had no means, his dormant sense of patriotism roused itself. He said that if he had to make a fight, he would go where other people were making it, and where it would not seem so unnatural as it would in the secular repose of Florence, among those who had all put off their armor at the close of the sixteenth century.  Garofalo alleged the intellectual activity everywhere around him in science, literature, philosophy. Olney could not say that it seemed to him a life referred from Germany, France and England, without root in Italian soil;  but he could answer that all this might very well be without affording a lucrative practice for a specialist in nervous diseases, who could be most prosperous where nervous diseases most abounded.

    The question was joked away between them, and in the end there never seemed to have been any very serious question of Olney's staying in Florence. Now, if there had not been really, he wished there really had been. Everything discouraged him, somehow; and no doubt his depression was partly a physical mood. He had never expected to find people in town at that time in the summer, or to begin practice at [11] once; he had only promised himself to look about and be suitably settled to receive the nervous sufferers when they began to got back in the fall. Yet the sight of all those handsome houses on the Back Bay, where nervous suffering, if it were to avail him, must mainly abide, struck a chill to his spirit; they seemed to repel his intended ministrations with their barricaded doorways and their close-shuttered windows. His failure to find Dr. Wingate, with whom he had advised about his studies, and with whom he had hoped to talk over his hopes, was peculiarly disheartening, though when he reasoned with himself he saw that there was an imperative logic in Wingate's absence; a nervous specialist of his popularity must, of course, have followed nervous suffering somewhere out of town. Still it was a disappointment, and it made the expense of Olney's sojourn seem yet more ruinous. The hotel where he had gone for cheapness was an old house kept on the American plan; but his outgo of three dollars a day dismayed him when he thought of the arrangiamento he could have made in Florence for half the money. He determined to look up a boarding-house in the morning; and the thought of this made him almost sick.

    Olney was no longer so young as he had been; we none of us are as young as we once were; but all of us have not reached the great age of thirty, as he had, after seeming sweetly destined to remain forever in the twenties. He belonged to a family that became bald early, and there was already a thin place in the [12] hair on his crown, which he discovered one day when he was looking at the back of his head in the glass. It was shortly after the Union Pacific first passed its dividend; and it made him feel for the time decrepit. Yet he was by no means superannuated in other respects. His color was youthfully fresh; his soft full beard was of a rich golden red; what there was of his hair--and there was by no means little except in that one spot--was of the same mellow color, which it would keep till forty, without a touch of gray. His figure had not lost its youthful slimness, and it looked even fashionable in its clothes of London cut; so that any fellow-countryman who disliked his air of reserve might easily have passed him by on the other side, and avoided him for a confounded Englishman.

He sat on the high-pillared portico of the hotel, smoking for a half-hour after he returned from his evening stroll, and then he went to his room, and began to go to bed. He was very meditative about it, and after he took off his coat, he sat on the edge of the bed, pensively holding one shoe in his hand, until he could think to unlace the other.[13]

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