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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


     The young  girl herself opened the door, and faced him first with the tragic family mask. Then she put out her hand to him with the personal gayety he had recalled. Her laugh, so far as it bore upon the situation, recognized rather the good joke of their finding themselves all in an American hotel together than expressed anxiety for her aunt's condition. It was so glad and free, in fact, that Olney was surprised to find Mrs. Meredith looking quite haggard on the sofa, from which she reached him her hand without attempting to rise.

    "Isn't it  the most fortunate thing in the world," said Miss Aldgate, "that it should really be Dr. Olney? We couldn't believe it when we saw it in the paper!" she added; and now Olney perceived that the laugh which he might have thought indifferent, was a laugh of happy relief, of trust that since it was he, all must go well.

    "Yes, it is indeed," said Mrs. Meredith ; but she had none of the gayety in putting the burden upon Olney, under Providence, which flashed out in her niece's smile ; she appeared to doubt whether Providence and he could manage it, and to relinquish it with misgiving.  "There were so many chances against [18] it that it scarcely seemed possible." She examined Olney's face, which had at once begun to hide the professional opinion he was forming, and seemed to find comfort in its unsmiling strength. "And I hated dreadfully to trouble you at such an hour."

    "I believe there's no etiquette as to the time of a doctor's visits," said Olney, pulling a chair up to the, sofa, and looking down at her. "I hope, if things go well after I'm settled here, to be called up sometimes in the, middle of the night, though ten o'clock isn't bad for my second day in Boston." Miss Aldgate laughed with instant appreciation of his pleasantry, and Mrs. Meredith wanly smiled. "You must be even more recent than I am, Mrs. Meredith. I'm afraid that if I had found your names in the register when I signed mine, I should have ventured to call unprofessionally. But then it would very likely have been some other Mrs. Meredith."

    Miss Aldgate laughed again, and Olney gave her a look of the kindness a man feels for any one who sees his joke. She dropped upon the chair at the head of the sofa, and invited him with dancing eyes to say some more of these things. But Mrs. Meredith took the word.

    "We only  got in this morning. That is, the steamer arrived too late last night for us to come ashore, and we drove to the hotel before breakfast. You must be  rather surprised to find us in such a place."

    "Not at  all; I'm here myself," said Olney. [19]

    "Oh! " Miss Aldgate laughed.

    "I don't  assume," he added, "that you came here for cheapness, as I did. At the hotels on the European plan, as they call it, they charge you as much for a room as they do for room and board together here."

    "Everything is  very expensive," sighed Mrs. Meredith. "We paid three dollars for our carriage from the ship; and I believe it's nothing to what it is in New York. But it's a great while since I've been in Boston, and I told them to bring me here because I'd heard it was an old-fashioned, quiet place. I felt them need of rest, but it seems very noisy. It was very smooth all the way over; but I was excited, and I slept badly. The last two or three nights I've scarcely slept at all."

    "Hmm!" said the doctor, feeling himself launched upon the case.

    Miss Aldgate rose.

    "My dear," said her aunt, "I wish you would look up the prescription the ship's doctor gave me. I was thinking of sending out to have it made up, but I shouldn't wish to try it now unless Dr. Olney approves."

    Olney profited  by Miss Aldgate's absence to feel Mrs. Meredith's pulse and look at her tongue. He asked her a few formal questions. He was a little surprised to find her so much better than she looked.

    "You seem a little upset, Mrs. Meredith," he said. "You may be suffering from suppressed seasickness, [20] but I don't think it's anything worse." He tried to treat the affair lightly, and he added: "I don't see why you shouldn't be on good terms with sleep. You know Tito slept very well, even with a bad conscience."

    Mrs. Meredith would not smile with him at the recurrence to their last conversation. She sighed, and gave him a look of tragical appeal. " I sometimes think he had an enviable character."

    "Or temperament ," Olney suggested. "There doesn't seem to have been much question of character. But he was certainly well constituted for getting on in a world where there was no moral law--if he could have found such a world."

    "Then you do believe there is such a law in this world? " Mrs. Meredith demanded, with an intensity that did not flatter Olney he had been light to good purpose.

    He could  not help smiling at his failure. "I would rather not say till you had got a night's rest."

    "No, no," she persisted. "Do you believe that any one can rightfully live a lie? Do you believe that Tito was ever really at rest when he thought of what he was concealing?"

    "He seems to have been pretty comfortable, except when Romola got at him with her moral nature."

    "Ah, don't  laugh! " said Mrs. Meredith. "It isn't a thing to laugh at."

    MissAldgate came in, with a scrap of paper fluttering from her slim hand, and showing her pretty teeth [21] in a smile so free of all ethical question that Olney swiftly conjectured an anxiety of Mrs. Meredith concerning a nature so apparently free of all personal responsibility as the young girl looked at that moment. He was aware of innocently rejoicing in this sense of her, which came from the goodness and sweet- ness which she looked as much as the irresponsibility. It might be that Mrs. Meredith bad lost sleep in revolving the problems of Miss Aldgate's character, and the chances of her being equal to the duties that had left so little of Mrs. Meredith. If such an aunt and such a niece were formed to wear upon each other, as the ladies say, it was clear that the niece had worn the most. With this thought evanescently in mind, Olney took the prescription from her.

    He read  it over, but he did not perceive that the sense of it had failed to reach his mind till Mrs. Meredith said, "If it is one of those old-fashioned narcotics--he called it a sleeping draught--I would rather not take it."

    Though Olney  had not been thinking of the prescription, he now pretended that he had. "It would be rather a heroic dose for a first-cabin passenger," he said, "though it might do for the steerage." He took out his pocket-book and wrote a prescription himself. "There! I think that ought to get you a night's rest, Mrs. Meredith."

    "I suppose we can get it made up?"' she said, irresolutely, lifting herself a little on one elbow.
"I'll take it out and have it done myself," said [22] Olney.  "There's an apothecary's just under the hotel."

    He rose, but she said: "I can't let you be at that trouble. We can send. Will you-"

    "I'll ring, Aunt Caroline," said Miss Aldgate; and she ran forward to press the electric button by the door.

    The bell was answered by the same man who came to call the doctor to Mrs. Meredith. Miss Aldgate took the prescription, and rapidly explained to. him what she wanted. When she had finished, he looked up from the prescription at Olney with a puzzled face.

    Olney smiled and Miss Aldgate laughed. The man had not understood at all.

    "You know the apothecary's shop under the hotel?"  Olney began.

    "Yes, I know that forst-rate, sor."

    "Well, take that paper down and give it to the apothecary, and wait till he makes up the medicine, and then bring it back to us."

    "This paper, sor?"

    "No; the medicine."

    "And lave the paper wid um?"

    "Yes. The apothecary will give you the medicine and keep the prescription. Do you understand?"

    "Yes, sor."

    "Is the 'pot'ecary after havin' the prescription now, sor?" [23]

    Olney took the paper out of his hand and shook it at him. " This paper--this--is the prescription. Do you understand?"

    "Yes, sor."

    "Take it to the apothecary."

    "The man under the hotel, sor?"

    "Yes, the one under the hotel. This prescription--this paper--give it to him; and he will make up a medicine, and give it to you in a bottle; and then you bring it here."

    "The bottle, sor?"

    "Yes, the bottle with the medicine in it."

    "Ahl right, sor! I understand, sor!"

    The man hurried away down the corridor, and Miss Aldgate shut the door and broke into a laugh at sight of Olney's face, red and heated with the effort he had been making.

    Olney laughed too. "If the matter had been much simpler, I never should have got it into his head at all!"

    "They seem to have no imagination!" said the girl. " Or too much," suggested Olney. " There is something very puzzling to us Teutons in the Celtic temperament. We don't know where to have an Irishman. We can predicate of a brother Teuton that this will please him, and that will vex him, but we can't of an Irishman. You treat him with the greatest rudeness and he doesn't mind it; then you propose to be particularly kind and nice, and he takes fire with the most bewildering offence."[24]

    "I know it," said Miss Aldgate. "That was the way with all our cooks in New York. Don't you remember, aunty?"

    Mrs. Meredith made no answer, and [Editor's note: The blank space and unfinished sentence appear in the 1893 edition.]

    "We can't call them stupid," Olney went on. "I think that as a general thing the Irish are quicker-witted than we are. They're sympathetic and poetic far beyond us. But they can't understand the simplest thing from us. Perhaps they set the high constructive faculties of the imagination at work, when they ought to use a little attention and mere common- sense. At any rate they seem more foreign to our intelligence, our way of thinking, than the Jews--or the negroes even."

    "Oh, I'm glad to hear you say that about the negroes," said Miss Aldgate. "We were having a dispute this afternoon," she explained, "about the white waiters here and the colored waiters at the Hotel Vendome. I was calling on some friends we have there," and Miss Aldgate flushed a little as she said this: " or rather, they came here to see us, and then I drove back with them a moment; and it made me quite homesick to come away and leave those black waiters. Don't you think they're charming? With those soft voices and gentle manners? My aunt has no patience with me; she can't bear to have me look at them; but I never see one of them without loving them. I suppose it's because they're about the first thing I can remember. I was born in the South, you know. Perhaps I got to having a sort of fellow-[25] feeling with them from my old black nurse. You know the Italians say you do."

    She turned vividly toward Olney, as if to refer the scientific point to him, but he put it by with a laugh.

    "I'm afraid I feel about them as Miss Aldgate does, Mrs. Meredith; and I hadn't an old
nurse, either.   I've been finding them wherever I've seen them, since I got back." Miss Aldgate clapped her hands. "To be sure, I haven't been here long enough to get tired of them."

    "Oh, I should never tire of them! " said the girl. "But so far, certainly, they seem to me the most
agreeable, the most interesting feature of the social spectacle."

    "There, Aunt Caroline!"

    "I must confess," Olney went on, "that it's given me a distinct pleasure whenever I've met one of them. They seem to be the only people left who have any heart for life here; they all look hopeful and happy, even in the rejection from their fellow- men, which strikes me as one of the most preposterous, the most monstrous things in the world, now I've got back to it here."

    Mrs. Meredith lay with her hand shading her eyes and half her face. She asked, without taking her hand away, "Would you like to meet them on terms of social equality--intermarry with them?"

    "Oh, now, Aunt Caroline! " Miss Aldgate broke in. Who's talking of anything like that?"

    "I certainly am not," said Olney, as far as the [26]intermarrying is concerned. But short of that I don't see why one shouldn't associate with them. There are terms a good deal short of the affection we lavish on dogs and horses that I fancy they might be very glad of. We might recognize them as fellow-beings in public, if we don't in private; but we ignore, if we don't repulse them at every point-from our business as well as our bosoms. Yes, it strikes one as very odd on getting home--very funny, very painful. You would think we might meet on common ground before our common God--but we don't. They have their own churches, and I suppose it would be as surprising to find one of them at a white communion-table as it would to find one at a white dinner-party."

    Olney said this without the least feeling about the matter, except a sense of its grotesqueness. He was himself an agnostic, but he could be as censorious of the Christians who denied Christ in the sacrament, as if he had himself been a better sort. He added:

    "Possibly the negroes would be welcome in a Catholic church; the Catholics seem to have kept the ideal of Christian equality in their churches. If ever they turn their attention to the negroes--"

    "Oh, I can't imagine a colored Catholic," said Miss Aldgate. "There seems something unnatural in the very idea."

    "All the same, there are a good many of them."

    "In Boston?"

    "No, not in Boston, I fancy." Mrs. Meredith had taken no farther part in the con- [27]versation; she lay rigidly quiet on her sofa, with her hand shading her eyes.

    There was a knock at the door, and Miss Aldgate sprang to open it, with the effect of being glad to work off her exuberant activity in that or any other way: with Mrs. Meredith so passive, and Olney so acquiescent, the discussion of the race problem was not half enough for her.

    The man was there, with the bottle from the apothecary's, and he and Miss Aldgate had a beaming little interview. He exulted in getting back with the medicine all right, and she gratefully accepted his high sense of his offices, and repaid him his outlay, running about the room, and opening several trunks and bags to find her purse, and then added something for his trouble.

    "Dear me! " she said, when she got rid of him, "I wish they wouldn't make it quite so clear that they expected to be I remembered."  They've kept my memory on the qui vive every moment I've been in the hotel."

    Olney smiled in sympathy as he took the bottle from her. "I've found it impossible to forget the least thing they've done for me, and I never boasted of my memory."

    She stood watching his examination of the label of the bottle, and his test of its contents from a touch of the inner tip of the cork on his tongue. "A spoon? I've got one here in aunty's medicine chest. It would have cost its weight in silver to get one from the din- [28] ing-room. And there happens to be ice-water, if you have to give it in water. Don't say water without ice!"

    "Ice-water will do," said Olney. He began to drop the medicine from the bottle into the spoon, which he then poured into the glass of water she brought him. "I believe," he said, stirring it, "that if the negroes ever have their turn--and if the meek are to inherit the earth they must come to it -- we shall have a civilization of such sweetness and good-will as the world has never known yet. Perhaps we shall have to wait their turn for any real Christian civilization."

    "You remember the black Madonna at Florence, that used to be so popular? What Madonna was it? I suppose they will revere her, when they get to be all Catholics. Were you in any of their churches to-day? You were saying--"  Miss Aldgate put out her hand for the glass.

    "No; I never was in a colored church in my life," said Olney. "I'm critical, not constructive, in my humanity. It's easier."

    He went himself with the glass to Mrs. Meredith. She seemed not to have been paying any attention to his talk with her niece. She lifted herself up at his approach, and took the glass from him.

    "Shall I drink it all?"

    "Yes--you can take all of it."

    She quaffed it at one nervous gulp, and flung her head heavily down again. "I don't believe it will make me sleep," she said.[29]

    Olney smiled. "Well, fortunately, this kind doesn't require the co-operation of the patient. It will make you sleep, I think. You may try keeping awake, if you like."

    She opened her eyes with a flash. "Is it chloral?"

    "No, it isn't chloral."

    "Tell me the truth!" She laid a convulsive clutch upon his wrist, as he sat fronting her and curiously watching her. "I will not let you justify yourself by that code of yours which lets the doctor cheat his patient! If you have been giving me some form of chloral - "

    "I haven't been giving you any form of chloral," said Olney, beginning to smile.

    "Then you are trying to hypnotize me!"

    Olney burst into a laugh. "You certainly need sleep, Mrs. Meredith! I'll look in during the fore-noon, about the time you ought to wake, and de-hypnotize you." He moved toward the door; but before he reached it he stopped and said, seriously: "I don't know of any code that would allow me to cheat you, against your will. I don't believe any doctor is justified in doing that. Unless he has some sign, some petition for deception, from the patient, you can depend upon it that he finds the truth the best thing."

    "It's the only thing--at all times--in life and death!" cried Mrs. Meredith, perfervidly. "If I were dying, I should wish to know it!"

    "And I shouldn't wish to know it! " said Miss Ald- [30]gate. "I think there are cases when the truth would be cruel--positively wicked! Don't you Dr.Olney?"

    "Well," said Olney, preparing to escape through the door which he had set open, "I couldn't honestly say that I think either of us is in immediate danger. Good-night! " [31]

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