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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    Olney did not go to see Mrs. Meredith until noon, the next day. He thought that if she were worse, or no better, she would send for him, and that if she did not send, he might very well delay seeing her. He found her alone. Miss Aldgate, she said, had gone to drive with their friends at the Vendome, and was to lunch with them. Olney bore her absence as politely as he could, and hoped Mrs. Meredith had slept.

    "Yes, I slept," she said, with a kind of suppressed sigh, "but I'm not sure that I'm very much the better for it."

    "I'm sure you are," said Olney, with resolute cheerfulness; and he began to go through with the usual touching of the pulse, and looking at the tongue, and the questions that accompany this business.

    Mrs. Meredith broke abruptly away from it all. "It's useless for us to go on! I've no doubt you can drug me to sleep whenever you will. But if I'm to wake up, when I wake, to the trouble that's on my mind, the sleep will do me no good."

    She looked wistfully at him, as if she longed to have him ask her what the matter was; but Olney did not feel authorized to do this. He had known, almost from the first moment he met Mrs. Meredith, the night [32] before, that she had something on her mind, or believed so, and that if she could tell him of her trouble, she would probably need no medicine; but he had to proceed, as the physician often must, upon the theory that only her body was out of order, and try to quiet her spirit through her nerves, when the true way was from the other direction. It went through his mind that it might be well for the nervous specialist hereafter to combine the functions of the priest and the leech, especially in the case of nervous ladies, and confess his patients before he began to prescribe for them.

    But he could not help feeling glad that things had not come to this millennial pass; for he did not at all wish to know what Mrs. Meredith had on her mind. So much impression of her character had been left from their different meetings in Florence that he had already theorized her as one of those women, commoner; amongst us than any other people, perhaps, to whom life, in spite of all experience, remains a sealed book, and who are always trying to unlock its mysteries with the keys furnished them by fiction. They judge the world by the novels they have read, and their acquaintance in the flesh by characters in stories, instead of judging these by the real people they have met, and more or less lived with. Such women get a tone of mind that is very tiresome to every one but other women like them, and that is peculiarly repulsive to such men as Olney, or, if not repulsive, then very ridiculous. In Mrs. Meredith's case he did not, so much accuse her of wishing to pose as a character [33]with a problem to work out; there was nothing histrionic about the poor woman; but he fancied her hopelessly muddled as to her plain, every-day obligations, by a morbid sympathy with the duty-ridden creatures of the novelist's brain. He remembered from that first talk of the winter before--it had been a long talk, an exhaustive talk, covering many cases of conscience in fiction besides that of Tito Malema--that she had shown herself incapable of sinking the sense of obligation in the sense of responsibility, and that she apparently conceived of what she called living up to the truth as something that might be done singly; that right affected her as a body of positive color, sharply distinguished from wrong, and not shading into and out of it by gradations of tint, as we find it doing in reality. Such a woman, he had vaguely reflected, when he came to sum up his impressions, would be capable of an atrocious cruelty in speaking or acting  the truth, and would consider herself an exemplary person for having done her duty at any cost of suffering to herself and others. But she would exaggerate as well as idealize, and he tried to find comfort now in thinking that what she had on her mind was very likely a thing of bulk out of all proportion to its weight. Very likely it was something with reference to her niece; some waywardness of affection or ambition in the girl. She might be wanting to study medicine, or law, or divinity; perhaps she wanted to go on the stage. More probably, it was a question of  whom she should marry, and Mrs. Meredith was [34] wrestling with the problem of how far in this age of  intense individualization a girl's inclinations might be forced for her good, and how far let go for her evil. Such a problem would be quite enough to destroy Mrs. Meredith's peace, if that was what she had on her mind; and Olney could not help relating his conjecture to these people at the Vendome, whom Miss Aldgate had gone to drive with and lunch with to-day, after having, been to drive with them yesterday. Those people in turn he related to the young clergyman she had spent the evening in talking with in Florence, when he was himself only partially engaged in exploring her aunt's conscience. He wondered whether Mrs. Meredith favored or opposed the young clergyman, and what was just the form of the trouble that was on her mind, but still without the intention to inquire it

    "Well, perhaps," he suggested, half jocosely," the trouble will disappear when you've had sleep enough."

    "You know very well," she answered, "that it won't--that what you say is simply impossible. I remember some things, you said that night when we talked so long together, and I know that you are inclined to confound the moral and the physical, as all doctors are."

    Olney would have liked to say, "I wish, my dear lady, you wouldn't confound the sane and insane in the way you do."  But he silently submitted, and let her go on.

    "That made me dislike you; but I can't say it made[35] me distrust you. I think that if you had been an untruthful person you would have concealed your point of view from me."

    Olney could not say he might not have thought it worth while to do that. On the contrary, he had a sort of compassion for the lofty superiority of a woman who so obviously felt her dependence upon him, and was arming herself in all her pride for her abasement before him. He knew that she was longing to tell him what was on her mind, and would probably not end till she had done it. He did not feel that he had the right to prevent her doing that, and he smiled passively in saying, "I couldn't advise you to trust me too far."

    "I must trust some. one too far," she said, "and I have literally no one but you." The tears came into her eyes, and Olney, who knew very well how easily the tears come into women's eyes, was broken up by the sight.

    "My dear Mrs. Meredith, I should be very glad to be trusted even too far, if I could really be of use to you."

    "Oh, I don't know that you can," she said. After a pause she added, abruptly, "Do you believe in heredity?"

    Olney felt inclined to laugh. "Well, that's rather a spacious question, Mrs. Meredith. What do you mean by heredity?"

    "You know! The persistence of ancestral traits; the transmission of character and tendency; the [36]reappearance of types after several generations; the--"

    She stopped, and Olney know that he had got at the body of her anxiety, though she had not yet revealed its very features. He determined to deal with the matter as reassuringly as he could in the dark. He smiled in answering, "Heredity is a good deal like the germ theory. There's a large amount of truth in it, no doubt; but it's truth in a state of solution, and nobody knows just how much of it there is. Perhaps we shall never know. As for those cases of atavism--for I suppose that's what you mean--"

    "Yes, yes! Atavism? That is the word."

    "They're not so very common, and they're not so very well ascertained. You find them mentioned in the books, but vaguely, and on a kind of hearsay, without the names of persons and places; it's a notion that some writers rather like to toy with; but when you come to boil it down, as the newspapers say, there isn't a great deal of absolute fact there. Take the reversion to the inferior race type in the child of parents of mixed blood--say a white with a mulatto or quadroon--"

    "Yes! " said Mrs. Meredith, with eagerness. "Why, it's, very effective as a bit of drama. But it must be very rare--very rare indeed. You hear of instances in which the parent of mixed race could not be known from a white person, and yet the child reverts to the negro type in color and feature and character. I should doubt it very much."[37]

    Mrs. Meredith cried out as if he had questioned holy writ. "You should do it! Why should you doubt it, Dr. Olney?" Yet he perceived that for some reason she wished him to reaffirm his doubt.

    "Because the chances are so enormously against it. The natural tendency is all the other way, to the permanent effacement of the inferior type. The child of a white and an octoroon is a sixteenth blood; and the child of that child and a white is a thirty-second blood. The chances of atavism, or reversion to the black great-great-great-grandfather are so remote that they may be said hardly to exist at all. They are outside of the probabilities, and only on the verge of the possibilities. But it's so thrilling to consider such a possibility that people like to consider it. Fancy is as much committed to it as prejudice is; but it hasn't so much excuse, for prejudice is mostly ignorant, and fancy mostly educated, or half-educated." Olney folded one leg comfortably across the other, and went on, with a musing smile."I've been thinking about all this a good deal within the past two days--or since I got back to Boston. I've been more and more struck with the fact that sooner or later our race must absorb the colored race; and I believe that it will obliterate not only its color, but its qualities. The tame man, the civilized man, is stronger than the wild man; and I believe that in those cases within any one race where there are very strong ancestral proclivities on one side especially toward evil, they will die out before the good tendencies on the other side, for much the same [38] reason, that is, because vice is savage and virtue is civilized."

    Mrs. Meredith listened intently, but at last, "I wish I could believe what you say," she sighed, heavily. "But I don't know that that would relieve me of the duty before me," she added, after a moment's thought. "Dr. Olney, there is something that I need very much to speak about--something that must be done--that my health depends upon--I shall never get well unless--"

    "If there is anything you wish to say concerning your health, Mrs. Meredith," he answered, seriously, "it's of course my duty to hear it."

    He sat prepared to listen, but she apparently did not know how to begin, and after several gasps she was silent. Then, "No, I can't tell you! " she broke out.

    He rose. "Are you to be some time in Boston?" he asked, to relieve the embarrassment of the situation.

    "I don't know. Yes, I suppose a week or two."

    "If I can be of use to you in any way, I shall be glad to have you send for me."

    He turned to the door, but as he put his band on the knob she called out: "No! Don't go! Sit down! I must speak! You remember," she hurried on, before he could resume his chair, "a young gentleman who talked with my niece that night at Professor Garofalo's--a Mr. Bloomingdale?"

    "The young minister?"

    "Yes." [39]

    "I remember him very well, though I don't think I spoke with him."

    Olney stared at Mrs. Meredith, wondering what this Rev. Mr. Bloomingdale had to do with the matter, whatever the matter might be.

    "It is his mother and sisters that my niece is lunching with," she said, with an air of explaining. "He is expected on the next steamer, and then--then I must speak! It can't go on, so. There must be a clear and perfect understanding.   Dr. Olney," she continued, with a glance at his face, which he felt growing more and more bewildered under the influence of her words, "Mr. Bloomingdale is very much attached to my niece. He--he has offered himself ; he offered himself in Liverpool; and I insisted that Rhoda should not give him a decisive answer then--that she should take time to think it over. I wished to gain time myself."

    "Yes," said Olney, because she seemed to expect him to say something.

    "I wished to gain time and I wished to gain strength, but I have lost both; and the affair has grown more difficult and complicated. Mr. Bloomingdale's family are very fond of Rhoda; they are aware of his attachment--they were in Florence at the time you were, and they came home without him a few months ago, because he wished to stay on in the hope of winning her--and they are showing her every attention ; and she does not see how her being with them complicates everything. Of course they flatter [40] her, and she's very headstrong, like all young girls, and I'm afraid she's committing herself --"

    "Do they live at the Vendome?" Olney asked, with a certain distaste for them, and he was conscious of resenting their attentions to Miss Aldgate as pushing and vulgar under the circumstances, though he had no right to do so.

    "No. They are just waiting there for him. They are New York State people--the western part. They are very rich; the mother is a widow, and they are going to live in Ohio, where Mr. Bloomingdale has a call. They are kind, good people--very kind; and I feel that Rhoda is abusing their kindness by being so much with them before she has positively accepted him; and I can't let her do that until everything is known. She refused him when he offered himself first in Florence--I've always thought she had some other fancy--but at Liverpool, where he renewed his offer just before we sailed, she was inclined to accept him; I suppose her fancy had passed. As I say, I insisted that she should take at least a week to consider it, and that he should change his passage from our steamer to the next. I had no idea of :finding his family in Boston, but perhaps in the confusion he forgot to tell us. They found our names in the passenger list, and they came to see us directly after lunch, yesterday. If the match is broken off now, after--"

    Mrs. Meredith stopped in a sort of despair, which Olney shared with her as far as concerned the blind [41]alley in which he found himself. He had not the least notion of the way out, and he could only wait her motion.

    "I don't see," she resumed, "how my, niece can help accepting him if she goes on at this rate with his family, and I don't know how to stop her without telling her the worst at once. I'm afraid she has got her heart set on him." Mrs. Meredith paused again, and then went on. "I have shrunk from speaking because I know that the poor young man's happiness, as well as Rhoda's, is involved, and the peace and self-respect of his family. There have been times when I have almost felt that if there were no danger of the facts ever coming to light, I could make up my mind to die, as I have lived, in a lie. But now I know I cannot; it is my duty to speak out; and the marriage will not take place unless everything is known. It will kill her. But it must be done! Those ancestral traits, those tendencies, may die out, but I can't let any one take the risk of their recurrence unknowingly. He must know who and what she is as fully as I do: her origin, her--"

    Olney believed that he began to understand. There was some stain upon that poor child's birth. She was probably not related to Mrs. Meredith at all; she was a foundling; or she was the daughter of some man or woman whose vices or crimes might find her out with their shame if not their propensity some day. Whatever sinister tendency she was heiress to, or whatever ancestral infamy, it could only be matter of conjecture,[42] not inquiry, with Olney; but he imagined the worst from hints that Mrs. Meredith had thrown out, and attributed her to a family of criminals, such as has here and there found its way into the figures of the statistician. He was not shocked; he was interested by the fact; and he did not find Miss Aldgate at all less charming and beautiful in the conclusion he jumped to than he had found her before. He said to himself that if the case were his, as it was that young minister's, there could be no question in it, except the question of her willingness. to marry him. He said this from the safe vantage of the disinterested witness, and with the easy decision of one who need not act upon his decision.[43]

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