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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    In his instantaneous mental processes, Olney kept his attention fixed upon Mrs. Meredith, and  he was aware of her gasping out:

    "My niece is of negro descent."

    Olney recoiled from the words, in a turmoil of emotion for which there is no term but disgust. His disgust was profound and pervasive, and it did not fail, first of all, to involve the poor child herself. He found himself personally disliking the notion of her having negro blood in her veins; before he felt pity he felt repulsion; his own race instinct expressed itself in a merciless rejection of her beauty, her innocence, her helplessness because of her race. The impulse had to have its course; and then he mastered it, with an abiding compassion, and a sort of tender indignation. He felt that it was atrocious for this old woman to have allowed her hypochondriacal anxiety to dabble with the mysteries of the young girl's future in that way, and he resented having been trapped into considering her detestable question. His feeling was unscientific; but he could not at once detach himself from the purely social relation which he had hitherto held toward Miss Aldgate. The professional view which he was invited to take seemed to have lost all dignity, [44] to be impertinent, cruel, squalid, and to involve the abdication of certain sentiments, conventions, which he was unwilling to part with, at least in her case. Sensibilities which ought not to have survived his scientific training and ambition were wounded to rebellion in him; he perceived as never before that there was an inherent outrage in the submission of such questions to one of the opposite sex; there should be women to deal with them.

    "How--negro descent?" he asked, stupidly, from the whirl of these thoughts.

    "I will try to tell you," said Mrs. Meredith. "And some things you said about that--race-- those wretched beings, last night--You were sincere in what you said? " she demanded of the kind of change that came into his face.

    "Sincere? Yes," said Olney, thinking how far from any concrete significance he had supposed his words to have for his listeners when he spoke them. He added, "I do abhor the cruel stupidity that makes any race treat another as outcast.  But I never dreamed--"

    Mrs. Meredith broke in upon him, saying:

    "It is almost the only consolation I have in thinking she is rightfully and lawfully my niece, to know that in the course I must take now, I shall not be seeming to make her an outcast.  I honored my brother for honoring her mother, and giving her his name when there was no need of his doing it.   He did not consult me, and I did not know it till afterward; [45] but I should have been the first to urge it, when it came to a question of marriage or--anything else. For one of our family there could be no such question; there was none for him.

    "He went South shortly after the war, as so many Northern men did, intending to make his home there; his health was delicate, and his only hope of strength and usefulness, if not of life, was in a milder climate. He outlived the distrust that the Southerners had for all Northern men in those days, and was establishing himself in a very good practice at New Orleans--I forgot to say he was a physician--when he met Rhoda's mother. I needn't go over the details; she was an octoroon, the daughter and the granddaughter of women who had never hoped for marriage with the white men who fell in love with them; but she had been educated by her father--he was a Creole, and she was educated in a Northern convent--and I have no doubt she was an accomplished and beautiful girl. I never saw her. My brother met her in her father's house, almost beside her father's death-bed; but even if he had met her in her mother's house, on her mother's level, it would not have been possible for him to do otherwise than as he did. He thought at first of keeping the marriage secret, and of going on as before, until he could afford to own it and take all the consequences; but he decided against this, and I was always glad that he did. They were married, after her father's death; and then my brother's ruin began. He lost his practice in the families where he [46] had got a footing, among the well-to-do and respectable people whom he had made his friends; and though he would have been willing to go on among a poorer class who could pay less, it was useless. He had to go away; and for five or six years he drifted about from one place to another, trying to gain a hold  here and there, and failing everywhere. Sooner or later his story followed him.

    "I don't blame the Southern people; I'm not sure it would have been better in the North. If it had been known who his wife was, she would not have been received socially here any more than she was there; and I doubt if it would not have affected my brother's professional standing in much the same way. People don't like to think there is anything strange about their doctor; they must make a confidant, they must make a familiar of him; and if there is anything peculiar, unusual-- My husband was a very good man, one of the best men who ever lived, and he approved of my brother's marriage in the abstract as much as I did; but even he never liked to think whom he had married. He was always afraid it would come out among our friends, somehow, and it would be known that his sister-in-law was--

    "At last the poor young creature died, and my brother came North with his little girl. We hoped that then be might begin again, and make a new start in life. But it was too late. He was a mere wreck physically, and he died too within the year. And then it became a question what we should do with the [47] child. As long as she was so merely a child, it was comparatively simple.  We had no children of our own, and when my brother died in another part of the State--we were living in New York then, and he had gone up into the Adirondack region in the hope of getting better--it was natural that we should take the little one home. In a place like New York, nothing is known unless you make it known, and Rhoda was brought up in our house, without any conjecture or curiosity from people outside; she was my brother's orphan, and nobody knew or cared who my brother was; she had teachers and she had schools like any other child, and she had the companionships and the social advantages which our own station and money could command.

    "At first my husband and I thought of letting her think herself our child; but that would have involved a deceit which we were unwilling to practise; besides, it was not necessary, and it would have been great pain for her afterwards. We decided to tell her the truth when the time came, and never anything but the truth, at any time. We never deceived her, but we let her deceive herself. When she came to the age when children begin to ask about themselves, we told her that her father had married in the South, and that her mother, whom she did not remember, was of French descent; but we did not know of her family. This was all true; but still it was not the truth; we knew that well enough, but we promised ourselves that when the time came we would tell her the, truth.[48]

    "She made up little romances about her mother, which she came to believe in as facts, with our sufferance. I should now call it our connivance."

    Mrs. Meredith appealed to Olney with a glance, and he said, in the first sympathy he had felt for her, "It was a difficult position."

    "She easily satisfied herself--it's astonishing how little curiosity children have about all the mystery of their coming here--and as she had instinctively inferred something strange or unusual about her mother's family, she decided that she had married against her grandfather's wishes. We left her that illusion, too--it seemed so easy to leave things then! It was when she ceased to be a child, and we realized more and more how her life might any time involve some other life, that the question became a constant pressure upon us. Neither my husband or myself ever justified the concealment we lived in concerning her. We often talked of it, and how it must come to an end. But we were very much attached to her, and we put off thinking definitely about the duty before us as long as we could. Sometimes it seemed to us that we ought to tell the child just who and what she was, but we never had the courage; she does not know to this day. What do you think our duty to her really was?"

    "Your duty?" Olney echoed, vaguely. A little while ago be would have answered instantly that they had no duty but to keep her in ignorance as long as she lived; but now he could not honestly do this. [49]

    The only thing that he could honestly do was to say, "I don't know," and this was what he said.

    Mrs. Meredith resumed: "My husband had gone out of business, and there was nothing to keep us at home. But we had nothing definitely in view when we went abroad, or at least nothing explicitly in view. We said that we were going abroad for Rhoda's education; but I think that in my husband's heart, as well as in mine, there was the hope that something might happen to solve the difficulty; we had no plan for solving it. I thought, at any rate, if he did not, that in Europe there would be less unhappiness in store for her than here. I knew that in Europe, especially on the Continent, there was little or none of that race prejudice which we have, and I thought--I imagined--I should find it easier to tell Rhoda the truth, if I could tell her at the same time that it made no difference to the man she was to marry."

    Olney understood ; and he was rather restive under Mrs. Meredith's apparent helplessness to leave anything to his imagination.

    "I hoped it might be some Italian--from the first I liked the Italians the best. We lived a great deal in Italy, at Rome and Naples, at Florence, at Venice, even at Milan; and everywhere we tried to avoid Americans. We went into Italian society almost entirely.

    "But it seemed a perfect fatality. Rhoda was always homesick for America, and always eager to meet Americans. She refused all the offers that were [50] made for her--and they began to come, even before she was fairly in society--and declared that she would never marry any one but an American. She was always proclaiming her patriotism, and asserting the superiority of America over every other country in a way that would have made anybody but a very pretty girl offensive. The perplexities simply grew upon us, and in the midst of them my husband died, and then I had no one to advise with or confide in. When his affairs were settled up, it turned out that we were much poorer than we had believed. For a while I thought that I should return home, and Rhoda was always eager to come back, but we staid on at Florence, living very quietly, and we had scarcely been out at all for a year, when you first met us at Professor Garofalo's. It was there that she met Mr. Bloomingdale, and he was so attentive to her. I could see at once that he was greatly taken with her, and he followed up the acquaintance in a way that could not leave me any doubt. It was certainly not her money that attracted him.

    "I liked him from the beginning; and his being a minister gave me a kind of hope, I can hardly tell why. But I thought that if it ever came to my having to tell him about Rhoda, he would be more reasonable. He was so very amiable, very gentle, very kind. Did you ever meet him afterward, anywhere?"

    "No," said Olney, briefly. "I am sorry; I hoped you had; I thought you might have come to know him well enough to sug- [51] gest--I don't like his family, what I've seen of them, so well. If they know at all what is pending between him and Rhoda, it doesn't seem very nice of them to be pursuing her so."

    Mrs. Meredith sat so dreary in her silence that Olney pitied her, and found a husky voice to say, "Perhaps they don't know."

    "Perhaps not," she assented, sadly. "But my only hope now is in his being able to take it, when I tell him, as I have hardly the hope that any other American would. I must tell him, if she accepts him, or decides to accept him, and the question is whether I shall tell him before I tell her. If I tell him first, fully and frankly, perhaps--perhaps--he may choose to keep it from her and she need never know. What--what do you think?" she entreated.

    "Really," said Olney, "that's a matter I have no sort of opinion about. I'm very sorry, but you must excuse me."

    "But you feel that I must tell him?"

    "That's another question for you, Mrs. Meredith. I can't answer it."

    She threw herself back on the sofa. "I wish I were dead!  I see no way out of it; and whatever happens, it will kill the child."

    Olney sat silent. for some time in a muse almost as dreary as her own. After having despised her as a morbid sentimentalist with a hypochondriacal conscience, he had come to respect her, as we respect any fellow-creature on whom a heavy duty is laid, and [52] who is struggling faithfully to stand up under the burden. He said suddenly, "You mustn't tell him first, Mrs. Meredith!"


    "Because--because--the secret is hers, to keep it, or to tell it. No one else has the right to know it without her leave."

    "And if --if she should choose to keep it from him--not tell him at all? "

    "I couldn't blame her. It's no fault, no wrong of hers. And who is to be harmed by its concealment?"

    "But the chances--the future--the--the--"

    Olney could not bear the recurrence to this phase of the subject. He made a gesture of impatience.

    Mrs. Meredith added, with hysterical haste: "It might come out in a hundred ways. I can hear it in her voice at times--it's a black voice! I can see it in her looks! I can feel it in her character--so easy, so irresponsible, so fond of what is soft and pleasant! She could not deny herself the amusement of going with those people to-day, though I said all I could against it. She cannot forecast consequences; she's a creature of the present hour; she's like them all! I think that in some occult, dreadful way she feels her affinity with them, and that's the reason why she's so attracted by them, so fond of them. It's her race calling her! I don't believe she would ever tell him!"

    "I think you ought to leave it to her," said Olney. "And let her live a lie! Oh, I know too well
what that is!" [53]

    "It's bad. But there may be worse things. It seems as if there might be circumstances in which it was one's right to live a lie, as you say; for the sake--"

    "Never! " said Mrs. Meredith vehemently. "It is better to die--to kill--than to lie. I know how people say such things and act them, till life is all one web of falsehood, from the rising to the going down of the sun. But I will never consent to be a party to any such deceit. I will tell Rhoda, and then she shall tell me what she is going to do, and if she is not going to tell him, I will do it. Yes! I will not be responsible for the future, and I should be responsible if he did not know. In such a case I could not spare her. She is my own flesh and blood; she is as dear to me as my own child could be; but if she were my own child it would be all the same. I would rather see her perish before my eyes than married to any man who did not know the secret of her-- O-o-o-o-o!"  Mrs. Meredith gave a loud, shuddering cry, as the door was flung suddenly open, and Miss Aldgate flashed radiantly into the room.

    She kept the door-knob in her hand, while she demanded, half frightened, half amused, "What in the world is the matter? Did I startle you? Of course! But I just ran in a moment as we were driving by--we're going over to do our duty by Bunker Hill Monument--to see how you were getting on. I'm so glad you are here, Dr. Olney." She released the door-knob, and gave him her hand. "Now I can leave [54] Aunt Caroline without a qualm of conscience till after lunch; and I did have a qualm or two, poor aunty!"

    She stooped on one knee beside the sofa, and kissed her aunt, who seemed to Olney no better than a murderess in the embrace of her intended victim. In this light and joyous presence, all that he had heard of the girl's anomalous origin became not only incredible, but atrocious. She was purely and merely a young lady, like any other; and he felt himself getting red with shame for having heard what he had been told against his will.

    He could not speak, and he marvelled that Mrs., Meredith could command the words to say, in quite an every-day voice: "You silly child! You needn't have stopped. I was getting on perfectly well."

    "Of course you were! And I suppose I have interrupted you in the full flow of symptoms! I can imagine what a perfectly delightful time you were having with Dr. Olney! I think I'll change these gloves." She ran into the room that opened from Mrs. Meredith's parlor, and left him unable to lift his eyes from the floor in her brief absence. She came back pulling on one long mousquetaire glove, while the other dangled from her fingers, and began to laugh. "There's one of those colored waiters down there that even you couldn't have anything to say against my falling in love with, Aunt Caroline. He's about four feet high, and his feet are about eighteen inches long, so that he looks just like a capital L. Hedoesn't lift them when he walks, but he slips along on [55] them over the floor like a funny little mouse; I've decided to call him Creepy-Mousy; it just exactly describes him, he's so small and cunning. And he's so sweet! I should like to own him, and keep him as long as he lived. Isn't it a shame that we can't buy them, Dr. Olney, as we used to do? There!  I'll  put on the other one in the carriage."

    She swooped upon her aunt for another kiss, and then flashed out of the room as she had flashed into it, and left Mrs. Meredith and Olney staring at each other.

    "Well!" she said."You see! It is the race instinct! It must assert itself sooner or later."

    Olney became suddenly sardonic in the sort of desperation he fell into. "I should say it was the other-race instinct that was asserting itself sooner; "and when he had said this he felt somehow a hope, which he tried to impart to Mrs. Meredith.

    At the end of all their talk she said: "But that doesn't relieve me of the duty I owe to her and to him. I must tell her, at least, cost what it may. I cannot live this lie any longer. If she chooses to do so, perhaps--" [56]

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