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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    The thing that had been lurking in a dark corner of Olney's mind, intangible if not wholly invisible, came out sensible to touch and sight when he parted with Mrs. Meredith. At first it masqueraded a little longer as resentment of that hapless creature's fate, a creature so pretty, so proud, and by all the rights of her youth and sex heiress of a prosperous and unclouded  future, the best love and the tenderest care that any man could give her. Then it began to declare itself a fear lest the man whose avowal had given him the right to know everything concerning her, might prove superior to it, and nobly renounce his privilege, and gladly take her for what she had always seemed, for what, except in so remote degree, she really was. Then Olney knew that he was himself in love with her, and that he was judging a rival's possibilities by his own, and dreading them. He had an impulse to go back to Mrs. Meredith and say that he was ready to take all those risks and chances which she had counted so great, and laugh them to scorn in the gladness of his heart if he could only hope that Rhoda would ever love him. A few years before he would have obeyed his impulse, and even now he dramatized an obedience to it, and exacted from Mrs. [98] Meredith a promise that she would not speak to Miss Aldgate until he had found time to put his fortune to the touch, and if he won, would never speak to her. But at thirty he had his hesitations, his misgivings, not indeed as to the wish, but as to the way. For one thing, he was too late, if Mrs. Meredith's conjectures were right; and for another, he felt it dishonorable to do what he longed in his heart to do, and steal from this man, whom he began to hate, the love upon which his courageous wooing had given him the right to count. Such a thing would be not theft only in the possible but not probable case she did not care for his rival, and he had no means of knowing the fact as to that. It might be defended if not justified on the ground that he wished to keep her forever in ignorance of what it was Mrs. Meredith's clear duty otherwise to tell her; Olney comforted himself with the theory that a woman who had delayed in her duty so long would doubtless put it off till the last moment, and that until this Mr. Bloomingdale actually appeared, and there was no loop-hole left her, she would not cease attempting to escape from her duty.

    He postponed any, duty which he himself had in the matter through the love he now owned; he made it contingent upon hers; but all the same, he determined to forego no right it gave him. Again he had a mind to go back to Mrs. Meredith, and ask her to do nothing until Bloomingdale came, and then, before she spoke, to authorize him to approach the man as her family physician and deal tentatively, hypothetically, [99] with the matter, and interpret his probable decision from his actual behavior.

    This course, which appeared the only course open to him, commended itself more and more to Olney as he thought of it; here was something practicable, here was something that was perhaps even obligatory upon him; he tried to believe it was obligatory. But it occurred to him only after long turmoil of thinking and feeling in other directions, and it was half-past seven o'clock before he returned from a walk he took as a final means of clearing his mind, and went to Mrs. Meredith's room to propose it to her. He knocked several times without response, and then went to the once to see if  she had gone out and left her key with the clerk ; he was now in a hurry to speak to her.

    The clerk felt in the pigeon-hole of Mrs. Meredith's number. "Her key isn't here, but that's no sign she hasn't gone out. Ladies seldom leave their keys when they go out . we're only too glad if they leave 'em when they go away for good. I thought she was sick."

    "She would be able to drive out."

    Olney mastered his impatience as well as he could, and went in to his dinner. After dinner he knocked again at Mrs., Meredith's door, and confirmed himself in the belief that she had gone out. After that it was not so easy to wait for her to come back. He wished to remain of the mind he had been about speaking to her of Rhoda, and  to avow himself her [100] lover at all risks, but more and more he began to feel that he was too late, that he was quixotic, that he was ridiculous. He felt himself wavering from his purpose, and he held to it all the more tenaciously for that reason. If he was willing to hazard all upon the chance of being in time, that gave him the right to ask that the girl might be spared; but when he thought she and Mrs. Meredith were probably spending the evening together with the Bloomingdales, his courage failed. It was but too imaginable that Miss Aldgate had made up her mind to accept that man, and that her aunt would tell her all that he longed to save her from knowing before he could prevent it.

    When at last he went a third time to her door, he ventured to turn the knob, and the door opened to his inward pressure. It let in with him a glare of gas from the lamp in the entry, and by this light he saw Rhoda standing beside her aunt's sofa with the empty bottle in her hand. She had her hat on, and at the face she turned him across her shoulder, a shiver of prescience passed over him. It was the tragic mask, the inherited woe, unlit by a gleam of the brightness which had sometimes seemed Heaven's direct gift to the girl on whom that burden of ancestral sin and sorrow had descended.

    "What is the matter?" he murmured.

    Rhoda gave him the empty bottle.  "She's drunk it all. She's dead."

    "Oh, no," he almost laughed. "It would be too soon." He dropped on his knees beside the insensi-[101]ble body, and satisfied himself by pulse and breath that the life had not yet left it. But to keep it there was now the business, and Olney began his losing light with a sort of pluriscience in which it seemed to him that he was multiplied into three selves: one applying all the antidotes and using all the professional skill with instant coolness; another guarding the probable suicide from the conjecture of the hotel servants and keeping the whole affair as silent as possible; another devotedly vigilant of the poor girl who was so deeply concerned in the small chances of success perceptible to Olney, and who, whether he succeeded or not, was destined to so sad an orphanage. When he thought of the chance that fate was invisibly offering her, he almost wished he might fail, but he fought his battle through with relentless scientific conscience. At the end it was his part to say,  "It's over; she's dead."

    "I know she was," Rhoda answered apathetically. "I expected it."

    "Where were you? " he asked, with the sort of sad futility with which, when all is done, the spirit continues its endeavor. "Was she alone?"

    "Yes. I had gone out," Rhoda said.

    "What time was that?" Olney wondered that he had not asked this before; perhaps he had made some mistake through not having verified the moment.

    "It was about half-past seven," answered the girl.

    "You went out at half-past seven! And when did you return?"  [102]

    "We had a quarrel. I didn't come back till nearly ten--when you came in."

    The poignancy of Olney's interest remained, but it took another direction. "You were out all the evening alone? Excuse my asking," he made haste to add,  "But I don't understand --"

    "I wasn't alone," said Rhoda. "I met an old colored woman on the street, and she went with me to the colored church. She came home with me." The girl said this quietly, as if there were nothing at all strange in it.

    Her calm left Olney in the question which he was always pressing home to himself ; whether her aunt had told her that thing. It was on his tongue to ask her why she went to the colored church, and what her quarrel with her aunt was about. He asked her instead,  "Did you think, when you left her, that Mrs. Meredith seemed different at all-- that--? "

    "I didn'tnotice,"said Rhoda. "No. She seemed as she often did. But I know she thought she hadn't taken enough of the medicine. She wanted to sleep more."

    Rhoda sat by the window of the little parlor where she had sat when the dead woman had told her that dreadful thing, and she remembered how she had glanced out of it and seen Olney in the street. The gas was now at full blaze in the room, but she glanced through the window again, and saw that the day was beginning to come outside. She turned from the chill of its pale light, and looked at Olney. Through the [103] irresistible association of ideas, she looked for his baldness with the lack-lustre eyes she lifted to his face.

    "Is there anything you wish me--anything I can do?" he asked, after a silence, in which he got back to the level of practical affairs, though still stupefied from what Rhoda had said.


    "I mean, notify your friends--your family--telegraph--"

    "I have no friends--no relatives.  We were alone; all our family are dead."

    "But Mr. Meredith's family--there is surely some one that you can call upon at this time."

    A strong compassion swelled in Olney's heart; he yearned to take her in his arms and be all the world to one who had no one in all the world.

    She remained as if dazed, and then she said, with a perplexed look: "I was trying to think who there was. Mr. Meredith's people lived in St. Louis; I remember some of them when I was little. . Perhaps my aunt would have their address."

    She went into the adjoining chamber where the dead woman lay, in the atmosphere of useless drugs and effectless antidotes, and Olney thought, "It's the mechanical operation of custom; she's going to ask her," but Rhoda came back with an address-book in her hand, as if she had gone directly to Mrs. Meredith's writing case for it with no such error of cerebration. [104]

    "Here it is," she said.

    "Very well. I'll telegraph them at once. But in the mean time, what will you do, Miss Aldgate? You can't stay here in the hotel--she can't. How can I be of use to you?" Olney felt all the disinterestedness in the world in asking, but in what he asked next he had a distinct consciousness of self-interest, or at least of selfish curiosity. "Shall I let your friends at the Vendome--"

    "Oh, no, no, no!" she broke out. "Not on any account! I couldn't bear to see them. I)don't think of such a thing! No, indeed, I can't let you!"

    The self-seeker is never fully rewarded, and Olney was left with a doubt whether this reluctance meant abhorrence of the Bloomingdales, or unwillingness to receive kindness from them which might involve some loss of her perfect independence to the spirited girl; she would not choose or be chosen for any reason but one. He could not make out from her manner as yet whether her aunt had spoken what was on her mind to speak or not; it seemed such a cruel invasion of her rights even to conjecture, that he tried to put the question out of his thoughts.
He began again while he was sensible of an unequal struggle with the question, which intruded itself in the swift whirl of his anxieties, as to what could immediately be done for her.

    "Is there anything else you would suggest?"

    "No," said the girl, in the dreamy quiet she seemed helpless to emerge from. "I suppose it wouldn't do, [105] even if we could find her. I was thinking of the old woman I saw to-night," she explained. "I would like to go and stay with her if I could."

    "Is it some one you know?"

    "No, I don't know her. I just met her on the street, and we went to the colored people's church together. I went out after dinner and left my aunt alone. That was when she drank it."

    She added the vague sentences together with a child's heedlessness as to their reaching her listener's intelligence, and she did not persist in her whimsical suggestion.

    Olney left it too. "You must let me got you another room," he said; "You can't stay here any longer," and he made her take her hat and come with him to the hotel parlor. He went to arrange the business with the clerk, and to tell him of Mrs. Meredith's death; then he had to go about other duties connected with the case, which he rather welcomed as a distraction; to notify the fact and cause of Mrs. Meredith's death to the authorities, and to give the funeral preparations in charge. But when this was all done, and he could no longer play off the aggregate of these minor cares against his great one, he began to be harassed again about Miss Aldgate.

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