Grace burst into the room where her mother sat; and flung her hat aside with a desperate gesture. "Now, mother, you have got to listen to me. Dr. Mulbridge has asked me to marry him!"
Mrs. Green put up her spectacles on her forehead, and stared at her daughter, while some strong expressions, out of the plebeian or rustic past which lies only a generation or two behind most of us, rose to her lips. I will not repeat them here; she had long denied them to herself as an immoral self-indulgence, and it must be owned that such things have a fearful effect, coming from old ladies. "What has got into all the men? What in nature does he want you to marry him for?"
"Oh, for the best reasons in the world," exclaimed the daughter. "For reasons that will make you admire and respect him," she added ironically. "For great, and unselfish, and magnanimous reasons!"
"I should want to believe they were the real ones, first," interrupted Mrs. Breen.
"He wants to marry me because he knows that I can't fulfil my plans of life alone, and because we could fulfil them together. We shall not only be husband and wife, but we shall be physicians in partnership. I may continue a homoeopath, he says, and the State Medical Association may go to the devil." She used his language, that would have been shocking to her ordinary moods, without blenching, and in their common agitation her mother accepted it as fit and becoming. "He counts upon my accepting him because I must see it as my duty, and my conscience won't let me reject the only opportunity I shall have of doing some good and being of some use in the world. What do you think I ought to do, mother?"
"There's reason in what he says. It is an opportunity. You could be of use, in that way, and perhaps it's the only way. Yes," she continued, fascinated by the logic of the position, and its capabilities for vicarious self-sacrifice. "I don't see how you can get out of it: You have spent years and years of study, and a great deal of money, to educate yourself for a profession that you're too weak to practise alone. You can't say that I ever advised your doing it. It was your own idea, and I did n't oppose it. But when you've gone so far, you've formed an obligation to go on. It's your duty not to give up, if you know of any means to continue. That's your duty, as plain as can be. To say nothing of the wicked waste of your giving up now, you're bound to consider the effect it would have upon other women who are trying to do something for themselves. The only thing," she added, with some misgiving, "is whether you believe he was in earnest and would keep his word to you."
"I think he was secretly laughing at me, and that he would expect to laugh me out of his promise."
"Well, then, you ought to take time to reflect, and you ought to be sure that you're right about him."
"Is that what you really think, mother?"
"I am always governed by reason, Grace, and by right; and I have brought you up on that plan. If you have ever departed from it, it has not been with my consent, nor for want of my warning. I have simply laid the matter before you."
"Then you wish me to marry him?"
This was perhaps a point that had not occurred to Mrs. Breen in her recognition of the strength of Dr. Mulbridge's position. It was one thing to trace the path of duty; another to support the aspirant in treading it. "You ought to take time to reflect," Mrs. Green repeated, with evasion that she never used in behalf of others.
"Well, mother," answered Grace, "I didn't take time to reflect, and I should n't care whether I was right about him or not. I refused him because I did n't love him. If I had loved him that would have been the only reason I needed to marry him. But all the duty in the world wouldn't be enough without it. Duty? I am sick of duty! Let the other women who are trying to do something for themselves, take care of themselves as men would. I don't owe them more than a man would owe other men, and I won't be hoodwinked into thinking I do. As for the waste, the past is gone, at any rate; and the waste that I lament is the years I spent in working myself up to an undertaking that I was never fit for. I won't continue that waste, and I won't keep up the delusion that because I was very unhappy I was useful, and that it was doing good to be miserable. I like pleasure and I like dress; I like pretty things. There is no harm in them. Why should n't I have them?"
"There is harm in them for you,"—her mother began.
"Because I have tried to make my life a horror? There is no other reason, and that is no reason. When we go into Boston this winter I shall go to the theatre. I shall go to the opera, and I hope there will be a ballet. And next summer, I am going to Europe; I am going to Italy." She whirled away toward the door as if she were setting out.
"I should think you had taken leave of your conscience!" cried her mother.
"I hope I have, mother. I am going to consult my reason after this."
"Well, then, my inclination. I have had enough of conscience,—of my own, and of yours, too. That is what I told him, and that is what I mean. There is such a thing as having too much conscience, and of getting stupefied by it, so that you can't really see what's right. But I don't care. I believe I should like to do wrong for a while, and I will do wrong if it's doing right to marry him."
She had her hand on the door-knob, and now she opened the door, and closed it after her with something very like a bang.
She naturally could not keep within doors in this explosive state, and she went downstairs, and out upon the piazza. Mr. Maynard was there, smoking, with his boots on top of the veranda-rail, and his person thrown back in his chair at the angle requisite to accomplish this elevation of the feet. He took them down, as he saw her approach, and rose, with the respect in which he never failed for women, and threw his cigar away.
"Mr. Maynard," she asked abruptly, "do you know where Mr. Libby is?"
"No, I don't, doctor, I'm sorry to say. If I did, I would send and borrow some more cigars of him. I think that the brand our landlord keeps must have been invented by Mr. Track, the great anti-tobacco reformer."
"Is he coming back? Is n't he coming back?" she demanded breathlessly.
"Why, yes, I reckon he must be coming back. Libby generally sees his friends through. And he'll have some curiosity to know how Mrs. Maynard and I have come out of it all." He looked at her with something latent in his eye; but what his eye expressed was merely a sympathetic regret that he could not be more satisfactory.
"Perhaps," she suggested, "Mr. Barlow might know something."
"Well, now," said Maynard, "perhaps he might, that very thing. I'll go round and ask him." He went to the stable, and she waited for his return. "Barlow says," he reported, "that he guesses he's somewhere about Leyden. At any rate, his mare,'s there yet, in the stable where Barlow left her. He saw her there, yesterday."
"Thanks. That's all I wished to know," said Grace. "I wished to write to him," she added boldly.
She shut herself in her room and spent the rest of the forenoon in writing a letter, which when first finished was very long, but in its ultimate phase was so short as to occupy but a small space on a square correspondence-card. Having got it written on the card, she was dissatisfied with it in that shape, and copied it upon a sheet of note-paper. Then she sealed and addressed it, and put it into her pocket; after dinner she went down to the beach, and walked a long way upon the sands. She thought at first that she would ask Barlow to get it to him, somehow; and then she determined to find out from Barlow the address of the people who had Mr. Libby's horse, and send it to them for him by the driver of the barge. She would approach the driver with a nonchalant, imperious air, and ask him to please have that delivered to Mr. Libby immediately; and in case he learned from the stable-people that he was not in Leyden, to bring the letter back to her. She saw how the driver would take it, and then she figured Libby opening and reading it. She sometimes figured him one way, and sometimes another. Sometimes he rapidly scanned the lines, and then instantly ordered his horse, and feverishly hastened the men; again he deliberately read it, and then tore it into stall pieces, with a laugh, and flung them away. This conception of his behavior made her heart almost stop beating; but there was a luxury in it, too, and she recurred to it quite as often as to the other, which led her to a dramatization of their meeting, with all their parley minutely realized, and every most intimate look and thought imagined. There is of course no means of proving that this sort of mental exercise was in any degree an exercise of the reason, or that Dr. Breen did not behave unprofessionally in giving herself up to it. She could only have claimed in self-defence that she was no longer aiming at a professional behavior; that she was in fact abandoning herself to a recovered sense of girlhood and all its sweetest irresponsibilities. Those who would excuse so weak and capricious a character may urge, if they like, that she was behaving as wisely as a young physician of the other sex would have done in the circumstances.
She concluded to remain on the beach, where only the children were playing in the sand, and where she could easily escape any other companionship that threatened. After she had walked long enough to spend the first passion of her reverie, she sat down under the cliff, and presently grew conscious of his boat swinging at anchor in its wonted place, and wondered that she had not thought he must come back for that. Then she had a mind to tear up her letter as superfluous; but she did not. She rose from her place under the cliff, and went to look for the dory. She found it drawn up on the sand in a little cove. It was the same place, and the water was so shoal for twenty feet out that no one could have rowed the dory to land; it must be dragged up. She laughed and blushed, and then boldly amused herself by looking for footprints; but the tide must have washed them out long ago; there were only the light, small footprints of the children who had been playing about the dory. She brushed away some sand they had scattered over the seat, and got into the boat and sat down there. It was a good seat, and commanded a view of the sail-boat in the foreground of the otherwise empty ocean; she took out her letter, and let it lie in the open hands which she let lie in her lap.
She was not impatient to have the time pass; it went only too soon. Though she indulged that luxury of terror in imagining her letter torn up and scornfully thrown away, she really rested quite safe as to the event; but she liked this fond delay, and the soft blue afternoon might have lasted forever to her entire content.
A little whiff of breeze stole up, and suddenly caught the letter from her open hands, and whisked it out over the sand. With a cry she fled after it, and when she had recaptured it, she thought to look at her watch. It was almost time for the barge, and now she made such needless haste, in order not to give herself chance for misgiving or retreat, that she arrived too soon at the point where she meant to intercept the driver on his way to the house; for in her present mutiny she had resolved to gratify a little natural liking for manoeuvre, long starved by the rigid discipline to which she had subjected herself. She had always been awkward at it, but she liked it; and now it pleased her to think that she should give her letter secretly to the driver, and on her way to meet him she forgot that she had meant to ask Barlow for part of the address. She did not remember this till it was too late to go back to the hotel, and she suddenly resolved not to consult Barlow, but to let the driver go about from one place to another with the letter till he found the right one. She kept walking on out into the forest through which the road wound, and she had got a mile away before she saw the weary bowing of the horses' heads as they tugged the barge through the sand at a walk. She stopped involuntarily, with some impulses to flight; and as the vehicle drew nearer, she saw the driver turned round upon his seat, and talking to a passenger behind. She had never counted upon his having a passenger, and the fact undid all.
She remained helpless in the middle of the road; the horses came to a stand-still a few paces from her, and the driver ceased from the high key of conversation, and turned to see what was the matter.
"My grief!" he shouted. "If it had n't been for them horses o' mine, I sh'd 'a' run right over ye."
"I wished to speak with you," she began. "I wished to send"—
She stopped, and the passenger leaned forward to learn what was going on. "Miss Breen!" he exclaimed, and leaped out of the back of the barge and ran to her.
"You—you got my letter!" she gasped.
"No! What letter? Is there anything the matter?"
She did not answer. She had become conscious of the letter, which she had never ceased to hold in the hand that she had kept in her pocket for that purpose. She crushed it into a small wad.
Libby turned his head, and said to the driver of the barge, "Go ahead."
"Will you take my arm?" he added to her. "It's heavy walking in this sand."
"No, thank you," she murmured, recoiling. "I'm not tired."
"Are you well? Have you been quite well?"
"Oh, yes, perfectly. I did n't know you were coming back."
"Yes. I had to come back. I'm going to Europe next week, and I had to come to look after my boat, here; and I wanted to say good-by to Maynard. I was just going to speak to Maynard, and then sail my boat over to Leyden."
"It will be very pleasant," she said, without looking at him. "It's moonlight now."
"Oh, I sha'n't have any use for the moon. I shall get over before nightfall, if this breeze holds."
She tried to think of something else, and to get away from this talk of a sail to Leyden, but she fatally answered, "I saw your boat this afternoon. I had n't noticed before that it was still here."
He hesitated a moment, and then asked, "Did you happen to notice the dory?"
"Yes, it was drawn up on the sand."
"I suppose it's all right—if it's in the same place."
"It seemed to be," she answered faintly.
"I'm going to give the boat to Johnson."
She did not say anything, for she could think of nothing to say, but that she had looked for seals on the reef, but had not seen any, and this would have been too shamelessly leading. That left the word to him, and he asked timidly,—
"I hope my coming don't seem intrusive, Miss Breen?"
She did not heed this, but "You are going to be gone a great while?" she asked, in turn.
"I don't know," he replied, in an uncertain tone, as if troubled to make out whether she was vexed with him or not. "I thought," he added, "I would go up the Nile this time. I've never been up the Nile, you know."
"No, I didn't know that. Well," she added to herself, "I wish you had not come back! You had better not have come back. If you had n't come, you would have got my letter. And now it can never be done! No, I can't go through it all again, and no one has the right to ask it. We have missed the only chance," she cried to herself, in such keen reproach of him that she thought she must have spoken aloud.
"Is Mrs. Maynard all right again?" he asked.
"Yes, she is very much better," she answered, confusedly, as if he had heard her reproach and had ignored it.
"I hope you're not so tired as you were."
"No, I 'm not tired now."
"I thought you looked a little pale," he said sympathetically, and now she saw that he was so. It irritated her that she should be so far from him, in all helpfulness, and she could scarcely keep down the wish that ached in her heart.
We are never nearer doing the thing we long to do than when we have proclaimed to ourselves that it must not and cannot be.
"Why are you so pale?" she demanded, almost angrily.
"I? I didn't know that I was," he answered. "I supposed I was pretty well. I dare say I ought to be ashamed of showing it in that way. But if you ask me, well, I will tell you; I don't find it any easier than I did at first."
"You are to blame, then!" she cried. "If I were a man, I should not let such a thing wear upon me for a moment."
"Oh, I dare say I shall live through it," he answered, with the national whimsicality that comes to our aid in most emergencies.
A little pang went through her heart, but she retorted, "I would n't go to Europe to escape it, nor up the Nile. I would stay and fight it where I was." "Stay?" He seemed to have caught hopefully at the word.
"I thought you were stronger. If you give up in this way how can you expect me"—She stopped; she hardly knew what she had intended to say; she feared that he knew.
But he only said: "I'm sorry. I didn't intend to trouble you with the sight of me. I had a plan for getting over the cliff without letting you know, and having Maynard come down to me there."
"And did you really mean," she cried piteously, "to go away without trying to see me again?"
"Yes," he owned simply. "I thought I might catch a glimpse of you, but I did n't expect to speak to you."
"Did you hate me so badly as that? What had I done to you?"
"Done?" He gave a sorrowful laugh; and added, with an absent air, "Yes, it's really like doing something to me! And sometimes it seems as if you had done it purposely."
"You know I did n't! Now, then," she cried, "you have insulted me, and you never did that before. You were very good and noble and generous, and would n't let me blame myself for anything. I wanted always to remember that of you; for I did n't believe that any man could be so magnanimous. But it seems that you don't care to have me respect you!"
"Respect?" he repeated, in the same vague way. "No, I should n't care about that unless it was included in the other. But you know whether I have accused you of anything, or whether I have insulted you. I won't excuse myself. I think that ought to be insulting to your common sense."
"Then why should you have wished to avoid seeing me to-day? Was it to spare yourself?" she demanded, quite incoherently now. "Or did you think I should not be equal to the meeting?"
"I don't know what to say to you," answered the young man. "I think I must be crazy." He halted, and looked at her in complete bewilderment. "I don't understand you at all."
"I wished to see you very much. I wanted your advice, as—as—a friend." He shook his head. "Yes! you shall be my friend, in this at least. I can claim it—demand it. You had no right to—to—make me—trust you so much, and—and then—desert me."
"Oh, very well," he answered. "If any advice of mine—But I couldn't go through that sacrilegious farce of being near you and not"—She waited breathlessly, a condensed eternity, for him to go on; but he stopped at that word, and added: "How can I advise you?"
The disappointment was so cruel that the tears came into her eyes and ran down her face, which she averted from him. When she could control herself she said, "I have an opportunity of going on in my profession now, in a way that makes me sure of success."
"I am very glad on your account. You must be glad to realize"
"No, no!" she retorted wildly. "I am not glad!"
"I thought you"—
"But there are conditions! He says he will go with me anywhere, and we can practise our profession together, and I can carry out all my plans. But first—first—he wants me to—marry him!"
"Don't you know? Dr. Mulbridge!"
"That—I beg your pardon. I've no right to call him names." The young fellow halted, and looked at her downcast face. "Well, do you want me to tell you to take him? That is too much. I did n't know you were cruel."
"You make me cruel! You leave me to be cruel!"
"I leave you to be cruel?"
"Oh, don't play upon my words, if you won't ask me what I answered!"
"How can I ask that? I have no right to know."
"But you shall know!" she cried. "I told him that I had no plans. I have given them all up because—because I'm too weak for them, and because I abhor him, and because—But it was n't enough. He would not take what I said for answer, and he is coming again for an answer."
"Yes. He is a man who believes that women may change, for reason or no reason; and"—
"You—you mean to take him when he comes back?" gasped the young man.
"Never! Not if he came a thousand times!"
"Then what is it you want me to advise you about?" he faltered.
"Nothing!" she answered, with freezing hauteur. She suddenly put up her arms across her eyes, with the beautiful, artless action of a shame-smitten child, and left her young figure in bewildering relief. "Oh, don't you see that I love you?"
"Could n't you understand,—couldn't you see what I meant?" she asked again that night, as they lost themselves on the long stretch of the moonlit beach. With his arm close about that lovely shape they would have seemed but one person to the inattentive observer, as they paced along in the white splendor.
"I couldn't risk anything. I had spoken, once for all. I always thought that for a man to offer himself twice was indelicate and unfair. I could never have done it."
"That's very sweet in you," she said; and perhaps she would have praised in the same terms the precisely opposite sentiment. "It's some comfort," she added, with a deep-fetched sigh, "to think I had to speak."
He laughed. "You didn't find it so easy to make love!"
"Oh, NOTHING is easy that men have to do!" she answered, with passionate earnestness.
There are moments of extreme concession, of magnanimous admission, that come but once in a lifetime.