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Chapter 8

Grace went to her own room to lay aside her shawl and hat, before going to Mrs. Maynard, and found her mother sewing there.

"Why, who is with Mrs. Maynard?" she asked.

"Miss Gleason is reading to her," said Mrs. Breen. "If she had any sort of active treatment, she could get well at once. I couldn't take the responsibility of doing anything for her, and it was such a worry to stay and see everything going wrong, that when Miss Gleason came in I was glad to get away. Miss Gleason seems to believe in your Dr. Mulbridge."

"My Dr. Mulbridge!" echoed Grace.

"She talked of him as if he were yours. I don't know what you've been saying to her about him; but you had better be careful. The woman is a fool." She now looked up at her daughter for the first time. "Why, what is the matter with you what kept you so long? You look perfectly wild."

"I feel wild," said Grace calmly. "The wind went down."

"Was that all? I don't see why that should make you feel wild," said her mother, dropping her spectacles to her sewing again.

"It was n't all," answered the girl, sinking provisionally upon the side of a chair, with her shawl still on her arm, and her hat in her hand. "Mother, have you noticed anything peculiar about Mr. Libby?"

"He's the only person who seems to be of the slightest use about here; I've noticed that," said Mrs. Breen. "He's always going and coming for you and Mrs. Maynard. Where is that worthless husband of hers? Has n't he had time to come from Cheyenne yet?"

"He's on the way. He was out at his ranch when Mr. Libby telegraphed first, and had to be sent for. We found a despatch from him at Leyden, saying he had started," Grace explained.

"What business had he to be so far away at all?" demanded her mother. It was plain that Mrs. Breen was in her most censorious temper, which had probably acquired a sharper edge towards Maynard from her reconciliation with his wife.

Grace seized her chance to meet the worst. "Do you think that I have done anything to encourage Mr. Libby?" she asked, looking bravely at her mother.

"Encourage him to do what?" asked Mrs. Breen, without lifting her eyes from her work.

"Encouraged him to—think I cared for him; to—to be in love with me."

Mrs. Breen lifted her head now, and pushed her spectacles up on her forehead, while she regarded her daughter in silence. "Has he been making love to you?"

"Yes."

Her mother pushed her spectacles down again; and, turning the seam which she had been sewing, flattened it with her thumb-nail. She made this action expressive of having foreseen such a result, and of having struggled against it, neglected and alone. "Very well, then. I hope you accepted him?" she asked quietly.

"Mother!"

"Why not? You must like him," she continued in the same tone. "You have been with him every moment the last week that you have n't been with Mrs. Maynard. At least I've seen nothing of you, except when you came to tell me you were going to walk or to drive with him. You seem to have asked him to take you most of the time."

"How can you say such a thing, mother?" cried the girl.

"Did n't you ask him to let you go with him this afternoon? You told me you did."

"Yes, I did. I did it for a purpose."

"Ah! for a purpose," said Mrs. Breen, taking a survey of the new seam, which she pulled from her knee, where one end of it was pinned, towards her chin. She left the word to her daughter, who was obliged to take it.

"I asked him to let me go with him because Louise had tortured me about making her go out in his boat, till I could n't bear it any longer. It seemed to me that if I took the same risk myself, it would be something; and I hoped there would be a storm."

"I should think you had taken leave of your senses," Mrs. Breen observed, with her spectacles intent upon her seam. "Did you think it would be any consolation to him if you were drowned, or to her? And if," she added, her conscience rising equal to the vicarious demand upon it, "you hoped there would be danger, had you any right to expose him to it? Even if you chose to risk your own life, you had no right to risk his." She lifted her spectacles again, and turned their austere glitter upon her daughter.

"Yes, it all seems very silly now," said the girl, with a hopeless sigh.

"Silly!" cried her mother. "I'm glad you can call it silly."

"And it seemed worse still when he told me that he had never believed it was going to storm that day, when he took Louise out. His man said it was, and he repeated it because he saw I did n't want her to go."

"Perhaps," suggested Mrs. Breen, "if he was willing to deceive her then, he is willing to deceive you now."

"He didn't deceive her. He said what he had heard. And he said it because he—I wished it."

"I call it deceiving. Truth is truth. That is what I was taught; and that's what I supposed I had taught you."

"I would trust Mr. Libby in anything," returned the daughter. "He is perfectly frank about himself. He confessed that he had done it to please me. He said that nothing else could excuse it."

"Oh, then you have accepted him!"

"No, mother, I haven't. I have refused him, and he is going away as soon as Mr. Maynard comes." She sat looking at the window, and the tears stole into her eyes, and blurred the sea and sky together where she saw their meeting at the horizon line.

"Well," said her mother, "their that is the end of it, I presume."

"Yes, that's the end," said Grace. "But—I felt sorry for him, mother. Once," she went on, "I thought I had everything clear before me; but now I seem only to have made confusion of my life. Yes," she added drearily, "it was foolish and wicked, and it was perfectly useless, too. I can't escape from the consequences of what I did. It makes no difference what he believed or any one believed. I drove them on to risk their lives because I thought myself so much better than they; because I was self-righteous and suspicious and stubborn. Well, I must bear the penalty: and oh, if I could only bear it alone!" With a long sigh she took back the burden which she had been struggling to cast off, and from which for a time she had actually seemed to escape. She put away her hat and shawl, and stood before the glass, smoothing her hair. "When will it ever end?" she moaned to the reflection there, rather than to her mother, who did not interrupt this spiritual ordeal. In another age, such a New England girl would have tortured herself with inquisition as to some neglected duty to God;—in ours, when religion is so largely humanified, this Puritan soul could only wreak itself in a sense of irreparable wrong to her fellow-creature.

When she went out she met Miss Gleason half-way down the corridor to Mrs. Maynard's door. The latter had a book in her hand, and came forward whispering. "She's asleep," she said very sibilantly. "I have read her to sleep, and she's sleeping beautifully. Have you ever read it?" she asked, with hoarse breaks from her undertone, as she held up one of those cheap library-editions of a novel toward Grace.

"Jane Eyre? Why, of course. Long ago."

"So have I," said Miss Gleason. "But I sent and got it again, to refresh my impressions of Rochester. We all think Dr. Mulbridge is just like him. Rochester is my ideal character,—a perfect conception of a man: so abrupt, so rough, so savage. Oh, I like those men! Don't you?" she fluted. "Mrs. Maynard sees the resemblance, as well as the rest of us. But I know! You don't approve of them. I suppose they can't be defended on some grounds; but I can see how, even in such a case as this, the perfect mastery of the man-physician constitutes the highest usefulness of the woman-physician. The advancement of women must be as women. 'Male and female created he them,' and it is only in remembering this that we are helping Gawd, whether as an anthropomorphic conception or a universally pervading instinct of love, don't you think?"

With her novel clapped against her breast, she leaned winningly over toward Grace, and fixed her with her wide eyes, which had rings of white round the pupils.

"Do tell me!" she ran on without waiting an answer. "Didn't you go with Mr. Libby because you hoped it might storm, and wished to take the same risk as Mrs. Maynard? I told Mrs. Alger you did!"

Grace flushed guiltily, and Miss Gleason cowered a little, perhaps interpreting the color as resentment. "I should consider that a very silly motive," she said, helplessly ashamed that she was leaving the weight of the blow upon Miss Gleason's shoulders instead of her own.

"Of course," said Miss Gleason enthusiastically, "you can't confess it. But I know you are capable of such a thing—of anything heroic! Do forgive me," she said, seizing Grace's hand. She held it a moment, gazing with a devouring fondness into her face, which she stooped a little sidewise to peer up into. Then she quickly dropped her hand, and, whirling away, glided slimly out of the corridor.

Grace softly opened Mrs. Maynard's door, and the sick woman opened her eyes. "I was n't asleep," she said hoarsely, "but I had to pretend to be, or that woman would have killed me."

Grace went to her and felt her hands and her flushed forehead.

"I am worse this evening," said Mrs. Maynard.

"Oh, no," sighed the girl, dropping into a chair at the bedside, with her eyes fixed in a sort of fascination on the lurid face of the sick woman.

"After getting me here," continued Mrs. Maynard, in the same low, hoarse murmur, "you might at least stay with me a little. What kept you so long?"

"The wind fell. We were becalmed."

"We were not becalmed the day I went out with Mr. Libby. But perhaps nobody forced you to go."

Having launched this dart, she closed her eyes again with something more like content than she had yet shown: it had an aim of which she could always be sure.

"We have heard from Mr. Maynard," said Grace humbly. "There was a despatch waiting for Mr. Libby at Leyden. He is on his way."

Mrs. Maynard betrayed no immediate effect of this other than to say, "He had better hurry," and did not open her eyes.

Grace went about the room with a leaden weight in every fibre, putting the place in order, and Mrs. Maynard did not speak again till she had finished. Then she said, "I want you to tell me just how bad Dr. Mulbridge thinks I am."

"He has never expressed any anxiety," Grace began, with her inaptness at evasion.

"Of course he has n't," murmured the sick woman. "He isn't a fool! What does he say?"

This passed the sufferance even of remorse. "He says you mustn't talk," the girl flashed out. "And if you insist upon doing so, I will leave you, and send some one else to take care of you."

"Very well, then. I know what that means. When a doctor tells you not to talk, it's because he knows he can't do you any good. As soon as George Maynard gets here I will have some one that can cure me, or I will know the reason why." The conception of her husband as a champion seemed to commend him to her in novel degree. She shed some tears, and after a little reflection she asked, "How soon will he be here?"

"I don't know," said Grace. "He seems to have started yesterday morning."

"He can be here by day after to-morrow," Mrs. Maynard computed. "There will be some one to look after poor little Bella then," she added, as if, during her sickness, Bella must have been wholly neglected. "Don't let the child be all dirt when her father comes."

"Mother will look after Bella," Grace replied, too meek again to resent the implication. After a pause, "Oh, Louise," she added beseechingly, "I've suffered so much from my own wrong-headedness and obstinacy that I couldn't bear to see you taking the same risk, and I'm so glad that you are going to meet your husband in the right spirit."

"What right spirit?" croaked Mrs. Maynard.

"The wish to please him, to"—

"I don't choose to have him say that his child disgraces him," replied Mrs. Maynard, in the low, husky, monotonous murmur in which she was obliged to utter everything.

"But, dear Louise!" cried the other, "you choose something else too, don't you? You wish to meet him as if no unkindness had parted you, and as if you were to be always together after this? I hope you do! Then I should feel that all this suffering and, trouble was a mercy."

"Other people's misery is always a mercy to them," hoarsely suggested Mrs. Maynard.

"Yes, I know that," Grace submitted, with meek conviction. "But, Louise," she pleaded, "you will make up with your husband, won't you? Whatever he has done, that will surely be best. I know that you love him, and that he must love you, yet. It's the only way. If you were finally separated from him, and you and he could be happy apart, what would become of that poor child? Who will take a father's place with her? That's the worst about it. Oh, Louise, I feel so badly for you—for what you have lost, and may lose. Marriage must change people so that unless they live to each other, their lives will be maimed and useless. It ought to be so much easier to forgive any wrong your husband does you than to punish it; for that perpetuates the wrong, and forgiveness ends it, and it's the only thing that can end a wrong. I am sure that your husband will be ready to do or say anything you wish; but if he shouldn't, Louise, you will receive him forgivingly, and make the first advance? It's a woman's right to make the advances in forgiving."

Mrs. Maynard lay with her hands stretched at her side under the covering, and only her face visible above it. She now turned her head a little, so as to pierce the earnest speaker with a gleam from her dull eye. "Have you accepted Walter Libby?" she asked.

"Louise!" cried Grace, with a blush that burned like fire.

"That's the way I used to talk when I was first engaged. Wait till you're married a while. I want Bella to have on her pique, and her pink sash,—not the cherry one. I should think you would have studied to be a minister instead of a doctor. But you need n't preach to me; I shall know how to behave to George Maynard when he comes,—if he ever does come. And now I should think you had made me talk enough!"

"Yes, Yes," said Grace, recalled to her more immediate duty in alarm.

All her helpfulness was soon to be needed. The disease, which had lingered more than usual in the early stages, suddenly approached a crisis. That night Mrs. Maynard grew so much worse that Grace sent Libby at daybreak for Dr. Mulbridge; and the young man, after leading out his own mare to see if her lameness had abated, ruefully put her back in the stable, and set off to Corbitant with the splay-foot at a rate of speed unparalleled, probably, in the animal's recollection of a long and useful life. In the two anxious days that followed, Libby and Grace were associated in the freedom of a common interest outside of themselves; she went to him for help and suggestion, and he gave them, as if nothing had passed to restrict or embarrass their relations. There was that, in fact, in the awe of the time and an involuntary disoccupation of hers that threw them together even more constantly than before. Dr. Mulbridge remained with his patient well into the forenoon; in the afternoon he came again, and that night he did not go away. He superseded Grace as a nurse no less completely than he had displaced her as a physician. He let her relieve him when he flung himself down for a few minutes' sleep, or when he went out for the huge meals which he devoured, preferring the unwholesome things with a depravity shocking to the tender physical consciences of the ladies who looked on; but when he returned to his charge, he showed himself jealous of all that Grace had done involving the exercise of more than a servile discretion. When she asked him once if there were nothing else that she could do, he said, "fires, keep those women and children quiet," in a tone that classed her with both. She longed to ask him what he thought of Mrs. May nard's condition; but she had not the courage to invoke the intelligence that ignored her so completely, and she struggled in silence with such disheartening auguries as her theoretical science enabled her to make.

The next day was a Sunday, and the Sabbath hush which always hung over Jocelyn's was intensified to the sense of those who ached between hope and fear for the life that seemed to waver and flicker in that still air. Dr. Mulbridge watched beside his patient, noting every change with a wary intelligence which no fact escaped and no anxiety clouded; alert, gentle, prompt; suffering no question, and absolutely silent as to all impressions. He allowed Grace to remain with him when she liked, and let her do his bidding in minor matters; but when from time to time she escaped from the intolerable tension in which his reticence and her own fear held her, he did not seem to see whether she went or came. Toward nightfall she met him coming out of Mrs. Maynard's room, as she drew near in the narrow corridor.

"Where is your friend—the young man—the one who smokes?" he asked, as if nothing unusual had occupied him. "I want him to give me a cigar."

"Dr. Mulbridge," she said, "I will not bear this any longer. I must know the worst—you have no right to treat me in this way. Tell me now—tell me instantly: will she live?"

He looked at her with an imaginable apprehension of hysterics, but as she continued firm, and placed herself resolutely in his way, he relaxed his scrutiny, and said, with a smile, "Oh, I think so. What made you think she would n't?"

She drew herself aside, and made way far him.

"Go!" she cried. She would have said more, but her indignation choked her.

He did not pass at once, and he did not seem troubled at her anger. "Dr. Breen," he said, "I saw a good deal of pneumonia in the army, and I don't remember a single case that was saved by the anxiety of the surgeon."

He went now, as people do when they fancy themselves to have made a good point; and she heard him asking Barlow for Libby, outside, and then walking over the gravel toward the stable. At that moment she doubted and hated him so much that she world have been glad to keep Libby from talking or even smoking with him. But she relented a little toward him afterwards, when he returned and resumed the charge of his patient with the gentle, vigilant cheerfulness which she had admired in him from the first, omitting no care and betraying none. He appeared to take it for granted that Grace saw an improvement, but he recognized it by nothing explicit till he rose and said, "I think I will leave Mrs. Maynard with you to-night, Dr. Breen."

The sick woman's eyes turned to him imploringly from her pillow, and Grace spoke the terror of both when she faltered in return, "Are you—you are not going home?"

"I shall sleep in the house."

"Oh, thank you!" she cried fervently.

"And you can call me if you wish. But there won't be any occasion. Mrs. Maynard is very much better." He waited to give, in a sort of absent-minded way, certain directions. Then he went out, and Grace sank back into the chair from which she had started at his rising, and wept long and silently with a hidden face. When she took away her hands and dried her tears, she saw Mrs. Maynard beckoning to her. She went to the bedside.

"What is it, dear?" she asked tenderly.

"Stoop down," whispered the other; and as Grace bowed her ear Mrs. Maynard touched her cheek with her dry lips. In this kiss doubtless she forgave the wrong which she had hoarded in her heart, and there perverted into a deadly injury. But they both knew upon what terms the pardon was accorded, and that if Mrs. Maynard had died, she would have died holding Grace answerable for her undoing.

William Dean Howells

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