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Chapter 9

In the morning Dr. Mulbridge drove back to Corbitant, and in the evening Libby came over from New Leyden with Maynard, in a hired wagon. He was a day later than his wife had computed, but as she appeared to have reflected, she had left the intervening Sunday out of her calculation; this was one of the few things she taxed herself to say. For the rest, she seemed to be hoarding her strength against his coming.

Grace met him at a little distance from the house, whither she had walked with Bella, for a breath of the fresh air after her long day in the sick-room, and did not find him the boisterous and jovial Hoosier she had imagined him. It was, in fact, hardly the moment for the expression of Western humor. He arrived a sleep-broken, travel-creased figure, with more than the Western man's usual indifference to dress; with sad, dull eyes, and an untrimmed beard that hung in points and tags, and thinly hid the corners of a large mouth. He took her hand laxly in his, and bowing over her from his lank height listened to her report of his wife's state, while he held his little girl on his left arm, and the child fondly pressed her cheek against his bearded face, to which he had quietly lifted her as soon as he alighted from Libby's buggy.

Libby introduced Grace as Dr. Breen, and drove on, and Maynard gave her the title whenever he addressed her, with a perfect effect of single-mindedness in his gravity, as if it were an every-day thing with him to meet young ladies who were physicians. He had a certain neighborly manner of having known her a long time, and of being on good terms with her; and somewhere there resided in his loosely knit organism a powerful energy. She had almost to run in keeping at his side, as he walked on to the house, carrying his little girl on his arm, and glancing about him; and she was not sure at last that she had succeeded in making him understand how serious the case had been.

"I don't know whether I ought to let you go in," she said, "without preparing her."

"She's been expecting me, has n't she?" he asked.

"Yes, but"—

"And she's awake?"

"Then I'll just go in and prepare her myself. I'm a pretty good hand at preparing people to meet me. You've a beautiful location here, Dr. Breen; and your town has a chance to grow. I like to see a town have some chance," he added, with a sadness past tears in his melancholy eyes. "Bella can show me the way to the room, I reckon," he said, setting the little one down on the piazza, and following her indoors; and when Grace ventured, later, to knock at the door, Maynard's voice bade her come in.

He sat beside his wife's pillow, with her hand in his left; on his right arm perched the little girl, and rested her head on his shoulder. They did not seem to have been talking, and they did not move when Grace entered the room. But, apparently, Mrs. Maynard had known how to behave to George Maynard, and peace was visibly between them.

"Now, you tell me about the medicines, Dr. Breen, and then you go and get some rest," said Maynard in his mild, soothing voice. "I used to understand Mrs. Maynard's ways pretty well, and I can take care of her. Libby told me all about you and your doings, and I know you must feel as pale as you look."

"But you can't have had any sleep on the way," Grace began.

"Sleep?" Maynard repeated, looking wanly at her. "I never sleep. I'd as soon think of digesting."

After she had given him the needed instructions he rose from the rocking-chair in-which he had been softly swinging to and fro, and followed her out into the corridor, caressing with his large hand the child that lay on his shoulder. "Of course," she said, "Mrs. Maynard is still very sick, and needs the greatest care and attention."

"Yes, I understand that. But I reckon it will come out all right in the end," he said, with the optimistic fatalism which is the real religion of our orientalizing West. "Good-night, doctor."

She went away, feeling suddenly alone in this exclusion from the cares that had absorbed her. There was no one on the piazza, which the moonlight printed with the shadows of the posts and the fanciful jigsaw work of the arches between them. She heard a step on the sandy walk round the corner, and waited wistfully.

It was Barlow who came in sight, as she knew at once, but she asked, "Mr. Barlow?"

"Yes'm," said Barlow. "What can I do for you?"

"Nothing. I thought it might be Mr. Libby at first. Do you know where he is?"

"Well, I know where he ain't," said Barlow; and having ineffectually waited to be questioned further, he added, "He ain't here, for one place. He's gone back to Leyden. He had to take that horse back."

"Oh!" she said.

"N' I guess he's goin' to stay."

"To stay? Where?"

"Well, there you've got me again. All I know is I've got to drive that mare of his'n over to-morrow, if I can git off, and next day if I can't. Did n't you know he was goin'?" asked Barlow, willing to recompense himself for the information he had given.

"Well!" he added sympathetically, at a little hesitation of hers:

Then she said, "I knew he must go. Good-night, Mr. Barlow," and went indoors. She remembered that he had said he would go as soon as Maynard came, and that she had consented that this would be best. But his going now seemed abrupt, though she approved it. She thought that she had something more to say to him, which might console him or reconcile him; she could not think what this was, but it left an indefinite longing, an unsatisfied purpose in her heart; and there was somewhere a tremulous sense of support withdrawn. Perhaps this was a mechanical effect of the cessation of her anxiety for Mrs. Maynard, which had been a support as well as a burden. The house was strangely quiet, as if some great noise had just been hushed, and it seemed empty. She felt timid in her room, but she dreaded the next day more than the dark. Her life was changed, and the future, which she had once planned so clearly, and had felt so strong to encounter, had fallen to a ruin, in which she vainly endeavored to find some clew or motive of the past. She felt remanded to the conditions of the girlhood that she fancied she had altogether outlived; she turned her face upon her pillow in a grief of bewildered aspiration and broken pride, and shed tears scarcely predicable of a doctor of medicine.

But there is no lapse or aberration of character which can be half so surprising to others as it is to one's self. She had resented Libby's treating her upon a theory, but she treated herself upon a theory, and we all treat ourselves upon a theory. We proceed each of us upon the theory that he is very brave, or generous, or gentle, or liberal, or truthful, or loyal, or just. We may have the defects of our virtues, but nothing is more certain than that we have our virtues, till there comes a fatal juncture, not at all like the juncture in which we had often imagined ourselves triumphing against temptation. It passes, and the hero finds, to his dismay and horror, that he has run away; the generous man has been niggard; the gentleman has behaved like a ruffian, and the liberal like a bigot; the champion of truth has foolishly and vainly lied; the steadfast friend has betrayed his neighbor, the just person has oppressed him. This is the fruitful moment, apparently so sterile, in which character may spring and flower anew; but the mood of abject humility in which the theorist of his own character is plunged and struggles for his lost self-respect is full of deceit for others. It cannot last: it may end in disowning and retrieving the error, or it may end in justifying it, and building it into the reconstructed character, as something upon the whole unexpectedly fine; but it must end, for after all it is only a mood. In such a mood, in the anguish of her disappointment at herself, a woman clings to whatever support offers, and it is at his own risk that the man who chances to be this support accepts the weight with which she casts herself upon him as the measure of her dependence, though he may make himself necessary to her, if he has the grace or strength to do it.

Without being able to understand fully the causes of the dejection in which this girl seemed to appeal to him, Mulbridge might well have believed himself the man to turn it in his favor. If he did not sympathize with her distress, or even clearly divine it, still his bold generalizations, he found, always had their effect with women, whose natures are often to themselves such unknown territory that a man who assumes to know them has gone far to master them. He saw that a rude moral force alone seemed to have a charm with his lady patients,—women who had been bred to ease and wealth, and who had cultivated, if not very disciplined, minds. Their intellectual dissipation had apparently made them a different race from the simpler-hearted womenkind of his neighbors, apt to judge men in a sharp ignorance of what is fascinating in heroes; and it would not be strange if he included Grace in the sort of contemptuous amusement with which he regarded these-flatteringly dependent and submissive invalids. He at least did not conceive of her as she conceived of herself; but this may be impossible to any man with regard to any woman.

With his experience of other women's explicit and even eager obedience, the resistance which he had at first encountered in Grace gave zest to her final submission. Since he had demolished the position she had attempted to hold against him, he liked her for having imagined she could hold it; and she had continued to pique and interest him. He relished all her scruples and misgivings, and the remorse she had tried to confide to him; and if his enjoyment of these foibles of hers took too little account of her pain, it was never his characteristic to be tender of people in good health. He was, indeed, as alien to her Puritan spirit as if he had been born in Naples instead of Corbitant. He came of one of those families which one finds in nearly every New England community, as thoroughly New England in race as the rest, but flourishing in a hardy scepticism and contempt of the general sense. Whatever relation such people held to the old Puritan commonwealth when Puritanism was absolute, they must later have taken an active part in its disintegration, and were probably always a destructive force at its heart.

Mulbridge's grandfather was one of the last captains who sailed a slaver from Corbitant. When this commerce became precarious, he retired from the seas, took a young wife in second marriage, and passed his declining days in robust inebriety. He lived to cast a dying vote for General Jackson, and his son, the first Dr. Mulbridge, survived to illustrate the magnanimity of his fellow-townsmen during the first year of the civil war, as a tolerated Copperhead. Then he died, and his son, who was in the West, looking up a location for practice, was known to have gone out as surgeon with one of the regiments there. It was not supposed that he went from patriotism; but when he came back, a year before the end of the struggle, and settled in his native place, his service in the army was accepted among his old neighbors as evidence of a better disposition of some sort than had hitherto been attributable to any of his name.

In fact, the lazy, good-natured boy, whom they chiefly remembered before his college days, had always been well enough liked among those who had since grown to be first mates and ship captains in the little port where he was born and grew up. They had now all retired from the sea, and, having survived its manifold perils, were patiently waiting to be drowned in sail-boats on the bay. They were of the second generation of ships' captains still living in Corbitant; but they would be the last. The commerce of the little port had changed into the whaling trade in their time; this had ceased in turn, and the wharves had rotted away. Dr. Mulbridge found little practice among them; while attending their appointed fate, they were so thoroughly salted against decay as to preserve even their families. But he gradually gathered into his hands, from the clairvoyant and the Indian doctor, the business which they had shared between them since his father's death. There was here and there a tragical case of consumption among the farming families along the coast, and now and then a frightful accident among the fishermen; the spring and autumn brought their typhoid; the city people who came down to the neighboring hotels were mostly sick, or fell sick; and with the small property his father had left, he and his mother contrived to live.

They dwelt very harmoniously together; for his mother, who had passed more than a quarter of a century in strong resistance to her husband's will, had succumbed, as not uncommonly happens with such women, to the authority of her son, whom she had no particular pleasure or advantage in thwarting. In the phrase and belief of his neighbors, he took after her, rather than his father; but there was something ironical and baffling in him, which the local experts could not trace to either the Mulbridges or the Gardiners. They had a quiet, indifferent faith in his ability to make himself a position and name anywhere; but they were not surprised that he had come back to live in Corbitant, which was so manifestly the best place in the world, and which, if somewhat lacking in opportunity, was ample in the leisure they believed more congenial to him than success. Some of his lady patients at the hotels, who felt at times that they could not live without him, would have carried him back to the city with them by a gentle violence; but there was nothing in anything he said or did that betrayed ambition on his part. He liked to hear them talk, especially of their ideas of progress, as they called them, at which, with the ready adaptability of their sex, they joined him in laughing when they found that he could not take them seriously. The social, the emotional expression of the new scientific civilization struck him as droll, particularly in respect to the emancipation of women; and he sometimes gave these ladies the impression that he did not value woman's intellect at its true worth. He was far from light treatment of them, he was considerate of the distances that should be guarded; but he conveyed the sense of his scepticism as to their fitness for some things to which the boldest of them aspired.

His mother would have been willing to have him go to the city if he wished, but she was too ignorant of the world outside of Corbitant to guess at his possibilities in it, and such people as she had seen from it had not pleased her with it. Those summer-boarding lady patients who came to see him were sometimes suffered to wait with her till he came in, and they used to tell her how happy she must be to keep such a son with her, and twittered their patronage of her and her nice old-fashioned parlor, and their praises of his skill in such wise against her echoless silence that she conceived a strong repugnance for all their tribe, in which she naturally included Grace when she appeared. She had decided the girl to be particularly forth-putting, from something prompt and self-reliant in her manner that day; and she viewed with tacit disgust her son's toleration of a handsome young woman who had taken up a man's profession. They were not people who gossiped together, or confided in each other, and she would have known nothing and asked nothing from him about her, further than she had seen for herself. But Barlow had folks, as he called them, at Corbitant; and without her own connivance she had heard from them of all that was passing at Jocelyn's.

It was her fashion to approach any subject upon which she wished her son to talk as if they had already talked of it, and he accepted this convention with a perfect understanding that she thus expressed at once her deference to him and her resolution to speak whether he liked it or not. She had not asked him about Mrs. Maynard's sickness, or shown any interest in it; but after she learned from the Barlows that she was no longer in danger, she said to her son one morning, before he drove away upon his daily visit, "Is her husband going to stay with her, or is he going back?"

"I don't know, really," he answered, glancing at her where she sat erect across the table from him, with her hand on the lid of the coffee-pot, and her eyes downcast; it was the face of silent determination not to be put off, which he knew. "I don't suppose you care, mother," he added pleasantly.

"She's nothing to me," she assented. "What's that friend of hers going to do?"

"Which friend?"

"You know. The one that came after you."

"Oh! Dr. Breen. Yes. What did you think of her?"

"I don't see why you call her doctor."

"Oh, I do it out of politeness. Besides, she is one sort of doctor. Little pills," he added, with an enjoyment of his mother's grimness on this point.

"I should like to see a daughter of mine pretending to be a doctor," said Mrs. Mulbridge.

"Then you would n't like Dr. Breen for a daughter," returned her son, in the same tone as before.

"She wouldn't like me for a mother," Mrs. Mulbridge retorted.

Her son laughed, and helped himself to more baked beans and a fresh slice of rye-and-Indian. He had the homely tastes and the strong digestion of the people from whom he sprung; and he handed his cup to be filled with his mother's strong coffee in easy defiance of consequences. As he took it back from her he said, "I should like to see you and Mrs. Breen together. You would make a strong team." He buttered his bread, with another laugh in appreciation of his conceit. "If you happened to pull the same way. If you did n't, something would break. Mrs. Breen is a lady of powerful convictions. She thinks you ought to be good, and you ought to be very sorry for it, but not so sorry as you ought to be for being happy. I don't think she has given her daughter any reason to complain on the last score." He broke into his laugh again, and watched his mother's frown with interest. "I suspect that she does n't like me very well. You could meet on common ground there: you don't like her daughter."

"They must be a pair of them," said Mrs. Mulbridge immovably. "Did her mother like her studying for a doctor?"

"Yes, I understand so. Her mother is progressive she believes in the advancement of women; she thinks the men would oppress them if they got a chance."

"If one half the bold things that are running about the country had masters it would be the best thing," said Mrs. Mulbridge, opening the lid of the coffee-pot, and clapping it to with force, after a glance inside.

"That's where Mrs. Green wouldn't agree with you. Perhaps because it would make the bold things happy to have masters, though she does n't say so. Probably she wants the women to have women doctors so they won't be so well, and can have more time to think whether they have been good or not. You ought to hear some of the ladies over there talk, mother."

"I have heard enough of their talk."

"Well, you ought to hear Miss Gleason. There are very few things that Miss Gleason does n't think can be done with cut flowers, from a wedding to a funeral."

Mrs. Mulbridge perceived that her son was speaking figuratively of Miss Gleason's sentimentality, but she was not very patient with the sketch he, enjoyed giving of her. "Is she a friend of that Breen girl's?" she interrupted to ask.

"She's an humble friend, an admirer, a worshipper. The Breen girl is her ideal woman. She thinks the Breen girl is so superior to any man living that she would like to make a match for her." His mother glanced sharply at him, but he went on in the tone of easy generalization, and with a certain pleasure in the projection of these strange figures against her distorting imagination: "You see, mother, that the most advanced thinkers among those ladies are not so very different, after all, from you old-fashioned people. When they try to think of the greatest good fortune that can befall an ideal woman, it is to have her married. The only trouble is to find a man good enough; and if they can't find one, they're apt to invent one. They have strong imaginations."

"I should think they would make you sick, amongst them," said his mother. "Are you going to have anything more to eat?" she asked, with a housekeeper's latent impatience to get her table cleared away.

"Yes," said Dr. Mulbridge; "I have n't finished yet. And I'm in no hurry this morning. Sit still, mother; I want you to hear something more about my lady friends at Jocelyn's. Dr. Breen's mother and Miss Gleason don't feel alike about her. Her mother thinks she was weak in giving up Mrs. Maynard's case to me; but Miss Gleason told me about their discussion, and she thinks it is the great heroic act of Dr. Breen's life."

"It showed some sense, at least," Mrs. Mulbridge replied. She had tacitly offered to release her son from telling her anything when she had made her motion to rise; if he chose to go on now, it was his own affair. She handed him the plate of biscuit, and he took one.

"It showed inspiration, Miss Gleason says. The tears came into her eyes; I understood her to say it was godlike. 'And only to think, doctor,'" he continued, with a clumsy, but unmistakable suggestion of Miss Gleason's perfervid manner, "'that such a girl should be dragged down by her own mother to the level of petty, every-day cares and duties, and should be blamed for the most beautiful act of self-sacrifice! Is n't it too bad?'"

"Rufus, Rufus!" cried his mother, "I can't stun' it! Stop!"

"Oh, Dr. Breen is n't so bad—not half so divine as Miss Gleason thinks her. And Mrs. Maynard does n't consider her surrendering the case an act of self-sacrifice at all."

"I should hope not!" said Mrs. Mulbridge. "I guess she would n't have been alive to tell the tale, if it had n't been for you."

"Oh, you can't be sure of that. You must n't believe too much in doctors, mother. Mrs. Maynard is pretty tough. And she's had wonderfully good nursing. You've only heard the Barlow side of the matter," said her sun, betraying now for the first time that he had been aware of any knowledge of it on her part. That was their way: though they seldom told each other anything, and went on as if they knew nothing of each other's affairs, yet when they recognized this knowledge it was without surprise on either side. "I could tell you a different story. She's a very fine girl, mother; cool and careful under instruction, and perfectly tractable and intelligent. She's as different from those other women you've seen as you are. You would like her!" He had suddenly grown earnest, and crushing the crust of a biscuit in the strong left hand which he rested on the table, he gazed keenly at her undemonstrative face. "She's no baby, either. She's got a will and a temper of her own. She's the only one of them I ever saw that was worth her salt."

"I thought you did n't like self-willed women," said his mother impassively.

"She knows when to give up," he answered, with unrelaxed scrutiny.

His mother did not lift her eyes, yet. "How long shall you have to visit over there?"

"I've made my last professional visit."

"Where are you going this morning?"

"To Jocelyn's."

Mrs. Mulbridge now looked up, and met her son's eye. "What makes you think she'll have you?"

He did not shrink at her coming straight to the point the moment the way was clear. He had intended it, and he liked it. But he frowned a little as he said, "Because I want her to have me, for one thing." His jaw closed heavily, but his face lost a certain brutal look almost as quickly as it had assumed it. "I guess," he said, with a smile, "that it's the only reason I've got."

"You no need to say that," said his mother, resenting the implication that any woman would not have him.

"Oh, I'm not pretty to look at, mother, and I'm not particularly young; and for a while I thought there might be some one, else."

"Who?"

"The young fellow that came with her, that day."

"That whipper-snapper?"

Dr. Mulbridge assented by his silence. "But I guess I was mistaken. I guess he's tried and missed it. The field is 'clear, for all I can see. And she's made a failure in one way, and then you know a woman is in the humor to try it in another. She wants a good excuse for giving up. That's what I think."

"Well," said his mother, "I presume you know what you're about, Rufus!"

She took up the coffee-pot on the lid of which she had been keeping her hand, and went into the kitchen with it. She removed the dishes, and left him sitting before the empty table-cloth. When she came for that, he took hold of her hand, and looked up into her face, over which a scarcely discernible tremor passed. "Well, mother?"

"It's what I always knew I had got to come to, first or last. And I suppose I ought to feel glad enough I did n't have to come to it at first."

"No!" said her son. "I'm not a stripling any longer." He laughed, keeping his mother's hand.

She freed it and taking up the table-cloth folded it lengthwise and then across, and laid it neatly away in the cupboard. "I sha'n't interfere with you, nor any woman that you bring here to be your wife. I've had my day, and I'm not one of the old fools that think they're going to have and to hold forever. You've always been a good boy to me, and I guess you hain't ever had to complain' of your mother stan'in' in your way. I sha'n't now. But I did think—"

She stopped and shut her lips firmly. "Speak up, mother!" he cried.

"I guess I better not," she answered, setting her chair back against the wall.

"I know what you mean. You mean about my laughing at women that try to take men's places in the world. Well, I did laugh at them. They're ridiculous. I don't want to marry this girl because she's a doctor. That was the principal drawback, in my mind. But it does n't make any difference, and wouldn't now, if she was a dozen doctors."

His mother let down the leaves of the table, and pushed it against the wall, and he rose from the chair in which he was left sitting in the middle of the room. "I presume," she said, with her back toward him, as she straightened the table accurately against the mopboard, "that you can let me have the little house at Grant's Corner."

"Why, mother!" he cried. "You don't suppose I should ever let you be turned out of house and home? You can stay here as long as you live. But it has n't come to that, yet. I don't know that she cares anything about me. But there are chances, and there are signs. The chances are that she won't have the courage to take up her plan of life again, and that she'll consider any other that's pressed home upon her. And I take it for a good sign that she's sent that fellow adrift. If her mind had n't been set on some one else, she'd have taken him, in this broken-up state of hers. Besides, she has formed the habit of doing what I say, and there's a great deal in mere continuity of habit. It will be easier for her to say yes than to say no; it would be very hard for her to say no."

While he eagerly pressed these arguments his mother listened stonily, without apparent interest or sympathy. But at the end she asked, "How are you going to support a wife? Your practice here won't do it. Has she got anything?"

"She has property, I believe," replied her son. "She seems to have been brought up in that way."

"She won't want to come and live here, then. She'll have notions of her own. If she's like the rest of them, she'll never have you."

"If she were like the rest of them, I'd never have her. But she is n't. As far as I'm concerned, it's nothing against her that she's studied medicine. She did n't do it from vanity, or ambition, or any abnormal love of it. She did it, so far so I can find out, because she wished to do good that way. She's been a little notional, she's had her head addled by women's talk, and she's in a queer freak; but it's only a girl's freak after all: you can't say anything worse of her. She's a splendid woman, and her property's neither here nor there. I could support her."

"I presume," replied his mother, "that she's been used to ways that ain't like our ways. I've always stuck up for you, Rufus, stiff enough, I guess; but I ain't agoin' to deny that you're country born and bred. I can see that, and she can see it, too. It makes a great difference with girls. I don't know as she'd call you what they call a gentleman."

Dr. Mulbridge flushed angrily. Every American, of whatever standing or breeding, thinks of himself as a gentleman, and nothing can gall him more than the insinuation that he is less. "What do you mean, mother?"

"You hain't ever been in such ladies' society as hers in the same way. I know that they all think the world of you, and flatter you up, and they're as biddable as you please when you're doctorin' 'em; but I guess it would be different if you was to set up for one of their own kind amongst 'em."

"There is n't one of them," he retorted, "that I don't believe I could have for the turn of my hand, especially if it was doubled into a fist. They like force."

"Oh, you've only seen the sick married ones. I guess you'll find a well girl is another thing."

"They're all alike. And I think I should be something of a relief if I was n't like what she's been used to hearing called a gentleman; she'd prefer me on that account. But if you come to blood, I guess the Mulbridges and Gardiner, can hold up their heads with the best, anywhere."

"Yes, like the Camfers and Rafllins." These were people of ancestral consequence and local history, who had gone up to Boston from Corbitant, and had succeeded severally as green-grocers and retail dry-goods men, with the naturally attendant social distinction.

"Pshaw!" cried her son. "If she cares for me at all, she won't care for the cut of my clothes, or my table manners."

"Yes, that's so. 'T ain't on my account that I want you should make sure she doos care."

He looked hard at her immovable face, with its fallen eyes, and then went out of the room. He never quarrelled with his mother, because his anger, like her own, was dumb, and silenced him as it mounted. Her misgivings had stung him deeply, and at the bottom of his indolence and indifference was a fiery pride, not easily kindled, but unquenchable. He flung the harness upon his old unkempt horse, and tackled him to the mud-encrusted buggy, for whose shabbiness he had never cared before. He was tempted to go back into the house, and change his uncouth Canada homespun coat for the broadcloth frock which he wore when he went to Boston; but he scornfully resisted it, and drove off in his accustomed figure.

His mother's last words repeated themselves to him, and in that dialogue, in which he continued to dramatize their different feelings, he kept replying, "Well, the way to find out whether she cares is to ask her."

William Dean Howells

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