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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Web of Life By Robert Herrick Characters: 15807

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The Hitchcocks and the Sommerses came from the same little village in Maine; they had moved west, about the same time, a few years before the Civil War: Alexander Hitchcock to Chicago; the senior Dr. Sommers to Marion, Ohio. Alexander Hitchcock had been colonel of the regiment in which Isaac Sommers served as surgeon. Although the families had seen little of one another since the war, yet Alexander Hitchcock's greeting to the young doctor when he met the latter in Paris had been more than cordial. Something in the generous, lingering hand-shake of the Chicago merchant had made the younger man feel the strength of old ties.

"I knew your mother," Colonel Hitchcock had said, smiling gently into the young student's face. "I knew her very well, and your father, too,-he was a brave man, a remarkable man."

He had sympathetically rolled the hand he still retained in his broad palm.

"If Marion had only been Chicago! You say he died two years ago? And your mother long ago? Where will you settle?"

With this abrupt question, Dr. Sommers was taken at once into a kindly intimacy with the Hitchcocks. Not long after this chance meeting there came to the young surgeon an offer of a post at St. Isidore's. In the vacillating period of choice, the successful merchant's counsel had had a good deal of influence with Sommers. And his persistent kindliness since the choice had been made had done much to render the first year in Chicago agreeable. 'We must start you right,' he had seemed to say. 'We mustn't lose you.'

Those pleasant days in Paris had been rendered more memorable to the young doctor by the friendship that came about between him and Miss Hitchcock-a friendship quite independent of anything her family might feel for him. She let him see that she made her own world, and that she would welcome him as a member of it. Accustomed as he had been only to the primitive daughters of the local society in Marion and Exonia, or the chance intercourse with unassorted women in Philadelphia, where he had taken his medical course, and in European pensions, Louise Hitchcock presented a very definite and delightful picture. That it was but one generation from Hill's Crossing, Maine, to this self-possessed, carefully finished young woman, was unbelievable. Tall and finished in detail, from the delicate hands and fine ears to the sharply moulded chin, she presented a puzzling contrast to the short, thick, sturdy figure of her mother. And her quick appropriation of the blessings of wealth, her immediate enjoyment of the aristocratic assurances that the Hitchcock position had given her in Chicago, showed markedly in contrast with the tentativeness of Mrs. Hitchcock. Louise Hitchcock handled her world with perfect self-command; Mrs. Hitchcock was rather breathless over every manifestation of social change.

Parker Hitchcock, the son, Sommers had not seen until his coming to Chicago. At a first glance, then, he could feel that in the son the family had taken a further leap from the simplicity of the older generation. Incidentally the young man's cool scrutiny had instructed him that the family had not committed Parker Hitchcock to him. Young Hitchcock had returned recently to the family lumber yards on the West Side and the family residence on Michigan Avenue, with about equal disgust, so Sommers judged, for both milieux. Even more than his sister, Parker was conscious of the difference between the old state of things and the new. Society in Chicago was becoming highly organized, a legitimate business of the second generation of wealth. The family had the money to spend, and at Yale in winter, at Newport and Beverly and Bar Harbor in summer, he had learned how to spend it, had watched admiringly how others spent their wealth. He had begun to educate his family in spending,-in using to brilliant advantage the fruits of thirty years' hard work and frugality. With his cousin Caspar Porter he maintained a small polo stable at Lake Hurst, the new country club. On fair days he left the lumber yards at noon, while Alexander Hitchcock was still shut in behind the dusty glass doors of his office. His name was much oftener in the paragraphs of the city press than his parents': he was leading the family to new ideals.

Ideals, Sommers judged, that were not agreeable to old Colonel Hitchcock, slightly menacing even in the eyes of the daughter, whose horizon was wider. Sommers had noticed the little signs of this heated family atmosphere. A mist of undiscussed views hung about the house, out of which flashed now and then a sharp speech, a bitter sigh. He had been at the house a good deal in a thoroughly informal manner. The Hitchcocks rarely entertained in the "new" way, for Mrs. Hitchcock had a terror of formality. A dinner, as she understood it, meant a gathering of a few old friends, much hearty food served in unpretentious abundance, and a very little bad wine. The type of these entertainments had improved lately under Miss Hitchcock's influence, but it remained essentially the same,-an occasion for copious feeding and gossipy, neighborly chat.

To-night, as Sommers approached the sprawling green stone house on Michigan Avenue, there were signs of unusual animation about the entrance. As he reached the steps a hansom deposited the bulky figure of Brome Porter, Mrs. Hitchcock's brother-in-law. The older man scowled interrogatively at the young doctor, as if to say: 'You here? What the devil of a crowd has Alec raked together?' But the two men exchanged essential courtesies and entered the house together.

Porter, Sommers had heard, had once been Alexander Hitchcock's partner in the lumber business, but had withdrawn from the firm years before. Brome Porter was now a banker, as much as he was any one thing. It was easy to see that the pedestrian business of selling lumber would not satisfy Brome Porter. Popularly "rated at five millions," his fortune had not come out of lumber. Alexander Hitchcock, with all his thrift, had not put by over a million. Banking, too, would seem to be a tame enterprise for Brome Porter. Mines, railroads, land speculations-he had put his hand into them all masterfully. Large of limb and awkward, with a pallid, rather stolid face, he looked as if Chicago had laid a heavy hand upon his liver, as if the Carlsbad pilgrimage were a yearly necessity. 'Heavy eating and drinking, strong excitements-too many of them,' commented the professional glance of the doctor. 'Brute force, padded superficially by civilization,' Sommers added to himself, disliking Porter's cold eye shots at him. 'Young man,' his little buried eyes seemed to say, 'young man, if you know what's good for you; if you are the right sort; if you do the proper thing, we'll push you. Everything in this world depends on being in the right carriage.' Sommers was tempted whenever he met him to ask him for a good tip: he seemed always to have just come from New York; and when this barbarian went to Rome, it was for a purpose, which expressed itself sooner or later over the stock-ticker. But the tip had not come yet.

As Sommers was reaching the end of his conversational rope with Porter, other guests arrived. Among them was Dr. Lindsay, a famous specialist in throat diseases. The older doctor nodded genially to Sommers with the air of saying: 'I am so glad to find you here. This is the right place for a promising young man.'

And Sommers in a flash suspected why he had been bidden: the good-natured Miss Hitchcock wished to bring him a little closer to this influential member of his profession.

"Shall we wait for them?" Dr. Lindsay asked, joining Sommers. "Porter has got hold of Carson, and they'll keep up their stories until some one hauls them out. My wife and daughter have already gone down. How is St. Isidore's?"

"I left to-day. My term is up. I feel homesick already," the young docto

r answered with a smile. "Chicago is so big," he added. "I didn't know it before."

"It's quite a village, quite a village," Dr. Lindsay answered thoughtfully. "We'll have some more talk later, won't we?" he added confidentially, as they passed downstairs.

The Hitchcock house revealed itself in the floods of electric light as large and undeniably ugly. Built before artistic ambitions and cosmopolitan architects had undertaken to soften American angularities, it was merely a commodious building, ample enough for a dozen Hitchcocks to loll about in. Decoratively, it might be described as a museum of survivals from the various stages of family history. At each advance in prosperity, in social ideals, some of the former possessions had been swept out of the lower rooms to the upper stories, in turn to be ousted by their more modern neighbors. Thus one might begin with the rear rooms of the third story to study the successive deposits. There the billiard chairs once did service in the old home on the West Side. In the hall beside the Westminster clock stood a "sofa," covered with figured velours. That had once adorned the old Twentieth Street drawing-room; and thrifty Mrs. Hitchcock had not sufficiently readjusted herself to the new state to banish it to the floor above, where it belonged with some ugly, solid brass andirons. In the same way, faithful Mr. Hitchcock had seen no good reason why he should degrade the huge steel engraving of the Aurora, which hung prominently at the foot of the stairs, in spite of its light oak frame, which was in shocking contrast with the mahogany panels of the walls. Flanking the staircase were other engravings,-Landseer's stags and the inevitable Queen Louise. Yet through the open arch, in a pleasant study, one could see a good Zorn, a Venom portrait, and some prints. This nook, formerly the library, had been given over to the energetic Miss Hitchcock. It was done in Shereton,-imitation, but good imitation. From this vantage point the younger generation planned an extended attack upon the irregular household gods.

Sommers realized for the first time how the Aurora and the Queen Louise must worry Miss Hitchcock; how the neat Swedish maids and the hat-stand in the hall must offend young Hitchcock. The incongruities of the house had never disturbed him. So far as he had noticed them, they accorded well with the simple characters of his host and hostess. In them, as in the house, a keen observer could trace the series of developments that had taken place since they had left Hill's Crossing. Yet the full gray beard with the broad shaved upper lip still gave the Chicago merchant the air of a New England worthy. And Alexander, in contrast with his brother-in-law, had knotty hands and a tanned complexion that years of "inside business" had not sufficed to smooth. The little habit of kneading the palm which you felt when he shook hands, and the broad, humorous smile, had not changed as the years passed him on from success to success. Mrs. Hitchcock still slurred the present participle and indulged in other idiomatic freedoms that endeared her to Sommers. These two, plainly, were not of the generation that is tainted by ambition. Their story was too well known, from the boarding-house struggle to this sprawling stone house, to be worth the varnishing. Indeed, they would not tolerate any such detractions from their well-earned reputation. The Brome Porters might draw distinctions and prepare for a new social aristocracy; but to them old times were sweet and old friends dear.

As the guests gathered in the large "front room," Alexander Hitchcock stood above them, as the finest, most courteous spirit. There was race in him-sweetness and strength and refinement-the qualities of the best manhood of democracy. This effect of simplicity and sweetness was heightened in the daughter, Louise. She had been born in Chicago, in the first years of the Hitchcock fight. She remembered the time when the billiard-room chairs were quite the most noted possessions in the basement and three-story brick house on West Adams Street. She had followed the chairs in the course of the Hitchcock evolution until her aunt had insisted on her being sent east to the Beaumanor Park School. Two years of "refined influences" in this famous establishment, with a dozen other girls from new-rich families, had softened her tones and prolonged her participles, but had touched her not essentially. Though she shared with her younger brother the feeling that the Hitchcocks were not getting the most out of their opportunities, she could understand the older people more than he. If she sympathized with her father's belief that the boy ought to learn to sell lumber, or "do something for himself," yet she liked the fact that he played polo. It was the right thing to be energetic, upright, respected; it was also nice to spend your money as others did. And it was very, very nice to have the money to spend.

To-night, as Sommers came across the hall to the drawing-room, she left the group about the door to welcome him. "Weren't you surprised," she asked him with an ironical laugh, "at the people, I mean-all ages and kinds? You see Parker had to be appeased. He didn't want to stay, and I don't know why he should. So we gave him Laura Lindsay." She nodded good-naturedly in the direction of a young girl, whose sharp thin little face was turned joyfully toward the handsome Parker. "And we added our cousin Caspar, not for conversation, but to give an illusion of youth and gayety. Caspar is the captain of the polo team. By the way, what do you think of polo?"

"I never had occasion to think," the young doctor replied, scrutinizing a heavy, florid-faced young man whom he took to be Caspar Porter.

"Well, polo is with us at breakfast and dinner. Papa doesn't approve, doesn't believe in young men keeping a stable as Caspar does. Mamma doesn't know what she believes. I am arbitrator-it's terrible, the new generation," she broke off whimsically.

"Which has the right of it?" Sommers asked idly. "The fathers who made the money, or the sons who want to enjoy it?"

"Both; neither," she laughed back with an air of comfortable tolerance. She might have added, 'You see, I like both kinds-you and Parker's set.'

"Do you know, Dr. Lindsay is here?"

Sommers smiled as he replied,-

"Yes; was it arranged?"

The girl blushed, and moved away.

"He was anxious to meet you."

"Of course," the doctor replied ironically.

"I could tell you more," she added alluringly.

"I have no doubt. Perhaps you had better not, however."

Miss Hitchcock ceased to smile and looked at him without reply. She had something on the tip of her tongue to tell him, something she had thought of pleasantly for the last three days, but she suspected that this man was not one who would like to take his good fortune from a woman's hand.

"Dr. Lindsay is an old friend; we have known him for years." She spoke neutrally. Sommers merely nodded.

"He is very successful, very," she added, giving in to her desire a little.

"Chicago is a good place for a throat specialist."

"He is said to be the most-"


"You know-has the largest income of any doctor in the city."

Sommers did not reply. At length the girl ventured once more.

"I hope you will be nice to him."

"There won't be any question of it."

"You can be so stiff, so set; I have counted a great deal on this."

"Politics, politics!" Sommers exclaimed awkwardly. "Who is the man with Mr.


"Railway Gazette Carson? That's what he is called. He swallows

railroads-absorbs 'em. He was a lawyer. They have a house on the North

Side and a picture, a Sargent. But I'll keep the story. Come! you must meet

Mrs. Lindsay."

"Politics, politics!" Sommers murmured to himself, as Miss Hitchcock moved across the room.

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