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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Web of Life By Robert Herrick Characters: 13133

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The Athenian Building raises its knife-like facade in the centre of Chicago, thirteen stories in all; to the lake it presents a broad wall of steel and glass. It is a hive of doctors. Layer after layer, their offices rise, circling the gulf of the elevator-well. At the very crown of the building Dr. Frederick H. Lindsay and his numerous staff occupy almost the entire floor. In one corner, however, a small room embedded in the heavy cornice is rented by a dentist, Dr. Ephraim Leonard. The dentist's office is a snug little hole, scarcely large enough for a desk, a chair, a case of instruments, a "laboratory," and a network of electric appliances. From the one broad window the eye rests upon the blue shield of lake; nearer, almost at the foot of the building, run the ribboned tracks of the railroad yards. They disappear to the south in a smoky haze; to the north they end at the foot of a lofty grain elevator. Beyond, factories quietly belch sooty clouds.

Dr. Lindsay coveted this office, but Dr. Leonard clung tenaciously to his little strip, every inch that he could possibly pay rent for. He had been there since that story was finished. The broad view rested him. When he ceased to peer into a patient's mouth, he pushed up his spectacles and took a long look over the lake. Sometimes, if the patient was human and had enough temperament to appreciate his treasure, he would idle away a quarter of an hour chatting, enjoying the sun and the clear air of the lake. When the last patient had gone, he would take the chair and have the view to himself, as from a proscenium box.

The little office was a busy place: besides the patients there were coming and going a stream of people,-agents, canvassers, acquaintances, and promoters of schemes. A scheme was always brewing in the dentist's office. Now it was a plan to exploit a new suburb innumerable miles to the west. Again it was a patent contrivance in dentistry. Sometimes the scheme was nothing more than a risky venture in stocks. These affairs were conducted with an air of great secrecy in violent whisperings, emphasized by blows of the fist upon the back of the chair. The favored patients were deftly informed of "a good thing," the dentist taking advantage of the one inevitable moment of receptivity for his thrifty promotions. The schemes, it must be said, had never come to much. If Dr. Leonard had survived without any marked loss a dozen years of venturing, he might be said to have succeeded. He had no time for other games; this was his poker. They were always the schemes of little people, very complex in organization, needing a wheel here, a cog there, finally breaking down from the lack of capital. Then some "big people" collected the fragments to cast them into the pot once more. Dr. Leonard added another might-have-been and a new sigh to the secret chamber of his soul. But his face was turned outward to receive the next scheme.

This time it happened to be a wonderful new process of evolving gas from dirt and city refuse. He had been explaining it gently to a woman in the chair, from pure intellectual interest, to distract the patient's mind. He was not tinkering with teeth this time, however. The woman was sitting in the chair because it was the only unoccupied space. She had removed her hat and was looking steadily into the lake. At last, when the little office clerk had left, the talk about the gas generator ceased, and the woman turned her wistful face to the old dentist. There was a sombre pause.

"Yes," the dentist muttered finally, "I saw it in the paper Tuesday, no,

Monday-it was Monday, wasn't it? and I hoped you'd come in."

The woman moved her hands restlessly, as if to ask where else she could go.

"They most always do turn up," he continued bluntly; "them that no one wants, like your husband. What are you going to do?"

The woman turned her face back to the lake; it was evident that she had no plan.

"I thought," the dentist began, recalling her story, "I thought when you'd started in the schools-it was a mighty hard thing to do to get you in; it took all my pull on Mahoney."

The woman's face flushed. "I know," she murmured. "They don't want married women. But if it hadn't been for Mahoney-"

"Then," interrupted the dentist, "he'd been good enough to let you alone for most a year, and I thought you were out of your troubles."

"I knew he would come back," she interposed quietly.

"But now he comes back just as everything is nice, and worse, you come across him when he is nigh bein' shot to death. Then, worse yet, by what the papers said, you went to the hospital with him and gave the whole thing away. When I saw the name, Alves Preston, printed out, I swore."

Mrs. Preston smiled at his vehemence.

"Tell me, Alves," the old man asked in a rambling manner, "how did you ever come to marry him? I've wanted to ask you that from the first."

Mrs. Preston rose from the chair and pulled her cloak about her.

"I couldn't make you understand; I don't myself now."

"D'yer love him?" the dentist persisted, not ungently.

"Should I be here if I did?" she flashed resentfully. "I was a country girl away at school, more foolish than one of those dumb Swedes in my class, and he-"

But she turned again to the window, with an impatient gesture.

"It is something wrong in a woman," she murmured. "But she has no chance, no chance. I can't tell you now all the things."

"Well," the dentist said soothingly, "let's see just how bad it is. Has your boss, the superintendent, or the principal spoke to you, turned you out? I see the reporter went around to the school, nosing after something."

"They'd just transferred me-miles south," she answered indifferently. "I was glad of it. I don't have to meet the spying, talking teachers, and think all the time the pupils know it from their parents. They're all foreigners where I am now. They say the Everglade school is the next thing to the last. It's a kind of Purgatory, where they keep you for a few months before they dismiss you."

"I didn't know any one was ever dismissed from a Chicago school," the dentist remarked.

"Oh, sometimes when the superintendents or the supervisors don't want you. There is a supervisor in the Everglade district-" she stopped a moment, and then continued tranquilly-"he was very intimate at first. I thought he wanted to help me to get on in the school. But he wanted-other things. Perhaps when he doesn't-succeed-that will be the end."

"It'll blow over," the dentist said encouragingly. "I

f the supervisor troubles you much, I'll see Mahoney. You've changed your boarding-place?"

"Yes-but," she admitted in a moment, "they know it at the hospital."

Dr. Leonard rubbed his bristly face irritably.

"I've been to see him-it seemed I ought to-I was the only one who

WOULD in the whole world-the only one to speak a word to him."

"That makes it worse," the dentist commented depressingly. "I don't know as you could get free now if you wanted to. You've put your hand to the plough again, my girl, and it's a long furrow."

"What do you mean?"

"The hospital folks know you're his wife, and they'll expect you to take him in when he gets better."

"I suppose so," Mrs. Preston admitted. "But I suppose, anyway, I should take care of him until he can go away."

Dr. Leonard threw up his hands in disgust.

"Alves, why don't you go straight off and get a divorce-for desertion?"

Mrs. Preston opened the heavy lids of her eyes; her face slowly flushed.

"That would be the end of it?" she asked, in a low voice.

"Of course! I'll give you the money, and testify for you. Go right ahead, now he is laid up, and have it all ready when he gets out."

"I couldn't do that," Mrs. Preston answered, the color fading from her face, and the white lids closing over the eyes. "Besides, he may never recover fully. I don't think they expect him to at the hospital."

"All the more reason," protested the dentist. "It's mighty hard," he added sympathetically. "Women are mostly children, the better sort, and you feel bad, even when they're in trouble through their own foolishness."

"There is no release, no divorce," Mrs. Preston continued. "A thing is done, and it's done. There's no ending it in this life. You can run away, or close your eyes, but you don't escape. He has been-my husband."

"That's silly! Now let me tell you what I'll do." The dentist squared himself and raised the little lignum-vitae mallet, which he used to drive home his fillings.

"Don't you fool round any more. You can't love that fellow,-think you never did now,-and he's given you no reason to be very nice to him. You just drop him where you are, and start out alone and make the best of it. You can't do that in Chicago now. Get out of Chicago to-morrer. Go east. Take your maiden name; no one is goin' to be hurt by not knowin' you're married. I guess you ain't likely to try it again."

He paused for objections, and evidently found one himself.

"If you ain't got the money handy, I'll just fix you up. That gas generator I was talking to you about is going to make me mints of money. You can go right away to my sister-in-law in Worcester, Ohio. Guess he won't trouble you much there. What do you say?"

She had nothing very cogent to say, but the dentist felt an impalpable obstruction of will, unintelligible and persistent. His enthusiasm grew as he perfected the details of his plan. It was a new kind of scheme, in which he took the artistic delight of the incorrigible promoter. His imagination once enlisted for the plan, he held to it, arguing, counselling, bullying. "If it's the money," he ended, "you needn't bother. I'll just put it on the bill. When I am rich, it won't make no difference, nor when you are, either."

Mrs. Preston took one of his furry hands in hers, and pressed it. She knew that the ventures had not yet made him rich. Thirty years in Chicago had not filled his purse.

"I'd do it for you, same as for one of my daughters. It's just as easy as having a tooth out, and you start over as good as new."

"It isn't that," she smiled. "You can't start over as good as new if you are a woman. I couldn't run away. I've put myself into it a second time, without thinking. I chose then just as before, when I followed him to the hospital. When the doctor asked me if he should try to save his life, I wanted him to die-oh, how I longed that the doctor would refuse to try! Well, he's alive. It is for life."

She seemed to see before her a long, toilsome ascent, to which she had been driven to put her feet.

"Think it over," the dentist counselled at last, despondently. "Sleep on it. There's Worcester, Ohio, and my sister-in-law."

Mrs. Preston smiled, and put on her hat.

"I've taken a lot of your time."

"That's no account, but I can't see what you came for. You won't let a feller help you."

"There wasn't any good reason. I came because I was awfully lonely. There isn't a soul that I can speak out to, except you. You don't know what that means. I go about in the schoolroom, and up and down the streets, and see things-horrible things. The world gets to be one big torture chamber, and then I have to cry out. I come to you to cry out,-because you really care. Now I can go away, and keep silent for a long time."

"You make too much of it," the dentist protested. He busied himself in putting the little steel instruments into their purple plush beds and locking the drawers.

"Yes, I make too much of it," Mrs. Preston acknowledged quietly, as she opened the door. "Good night."

"I guess she loves him still and don't like to own it. Women are generally so," the dentist commented, when he was left alone. He picked up a sheaf of stock certificates and eyed them critically. "They're nicer than the Placer Mining ones. They just look fit to eat."

He locked the certificates of stock in the new company into a tiny safe, and prepared to pull down the shade. In the railroad yards below, the great eyes of the locomotives glared though the March dusk. As the suburban trains pulled out from minute to minute, thick wreaths of smoke shot up above the white steam blasts of the surrounding buildings. The smoke and steam were sucked together into the vortex of a cross street.

'I wished I hadn't let her go alone,' the dentist mused. 'Some day she'll just go over there into the lake.'

When Mrs. Preston shut the dentist's door behind her, an office door on the opposite side of the hall opened abruptly, and a young man strode into the hall. She recognized him as the young surgeon who had operated upon her husband at St. Isidore's. She stepped behind the iron grating of the elevator well and watched him as he waited for the steel car to bob up from the lower stories. She was ashamed to meet him, especially now that she felt committed to the sordid future.

The little car arrived; the doctor stepped in and disappeared. The door from which he came was covered with a long list of names. She read the name freshly painted in at the bottom,-Dr. Howard Sommers.

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