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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Web of Life By Robert Herrick Characters: 13212

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

For Sommers had joined the staff of the great specialist, and resorted daily to the busy offices in the Athenian Building. A brief vacation had served to convince him of the folly that lay in indulging a parcel of incoherent prejudices at the expense of even that somewhat nebulous thing popularly called a "career." Dr. Lindsay made flattering offers; the work promised to be light, with sufficient opportunity for whatever hospital practice he cared to take; and the new aspect of his profession-commercial medicine he dubbed it-was at least entertaining. If one wished to see the people of Chicago at near range,-those who had made the city what it is, and were making it what it will be,-this was pretty nearly the best chance in the world.

When he had mentioned Lindsay's offer to Dresser, who was rising at laborious hours and toiling in the McNamara and Hill's offices, he realized how unmentionable and trifling were his grounds for hesitation. Dresser's enthusiasm almost persuaded him that Lindsay had given him something valuable. And if he found it difficult to explain his distaste for the thing to Dresser, what would he have to say to other people-to the Hitchcocks? Yet he made his reservations to himself at least: he was not committed to his "career"; he should be merely a spectator, a free-lance, a critic, who keeps the precious treasure of his own independence. Almost at the start, however, he was made to realize that this nonchalance, which vindicated himself in his own eyes, could not be evident to others. As he was entering the Athenian hive one morning, he passed the Hitchcock brougham drawn up by the curb near a jeweller's shop. Miss Hitchcock, who was preparing to alight, gave him a cordial smile and an intelligent glance that was not without a trace of malice. When he crossed the pavement to speak to her, she fulfilled the malice of her glance:

"You find Dr. Lindsay isn't so bad, after all?" There was no time for explanation. She passed on into the jeweller's with another smile on her mobile face. He had to do his stammering to himself, annoyed at the quip of triumph, at the blithe sneer, over his young vaporings. This trivial annoyance was accentuated by the effusive cordiality of the great Lindsay, whom he met in the elevator. Sommers did not like this camaraderie of manner. He had seen Lindsay snub many a poor interne. In his mail, this same morning, came a note from Mrs. E. G. Carson, inviting him to dinner: a sign that something notable was expected of his career, for the Carsons were thrifty of their favors, and were in no position to make social experiments. Such was the merry way of the world, elsewhere as here, he reflected, as he turned to the routine of the day.

The office was in full blast: the telephones rang sharply every few minutes, telling in their irritable little clang of some prosperous patient who desired a panacea for human ailments; the reception-room was already crowded with waiting patients of the second class, those who could not command appointments by telephone. Whenever the door into this room opened, these expectant ones moved nervously, each one hoping to be called. Then, as the door into the private offices closed, the ones left behind fell back with sighs to the magazines and illustrated papers with which they sought to distract their fears or their ennui.

The thin, tall building shivered slightly at the blows of the fresh April wind. The big windows of the reception-room admitted broad bands of sunlight. The lake dazzled beneath in gorgeous green and blue shades. Spring had bustled into town from the prairies, insinuating itself into the dirty, cavernous streets, sailing in boisterously over the gleaming lake, eddying in steam wreaths about the lofty buildings. The subtle monitions of the air permeated the atmosphere of antiseptics in the office, and whipped the turbulent spirits of Sommers until, at the lunch hour, he deserted the Athenian Building and telephoned for his horse.

This saddle horse was one of the compensations for conformity. He had been too busy lately, however, to enjoy it. From the bellow of the city he cantered down the boulevards toward the great parks. As he passed the Hitchcock house he was minded to see if Miss Hitchcock would join him. In the autumn she had ridden with him occasionally, waiving conventionalities, but lately she had made excuses. He divined that Parker Hitchcock had sneered at such countrified behavior. She was to go away in a few days for a round of visits in the South, and he wanted to see her; but a carriage drew up before the house, and his horse carried him briskly past down the avenue. From one boulevard to another he passed, keeping his eyes straight ahead, avoiding the sight of the comfortable, ugly houses, anxious to escape them and their associations, pressing on for a beyond, for something other than this vast, roaring, complacent city. The great park itself was filled with people, carriages, bicycles. A stream of carts and horse-back riders was headed for the Driving Club, where there was tennis and the new game of golf. But Sommers turned his horse into the disfigured Midway, where the Wreck of the Fair began. He came out, finally, on a broad stretch of sandy field, south of the desolate ruins of the Fair itself. The horse picked his way daintily among the debris of staff and wood that lay scattered about for acres. A wagon road led across this waste land toward the crumbling Spanish convent. In this place there was a fine sense of repose, of vast quiet. Everything was dead; the soft spring air gave no life. Even in the geniality of the April day, with the brilliant, theatrical waters of the lake in the distance, the scene was gaunt, savage. To the north, a broad dark shadow that stretched out into the lake defined the city. Nearer, the ample wings of the white Art Building seemed to stand guard against the improprieties of civilization. To the far south, a line of thin trees marked the outer desert of the prairie. Behind, in the west, were straggling flat-buildings, mammoth deserted hotels, one of which was crowned with a spidery steel tower. Nearer, a frivolous Grecian temple had been wheeled to the confines of the park, and dumped by the roadside to serve as a saloon.

Sommers rose in his stirrups and gazed about him over the rotting buildings of the play-city, the scrawny acres that ended in the hard black line of the lake, the vast blocks of open land to the south, which would go to make some new subdivision of the sprawling city. Absorbed, charmed, grimly content wit

h the abominable desolation of it all, he stood and gazed. No evidence of any plan, of any continuity in building, appeared upon the waste: mere sporadic eruptions of dwellings, mere heaps of brick and mortar dumped at random over the cheerless soil. Above swam the marvellous clarified atmosphere of the sky, like iridescent gauze, showering a thousand harmonies of metallic colors. Like a dome of vitrified glass, it shut down on the illimitable, tawdry sweep of defaced earth.

The horse started: a human figure, a woman's dress, disturbing here in the desert expanse, had moved in front of him. Sommers hit the horse with his crop and was about to gallop on, when something in the way the woman held herself caught his attention. She was leaning against the wind, her skirt streaming behind her, her face thrust into the air. Sommers reined in his horse and jumped down.

"How is your husband?" he asked brusquely.

Mrs. Preston looked up with a smile of glad recognition, but she did not answer immediately.

"You remember, don't you?" the doctor said kindly. "You are Mrs. Preston, aren't you? I am the doctor who operated on your husband a few weeks ago at the hospital."

"Yes, I remember," she replied, almost sullenly.

"How is he? I left St. Isidore's the next day. Is he still in the hospital?"

"They discharged him last Monday," Mrs. Preston answered, in the same dull tone.

"Ah!" The doctor jerked the bridle which he held in his left hand and prepared to mount. "So he made a quick recovery."

"No, no! I didn't say that," she replied passionately. "You knew, you knew that couldn't be. He has-he is-I don't know how to say it."

Sommers slipped the bridle-rein over the horse's head and walked on by her side. She looked down at the roadway, as if to hide her burning face.

"Where is he now?" the doctor asked, finally, more gently.

"With me, down there." Mrs. Preston waved her hand vaguely toward the southern prairie. They began to walk more briskly, with a tacit purpose in their motion. When the wagon road forked, Mrs. Preston took the branch that led south out of the park. It opened into a high-banked macadamized avenue bordered by broken wooden sidewalks. The vast flat land began to design itself, as the sun faded out behind the irregular lines of buildings two miles to the west. A block south, a huge red chimney was pouring tranquilly its volume of dank smoke into the air. On the southern horizon a sooty cloud hovered above the mills of South Chicago. But, except for the monster chimney, the country ahead of the two was bare, vacant, deserted. The avenue traversed empty lots, mere squares of sand and marsh, cut up in regular patches for future house-builders. Here and there an advertising landowner had cemented a few rods of walk and planted a few trees to trap the possible purchaser into thinking the place "improved." But the cement walks were crumbling, the trees had died, and rank thorny weeds choked about their roots. The cross streets were merely lined out, a deep ditch on either side of an embankment.

"My God, what a place!" the young doctor exclaimed. "The refuse acres of the earth."

The woman smiled bitterly, tranquilly, while her glance roamed over the familiar landscape.

"Yet it is better than the rest, back there," she protested, in a low voice. "At least, there is something open, and a little green in spring, and the nights are calm. It seems the least little bit like what it used to be in Wisconsin on the lake. But there we had such lovely woodsy hills, and great meadows, and fields with cattle, and God's real peace, not this vacuum." Her voice grew faint.

"You liked it there?" the doctor asked musingly.

"It's all that I have ever known that was-as it should be. My father had a farm," she explained more easily, "and until he died and I was sent to Rockminster College to school, my life was there, by the lake, on the farm, at the seminary on the hill, where my brother was studying-"

The visions of the past developed with endless clews, which she could not follow aloud. After waiting for her to resume, Sommers asked tentatively:

"Why don't you go back, then?"

She flashed a rapid, indignant glance at him.

"Now! Go back to what?-With him!"

Her lips set tight. He had been stupid, had hit at random.

"No, no," she continued, answering her own heart; "they would never understand. There is never any going back-and, sometimes, not much going ahead," she ended, with an effort to laugh.

They stopped while the horse nibbled at a tall weed in the roadway. They had got fairly into the prairie, and now at some distance on left and right gawky Queen Anne houses appeared. But along their path the waste was unbroken. The swamp on either side of the road was filled with birds, who flew in and out and perched on the dry planks in the walks. An abandoned electric-car track, raised aloft on a high embankment, crossed the avenue. Here and there a useless hydrant thrust its head far above the muddy soil, sometimes out of the swamp itself. They had left the lake behind them, but the freshening evening breeze brought its damp breath across their faces.

"How came you to get into this spot?" the doctor asked, after his searching eyes had roamed over the misty landscape, half swamp, half city suburb.

"I was transferred-about the time of the operation. My school is over there," she pointed vaguely toward the southwest. "I could not afford to live any distance from the school," she added bluntly. "Besides, I wanted to be alone."

So she taught, Sommers reflected, yet she had none of the professional air, the faded niceness of face and manner which he associated with the city school-teacher.

"I haven't taught long," she volunteered, "only about a year. First I was over by Lincoln Park, near where I had been living."

"Do you like the teaching?" Sommers asked.

"I hate it," she remarked calmly, without any show of passion. "It takes a little of one's life every day, and leaves you a little more dead."

They walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Mrs. Preston suddenly stopped.

"Why do you come?" she exclaimed. "Why do you want to know? It can do no good,-I know it can do no good, and it is worse to have any one-you-know the hateful thing. I want to crush it in myself, never to tell, no,-no one," she stopped incoherently.

"I shall go," the doctor replied calmly, compassionately. "And it is best to tell."

Her rebellious face came back to its wonted repose.

"Yes, I suppose I make it worse. It is best to tell-sometime."

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