Dr. Heidenhoff's Process/Chapter 6
There was one person, at least, in the village who had viewed the success of the new drug-clerk in carrying off the belle of Newville with entire complacency, and that was Ida Lewis, the girl with a poor complexion and beautiful brown eyes, who had cherished a rather hopeless inclination for Henry; now that he had lost that bold girl, she tremulously assured herself, perhaps it was not quite so hopeless. Laura, too, had an idea that such might possibly be the case, and hoping at least to distract her brother, about whom she was becoming quite anxious, she had Ida over to tea once or twice, and, by various other devices which with a clever woman are matters of course, managed to throw her in his way.
He was too much absorbed to take any notice of this at first, but, one evening when Ida was at tea with them, it suddenly flashed upon him, and his face reddened with annoyed embarrassment. He had never felt such a cold anger at Laura as at that moment. He had it in his heart to say something very bitter to her. Would she not at least respect his grief? He had ado to control the impulse that prompted him to rise and leave the table. And then, with that suddenness characteristic of highly wrought moods, his feelings changed, and he discovered how soft-hearted his own sorrow had made him toward all who suffered in the same way. His eyes smarted with pitifulness as he noted the pains with which the little girl opposite him had tried to make the most of her humble charms in the hope of catching his eye. And the very poverty of those charms made her efforts the more pathetic. He blamed his eyes for the hard clearness with which they noted the shortcomings of the small, unformed features, the freckled skin, the insignificant and niggardly contour, and for the cruelty of the comparison they suggested between all this and Madeline's rich beauty. A boundless pity poured out of his heart to cover and transfigure these defects, and he had an impulse to make up to her for them, if he could, by sacrificing himself to her, if she desired. If she felt toward him as he toward Madeline, it were worth his life to save the pity of another such heart-breaking. So should he atone, perhaps, for the suffering Madeline had given him.
After tea he went by himself to nurse these wretched thoughts, and although the sight of Ida had suggested them, he went on to think of himself, and soon became so absorbed in his own misery that he quite forgot about her, and, failing to rejoin the girls that evening, Ida had to go home alone, which was a great disappointment to her. But it was, perhaps, quite as well, on the whole, for both of them that he was not thrown with her again that evening.
It is never fair to take for granted that the greatness of a sorrow or a loss is a just measure of the fault of the one who causes it. Madeline was not willingly cruel. She felt sorry in a way for Henry whenever his set lips and haggard face came under her view, but sorry in a dim and distant way, as one going on a far and joyous journey is sorry for the former associates he leaves behind, associates whose faces already, ere he goes, begin to grow faded and indistinct. At the wooing of Cordis her heart had awaked, and in the high, new joy of loving, she scorned the tame delight of being loved, which, until then, had been her only idea of the passion.
Henry presently discovered that, to stay in the village a looker-on while the love affair of Madeline and Cordis progressed to its consummation, was going to be too much for him. Instead of his getting used to the situation, it seemed to grow daily more insufferable. Every evening the thought that they were together made him feverish and restless till toward midnight, when, with the reflection that Cordis had surely by that time left her, came a possibility of sleep.
And yet, all this time he was not conscious of any special hate toward that young man.. If he had been in his power he would probably have left him unharmed. He could not, indeed, have raised his hand against anything which Madeline cared for. However great his animosity had been, that fact would have made his rival taboo to him. That Madeline had turned away from him was the great matter. Whither she was turned was of subordinate importance. His trouble was that she loved Cordis, not that Cordis loved her. It is only low and narrow natures which can find vent for their love disappointments in rage against their successors. In the strictest, truest sense, indeed, although it is certainly a hard saying, there is no room in a clear mind for such a feeling of jealousy. For the way in which every two hearts approach each other is necessarily a peculiar combination of individualities, never before and never after exactly duplicated in human experience. So that, if we can conceive of a woman truly loving several lovers, whether successively or simultaneously, they would not be rivals, for the manner of her love for each, and the manner of each one's love for her, is peculiar and single, even as if they two were alone in the world. The higher the mental grade of the persons concerned, the wider their sympathies, and the more delicate their perceptions, the more true is this.
Henry had been recently offered a very good position in an arms manufactory in Boston, and, having made up his mind to leave the village, he wrote to accept it, and promptly followed his letter, having first pledged his sole Newville correspondent, Laura, to make no references to Madeline in her letters.
"If they should be married," he was particular to say, "don't tell me about it till some time afterward."
Perhaps he worked the better in his new place because he was unhappy. The foe of good work is too easy self-complacency, too ready self-satisfaction, and the tendency to a pleased and relaxed contemplation of life and one's surroundings, growing out of a well-to-do state. Such a smarting sense of defeat, of endless aching loss as filled his mind at this time, was a most exacting background for his daily achievements in business and money-making to show up against. He had lost that power of enjoying rest which is at once the reward and limitation of human endeavour. Work was his nepenthe, and the difference between poor, superficial work and the best, most absorbing, was simply that between a weaker and a stronger opiate. He prospered in his affairs, was promoted to a position of responsibility with a good salary, and, moreover, was able to dispose of a patent in gun-barrels at a handsome price.
With the hope of distracting his mind from morbid brooding over what was past helping, he went into society, and endeavoured to interest himself in young ladies. But in these efforts his success was indifferent. Whenever he began to flatter himself that he was gaining a philosophical calm, the glimpse of some face on the street that reminded him of Madeline's, an accent of a voice that recalled hers, the sight of her in a dream, brought back in a moment the old thrall and the old bitterness with undiminished strength.
Eight or nine months after he had left home the longing to return and see what had happened became irresistible. Perhaps, after all--
Although this faint glimmer of a doubt was of his own making, and existed only because he had forbidden Laura to tell him to the contrary, he actually took some comfort in it. While he did not dare to put the question to Laura, yet he allowed himself to dream that something might possibly have happened to break off the match. He was far, indeed, from formally consenting to entertain such a hope. He professed to himself that he had no doubt that she was married and lost to him for ever. Had anything happened to break off the match, Laura would certainly have lost no time in telling him such good news. It was childishness to fancy aught else. But no effort of the reason can quite close the windows of the heart against hope, and, like a furtive ray of sunshine finding its way through a closed shutter, the thought that, after all, she might be free surreptitiously illumined the dark place in which he sat.
When the train stopped at Newville he slipped through the crowd at the station with the briefest possible greetings to the acquaintances he saw, and set out to gain his father's house by a back street.
On the way he met Harry Tuttle, and could not avoid stopping to exchange a few words with him.. As they talked, he was in a miserable panic of apprehension lest Harry should blurt out something about Madeline's being married. He felt that he could only bear to hear it from Laura's lips. Whenever the other opened his mouth to speak, a cold dew started out on Henry's forehead for fear he was going to make some allusion to Madeline; and when at last they separated without his having done so, there was such weakness in his limbs as one feels who first walks after a sickness.
He saw his folly now, his madness, in allowing himself to dally with a baseless hope, which, while never daring to own its own existence, had yet so mingled its enervating poison with every vein that he had now no strength left to endure the disappointment so certain and so near. At the very gate of his father's house he paused. A powerful impulse seized him to fly. It was not yet too late. Why had he come? He would go back to Boston, and write Laura by the next mail, and adjure her to tell him nothing. Some time he might bear to hear the truth, but not to-day, not now; no, not now. What had he been thinking of to risk it? He would get away where nobody could reach him to slay with a word this shadow of a hope which had become such a necessity of life to him, as is opium to the victim whose strength it has sapped and alone replaces. It was too late! Laura, as she sat sewing by the window, had looked up and seen him, and now as he came slowly up the walk she appeared at the door, full of exclamations of surprise and pleasure. He went in, and they sat down.
"I thought I'd run out and see how you all were," he said, with a ghastly smile.
"I'm so glad you did! Father was wondering only this morning if you were never coming to see us again."
He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
"I thought I'd just run out and see you."
"Yes, I'm so glad you did!"
She did not show that she noticed his merely having said the same thing over.
"Are you pretty well this spring?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm pretty well."
"Father was so much pleased about your patent. He's ever so proud of you."
After a pause, during which Henry looked nervously from point to point about the room, he said--
"Yes, very, and so am I."
There was a long silence, and Laura took up her work-basket, and bent her face over it, and seemed to have a good deal of trouble in finding some article in it.
Suddenly he said, in a quick, spasmodic way--
"Is Madeline married?"
Good God! Would she never speak!
"No," she answered, with a falling inflection.
His heart, which had stopped beating, sent a flood of blood through every artery. But she had spoken as if it were the worst of news, instead of good. Ah! could it be? In all his thoughts, in all his dreams by night or day, he had never thought, he had never dreamed of that.
"Is she dead?" he asked, slowly, with difficulty, his will stamping the shuddering thought into words, as the steel die stamps coins from strips of metal.
"No," she replied again, with the same ill-boding tone.
"In God's name, what is it?" he cried, springing to his feet. Laura looked out at the window so that she might not meet his eye as she answered, in a barely audible voice--
"There was a scandal, and he deserted her; and afterward--only last week--she ran away, nobody knows where, but they think to Boston."
It was about two o'clock in the afternoon when Henry heard the fate of Madeline. By four o'clock he was on his way back to Boston. The expression of his face as he sits in the car is not that which might be expected under the circumstances. It is not that of a man crushed by a hopeless calamity, but rather of one sorely stricken indeed, but still resolute, supported by some strong determination which is not without hope.
Before leaving Newville he called on Mrs. Brand, who still lived in the same house. His interview with her was very painful. The sight of him set her into vehement weeping, and it was long before he could get her to talk. In the injustice of her sorrow, she reproached him almost bitterly for not marrying Madeline, instead of going off and leaving her a victim to Cordis. It was rather hard for him to be reproached in this way, but he did not think of saying anything in self-justification. He was ready to take blame upon himself.' He remembered no more now how she had rejected, rebuffed, and dismissed him. He told himself that he had cruelly deserted her, and hung his head before the mother's reproaches.
The room in which they sat was the same in which he had waited that morning of the picnic, while in his presence she had put the finishing touches to her toilet. There, above the table, hung against the wall the selfsame mirror that on that morning had given back the picture of a girl in white, with crimson braid about her neck and wrists, and a red feather in the hat so jauntily perched above the low forehead--altogether a maiden exceedingly to be desired. Perhaps, somewhere, she was standing before a mirror at that moment. But what sort of a flush is it upon her cheeks? What sort of a look is it in her eyes? What is this fell shadow that has passed upon her face?
By the time Henry was ready to leave the poor mother had ceased her upbraidings, and had yielded quite to the sense of a sympathy, founded in a loss as great as her own, which his presence gave her. Re was the only one in all the world from whom she could have accepted sympathy, and in her lonely desolation it was very sweet. And at the last, when, as he was about to go, her grief burst forth afresh, he put his arm around her and drew her head to his shoulder, and tenderly soothed her, and stroked the thin grey hair, till at last the long, shuddering sobs grew a little calmer. It was natural that he should be the one to comfort her. It was his privilege. In the adoption of sorrow, and not of joy, he had taken this mother of his love to be his mother.
"Don't give her up," he said. "I will find her if she is alive."