11. From a train-window I had once beheld a cross-section of America from West to East; now I beheld another from North to South. In the afternoon were the farms and country-homes of New Jersey; and then in the morning endless wastes of wilderness, and straggling fields of young corn and tobacco; turpentine forests, with half-stripped negroes working, and a procession of "depots," with lanky men chewing tobacco, and negroes basking in the blazing sun. Then another night, and there was the pageant of Florida: palmettos, and other trees of which one had seen pictures in the geography books; stretches of vine-tangled swamps, where one looked for alligators; orange-groves in blossom, and gardens full of flowers beyond imagining. Every hour, of course, it got hotter; I was not, like Sylvia, used to it, and whenever the train stopped I sat by the open window, mopping the perspiration from my face.
We were due at Miami in the afternoon; but there was a freight-train off the track ahead of us, and so for three hours I sat chafing with impatience, worrying the conductor with futile questions. I had to make connections at Miami with a train which ran to the last point on the mainland, where the construction-work over the keys was going forward. And if I missed that last train, I would have to wait in Miami till morning. I had better wait there, anyhow, the conductor argued; but I insisted that my friends, to whom I had telegraphed two days before, would meet me with a launch and take me to their place that night.
We got in half an hour late for the other train; but this was the South, I discovered, and they had waited for us. I shifted my bag and myself across the platform, and we moved on. But then another problem arose; we were running into a storm. It came with great suddenness; one minute all was still, with a golden sunset, and the next it was so dark that I could barely see the palm-trees, bent over, swaying madly—like people with arms stretched out, crying in distress. I could hear the roaring of the wind above that of the train, and I asked the conductor in consternation if this could be a hurricane. It was not the season for hurricanes, he replied; but it was "some storm, all right," and I would not find any boat to take me to the keys until it was over.
It was absurd of me to be nervous, I kept telling myself; but there was something in me that cried out to be there, to be there! I got out of the train, facing what I refrain from calling a hurricane out of deference to local authority. It was all I could do to keep from being blown across the station-platform, and I was drenched with the spray and bewildered by the roaring of the waves that beat against the pier beyond. Inside the station, I questioned the agent. The launch of the van Tuivers had not been in that day; if it had been on the way, it must have sought shelter somewhere. My telegram to Mrs. van Tuiver had been received two days before, and delivered by a boatman whom they employed for that purpose. Presumably, therefore, I would be met. I asked how long this gale was apt to last; the answer was from one to three days.
Then I asked about shelter for the night. This was a "jumping-off" place, said the agent, with barracks and shanties for a construction-gang; there were saloons, and what was called a hotel, but it wouldn't do for a lady. I pleaded that I was not fastidious—being anxious to nullify the effect which the name van Tuiver had produced. But the agent would have it that the place was unfit for even a Western farmer's wife; and as I was not anxious to take the chance of being blown overboard in the darkness, I spent the night on one of the benches in the station. I lay, listening to the incredible clamour of wind and waves, feeling the building quiver, and wondering if each gust might not blow it away.
I was out at dawn, the force of the wind having abated somewhat by that time. I saw before me a waste of angry foam-strewn water, with no sign of any craft upon it. Late in the morning came the big steamer which ran to Key West, in connection with the railroad; it made a difficult landing, and I interviewed the captain, with the idea of bribing him to take me to my destination. But he had his schedule, which neither storms nor the name of van Tuiver could alter. Besides, he pointed out, he could not land me at their place, as his vessel drew too much water to get anywhere near; and if he landed me elsewhere, I should be no better off, "If your friends are expecting you, they'll come here," he said, "and their launch can travel when nothing else can."
To pass the time I went to inspect the viaduct of the railway-to-be. The first stretch was completed, a long series of concrete arches, running out, apparently, into the open sea. It was one of the engineering wonders of the world, but I fear I did not appreciate it. Towards mid-afternoon I made out a speck of a boat over the water, and my friend, the station-agent, remarked, "There's your launch."
I expressed my amazement that they should have ventured out in such weather. I had had in mind the kind of tiny open craft that one hears making day and night hideous at summer-resorts; but when the "Merman" drew near, I realized afresh what it was to be the guest of a multi-millionaire. She was about fifty feet long, a vision of polished brass and shining, new-varnished cedar. She rammed her shoulder into the waves and flung them contemptuously to one side; her cabin was tight, dry as the saloon of a liner.
Three men emerged on deck to assist in the difficult process of making a landing. One of them sprang to the dock, and confronting me, inquired if I was Mrs. Abbott. He explained that they had set out to meet me the previous afternoon, but had had to take refuge behind one of the keys.
"How is Mrs. van Tuiver?" I asked, quickly.
"She is well."
"I don't suppose—the baby——" I hinted.
"No, ma'am, not yet," said the man; and after that I felt interested in what he had to say about the storm and its effects. We could return at once, it seemed, if I did not mind being pitched about.
"How long does it take?" I asked.
"Three hours, in weather like this. It's about fifty miles."
"But then it will be dark," I objected.
"That won't matter, ma'am—we have plenty of light of our own. We shan't have trouble, unless the wind rises, and there's a chain of keys all the way, where we can get shelter if it does. The worst you have to fear is spending a night on board."
I reflected that I could not well be more uncomfortable than I had been the previous night, so I voted for a start. There was mail and some supplies to be put on board; then I made a spring for the deck, as it surged up towards me on a rising wave, and in a moment more the cabin-door had shut behind me, and I was safe and snug, in the midst of leather and mahogany and electric-lighted magnificence. Through the heavy double windows I saw the dock swing round behind us, and saw the torrents of green spray sweep over us and past. I grasped at the seat to keep myself from being thrown forward, and then grasped behind, to keep from going in that direction. I had a series of sensations as of an elevator stopping suddenly—and then I draw the curtains of the "Merman's" cabin, and invite the reader to pass by. This is Sylvia's story, and not mine, and it is of no interest what happened to me during that trip. I will only remind the reader that I had lived my life in the far West, and there were some things I could not have foreseen.
12. "We are there, ma'am," I heard one of the boatmen say, and I realised vaguely that the pitching had ceased. He helped me to sit up, and I saw the search-light of the craft sweeping the shore of an island. "It passes off 'most as quick as it comes, ma'am," added my supporter, and for this I murmured feeble thanks.
We came to a little bay, where the power was shut off, and we glided towards the shore. There was a boat-house, a sort of miniature dry-dock, with a gate which closed behind us. I had visions of Sylvia waiting to meet me, but apparently our arrival had not been noted, and for this I was grateful. There were seats in the boat-house, and I sank into one, and asked the man to wait a few minutes while I recovered myself. When I got up and went to the house, what I found made me quickly forget that I had such a thing as a body.
There was a bright moon, I remember, and I could see the long, low bungalow, with windows gleaming through the palm-trees. A woman's figure emerged from the house and came down the white shell-path to meet me. My heart leaped. My beloved!
But then I saw it was the English maid, whom I had come to know in New York; I saw, too, that her face was alight with excitement. "Oh, my lady!" she cried. "The baby's come!"
It was like a blow in the face. "What?" I gasped.
"Came early this morning. A girl."
"But—I thought it wasn't till next week!"
"I know, but it's here. In that terrible storm, when we thought the house was going to be washed away! Oh, my lady, it's the loveliest baby!"
I had presence of mind enough to try to hide my dismay. The semi-darkness was a fortunate thing for me. "How is the mother?" I asked.
"Splendid. She's asleep now."
"And the child?"
"Oh! Such a dear you never saw!"
"And it's all right?"
"It's just the living image of its mother! You shall see!"
We moved towards the house, slowly, while I got my thoughts together. "Dr. Perrin is here?" I asked.
"Yes. He's gone to his place to sleep."
"And the nurse?"
"She's with the child. Come this way."
We went softly up the steps of the veranda. All the rooms opened upon it, and we entered one of them, and by the dim-shaded light I saw a white-clad woman bending over a crib. "Miss Lyman, this is Mrs. Abbott," said the maid.
The nurse straightened up. "Oh! so you got here! And just at the right time!"
"God grant it may be so!" I thought to myself. "So this is the child!" I said, and bent over the crib. The nurse turned up the light for me.
It is the form in which the miracle of life becomes most apparent to us, and dull indeed must be he who can encounter it without being stirred to the depths. To see, not merely new life come into the world, but life which has been made by ourselves, or by those we love—life that is a mirror and copy of something dear to us! To see this tiny mite of warm and living flesh, and to see that it was Sylvia! To trace each beloved lineament, so much alike, and yet so different—half a portrait and half a caricature, half sublime and half ludicrous! The comical little imitation of her nose, with each dear little curve, with even a remainder of the tiny groove underneath the tip, and the tiny corresponding dimple underneath the chin! The soft silken fuzz which was some day to be Sylvia's golden glory! The delicate, sensitive lips, which were some day to quiver with feeling! I gazed at them and saw them moving, I saw the breast moving—and a wave of emotion swept over me, and the tears half-blinded me as I knelt.
But I could not forget the reason for my coming. It meant little that the child was alive and seemingly well; I was not dealing with a disease which, like syphilis, starves and deforms in the very womb. The little one was asleep, but I moved the light so as to examine its eyelids. Then I turned to the nurse and asked: "Miss Lyman, doesn't it seem to you the eyelids are a trifle inflamed?"
"Why, I hadn't noticed it," she answered.
"Were the eyes washed?" I inquired.
"I washed the baby, of course—"
"I mean the eyes especially. The doctor didn't drop anything into them?"
"I don't think he considered it necessary."
"It's an important precaution," I replied; "there are always possibilities of infection."
"Possibly," said the other. "But you know, we did not expect this. Dr. Overton was to be here in three or four days."
"Dr. Perrin is asleep?" I asked.
"Yes. He was up all last night."
"I think I will have to ask you to waken him," I said.
"Is it as serious as that?" she inquired, anxiously, having sensed some of the emotion I was trying to conceal.
"It might be very serious," I said. "I really ought to have a talk with the doctor."
13. The nurse went out, and I drew up a chair and sat by the crib, watching the infant go back to sleep. I was glad to be alone, to have a chance to get myself together. But suddenly I heard a rustle of skirts in the doorway behind me, and turned and saw a white-clad figure; an elderly gentlewoman, slender and fragile, grey-haired and rather pale, wearing a soft dressing-gown. Aunt Varina!
I rose. "This must be Mrs. Abbott," she said. Oh, these soft, caressing Southern voices, that cling to each syllable as a lover to a hand at parting.
She was a very prim and stately little lady, and I think she did not intend to shake hands; but I felt pretty certain that under her coating of formality, she was eager for a chance to rhapsodize. "Oh, what a lovely child!" I cried; and instantly she melted.
"You have seen our babe!" she exclaimed; and I could not help smiling. A few months ago, "the little stranger," and now "our babe"!
She bent over the cradle, with her dear old sentimental, romantic soul in her eyes. For a minute or two she quite forgot me; then, looking up, she murmured, "It is as wonderful to me as if it were my own!"
"All of us who love Sylvia feel that," I responded.
She rose, and suddenly remembering hospitality, asked me as to my present needs. Then she said, "I must go and see to sending some telegrams."
"Telegrams?" I inquired.
"Yes. Think what this news will mean to dear Douglas! And to Major Castleman!"
"You haven't informed them?"
"We couldn't send any smaller boat on account of the storm. We must telegraph Dr. Overton also, you understand."
"To tell him not to come?" I ventured. "But don't you think, Mrs. Tuis, that he may wish to come anyhow?"
"Why should he wish that?"
"I'm not sure, but—I think he might." How I longed for a little of Sylvia's skill in social lying! "Every newly-born infant ought to be examined by a specialist, you know; there may be a particular rgime, a diet for the mother—one cannot say."
"Dr. Perrin didn't consider it necessary."
"I am going to have a talk with Dr. Perrin at once," I said.
I saw a troubled look in her eyes. "You don't mean you think there's anything the matter?"
"No—no," I lied. "But I'm sure you ought to wait before you have the launch go. Please do."
"If you insist," she said. I read bewilderment in her manner, and just a touch of resentment. Was it not presumptuous of me, a stranger, and one—well, possibly not altogether a lady? She groped for words; and the ones that came were: "Dear Douglas must not be kept waiting."
I was too polite to offer the suggestion that "dear Douglas" might be finding ways to amuse himself. The next moment I heard steps approaching on the veranda, and turned to meet the nurse with the doctor.
14. "How do you do, Mrs. Abbott?" said Dr. Perrin. He was in his dressing-gown, and had a newly-awakened look. I started to apologize, but he replied, "It's pleasant to see a new face in our solitude. Two new faces!"
That was behaving well, I thought, for a man who had been routed out of sleep. I tried to meet his mood. "Dr. Perrin, Mrs. van Tuiver tells me that you object to amateur physicians. But perhaps you won't mind regarding me as a midwife. I have three children of my own, and I've had to help bring others into the world."
"All right," he smiled. "We'll consider you qualified. What is the matter?"
"I wanted to ask you about the child's eyes. It is a wise precaution to drop some nitrate of silver into them, to provide against possible infection."
I waited for my answer. "There have been no signs of any sort of infection in this case," he said, at last.
"Perhaps not. But it is not necessary to wait, in such a matter. You have not taken the precaution?"
"You have some of the drug, of course?"
Again there was a pause. "No, madam, I fear that I have not."
I winced, involuntarily. I could not hide my distress. "Dr. Perrin," I exclaimed, "you came to attend a confinement case, and you omitted to provide something so essential!"
There was nothing left of the little man's affability now. "In the first place," he said, "I must remind you that I did not come to attend a confinement case. I came to look after Mrs. van Tuiver's condition up to the time of confinement."
"But you knew there would always be the possibility of an accident!"
"Yes, to be sure."
"And you didn't have any nitrate of silver!"
"Madam," he said, stiffly, "there is no use for this drug except in one contingency."
"I know," I cried, "but it is an important precaution. It is the practice to use it in all maternity hospitals."
"Madam, I have visited hospitals, and I think I know something of what the practice is."
So there we were, at a deadlock. There was silence for a space.
"Would you mind sending for the drug?" I asked, at last.
"I presume," he said, with hauteur, "it will do no harm to have it on hand."
I was aware of an elderly lady watching us, with consternation written upon every sentimental feature. "Dr. Perrin," I said, "if Mrs. Tuis will pardon me, I think I ought to speak with you alone." The nurse hastily withdrew; and I saw the elderly lady draw herself up with terrible dignity—and then suddenly quail, and turn and follow the nurse.
I told the little man what I knew. After he had had time to get over his consternation, he said that fortunately there did not seem to be any sign of trouble.
"There does seem so to me," I replied. "It may be only my imagination, but I think the eyelids are inflamed."
I held the baby for him, while he made an examination. He admitted that there seemed to be ground for uneasiness. His professional dignity was now gone, and he was only too glad to be human.
"Dr. Perrin," I said, "there is only one thing we can do—to get some nitrate of silver at the earliest possible moment. Fortunately, the launch is here."
"I will have it start at once," he said. "It will have to go to Key West."
"And how long will that take?"
"It depends upon the sea. In good weather it takes us eight hours to go and return." I could not repress a shudder. The child might be blind in eight hours!
But there was no time to be wasted in foreboding. "About Dr. Overton," I said. "Don't you think he had better come?" But I ventured to add the hint that Mr. van Tuiver would hardly wish expense to be considered in such an emergency; and in the end, I persuaded the doctor not merely to telegraph for the great surgeon, but to ask a hospital in Atlanta to send the nearest eye-specialist by the first train.
We called back Mrs. Tuis, and I apologized abjectly for my presumption, and Dr. Perrin announced that he thought he ought to see Dr. Overton, and another doctor as well. I saw fear leap into Aunt Varina's eyes. "Oh, what is it?" she cried. "What is the matter with our babe?"
I helped the doctor to answer polite nothings to all her questions. "Oh, the poor, dear lady!" I thought to myself. The poor, dear lady! What a tearing away of veils and sentimental bandages was written in her book of fate for that night!
15. I find myself lingering over these preliminaries, dreading the plunge into the rest of my story. We spent our time hovering over the child's crib, and in two or three hours the little eyelids had become so inflamed that there could no longer be any doubt what was happening. We applied alternate hot and cold cloths; we washed the eyes in a solution of boric acid, and later, in our desperation, with bluestone. But we were dealing with the virulent gonococcus, and we neither expected nor obtained much result from these measures. In a couple of hours more the eyes were beginning to exude pus, and the poor infant was wailing in torment.
"Oh, what can it be? Tell me what is the matter?" cried Mrs. Tuis. She sought to catch the child in her arms, and when I quickly prevented her, she turned upon me in anger. "What do you mean?"
"The child must be quiet," I said.
"But I wish to comfort it!" And when I still insisted, she burst out wildly: "What right have you?"
"Mrs. Tuis," I said, gently, "it is possible the infant may have a very serious infection. If so, you would be apt to catch it."
She answered with a hysterical cry: "My precious innocent! Do you think that I would be afraid of anything it could have?"
"You may not be afraid, but we are. We should have to take care of you, and one case is more than enough."
Suddenly she clutched me by the arm. "Tell me what this awful thing is! I demand to know!"
"Mrs. Tuis," said the doctor, interfering, "we are not yet sure what the trouble is, we only wish to take precautions. It is really imperative that you should not handle this child or even go near it. There is nothing you can possibly do."
She was willing to take orders from him; he spoke the same dialect as herself, and with the same quaint stateliness. A charming little Southern gentleman—I could realise how Douglas van Tuiver had "picked him out for his social qualities." In the old-fashioned Southern medical college where he had got his training, I suppose they had taught him the old-fashioned idea of gonorrhea. Now he was acquiring our extravagant modern notions in the grim school of experience!
It was necessary to put the nurse on her guard as to the risks we were running. We should have had concave glasses to protect our eyes, and we spent part of our time washing our hands in bichloride solution.
"Mrs. Abbott, what is it?" whispered the woman.
"It has a long name," I replied—"opthalmia neonatorum."
"And what has caused it?"
"The original cause," I responded, "is a man." I was not sure if that was according to the ethics of the situation, but the words came.
Before long the infected eye-sockets were two red and yellow masses of inflammation, and the infant was screaming like one of the damned. We had to bind up its eyes; I was tempted to ask the doctor to give it an opiate for fear lest it should scream itself into convulsions. Then as poor Mrs. Tuis was pacing the floor, wringing her hands and sobbing hysterically, Dr. Perrin took me to one side and said: "I think she will have to be told."
The poor, poor lady!
"She might as well understand now as later," he continued. "She will have to help keep the situation from the mother."
"Yes," I said, faintly; and then, "Who shall tell her?"
"I think," suggested the doctor, "she might prefer to be told by a woman."
So I shut my lips together and took the distracted lady gently by the arm and led her to the door. We stole like two criminals down the veranda, and along the path to the beach, and near the boathouse we stopped, and I began.
"Mrs. Tuis, you may remember a circumstance which your niece mentioned to me—that just before her marriage she urged you to have certain inquiries made as to Mr. van Tuiver's health, his fitness for marriage?"
Never shall I forget her face at that moment. "Sylvia told you that!"
"The inquiries were made," I went on, "but not carefully enough, it seems. Now you behold the consequence of this negligence."
I saw her blank stare. I added: "The one to pay for it is the child."
"You—you mean—" she stammered, her voice hardly a whisper. "Oh—it is impossible!" Then, with a flare of indignation: "Do you realise what you are implying—that Mr. van Tuiver—"
"There is no question of implying," I said, quietly. "It is the facts we have to face now, and you will have to help us to face them."
She cowered and swayed before me, hiding her face in her hands. I heard her sobbing and murmuring incoherent cries to her god. I took the poor lady's hand, and bore with her as long as I could, until, being at the end of my patience with prudery and purity and chivalry, and all the rest of the highfalutin romanticism of the South, I said: "Mrs Tuis, it is necessary that you should get yourself together. You have a serious duty before you—that you owe both to Sylvia and her child."
"What is it?" she whispered. The word "duty" had motive power for her.
"At all hazards, Sylvia must be kept in ignorance of the calamity for the present. If she were to learn of it it would quite possibly throw her into a fever, and cost her life or the child's. You must not make any sound that she can hear, and you must not go near her until you have completely mastered your emotions."
"Very well," she murmured. She was really a brave little body, but I, not knowing her, and thinking only of the peril, was cruel in hammering things into her consciousness. Finally, I left her, seated upon the steps of the deserted boat-house, rocking back and forth and sobbing softly to herself—one of the most pitiful figures it has ever been my fortune to encounter in my pilgrimage through a world of sentimentality and incompetence.
16. I went back to the house, and because we feared the sounds of the infant's crying might carry, we hung blankets before the doors and windows of the room, and sat in the hot enclosure, shuddering, silent, grey with fear. After an hour or two, Mrs. Tuis rejoined us, stealing in and seating herself at one side of the room, staring from one to another of us with wide eyes of fright.
By the time the first signs of dawn appeared, the infant had cried itself into a state of exhaustion. The faint light that got into the room revealed the three of us, listening to the pitiful whimpering. I was faint with weakness, but I had to make an effort and face the worst ordeal of all. There came a tapping at the door—the maid, to say that Sylvia was awake and had heard of my arrival and wished to see me. I might have put off our meeting for a while, on the plea of exhaustion, but I preferred to have it over with, and braced myself and went slowly to her room.
In the doorway I paused for an instant to gaze at her. She was exquisite, lying there with the flush of sleep still upon her, and the ecstasy of her great achievement in her face. I fled to her, and we caught each other in our arms. "Oh, Mary, Mary! I'm so glad you've come!" And then: "Oh, Mary, isn't it the loveliest baby!"
"Perfectly glorious!" I exclaimed.
"Oh, I'm so happy—so happy as I never dreamed! I've no words to tell you about it."
"You don't need any words—I've been through it," I said.
"Oh, but she's so beautiful! Tell me, honestly, isn't that really so?"
"My dear," I said, "she is like you."
"Mary," she went on, half whispering, "I think it solves all my problems—all that I wrote you about. I don't believe I shall ever be unhappy again. I can't believe that such a thing has really happened—that I've been given such a treasure. And she's my own! I can watch her little body grow and help to make it strong and beautiful! I can help mould her little mind—see it opening up, one chamber of wonder after another! I can teach her all the things I have had to grope so to get!"
"Yes," I said, trying to speak with conviction. I added, hastily: "I'm glad you don't find motherhood disappointing."
"Oh, it's a miracle!" she exclaimed. "A woman who could be dissatisfied with anything afterwards would be an ingrate!" She paused, then added: "Mary, now she's here in flesh, I feel she'll be a bond between Douglas and me. He must see her rights, her claim upon life, as he couldn't see mine."
I assented gravely. So that was the thing she was thinking most about—a bond between her husband and herself! A moment later the nurse appeared in the doorway, and Sylvia set up a cry: "My baby! Where's my baby? I want to see my baby!"
"Sylvia, dear," I said, "there's something about the baby that has to be explained."
Instantly she was alert. "What is the matter?"
I laughed. "Nothing, dear, that amounts to anything. But the little one's eyes are inflamed—that is to say, the lids. It's something that happens to newly-born infants."
"Well, then?" she said.
"Nothing, only the doctor's had to put some salve on them, and they don't look very pretty."
"I don't mind that, if it's all right."
"But we've had to put a bandage over them, and it looks forbidding. Also the child is apt to cry."
"I must see her at once!" she exclaimed.
"Just now she's asleep, so don't make us disturb her."
"But how long will this last?"
"Not very long. Meantime you must be sensible and not mind. It's something I made the doctor do, and you mustn't blame me, or I'll be sorry I came to you."
"You dear thing," she said, and put her hand in mine. And then, suddenly: "Why did you take it into your head to come, all of a sudden?"
"Don't ask me," I smiled. "I have no excuse. I just got homesick and had to see you."
"It's perfectly wonderful that you should be here now," she declared. "But you look badly. Are you tired?"
"Yes, dear," I said. (Such a difficult person to deceive!) "To tell the truth, I'm pretty nearly done up. You see, I was caught in the storm, and I was desperately sea-sick."
"Why, you poor dear! Why didn't you go to sleep?"
"I didn't want to sleep. I was too much excited by everything. I came to see one Sylvia and I found two!"
"Isn't it absurd," she cried, "how she looks like me? Oh, I want to see her again. How long will it be before I can have her?"
"My dear," I said, "you mustn't worry—"
"Oh, don't mind me, I'm just playing. I'm so happy, I want to squeeze her in my arms all the time. Just think, Mary, they won't let me nurse her, yet—a whole day now! Can that be right?"
"Nature will take care of that," I said.
"Yes, but how can you be sure what Nature means? Maybe it's what the child is crying about, and it's the crying that makes its eyes red."
I felt a sudden spasm grip my heart. "No, dear, no," I said, hastily. "You must let Dr. Perrin attend to these things, for I've just had to interfere with his arrangements, and he'll be getting cross pretty soon."
"Oh," she cried with laughter in her eyes, "you've had a scene with him? I knew you would! He's so quaint and old-fashioned!"
"Yes," I said, "and he talks exactly like your aunt."
"Oh! You've met her too! I'm missing all the fun!"
I had a sudden inspiration—one that I was proud of. "My dear girl," I said, "maybe you call it fun!" And I looked really agitated.
"Why, what's the matter?" she cried.
"What could you expect?" I asked. "I fear, my dear Sylvia, I've shocked your aunt beyond all hope."
"What have you done?"
"I've talked about things I'd no business to—I've bossed the learned doctor—and I'm sure Aunt Varina has guessed I'm not a lady."
"Oh, tell me about it!" cried Sylvia, full of delight.
But I could not keep up the game any longer. "Not now, dear," I said. "It's a long story, and I really am exhausted. I must go and get some rest."
I rose, and she caught my hand, whispering: "I shall be happy, Mary! I shall be really happy now!" And then I turned and fled, and when I was out of sight of the doorway, I literally ran. At the other end of the veranda I sank down upon the steps, and wept softly to myself.
17. The launch arrived, bringing the nitrate of silver. A solution was dropped into the baby's eyes, and then we could do nothing but wait. I might have lain down and really tried to rest; but the maid came again, with the announcement that Sylvia was asking for her aunt. Excuses would have tended to excite her suspicions; so poor Mrs. Tuis had to take her turn at facing the ordeal, and I had to drill and coach her for it. I had a vision of the poor lady going in to her niece, and suddenly collapsing. Then there would begin a cross-examination, and Sylvia would worm out the truth, and we might have a case of puerperal fever on our hands.
This I explained afresh to Mrs. Tuis, having taken her into her own room and closed the door for that purpose. She clutched me with her shaking hands and whispered, "Oh, Mrs. Abbott, you will never let Sylvia find out what caused this trouble?"
I drew on my reserve supply of patience, and answered, "What I shall let her find out in the end, I don't know. We shall be guided by circumstances, and this is no time to discuss the matter. The point is now to make sure that you can go in and stay with her, and not let her get an idea there's anything wrong."
"Oh, but you know how Sylvia reads people!" she cried, in sudden dismay.
"I've fixed it for you," I said. "I've provided something you can be agitated about."
"What is that?"
"It's me." Then, seeing her look of bewilderment, "You must tell her that I've affronted you, Mrs. Tuis; I've outraged your sense of propriety. You're indignant with me and you don't see how you can remain in the house with me—"
"Why, Mrs. Abbott!" she exclaimed, in horror.
"You know it's truth to some extent," I said.
The good lady drew herself up. "Mrs. Abbott, don't tell me that I have been so rude—"
"Dear Mrs. Tuis," I laughed, "don't stop to apologize just now. You have not been lacking in courtesy, but I know how I must seem to you. I am a Socialist. I have a raw, Western accent, and my hands are big—I've lived on a farm all my life, and done my own work, and even plowed sometimes. I have no idea of the charms and graces of life that are everything to you. What is more than that, I am forward, and thrust my opinions upon other people—"
She simply could not hear me. She was a-tremble with a new excitement. Worse even than opthalmia neonatorum was plain speaking to a guest! "Mrs. Abbott, you humiliate me!"
Then I spoke harshly, seeing that I would actually have to shock her. "I assure you, Mrs. Tuis, that if you don't feel that way about me, it's simply because you don't know the truth. It is not possible that you would consider me a proper person to visit Sylvia. I don't believe in your religion; I don't believe in anything that you would call religion, and I argue about it at the least provocation. I deliver violent harangues on street-corners, and have been arrested during a strike. I believe in woman's suffrage, I even argue in approval of window-smashing. I believe that women ought to earn their own living, and be independent and free from any man's control. I am a divorced woman—I left my husband because I wasn't happy with him, what's more, I believe that any woman has a right to do the same—I'm liable to teach such ideas to Sylvia, and to urge her to follow them."
The poor lady's eyes were wide and large. "So you see," I exclaimed, "you really couldn't approve of me! Tell her all this; she knows it already, but she will be horrified, because I have let you and the doctor find it out!"
Whereupon Mrs. Tuis started to ascend the pedestal of her dignity. "Mrs. Abbott, this may be your idea of a jest——"
"Now come," I cried, "let me help you fix your hair, and put on just a wee bit of powder—not enough to be noticed, you understand——"
I took her to the wash-stand, and poured out some cold water for her, and saw her bathe her eyes and face, and dry them, and braid her thin grey hair. While with a powder puff I was trying deftly to conceal the ravages of the night's crying, the dear lady turned to me, and whispered in a trembling voice, "Mrs. Abbott, you really don't mean that dreadful thing you said just now?"
"Which dreadful thing, Mrs. Tuis?"
"That you would tell Sylvia it could possibly be right for her to leave her husband?"
18. In the course of the day we received word that Dr. Gibson, the specialist for whom we had telegraphed, was on his way. The boat which brought his message took back a letter from Dr. Perrin to Douglas van Tuiver, acquainting him with the calamity which had befallen. We had talked it over and agreed that there was nothing to be gained by telegraphing the information. We did not wish any hint of the child's illness to leak into the newspapers.
I did not envy the great man the hour when he read that letter; although I knew that the doctor had not failed to assure him that the victim of his misdeeds should be kept in ignorance. Already the little man had begun to drop hints to me on this subject. Unfortunate accidents happened, which were not always to be blamed upon the husband, nor was it a thing to contemplate lightly, the breaking up of a family. I gave a non-committal answer, and changed the subject by asking the doctor not to mention my presence in the household. If by any chance van Tuiver were to carry his sorrows to Claire, I did not want my name brought up.
We managed to prevent Sylvia's seeing the child that day and night, and the next morning came the specialist. He held out no hope of saving any remnant of the sight, but the child might be so fortunate as to escape disfigurement—it did not appear that the eyeballs were destroyed, as happens generally in these cases. This bit of consolation I still have: that little Elaine, who sits by me as I write, has left in her pupils a faint trace of the soft red-brown—just enough to remind us of what we have lost, and keep fresh in our minds the memory of these sorrows. If I wish to see what her eyes might have been, I look above my head to the portrait of Sylvia's noble ancestress, a copy made by a "tramp artist" in Castleman County, and left with me by Sylvia.
There was the question of the care of the mother—the efforts to stay the ravages of the germ in the tissues broken and weakened by the strain of child-birth. We had to invent excuses for the presence of the new doctor—and yet others for the presence of Dr. Overton, who came a day later. And then the problem of the nourishing of the child. It would be a calamity to have to put it upon the bottle, but on the other hand, there were many precautions necessary to keep the infection from spreading.
I remember vividly the first time that the infant was fed: all of us gathered round, with matter-of-course professional air, as if these elaborate hygienic ceremonies were the universal custom when newly-born infants first taste their mothers' milk. Standing in the background, I saw Sylvia start with dismay, as she noted how pale and thin the poor little one had become. It was hunger that caused the whimpering, so the nurse declared, busying herself in the meantime to keep the tiny hands from the mother's face. The latter sank back and closed her eyes—nothing, it seemed, could prevail over the ecstasy of that first marvellous sensation, but afterwards she asked that I might stay with her, and as soon as the others were gone, she unmasked the batteries of her suspicion upon me. "Mary! What in the world has happened to my baby?"
So began a new stage in the campaign of lying. "It's nothing, nothing. Just some infection. It happens frequently."
"But what is the cause of it?"
"We can't tell. It may be a dozen things. There are so many possible sources of infection about a birth. It's not a very sanitary thing, you know."
"Mary! Look me in the face!"
"You're not deceiving me?"
"How do you mean?"
"I mean—it's not really something serious? All these doctors—this mystery—this vagueness!"
"It was your husband, my dear Sylvia, who sent the doctors—it was his stupid man's way of being attentive." (This at Aunt Varina's suggestion—the very subtle lady!).
"Mary, I'm worried. My baby looks so badly, and I feel something is wrong."
"My dear Sylvia," I chided, "if you worry about it you will simply be harming the child. Your milk may go wrong."
"Oh, that's just it! That's why you would not tell me the truth!"
We persuade ourselves that there are certain circumstances under which lying is necessary, but always when we come to the lies we find them an insult to the soul. Each day I perceived that I was getting in deeper—and each day I watched Aunt Varina and the doctor busied to push me deeper yet.
There had come a telegram from Douglas van Tuiver to Dr. Perrin, revealing the matter which stood first in that gentleman's mind. "I expect no failure in your supply of the necessary tact." By this vagueness we perceived that he too was trusting no secrets to telegraph operators. Yet for us it was explicit and illuminative. It recalled the tone of quiet authority I had noted in his dealings with his chauffeur, and it sent me off by myself for a while to shake my fist at all husbands.
19. Mrs. Tuis, of course, had no need of any warning from the head of the house. The voice of her ancestors guided her in all such emergencies. The dear lady had got to know me quite well, at the more or less continuous dramatic rehearsals we conducted; and now and then her trembling hands would seek to fasten me in the chains of decency. "Mrs. Abbott, think what a scandal there would be if Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver were to break with her husband!"
"Yes, my dear Mrs. Tuis-but on the other hand, think what might happen if she were kept in ignorance in this matter. She might bear another child."
I got a new realization of the chasms that lay between us. "Who are we," she whispered, "to interfere in these sacred matters? It is of souls, Mrs. Abbot, and not bodies, that the Kingdom of Heaven is made."
I took a minute or so to get my breath, and then I said, "What generally happens in these cases is that God afflicts the woman with permanent barrenness."
The old lady bowed her head, and I saw the tears falling into her lap. "My poor Sylvia!" she moaned, only half aloud.
There was a silence; I too almost wept. And finally, Aunt Varina looked up at me, her faded eyes full of pleading. "It is hard for me to understand such ideas as yours. You must tell me-can you really believe that it would help Sylvia to know this-this dreadful secret?"
"It would help her in many ways," I said. "She will be more careful of her health-she will follow the doctor's orders—-"
How quickly came the reply! "I will stay with her, and see that she does that! I will be with her day and night."
"But are you going to keep the secret from those who attend her? Her maid—the child's nurses—everyone who might by any chance use the same towel, or a wash-basin, or a drinking-glass?"
"Surely you exaggerate the danger! If that were true, more people would meet with these accidents!"
"The doctors," I said, "estimate that about ten per cent. of cases of this disease are innocently acquired."
"Oh, these modern doctors!" she cried. "I never heard of such ideas!"
I could not help smiling. "My dear Mrs. Tuis, what do you imagine you know about the prevalence of gonorrhea? Consider just one fact—that I heard a college professor state publicly that in his opinion eighty-five per cent. of the men students at his university were infected with some venereal disease. And that is the pick of our young manhood—the sons of our aristocracy!"
"Oh, that can't be!" she exclaimed. "People would know of it!
"Who are 'people'? The boys in your family know of it—if you could get them to tell you. My two sons studied at a State university, and they would bring me home what they heard—the gossip, the slang, the horrible obscenity. Fourteen fellows in one dormitory using the same bathroom—and on the wall you saw a row of fourteen syringes! And they told that on themselves, it was the joke of the campus. They call the disease a 'dose'; and a man's not supposed to be worthy the respect of his fellows until he's had his 'dose'—the sensible thing is to get several, till he can't get any more. They think it's 'no worse than a bad cold'; that's the idea they get from the 'clap-doctors,' and the women of the street who educate our sons in sex matters."
"Oh, spare me, spare me!" cried Mrs. Tuis. "I beg you not to force these horrible details upon me!"
"That is what is going on among our boys," I said. "The Castleman boys, the Chilton boys! It's going on in every fraternity house, every 'prep school' dormitory in America. And the parents refuse to know, just as you do!"
"But what could I possibly do, Mrs. Abbott?"
"I don't know, Mrs. Tuis. What I am going to do is to teach the young girls."
She whispered, aghast, "You would rob the young girls of their innocence. Why, with their souls full of these ideas their faces would soon be as hard—oh, you horrify me!"
"My daughter's face is not hard," I said. "And I taught her. Stop and think, Mrs. Tuis—ten thousand blind children every year! A hundred thousand women under the surgeon's knife! Millions of women going to pieces with slowly creeping diseases of which they never hear the names! I say, let us cry this from the housetops, until every woman knows—and until every man knows that she knows, and that unless he can prove that he is clean he will lose her! That is the remedy, Mrs. Tuis!"
Poor dear lady! I got up and went away, leaving her there, with clenched hands and trembling lips. I suppose I seemed to her like the mad women who were just then rising up to horrify the respectability of England—a phenomenon of Nature too portentous to be comprehended, or even to be contemplated, by a gentlewoman of the South!
20. There came in due course a couple of letters from Douglas van Tuiver. The one to Aunt Varina, which was shown to me, was vague and cautious—as if the writer were uncertain how much this worthy lady knew. He merely mentioned that Sylvia was to be spared every particle of "painful knowledge." He would wait in great anxiety, but he would not come, because any change in his plans might set her to questioning.
The letter to Dr. Perrin was not shown to me; but I judged that it must have contained more strenuous injunctions. Or had Aunt Varina by any chance got up the courage to warn the young doctor against me? His hints, at any rate, became more pointed. He desired me to realize how awkward it would be for him, if Sylvia were to learn the truth; it would be impossible to convince Mr. van Tuiver that this knowledge had not come from the physician in charge.
"But, Dr. Perrin," I objected, "it was I who brought the information to you! And Mr. van Tuiver knows that I am a radical woman; he would not expect me to be ignorant of such matters."
"Mrs. Abbott," was the response, "it is a grave matter to destroy the possibility of happiness of a young married couple."
However I might dispute his theories, in practice I was doing what he asked. But each day I was finding the task more difficult; each day it became more apparent that Sylvia was ceasing to believe me. I realized at last, with a sickening kind of fright, that she knew I was hiding something from her. Because she knew me, and knew that I would not do such a thing lightly, she was terrified. She would lie there, gazing at me, with a dumb fear in her eyes—and I would go on asseverating blindly, like an unsuccessful actor before a jeering audience.
A dozen times she made an effort to break through the barricade of falsehood; and a dozen times I drove her back, all but crying to her, "No, No! Don't ask me!" Until at last, late one night, she caught my hand and clung to it in a grip I could not break. "Mary! Mary! You must tell me the truth!"
"Dear girl—" I began.
"Listen!" she cried. "I know you are deceiving me! I know why—because I'll make myself ill. But it won't do any longer; it's preying on me, Mary—I've taken to imagining things. So you must tell me the truth!"
I sat, avoiding her eyes, beaten; and in the pause I could feel her hands shaking. "Mary, what is it? Is my baby going to die?"
"No, dear, indeed no!" I cried.
"Sylvia," I began, as quietly as I could, "the truth is not as bad as you imagine—"
"Tell me what it is!"
"But it is bad, Sylvia. And you must be brave. You must be, for your baby's sake."
"Make haste!" she cried.
"The baby," I said, "may be blind."
"Blind!" There we sat, gazing into each other's eyes, like two statues of women. But the grasp of her hand tightened, until even my big fist was hurt. "Blind!" she whispered again.
"Sylvia," I rushed on, "it isn't so bad as it might be! Think—if you had lost her altogether!"
"You will have her always; and you can do things for her—take care of her. They do wonders for the blind nowadays—and you have the means; to do everything. Really, you know, blind children are not unhappy—some of them are happier than other children, I think. They haven't so much to miss. Think—"
"Wait, wait," she whispered; and again there was silence, and I clung to her cold hands.
"Sylvia," I said, at last, "you have a newly-born infant to nurse, and its very life depends upon your health now. You cannot let yourself grieve."
"No," she responded. "No. But, Mary, what caused this?"
So there was the end of my spell of truth-telling. "I don't know, dear. Nobody knows. There might be a thousand things—"
"Was it born blind?"
"Then was it the doctor's fault?"
"No, it was nobody's fault. Think of the thousands and tens of thousands of babies that become blind! It's a dreadful accident that happens." So I went on—possessed with a dread that had been with me for days, that had kept me awake for hours in the night: Had I, in any of my talks with Sylvia about venereal disease, mentioned blindness in infants as one of the consequences? I could not rememher; but now was the time I would find out!
She lay there, immovable, like a woman who had died in grief; until at last I flung my arms about her and whispered, "Sylvia! Sylvia! Please cry!"
"I can't cry!" she whispered, and her voice sounded hard.
So, after a space, I said, "Then, dear, I think I will have to make you laugh."
"Yes-I will tell you about the quarrel between Aunt Varina and myself. You know what times we've been having-how I shocked the poor lady?"
She was looking at me, but her eyes were not seeing me. "Yes, Mary," she said, in the same dead tone.
"Well, that was a game we made for you. It was very funny!"
"Yes! Because I really did shock her-though we started out just to give you something else to think about!"
And then suddenly I saw the healing tears begin to come. She could not weep for her own grief-but she could weep because of what she knew we two had had to suffer for her!
21. I went out and told the others what I had done; and Mrs. Tuis rushed in to her niece and they wept in each other's arms, and Mrs. Tuis explained all the mysteries of life by her formula, "the will of the Lord."
Later on came Dr. Perrin, and it was touching to see how Sylvia treated him. She had, it appeared, conceived the idea that the calamity must be due to some blunder on his part, and then she had reflected that he was young, and that chance had thrown upon him a responsibility for which he had not bargained. He must be reproaching himself bitterly, so she had to persuade him that it was really not so bad as we were making it-that a blind child was a great joy to a mother's soul-in some ways even a greater joy than a perfectly sound child, because it appealed so to her protective instinct! I had called Sylvia a shameless payer of compliments, and now I went away by myself and wept.
Yet it was true in a way. When the infant was brought in to be nursed again, how she clung to it, a very picture of the sheltering and protecting instinct of motherhood! She knew the worst now—her mind was free, and she could partake of what happiness was allowed her. The child was hers to love and care for, and she would find ways to atone to it for the harshness of fate.
So little by little we got our existence upon a working basis. We lived a peaceful, routine life, to the music of cocoanut-palms rustling in the warm breezes which blew incessantly off the Mexican Gulf. Aunt Varina had, for the time, her undisputed way with the family; her niece reclined upon the veranda in true Southern lady fashion, and was read aloud to from books of indisputable respectability. I remember Aunt Varina selected the "Idylls of the King," and they two were in a mood to shed tears over these solemn, sorrowful tales. So it came that the little one got her name, after a pale and unhappy heroine.
I remember the long discussions of this point, the family-lore which Aunt Varina brought forth. It did not seem to her quite the thing to call a blind child after a member of one's family. Something strange, romantic, wistful—yes, Elaine was the name! Mrs. Tuis, it transpired, had already baptised the infant, in the midst of the agonies and alarms of its illness. She had called it "Sylvia," and now she was tremulously uncertain whether this counted—whether perhaps the higher powers might object to having to alter their records. But in the end a clergyman came out from Key West and heard Aunt Varina's confession, and gravely concluded that the error might be corrected by a formal ceremony. How strange it all seemed to me—being carried back two or three hundred years in the world's history! But I gave no sign of what was going on in my rebellious mind.
22. Dr. Overton on his return to New York, sent a special nurse to take charge of Sylvia's case. There was also an infant's nurse, and both had been taken into the doctor's confidence. So now there was an elaborate conspiracy—no less than five women and two men, all occupied in keeping a secret from Sylvia. It was a thing so contrary to my convictions that I was never free from the burden of it for a moment. Was it my duty to tell her?
Dr. Perrin no longer referred to the matter—I realised that both he and Dr. Gibson considered the matter settled. Was it conceivable that anyone of sound mind could set out, deliberately and in cold blood, to betray such a secret? But I had maintained all my life the right of woman to know the truth, and was I to back down now, at the first test of my convictions?
When the news reached Douglas van Tuiver that his wife had been informed of the infant's blindness, there came a telegram saying that he was coming. There was much excitement, of course, and Aunt Varina came to me, in an attempt to secure a definite pledge of silence. When I refused it, Dr. Perrin came again, and we fought the matter over for the better part of a day and night.
He was a polite little gentleman, and he did not tell me that my views were those of a fanatic, but he said that no woman could see things in their true proportion, because of her necessary ignorance concerning the nature of men, and the temptations to which they were exposed. I replied that I believed I understood these matters thoroughly, and I went on, quite simply and honestly, to make clear to him that this was so. In the end my pathetically chivalrous little Southern gentleman admitted everything I asked. Yes, it was true that these evils were ghastly, and that they were increasing, and that women were the worst sufferers from men. There might even be something in my idea that the older women of the community should devote themselves to this service, making themselves race-mothers, and helping, not merely in their homes, but in the schools and churches, to protect and save the future generations. But all that was in the future, he argued, while here was a case which had gone so far that "letting in the light" could only blast the life of two people, making it impossible for a young mother ever again to tolerate the father of her child. I argued that Sylvia was not of the hysterical type, but I could not make him agree that it was possible to predict what the attitude of any woman would be. His ideas were based on one peculiar experience he had had—a woman patient who had said to him: "Doctor, I know what is the matter with me, but for God's sake don't let my husband find out that I know, because then I should feel that my self-respect required me to leave him!"
23. The Master-of-the-House was coming! You could feel the quiver of excitement in the air of the place. The boatmen were polishing the brasses of the launch; the yard-man was raking up the dry strips of palm from beneath the cocoanut trees; Aunt Varina was ordering new supplies, and entering into conspiracies with the cook. The nurses asked me timidly, what was He like, and even Dr. Gibson, a testy old gentleman who had clashed violently with me on the subject of woman's suffrage, and had avoided me ever since as a suspicious character, now came and confided his troubles. He had sent home for a trunk, and the graceless express companies had sent it astray. Now he was wondering if it was necessary for him to journey to Key West and have a suit of dinner clothes made over night. I told him that I had not sent for any party-dresses, and that I expected to meet Mr. Douglas van Tuiver at his dinner-table in plain white linen. His surprise was so great that I suspected the old gentleman of having wondered whether I meant to retire to a "second-table" when the Master-of-the-House arrived.
I went away by myself, seething with wrath. Who was this great one whom we honoured? Was he an inspired poet, a maker of laws, a discoverer of truth? He was the owner of an indefinite number of millions of dollars—that was all, and yet I was expected, because of my awe of him, to abandon the cherished convictions of my lifetime. The situation was one that challenged my fighting blood. This was the hour to prove whether I really meant the things I talked.
On the morning of the day that van Tuiver was expected, I went early to Aunt Varina's room. She was going in the launch, and was in a state of flustration, occupied in putting on her best false hair. "Mrs. Tuis," I said, "I want you to let me go to meet Mr. van Tuiver instead of you."
I will not stop to report the good lady's outcries. I did not care, I said, whether it was proper, nor did I care whether, as she finally hinted, it might not be agreeable to Mr. van Tuiver. I was sorry to have to thrust myself upon him, but I was determined to go, and would let nothing prevent me. And all at once she yielded, rather surprising me by the suddenness of it. I suppose she concluded that van Tuiver was the man to handle me, and the quicker he got at it the better.
It is a trying thing to deal with the rich and great. If you treat them as the rest of the world does, you are a tuft-hunter; if you treat them as the rest of the world pretends to, you are a hypocrite; whereas, if you deal with them truly, it is hard not to seem, even to yourself, a bumptious person. I remember trying to tell myself on the launch-trip that I was not in the least excited; and then, standing on the platform of the railroad station, saying: "How can you expect not to be excited, when even the railroad is excited?"
"Will Mr. van Tuiver's train be on time?" I asked, of the agent.
"'Specials' are not often delayed," he replied, "at least, not Mr. van Tuiver's."
The engine and its two cars drew up, and the traveller stepped out upon the platform, followed by his secretary and his valet. I went forward to meet him. "Good morning, Mr. van Tuiver."
I saw at once that he did not remember me. "Mrs. Abbott," I prompted. "I came to meet you."
"Ah," he said. He had never got clear whether I was a sewing-woman, or a tutor, or what, and whenever he erred in such matters, it was on the side of caution.
"Your wife is doing well," I said, "and the child as well as could be expected."
"Thank you," he said. "Did no one else come?"
"Mrs. Tuis was not able," I said, diplomatically, and we moved towards the launch.
24. He did not offer to help me into the vessel, but I, crude Western woman, did not miss the attention. We seated ourselves in the upholstered leather seats in the stern, and when the "luggage" had been stowed aboard, the little vessel swung away from the pier. Then I said: "If you will pardon me, Mr. van Tuiver, I should like to talk with you privately."
He looked at me for a moment, and then answered, abruptly: "Yes, madam." The secretary rose and went forward.
The whirr of the machinery and the strong breeze made by the boat's motion, made it certain that no one could hear us, and so I began my attack: "Mr. van Tuiver, I am a friend of your wife's. I came here to help her in this crisis, and I came to-day to meet you because it was necessary for someone to talk to you frankly about the situation. You will understand, I presume, that Mrs. Tuis is not— not very well informed about the matters in question."
His gaze was fixed intently upon me, but he said not a word. After waiting, I continued: "Perhaps you will wonder why your wife's physicians could not have handled the matter. The reason is, there is a woman's side to such questions and often it is difficult for men to understand it. If Sylvia knew the truth, she could speak for herself; so long as she does not know it, I shall have to take the liberty of speaking for her."
Again there was a pause. He did nothing more than watch me, yet I could feel his affronted maleness rising up for battle. I waited on purpose to compel him to speak.
"May I ask," he inquired, at last, "what you mean by the 'truth' that you refer to?"
"I mean," I said, "the cause of the infant's affliction."
His composure was a thing to wonder at. He did not show by the flicker of an eyelash any sign of uneasiness.
"Let me explain one thing," I continued. "I owe it to Dr. Perrin to make clear that he had nothing whatever to do with my coming into possession of the secret. In fact, as he will no doubt tell you, I knew it before he did; it is possible that you owe it to me that the infant is not disfigured as well as blind."
I paused again. "If that be true," he said, with unshaken formality, "I am obliged to you." What a man!
I continued: "My one desire and purpose is to protect my friend. So far, the secret has been kept from her. I consented to this, because her very life was at stake, it seemed to us all. But now she is well enough to know, and the question is SHALL she know. I need hardly tell you that Dr. Perrin thinks she should not, and that he has been using his influence to persuade me to agree with him; so also has Mrs. Tuis——"
Then I saw the first trace of uncertainty in his eyes. "There was a critical time," I explained, "when Mrs. Tuis had to be told. You may be sure, however, that no hint of the truth will be given by her. I am the only person who is troubled with the problem of Sylvia's rights."
I waited. "May I suggest, Mrs.—Mrs. Abbott—that the protection of Mrs. van Tuiver's rights can be safely left to her physicians and her husband?"
"One would wish so, Mr. van Tuiver, but the medical books are full of evidence that women's rights frequently need other protection."
I perceived that he was nearing the end of his patience now. "You make it difficult for me to talk to you," he said. "I am not accustomed to having my affairs taken out of my hands by strangers."
"Mr. van Tuiver," I replied, "in this most critical matter it is necessary to speak without evasion. Before her marriage Sylvia made an attempt to safeguard herself in this very matter, and she was not dealt with fairly."
At last I had made a hole in the mask! His face was crimson as he replied: "Madam, your knowledge of my private affairs is most astonishing. May I inquire how you learned these things?"
I did not reply at once, and he repeated the question. I perceived that this was to him the most important matter—his wife's lack of reserve!
"The problem that concerns us here," I said, "is whether you are willing to repair the error you made. Will you go frankly to your wife and admit your responsibility——"
He broke in, angrily: "Madam, the assumption you are making is one I see no reason for permitting."
"Mr. van Tuiver," said I, "I hoped that you would not take that line of argument. I perceive that I have been naive."
"Really, madam!" he replied, with cruel intent, "you have not impressed me so!"
I continued unshaken: "In this conversation it will be necessary to assume that you are responsible for the presence of the disease."
"In that case," he replied, haughtily, "I can have no further part in the conversation, and I will ask you to drop it at once."
I might have taken him at his word and waited, confident that in the end he would have to come and ask for terms. But that would have seemed childish to me, with the grave matters we had to settle. After a minute or two, I said, quietly: "Mr. van Tuiver, you wish me to believe that previous to your marriage you had always lived a chaste life?"
He was equal to the effort it cost to control himself. He sat examining me with his cold grey eyes. I suppose I must have been as new and monstrous a phenomenon to him as he was to me.
At last, seeing that he would not reply, I said, coldly: "It will help us to get forward if you will give up the idea that it is possible for you to put me off, or to escape this situation."
"Madam," he cried, suddenly, "come to the point! What is it that you want? Money?"
I had thought I was prepared for everything; but this was an aspect of his world which I could hardly have been expected to allow for. I stared at him and then turned from the sight of him. "And to think that Sylvia is married to such a man!" I whispered, half to myself.
"Mrs. Abbott," he exclaimed, "how can anyone understand what you are driving at?"
But I turned away without answering, and for a long time sat gazing over the water. What was the use of pleading with such a man? What was the use of pouring out one's soul to him? I would tell Sylvia the truth at once, and leave him to her!
25. I heard him again, at last; he was talking to my back, his tone a trifle less aloof. "Mrs. Abbott, do you realize that I know nothing whatever about you—your character, your purpose, the nature of your hold upon my wife? So what means have I of judging? You threaten me with something that seems to me entirely insane—and what can I make of it? If you wish me to understand you, tell me in plain words what you want."
I reflected that I was in the world, and must take it as I found it. "I have told you what I want," I said; "but I will tell you again, if it is necessary. I hoped to persuade you that it was your duty to go to your wife and tell her the truth."
He took a few moments to make sure of his self-possession. "And would you explain what good you imagine that could do?"
"Your wife," I said, "must be put in position to protect herself in future. There is no means of making sure in such a matter, except to tell her the truth. You love her—and you are a man who has never been accustomed to do without what he wants."
"Great God, woman!" he cried. "Don't you suppose one blind child is enough?"
It was the first human word that he had spoken, and I was grateful for it. "I have already covered that point," I said, in a low voice. "The medical books are full of painful evidence that several blind children are often not enough. There can be no escaping the necessity—Sylvia must know. The only question is, who shall tell her? You must realize that in urging you to be the person, I am thinking of your good as well as hers. I will, of course, not mention that I have had anything to do with persuading you, and so it will seem to her that you have some realization of the wrong you have done her, some desire to atone for it, and to be honourable and fair in your future dealings with her. When she has once been made to realize that you are no more guilty than other men of your class—hat you have done no worse than all of them——
"You imagine she could be made to believe that?" he broke in, impatiently.
"I will undertake to see that she believes it," I replied.
"You seem to have great confidence in your ability to manage my wife!"
"If you continue to resent my existence," I answered, gravely, "you will make it impossible for me to help you."
"Pardon me," he said—but he did not say it cordially.
I went on: "There is much that can be said in your behalf. I realize it is quite possible that you were not wholly to blame when you wrote to Bishop Chilton that you were fit to marry; I know that you may have believed it—that you might even have found physicians to tell you so. There is wide-spread ignorance on the subject of this disease. Men have the idea that the chronic forms of it cannot be communicated to women, and it is difficult to make them realize what modern investigations have proven. You can explain that to Sylvia, and I will back you up in it. You were in love with her, you wanted her. Go to her now, and admit to her honestly that you have wronged her. Beg her to forgive you, and to let you help make the best of the cruel situation that has arisen."
So I went on, pouring out my soul. And when I had finished, he said, "Mrs. Abbott, I have listened patiently to your most remarkable proposition. My answer is that I must ask you to withdraw from this intimate matter, which concerns only my wife and myself."
He was back where we started! Trying to sweep aside these grim and terrible realities with the wave of a conventional hand! Was this the way he met Sylvia's arguments? I felt moved to tell him what I thought of him.
"You are a proud man, Mr. van Tuiver—an obstinate man, I fear. It is hard for you to humble yourself to your wife—to admit a crime and beg forgiveness. Tell me—is that why you hesitate? Is it because you fear you will have to take second place in your family from now on—that you will no longer be able to dominate Sylvia? Are you afraid of putting into her hands a weapon of self-defence?"
He made no response.
"Very well," I said, at last. "Let me tell you, then—I will not help any man to hold such a position in a woman's life. Women have to bear half the burdens of marriage, they pay half, or more than half, the penalties; and so it is necessary that they have a voice in its affairs. Until they know the truth, they can never have a voice."
Of course my little lecture on Feminism might as well have been delivered to a sphinx. "How stupid you are!" I cried. "Don't you know that some day Sylvia must find out the truth for herself?"
This was before the days when newspapers and magazines began to discuss such matters frankly; but still there were hints to be picked up. I had a newspaper-item in my bag—the board of health in a certain city had issued a circular giving instructions for the prevention of blindness in newly-born infants, and discussing the causes thereof; and the United States post office authorities had barred the circular from the mails. I said, "Suppose that item had come under Sylvia's eyes; might it not have put her on the track. It was in her newspaper the day before yesterday; and it was only by accident that I got hold of it first. Do you suppose that can go on forever?"
"Now that I am here," he replied, "I will be glad to relieve you of such responsibilities."
Which naturally made me cross. I drew from my quiver an arrow that I thought would penetrate his skin. "Mr. van Tuiver," I said, "a man in your position must always be an object of gossip and scandal. Suppose some enemy were to send your wife an anonymous letter? Or suppose there were some woman who thought that you had wronged her?"
I stopped. He gave me one keen look—and then again the impenetrable mask! "My wife will have to do as other women in her position do—pay no attention to scandal-mongers of any sort."
I paused, and then went on: "I believe in marriage. I consider it a sacred thing; I would do anything in my power to protect and preserve a marriage. But I hold that it must be an equal partnership. I would fight to make it that; and wherever I found that it could not be that, I would say it was not marriage, but slavery, and I would fight just as hard to break it. Can you not understand that attitude upon a woman's part?"
He gave no sign that he could understand. But still I would not give up my battle. "Mr. van Tuiver," I pleaded, "I am a much older person than you. I have seen a great deal of life—I have seen suffering even worse than yours. And I am trying most earnestly to help you. Can you not bring yourself to talk to me frankly? Perhaps you have never talked with a woman about such matters—I mean, with a good woman. But I assure you that other men have found it possible, and never regretted the confidence they placed in me."
I went on to tell him about my own sons, and what I had done for them; I told him of a score of other boys in their class who had come to me, making me a sort of mother-confessor. I do not think that I was entirely deceived by my own eloquence—there was, I am sure, a minute or two when he actually wavered. But then the habits of a precocious life-time reasserted themselves, and he set his lips and told himself that he was Douglas van Tuiver. Such things might happen in raw Western colleges, but they were not according to the Harvard manner, nor the tradition of life in Fifth Avenue clubs.
He could not be a boy! He had never had any boyhood, any childhood—he had been a state personage ever since he had known that he was anything. I found myself thinking suddenly of the thin-lipped old family lawyer, who had had much to do with shaping his character, and whom Sylvia described to me, sitting at her dinner-table and bewailing the folly of people who "admitted things." That was what made trouble for family lawyers—not what people did, but what they admitted. How easy it was to ignore impertinent questions! And how few people had the wit to do it!-it seemed as if the shade of the thin-lipped old family lawyer were standing by Douglas van Tuiver's side.
In a last desperate effort, I cried, "Even suppose that I grant your request, even suppose I agree not to tell Sylvia the truth—still the day will come when you will hear from her the point-blank question: 'Is my child blind because of this disease?' And what will you answer?"
He said, in his cold, measured tones, "I will answer that there are a thousand ways in which the disease can be innocently acquired."
For a long time there was silence between us. At last he spoke again, and his voice was as emotionless as if we had just met: "Do I understand you, madam, that if I reject your advice and refuse to tell my wife what you call the truth, it is your intention to tell her yourself?"
"You understand me correctly," I replied.
"And may I ask when you intend to carry out this threat?"
"I will wait," I said, "I will give you every chance to think it over—to consult with the doctors, in case you wish to. I will not take the step without giving you fair notice."
"For that I am obliged to you," he said, with a touch of irony; and that was our last word.
26. Our island was visible in the distance and I was impatient for the time when I should be free from this man's presence. But as we drew nearer, I noticed a boat coming out; it proved to be one of the smaller launches heading directly for us. Neither van Tuiver nor I spoke, but both of us watched it, and he must have been wondering, as I was, what its purpose could be. When it was near enough, I made out that its passengers were Dr. Perrin and Dr. Gibson.
We slowed up, and the other boat did the same, and they lay within a few feet of each other. Dr. Perrin greeted van Tuiver, and after introducing the other man, he said: "We came out to have a talk with you. Would you be so good as to step into this boat?"
"Certainly," was the reply. The two launches were drawn side by side, and the transfer made; the man who was running the smaller launch stepped into ours—evidently having been instructed in advance.
"You will excuse us please?" said the little doctor to me. The man who had stepped into our launch spoke to the captain of it, and the power was then put on, and we moved away a sufficient distance to be out of hearing. I thought this a strange procedure, but I conjectured that the doctors had become nervous as to what I might have told van Tuiver. So I dismissed the matter from my mind, and spent my time reviewing the exciting adventure I had just passed through.
How much impression had I made? It was hard for me to judge such a man. He would pretend to be less concerned than he actually was. But surely he must see that he was in my power, and would have to give way in the end!
There came a hail from the little vessel, and we moved alongside again. "Would you kindly step in here with us, Mrs. Abbott?" said Dr. Perrin, and when I had done so, he ordered the boatman to move away once more. Van Tuiver said not a word, but I noted a strained look upon his face, and I thought the others seemed agitated also.
As soon as the other vessel was out of hearing, Dr. Perrin turned to me and said: "Mrs. Abbott, we came out to see Mr. van Tuiver, to warn him of a distressing accident which has just happened. Mrs. van Tuiver was asleep in her room, and Miss Lyman and another of the nurses were in the next room. They indiscreetly made some remarks on the subject which we have all been discussing—how much a wife should be told about these matters, and suddenly they discovered Mrs. van Tuiver standing in the doorway of the room."
My gaze had turned to Douglas van Tuiver. "So she knows!" I cried.
"We don't think that she knows, but she has a suspicion and is trying to find out. She asked to see you."
"Ah, yes!" I said.
"She declared that she wished to see you as soon as you returned—that she would not see anyone else, not even Mr. van Tuiver. You will understand that this portends trouble for all of us. We judged it necessary to have a consultation about the matter."
I bowed in assent.
"Now, Mrs. Abbot," began the little doctor, solemnly, "there is no longer a question of abstract ideas, but of an immediate emergency. We feel that we, as the physicians in charge of the case, have the right to take control of the matter. We do not see——"
"Dr. Perrin," I said, "let us come to the point. You want me to spin a new web of deception?"
"We are of the opinion, Mrs. Abbott, that in such matters the physicians in charge——"
"Excuse me," I said, quickly, "we have been over all this before, and we know that we disagree. Has Mr. van Tuiver told you of the proposition I have just made?"
"You mean for him to go to his wife——"
"He has told us of this, and has offered to do it. We are of the opinion that it would be a grave mistake."
"It has been three weeks since the birth of the baby," I said. "Surely all danger of fever is past. I will grant you that if it were a question of telling her deliberately, it might be better to put it off for a while. I would have been willing to wait for months, but for the fact that I dreaded something like the present situation. Now that it has happened, surely it is best to use our opportunity while all of us are here and can persuade her to take the kindest attitude towards her husband."
"Madam!" broke in Dr. Gibson. (He was having difficulty in controlling his excitement.) "You are asking us to overstep the bounds of our professional duty. It is not for the physician to decide upon the attitude a wife should take toward her husband."
"Dr. Gibson," I replied, "that is what you propose to do, only you wish to conceal the fact. You would force Mrs. van Tuiver to accept your opinion of what a wife's duty is."
Dr. Perrin took command once more. "Our patient has asked for you, and she looks to you for guidance. You must put aside your own convictions and think of her health. You are the only person who can calm her, and surely it is your duty to do so!"
"I know that I might go in and lie again to my friend, but she knows too much to be deceived for very long. You know what a mind she has—a lawyer's mind! How can I persuade her that the nurses—why, I do not even know what she heard the nurses say!"
"We have that all written down for you," put in Dr. Perrin, quickly.
"You have their recollection of it, no doubt—but suppose they have forgotten some of it? Sylvia has not forgotten, you may be sure—every word is burned with fire into her brain. She has put with this everything she ever heard on the subject—the experience of her friend, Harriet Atkinson-all that I've told her in the past about such things——"
"Ah!" growled Dr. Gibson. "That's it! If you had not meddled in the beginning——"
"Now, now!" said the other, soothingly. "You ask me to relieve you of the embarrassment of this matter. I quite agree with Mrs. Abbott that there is too much ignorance about these things, but she must recognise, I am sure, that this is not the proper moment for enlightening Mrs. van Tuiver."
"I do not recognise it at all," I said. "If her husband will go to her and tell her humbly and truthfully——"
"You are talking madness!" cried the old man, breaking loose again. "She would be hysterical—she would regard him as something loathsome—some kind of criminal——"
"Of course she would be shocked," I said, "but she has the coolest head of anyone I know—I do not think of any man I would trust so fully to take a rational attitude in the end. We can explain to her what extenuating circumstances there are, and she will have to recognise them. She will see that we are considering her rights——"
"Her rights!" The old man fairly snorted the words.
"Now, now, Dr. Gibson!" interposed the other. "You asked me——"
"I know! I know! But as the older of the physicians in charge of this case——"
Dr. Perrin managed to frown him down, and went on trying to placate me. But through the argument I could hear the old man muttering in his collar a kind of double bass pizzicato: "Suffragettes! Fanatics! Hysteria! Woman's Rights!"
27. The breeze was feeble, and the sun was blazing hot, but nevertheless I made myself listen patiently for a while. They had said it all to me, over and over again; but it seemed that Dr. Perrin could not be satisfied until it had been said in Douglas van Tuiver's presence.
"Dr. Perrin," I exclaimed, "even supposing we make the attempt to deceive her, we have not one plausible statement to make——"
"You are mistaken, Mrs. Abbott," said he. "We have the perfectly well-known fact that this disease is often contracted in ways which involve no moral blame. And in this case I believe I am in position to state how the accident happened."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know whether you heard that just before Mrs. van Tuiver's confinement, I was called away to one of the other keys to attend a negro-woman. And since this calamity has befallen us, I have realized that I was possibly not as careful in sterilizing my instruments as I might have been. It is of course a dreadful thing for any physician to have to believe——"
He stopped, and there was a long silence. I gazed from one to another of the men. Two of them met my gaze; one did not. "He is going to let you say that?" I whispered, at last.
"Honour and fairness compel me to say it, Mrs. Abbott. I believe——"
But I interrupted him. "Listen to me, Dr. Perrin. You are a chivalrous gentleman, and you think you are helping a man in desperate need. But I say that anyone who would permit you to tell such a tale is a contemptible coward!"
"Madam," cried Dr. Gibson, furiously, "there is a limit even to a woman's rights!"
A silence followed. At last I resumed, in a low voice, "You gentlemen have your code: you protect the husband—you protect him at all hazards. I could understand this, if he were innocent of the offence in question; I could understand it if there were any possibility of his being innocent. But how can you protect him, when you know that he is guilty?"
"There can be no question of such knowledge!" cried the old doctor.
"I have no idea," I said, "how much he has admitted to you; but let me remind you of one circumstance, which is known to Dr. Perrin—that I came to this place with the definite information that symptoms of the disease were to be anticipated. Dr. Perrin knows that I told that to Dr. Overton in New York. Has he informed you of it?"
There was an awkward interval. I glanced at van Tuiver, and I saw that he was leaning forward, staring at me. I thought he was about to speak, when Dr. Gibson broke in, excitedly, "All this is beside the mark! We have a serious emergency to face, and we are not getting anywhere. As the older of the physicians in charge of this case——"
And he went on to give me a lecture on the subject of authority. He talked for five minutes, ten minutes—I lost all track of the time. I had suddenly begun to picture how I would act and what I would say when I went into Sylvia's room. What a state must Sylvia be in, while we sat out here in the blazing mid-day sun, discussing her right to freedom and knowledge!
28. "I have always been positive," Dr. Gibson was saying, "but the present discussion has made me more positive than ever. As the older of the physicians in charge of this case, I say most emphatically that the patient shall not be told!"
I could not stand him any longer. "I am going to tell the patient," I said.
"You shall not tell her!"
"But how will you prevent me?"
"You shall not see her!"
"But she is determined to see me!"
"She will be told that you are not there."
"And how long do you imagine that that will satisfy her?"
There was a pause. They looked at van Tuiver, expecting him to speak. And so I heard once more his cold, deliberate voice. "We have done all we can. There can no longer be any question as to the course to be taken. Mrs. Abbott will not return to my home."
"What?" I cried. I stared at him, aghast. "What do you mean?"
"I mean what I say—that you will not be taken back to the island."
"But where will I be taken?"
"You will be taken to the mainland."
I stared at the others. No one gave a sign. At last I whispered, "You would dare?"
"You leave us no other alternative," replied the master.
"You—you will practically kidnap me!" My voice must have been rather wild at that moment.
"You left my home of your own free will. I think I need hardly point out to you that I am not compelled to invite you back to it."
"And what will Sylvia——" I stopped; appalled at the vista the words opened up.
"My wife," said van Tuiver, "will ultimately choose between her husband and her most remarkable acquaintance."
"And you gentlemen?" I turned to the others. "You would give your sanction to this outrageous action?"
"As the older of the physicians in charge of this case——" began Dr. Gibson.
I turned to van Tuiver again. "When your wife finds out what you have done to me—what will you answer?"
"We will deal with that situation when we come to it."
"Of course," I said, "you understand that sooner or later I shall get word to her!"
He answered, "We shall assume from now on that you are a mad woman, and shall take our precautions accordingly."
Again there was a silence.
"The launch will return to the mainland," said van Tuiver at last. "It will remain there until Mrs. Abbott sees fit to go ashore. May I ask if she has sufficient money in her purse to take her to New York?"
I could not help laughing. The thing was so wild—and yet I could see that from their point of view it was the only thing to do. "Mrs. Abbott is not certain that she is going back to New York," I replied. "If she does go, it will not be with Mr. van Tuiver's money."