Noble prize nominee Theodore Dreiser was one of the most celebrated American writers of the 20th century, garnering acclaim for his novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. His story “Free,” published in 1918, presents Rufus Haymaker, an aging architect, stuck in a life of vapid domesticity with a dying wife he no longer loves.
Published March 16, 1918
The large and rather comfortable apartment of Rufus Haymaker, architect, in Central Park West, was very silent. It was scarcely dawn yet, and at the edge of the park, over the way, looking out from the front windows which graced this abode and gave it its charm, a stately line of poplars was still shrouded in a gray morning mist. From his bedroom at one end of the hall, where, also, a glimpse of the park was to be had, came Mr. Haymaker at this early hour to sit by one of these broader windows and contemplate these trees and a small lake beyond. He was very fond of Nature in its manifold art forms — quite poetic, in fact.
He was a tall and spare man of about sixty, not ungraceful, though slightly stoop-shouldered, with heavy overhanging eyebrows and hair, and a short, professionally cut gray mustache and beard, which gave him a severe and yet agreeable presence. For the present he was clad in a light blue dressing gown with silver cords, which enveloped him completely. He had thin, pale, long-fingered hands, wrinkled at the back and slightly knotted at the joints, which bespoke the artist, in mood at least, and his eyes had a weary and yet restless look in them.
For only yesterday Doctor Storm, the family physician, who was in attendance on his wife, ill now for these three weeks past with a combination of heart lesion, kidney poisoning and neuritis, had taken him aside and said very softly and affectionately, as though he were trying to spare his feelings: “Tomorrow, Mr. Haymaker, if your wife is no better I will call in my friend, Doctor Grainger, whom you know, for a consultation. He is more of an expert in these matters of the heart” — the heart, Mr. Haymaker had time to note ironically — “than I am. Together we will make a thorough examination, and then I hope we shall be better able to say what the possibilities of her recovery really are. It’s been a very trying case, a very stubborn one, I might say. Still, she has a great deal of vitality and is doing as well as could be expected, all things considered. At the same time, though I don’t wish to alarm you unnecessarily — and there is no occasion for great alarm yet — still I feel it my duty to warn you that her condition is very serious indeed. Not that I wish you to feel that she is certain to die. I don’t think she is. Not at all. Just the contrary. She may get well, and probably will, and live all of twenty years more.” Mentally Mr. Haymaker sighed a purely spiritual sigh. “She has fine recuperative powers, so far as I can judge, but she has a bad heart, and this kidney trouble has not helped it any. Just now, when her heart should have the least strain, it has the most.
“She is just at that point where, as I may say, things are in the balance. A day or two, or three or four at the most, ought to show which way things will go. But, as I have said before, I do not wish to alarm you unnecessarily. We are not nearly at the end of our tether. We haven’t tried blood transfusion yet, and there are several arrows to that bow. Besides, at any moment she may respond more vigorously to medication than she has heretofore — especially in connection with her kidneys. In that case the situation would be greatly relieved at once.
“However, as I say, I feel it my duty to speak to you in this way in order that you may be mentally prepared for any event, because in such an odd combination as this the worst may happen at any time. We never can tell. As an old friend of yours and Mrs. Haymaker’s, and knowing how much you two mean to each other” — Mr. Haymaker merely stared at him vacantly — “I feel it my duty to prepare you in this way. We all of us have to face these things. Only last year I lost my dear Matilda, my youngest child, as you know. Just the same, as I say, I have the feeling that Mrs. Haymaker is not really likely to die soon, and that we — Doctor Grainger and myself — shall still be able to pull her through. I really do.”
Doctor Storm looked at Mr. Haymaker as though he were very sorry for him — an old man long accustomed to his wife’s ways and likely to be made very unhappy by her untimely end; whereas Mr. Haymaker, though staring in an almost sculptural way, was really thinking what a farce it all was, what a dull mixture of error and illusion on the part of all. Here he was, sixty years of age, weary of all this, of life really — a man who had never been really happy in all the time that he had been married; and yet here was his wife, who from conventional reasons believed that he was or should be, and who on account of this was serenely happy herself, or nearly so. And this doctor, who imagined that he was old and weak and therefore in need of this loving woman’s care and sympathy and understanding! Unconsciously he raised a deprecating hand.
Also his children, who thought him dependent on her and happy with her; his servants and her and his friends thinking the same thing, and yet he really was not. It was all a lie. He was unhappy. Always he had been unhappy, it seemed, ever since he had been married — for over thirty-one years now. Never in all that time, for even so much as a single day, had he ever done anything but long, long, long, in a dark, constrained way — for what, he scarcely dared think — not to be married anymore — to be free — to be as he was before ever he saw Mrs. Haymaker. And yet being conventional in mood and training and utterly domesticated by time and conditions over which he seemed not to have much control — nature, customs, public opinion, and the like, coming into play as forces — he had drifted, had not taken any drastic action., No, he had merely drifted, wondering if time, accident or something might not interfere and straighten out his life for him, but it never had. Now weary, old, or rapidly becoming so, he condemned himself for his inaction.
Why hadn’t he done something about it years before? Why hadn’t he broken it up before it was too late, and saved his own soul, his longing for life, color? But no, he had not. Why complain so bitterly now?
All the time the doctor had talked the day before he had wanted to smile a wry, dry, cynical smile, for in reality he did not want Mrs. Haymaker to live — or at least at the moment he thought so. He was too miserably tired of it all.
And so now, after nearly twenty-four hours of the same unhappy thought, sitting by this window looking at a not distant building which shone faintly in the haze, he ran his fingers through his hair as he gazed, and sighed.
How often in these weary months, and even years past — ever since he and his wife had been living here, and before — had he come to these or similar windows while she was still asleep, to sit and dream! For some years now they had not even roomed together, so indifferent had the whole state become, though she did not seem to consider that significant, either. Life had become more or less of a practical problem to her, one of position, place, prestige. And yet how often, viewing his life in retrospect, had he wished that his life had been as sweet as his dreams — that his dreams had come true.
After a time on this early morning — for it was still gray, with the faintest touch of pink in the east — he shook his head solemnly and sadly, then rose and returned along the hall to his wife’s bedroom, at the door of which he paused to look where she lay seriously ill, and beside her in an armchair, fast asleep, a trained nurse who was supposedly keeping the night vigil ordered by the doctor, but who no doubt was now very weary. His wife was sleeping also — very pale, very thin now, and very weak. He felt sorry for her at times, in spite of his own weariness; now, for instance. Why need he have made so great a mistake so long ago? Perhaps it was his own fault for not having been wiser in his youth. Then he went quietly on to his own room, to lie down and think.
Always these days, now that she was so very ill and the problem of her living was so very acute, the creeping dawn thus roused him — to think. It seemed as though he could not really sleep soundly anymore, so stirred and distrait was he. He was not so much tired or physically worn as mentally bored or disappointed. Life had treated him so badly, he kept thinking to himself over and over. He had never had the woman he had really wanted, though he had been married so long, had been faithful, respectable and loved by her, in her way. “In her way,” he half quoted to himself as he lay there.
Presently he would get up, dress and go down to his office as usual if his wife were not worse. But — but, he asked himself — would she be? Would that slim and yet so durable organism of hers — quite as old as his own, or nearly so — break under the strain of this really severe illness? That would set him free again, and nicely, without blame or comment on him. He could then go where he chose once more, do as he pleased — think of that — without let or hindrance. For she was ill at last, so very ill, the first and really great illness she had endured since their marriage. For weeks now she had been lying so, hovering, as it were, between life and death, one day better, the next day worse, and yet not dying, and with no certainty that she would, and yet not getting better either. Doctor Storm insisted that it was a leak in her heart which had suddenly manifested itself that was causing all the real trouble. He was apparently greatly troubled as to how to control it.
During all this period Mr. Haymaker had been, as usual, most sympathetic. His manner toward her was always soft, kindly, apparently tender. He had never really begrudged her anything — nothing certainly that he could afford. He was always glad to see her and the children humanly happy — though they, too, largely on account of her, he thought, had proved a disappointment to him — because he sympathized with her somewhat unhappy youth — narrow and stinted; and yet he had never been happy himself, never, in all the time that he had been married. She also had endured much, he kept telling himself when he was most unhappy — he was always willing to admit that — only she had had his love, or thought she had — an actual spiritual peace, which he had never had. She knew she had a faithful husband. He felt that he had never really had a wife at all, not one that he could love as he knew a wife should be loved. His dreams as to that!
Going to his office later in the day — it was in one of those tall buildings that face Madison Square — he had looked first, in passing, at the trees that line Central Park West, and then at the bright wall of apartment houses facing it, and meditated sadly, heavily. Here the sidewalks were crowded with nursemaids and children at play, and in between them, of course, the occasional citizen loitering or going about his errands. The day was so fine, so youthful, as spring clays will seem. As he looked, especially at the children, and the young men bustling office-ward, mostly in new spring suits, he sighed and wished that he were young once more. Think how brisk and hopeful they were! Everything was before them. They could still pick and choose — no age or established conditions to stay them. Were any of them, he asked himself for the thousandth time, it seemed to him, as wearily connected as he had been at their age? Did they each have a charming young wife to love — one of whom they were passionately fond — such a one as he had never had, or did they not?
Wondering, he reached his office on one of the topmost floors of one of those highest buildings commanding a wide view of the city, and surveyed it wearily. Here were visible the two great rivers of the city, its towers and spires and far-flung walls. From these sometimes, even yet, he seemed to gain a patience to live, to hope. How in his youth all this had inspired him — or that other city that was then! Even now he was always at peace here, so much more so than in his own home, pleasant as it was. Here he could look out over this great scene and dream or he could lose the memory in his work that his love-life had been a failure. The great city, the buildings he could plan or supervise, the efficient help that always surrounded him — his help, not hers — aided to take his mind off himself and that deep-seated inner ache or loss.
The care of Mr. Haymaker’s apartment during his wife’s illness and his present absence throughout the day devolved upon a middle-aged woman of great seriousness, Mrs. Elfridge by name, whom Mr. Haymaker had employed years before; and under her a maid of all work, Hester, who waited on table, opened the door, and the like; and also at present two trained nurses, one for night and one for day service, who were in charge of Mrs. Haymaker. The nurses were both bright, healthy, blue-eyed girls, who attracted Mr. Haymaker and suggested all the youth he had lost — without really disturbing his poise. It would seem as though that could never be done.
In addition, of course, there was the loving interest of his son Wesley and his daughter Ethelberta — whom his wife had named so in spite of him — both of whom had long since married and had children of their own and were living in different parts of the great city. In this crisis both of them came daily to learn how things were, and occasionally to stay for the entire afternoon or evening, or both. Ethelberta had wanted to come and take charge of the apartment entirely during her mother’s illness, only Mrs. Haymaker, who was still able to direct, and fond of doing so, would not hear of it. She was not so ill but that she could still speak, and in this way could inquire and direct. Besides, Mrs. Elfridge was as good as Mrs. Haymaker in all things that related to Mr. Haymaker’s physical comfort, or so she thought.
If the truth will come out — as it will in so many pathetic cases — it was never his physical so much as his spiritual or affections’ comfort that Mr. Haymaker craved. As said before, he had never loved Mrs. Haymaker, or certainly not since that now long-distant period back in Muskegon, Michigan, where both had been born and where they had lived and met at the ages, she of fifteen, he of seventeen. It had been, strange as it might seem now, a love match at first sight with them. She had seemed so sweet, a girl of his own age or a little younger, the daughter of a local chemist. Later, when he had been forced by poverty to go out into the world to make his own way, he had written her much, and imagined her to be all that she had seemed at fifteen, and more — a dream among fair women.
But Fortune, slow in coming to his aid and fickle in fulfilling his dreams, had brought it about that for several years more he had been compelled to stay away nearly all of the time, unable to marry her; during which period, unknown to himself really, his own point of view had altered. How it had happened he could never tell really, but so it was. The great city, larger experiences — while she was still enduring the smaller ones — other faces, dreams of larger things, had all combined to destroy it or her; only he had not quite realized it then. He was always so slow in realizing the full import of the immediate thing, he thought.
That was the time, as he had afterward told himself — how often! — that he should have discovered his mistake and stopped. Later it always seemed to become more and more impossible. Then, in spite of some heartache to her and some distress to himself, no doubt, all would be well for him now. But no; he had been too inexperienced, too ignorant, too bound by all the conventions and punctilios of his simple Western world. He thought an engagement, however unsatisfactory it might come to seem afterward, was an engagement, and binding. An honorable man would not break one — or so his country moralists argued.
He might have written her, he might have told her, then. But he had been too sensitive and kindly to speak of it. Afterward it was too late. He feared to wound her, to undo her life. But now — now — look at his! He had gone back on several occasions before marriage, and might have seen and done and been free if he had had but courage and wisdom. But no; duty, order, the beliefs of the region in which he had been reared, and of America — what it expected and what she expected and was entitled to — had done for him completely. He had not spoken. Instead, he had gone on and married her without speaking of the change in himself, without letting her know how worse than ashes it had all become. What a fool he had been! he had since told himself over and over.
Well, having made a mistake it was his duty perhaps, at least according to current beliefs, to stick by it and make the best of it; but still that had never prevented him from being unhappy. He could not prevent that himself. During all these long years, therefore, owing to these same conventions — what people would think and say — he had been compelled to live with her, to cherish her, to pretend to be happy with her — “another perfect union,” as he sometimes said to himself. He had been unhappy, horribly so. Even her face wearied him at times, and her presence, her mannerisms. Only yesterday morning Doctor Storm had seemed to indicate by his manner that he thought him lonely, in danger of being left all alone and desperately sad and neglected in case she died. Who would take care of him? his eyes had seemed to say — and yet he himself wanted nothing so much as to be alone for a time, at least in this life, to think for himself, to do for himself, to forget this long, dreary period in which he had pretended to be something that he was not.
Was he never to be rid of the dull round of it, he asked himself now — never before he himself died? And yet shortly afterward he would reproach himself for these very thoughts, as being wrong, hard, unkind — thoughts that would certainly condemn him in the eyes of the general public, that public which made reputations and one’s general standing before the world.
During all this time he had never even let her know — no, not once — of the tremendous and soul-crushing sacrifice he had made. Like the Spartan boy, he had concealed the fox gnawing at his vitals. He had not complained. He had been, indeed, the model husband, as such things go in conventional walks. If you doubted it, look at his position; or that of his children; or his wife — her mental and physical comfort, even in her illness, her unfailing belief that he was all he should be! Never once apparently, during all these years, had she doubted his love or felt him to be unduly unhappy — or, if not that exactly, if not fully accepting his love as something that was still at a fever heat, the thing it once was — still believing that he found pleasure and happiness in being with her, and a comfort in knowing that it would endure to the end! To the end! During all these years she had gone on molding his and her lives — as much as that was possible in his case — to suit herself; and thinking all the time that she was doing what he wanted or at least what was best for him.
How she adored convention! What did she not think she knew in regard to how things ought to be — mainly what her old home surroundings had taught her, the American idea of this, that and the other! Her theories in regard to friends, education of the children, and so on, had in the main prevailed, even when he did not quite agree with her; her desires for certain types of pleasure and amusement, of companionship, and so on, were conventional types always. There had been little quarrels, of course, always had been — what happy home is free of them? — but still he had always given in, or nearly always, and had acted as though he were satisfied in so doing.
Why, therefore, should he complain now, or she ever have imagined that he was unhappy? She did not. Like all their relatives and friends of the region from which they sprang, and here also — and she had been most careful to regulate that, courting whom she pleased and ignoring all others — she still believed most firmly, more so than ever, that she knew what was best for him, what he really thought and wanted. It made him smile most wearily at times.
For in her eyes — in regard to him, at least, not always so with others, he had found — marriage was a sacrament, sacrosanct, never to be dissolved. One life, one love. Once one had accepted the yoke or even asked a girl to marry, it was every man’s duty to abide by it. To break an engagement, to be unfaithful to a wife, even unkind to her — what a crime, in her eyes! Such people ought to be drummed out of the world. They were not fit to live — dogs, brutes!
And yet, look at himself — what of him? What of one who had made a mistake in regard to all this? Where was his compensation to come from, his peace and happiness? Here on earth or only in some mythical heaven — that odd, angelic heaven that she still believed in? What a farce! And all her friends and his would think he would be so miserable now if she died, or at least ought to be. So far had asinine convention and belief in custom carried the world. Think of it!
But even that was not the worst. No; that was not the worst, either. It had been the gradual realization coming along through the years that he had married an essentially small, narrow woman who could never really grasp his point of view — or, rather, the significance of his dreams or emotions — and yet with whom, nevertheless, because of this original promise or mistake, he was compelled to live. Grant her every quality of goodness, energy, industry, intent — as he did freely — still there was this; and it could never be adjusted — never. Essentially, as he had long since discovered, she was narrow, ultra-conventional, whereas he was an artist by nature, brooding and dreaming strange dreams and thinking of far-off things which she did not or could not understand or did not sympathize with, save in a general and very remote way. The nuances of his craft, the wonders and subtleties of forms and angles — had she ever realized how significant these were to him, let alone to herself? No, never. She had not the least true appreciation of them — never had had. And he could not now go elsewhere to discover that sympathy. No. He had never really wanted to, since the public and she would object, and thinking it half evil himself.
Still, how was it, he often asked himself, that Nature could thus allow one conditioned or equipped with emotions and seekings such as his, not of an utterly conventional order, to seek out and pursue one like Ernestine, who was not fitted to understand him or to care what his personal moods might be? Was love truly blind, as the old saw insisted, or did Nature really plan, and cleverly, to torture the artist mind — as it did the pearl-bearing oyster with a grain of sand — with something seemingly inimical, in order that it might produce beauty? Sometimes he thought so. Perhaps the many interesting and beautiful buildings he had planned — the world called them so, at least — had been due to the loving care he lavished on them, being shut out from love and beauty elsewhere. Cruel Nature, that cared so little for the dreams of man — the individual man or woman!
At the time he had married Ernestine he was really too young to know exactly what it was he wanted to do or how it was he was going to feel in the years to come; and yet there was no one to guide him, to stop him. The custom of the time was all in favor of this dread disaster. Nature herself seemed to desire it — mere children being the be-all and the end-all of everything. Think of that as a theory! Later, when it became so clear to him what he had done, and in spite of all the conventional thoughts and conditions that seemed to bind him to this fixed condition, he had grown restless and weary, but never really irritable.
He had concealed it all from her; only this hankering after beauty of mind and body in ways not represented by her had hurt so — grown finally almost too painful to bear. He had dreamed and dreamed of something different until it had become almost an obsession. Was it never to be, that something different — never, anywhere, in all time? What a tragedy! Soon he would be dead, and then it would never be anywhere — anywhere! Ernestine was charming, he would admit, or had been at first, though time had proved that she was not charming to him either mentally or physically in any compelling way; but how did that help him now? He had actually found himself bored by her for more than twenty-seven years now, and this other dream growing, growing, growing — until — But now he was old, and she was dying, or might be, and it could not make so much difference what happened; only it could, too, because he wanted to be free for a little while, just for a little while, before he died.
One of the things that had always irritated him about Mrs. Haymaker was this: In spite of his determination never to offend the social code in any way — he had felt for so many reasons, emotional as well as practical, that he could not afford so to do — and also in spite of the fact that he had been tortured by this show of beauty in the eyes and bodies of others, his wife, fearing perhaps in some strange psychic way that he might change, had always tried to make him feel or believe — premeditatedly and of a purpose, he thought — that he was not the kind of man who would be attractive to women; that he lacked some physical fitness, some charm that other men had, which would cause all young and really charming women to turn away from him. Think of it! He to whom so many women had turned with questioning eyes!
Also that she had married him largely because she had felt sorry for him! He chose to let her believe that, because he was sorry for her. Because other women had seemed to draw near to him at times in some appealing or seductive way, she had insisted that he was not even a cavalier, let alone a Lothario; that he was ungainly, slow, uninteresting — to all women but her!
Persistently, he thought, and without any real need, she had harped on this, fighting chimeras, a chance danger in the future, though he had never given her any real reason, and had never even planned to sin against her in any way — never. She had thus tried to poison his own mind in regard to himself and his art. And yet — and yet — Ah, those eyes of other women, their haunting beauty, the flitting something they said to him of infinite, inexpressible delight! Why had his life been so very hard?
One of the disturbing things about all this was the iron truth that it had driven home, that Nature, unless it were expressed or represented by some fierce determination from within, cared no whit for him or any other, man or woman. Unless one acted for oneself, upon some stern conclusion nurtured within, one might rot and die spiritually. Nature did not care. “Blessed be the meek” — yes. Blessed be the strong, rather, for they made their own happiness. All these years in which he had dwelt and worked in this knowledge, nothing had happened, except to him, and that in an unsatisfactory way. All along he had seen what was happening to him; and yet held by convention he had refused to act always, because somehow he was not hard enough to act. Almost like a bird in a cage, an animal peeping out from behind bars, he had viewed the world of free thought and freer action. In many a drawing room, on the street, or in his own home even, he had looked into an eye, the face of someone who seemed to offer understanding, to know, to sympathize, though she might not have, of course; and yet religiously and moralistically, like an anchorite, because of duty and current belief and what people would say and think, Ernestine’s position and faith, his career and that of the children — he had put them all aside, out of his mind, forgotten them almost, as best he might. It had been hard at times, and sad, but so it had been.
And look at him now, old, not exactly feeble yet — no, not that yet, not quite! — but life-weary and almost indifferent. All these years he had wanted, wanted — wanted — an understanding mind, a tender heart, the someone woman — she must exist somewhere — who would have sympathized with all the delicate shades and meanings of his own character, his art, his spiritual as well as his material dreams And yet look at him! Mrs. Haymaker had always been with him, present in the flesh or the spirit, and — so —
Though he could not ever say that she was disagreeable to him in a material way — he could not say that she had ever been that exactly — still she did not correspond to his idea of what he needed, and so — Form had meant so much to him, color; the glorious perfectness of a glorious woman’s body, for instance, the color of her thoughts, moods — exquisite they must be, like his own at times; but no, he had never had the opportunity to know one intimately. No, not one, though he had dreamed of her so long. He had never even dared whisper this to anyone, scarcely to himself. It was not wise, not socially fit. Thoughts like this would tend to social ostracism in his circle, or rather, hers — for had she not made the circle?
And here was the rub with Mr. Haymaker, at least, that he could not make up his mind whether in his restlessness and private mental complaints he were not even now guilty of a great moral crime in so thinking. Was it not true that men and women should be faithful in marriage whether they were happy or not? Was there not some psychic law governing this matter of union — one life, one love — which made the thoughts and the pains and the subsequent sufferings and hardships of the individual, whatever they might be, seem unimportant? The churches said so. Public opinion and the law seemed to accept this. There were so many problems, so much order to be disrupted, so much pain caused, many insoluble problems where children were concerned — if people did not stick. Was it not best, more blessed — socially, morally, and in every other way important — for him to stand by a bad bargain rather than to cause so much disorder and pain, even though he lost his own soul emotionally? He had thought so — or at least he had acted as though he thought so — and yet — How often had he wondered over this!
Take, now, some other phases. Granting first that Mrs. Haymaker had, according to the current code, measured up to the requirements of a wife, good and true, and that at first after marriage there had been just enough of physical and social charm about her to keep his state from becoming intolerable, still there was this old ache; and then newer things which came with the birth of the several children: First Elwell — named after a cousin of hers — who had died only two years after he was born; and then Wesley; and then Ethelberta — how he had always disliked that name! — largely because he had hoped to call her Ottilie, a favorite name of his; or Janet, after his mother.
Curiously the arrival of these children and the death of poor little Elwell at two had somehow, in spite of his unrest, bound him to this matrimonial state and filled him with a sense of duty, and pleasure even — almost entirely apart from her, he was sorry to say — in these young lives; though if there had not been children, as he sometimes told himself, he surely would have broken away from her; he could not have stood it. They were so odd in their infancy, those little ones, so troublesome and yet so amusing — little Elwell, for instance, whose nose used to crinkle with delight when he would pretend to bite his neck, and whose gurgle of pleasure was so sweet and heart-filling that it positively thrilled and lured him. In spite of his thoughts concerning Ernestine — and always in those days they were rigidly put down as unmoral and even evil, a certain unsocial streak in him perhaps which was against law and order and well-being — he came to have a deep and abiding feeling for Elwell. The latter, in some chemic, almost unconscious way, seemed to have arrived as a balm to his misery, a bandage for his growing wound — sent by whom, by what, how? He had seized upon his imagination, and so his heartstrings — had come, indeed, to make him feel understanding and sympathy there in that little child; to supply, or seem to at least, what he lacked in the way of love and affection from one whom he could truly love. Elwell was never so happy apparently as when snuggling in his arms, not Ernestine’s, or lying against his neck. And when he went for a walk or elsewhere there was Elwell always ready, arms up, to cling to his neck. He seemed, strangely enough, inordinately fond of his father, rather than his mother, and never happy without him. On his part, Haymaker came to be wildly fond of him — that queer little lump of a face, suggesting a little of himself and of his own mother, not so much of Ernestine; or so he thought, though he would not have objected to that. Not at all. He was not so small as that. Toward the end of the second year, when Elwell was just beginning to be able to utter a word or two, he had taught him that silly old rhyme which ran “There were three kittens, and when it came to “and they shall have no — ” he would stop and say to Elwell, “What now?” and the latter would gurgle “puh!” — meaning, of course, pie.
Ah, those happy days with little Elwell, those walks with him over his shoulder or on his arm, those hours in which of an evening he would rock him to sleep in his arms! Always Ernestine was there, and happy in the thought of his love for little Elwell and her — her more than anything else perhaps; but it was an illusion — that latter part. He did not care for her even then as she thought he did.
All his fondness was for Elwell, only she took it as evidence of his growing or enduring affection for her — another evidence of the peculiar working of her mind. And then came that dreadful fever, due to some invading microbe which the doctors could not diagnose or isolate — infantile paralysis perhaps; and little Elwell had finally ceased to be as flesh and was eventually carried forth to the lorn, disagreeable graveyard near Woodlawn. How he had groaned internally, indulged in sad, despondent thoughts concerning the futility of all things human, when this had happened! It seemed for the time being as if all color and beauty had really gone out of his life for good.
“Man born of woman is of few days and full of troubles,” the preacher whom Mrs. Haymaker had insisted upon having into the house at the time of the funeral had read. “He fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.”
Yes; so little Elwell had fled, as a shadow, and in his own deep sorrow at the time he had come to feel the first and only sad, deep sympathy for Ernestine that he had ever felt since marriage; and that because she had suffered so much — had lain in his arms after the funeral and cried so bitterly. It was terrible, her sorrow. Terrible — a mother grieving for her firstborn! Why was it, he had thought at the time, that he had never been able to think or make her all she ought to be to him? Ernestine at this time had seemed better, softer, kinder, wiser, sweeter than she had ever seemed; more worthy, more interesting than ever he had thought her before. She had slaved so during the child’s illness, stayed awake night after night, watched over him with such loving care — done everything, in short, that a loving human heart could do to rescue her young from the depths; and yet even then he had not really been able to love her. No, sad and unkind as it might seem, he had not. He had just pitied her and thought her better, worthier! What cursed stars disordered the minds and moods of people so? Why was it that these virtues of people, their good qualities, did not make you love them, did not really bind them to you, as against the things you could not like? Why? He had resolved to do better in his thoughts, but somehow, in spite of himself, he had never been able so to do.
Nevertheless, at that time he seemed to realize more keenly than ever her order, industry, frugality, a sense of beauty within limits, a certain laudable ambition to do something and be somebody — only, only he could not sympathize with her ambitions, could not see that she had anything but a hopelessly commonplace and always unimportant point of view. There was never any flair to her, never any true distinction of mind or soul. She seemed always, in spite of anything he might say or do, hopelessly to identify doing and being with money and current opinion — neighborhood public opinion, almost — and local social position, whereas he knew that distinguished doing might as well be connected with poverty and shame and disgrace as with these other things — wealth and station, for instance; things which she could never quite understand apparently, though he often tried to tell her, much against her mood always.
Look at the cases of the great artists! Some of the greatest architects right here in the city, or in history, were of peculiar, almost disagreeable, history. But no, Mrs. Haymaker could not understand anything like that, anything connected with history, indeed — she hardly believed in history, its dark, sad pages, and would never read it, or at least did not care to. And as for art and artists — she would never have believed that wisdom and art understanding and true distinction might take their rise out of things necessarily low and evil — never.
Take now the case of young Zingara. Zingara was an architect like himself, whom he had met more than thirty years before, here in New York, when he had first arrived, a young man struggling to become an architect of significance, only he was very poor and rather unkempt and disreputable looking. Haymaker had found him several years before his marriage to Ernestine in the dark old offices of Pyne & Starboard, Architects, and had been drawn to him definitely; but because he smoked all the time and was shabby as to his clothes and had no money — why, Mrs. Haymaker, after he had married her, and though he had known Zingara nearly four years, would have none of him. To her he was low, and a failure, one who would never succeed. Once she had seen him in some cheap restaurant that she chanced to be passing, in company with a drabby-looking maid, and that was the end.
“I wish you wouldn’t bring him here anymore, dear,” she had insisted; and to have peace he had complied — only, now look. Zingara had since become a great architect, but now of course, owing to Mrs. Haymaker, he was definitely alienated. He was the man who had since designed the Æsculapian Club, and Symphony Hall with its delicate facade, as well as the tower of the Wells Building, sending its sweet lines so high, like a poetic thought or dream. But Zingara was now a dreamy recluse like himself, very exclusive, as Haymaker had long since come to know, and indifferent as to what people thought or said.
But perhaps it was not just obtuseness to certain of the finer shades and meanings of life, but an irritating aggressiveness at times, backed only by her limited understanding, which caused her to seek and wish to be here, there and the other place; wherever, in her mind, the truly successful — which meant nearly always the materially successful of a second or third rate character — were, which irritated him most of all. How often had he tried to point out the difference between true and shoddy distinction — the former rarely connected with great wealth.
But no. So often she seemed to imagine such queer people to be truly successful, when they were really not — usually people with just money, or a very little more.
And in the matter of rearing and educating and marrying their two children, Wesley and Ethelberta, who had come after Elwell. What peculiar pains and feelings had not been involved in all this for him. In infancy both of these had seemed sweet enough, and so close to him, though never quite so wonderful as Elwell. But, as they grew, it seemed somehow as though Ernestine had come between him and them. First, it was the way she had raised them, the very stiff and formal manner in which they were supposed to move and be, copied from the few new-rich whom she had chanced to meet through him — and admired in spite of his warnings. That was the irony of architecture as a profession — it was always bringing such queer people close to one, and for the sake of one’s profession, sometimes, particularly in the case of the young architect, one had to be nice to them. Later, it was the kind of school they should attend. He had half imagined at first that it would be the public school, because they both had begun as simple people; but no, since they were prospering it had to be a private school for each, and not one of his selection, either — or hers, really — but one to which the Barlows and the Westervelts, two families of means with whom Ernestine had become intimate, sent their children and therefore thought excellent!
The Barlows! Wealthy, but, to him, gross and mediocre people who had made a great deal of money in the manufacture of patent medicines out West, and who had then come to New York to splurge, and had been attracted to Ernestine — not him particularly, he imagined — because Haymaker had built a town house for them, and also because he was gaining a fine reputation. They were dreadful really, so gauche, so truly dull; and yet somehow they seemed to suit Ernestine’s sense of fitness and worth at the time, because, as she said, they were good and kind — like her Western home folks; only they were not really. She just imagined so. They were worthy enough people in their way, though with no taste. Young Fred Barlow had been sent to an expensive school for boys, near Morristown, where they were taught manners and airs, and little else, as Haymaker always thought, though Ernestine insisted that they were given a religious training as well. And so Wesley had to go there — for a time, anyhow. It was the best school.
And similarly, because Mercedes Westervelt, senseless, vain little thing, was sent to a big school, near White Plains, Ethelberta had to go there. Think of it! It was all so silly, so pushing. How well he remembered the long, delicate campaign which preceded this, the logic and tactics employed, the importance of it socially to Ethelberta, the tears and cajolery. Mrs. Haymaker could always cry so easily, or seem to be on the verge of it, when she wanted anything; and somehow, in spite of the fact that he knew her tears were unimportant, or timed and for a purpose, he could never stand out against them, and she knew it. Always he felt moved or weakened in spite of himself. He had no weapon wherewith to fight them, though he resented them as a part of the argument. Positively Mrs. Haymaker could be as sly and as ruthless as Machiavelli himself at times, and yet believe all the while that she was tender, loving, self-sacrificing, generous, moral and a dozen other things, all of which led to the final achievement of her own aims. Perhaps this was admirable from one point of view, but it irritated him always. But if one were unable to see himself — or herself — his actual disturbing inconsistencies, what were you to do?
And again, he had by then been married so long that it was almost impossible to think of throwing her over, or so it seemed at the time. They had reached the place then where they had supposedly achieved position together, though in reality it was all his — and not such position as he was entitled to, at that. Ernestine — and he was thinking this in all kindness — could never attract the ideal sort. And anyhow, the mere breath of a scandal between them, separation or unfaithfulness, which he never really contemplated, would have led to endless bickering and social and commercial injury, or so he thought. All her strong friends — and his, in a way — those who had originally been his clients, would have deserted him. Their wives, their own social fears, would have compelled them to ostracize him! He would have been a scandal-marked architect, a brute for objecting to so kind and faithful and loving a wife. And perhaps he would have been, at that. He could never quite tell — it was all so mixed and tangled.
Take, again, the marriage of his son Wesley into the De Gaud family — George de Gaud père being nothing more than a retired real-estate speculator and promoter who had money, but nothing more; and Irma de Gaud, the daughter, being a gross, coarse, sensuous girl, physically attractive no doubt, and financially reasonably secure, or so she had seemed; but what else? Nothing, literally nothing; and his son had seemed to have at least some spiritual ideals at first. Ernestine had taken up with Mrs. George de Gaud — a miserable, narrow creature, so Haymaker thought — largely for Wesley’s sake, he presumed. Anyhow, everything had been done to encourage Wesley in his suit and Irma in her toleration, and now look at them! De Gaud père had since failed and left his daughter practically nothing. Irma had been interested in anything but Wesley’s career, had followed what she considered the smart among the new-rich — a smarter, wilder, newer new-rich than ever Ernestine had fancied, or could. Today she was without a thought for anything besides teas and country clubs and theaters — and what else?
And long since Wesley had begun to realize it himself. He was an engineer now, in the employ of one of the great construction companies, a moderately successful man. But even Ernestine, who had engineered the match and thought it wonderful, was now down on her. She had begun to see through her some years ago, when Irma had begun to ignore her; only before it was always the De Gauds here and the De Gauds there. Good gracious, what more could anyone want than the De Gauds — Irma de Gaud, for instance? Then came the concealed dissension between Irma and Wesley, and now Mrs. Haymaker insisted that Irma had held, and was holding, Wesley back. She was not the right woman for him. Almost — against all her prejudices — she was willing that he should leave her. Only, if Haymaker had broached anything like that in connection with himself!
And yet Mrs. Haymaker had been determined, because of what she considered the position of the De Gauds at that time, that Wesley should marry Irma. Wesley now had to slave at mediocre tasks in order to have enough to allow Irma to run in so-called fast society of a second or third rate. And even at that she was not faithful to him — or so Haymaker believed. There were so many strange evidences. And yet Haymaker felt that he did not care to interfere now. How could he? Irma was tired of Wesley, and that was all there was to it. She was looking elsewhere, he was sure.
Take but one more case, that of Ethelberta. What a name! In spite of all Ernestine’s determination to make her so successful and thereby reflect some credit on, her, had she really succeeded in so doing? To be sure, Ethelberta’s marriage was somewhat more successful financially than Wesley’s had proved to be, but was she any better placed in other ways? John Kelso “Jack,” as she always called him — with his light ways and lighter mind, was he really anyone — anything more than a waster? His parents stood by him, no doubt, but that was all; and so much the worse for him. According to Mrs. Haymaker at the time, he, too, was an ideal boy, admirable, just the man for Ethelberta, because the Kelsos, père and mère, had money. Horner Kelso had made a kind of fortune in Chicago in the banknote business, and had settled in New York, about the time that Ethelberta was fifteen, to spend it. Ethelberta had met Grace Kelso at school.
And now see! She was not unattractive, and had some pleasant, albeit highly affected, social ways; she had money, and a comfortable apartment in Park Avenue; but what had it all come to? John Kelso had never done anything really, nothing. His parents’ money and indulgence and his early training for a better social state had ruined him if he had ever had a mind that amounted to anything. He was idle, pleasure-loving, mentally indolent, like Irnia de Gaud. Those two should have met and married, only they could never have endured each other. But how Mrs.Haymaker had courted the Kelsos in her eager and yet diplomatic way, giving teas and receptions and theater parties; and yet he had never been able to exchange ten significant words with either of them, or the younger Kelsos either. Think of it!
And somehow in the process Ethelberta, for all his early affection and tenderness and his still kindly feeling for her, had been weaned away from him and had proved a limited and conventional girl, somewhat like her mother, and more inclined to listen to her than to him — though he had not minded that really. It had been the same with Wesley before her. Perhaps, however, a child was entitled to its likes and dislikes, regardless.
But why had he stood for it all, he now kept asking himself. Why? What grand results, if any, had been achieved? Were their children so wonderful — their lives? Would he not have been better off without her — his children better, even, by a different woman? Wouldn’t it have been better if he had destroyed it all, broken away? There would have been pain, of course, terrible consequences, but even so he would have been free to go, to do, to reorganize his life on another basis. Zingara had avoided marriage entirely — wise man. But no, no; always convention, that long list of reasons and terrors he was always reciting to himself. He had allowed himself to be pulled round by the nose, God only knows why, and that was all there was to it. Weakness, if you will, perhaps; fear of convention; fear of what people would think and say.
Always now he found himself brooding over the dire results to him of all this respect on his part for convention, moral order, the duty of keeping society on an even keel, of not bringing disgrace to his children and himself and her, and yet ruining his own life emotionally by so doing. To be respectable had been so important that it had resulted in spiritual failure for him. But now all that was over with him, and Mrs. Haymaker was ill, near to death, and he was expected to wish her to get well, and be happy with her for a long time yet! Be happy! In spite of anything he might wish or think he ought to do, he couldn’t. He couldn’t even wish her to get well.
It was too much to ask. There was actually a haunting satisfaction in the thought that she might die now. It wouldn’t be much, but it would be something — a few years of freedom. That was something. He was not utterly old yet, and he might have a few years of peace and comfort to himself still — and — and — That dream — that dream — though it might never come true now — it couldn’t really still — still — He wanted to be free to go his own way once more, to do as he pleased, to walk, to think, to brood over what he had not had — to brood over what he had not had! Only, only, whenever he looked into her pale sick face and felt her damp limp hands he could not quite wish that, either; not quite, not even now. It seemed too hard, too brutal — only only — So he wavered.
No; in spite of her long-past struggle over foolish things and in spite of himself and all he had endured or thought he had, he was still willing that she should live; only he couldn’t wish it exactly. Yes, let her live if she could. What matter to him now whether she lived or died? Whenever he looked at her he could not help thinking how helpless she would be without him, what a failure at her age, and so on. And all along, as he wryly repeated to himself, she had been thinking and feeling that she was doing the very best for him and her and the children — that she was really the ideal wife for him, making every dollar go as far as it would, every enjoyment yield the last drop for them all, every move seeming to have been made to their general advantage! Yes, that was true. There was a pathos about it, wasn’t there? But as for the actual results —
The next morning found him sitting once more beside his front window in the early dawn, and so much of all this, and more, was coming back to him, as before. For the thousandth or the ten-thousandth time, as it seemed to him, in all the years that had gone, he was concluding again that his life was a failure. If only he were free for a little while just to be alone and think, perhaps to discover what life might bring him yet; only on this occasion his thoughts were colored by a new turn in the situation. Yesterday afternoon, because Mrs. Haymaker’s condition had grown worse, the consultation between Grainger and Storm was held earlier, and today sometime transfusion was to be tried, that last grim stand taken by physicians in distress over a case; blood taken from a strong ex-cavalryman out of a position, in this case, and the best to be hoped for, but not assured. In this instance his thoughts were, as before, wavering. Now supposing she really died, in spite of this? What would he think of himself then? He went back after a time and looked in on his wife, who was still sleeping. Now she was not so strong as before, or so the nurse said; her pulse was not so good. And now, as before, his mood changed in her favor, but only for a little while. She seemed to look better.
Later he came up to the dining room, where the nurse was taking her breakfast, and seating himself, asked: “How do you think she is today?”
He and the night nurse had thus had their breakfasts together for days. This nurse, Miss Filson, was such a smooth, pink, graceful creature, with light hair and blue eyes, the kind of eyes and color that of late, and in earlier years, had suggested to him the youth that he had missed.
She looked grave, as though she really feared the worst but was concealing it.
“No worse, I think, and possibly a little better,” she replied, eying him sympathetically. He could see that she, too, felt that he was old and in danger of being neglected. “Her pulse is a little stronger, nearly normal now, and she is resting easily. Doctor Storm and Doctor Grainger are coming, though, at ten. Then they’ll decide what’s to be done. I think if she’s worse that they are going to try transfusion. The man has been engaged. Doctor Storm said that when she woke today she was to be given strong beef tea. Mrs. Elfridge is making it now. The fact that she is not much worse, though, is a good sign in itself, I think.”
Haymaker merely stared at her from under his heavy gray eyebrows. He was so tired and gloomy, not only because he had not slept much of late himself but because of this sawing to and fro between his varying moods. Was he never to be able to decide for himself what he really wished? Was he never to be done with this interminable moral or spiritual problem? Miss Filson pattered on about other heart cases, how so many people lived years and years after they were supposed to die of heart lesion; and he meditated as to the grayness and strangeness of it all, the worthlessness of his own life, the variability of his own moods. Why was he so? How queer — how almost evil, sinister — he had become at times; how weak at others. Last night as he had looked at Ernestine lying in bed, and this morning before he had seen her, he had thought if she only would die — if he were only really free once more, even at this late date. But then when he saw her again this morning, and now when Miss Filson spoke of transfusion, he felt sorry again. What good would it do him now? Why should he want to kill her? Could such evil ideas go unpunished either in this world or the next? Supposing his children could guess! Supposing she did die now — and he had wished it so fervently only this morning — how would he feel? After all, Ernestine had not been so bad. She had tried, hadn’t she? — only she had not been able to make a success of things, as he saw it, and he had not been able to love her, that was all. He reproached himself once more now with the hardness and the cruelty of his thoughts.
The opinion of the two physicians was that Mrs. Haymaker was not much better, and that this first form of blood transfusion must be resorted to — injected straight via a pump; which should restore her greatly if her heart did not bleed it out too freely. Before doing so, however, both men spoke to Haymaker, who in an excess of self-condemnation insisted that no expense must be spared. If her life was in danger, save it by any means — all. It was precious to her, to him and to her children. Thus he could lend every force aside from fervently wishing for her recovery, which, even now, in spite of himself, he could not do. He was too weary of it all, the conventional round of duties and obligations. But if she recovered, as her physicians seemed to think she might if transfusion were tried, and she gained, it would mean that he would have to take her away for the summer to some quiet mountain resort — to be with her hourly during the long period in which she would be recovering. Well, he would not complain now. That was all right. He would do it. He would be bored of course as usual, but it would be too bad to have her die when she could be saved. And yet —
He went down to his office now, and in the meantime this first form of transfusion was tried, and proved a great success apparently. She was much better, so the day nurse phoned at three; very much better. At five-thirty Mr. Haymaker returned, no unsatisfactory word having come in the interim, and there she was, resting on a raised pillow, if you please, and looking so cheerful, and more like her old self than he had seen her in some time.
At once his mood changed again. They were amazing — these variations in his own thoughts, almost chemic, not volitional, decidedly peculiar for a man who was supposed to know his own mind — only did one, ever? Now she would not die. Now the whole thing would go on as before. Well, he might as well resign himself to the old sense of failure. He would never be free now. Everything would go on as before — terrible; and the next day it was the same. Though he seemed glad — really grateful, in a way, seeing her cheerful and hopeful once more — still the obsession of failure and being bound returned now, and in his own bed at midnight he said to himself: “Now she will really get well. All will be as before. Shall I never be free? Shall I never have a day — a day?”
But the next morning, to his surprise and fear or comfort, as his moods varied, she was worse again; and then once more he reproached himself for his black thoughts. Was he not really killing her by what he thought? he asked himself — these constant changes in his mood. Did not his dark wishes have power? Think, if he had always to feel from now on that he had killed her by wishing so! Would not that be dreadful — an awful thing really? Why was he this way? Could he not be kind, human?
When Doctor Storm came at nine-thirty, after a telephone call from the nurse, and looked grave and spoke of horse’s blood as being better, thicker than human blood — not so easily bled out of the heart when injected as a serum, Haymaker was beside himself with sell-reproaches and sad, disturbing fear. Why had he wished last night that she would die? Her case must be very desperate. Was he really a murderer at heart, a dark criminal, plotting her death? — and for what?
“You must do your best,” he said to Doctor Storm. “Whatever is needful — she must not die if you can help it.”
“No, Mr. Haymaker, returned the latter sympathetically. “All that can be done will be done. You need not fear. I have an idea that we didn’t inject enough yesterday. She responded, but not enough. We will see what we can do today.”
Haymaker, pressed with duties, went away sadly, subdued. Now once more he decided that he must not tolerate these dark ideas anymore; he must rid himself of these black wishes, whatever he might feel. It was evil. They would eventually come back to him in some evil way, he might be sure. They might be influencing her. She must be allowed to recover if she could. He must now make a further sacrifice of his own life, whatever it cost. It was only decent, only human. Why should he complain now, anyhow, after all these years? What difference would a few more years make? He returned at evening, consoled by his own good thoughts and a telephone message at three to the effect that his wife was much better. This second injection had proved much more effective. Horse’s blood was plainly better for her. She was stronger, and sitting up again. He entered at five, and found her lying there pale and weak, but still with a better light in her eye — or so he thought — more force, and a very faint smile for him, as well as a touch of color in her cheeks, so marked had been the change. How great and kind Doctor Storm really was! If she would only get well now! If this dread siege would only abate! Doctor Storm was coming again at eight.
“Well, how are you, dear?” she asked, looking at him sweetly and lovingly, and taking his hand in hers.
He bent and kissed her forehead — a Judas kiss, he had thought up to now, but not so tonight. Tonight he was kind, generous — anxious, even, for her to live.
“All right, dearest; very good indeed. And how are you? It’s such a fine evening out. You ought to get well soon so as to enjoy these spring days.”
“I’m going to,” she replied softly. “I feel so much better. And how have you been? Has your work gone all right?”
He nodded and smiled and told her bits of news. Ethelberta had phoned that she was coming, bringing violets. Wesley had said he would be here at six, with Irma! Such-and-such people had asked after her. How could he have been so evil, he now asked himself, as to wish her to die? She was not so bad — really quite charming in her way, an ideal wife for someone if not him. She was as much entitled to live and enjoy her life as he was; and after all she was the mother of his children, had been with him all these years. Besides, the day had been so fine — it was now — a wondrous May evening. The air and sky were simply delicious. The telephone bell now ringing brought still another of a long series of inquiries as to her condition. There had been so many of these during the last few days, the maid said, and especially today and she gave Mr. Haymaker a list of names. See, he thought, she had even more friends than he, being so good, faithful, worthy. Why should he wish her ill?
He sat down to dinner with Ethelberta and Wesley when they arrived, and chatted quite gayly — more hopefully than he had in weeks. His own varying thoughts no longer depressing him, for the moment he was happy. How were they? What were the children all doing? At eight-thirty Doctor Storm came again, and announced that he thought Mrs. Haymaker was doing very well indeed, all things considered.
“Her condition is fairly promising, I must say,” he said. “If she gets through another night or two comfortably without falling back I think she’ll do very well from now on. Her strength seems to be increasing a fraction. Tomorrow we’ll see how she feels, whether she needs any more blood.”
He went away, and at ten Ethelberta and Wesley left for the night, leaving him alone once more. Then he sat and meditated. At eleven, after a few moments at his wife’s bedside — absolute quiet had been the doctor’s instructions these many days — he himself went to bed. He was very tired. His varying thoughts had afflicted him so much that he was always tired, it seemed — his evil conscience, he called it — but tonight he was sure he would sleep. He felt better about himself, about life. He should never have tolerated such dark thoughts. And yet — and yet — and yet —–
He lay on his bed near a window which commanded a view of a small angle of the park, and looked out. There were the spring trees, as usual, silvered now by the light, a bit of lake showing at one end. In his youth he had been so fond of water, any small lake or stream or pond. In his youth, also, he had loved the moon, and to walk in the dark. It had all, always, been so suggestive of love and happiness, and he had so craved love and happiness. Once he had designed a yacht club, the base of which suggested waves. Once, years ago, he had thought of designing a lovely cottage or country house for himself and some new love — that wonderful one — if ever she came and he were free. How wonderful it would all have been. Now — now — the thought at such an hour and especially when it was too late, seemed sacrilegious, hard, cold, unmoral, evil. He turned his face away from the moonlight and sighed, deciding to sleep and shut out these older and darker and sweeter thoughts if he could, and did.
Presently he dreamed, and it was as if some lovely spirit of beauty — that wondrous thing he had always been seeking — came and took him by the hand and led him out, out by dimpling streams and clear rippling lakes and a great, noble highway where were temples and towers and figures in white marble. And it seemed, as he walked, as if something had been, or were, promised him — a lovely fruition to something which he craved — only the world toward which he walked was still dark or shadowy, with something sad and repressing about it, a haunting sense of a still darker distance. He was going toward beauty apparently, but he was still seeking, seeking, when —
“Mr. Haymaker! Mr. Haymaker!” came a voice — soft, almost mystical at first, and then clearer and more disturbing afterward, as a hand was laid on him. “Will you come at once? It’s Mrs. Haymaker!”
On the instant he was on his feet, seizing the blue silk dressing gown hanging at his bed’s head and adjusting it as he hurried. Mrs. Elfridge and the nurse were behind him, very pale and distrait, wringing their hands. When he reached the bedroom — her bedroom — there she lay as in life — still, peaceful, already limp, as though she were sleeping. Her thin, and as he sometimes thought cold, lips were now parted in a kind of faint, gracious smile, or trace of one. He had seen her look that way, too, at times, a really gracious smile, and wise, wiser than she was. The long, thin, graceful hands were open, the fingers spread slightly apart as though she were tired, very tired. The eyelids, too, rested wearily on tired eyes. Her form, spare as always, was outlined clearly under the thin coverlets. Miss Filson, the night nurse, was saying something about having fallen asleep for a moment, and waked only to find her so. She was terribly depressed and disturbed, possibly because of Doctor Storm.
Haymaker paused, greatly shocked and moved by the sight — more so than by anything since the death of little Elwell. After all, she had tried, according to her light. But now she was dead — and they had been together so long! He came forward, tears of sympathy springing to his eyes, then sank down beside the bed on his knees so as not to disturb her right hand where it lay.
“Ernie, dear,” he said gently, “Ernie — are you really gone?” His voice was full of sorrow; but to himself it sounded mean, traitorous.
He lifted the hand and put it to his lips sadly, then leaned his head against her, -thinking of his long, mixed thoughts these many days, while both Mrs. Elfridge and the nurse began wiping their eyes. They were so sorry for him, he was so old now!
After a while he got up — they came forward to persuade him at last — looking tremendously sad and distrait, and asked Mrs. Elfridge and the nurse not to disturb his children. They could not aid her now. Let them rest until morning. Then he went back to his own room and sat down on the bed for a moment, gazing out on the same silvery scene that had attracted him before. So then his dark wishing had come true at last? It was dreadful. Possibly his black thoughts had killed her after all. Was that possible? Had his voiceless prayers been answered in this grim way? And did she know now what he had really thought? Dark thought. Where was she now? What was she thinking now if she knew? Would she hate him — haunt him? It was not dawn yet, only two or three in the morning, and the moon was still bright. And in the next room she was lying, pale and cool, gone forever now out of his life.
He got up after a time and went forward into that pleasant front room where he had loved to sit so often, then back into her room to view the body again. Now that she was gone, here more than elsewhere, in her dead presence, he seemed better able to collect his scattered thoughts. She might see or she might not — might know or not. It was all over now. Only he could not help but feel a little evil. She had been so faithful, if nothing more, so earnest in behalf of him and of his children. His feelings were so jumbled that he could not place them half the time. But at the same time the ethics of the past, of his own irritated feelings and moods in regard to her, had to be adjusted somehow before he could have peace. They must be adjusted; only how — how?
After a time he came forward once more to the front room to sit and gaze at the park. Here, perhaps, he could solve these mysteries for himself, think them out, find out what he did feel. He was evil for wishing all he had — that he knew and felt. The dawn was breaking by now; a faint grayness shaded the east and dimly lightened this room. A tall pier mirror between two windows now revealed him to himself — spare, angular, disheveled, his beard and hair astray and his eyes weary. The figure he made here as against his dreams of a happier life, once he were free, now struck him forcibly. What a farce! What a failure! Why should he, of all people, think of further happiness in love, even if he were free? Look at his reflection here in this mirror. What a picture — old, grizzled, done for! Had he not known that for so long? Was it not too ridiculous. No thing of beauty would have him now. Of course not. That glorious dream of his youth was gone forever. His wife might just as well have lived as died, for all the difference it would or could make to him. Only he was really free just the same almost as it were in spite of his varying moods. But he was old, weary, done for, a recluse and ungainly.
He stared first at his dark wrinkled skin; the crow’s-feet at the sides of his eyes; the wrinkles across his forehead and between the eyes; his long, dark, wrinkled hands — handsome hands they once were, he thought; his angular, stiff body. Once he had been very much of a personage, he thought, striking, forceful, dynamic — but now! He turned and looked out over the park where the young trees were, and the lake, to the pinking dawn — just a trace now — a significant thing in itself at this hour surely — then back at himself. What could he wish for now — what hope for?
As he did so his dream came back to him — that strange dream of seeking and being led and promised and yet always being led forward into a dimmer, darker land. What did that mean? Had it any real significance? Was it all to be dimmer, darker still? Was it typical of his life? He pondered.
“Free!” he said after a time. “Free! I know now how that is. I am free now, at last! Free! . . . Free! . . . Yes — free . . . to die!” So he stood there ruminating and smoothing his beard.
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