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The Worth of the Price by Will Lillibridge

 

Nobody in a normal humor would dispute the fact that Clementine Willis was a strikingly handsome girl. One might even be moved, by a burst of enthusiasm, to declare her beautiful. There was about her that subtle, elusive charm of perfection in minute detail, possible only to the wealthy who can discriminate between art and that which is artificial, and who can take advantage of all of art's magic resources, without imparting the slightest suggestion of artificiality.

Her hair and eyes were dark—very dark; her skin bore the matchless, transparent tint of ivory; every line of her high-bred face, and of her hands and her slender, arched feet, bespoke the ultimate degree of refinement.

She was the sort of girl, in short, that a full-blooded man must needs stare at, perhaps furtively, but with no thought of boldness. Stupid, indeed, must be he who would attempt anything even remotely approaching familiarity with Miss Willis.

Her smart brougham waits in front of a new and resplendent down-town office building on a certain afternoon, while Miss Willis ascends in one of the elevators to the tenth floor. She proceeds with assurance, but leisurely—mayhap she is a trifle bored—to a door which somehow manages to convey an impression of prosperity beyond. It bears upon its frosted glass the name of Dr. Leonard, a renowned specialist in diseases of the throat, besides the names of a half-dozen assistants—in much smaller lettering—who, doubtless, are in the ferment of struggling for positions of equal renown.

The door opening discloses a neat, uniformed maid and a large and richly furnished reception-room. Five ladies, of various ages and all handsomely gowned, are seated here and there, manifestly forcing patience to relieve the ennui which would have been tolerated with no other detail of the day's routine.

This cursory survey is sufficient, it is hoped, to demonstrate that Dr. Leonard's practice is confined among a class of which most other practitioners might be pardonably envious.

The white-aproned, white-capped maid smiled a polite recognition of the newest arrival. A bit flustered by the calmly impersonal scrutiny with which her greeting was received, she addressed Miss Willis in a subdued voice.

“I was to tell you, Miss Willis, that there is no occasion for Dr. Leonard to see you himself to-day. If you please, Dr. Carter will fill your engagement.”

Miss Willis did not please. It was quite clear that she regarded this arrangement with considerable disfavor.

“You may inform Dr. Leonard that I shall not wait,” she said coldly. “If I am so far improved that I do not require his personal attention, I shall not come again.”

With that, she turned decisively to leave. The maid followed her, hesitantly, to the door, and Miss Willis could not repress a smile at the girl's consternation. The situation had ended in an altogether unexpected manner. And then, in the next instant, it became manifest that, however absolute Dr. Leonard might be, it was not a part of the maid's duties to discourage those who would seek his services. She was emboldened to protest.

“Just try him, please, Miss Willis,” in a nervous murmur; “he—truly—he's—”

The assurance was left unfinished; but the speaker's flurry revealed her predicament, and Miss Willis smiled encouragement.

“Very well,” she returned graciously.

The maid gave her a grateful look and conducted her though several rooms, all in accord with the sumptuous reception-room, to a tiny private office, where she opened the door and stood respectfully on one side.

The visitor's submissive mood all at once vanished. She stared resentfully at the cramped quarters, and entered reluctantly, as if with a feeling of being thrust willy-nilly into a labelled pill-box. A man was writing at a desk in a corner, and he continued writing.

“Take a chair, please,” he said crisply, without looking up. And this was the only sign to indicate that he was aware that his privacy had been invaded.

Miss Willis's dark eyes flashed. She seemed about to make an indignant rejoinder, but thought better of it. She ignored the invitation to sit down, however, and by and by the circumstance caught the writer's attention; he bent a quick, surprised look round at her—then proceeded with his writing. He did not repeat the request.

He presently finished his task, noted the time, and made an entry upon a tabulated sheet beside him; he then filed the memorandum upon a hook, and swung round in his chair, facing the intruder—for such the girl felt herself to be.

Fortunately Miss Willis was not without a sense of humor, and she was able to perceive an amusing quality in her reception to-day. Such supreme indifference to her very existence was so wholly foreign to anything in her past experience, that she was acutely sensible of its freshness and novelty.

But now the man became all at once impressed with the circumstance that she was still standing, and he bounded guiltily to his feet.

“Pardon me!” he exclaimed in confusion. “I was—was very busy when you came in. Won't you please have this chair?” He awkwardly shoved one forward.

The man was young; Miss Willis was unable to determine whether he was good-looking, or ugly; whether he was the right sort, or impossible; so she accepted the proffered chair.

He resumed his own seat, and leaned one arm wearily upon the desk. Already he had forgotten his momentary embarrassment, and he was now regarding the girl simply as a patient.

“Dr. Leonard has given me the history of your case,” he informed her in a matter of fact way. “He requests that I continue with it—unless, of course, you prefer that he treat you himself.” He got up as he spoke, and Miss Willis decided that he was good-looking and young, and that he was tall and of a figure to appeal to the feminine eye.

Then she was guilty of a most reprehensible act of slyness. She turned full upon him the batteries of her lustrous dark eyes, and smiled dazzlingly, bewitchingly.

“I came to see Dr. Leonard,” she said in a tone that made one think of dripping honey. “And I object to being turned over to an assistant—at least before consulting me.”

Utterly at variance with all precedent, the bewitching look produced no effect whatever. The man bowed gravely, pressed a bell-button, and then went over to where Miss Willis was sitting. Before he could speak—if he had any such intention—a girl in starched cap and apron appeared in answer to his ring.

“Miss Willis has concluded not to remain,” he informed the maid. “Show Number Twenty-seven into Room Four. Inform her that I will see her in two minutes.” Producing his watch, he deliberately marked the time.

He turned to Miss Willis in a moment, with an air which said as plainly as words could have said it: “It's a terrible waste of precious time, but if necessary I'll sacrifice the two minutes to humoring any further caprices you may develop.”

This was too much for the young lady's tranquillity: she laughed, and laughed frankly.

“Pray tell me,” she managed to say, “what my number is.”

Without the slightest alteration in his serious mien, he consulted a list hanging beside his desk.

“Seven,” he announced at length.

“Oh!”

“Why?” quickly. “Has there been some mistake?”

“No—oh, no”; Miss Willis was now perfectly composed. “I had a feeling, though, that it must have been nearer seven thousand.”

“It would be impossible, you know,” the man patiently explained, “to see that many patients in a day.”

“Indeed? How interesting!” Her irony was unnoticed, and once more she laughed. To tell the truth, if anybody could associate such a frivolity with Miss Willis's dignity, she giggled.

She contemplated the man with undisguised curiosity. Naturally enough she had met more men than she could even remember, but never one anything like this particular specimen. To add to her quickened interest, he was not only positively good-looking, but every line of his face, the poise of his well-proportioned, upstanding figure, the tilt of his head and the squareness of his chin, all spoke of strength; of elemental strength, and of a purposeful, resolute character. And, too, she told herself that he had nice eyes. The nice eyes never wavered in their respectful regard of her.

He spoke again:

“I can assure you that Dr. Leonard meant no discourtesy. The new arrangement means nothing further than that your trouble is more distinctively within my province. It is his custom, once he has thoroughly diagnosed a case, to assign it to the one of his assistants best qualified to treat it. Dr. Leonard is a very busy man; he can't be expected to do more than supervise his aides.”

And now he was actually rebuking her!

He bowed once more, and moved toward the door. His hand was upon the knob, when an imperious command brought him to a standstill.

“Wait,” said Miss Willis. “Dr. Carter, if I remain here—”

He coolly interrupted. “Pardon me, Miss Willis, but my patient is waiting. I shall be at liberty in ten minutes, then I shall return.”

This time he was gone.

Number Four must have been an adjoining room, for the next instant she could hear Dr. Carter's voice through the thin board partition. His speech was as unemotional and businesslike as when addressing her. She could not make up her mind whether to go or wait, and so sat pondering and presently forgot to go.

Here was a man such as she had never dreamed of as existing; one absolutely disinterested, who treated people—even people like Clementine Willis—as abstractly as a master mechanic goes about repairing a worn-out engine. Perhaps it was a characteristically feminine decision at which she presently arrived, but anyway she made up her mind, then and there, to know more of this man.

After a while Miss Willis fell to surveying the room; with an undefined hope, perhaps, that it would throw some further light upon the young doctor's character. It was essentially the home of a busy man. Every article had a use and a definite one. The spirit of the place was contagious, and presently she began to have a feeling that she was the one useless thing there.

In one corner of the room was the desk where he had been writing, upon which was a pile of loose manuscript. Reference books were scattered all about, some with improvised bookmarks, but mostly face downward, just as they had been left. The environment was that of one who seeks to overtake and outstrip Time, rather than to forget him.

Dr. Carter returned at last, entering quickly but quietly.

“Pardon my leaving you so abruptly,” he apologized, the impersonal note again in his voice, and an inquiry as well. He seemed surprised that she had not departed.

The girl was manifestly at a loss for words; this was such an extraordinary predicament for her to find herself in that she determined to say something at any cost.

“Dr. Carter,” she faltered, “I—have changed my mind; I—I—wish you to continue my treatment—if you will.” It was not at all what she had intended saying, and she was chagrined to feel her cheeks grow suddenly hot; she knew that they must be rosy.

It was likely that young Dr. Carter was unused to smiling; but suddenly his eyes were alight. He spoke, and the dry, impersonal note was gone.

“I'm glad,” he said. “We hard-working doctors can stand almost anything—without caring a snap of our fingers, too—but when it comes to doubting or questioning—not our methods, but those that have been tried and proven, and of which we merely avail ourselves,—why, we can't be expected to waste much sympathy on the scoffers.”

He rang the inevitable bell, and gave word to the maid: “Tell Dr. Leonard that Miss Willis has decided to continue her treatment with me.”

Now, in the light of the foregoing experience, it was strange that during the next week Miss Willis's throat should require considerably more attention than it ever had under the celebrated specialist's personal ministrations. She made five visits to Dr. Carter, but it could not be said that he had advanced an inch toward the opening she had made. His voice and manner were a bit more sympathetic—and that was all.

Miss Willis seemed to find a keen delight in the fact that her identity, for the time being, was erased by a number; during each visit she made it a point to learn what this number was, treating the matter in a sportive spirit, unbending her wit to ridicule a practice which failed to discriminate among the host of patients who came to see Dr. Leonard.

“For our purposes,” Dr. Carter tolerantly explained, “a number more conveniently identifies our patients; their differences are only pathological. A name is easily forgotten, Miss Willis, unless there is some unusual circumstance associated with it, to impress it upon the mind.”

She was curious to learn what unusual circumstance had caused him to retain her name, but lacked the temerity to ask. She would have been amazed, unbelieving, had he told her that it was her beauty; that he was clinging rather desperately to the unlovely number, which had no individuality and whose features were altogether neutral and negative.

The change in his manner, when it came, almost took away her breath. It was on the occasion of her last visit. After the familiar preliminary examination, instead of proceeding at once with the treatment, as had been his invariable custom, Dr. Carter walked over to his desk and sat down. For a space he soberly regarded her.

“Miss Willis,” said he, presently, “there is nothing whatever the matter with your throat.”

She gasped. This calm statement brought confusingly to her mind the circumstance that she had forgotten her throat and its ailment, when, of all considerations, the afflicted member should have been uppermost in her mind. Dr. Carter had not, however, and he must be wondering why she continued to come after the occasion to do so no longer existed. He at once relieved her embarrassment, though.

“I suppose,” he said, and she felt a thrill at the note of regret in his voice, “that you will be glad to escape from this hive?”

“No, I shan't,” she said, with unnecessary warmth. This involuntary denial surprised even herself, and she blushed.

The smile left Dr. Carter's lips, but he said nothing—merely sat looking at her in his grave way.

Here was to be another period, which Miss Willis could look back upon as one of temporary inability to find words. She started to leave, furious with herself for her inaptness, and instead of going she paused and turned back.

Dr. Carter had risen; he was standing as she had left him. She drew a card from her cardcase.

“You may think what you please of me, Dr. Carter,” she said with sudden impulse, extending the card and meeting his look steadily, “but I would be glad if you were to call.”

It seemed to take him a long time to read the address. All at once his hands were trembling, and when he looked up the expression in the gray eyes brought a swift tide of color to the girl's face, where it deepened, and deepened, until she tingled from head to foot, and a mist obscured her vision.

“Nothing in all this world would give me more pleasure,” said the man.

The girl turned and fled.

That very evening Dr. Carter availed himself of the invitation. Singularly enough, since she had been hoping all the afternoon that he would come, Clementine Willis was frightened when his name was announced. Her hand was shaking when he took it in his; but there was not a trace of expression on his face.

Miss Willis realized, for the first time, that she had been horribly brazen—or, at least, she told herself that she had been—and as a consequence, she was wretchedly ill at ease. Her distress was in marked contrast with the man's self-possession, which amounted almost to indifference. There was no spark visible of the fire which had flashed earlier in the day. It was as though he had steeled himself to remain invulnerable throughout the call.

And the usually composed girl prattled aimlessly, voicing platitudes, conventionalities, banalities, inanities—anything to gain time and to cover her embarrassment: to all of which the man listened in sober silence, watching her steadily.

Abruptly, Miss Willis grew angry with herself, and stopped. When angry she was collected.

Dr. Carter's face lit up humorously.

“You have no idea,” he said, “how you have relieved my mind.”

The girl looked a question.

“I supposed I was the embarrassed individual,” he laughed.

“If you had only given me a hint,” suggested the girl, reproachfully. She was now amazed that she had ever lost her grip upon herself, and wondered why she had.

“A hint!” he exclaimed. “I was dumb; I thought you'd see.”

The tension was off, and they laughed together. From then on, both remained natural. In the midst of a lull, Dr. Carter suddenly said:

“You'll think me a barbarian, Miss Willis, but I have a request to make. I am in the mood to-night to be unconventional”—the corners of his serious mouth lifted humorously—“to be what I really am,” he illuminated, “and to meet you in the same spirit.” He paused with a little shrug. “It is a disappointing reversion to the primitive, I must admit.” He glanced up whimsically. “May I ask you a question—any question?”

“Do you think it possible,” the girl evaded, “for a modern woman to meet you—the way you say—naturally?”

He seemed to question her seriousness.

“I have seen little of women for a number of years,” he returned, “but I'd hate to think it impossible.”

“Little of women!” was the surprised comment.

“You misunderstand,” he quickly corrected. “I go out so seldom that the woman I see is not the real woman at all; not the woman of home.” His hand made a little motion of forbearance. “In his consultation-room the patients of a physician are—sexless.”

“I think that a woman—that I—can still be natural, Dr. Carter,” said Miss Willis, slowly, her eyes downcast. “What did you wish to ask?”

It was his turn to hesitate.

“I hardly know how to put it, now that I have permission,” he apologized, with a deprecatory little laugh.

“We seldom do things in this world,” he went on at once, “unless we want to, or unless the alternative of not doing them is more unpleasant.” He merged generalities into a more specific assertion. “There was no alternative in your requesting me to call. Candidly, why do I interest you?”

His voice was alive, and the woman, now thoroughly mistress of herself, gazed into the frankest of frank gray eyes.

“I scarcely know,” she said, weighing her answer. “Perhaps it was the novel experience of being considered—sexless; of being classified by a number, like a beetle in a case. Let me answer with another question: Why did I interest you sufficiently to come?”

He sat in the big chair with his chin in his hand, looking now steadily past and beyond her, one foot restlessly tapping the rug.

“I can't answer without it seeming so hopelessly egotistical.” The half-whimsical, half-serious smile returned to his eyes. “Don't let me impose upon your leniency, please; I may wish to make a request sometime again.”

“I will accept the responsibility,” she insisted.

“On your head, then, the consequences.” He spoke lightly, but with a note of restlessness and rebellion.

“To me you are attractive, Miss Willis, because you are everything that I am not. With you there is no necessity higher than the present; no responsibility beyond the chance thought of the moment. You choose your surroundings, your thoughts. Your life is what you make it: it is life.”

“You certainly would not charge me with being more independent than you?” protested the girl.

“Independent!” he flashed upon her, and she knew she had stirred something lying close to his soul. His voice grew soft, and he repeated the word, musingly, more to himself than to her: “Independent!”

“Yes,” with abrupt feeling, “with the sort of independence that chooses its own manner of absolute dependence; with the independence that gives you only so much of my time, so that the remainder may go to another; with the independence of imperative impartiality; the sort of independence that is never through working and planning for others—that's the independence I know.”

“But there are breathing-spells,” interrupted Miss Willis, smilingly. “To-night, for example, you are not working for somebody else.”

“You compel me to incriminate myself,” he rejoined, the whimsical, half-serious smile again lighting his gray eyes. “I should be working now, and I will have to make up the lost time when I go home.” He bowed gallantly. “The pleasure is double with me, you observe; I do not think twice about paying a double price for it.”

He spoke lightly, almost mockingly; but beneath the surface there was even the bitter ring of revolt, and constantly before the girl were the little gestures, intense, impatient, that conveyed a meaning he did not voice. She could feel in it all the insistent atmosphere of the town, where time is counted by seconds. She wondered that he felt as he did, ignorant that the disquiet had come into his life only during the past week. To her, the glimpse of activity was fascinating simply because it was in sharp contrast with her life of comparative, dull emptiness.

He caught the wistful look on her face.

“You wonder that I rebel,” he said, with an odd little throaty laugh. “I couldn't well appear any more unsophisticated: I might as well tell you. It's not the work itself, but the lack of anything else but work that makes the lives of such as I so bare. We are constantly holding a stop-watch on time itself, fearful of losing a second; the scratch of a pen sealing the life of a Nation, commuting a death-sentence, defining the difference between a man's success and ruin can all be accomplished in a second. If we let that second get away from us, we have been deaf to Opportunity's knock. We stop at times to think; and then the object for which we give our all appears so petty and inadequate, and what we are losing, so great. We laugh at our work at such times, and for the moment hate it.” But he laughed lightly, and finished with a deprecating little minor.

“You see, I'm relaxing to-night—and thinking.”

“But,” Miss Willis protested, “I don't see why you should have only the one thing in your life. It is certainly unnecessary, unless you choose.”

He smiled indulgently.

“You have no conception of what it means to shape your life to your income. I am poor, and I know. Years ago I had to choose between mediocrity and”—he looked at her peculiarly—“and love, or advancement alone. I had to choose, and fixing my choice upon the higher aim, I had to put everything else out of my life. The thought is intolerable that my name should always be under another's upon some office-door. You know what I chose: you know nothing of the constant struggle which alone keeps me, mind, soul, and body, centred upon my ideal, nor how readily I respond to a temptation to turn aside.

“This,” he completed listlessly, “is one of the nights when the price seems too large; in spite of me, regret will creep in.”

“But,” persisted the girl, “when you succeed—it will not be—too late?” There was a plaintive inquiry in the words; the tragedy of the man's life had awakened pity.

He spoke with a sudden passion that startled her.

“It is too late already; my work has refashioned my life. I am desperately restless except when doing something that counts; something visible; and doing it intensely. I'll never”—his voice was bitter with regret—“never conform—now.”

The girl answered, almost unconsciously.

“I think you can,” she hesitated, “and will.”

For a long, long moment they searched each other's eyes.

“And this price you are paying,” said the girl at last, “is it worth it?”

The man drew a long breath.

“Ah, I wonder! To-night doubt has undermined my resolution.”

“If you question yourself so seriously,” she said very softly, “then surely you can find but one answer.”

“Again I wonder. I have wondered and—and hoped—God help me!—since the moment I looked into your eyes.”

Suddenly he was out of his chair and coming toward her. Her heart leaped, her eyes shone; she extended her hands in welcome.

“Then you will come again,” she whispered, as they drew together.

“If you will let me. I couldn't stay away now.”

 
 
 

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