The Greatest Good of the by Gertrude Atherton
orton Blaine returned to New York from his brief vacation to find
awaiting him a frantic note from John Schuyler, the man nearer to him
than any save himself, imploring him to "come at once." The appeal was
supplemented with the usual intimation that the service was to be
rendered to God rather than to man.
The note was twenty-four hours old. Blaine, without changing his
travelling clothes, rang for a cab and was driven rapidly up the Avenue.
He was a man of science, not of enthusiasms, cold, unerring, brilliant;
a superb intellectual machine, which never showed a fleck of rust,
unremittingly polished, and enlarged with every improvement. But for one
man he cherished an abiding sympathy; to that man he hastened on the
slightest summons, as he hastened now. They had been intimate in
boyhood; then in later years through mutual respect for each other's
high abilities and ambitions.
As the cab rolled over the asphalt of the Avenue, Blaine glanced idly at
the stream of carriages returning from the Park, lifting his hat to many
of the languid pretty women. He owed his minor fame to his guardianship
of fashionable nerves. He could calm hysteria with a pressure of his
cool flexible hand or a sudden modulation of his harsh voice. And women
dreaded his wrath. There were those who averred that his eyes could
He leaned forward and raised his hat with sudden interest. She who
returned his bow was as cold in her coloring as a winter night, but
possessed a strength of line and depth of eye which suggested to the
analyst her power to give the world a shock did Circumstance cease to
run abreast of her. She was leaning back indolently in the open
carriage, the sun slanting into her luminous skin and eyes, her face
locked for the benefit of the chance observer, although she conversed
with the faded individual at her side. As her eyes met those of the
doctor her mouth convulsed suddenly, and a glance of mutual
understanding passed between them. Then she raised her head with a
defiant, almost reckless movement.
Blaine reached his friend's house in a moment. The man who had summoned
him was walking aimlessly up and down his library. He was unshaven; his
hair and his clothing were disordered. His face had the modern beauty of
strength and intellect and passion and weakness. A flash of relief
illuminated it as Blaine entered.
"She has been terrible!" he said. "Terrible! I have not had the courage
to call in any one else, and I am worn out. She is asleep now, and I got
out of the room for half an hour. The nurse is exhausted too. Do stay
"I will stay. Let us go up-stairs."
As they reached the second landing two handsome children romped across
the hall and flung themselves upon their father.
"Where have you been?" they demanded. "Why do you shut yourself up on
the third floor with mamma all the time? When will she get well?"
Schuyler kissed them and bade them return to the nursery.
"How long can I keep it from them?" he asked bitterly. "What an
atmosphere for children—my children!—to grow up in!"
"If you would do as I wish, and send her where she belongs—"
"I shall not. She is my wife. Moreover, concealment would then be
They had reached the third floor. He inserted a key in a door, hesitated
a moment, then said abruptly: "I saw in a paper that she had returned.
Can it be possible?"
"I saw her on the Avenue a few moments ago."
Was it the doctor's imagination, or did the goaded man at his side flash
him a glance of appeal?
They entered a room whose doors and windows were muffled. The furniture
was solid, too solid to be moved except by muscular arms. There were no
mirrors nor breakable articles of any sort.
On the bed lay a woman with ragged hair and sunken yellow face, but even
in her ruin indefinably elegant. Her parted lips were black and
blistered within; her shapely skinny hands clutched the quilt with the
tenacious suggestion of the eagle—that long-lived defiant bird. At the
bedside sat a vigorous woman, the pallor of fatigue on her face.
The creature on the bed opened her eyes. They had once been what are
vaguely known as fine eyes; now they looked like blots of ink on
"Give me a drink," she said feverishly. "Water! water! water!" She
panted, and her tongue protruded slightly. Her husband turned away, his
shoulders twitching. The nurse held a silver goblet to the woman's lips.
She drank greedily, then scowled up at the doctor.
"You missed it," she said. "I should be glad, for I hate you, only you
give me more relief than they. They are afraid. They tried to fool me,
the idiots! But they didn't try it twice. I bit."
She laughed and threw her arms above her head. The loose sleeves of her
gown fell back and disclosed arms speckled as if from an explosion of
"Just an ordinary morphine fiend," thought the doctor. "And she is the
wife of John Schuyler!"
An hour after dinner he told the husband and nurse to go to bed. For a
while he read, the woman sleeping profoundly. The house was absolutely
still, or seemed to be. Had pandemonium reigned he could hardly have
heard an echo of it from this isolated room. The window was open, but
looked upon roofs and back yards; no sound of carriage wheels rose to
break the quiet. Despite the stillness, the doctor had to strain his ear
to catch the irregular breathing of the sick woman. He had a singular
feeling, although the most unimaginative of men, that this third floor,
containing only himself and the woman, had been sliced from the rest of
the house and hung suspended in space, independent of natural laws. It
was after the book had ceased to interest him that the idea shaped
itself, born of another, as yet unacknowledged, skulking in the recesses
of his brain. At length he laid aside the book, and going to the bed,
looked down upon the woman, coldly, reflectively—exactly as he had
often watched the quivering of an animal—dissected alive in the cause
Studying this man's face, it was impossible to imagine it agitated by
any passion except thirst for knowledge. The skin was as white as
marble; the profile was straight and mathematical, the mouth a straight
line, the chin as square as that of a chiselled Fate. The jaw was
prominent, powerful, relentless. The eyes were deeply set and gray as
polished steel. The large brow was luminous, very full—an index to the
terrible intellect of the man.
As he looked down on the woman his thin nostrils twitched once and his
lips compressed more firmly. Then he smiled. It was an odd, almost
"A physician," he said, half aloud, "has almost as much power as God.
The idea strikes me that we are the personification of that useful
He plunged his hands into his pockets, and walked up and down the long
thickly carpeted room.
"These are the facts in the case," he continued. "The one man I love and
unequivocally respect is tied, hand and foot, to that unsexed
dehumanized morphine receptacle on the bed. She is hopeless. Every known
specific has failed, must fail, for she loves the vice. He has one of
the best brains of this day prolific in brains; a distressing capacity
for affection, human to the core. At the age of forty-two, in the
maturity of his mental powers, he carries with him a constant sickening
sense of humiliation; a proud man, he lives in daily fear of exposure
and shame. At the age of forty-two, in the maturity of his manhood, he
meets the woman who conquers his heart, his imagination, who compels his
faith by making other women abhorrent to him, who allures and maddens
with the certainty of her power to make good his ideal of her. He cannot
marry her; that animal on the bed is capable of living for twenty years.
"So much for him. A girl of twenty-eight, whose wealth and brain and
beauty, and that other something that has not yet been analyzed and
labelled, have made her a social star; who has come to wonder, then to
resent, then to yawn at the general vanity of life, is suddenly swept
out of her calm orbit by a man's passion; and, with the swiftness of
decision natural to her, goes to Europe. She returns in less than three
months. For these two people there is but one sequel. The second chapter
will be written the first time they are alone. Then they will go to
Europe. What will be the rest of the book?
"First, there will be an ugly and reverberating scandal. In the course
of a year or two she will compel him to return in the interest of his
career. She will not be able to remain; so proud a woman could not stand
the position. Again he will go with her. In a word, my friend's career
will be ruined. So many novelists and reporters have written the
remaining chapters of this sort of story that it is hardly worth while
for me to go any further.
"So much for them. Let us consider the other victims—the children. A
morphine-mother in an asylum, a father in a strange land with a woman
who is not his wife, the world cognizant of all the facts of the case.
They grow up at odds with society. Result, they are morbid, warped,
unnormal. In trite old English, their lives are ruined, as are all lives
that have not had a fair chance."
He returned abruptly to the bedside. He laid his finger on the woman's
"No morphine to-night and she dies. A worthless wretch is sent where she
belongs. Four people are saved."
His breast swelled. His gray eyes seemed literally to send forth smoke;
they suggested some noiseless deadly weapon of war. He exclaimed aloud:
"My God! what a power to lie in the hands of one man! I stand here the
arbiter of five destinies. It is for me to say whether four people
shall be happy or wretched, saved or ruined. I might say, with Nero, 'I
am God!'" He laughed. "I am famed for my power to save where others have
failed. I am famed in the comic weeklies for having ruined the business
of more undertakers than any physician of my day. That has been my rôle,
my professional pride. I have never felt so proud as now."
The woman, who had been moving restlessly for some time, twitched
suddenly and uncontrollably. She opened her eyes.
"Give it to me—quick!" she demanded. Her voice, always querulous, was
raucous; her eyes were wild.
"No," he said, deliberately, "you will have no more morphine; not a
She stared at him incredulously, then laughed.
"Stop joking," she said, roughly. "Give it to me—quick—quick! I am
"No," he said.
Then, as he continued to hold her eyes, her own gradually expanded with
terror. She raised herself on one arm.
"You mean that?" she asked.
He watched her critically. She would be interesting.
"You are going to cure me with drastic measures, since others have
Her face contracted with hatred. She had been a rather clever woman, and
she believed that he was going to experiment with her. But she had also
been a strong-willed woman and used to command since babyhood.
"Give me that morphine," she said, imperiously. "If you don't I'll be
dead before morning."
He stood imperturbable. She sprang from the bed and flung herself upon
him, strong with anger and apprehension.
"Give it to me!" she screamed. "Give it to me!" And she strove to bite
He caught her by the shoulder and held her at arm's-length. She writhed
and struggled and cursed. Her oaths might have been learned in the
gutter. She kicked at him and strove to reach him with her nails,
clawing the air. She looked like a witch on a broomstick.
"What an exquisite bride she was!" he thought. "And what columns of
rubbish have been printed about her and her entertainments!"
The woman was shrieking and struggling.
"Give it to me! You brute! You fiend! I always hated you! Give it to me!
I am dying! I am dying! Help! Help!" But the walls were padded, and she
He permitted her to fling herself upon him, easily brushing aside her
jumping fingers and snapping teeth. He knew that her agony was
frightful. Her body was a net-work of hungry nerves. The diseased pulp
of her brain had ejected every thought but one. She squirmed like an old
autumn leaf about to fall. Her ugly face became tragic. The words shot
from her dry contracted throat: "Give me the morphine! Give me the
Suddenly realizing the immutability of the man in whose power she was,
she sprang from him and ran frantically about the room, uttering harsh
bleatlike cries. She pulled open the drawers of a chest, rummaging among
its harmless contents, gasping, quivering, bounding, as her tortured
nerves commanded. When she had littered the floor with the contents of
the chest she ran about screaming hopelessly. The doctor shuddered, but
he thought of the four innocent people in her power and in his.
She fell in a heap on the floor, biting the carpet, striking out her
arms aimlessly, tearing her night-gown into strips; then lay quivering,
a hideous, speckled, uncanny thing, who should have been embalmed and
placed beside the Venus of Milo.
She raised herself on her hands and crawled along the carpet, casually
at first, as a man stricken in the desert may, half-consciously,
continue his search for water. Then the doctor, intently watching her,
saw an expression of hope leap into her bulging eyes. She scrambled past
him towards the wash-stand. Before he could define her purpose, she had
leaped upon a goblet inadvertently left there and had broken it on the
marble. He reached her just in time to save her throat.
Then she looked up at him pitifully. "Give it to me!"
She pressed his knees to her breast. The red burned-out tear-ducts
yawned. The tortured body stiffened and relaxed.
"Poor wretch!" he thought. "But what is the physical agony of a night to
the mental anguish of a lifetime?"
"Once! once!" she gasped; "or kill me." Then, as he stood implacable,
"Kill me! Kill me!"
He picked her up, put a fresh night-gown on her, and laid her on the
bed. She remained as he placed her, too weak to move, her eyes staring
at the ceiling above the big four-posted bed.
He returned to his chair and looked at his watch. "She may live two
hours," he thought. "Possibly three. It is only twelve. There is plenty
The room grew as still as the mountain-top whence he had that day
returned. He attempted to read, but could not. The sense of supreme
power filled his brain. He was the gigantic factor in the fates of four.
Then Circumstance, the outwardly wayward, the ruthlessly sequential,
played him an ugly trick. His eyes, glancing idly about the room, were
arrested by a big old-fashioned rocking-chair. There was something
familiar about it. Soon he remembered that it resembled one in which his
mother used to sit. She had been an invalid, and the most sinless and
unworldly woman he had ever known. He recalled, with a touch of the old
impatience, how she had irritated his active, aspiring, essentially
modern mind with her cast-iron precepts of right and wrong. Her
conscience flagellated her, and she had striven to develop her son's to
the goodly proportion of her own. As he was naturally a truthful and
upright boy, he resented her homilies mightily. "Conscience," he once
broke out impatiently, "has made more women bores, more men failures,
than any ten vices in the rogues' calendar."
She had looked in pale horror, and taken refuge in an axiom: "Conscience
makes cowards of us all."
He moved his head with involuntary pride. The greatest achievement of
civilization was the triumph of the intellect over inherited
impressions. Every normal man was conscientious by instinct, however he
might outrage the sturdy little judge clinging tenaciously to his bench
in the victim's brain. It was only when the brain grew big with
knowledge and the will clasped it with fingers of steel that the little
judge was throttled, then cast out.
Conscience. What was it like? The doctor had forgotten. He had never
committed a murder nor a dishonorable act. Had the impulse of either
been in him, his cleverness would have put it aside with a smile of
scorn. He had never scrupled to thrust from his path whoever or whatever
stood in his way, and had stridden on without a backward glance. His
profession had involved many experiments that would have made quick
havoc of even the ordinary man's conscience.
Conscience. An awkward guest for an unsuspected murderer; for the
groundling whose heredity had not been conquered by brain. Fancy being
pursued by the spectre of the victim!
The woman on the bed gave a start and groan that recalled him to the
case in hand. He rose and walked quickly to her side. Her eyes were
closed, her face was black with congested blood. He laid his finger on
her pulse. It was feeble.
"It will not be long now," he thought.
He went toward his chair. He felt a sudden distaste for it, a desire for
motion. He walked up and down the room rather more rapidly than before.
"If I were an ordinary man," he thought, "I suppose that tortured
creature on the bed would haunt me to my death. Rot! A murderer I should
be called if the facts were known, I suppose. Well, she is worse. Did I
permit her to live she would make the living hell of four people."
The woman gave a sudden awful cry, the cry of a lost soul shot into the
night of eternity. The stillness had been so absolute, the cry broke
that stillness so abruptly and so horridly, that the doctor,
strong-brained, strong-nerved as he was, gave a violent start, and the
sweat started from his body.
"I am a fool," he exclaimed angrily, welcoming the sound of his voice;
"but I wish to God it were day and there were noises outside."
He strode hurriedly up and down the room, casting furtive glances at the
bed. The night was quiet again, but still that cry rang through it and
lashed his brain. He recalled the theory that sound never dies. The
waves of space had yielded this to him.
"Good God!" he thought. "Am I going to pieces? If I let this wretch,
this criminal die, I save four people. If I let her live, I ruin their
lives. The life of a man of brain and pride and heart; the life of a
woman of beauty and intellect and honor; the lives of two children of
unknown potentialities, for whom the world has now a warm heart. 'The
greatest good of the greatest number'—the principle that governs civil
law. Has not even the worthy individual been sacrificed to it again and
again? Does it not hang the criminal dangerous to the community? And is
that called murder? What am I at this moment but law epitomized? Shall I
hesitate? My God, am I hesitating? Conscience—is it that? A superfluous
instinct transmitted by my ancestors and coddled by a woman—is it that
which has sprung from its grave, rattling its bones? 'Conscience
makes'—oh, shame that I should succumb when so much is at stake—that
I should hesitate when the welfare of four human beings trembles in the
balance! 'Conscience'—that in the moment of my supreme power I should
He returned to the woman. He reached his finger toward her pulse, then
hurriedly withdrew it and resumed his restless march.
"This is only a nightmare, born of the night and the horrible stillness.
To-morrow in the world of men it will be forgotten, and I shall
rejoice.... But there will be recurring hours of stillness, of solitude.
Will this night repeat itself? Will that thing on the bed haunt me? Will
that cry shriek in my ears? Oh, shame on my selfishness! What am I
thinking of? To let that base, degraded wretch exist, that I may live
peaceably with my conscience? To let four others go to their ruin, that
I may escape a few hours of torment? That I—I—should come to this!
'The greatest good of the greatest number. The greatest' ... 'Conscience
makes cowards of us all!'"
To his unutterable self-contempt and terror, he found his will for once
powerless to control the work of the generations that had preceded him.
His iron jaw worked spasmodically, his gray eyes looked frozen. The
marble pallor of his face was suffused with a tinge of green.
"I despise myself!" he exclaimed, with fierce emphasis. "I loathe
myself! I will not yield! 'Conscience'—they shall be saved, and by
me. 'The greatest'—I will maintain my intellectual supremacy—that,
if nothing else. She shall die!"
He halted abruptly. Perhaps she was already dead. Then he could reach
the door in a bound and run down-stairs and out of the house. To be
He ran to the bed. The woman still breathed faintly, her mouth was
twisted into a sardonic and pertinent expression. His hand sought his
pocket and brought forth a case. He opened it and stared at the
hypodermic syringe. His trembling fingers closed about it and moved
toward the woman. Then, with an effort so violent he fancied he could
hear his tense muscles creak, he straightened himself and turned his
back upon the bed. At the same moment he dropped the instrument to the
floor and set his heel upon it.