Part I: Friends of Childhood - XII

One July night, when the moon was full, Dr. Archie was coming up from the depot, restless and discontented, wishing there were something to do. He carried his straw hat in his hand, and kept brushing his hair back from his forehead with a purposeless, unsatisfied gesture. After he passed Uncle Billy Beemer's cottonwood grove, the sidewalk ran out of the shadow into the white moonlight and crossed the sand gully on high posts, like a bridge. As the doctor approached this trestle, he saw a white figure, and recognized Thea Kronborg. He quickened his pace and she came to meet him.

"What are you doing out so late, my girl?" he asked as he took her hand.

"Oh, I don't know. What do people go to bed so early for? I'd like to run along before the houses and screech at them. Isn't it glorious out here?"

The young doctor gave a melancholy laugh and pressed her hand.

"Think of it," Thea snorted impatiently. "Nobody up but us and the rabbits! I've started up half a dozen of 'em. Look at that little one down there now,"—she stooped and pointed. In the gully below them there was, indeed, a little rabbit with a white spot of a tail, crouching down on the sand, quite motionless. It seemed to be lapping up the moonlight like cream. On the other side of the walk, down in the ditch, there was a patch of tall, rank sunflowers, their shaggy leaves white with dust. The moon stood over the cottonwood grove. There was no wind, and no sound but the wheezing of an engine down on the tracks.

"Well, we may as well watch the rabbits." Dr. Archie sat down on the sidewalk and let his feet hang over the edge. He pulled out a smooth linen handkerchief that smelled of German cologne water. "Well, how goes it? Working hard? You must know about all Wunsch can teach you by this time."

Thea shook her head. "Oh, no, I don't, Dr. Archie. He's hard to get at, but he's been a real musician in his time. Mother says she believes he's forgotten more than the music-teachers down in Denver ever knew."

"I'm afraid he won't be around here much longer," said Dr. Archie. "He's been making a tank of himself lately. He'll be pulling his freight one of these days. That's the way they do, you know. I'll be sorry on your account." He paused and ran his fresh handkerchief over his face. "What the deuce are we all here for anyway, Thea?" he said abruptly.

"On earth, you mean?" Thea asked in a low voice.

"Well, primarily, yes. But secondarily, why are we in Moonstone? It isn't as if we'd been born here. You were, but Wunsch wasn't, and I wasn't. I suppose I'm here because I married as soon as I got out of medical school and had to get a practice quick. If you hurry things, you always get left in the end. I don't learn anything here, and as for the people—In my own town in Michigan, now, there were people who liked me on my father's account, who had even known my grandfather. That meant something. But here it's all like the sand: blows north one day and south the next. We're all a lot of gamblers without much nerve, playing for small stakes. The railroad is the one real fact in this country. That has to be; the world has to be got back and forth. But the rest of us are here just because it's the end of a run and the engine has to have a drink. Some day I'll get up and find my hair turning gray, and I'll have nothing to show for it."

Thea slid closer to him and caught his arm. "No, no. I won't let you get gray. You've got to stay young for me. I'm getting young now, too."

Archie laughed. "Getting?"

"Yes. People aren't young when they're children. Look at Thor, now; he's just a little old man. But Gus has a sweetheart, and he's young!"

"Something in that!" Dr. Archie patted her head, and then felt the shape of her skull gently, with the tips of his fingers. "When you were little, Thea, I used always to be curious about the shape of your head. You seemed to have more inside it than most youngsters. I haven't examined it for a long time. Seems to be the usual shape, but uncommonly hard, some how. What are you going to do with yourself, anyway?"

"I don't know."

"Honest, now?" He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes.

Thea laughed and edged away from him.

"You've got something up your sleeve, haven't you? Anything you like; only don't marry and settle down here without giving yourself a chance, will you?"

"Not much. See, there's another rabbit!"

"That's all right about the rabbits, but I don't want you to get tied up. Remember that."

Thea nodded. "Be nice to Wunsch, then. I don't know what I'd do if he went away."

"You've got older friends than Wunsch here, Thea."

"I know." Thea spoke seriously and looked up at the moon, propping her chin on her hand. "But Wunsch is the only one that can teach me what I want to know. I've got to learn to do something well, and that's the thing I can do best."

"Do you want to be a music-teacher?"

"Maybe, but I want to be a good one. I'd like to go to Germany to study, some day. Wunsch says that's the best place,—the only place you can really learn." Thea hesitated and then went on nervously, "I've got a book that says so, too. It's called 'My Musical Memories.' It made me want to go to Germany even before Wunsch said anything. Of course it's a secret. You're the first one I've told."

Dr. Archie smiled indulgently. "That's a long way off. Is that what you've got in your hard noddle?" He put his hand on her hair, but this time she shook him off.

"No, I don't think much about it. But you talk about going, and a body has to have something to go TO!"

"That's so." Dr. Archie sighed. "You're lucky if you have. Poor Wunsch, now, he hasn't. What do such fellows come out here for? He's been asking me about my mining stock, and about mining towns. What would he do in a mining town? He wouldn't know a piece of ore if he saw one. He's got nothing to sell that a mining town wants to buy. Why don't those old fellows stay at home? We won't need them for another hundred years. An engine wiper can get a job, but a piano player! Such people can't make good."

"My grandfather Alstrom was a musician, and he made good."

Dr. Archie chuckled. "Oh, a Swede can make good anywhere, at anything! You've got that in your favor, miss. Come, you must be getting home."

Thea rose. "Yes, I used to be ashamed of being a Swede, but I'm not any more. Swedes are kind of common, but I think it's better to be SOMETHING."

"It surely is! How tall you are getting. You come above my shoulder now."

"I'll keep on growing, don't you think? I particularly want to be tall. Yes, I guess I must go home. I wish there'd be a fire."

"A fire?"

"Yes, so the fire-bell would ring and the roundhouse whistle would blow, and everybody would come running out. Sometime I'm going to ring the fire-bell myself and stir them all up."

"You'd be arrested."

"Well, that would be better than going to bed."

"I'll have to lend you some more books."

Thea shook herself impatiently. "I can't read every night."

Dr. Archie gave one of his low, sympathetic chuckles as he opened the gate for her. "You're beginning to grow up, that's what's the matter with you. I'll have to keep an eye on you. Now you'll have to say good-night to the moon."

"No, I won't. I sleep on the floor now, right in the moonlight. My window comes down to the floor, and I can look at the sky all night."

She shot round the house to the kitchen door, and Dr. Archie watched her disappear with a sigh. He thought of the hard, mean, frizzy little woman who kept his house for him; once the belle of a Michigan town, now dry and withered up at thirty. "If I had a daughter like Thea to watch," he reflected, "I wouldn't mind anything. I wonder if all of my life's going to be a mistake just because I made a big one then? Hardly seems fair."

Howard Archie was "respected" rather than popular in Moonstone. Everyone recognized that he was a good physician, and a progressive Western town likes to be able to point to a handsome, well-set-up, well-dressed man among its citizens. But a great many people thought Archie "distant," and they were right. He had the uneasy manner of a man who is not among his own kind, and who has not seen enough of the world to feel that all people are in some sense his own kind. He knew that every one was curious about his wife, that she played a sort of character part in Moonstone, and that people made fun of her, not very delicately. Her own friends—most of them women who were distasteful to Archie—liked to ask her to contribute to church charities, just to see how mean she could be. The little, lop-sided cake at the church supper, the cheapest pincushion, the skimpiest apron at the bazaar, were always Mrs. Archie's contribution.

All this hurt the doctor's pride. But if there was one thing he had learned, it was that there was no changing Belle's nature. He had married a mean woman; and he must accept the consequences. Even in Colorado he would have had no pretext for divorce, and, to do him justice, he had never thought of such a thing. The tenets of the Presbyterian Church in which he had grown up, though he had long ceased to believe in them, still influenced his conduct and his conception of propriety. To him there was something vulgar about divorce. A divorced man was a disgraced man; at least, he had exhibited his hurt, and made it a matter for common gossip. Respectability was so necessary to Archie that he was willing to pay a high price for it. As long as he could keep up a decent exterior, he could manage to get on; and if he could have concealed his wife's littleness from all his friends, he would scarcely have complained. He was more afraid of pity than he was of any unhappiness. Had there been another woman for whom he cared greatly, he might have had plenty of courage; but he was not likely to meet such a woman in Moonstone.

There was a puzzling timidity in Archie's make-up. The thing that held his shoulders stiff, that made him resort to a mirthless little laugh when he was talking to dull people, that made him sometimes stumble over rugs and carpets, had its counterpart in his mind. He had not the courage to be an honest thinker. He could comfort himself by evasions and compromises. He consoled himself for his own marriage by telling himself that other people's were not much better. In his work he saw pretty deeply into marital relations in Moonstone, and he could honestly say that there were not many of his friends whom he envied. Their wives seemed to suit them well enough, but they would never have suited him.

Although Dr. Archie could not bring himself to regard marriage merely as a social contract, but looked upon it as somehow made sacred by a church in which he did not believe,—as a physician he knew that a young man whose marriage is merely nominal must yet go on living his life. When he went to Denver or to Chicago, he drifted about in careless company where gayety and good-humor can be bought, not because he had any taste for such society, but because he honestly believed that anything was better than divorce. He often told himself that "hanging and wiving go by destiny." If wiving went badly with a man,—and it did oftener than not,—then he must do the best he could to keep up appearances and help the tradition of domestic happiness along. The Moonstone gossips, assembled in Mrs. Smiley's millinery and notion store, often discussed Dr. Archie's politeness to his wife, and his pleasant manner of speaking about her. "Nobody has ever got a thing out of him yet," they agreed. And it was certainly not because no one had ever tried.

When he was down in Denver, feeling a little jolly, Archie could forget how unhappy he was at home, and could even make himself believe that he missed his wife. He always bought her presents, and would have liked to send her flowers if she had not repeatedly told him never to send her anything but bulbs,—which did not appeal to him in his expansive moments. At the Denver Athletic Club banquets, or at dinner with his colleagues at the Brown Palace Hotel, he sometimes spoke sentimentally about "little Mrs. Archie," and he always drank the toast "to our wives, God bless them!" with gusto.

The determining factor about Dr. Archie was that he was romantic. He had married Belle White because he was romantic—too romantic to know anything about women, except what he wished them to be, or to repulse a pretty girl who had set her cap for him. At medical school, though he was a rather wild boy in behavior, he had always disliked coarse jokes and vulgar stories. In his old Flint's Physiology there was still a poem he had pasted there when he was a student; some verses by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes about the ideals of the medical profession. After so much and such disillusioning experience with it, he still had a romantic feeling about the human body; a sense that finer things dwelt in it than could be explained by anatomy. He never jested about birth or death or marriage, and did not like to hear other doctors do it. He was a good nurse, and had a reverence for the bodies of women and children. When he was tending them, one saw him at his best. Then his constraint and self-consciousness fell away from him. He was easy, gentle, competent, master of himself and of other people. Then the idealist in him was not afraid of being discovered and ridiculed.

In his tastes, too, the doctor was romantic. Though he read Balzac all the year through, he still enjoyed the Waverley Novels as much as when he had first come upon them, in thick leather-bound volumes, in his grandfather's library. He nearly always read Scott on Christmas and holidays, because it brought back the pleasures of his boyhood so vividly. He liked Scott's women. Constance de Beverley and the minstrel girl in "The Fair Maid of Perth," not the Duchesse de Langeais, were his heroines. But better than anything that ever got from the heart of a man into printer's ink, he loved the poetry of Robert Burns. "Death and Dr. Hornbook" and "The Jolly Beggars," Burns's "Reply to his Tailor," he often read aloud to himself in his office, late at night, after a glass of hot toddy. He used to read "Tam o'Shanter" to Thea Kronborg, and he got her some of the songs, set to the old airs for which they were written. He loved to hear her sing them. Sometimes when she sang, "Oh, wert thou in the cauld blast," the doctor and even Mr. Kronborg joined in. Thea never minded if people could not sing; she directed them with her head and somehow carried them along. When her father got off the pitch she let her own voice out and covered him.