(pages 52-55)

"Oh, I don't know that you can," she said. After a pause she added, abruptly, "Do you believe in heredity?"
Olney felt inclined to laugh. "Well, that's rather a spacious question, Mrs. Meredith. What do you mean by heredity?"
"You know! The persistence of ancestral traits; the transmission of character and tendency; the [36]reappearance of types after several generations; the--"
She stopped, and Olney know that he had got at the body of her anxiety, though she had not yet revealed its very features. He determined to deal with the matter as reassuringly as he could in the dark. He smiled in answering, "Heredity is a good deal like the germ theory. There's a large amount of truth in it, no doubt; but it's truth in a state of solution, and nobody knows just how much of it there is. Perhaps we shall never know. As for those cases of atavism--for I suppose that's what you mean--"
"Yes, yes! Atavism? That is the word."
"They're not so very common, and they're not so very well ascertained. You find them mentioned in the books, but vaguely, and on a kind of hearsay, without the names of persons and places; it's a notion that some writers rather like to toy with; but when you come to boil it down, as the newspapers say, there isn't a great deal of absolute fact there. Take the reversion to the inferior race type in the child of parents of mixed blood--say a white with a mulatto or quadroon--"
"Yes! " said Mrs. Meredith, with eagerness. "Why, it's, very effective as a bit of drama. But it must be very rare--very rare indeed. You hear of instances in which the parent of mixed race could not be known from a white person, and yet the child reverts to the negro type in color and feature and character. I should doubt it very much."[37]
Mrs. Meredith cried out as if he had questioned holy writ. "You should do it! Why should you doubt it, Dr. Olney?" Yet he perceived that for some reason she wished him to reaffirm his doubt.
"Because the chances are so enormously against it. The natural tendency is all the other way, to the permanent effacement of the inferior type. The child of a white and an octoroon is a sixteenth blood; and the child of that child and a white is a thirty-second blood. The chances of atavism, or reversion to the black great-great-great-grandfather are so remote that they may be said hardly to exist at all. They are outside of the probabilities, and only on the verge of the possibilities. But it's so thrilling to consider such a possibility that people like to consider it. Fancy is as much committed to it as prejudice is; but it hasn't so much excuse, for prejudice is mostly ignorant, and fancy mostly educated, or half-educated." Olney folded one leg comfortably across the other, and went on, with a musing smile."I've been thinking about all this a good deal within the past two days--or since I got back to Boston. I've been more and more struck with the fact that sooner or later our race must absorb the colored race; and I believe that it will obliterate not only its color, but its qualities. The tame man, the civilized man, is stronger than the wild man; and I believe that in those cases within any one race where there are very strong ancestral proclivities on one side especially toward evil, they will die out before the good tendencies on the other side, for much the same [38] reason, that is, because vice is savage and virtue is civilized."
Mrs. Meredith listened intently, but at last, "I wish I could believe what you say," she sighed, heavily. "But I don't know that that would relieve me of the duty before me," she added, after a moment's thought. "Dr. Olney, there is something that I need very much to speak about--something that must be done--that my health depends upon--I shall never get well unless--"


VI

(pages 61-66)

In his instantaneous mental processes, Olney kept his attention fixed upon Mrs. Meredith, and he was aware of her gasping out:
"My niece is of negro descent."
Olney recoiled from the words, in a turmoil of emotion for which there is no term but disgust. His disgust was profound and pervasive, and it did not fail, first of all, to involve the poor child herself. He found himself personally disliking the notion of her having negro blood in her veins; before he felt pity he felt repulsion; his own race instinct expressed itself in a merciless rejection of her beauty, her innocence, her helplessness because of her race. The impulse had to have its course; and then he mastered it, with an abiding compassion, and a sort of tender indignation. He felt that it was atrocious for this old woman to have allowed her hypochondriacal anxiety to dabble with the mysteries of the young girl's future in that way, and he resented having been trapped into considering her detestable question. His feeling was unscientific; but he could not at once detach himself from the purely social relation which he had hitherto held toward Miss Aldgate. The professional view which he was invited to take seemed to have lost all dignity, [44] to be impertinent, cruel, squalid, and to involve the abdication of certain sentiments, conventions, which he was unwilling to part with, at least in her case. Sensibilities which ought not to have survived his scientific training and ambition were wounded to rebellion in him; he perceived as never before that there was an inherent outrage in the submission of such questions to one of the opposite sex; there should be women to deal with them.
"How--negro descent?" he asked, stupidly, from the whirl of these thoughts.
"I will try to tell you," said Mrs. Meredith. "And some things you said about that--race-- those wretched beings, last night--You were sincere in what you said? " she demanded of the kind of change that came into his face.
"Sincere? Yes," said Olney, thinking how far from any concrete significance he had supposed his words to have for his listeners when he spoke them. He added, "I do abhor the cruel stupidity that makes any race treat another as outcast. But I never dreamed--"
Mrs. Meredith broke in upon him, saying:
"It is almost the only consolation I have in thinking she is rightfully and lawfully my niece, to know that in the course I must take now, I shall not be seeming to make her an outcast. I honored my brother for honoring her mother, and giving her his name when there was no need of his doing it. He did not consult me, and I did not know it till afterward; [45] but I should have been the first to urge it, when it came to a question of marriage or--anything else. For one of our family there could be no such question; there was none for him.
"He went South shortly after the war, as so many Northern men did, intending to make his home there; his health was delicate, and his only hope of strength and usefulness, if not of life, was in a milder climate. He outlived the distrust that the Southerners had for all Northern men in those days, and was establishing himself in a very good practice at New Orleans--I forgot to say he was a physician--when he met Rhoda's mother. I needn't go over the details; she was an octoroon, the daughter and the granddaughter of women who had never hoped for marriage with the white men who fell in love with them; but she had been educated by her father--he was a Creole, and she was educated in a Northern convent--and I have no doubt she was an accomplished and beautiful girl. I never saw her. My brother met her in her father's house, almost beside her father's death-bed; but even if he had met her in her mother's house, on her mother's level, it would not have been possible for him to do otherwise than as he did. He thought at first of keeping the marriage secret, and of going on as before, until he could afford to own it and take all the consequences; but he decided against this, and I was always glad that he did. They were married, after her father's death; and then my brother's ruin began. He lost his practice in the families where he [46] had got a footing, among the well-to-do and respectable people whom he had made his friends; and though he would have been willing to go on among a poorer class who could pay less, it was useless. He had to go away; and for five or six years he drifted about from one place to another, trying to gain a hold here and there, and failing everywhere. Sooner or later his story followed him.
"I don't blame the Southern people; I'm not sure it would have been better in the North. If it had been known who his wife was, she would not have been received socially here any more than she was there; and I doubt if it would not have affected my brother's professional standing in much the same way. People don't like to think there is anything strange about their doctor; they must make a confidant, they must make a familiar of him; and if there is anything peculiar, unusual-- My husband was a very good man, one of the best men who ever lived, and he approved of my brother's marriage in the abstract as much as I did; but even he never liked to think whom he had married. He was always afraid it would come out among our friends, somehow, and it would be known that his sister-in-law was--
"At last the poor young creature died, and my brother came North with his little girl. We hoped that then be might begin again, and make a new start in life. But it was too late. He was a mere wreck physically, and he died too within the year. And then it became a question what we should do with the [47] child. As long as she was so merely a child, it was comparatively simple. We had no children of our own, and when my brother died in another part of the State--we were living in New York then, and he had gone up into the Adirondack region in the hope of getting better--it was natural that we should take the little one home. In a place like New York, nothing is known unless you make it known, and Rhoda was brought up in our house, without any conjecture or curiosity from people outside; she was my brother's orphan, and nobody knew or cared who my brother was; she had teachers and she had schools like any other child, and she had the companionships and the social advantages which our own station and money could command.

(pages 72-76)

She threw herself back on the sofa. "I wish I were dead! I see no way out of it; and whatever happens, it will kill the child."
Olney sat silent. for some time in a muse almost as dreary as her own. After having despised her as a morbid sentimentalist with a hypochondriacal conscience, he had come to respect her, as we respect any fellow-creature on whom a heavy duty is laid, and [52] who is struggling faithfully to stand up under the burden. He said suddenly, "You mustn't tell him first, Mrs. Meredith!"
"Why?"
"Because--because--the secret is hers, to keep it, or to tell it. No one else has the right to know it without her leave."
"And if --if she should choose to keep it from him--not tell him at all? "
"I couldn't blame her. It's no fault, no wrong of hers. And who is to be harmed by its concealment?"
"But the chances--the future--the--the--"
Olney could not bear the recurrence to this phase of the subject. He made a gesture of impatience.
Mrs. Meredith added, with hysterical haste: "It might come out in a hundred ways. I can hear it in her voice at times--it's a black voice! I can see it in her looks! I can feel it in her character--so easy, so irresponsible, so fond of what is soft and pleasant! She could not deny herself the amusement of going with those people to-day, though I said all I could against it. She cannot forecast consequences; she's a creature of the present hour; she's like them all! I think that in some occult, dreadful way she feels her affinity with them, and that's the reason why she's so attracted by them, so fond of them. It's her race calling her! I don't believe she would ever tell him!"
"I think you ought to leave it to her," said Olney. "And let her live a lie! Oh, I know too well what that is!" [53]
"It's bad. But there may be worse things. It seems as if there might be circumstances in which it was one's right to live a lie, as you say; for the sake--"
"Never! " said Mrs. Meredith vehemently. "It is better to die--to kill--than to lie. I know how people say such things and act them, till life is all one web of falsehood, from the rising to the going down of the sun. But I will never consent to be a party to any such deceit. I will tell Rhoda, and then she shall tell me what she is going to do, and if she is not going to tell him, I will do it. Yes! I will not be responsible for the future, and I should be responsible if he did not know. In such a case I could not spare her. She is my own flesh and blood; she is as dear to me as my own child could be; but if she were my own child it would be all the same. I would rather see her perish before my eyes than married to any man who did not know the secret of her-- O-o-o-o-o!" Mrs. Meredith gave a loud, shuddering cry, as the door was flung suddenly open, and Miss Aldgate flashed radiantly into the room.
She kept the door-knob in her hand, while she demanded, half frightened, half amused, "What in the world is the matter? Did I startle you? Of course! But I just ran in a moment as we were driving by--we're going over to do our duty by Bunker Hill Monument--to see how you were getting on. I'm so glad you are here, Dr. Olney." She released the door-knob, and gave him her hand. "Now I can leave [54] Aunt Caroline without a qualm of conscience till after lunch; and I did have a qualm or two, poor aunty!"
She stooped on one knee beside the sofa, and kissed her aunt, who seemed to Olney no better than a murderess in the embrace of her intended victim. In this light and joyous presence, all that he had heard of the girl's anomalous origin became not only incredible, but atrocious. She was purely and merely a young lady, like any other; and he felt himself getting red with shame for having heard what he had been told against his will.
He could not speak, and he marvelled that Mrs., Meredith could command the words to say, in quite an every-day voice: "You silly child! You needn't have stopped. I was getting on perfectly well."
"Of course you were! And I suppose I have interrupted you in the full flow of symptoms! I can imagine what a perfectly delightful time you were having with Dr. Olney! I think I'll change these gloves." She ran into the room that opened from Mrs. Meredith's parlor, and left him unable to lift his eyes from the floor in her brief absence. She came back pulling on one long mousquetaire glove, while the other dangled from her fingers, and began to laugh. "There's one of those colored waiters down there that even you couldn't have anything to say against my falling in love with, Aunt Caroline. He's about four feet high, and his feet are about eighteen inches long, so that he looks just like a capital L. Hedoesn't lift them when he walks, but he slips along on [55] them over the floor like a funny little mouse; I've decided to call him Creepy-Mousy; it just exactly describes him, he's so small and cunning. And he's so sweet! I should like to own him, and keep him as long as he lived.

(pages 81-82)

"I never--liked his family very much," Mrs. Meredith repeated. "What little I saw of them," she added, as if conscientiously.
"Oh, that doesn't count, Aunt Caroline!" said the girl, with a laugh. "You never liked the families of any of the Americans that you thought fancied me. But the question is not whether we like his family, but whether he's like them."
"You can't separate him from his family, Rhoda. You must remember that. Each of us is bound by a thousand mysterious ties to our kindred, our ancestors; we can't get away from them--" [59]
"Oh, what stuff, aunty! " Miss Aldgate was still greatly amused. "I should like to know how I'm bound to my mother's family, that I never saw one of; or to her father or grandfather?"
"How?" Mrs. Meredith gasped.
"Yes. Or how much they were bound to me, if they never tried to find me out or make themselves known by any sort of sign? I'm bound to you because we've always been together, and I was bound to Uncle Meredith because he was good to me. But there isn't anything mysterious about it. And Mr. Bloomingdale is bound to his family in the same way. He's fond of them because he's been nice to them and they've been nice to him.

(pages 97-98)

"You wouldn't wish him, after you've seen so much of his family, not to know everything about yours, if you decided to accept him?"
"Why, you're all there is, Aunt Caroline! You're the end of the story. I should hope he understood that. What else is there?"
"Nothing--nothing-- There is very little. But we ought to tell Mr. Bloomingdale all we know--of your mother's family."
"Why, certainly. I expected to do that. There was nothing disgraceful about them, I imagine, except their behavior toward mamma."
"No--"
"You speak as if there were. What are you keeping back, Aunt Caroline?" Rhoda sat upright, and faced her aunt with a sort of sudden fierceness which [71] she sometimes showed when she was roused to self-assertion. This was seldom, in the succession of her amiable moods, but when it happened, Mrs. Meredith saw in it the outbreak of the ancestral savagery, and shuddered at it as a self-betrayal rather than a self-assertion; but perhaps self-assertion is this with all of us. "What are you hinting at? If there was anything dishonorable--"
Mrs. Meredith found herself launched at last. She could not go back now; she could not stop. She had only the choice, in going on, of telling the truth, or setting sail to shipwreck under some new lie. For this, both will and invention failed her; she was too weak mentally, if she was not too strong morally, for this. She went on, with a kind of mechanical force.
"If there were something dishonorable that was not, their fault, that was their wrong, their sorrow, their burden--what should you think of your father's marrying your mother, with a full knowledge of it?"
"I should think he did nobly and bravely to marry her. But that's nothing. What was the disgrace?