The Relapse

The Relapse  (1915) 
by Alice Duer Miller
From Harper's Magazine, May 1915

"Hem!" said the doctor, "shall we say that his habits are not, after all, too much against him? He wishes you to send immediately for his wife."

"For what?"—"For his wife."

"But he has no wife."

The Relapse


YOUR son's case," said the doctor—who was an old man and had modeled his manner on the more priestlike ideal of an older generation of medical men—"your son's case is typhoid; a pronounced but not a malignant infection. Everything is in his favor—his youth, his constitution, and his habits—"

"His habits!" cried Mrs. Gorham in unaffected surprise.

"Hem!" said the doctor, who had merely put in "habits" because in a long life of pronouncements his ear had grown accustomed to triads, "shall we say that his habits are not, after all, too much against him? He wishes you to send immediately for his wife."

"For what?"

"For his wife."

"But he has no wife."

"So I told him," replied the doctor; "so I told him several times, but his only answer was that I must be crazy."

"Is he delirious," asked his mother, "or can he have been clandestinely married? Why didn't you ask her name? Surely at this late date he can't be thinking of Evelina."

"I did ask her name," the doctor answered, "but he only replied that her name was Mrs. Mark Gorham, and when I pressed him further his language became so profane that one of the nurses—a Scotch Presbyterian threatened to drop the case. As nursing is so important an element in typhoid, I decided to come to you."

Mrs. Gorham, slightly stooping and holding up the front of her dress, hurried up-stairs.

A good-looking young man of about twenty seven or eight was lying back on his pillows, watching with an irritable eye the arrangements of his trained nurses.

As his mother entered he turned to her.

"Ah," he said, "at last! Have you sent for Evie?"

"No, my dear."

"Well, do it at once."

"It is impossible, Mark."

"And why, I should like to know? She doesn't live ten blocks from here."

"Improper, then."

"Improper! to send for a fellow's wife when he's ill?"

"Evelina is not your wife."

"Well," said he, "I don't think that's a very nice way to talk, when she's lived with me for five years."

"I did not say she had not once been your wife."

"Well, well," said the invalid, impatiently, "it seems I have a higher opinion of the permanence of matrimony than many who talk more virtuously. I want Evie sent for."

"You seem to overlook the fact, Mark, that she has divorced you—divorced you, my poor boy, for reasons which even I, your mother—"

"But I was well, then," said Mark. "Of course you can get on perfectly when you're well. But now I'm ill—very ill. People die of typhoid. You don't expect me to die without my wife, do you?"

"Mark, you must realize that she is not your—"

"Please don't say that again, mother. It's so silly."

"You must put the idea out of your head, my dear."

"You mean you won't send?"

"I could not insult her by doing so."

"You think it would insult Evie to have me ask for her? That shows all you know. It's the other way. Anyhow, it's up to her, isn't it? But, of course, if you're so determined not to do as I ask you—"

At this point Mrs. Gorham left the room, beckoning the nurse after her. She drew the woman into a neighboring room, and, when she had shut the door, explained that her son must be given a quieting draught; that he and his wife had parted on bad terms more than a year before; that they had been divorced for several months; that his had always been a difficult nature to control; that she herself had been early left a widow; and she was proceeding to outline some of the problems of his education when the nurse interrupted her to say that she really must return to her patient.

When they entered the bedroom, it was empty.

In the mean time Mrs. Mark Gorham—or, rather, Mrs. McVittey Gorham, as she now called herself (she had been a Miss McVittey)—had been having a few people to dinner. They had all gone but one, who, though he had risen and was standing with his hand on the mantelpiece, could be seen by an experienced observer to be good for another hour.

The nature of their conversation may be discerned from the fact that Mrs. Gorham was saying, gently but firmly:

"No, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I should ever marry again."

"You mean," said her guest, "that your first experience was so painful you would never care to make a second experiment? Surely that is hasty! Young, lovely—"

"I don't mean exactly that," returned Mrs. Gorham, interrupting a further catalogue of her charms. "My marriage certainly was not very successful. I don't suppose there could have been a more trying man to live with than Mark was in many ways. I don't refer to our last little tragedy, but to the years that went before. Mark was at once irritable, critical, and in some ways extremely helpless—"

Mr. Treadwell shook his head. "I can't wonder you don't dare to try again," he murmured.

"It isn't that."

"You do not mean to imply you still retain affection for Gorham?"

There was a pause—slight, indeed, but too long to please Mr. Treadwell—before Mrs. Gorham answered:

"No, nor that, either. It's rather hard to explain. Women—some women, that is—are really monogamous—no, that isn't the right word; but you know what I mean. If you've been the wife of one man, why, that's what you are, and you never can be anything else; even"—she added, politely—"if you'd like to be. You see," she ended with a rather wan smile, "such a state of mind should make one very careful in one's first choice."

Mr. Treadwell cleared his throat.

"We have come so near the subject," he began, rather stiffly, "that I feel tempted to ask how in the world you ever did make such a choice. Many of your friends, I think, have wondered. A woman of so discriminating a mind, with so many opportunities—how did it happen you ever allowed him to persuade you to marry him?"

"There was not so much persuasion necessary as you seem to imagine," she answered, and then added, more seriously, "but you do not have to come to me for the answer to this question. Any woman could tell you. Mark has charm."

"Charm!" exclaimed Mr. Treadwell. "I cannot think you mean to be taken seriously."

"Upon my word," returned Mrs. Gorham, "I think I ought to know. If, after five years of marriage and a divorce, I can still make such an assertion, the fact ought to be considered established. I yield to none in my appreciation of Mark's faults. He has some of the most annoying traits you can imagine—one of them was to think that everything bothersome that happened to him was my fault; but he had charm."

"Ah, I know what you have suffered," said Mr. Treadwell, tenderly, "and so it surprises me the more to hear you attribute charm to one so light, so irresponsible—"

"And may I ask since when have heaviness and responsibility been guarantees of charm?" asked Mrs. Gorham.

At this her guest launched out into a definition of that much-disputed term.

It showed no lack of attention on Mrs. Gorham's part that she was, throughout, listening to a conversation that she could dimly discern was going on between the butler and some one at the front door who seemed to be demanding admittance. Women of even moderate ability appear to be able thus to disperse their attention over several subjects at once—particularly if one of them is a household matter; and now, fortunately, the conversation in the corridor died down before Mr. Treadwell ended his sentence, which, on analysis, seemed to prove that charm existed only in those men whose characteristics were a good deal like his own.

From this proposition Mrs. Gorham dissented with passion.

A discussion along these lines had continued for some time before it was cut short by the sound of a perfect turmoil in the hall, and, rushing out, they found the elder Mrs. Gorham, the doctor, and two trained nurses—to say nothing of the man-servant.

"My dear Evelina," cried her former mother-in-law, taking just an instant to glance disapprovingly at the younger woman's sky-blue dress, pearls, and solitary male companion, "my son would never have intruded upon you if he had not been delirious, and we are here to take him back."

"But Mark is not here," said Evelina. "No one is here?" she added, turning to the butler.

"Beg pardon, madam—yes," replied the butler; "a gentleman has gone up to the spare room. He said you were expecting him, and to tell you he was there as soon as you were disengaged."

"Mark in my house!" cried his former wife.

"How outrageous!" said Treadwell, an old family friend.

"He is in the early stages of typhoid," observed the doctor, soothingly.

"We have an ambulance here to take him home," said his mother, and the two nurses looked eagerly and competently up the stairs.

Evelina turned back toward the drawing-room.

"Very well," she said, "let me know when he has gone," and she went in and shut the door.

Treadwell followed her.

"And this," he said, sadly, "is the man whom you were praising not five minutes ago."

"It's an open question whether it was exactly praise," replied Evelina. "As a matter of fact, even my aunt Louisa, who, as you know, has always disliked Mark so bitterly ever since the day he gave her parrot to the orphan asylum—even Aunt Louisa never denied his charm." And at this they began all over again.

They had, strangely enough, reached the identical point at which they had been interrupted before, when the doctor entered, looking very grave, and said that the patient refused to be moved until he had had a word with Mrs. McVittey Gorham.

"And I need not tell you," he added, "that all this moving and excitement is the worst possible thing for him."

Evelina at once went up-stairs. Mark, with the most extraordinary celerity, had actually contrived to get into the spare-room bed before his pursuers had found him. Now he was again lying back on his pillows, but his eyes were open—though he was not looking at his trained nurses, who stood urgently on one side of him, nor at his mother, who was drooping on the other.

"Evie," he said, as his wife entered, "I don't at all like this name you're calling yourself. Mrs. McVittey Gorham—how it sounds! It's absurd. I never did like the name McVittey, anyhow.

"I don't care for it much myself, Mark," she answered, and her manner was that of an expert in a field where all others were amateurs. "But it's rather late to talk of that now. Why did you come here?"

"To this room?" said Mark, glancing about it. "I see you've had it re-papered." And it was evident he was ready to take up the discussion of the color-scheme with her had she not repeated, somewhat sternly:

"Why did you come here?"

"I thought," he answered, "that you might object to my going into my old room on the second floor—"

"I've turned it into a writing-room," she answered, with some asperity.

"Ah, you see I did not even stop to look. I came straight up here. No one could object to my being here."

"Why did you come to my house at all, Mark?"

"But, Evie, you would not want me to be ill among strangers, would you?"

And he made a futile effort to take her hand.

"Strangers!" cried his mother. "The poor boy is out of his head. We'll take him home at once."

"Evie," said Mark again, and this time, by almost throwing himself out of bed, he contrived to catch her hand, "I don't want to go to my mother. I want to stay here."

Mrs. McVittey Gorham stood a moment in silence, looking rather thin and rigid, and then, addressing the doctor, she said in a peculiarly icy tone:

"I suppose it would be better for him not to be moved again?"


"Then there is no real reason why he should not stay here, if you and the nurses will take all the responsibility of his care. I naturally cannot have anything to do with that."

And at this Mark fell back, in what no one present, except, perhaps, his mother, believed to be a genuine fainting-fit.

The theory that the whole responsibility of the situation was to rest on the doctor and nurses—the theory that Evelina was to go her way as if some stranger had taken refuge in her house—lasted in fact about twenty-four hours.

The first day her servant knocked twice on the sick-room door to inquire on her behalf how Mr. Gorham was doing, and that was all.

But the next morning, before she was up, a troubled nurse appeared at her bedside. Plainly the night in the spare room had been difficult. The nurses found themselves unable half the time to make out what it was Mr. Gorham wanted. Did Mrs. Gorham know anything about a hair pillow?

Did she know! Evelina could not help smiling. Months of her life had once been rendered hideous by her inability to find, in any shop, a pillow of a certain size, shape, and thickness which Mark had imagined rather than seen. It was now tucked away on the top shelf of her linen-closet. The nurse went away with it, much relieved.

But that, of course, was only the beginning. There were endless details of his strange whims and little requirements that Evelina, and only Evelina, understood. The nurses, being intelligent women, grasped naturally at a solution of a problem that had at first seemed insoluble. Their unruly patient could be reduced to some order by his former wife, and they summoned her in every emergency. One of their difficulties, for instance, lay in the fact that Mark's voice, always low, had now sunk to being almost inaudible. At times, though his lips moved, no sound whatsoever issued from them. He was, however, convinced not only that he had spoken, but that he had been clearly understood, and that the nurses' pretended deafness was one of those small tyrannies on their part which must be firmly dealt with at the start. He refused under any blandishments to be led into repeating his orders. Evie, the nurses found, if she could not always guess what he had said, was able to keep him relatively calm when the guess was wrong.

Most of Evelina's friends and relatives—like Mr. Treadwell—disapproved of Mark, and their disapproval was embittered by remembrance of the lack of firmness with which she had always treated the culprit. Some were for her leaving the house instantly; others for her turning Mark out at any cost; and if the result proved fatal, some of them agreed they would not feel that the world had suffered much of a loss. But all those who came to her in this crisis—and sometimes as many as five or six turned up in one day—were united in the opinion that the depravity of Mark's conduct in coming was equaled only by the weakness of hers in allowing him to stay.

It seemed to Evelina quite like old times to be so much scolded by all who loved her, about something for which she could not help feeling that Mark was entirely to blame.

"How could it be that he came here?" they all asked. "Why didn't he stay at his mother's?"

"Well, you know what his mother is," Evelina would say.

"You'd think he would have got accustomed to her by this time."

"Mark doesn't get accustomed to things he doesn't like," she would reply, and this would invariably call out a burst of condemnation of Mark's selfishness in general, and of the particular inconsiderateness of his last action.

To this Evelina would always reply that a man was not exactly responsible for what he did in delirium.

But all these scoldings probably had their effect; and, besides, a great deal of hard work, to say nothing of a certain emotional strain, had begun to tell on her, and she finally decided to take the advice of her friends and well-wishers, and, as Mark was better, to go away the next day.

That evening, while she was at dinner, the nurse came down to say that Mr. Gorham had had a good sleep, was quite himself, and was asking for Mrs. Gorham.

Evelina laid down her fork slowly.

"I'm glad he's better," she said, "but I think I won't go up."

"Oh, Mrs. Gorham, I wish you would!" said the nurse, who was by this time completely under the dominion of her patient. "You don't know how distressed he was, as his mind cleared, to find where he was and all the bother he had put you to; and I think—particularly if you're going away to-morrow—it would be a good thing for him to tell you, himself, and get it off his mind."

As a description of Mark's habits of mind, this did not strike Evelina as familiar. Nevertheless, she went up.

She saw at once that he had had himself carefully prepared for the interview. Not a hair of his head was out of place, and as for the covers of the bed, they were so tightly drawn that it seemed almost impossible that a human body could be stretched beneath them.

"I am so distressed," he began, in a voice weak, it is true, but clear and formal, "to hear—to make out gradually—all the trouble I have put you to. I needn't tell you that if I had not been delirious—However, I hope you'll forgive me."

"Of course, entirely. The trouble has been very little."

She was standing at the foot of his bed, with her hands folded on the railing, and he eyed her searchingly.

"There's a reserve in your tone," he said, with a return to a more normal manner; "there's a reserve in your forgiveness. What is it?"

"The reserve you detect has nothing to do with my forgiveness."

"What has it to do with?"

"With your delirium."

"What do you mean?"

"Mark, you were not delirious—not then, at least."

The patient hid his face hastily in his hair pillow, not, it is to be feared, so much to cloak his shame as to conceal the tell-tale grin which illuminated his features.

There was silence.

At last, without completely emerging, he said:

"Well, Evie, what else could I do? You wouldn't have had me in any other way, and my mother would not even send for you."

She smiled at this relentless logic.

"No harm has been done," she said—"good, rather; for you are getting better; and though my friends have been scolding me a lot, I have not, as a matter of fact, suffered any real inconvenience. And now your conscience can be quite at rest, for I am going away to-morrow. You will have the house to yourself."

Probably she had not expected this piece of news to be received with perfect acquiescence, but even she was not prepared for the violence of the scene which immediately followed. Never had there been such appeals, such reproaches. The nurses hurried in, and Evie went out, trying to tell herself that Mark had never been able to bear not getting his own way, even in trifles.

But, as usual, he was too many for her. That night he had a relapse. For the first time his life was considered to be in danger; and Evelina, now throwing off all pretense that the responsibility of his nursing was anybody's but her own, stayed at home and helped pull him through.

It was during this second convalescence that she ceased to struggle—the current was too strong for her. It was not only the force of outside circumstances; not only that Mrs. Gorham, senior, came to the house daily and complained as in old times of all the household arrangements; it was not only that the servants seemed to look on Mark as the head of the house; nor even that Mark himself had somehow contrived to establish the rule that he could not be expected to get to sleep until she had kissed him good night: beyond all these was her own inner appreciation of the fact that she had never felt more irrevocably married to him—no, not even in the days when she actually was.

Her eyes were opened to this when, one day in answering an inquiry for him at the telephone, she found she had referred to him as "my husband."

That very morning her aunt Louisa, wishing to reduce the situation to its ultimate absurdity, had said:

"And I suppose the next thing we shall hear is that he is wanting to remarry you."

Evelina glanced at her in surprise. It was the first time that it had occurred to her that any one could think such a ceremony necessary.

As for Mark, all his talk indicated his confidence in their joint future.

"Don't you think," he said one day, "that it would be nice to go back to Venice when I'm better?"

The day had been one of storms, and Evelina managed to harden her heart as she answered:

"Yes, you might enjoy that."

"Wouldn't you?"

"There would be no question of me."

He looked at her gently.

"Won't you ever take me back, Evie?"

She shook her head.

"Can't you manage to forgive me?—You know I never cared a bit for any one but you—not really."

"Perhaps not," she answered, in a last effort to be at once candid and firm, "but it wasn't only that. I don't believe you know how hard you made every-day life—how critical and bitter you had become. I did not know it myself until these last few months, and then I understood the peace of my present life as compared to my life with you. Everything that happened in old times was my fault, and finally I grew to think so, too."

"Oh, I know; I know, Evie," he said, and somehow he contrived to get his head on her shoulder. "I used to be horrid, but I've completely changed. Everything you do now I think is perfect."

She said nothing. The feeling of his head on her shoulder filled her with tenderness, and yet with a sort of despair.

In the silence, a servant knocked at the door to say that Mrs. Gorham, senior, was down-stairs.

Mark lifted his head, crossly.

"Upon my word, Evie," he said, "I do think you might manage so that my mother is not for ever coming here to interrupt us every time we have a moment to ourselves!"

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.