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 darkvery 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
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 leisurelymayhap she is a trifle boredto 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
assistantsin much smaller letteringwho, 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
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
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;
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
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
herthen 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 intruderfor 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 waswas very busy when
you came in. Won't you please have this chair? He awkwardly shoved one
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 itunless,
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
assistantat 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
speakif he had any such intentiona 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
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.
Why? quickly. Has there been some mistake?
Nooh, 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 peopleeven people like
Clementine Willisas 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, Ihave changed my mind; IIwish you
to continue my treatmentif 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
I'm glad, he said. We hard-working doctors can stand almost
anythingwithout caring a snap of our fingers, toobut when it comes
to doubting or questioningnot 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
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 sympatheticand that
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.
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
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 nothingmerely 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
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
brazenor, at least, she told herself that she had beenand 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, inanitiesanything 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 unconventionalthe corners of
his serious mouth lifted humorouslyto 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 questionany
Do you think it possible, the girl evaded, for a modern woman to
meet youthe way you saynaturally?
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 aresexless.
I think that a womanthat Ican still be natural, Dr. Carter,
said Miss Willis, slowly, her eyes downcast. What did you wish to
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 consideredsexless; 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
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
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
othersthat's the independence I know.
But there are breathing-spells, interrupted Miss Willis,
smilingly. To-night, for example, you are not working for somebody
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
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-nightand 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
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 andhe looked at her peculiarlyand 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 succeedit will not betoo
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 neverhis voice was bitter with
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
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 andand hopedGod 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.