The room is still, as if it were a photograph: the middle-aged woman, seated on a small couch, stares into the face of the relentless clock, though she sees it not; the young man, seated on the opposite couch, stares as fixedly at his book, though he distinguishes not a word from its leaves. The fire is but glowing embers, and the tranquil clock alone is telltale to the passage of time—there is no sound from any other room of the house—until the sitting room door is opened at last, and a personage of dignified mien enters.
The woman looks toward this newcomer and asks, rather sharply, “Well?” while the young man says nothing; he only stares at him half with curiosity and half with dread.
“Well?” asks the woman again, preparing herself to rise if necessary.
The newcomer, who is evidently a doctor, glances at both and replies, “The woman or the child—the decision must be made within half of an hour, Mr. Charlesworth, or I shall be unable to preserve the life of either.”
Mr. Charlesworth lays his hand to his brow and closes his eyes, with a sigh that would convey a sense of his despair to even the least perceptive of listeners.
The woman has been considering possibilities since the doctor first told them of the possibility that Mr. Charlesworth would be required to make this decision, and she immediately cries, “The child, Edward—the child! The child!”
Would that she might speak not, for her interjections of “The child!” disturb Edward Charlesworth's thoughts—that is to say, they disturb them to a greater extent. He hangs his head and covers his ears with his hands to keep from hearing the uproar produced by his mother—the child! the child! the child!—which his brain will insist upon recreating for his entertainment, though it simultaneously orders, the woman! the woman! the woman! the wife!, thereby confusing him to no end and giving him the worst turmoil he has ever known.
He must commit a crime; anything he does will lead to it by one means or another. He can make no choice: neither shall live, and he shall have been the death of one who might have been saved. Yet if he orders the doctor to save his wife, their child will die—yet the life of the unknown child can be bought through nothing but the death of the dear woman.
“Tell him to save the child, Edward!” pleads the woman.
“Mother, I cannot... I cannot.... I cannot choose either! How am I to choose between two lives?”
His mother is selfish; young Mrs. Charlesworth is merely her daughter-in-law—she is not of her own blood—but the child will be, should it live.
“How am I to choose? I cannot!” Demandingly, glancing up at the doctor once more, “Cannot you save both?”
“No, Edward; it is impossible.”
“I must ask her! I must ask Anne what is her will.”
“As far as she is a woman of her mold, she will grant life to her own, even if by doing such she denies it to herself. She will tell you that she has had her life—she has known her share of good—she can depart with courage—she knows that you have the strength to carry on. Women of her character do such, Edward.”
He, then, ought to take courage and follow his wife's example, as she wished him to do. He ought to be divinely selfless, too—but was she divinely selfless? Or had she a motherly manner of selfishness for her child? Would she put aside true consideration of him for its sake? Perhaps she would, and he might then have as much right to be selfish.
Could he live on, were she dead? If he did not, he would leave an orphan, which might be as cruel as allowing the child to die.
Edward rose and betook himself unsteadily to the clock, the hands of which showed that he had but five and twenty minutes left until any decision whatsoever would be futile. Would that he could destroy the clock and the time along with it!—and he faltered to the door and looked out, before turning to the window on the adjacent wall and falling to the broad seat which stood before it.
Oh, does it truly matter which he chooses? Is one death worse than the other? He owes love, loyalty, and protection to both—he vowed it to his wife; it is his natural duty to his child. Is there no factor to make the weight heavier on one side of the balance or the other? Somewhere—oh, somewhere there must be! He vowed—he vowed—could that not suffice as weight? But his conscience shakes its head at him: "No excuses, Mr. Charlesworth." Would it be cruel to bring up a child without its mother? Perhaps, but not so very uncommon... that reason will not do as weight, either. There may be other children—there can never be another Anne....
Every reason he imagines, he now realises, would preserve the life of his wife—he has considered none that value the child over her. Indeed, the beloved woman is dearer to him than the unknown child, which may only be natural—but which is right?
There are only twenty minutes left until both must perish, but how can he possibly decide? It is a matter which greater thinkers and moralists than himself could debate for millenia; how can he decide? What right has he to choose? What right has any man to anything? But he must return to his former terrible question: which one?
Dearest Anne—unnamed, unknown child. Grief to his wife—grief to himself. Future hope—future sorrow. Her disgust for him—his disgust for himself.
Where does duty lie? It cannot lie equally toward the two! There must be some way to decide! Choose by love and given word: Anne survives. Choose by natural duty and sacrifice: the child survives. He cannot decide solely by his own inclination; he turns to his mother and the doctor.
“Your counsels—if you please,” says he.
His mother is all too ready to give her opinions. “Edward, the child must survive! The future! Your wife has known life, with both its sorrows and its happinesses—the child has not!”
“Anne,” returns he, “has not quite known her life, for this odious matter makes it quite impossible—I believe you comprehend my meaning.”
“But she has known more than the child! Edward, how could you allow an innocent, so helpless, to have its life pushed aside for the life of a woman who, given her own way, would choose its life over hers anyway?”
Her arguments had some effect on her son; the doctor saw fit to interrupt her by saying, “Your mother gives a valid reason for her opinion, but she also gives you a biased opinion, which I must balance. I imagine it does not matter so very much which you choose—but it is certainly better to choose than to allow both to perish.”
“Yet I cannot choose! If I choose Anne, I am selfish—if I choose the child, I consign myself to life without her, and the child to life without its mother!”
“Well—will you be selfish, or will you make a dubious sacrifice?”
“Both so horrible...!”
“Neither so horrible as no decision whatever.”
Says Mrs. Charlesworth, “Edward! The child it must be—avoid selfishness!”
“If I choose the child, I allow Anne's motherly selfishness.”
The clock chimes—there are but five minutes left.
The wife! The child! The dear! The unknown! The vow! The duty! The wife—the child—the wife—the child—the wife—the child—the time is flying—who to choose?
Edward takes an audible breath—has he decided? He glances up at the clock—he raises his chin—he stands—he paces to the clock—he puts his hand once more to his head—he returns to his seat—he sighs—three minutes remain—he looks at the doctor—he opens his mouth—
“I am selfish—I cannot force myself to be anything else—I am certain that if I opened by mouth to say 'the child,' 'Anne!' should be shouted instead—so I say it now: Anne! It must be Anne—save my wife, though—I cannot say it, but—save my wife.”
His mother is aghast. The doctor springs to his feet and flies from the room. Mrs. Charlesworth cries, “Edward! How could you say such a thing? Edward—it is wrong!”
“It is equally wrong to approve, if I can prevent, the death of the woman whom I promised—vowed—to love, to protect. My decision may have been made from the wrong motive—I cannot persuade myself that I have not been selfish—but the decision itself was not more wrong than would have been the decision to save the child. I shall regret this choice at times... I wonder if it shall even cost me Anne's regard and love... but—I could not choose other than her!”
“It was a repulsive decision, Edward!” Now, running from the room, “Doctor! Disregard my son's word—it was hasty, a thing of the moment!”
If Mrs. Charlesworth finds her son's speech repulsive, then the doctor certainly considers the her speech repulsive; he thus takes no regard of her whatever, except to scold her fiercely and quietly to be silent.
Edward, meanwhile, has retired to his chair by the fire, into which he stares as though bound to do so, incapable of casting his gaze elsewhere. Does he imagine his punishment? Does he wonder which would be the moment when the child's life will be given up for the mother's? Does he long to spring to his feet, fly up the stairs, and tell the doctor he has changed his mind? Has he changed his mind? If so, it is only because of guilt, and—his heart knows only Anne.
Is he becoming a madman? For he cannot perceive whether it is the fire that moves, or the room; he sees eyes of reproach, two pairs, in the bricks behind the flame; he hears voices twain saying disapprovingly, “Edward,” firmly and coldly—one that of a living woman, one that of a spectral child. Do they rebuke him for choosing to save his wife, rather than his child? Shall they ever cease to plague him? Shall they, in a day or two, be driven away by a third voice, gentle and sweet and alive, with its soothing murmur of “Edward—ah, Edward, can I lay blame upon you? It was a quandary, you but a member of Mankind; you chose as best you knew how.” Or shall that dear voice speak only to chide him?
Vowed or natural duty... love known or love to come... wife or child... present or future... who can know which is the right life to preserve?