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On Tuesday afternoon a Boston lawyer, who had been trying a case in
Vermont, was standing on the siding at White River Junction when the
Canadian Express pulled by on its northward journey. As the day-coaches at
the rear end of the long train swept by him, the lawyer noticed at one of
the windows a man's head, with thick rumpled hair. "Curious," he thought;
"that looked like Alexander, but what would he be doing back there in the
It was, indeed, Alexander.
That morning a telegram from Moorlock had reached him, telling him that
there was serious trouble with the bridge and that he was needed there at
once, so he had caught the first train out of New York. He had taken a
seat in a day-coach to avoid the risk of meeting any one he knew, and
because he did not wish to be comfortable. When the telegram arrived,
Alexander was at his rooms on Tenth Street, packing his bag to go to
Boston. On Monday night he had written a long letter to his wife, but when
morning came he was afraid to send it, and the letter was still in his
pocket. Winifred was not a woman who could bear disappointment. She
demanded a great deal of herself and of the people she loved; and she
never failed herself. If he told her now, he knew, it would be
irretrievable. There would be no going back. He would lose the thing he
valued most in the world; he would be destroying himself and his own
happiness. There would be nothing for him afterward. He seemed to see
himself dragging out a restless existence on the Continent—Cannes,
Hyeres, Algiers, Cairo—among smartly dressed, disabled men of every
nationality; forever going on journeys that led nowhere; hurrying to catch
trains that he might just as well miss; getting up in the morning with a
great bustle and splashing of water, to begin a day that had no purpose
and no meaning; dining late to shorten the night, sleeping late to shorten
And for what? For a mere folly, a masquerade, a little thing that he could
not let go. AND HE COULD EVEN LET IT GO, he told himself. But he had
promised to be in London at mid-summer, and he knew that he would go. . .
. It was impossible to live like this any longer.
And this, then, was to be the disaster that his old professor had foreseen
for him: the crack in the wall, the crash, the cloud of dust. And he could
not understand how it had come about. He felt that he himself was
unchanged, that he was still there, the same man he had been five years
ago, and that he was sitting stupidly by and letting some resolute
offshoot of himself spoil his life for him. This new force was not he, it
was but a part of him. He would not even admit that it was stronger than
he; but it was more active. It was by its energy that this new feeling got
the better of him. His wife was the woman who had made his life, gratified
his pride, given direction to his tastes and habits. The life they led
together seemed to him beautiful. Winifred still was, as she had always
been, Romance for him, and whenever he was deeply stirred he turned to
her. When the grandeur and beauty of the world challenged him—as it
challenges even the most self-absorbed people—he always answered
with her name. That was his reply to the question put by the mountains and
the stars; to all the spiritual aspects of life. In his feeling for his
wife there was all the tenderness, all the pride, all the devotion of
which he was capable. There was everything but energy; the energy of youth
which must register itself and cut its name before it passes. This new
feeling was so fresh, so unsatisfied and light of foot. It ran and was not
wearied, anticipated him everywhere. It put a girdle round the earth while
he was going from New York to Moorlock. At this moment, it was tingling
through him, exultant, and live as quicksilver, whispering, "In July you
will be in England."
Already he dreaded the long, empty days at sea, the monotonous Irish
coast, the sluggish passage up the Mersey, the flash of the boat train
through the summer country. He closed his eyes and gave himself up to the
feeling of rapid motion and to swift, terrifying thoughts. He was sitting
so, his face shaded by his hand, when the Boston lawyer saw him from the
siding at White River Junction.
When at last Alexander roused himself, the afternoon had waned to sunset.
The train was passing through a gray country and the sky overhead was
flushed with a wide flood of clear color. There was a rose-colored light
over the gray rocks and hills and meadows. Off to the left, under the
approach of a weather-stained wooden bridge, a group of boys were sitting
around a little fire. The smell of the wood smoke blew in at the window.
Except for an old farmer, jogging along the highroad in his box-wagon,
there was not another living creature to be seen. Alexander looked back
wistfully at the boys, camped on the edge of a little marsh, crouching
under their shelter and looking gravely at their fire. They took his mind
back a long way, to a campfire on a sandbar in a Western river, and he
wished he could go back and sit down with them. He could remember exactly
how the world had looked then.
It was quite dark and Alexander was still thinking of the boys, when it
occurred to him that the train must be nearing Allway. In going to his new
bridge at Moorlock he had always to pass through Allway. The train stopped
at Allway Mills, then wound two miles up the river, and then the hollow
sound under his feet told Bartley that he was on his first bridge again.
The bridge seemed longer than it had ever seemed before, and he was glad
when he felt the beat of the wheels on the solid roadbed again. He did not
like coming and going across that bridge, or remembering the man who built
it. And was he, indeed, the same man who used to walk that bridge at
night, promising such things to himself and to the stars? And yet, he
could remember it all so well: the quiet hills sleeping in the moonlight,
the slender skeleton of the bridge reaching out into the river, and up
yonder, alone on the hill, the big white house; upstairs, in Winifred's
window, the light that told him she was still awake and still thinking of
him. And after the light went out he walked alone, taking the heavens into
his confidence, unable to tear himself away from the white magic of the
night, unwilling to sleep because longing was so sweet to him, and
because, for the first time since first the hills were hung with
moonlight, there was a lover in the world. And always there was the sound
of the rushing water underneath, the sound which, more than anything else,
meant death; the wearing away of things under the impact of physical
forces which men could direct but never circumvent or diminish. Then, in
the exaltation of love, more than ever it seemed to him to mean death, the
only other thing as strong as love. Under the moon, under the cold,
splendid stars, there were only those two things awake and sleepless;
death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart.
Alexander sat up and looked about him. The train was tearing on through
the darkness. All his companions in the day-coach were either dozing or
sleeping heavily, and the murky lamps were turned low. How came he here
among all these dirty people? Why was he going to London? What did it mean—what
was the answer? How could this happen to a man who had lived through that
magical spring and summer, and who had felt that the stars themselves were
but flaming particles in the far-away infinitudes of his love?
What had he done to lose it? How could he endure the baseness of life
without it? And with every revolution of the wheels beneath him, the
unquiet quicksilver in his breast told him that at midsummer he would be
in London. He remembered his last night there: the red foggy darkness, the
hungry crowds before the theatres, the hand-organs, the feverish rhythm of
the blurred, crowded streets, and the feeling of letting himself go with
the crowd. He shuddered and looked about him at the poor unconscious
companions of his journey, unkempt and travel-stained, now doubled in
unlovely attitudes, who had come to stand to him for the ugliness he had
brought into the world.
And those boys back there, beginning it all just as he had begun it; he
wished he could promise them better luck. Ah, if one could promise any one
better luck, if one could assure a single human being of happiness! He had
thought he could do so, once; and it was thinking of that that he at last
fell asleep. In his sleep, as if it had nothing fresher to work upon, his
mind went back and tortured itself with something years and years away, an
old, long-forgotten sorrow of his childhood.
When Alexander awoke in the morning, the sun was just rising through pale
golden ripples of cloud, and the fresh yellow light was vibrating through
the pine woods. The white birches, with their little unfolding leaves,
gleamed in the lowlands, and the marsh meadows were already coming to life
with their first green, a thin, bright color which had run over them like
fire. As the train rushed along the trestles, thousands of wild birds rose
screaming into the light. The sky was already a pale blue and of the
clearness of crystal. Bartley caught up his bag and hurried through the
Pullman coaches until he found the conductor. There was a stateroom
unoccupied, and he took it and set about changing his clothes. Last night
he would not have believed that anything could be so pleasant as the cold
water he dashed over his head and shoulders and the freshness of clean
linen on his body.
After he had dressed, Alexander sat down at the window and drew into his
lungs deep breaths of the pine-scented air. He had awakened with all his
old sense of power. He could not believe that things were as bad with him
as they had seemed last night, that there was no way to set them entirely
right. Even if he went to London at midsummer, what would that mean except
that he was a fool? And he had been a fool before. That was not the
reality of his life. Yet he knew that he would go to London.
Half an hour later the train stopped at Moorlock. Alexander sprang to the
platform and hurried up the siding, waving to Philip Horton, one of his
assistants, who was anxiously looking up at the windows of the coaches.
Bartley took his arm and they went together into the station buffet.
"I'll have my coffee first, Philip. Have you had yours? And now, what
seems to be the matter up here?"
The young man, in a hurried, nervous way, began his explanation.
But Alexander cut him short. "When did you stop work?" he asked sharply.
The young engineer looked confused. "I haven't stopped work yet, Mr.
Alexander. I didn't feel that I could go so far without definite
authorization from you."
"Then why didn't you say in your telegram exactly what you thought, and
ask for your authorization? You'd have got it quick enough."
"Well, really, Mr. Alexander, I couldn't be absolutely sure, you know, and
I didn't like to take the responsibility of making it public."
Alexander pushed back his chair and rose. "Anything I do can be made
public, Phil. You say that you believe the lower chords are showing
strain, and that even the workmen have been talking about it, and yet
you've gone on adding weight."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Alexander, but I had counted on your getting here
yesterday. My first telegram missed you somehow. I sent one Sunday
evening, to the same address, but it was returned to me."
"Have you a carriage out there? I must stop to send a wire."
Alexander went up to the telegraph-desk and penciled the following message
to his wife:—
I may have to be here for some time. Can you come up at once? Urgent.
The Moorlock Bridge lay three miles above the town. When they were seated
in the carriage, Alexander began to question his assistant further. If it
were true that the compression members showed strain, with the bridge only
two thirds done, then there was nothing to do but pull the whole structure
down and begin over again. Horton kept repeating that he was sure there
could be nothing wrong with the estimates.
Alexander grew impatient. "That's all true, Phil, but we never were
justified in assuming that a scale that was perfectly safe for an ordinary
bridge would work with anything of such length. It's all very well on
paper, but it remains to be seen whether it can be done in practice. I
should have thrown up the job when they crowded me. It's all nonsense to
try to do what other engineers are doing when you know they're not sound."
"But just now, when there is such competition," the younger man demurred.
"And certainly that's the new line of development."
Alexander shrugged his shoulders and made no reply.
When they reached the bridge works, Alexander began his examination
immediately. An hour later he sent for the superintendent. "I think you
had better stop work out there at once, Dan. I should say that the lower
chord here might buckle at any moment. I told the Commission that we were
using higher unit stresses than any practice has established, and we've
put the dead load at a low estimate. Theoretically it worked out well
enough, but it had never actually been tried." Alexander put on his
overcoat and took the superintendent by the arm. "Don't look so
chopfallen, Dan. It's a jolt, but we've got to face it. It isn't the end
of the world, you know. Now we'll go out and call the men off quietly.
They're already nervous, Horton tells me, and there's no use alarming
them. I'll go with you, and we'll send the end riveters in first."
Alexander and the superintendent picked their way out slowly over the long
span. They went deliberately, stopping to see what each gang was doing, as
if they were on an ordinary round of inspection. When they reached the end
of the river span, Alexander nodded to the superintendent, who quietly
gave an order to the foreman. The men in the end gang picked up their
tools and, glancing curiously at each other, started back across the
bridge toward the river-bank. Alexander himself remained standing where
they had been working, looking about him. It was hard to believe, as he
looked back over it, that the whole great span was incurably disabled, was
already as good as condemned, because something was out of line in the
lower chord of the cantilever arm.
The end riveters had reached the bank and were dispersing among the
tool-houses, and the second gang had picked up their tools and were
starting toward the shore. Alexander, still standing at the end of the
river span, saw the lower chord of the cantilever arm give a little, like
an elbow bending. He shouted and ran after the second gang, but by this
time every one knew that the big river span was slowly settling. There was
a burst of shouting that was immediately drowned by the scream and
cracking of tearing iron, as all the tension work began to pull asunder.
Once the chords began to buckle, there were thousands of tons of ironwork,
all riveted together and lying in midair without support. It tore itself
to pieces with roaring and grinding and noises that were like the shrieks
of a steam whistle. There was no shock of any kind; the bridge had no
impetus except from its own weight. It lurched neither to right nor left,
but sank almost in a vertical line, snapping and breaking and tearing as
it went, because no integral part could bear for an instant the enormous
strain loosed upon it. Some of the men jumped and some ran, trying to make
At the first shriek of the tearing iron, Alexander jumped from the
downstream side of the bridge. He struck the water without injury and
disappeared. He was under the river a long time and had great difficulty
in holding his breath. When it seemed impossible, and his chest was about
to heave, he thought he heard his wife telling him that he could hold out
a little longer. An instant later his face cleared the water. For a
moment, in the depths of the river, he had realized what it would mean to
die a hypocrite, and to lie dead under the last abandonment of her
tenderness. But once in the light and air, he knew he should live to tell
her and to recover all he had lost. Now, at last, he felt sure of himself.
He was not startled. It seemed to him that he had been through something
of this sort before. There was nothing horrible about it. This, too, was
life, and life was activity, just as it was in Boston or in London. He was
himself, and there was something to be done; everything seemed perfectly
natural. Alexander was a strong swimmer, but he had gone scarcely a dozen
strokes when the bridge itself, which had been settling faster and faster,
crashed into the water behind him. Immediately the river was full of
drowning men. A gang of French Canadians fell almost on top of him. He
thought he had cleared them, when they began coming up all around him,
clutching at him and at each other. Some of them could swim, but they were
either hurt or crazed with fright. Alexander tried to beat them off, but
there were too many of them. One caught him about the neck, another
gripped him about the middle, and they went down together. When he sank,
his wife seemed to be there in the water beside him, telling him to keep
his head, that if he could hold out the men would drown and release him.
There was something he wanted to tell his wife, but he could not think
clearly for the roaring in his ears. Suddenly he remembered what it was.
He caught his breath, and then she let him go.
The work of recovering the dead went on all day and all the following
night. By the next morning forty-eight bodies had been taken out of the
river, but there were still twenty missing. Many of the men had fallen
with the bridge and were held down under the debris. Early on the morning
of the second day a closed carriage was driven slowly along the river-bank
and stopped a little below the works, where the river boiled and churned
about the great iron carcass which lay in a straight line two thirds
across it. The carriage stood there hour after hour, and word soon spread
among the crowds on the shore that its occupant was the wife of the Chief
Engineer; his body had not yet been found. The widows of the lost workmen,
moving up and down the bank with shawls over their heads, some of them
carrying babies, looked at the rusty hired hack many times that morning.
They drew near it and walked about it, but none of them ventured to peer
within. Even half-indifferent sightseers dropped their voices as they told
a newcomer: "You see that carriage over there? That's Mrs. Alexander. They
haven't found him yet. She got off the train this morning. Horton met her.
She heard it in Boston yesterday—heard the newsboys crying it in the
At noon Philip Horton made his way through the crowd with a tray and a tin
coffee-pot from the camp kitchen. When he reached the carriage he found
Mrs. Alexander just as he had left her in the early morning, leaning
forward a little, with her hand on the lowered window, looking at the
river. Hour after hour she had been watching the water, the lonely,
useless stone towers, and the convulsed mass of iron wreckage over which
the angry river continually spat up its yellow foam.
"Those poor women out there, do they blame him very much?" she asked, as
she handed the coffee-cup back to Horton.
"Nobody blames him, Mrs. Alexander. If any one is to blame, I'm afraid
it's I. I should have stopped work before he came. He said so as soon as I
met him. I tried to get him here a day earlier, but my telegram missed
him, somehow. He didn't have time really to explain to me. If he'd got
here Monday, he'd have had all the men off at once. But, you see, Mrs.
Alexander, such a thing never happened before. According to all human
calculations, it simply couldn't happen."
Horton leaned wearily against the front wheel of the cab. He had not had
his clothes off for thirty hours, and the stimulus of violent excitement
was beginning to wear off.
"Don't be afraid to tell me the worst, Mr. Horton. Don't leave me to the
dread of finding out things that people may be saying. If he is blamed, if
he needs any one to speak for him,"—for the first time her voice
broke and a flush of life, tearful, painful, and confused, swept over her
rigid pallor,—"if he needs any one, tell me, show me what to do."
She began to sob, and Horton hurried away.
When he came back at four o'clock in the afternoon he was carrying his hat
in his hand, and Winifred knew as soon as she saw him that they had found
Bartley. She opened the carriage door before he reached her and stepped to
Horton put out his hand as if to hold her back and spoke pleadingly:
"Won't you drive up to my house, Mrs. Alexander? They will take him up
"Take me to him now, please. I shall not make any trouble."
The group of men down under the riverbank fell back when they saw a woman
coming, and one of them threw a tarpaulin over the stretcher. They took
off their hats and caps as Winifred approached, and although she had
pulled her veil down over her face they did not look up at her. She was
taller than Horton, and some of the men thought she was the tallest woman
they had ever seen. "As tall as himself," some one whispered. Horton
motioned to the men, and six of them lifted the stretcher and began to
carry it up the embankment. Winifred followed them the half-mile to
Horton's house. She walked quietly, without once breaking or stumbling.
When the bearers put the stretcher down in Horton's spare bedroom, she
thanked them and gave her hand to each in turn. The men went out of the
house and through the yard with their caps in their hands. They were too
much confused to say anything as they went down the hill.
Horton himself was almost as deeply perplexed. "Mamie," he said to his
wife, when he came out of the spare room half an hour later, "will you
take Mrs. Alexander the things she needs? She is going to do everything
herself. Just stay about where you can hear her and go in if she wants
Everything happened as Alexander had foreseen in that moment of prescience
under the river. With her own hands she washed him clean of every mark of
disaster. All night he was alone with her in the still house, his great
head lying deep in the pillow. In the pocket of his coat Winifred found
the letter that he had written her the night before he left New York,
water-soaked and illegible, but because of its length, she knew it had
been meant for her.
For Alexander death was an easy creditor. Fortune, which had smiled upon
him consistently all his life, did not desert him in the end. His harshest
critics did not doubt that, had he lived, he would have retrieved himself.
Even Lucius Wilson did not see in this accident the disaster he had once
When a great man dies in his prime there is no surgeon who can say whether
he did well; whether or not the future was his, as it seemed to be. The
mind that society had come to regard as a powerful and reliable machine,
dedicated to its service, may for a long time have been sick within itself
and bent upon its own destruction.