Pseudopod 379: The Greatest Good Of The Greatest Number

by Gertrude Atherton.

“The Greatest Good Of The Greatest Number” first appeared in her collection THE BELL IN THE FOG AND OTHER STORIES (1905).

GERTRUDE ATHERTON (1857-1948), a protege of Ambrose Bierce, was an American novelist, primarily of social romances, who also wrote popular histories, biographies and the occasional supernatural or dark fiction tale. Her first publication was “The Randolphs of Redwood: A Romance,” serialized in The Argonaut in March 1882 under the pseudonym Asmodeus. When she revealed to her family that she was the author, it caused her to be ostracized. She had a satirical (and sometimes harshly acerbic) wit and was an advocate for social reform and women’s rights. Her novels often feature strong heroines who pursue independent lives and she is best remembered for her California Series, several novels and short stories dealing with the social history of California. Her few contributions to the weird genre – which include “The Striding Place” (rejected by The Yellow Book as “too gruesome”) and “The Bell In The Fog” – are invariably well crafted and display a strong sense of the dramatic and a debt to Henry James. She also composed tales of psychological horror, of which this episode is one.

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“‘How long can I keep it from them?’ he asked bitterly. ‘What an atmosphere for children–my children!–to grow up in!’

‘If you would do as I wish, and send her where she belongs–‘

‘I shall not. She is my wife. Moreover, concealment would then be impossible.’

They had reached the third floor. He inserted a key in a door, hesitated a moment, then said abruptly: ‘I saw in a paper that she had returned. Can it be possible?’

‘I saw her on the Avenue a few moments ago.’

Was it the doctor’s imagination, or did the goaded man at his side flash him a glance of appeal?

They entered a room whose doors and windows were muffled. The furniture was solid, too solid to be moved except by muscular arms. There were no mirrors nor breakable articles of any sort.

On the bed lay a woman with ragged hair and sunken yellow face, but even in her ruin indefinably elegant. Her parted lips were black and blistered within; her shapely skinny hands clutched the quilt with the tenacious suggestion of the eagle–that long-lived defiant bird. At the bedside sat a vigorous woman, the pallor of fatigue on her face.

The creature on the bed opened her eyes. They had once been what are vaguely known as fine eyes; now they looked like blots of ink on parchment.”

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