"Marcia, Marcia! You hadn't ought to! It's ridiculous!" she protested. But she suffered herself to be thrust out of the room, grateful for exile, in which she could collect her scattered wits and set herself to realize the fact that had dispersed them. It was decorous, also, for her to leave Marcia alone with Mr. Hubbard, far more so now than when he was merely company; she felt that, and she fumbled over the dressing she was sent about, and once she looked out of her chamber window at the office where Mr. Gaylord sat, and wondered what Mr. Gaylord (she thought of him, and even dreamt of him, as Mr. Gaylord, and had never, in the most familiar moments, addressed him otherwise) would say! But she left the solution of the problem to him and Marcia; she was used to leaving them to the settlement of their own difficulties.
"Now, Bartley," said Marcia, in the business-like way that women assume in such matters, as soon as the great fact is no longer in doubt, "you must help me to set the table. Put up that leaf and I'll put up this. I'm going to do more for mother than I used to," she said, repentant in her bliss. "It's a shame how much I've left to her." The domestic instinct was already astir in her heart.
Bartley pulled the table-cloth straight from her, and vied with her in the rapidity and exactness with which he arranged the knives and forks at right angles beside the plates. When it came to some heavier dishes, they agreed to carry them turn about; but when it was her turn, he put out his hand to support her elbow: "As I did last night, and saved you from dropping a lamp."
This made her laugh, and she dropped the first dish with a crash. "Poor mother!" she exclaimed. "I know she heard that, and she'll be in agony to know which one it is."
Mrs. Gaylord did indeed hear it, far off in her chamber, and quaked with an anxiety which became intolerable at last.
"Marcia! Marcia!" she quavered, down the stairs, "what have you broken?"
Marcia opened the door long enough to call back, "Oh, only the old blue-edged platter, mother!" and then she flew at Bartley, crying, "For shame! For shame!" and pressing her hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter. "She'll hear you, Bartley, and think you're laughing at her." But she laughed herself at his struggles, and ended by taking him by the hand and pulling him out into, the kitchen, where neither of them could be heard. She abandoned herself to the ecstasy of her soul, and he thought she had never been so charming as in this wild gayety.
"Why, Marsh! I never saw you carry on so before!"
"You never saw me engaged before! That's the way all girls act—if they get the chance. Don't you like me to be so?" she asked, with quick anxiety.
"Rather!" he replied.
"Oh, Bartley!" she exclaimed, "I feel like a child. I surprise myself as much as I do you; for I thought I had got very old, and I didn't suppose I should ever let myself go in this way. But there is something about this that lets me be as silly as I like. It's somehow as if I were a great deal more alone when I'm with you than when I'm by myself! How does it make you feel?"
"Good!" he answered, and that satisfied her better than if he had entered into those subtleties which she had tried to express: it was more like a man. He had his arm about her again, and she put down her hand on his to press it closer against her heart.
"Of course," she explained, recurring to his surprise at her frolic mood, "I don't expect you to be silly because I am."
"No," he assented; "but how can I help it?"
"Oh, I don't mean for the time being; I mean generally speaking. I mean that I care for you because I know you know a great deal more than I do, and because I respect you. I know that everybody expects you to be something great, and I do, too."
Bartley did not deny the justness of her opinions concerning himself, or the reasonableness of the general expectation, though he probably could not see the relation of these cold abstractions to the pleasure of sitting there with a pretty girl in that way. But he said nothing.
"Do you know," she went on, turning her face prettily around toward him, but holding it a little way off, to secure attention as impersonal as might be under the circumstances, "what pleased me more than anything else you ever said to me?"
"No," answered Bartley. "Something you got out of me when you were trying to make me tell you the difference between you and the other Equity girls?"
She laughed, in glad defiance of her own consciousness. "Well, I was trying to make you compliment me; I'm not going to deny it. But I must say I got my come-uppance: you didn't say a thing I cared for. But you did afterward. Don't you remember?"
She hesitated a moment. "When you told me that my influence had—had—made you better, you know—"
"Oh!" said Bartley. "That! Well," he added, carelessly, "it's every word true. Didn't you believe it?"
"I was just as glad as if I did; and it made me resolve never to do or say a thing that could lower your opinion of me; and then, you know, there at the door—it all seemed part of our trying to make each other better. But when father looked at me in that way, and asked me if we were engaged, I went down into the dust with shame. And it seemed to me that you had just been laughing at me, and amusing yourself with me, and I was so furious I didn't know what to do. Do you know what I wanted to do? I wanted to run downstairs to father, and tell him what you had said, and ask him if he believed you had ever liked any other girl." She paused a little, but he did not answer, and she continued. "But now I'm glad I didn't. And I shall never ask you that, and I shall not care for anything that you—that's happened before to-day. It's all right. And you do think I shall always try to make you good and happy, don't you?"
"I don't think you can make me much happier than I am at present, and I don't believe anybody could make me feel better," answered Bartley.
She gave a little laugh at his refusal to be serious, and let her head, for fondness, fall upon his shoulder, while he turned round and round a ring he found on her finger.
"Ah, ha!" he said, after a while. "Who gave you this ring, Miss Gaylord?"
"Father, Christmas before last," she promptly answered, without moving. "I'm glad you asked," she murmured, in a lower voice, full of pride in the maiden love she could give him. "There's never been any one but you, or the thought of any one." She suddenly started away.
"Now, let's play we're getting dinner." It was quite time; in the next moment the coffee boiled up, and if she had not caught the lid off and stirred it down with her spoon, it would have been spoiled. The steam ascended to the ceiling, and filled the kitchen with the fragrant smell of the berry.
"I'm glad we're going to have coffee," she said. "You'll have to put up with a cold dinner, except potatoes. But the coffee will make up, and I shall need a cup to keep me awake. I don't believe I slept last night till nearly morning. Do you like coffee?"
"I'd have given all I ever expect to be worth for a cup of it, last night," he said. "I was awfully hungry when I got back to the hotel, and I couldn't find anything but a piece of mince-pie and some old cheese, and I had to be content with cold milk. I felt as if I had lost all my friends this morning when I woke up."
A sense of remembered grievance trembled in his voice, and made her drop her head on his arm, in pity and derision of him. "Poor Bartley!" she cried. "And you came up here for a little petting from me, didn't you? I've noticed that in you! Well, you didn't get it, did you?"
"Well, not at first," he said.
"Yes, you can't complain of any want of petting at last," she returned, delighted at his indirect recognition of the difference. Then the daring, the archness, and caprice that make coquetry in some women, and lurk a divine possibility in all, came out in her; the sweetness, kept back by the whole strength of her pride, overflowed that broken barrier now, and she seemed to lavish this revelation of herself upon him with a sort of tender joy in his bewilderment. She was not hurt when he crudely expressed the elusive sense which has been in other men's minds at such times: they cannot believe that this fascination is inspired, and not practised.
"Well," he said, "I'm glad you told me that I was the first. I should have thought you'd had a good deal of experience in flirtation."
"You wouldn't have thought so if you hadn't been a great flirt yourself," she answered, audaciously. "Perhaps I have been engaged before!"
Their talk was for the most part frivolous, and their thoughts ephemeral; but again they were, with her at least, suddenly and deeply serious. Till then all things seemed to have been held in arrest, and impressions, ideas, feelings, fears, desires, released themselves simultaneously, and sought expression with a rush that defied coherence. "Oh, why do we try to talk?" she asked, at last. "The more we say, the more we leave unsaid. Let us keep still awhile!" But she could not. "Bartley! When did you first think you cared about me?"
"I don't know," said Bartley, "I guess it must have been the first time I saw you."
"Yes, that is when I first knew that I cared for you. But it seems to me that I must have always cared for you, and that I only found it out when I saw you going by the house that day." She mused a little time before she asked again, "Bartley!"
"Did you ever use to be afraid—Or, no! Wait! I'll tell you first, and then I'll ask you. I'm not ashamed of it now, though once I thought I couldn't bear to have any one find it out. I used to be awfully afraid you didn't care for me! I would try to make out, from things you did and said, whether you did or not; but I never could be certain. I believe I used to find the most comfort in discouraging myself. I used to say to myself, 'Why, of course he doesn't! How can he? He's been everywhere, and he's seen so many girls. He corresponds with lots of them. Altogether likely he's engaged to some of the young ladies he's met in Boston; and he just goes with me here for a blind.' And then when you would praise me, sometimes, I would just say, 'Oh, he's complimented plenty of girls. I know he's thinking this instant of the young lady he's engaged to in Boston.' And it would almost kill me; and when you did some little thing to show that you liked me, I would think, 'He doesn't like me! He hates, he despises me. He does, he does, he does!' And I would go on that way, with my teeth shut, and my breath held, I don't know how long." Bartley broke out into a broad laugh at this image of desperation, but she added, tenderly, "I hope I never made you suffer in that way?"
"What way?" he asked.
"That's what I wanted you to tell me. Did you ever—did you use to be afraid sometimes that I—that you—did you put off telling me that you cared for me so long because you thought, you dreaded—Oh, I don't see what I can ever do to make it up to you if you did! Were you afraid I didn't care for you?"
"No!" shouted Bartley. She had risen and stood before him in the fervor of her entreaty, and he seized her arms, pinioning them to her side, and holding her helpless, while he laughed, and laughed again. "I knew you were dead in love with me from the first moment."
"Bartley! Bartley Hubbard!" she exclaimed; "let me go,—let me go, this instant! I never heard of such a shameless thing!"
But she really made no effort to escape.
The house seemed too little for Marcia's happiness, and after dinner she did not let Bartley forget his last night's engagement. She sent him off to get his horse at the hotel, and ran up to her room to put on her wraps for the drive. Her mother cleared away the dinner things; she pushed the table to the side of the room, and then sat down in her feather-cushioned chair and waited her husband's pleasure to speak. He ordinarily rose from the Sunday dinner and went back to his office; to-day he had taken a chair before the stove. But he had mechanically put his hat on, and he wore it pushed off his forehead as he tilted his chair back on its hind legs, and braced himself against the hearth of the stove with his feet.
A man is master in his own house generally through the exercise of a certain degree of brutality, but Squire Gaylord maintained his predominance by an enlightened absenteeism. No man living always at home was ever so little under his own roof. While he was in more active business life, he had kept an office in the heart of the village, where he spent all his days, and a great part of every night; but after he had become rich enough to risk whatever loss of business the change might involve, he bought this large old square house on the border of the village, and thenceforth made his home in the little detached office.
If Mrs. Gaylord had dimly imagined that she should see something more of him, having him so near at hand, she really saw less: there was no weather, by day or night, in which he could not go to his office, now. He went no more than his wife into the village society; she might have been glad now and then of a little glimpse of the world, but she never said so, and her social life had ceased, like her religious life. Their house was richly furnished according to the local taste of the time; the parlor had a Brussels carpet, and heavy chairs of mahogany and hair-cloth; Marcia had a piano there, and since she had come home from school they had made company, as Mrs. Gaylord called it, two or three times for her; but they had held aloof from the festivity, the Squire in his office, and Mrs. Gaylord in the family room where they now sat in unwonted companionship.
"Well, Mr. Gaylord," said his wife, "I don't know as you can say but what Marcia's suited well enough."
This was the first allusion they had made to the subject, but she let it take the argumentative form of her cogitations.
"M-yes," sighed the Squire, in long, nasal assent, "most too well, if anything." He rasped first one unshaven cheek and then the other, with his thin, quivering hand.
"He's smart enough," said Mrs. Gaylord, as before.
"M-yes, most too smart," replied her husband, a little more quickly than before. "He's smart enough, even if she wasn't, to see from the start that she was crazy to have him, and that isn't the best way to begin life for a married couple, if I'm a judge."
"It would killed her if she hadn't got him. I could see 't was wearin' on her every day, more and more. She used to fairly jump, every knock she'd hear at the door; and I know sometimes, when she was afraid he wa' n't coming, she used to go out, in hopes 't she sh'd meet him: I don't suppose she allowed to herself that she did it for that—Marcia's proud."
"M-yes," said the Squire, "she's proud. And when a proud girl makes a fool of herself about a fellow, it's a matter of life and death with her. She can't help herself. She lets go everything."
"I declare," Mrs. Gaylord went on, "it worked me up considerable to have her come in some those times, and see by her face 't she'd seen him with some the other girls. She used to look so! And then I'd hear her up in her room, cryin' and cryin'. I shouldn't cared so much, if Marcia'd been like any other girl, kind of flirty, like, about it. But she wa' n't. She was just bowed down before her idol."
A final assent came from the Squire, as if wrung out of his heart, and he rose from his chair, and then sat down again. Marcia was his child, and he loved her with his whole soul. "M-well!" he deeply sighed, "all that part's over, anyway," but he tingled in an anguish of sympathy with what she had suffered. "You see, Miranda, how she looked at me when she first came in with him,—so proud and independent, poor girl! and yet as if she was afraid I mightn't like it?"
"Yes, I see it."
He pulled his hat far down over his cavernous eyes, and worked his thin, rusty old jaws.
"I hope 't she'll be able to school herself, so 's t' not show out her feelings so much," said Mrs. Gaylord.
"I wish she could school herself so as to not have 'em so much; but I guess she'll have 'em, and I guess she'll show 'em out." They were both silent; after a while he added, throwing at the stove a minute fragment of the cane he had pulled off the seat of his chair: "Miranda, I've expected something of this sort a good while, and I've thought over what Bartley had better do."
Mrs. Gaylord stooped forward and picked up the bit of wood which her husband had thrown down; her vigilance was rewarded by finding a thread on the oil-cloth near where it lay; she whipped this round her finger, and her husband continued: "He'd better give up his paper and go into the law. He 's done well in the paper, and he's a smart writer; but editing a newspaper aint any work for a man. It's all well enough as long as he's single, but when he's got a wife to look after, he'd better get down to work. My business is in just such a shape now that I could hand it over to him in a lump; but come to wait a year or two longer, and this young man and that one 'll eat into it, and it won't be the same thing at all. I shall want Bartley to push right along, and get admitted at once. He can do it, fast enough. He's bright enough," added the old man, with a certain grimness. "M-well!" he broke out, with a quick sigh, after a moment of musing; "it hasn't happened at any very bad time. I was just thinking, this morning, that I should like to have my whole time, pretty soon, to look after my property. I sha'n't want Bartley to do that for me. I'll give him a good start in money and in business; but I'll look after my property myself. I'll speak to him, the first chance I get."
A light step sounded on the stairs, and Marcia burst into the room, ready for her drive. "I wanted to get a good warm before I started," she explained, stooping before the stove, and supporting herself with one hand on her father's knee. There had been no formal congratulations upon her engagement from either of her parents; but this was not requisite, and would have been a little affected; they were perhaps now ashamed to mention it outright before her alone. The Squire, however, went so far as to put his hand over the hand she had laid upon his knee, and to smooth it twice or thrice.
"You going to ride after that sorrel colt of Bartley's?" he asked.
"Of course!" she answered, with playful pertness. "I guess Bartley can manage the sorrel colt! He's never had any trouble yet."
"He's always been able to give his whole mind to him before," said the Squire. He gave Marcia's hand a significant squeeze, and let it go.
She would not confess her consciousness of his meaning at once. She looked up at the clock, and then turned and pulled her father's watch out of his waistcoat pocket, and compared the time. "Why, you're both fast!"
"Perhaps Bartley's slow," said the Squire; and having gone as far as he intended in this direction, he permitted himself a low chuckle.
The sleigh-bells jingled without, and she sprang lightly to her feet. "I guess you don't think Bartley's slow," she exclaimed, and hung over her father long enough to rub her lips against his bristly cheek. "By, mother," she said, over her shoulder, and went out of the room. She let her muff hang as far down in front of her as her arms would reach, in a stylish way, and moved with a little rhythmical tilt, as if to some inner music. Even in her furs she was elegantly slender in shape.
The old people remained silent and motionless till the clash of the bells died away. Then the Squire rose, and went to the wood-shed beyond the kitchen, whence he reappeared with an armful of wood. His wife started at the sight. "Mr. Gaylord, what be you doin'?"
"Oh, I'm going to make 'em up a little fire in the parlor stove. I guess they won't want us round a great deal, when they come back."
Mrs. Gaylord said, "Well, I never did!" When her husband returned from the parlor, she added, "I suppose some folks'd say it was rather of a strange way of spendin' the Sabbath."
"It's a very good way of spending the Sabbath. You don't suppose that any of the people in church are half as happy, do you? Why, old Jonathan Edwards himself used to allow 'all proper opportunity' for the young fellows that come to see his girls, 'and a room and fire, if needed.' His 'Life' says so."
"I guess he didn't allow it on the Sabbath," retorted Mrs. Gaylord.
"Well, the 'Life' don't say," chuckled the Squire. "Why, Miranda, I do it for Marcia! There's never but one first day to an engagement. You know that as well as I do." In saying this, Squire Gaylord gave way to his repressed emotion in an extravagance. He suddenly stooped over and kissed his wife; but he spared her confusion by going out to his office at once, where he stayed the whole afternoon.
Bartley and Marcia took the "Long Drive," as it was called, at Equity. The road plunged into the darkly wooded gulch beyond the house, and then struck away eastward, crossing loop after loop of the river on the covered bridges, where the neighbors, who had broken it out with their ox-teams in the open, had thickly bedded it in snow. In the valleys and sheltered spots it remained free, and so wide that encountering teams could easily pass each other; but where it climbed a hill, or crossed a treeless level, it was narrowed to a single track, with turn-outs at established points, where the drivers of the sleighs waited to be sure that the stretch beyond was clear before going forward. In the country, the winter which held the village in such close siege was an occupation under which Nature seemed to cower helpless, and men made a desperate and ineffectual struggle. The houses, banked up with snow almost to the sills of the windows that looked out, blind with frost, upon the lifeless world, were dwarfed in the drifts, and seemed to founder in a white sea blotched with strange bluish shadows under the slanting sun. Where they fronted close upon the road, it was evident that the fight with the snow was kept up unrelentingly; spaces were shovelled out, and paths were kept open to the middle of the highway, and to the barn; but where they were somewhat removed, there was no visible trace of the conflict, and no sign of life except the faint, wreathed lines of smoke wavering upward from the chimneys.
In the hollows through which the road passed, the lower boughs of the pines and hemlocks were weighed down with the snow-fall till they lay half submerged in the drifts; but wherever the wind could strike them, they swung free of this load and met in low, flat arches above the track. The river betrayed itself only when the swift current of a ripple broke through the white surface in long, irregular, grayish blurs. It was all wild and lonesome, but to the girl alone in it with her lover, the solitude was sweet, and she did not wish to speak even to him. His hands were both busy with the reins, but it was agreed between them that she might lock hers through his arm. Cowering close to him under the robes, she laid her head on his shoulder and looked out over the flying landscape in measureless content, and smiled, with filling eyes, when he bent over, and warmed his cold, red cheek on the top of her fur cap.
The moments of bliss that silence a woman rouse a man to make sure of his rapture. "How do you like it, Marsh?" he asked, trying at one of these times to peer round into her face. "Are you afraid?"
"No,—only of getting back too soon."
He made the shivering echoes answer with his delight in this, and chirruped to the colt, who pushed forward at a wilder speed, flinging his hoofs out before him with the straight thrust of the horn trotter, and seeming to overtake them as they flew. "I should like this ride to last forever!"
"Forever!" she repeated. "That would do for a beginning."
"Marsh! What a girl you are! I never supposed you would be so free to let a fellow know how much you cared for him."
"Neither did I," she answered dreamily. "But now—now the only trouble is that I don't know how to let him know." She gave his arm to which she clung a little convulsive clutch, and pressed her head harder upon his shoulder.
"Well, that's pretty much my complaint, too," said Bartley, "though I couldn't have expressed it so well."
"Oh, you express!" she murmured, with the pride in him which implied that there were no thoughts worth expressing to which he could not give a monumental utterance. Her adoration flattered his self-love to the same passionate intensity, and to something like the generous complexion of her worship.
"Marcia," he answered, "I am going to try to be all you expect of me. And I hope I shall never do anything unworthy of your ideal."
She could only press his arm again in speechless joy, but she said to herself that she should always remember these words.
The wind had been rising ever since they started but they had not noticed it till now, when the woods began to thin away on either side, and he stopped before striking out over one of the naked stretches of the plain,—a white waste swept by the blasts that sucked down through a gorge of the mountain, and flattened the snow-drifts as the tornado flattens the waves. Across this expanse ran the road, its stiff lines obliterated here and there, in the slight depressions, and showing dark along the rest of the track.
It was a good half-mile to the next body of woods, and midway there was one of those sidings where a sleigh approaching from the other quarter must turn out and yield the right of way. Bartley stopped his colt, and scanned the road.
"Anybody coming?" asked Marcia.
"No, I don't see any one. But if there's any one in the woods yonder, they'd better wait till I get across. No horse in Equity can beat this colt to the turn-out."
"Oh, well, look carefully, Bartley. If we met any one beyond the turn-out, I don't know what I should do," pleaded the girl.
"I don't know what they would do," said Bartley. "But it's their lookout now, if they come. Wrap your face up well, or put your head under the robe. I've got to hold my breath the next half-mile." He loosed the reins, and sped the colt out of the shelter where he had halted. The wind struck them like an edge of steel, and, catching the powdery snow that their horse's hoofs beat up, sent it spinning and swirling far along the glistening levels on their lee. They felt the thrill of the go as if they were in some light boat leaping over a swift current. Marcia disdained to cover her face, if he must confront the wind, but after a few gasps she was glad to bend forward, and bury it in the long hair of the bearskin robe. When she lifted it, they were already past the siding, and she saw a cutter dashing toward them from the cover of the woods. "Bartley!" she screamed, "the sleigh!"
"Yes," he shouted. "Some fool! There's going to be trouble here," he added, checking his horse as he could. "They don't seem to know how to manage—It's a couple of women! Hold on! hold on!" he called. "Don't try to turn out! I'll turn out!"
The women pulled their horse's head this way and that, in apparent confusion, and then began to turn out into the trackless snow at the roadside, in spite of Bartley's frantic efforts to arrest them. They sank deeper and deeper into the drift; their horse plunged and struggled, and then their cutter went over, amidst their shrieks and cries for help.
Bartley drove up abreast of the wreck, and, saying, "Still, Jerry! Don't be afraid, Marcia,"—he put the reins into her hands, and sprang out to the rescue.
One of the women had been flung out free of the sleigh, and had already gathered herself up, and stood crying and wringing her hands; "Oh, Mr. Hubbard, Mr. Hubbard! Help Hannah! she's under there!"
"All right! Keep quiet, Mrs. Morrison! Take hold of your horse's head!" Bartley had first of all seized him by the bit, and pulled him to his feet; he was old and experienced in obedience, and he now stood waiting orders, patiently enough. Bartley seized the cutter and by an effort of all his strength righted it. The colt started and trembled, but Marcia called to him in Bartley's tone, "Still, Jerry!" and he obeyed her.
The girl, who had been caught under the overturned cutter, escaped like a wild thing out of a trap, when it was lifted, and, plunging some paces away, faced round upon her rescuer with the hood pulled straight and set comely to her face again, almost before he could ask, "Any bones broken, Hannah?"
"No!" she shouted. "Mother! mother! stop crying! Don't you see I'm not dead?" She leaped about, catching up this wrap and that, shaking the dry snow out of them, and flinging them back into the cutter, while she laughed in the wild tumult of her spirits. Bartley helped her pick up the fragments of the wreck, and joined her in making fun of the adventure. The wind hustled them, but they were warm in defiance of it with their jollity and their bustle.
"Why didn't you let me turn out?" demanded Bartley, as he and the girl stood on opposite sides of the cutter, rearranging the robes in it.
"Oh, I thought I could turn out well enough. You had a right to the road."
"Well, the next time you see any one past the turn-out, you better not start from the woods."
"Why, there's no more room in the woods to get past than there is here," cried the girl.
"There's more shelter."
"Oh, I'm not cold!" She flashed a look at him from her brilliant face, warm with all the glow of her young health, and laughed, and before she dropped her eyes, she included Marcia in her glance. They had already looked at each other without any sign of recognition. "Come, mother! All right, now!"
Her mother left the horse's head, and, heavily ploughing back to the cutter, tumbled herself in. The girl, from her side, began to climb in, but her weight made the sleigh careen, and she dropped down with a gay shriek.
Bartley came round and lifted her in; the girl called to her horse, and drove up into the road and away.
Bartley looked after her a moment, and continued to glance in that direction when he stood stamping the snow off his feet, and brushing it from his legs and arms, before he remounted to Marcia's side. He was excited, and talked rapidly and loudly, as he took the reins from Marcia's passive hold, and let the colt out. "That girl is the pluckiest fool, yet! Wouldn't let me turn out because I had the right of way! And she wasn't going to let anybody else have a hand in getting that old ark of theirs afloat again. Good their horse wasn't anything like Jerry! How well Jerry behaved! Were you frightened, Marsh?" He bent over to see her face, but she had not her head on his shoulder, and she did not sit close to him, now. "Did you freeze?"
"Oh, no! I got along very well," she answered, dryly, and edged away as far as the width of the seat would permit. "It would have been better for you to lead their horse up into the road, and then she could have got in without your help. Her mother got in alone."
He took the reins into his left hand, and, passing his strong right around her, pulled her up to his side. She resisted, with diminishing force; at last she ceased to resist, and her head fell passively to its former place on his shoulder. He did not try to speak any word of comfort; he only held her close to him; when she looked up, as they entered the village, she confronted him with a brilliant smile that ignored her tears.
But that night, when she followed him to the door, she looked him searchingly in the eyes. "I wonder if you really do despise me, Bartley?" she asked.
"Certainly," he answered, with a jesting smile. "What for?"
"For showing out my feelings so. For not even trying to pretend not to care everything for you."
"It wouldn't be any use your trying: I should know that you did, anyway."
"Oh, don't laugh, Bartley, don't laugh! I don't believe that I ought to. I've heard that it makes people sick of you. But I can't help it,—I can't help it! And if—if you think I'm always going to be so,—and that I'm going to keep on getting worse and worse, and making you so unhappy, why, you'd better break your engagement now—while you have a chance."
"What have you been making me unhappy about, I should like to know? I thought I'd been having a very good time."
She hid her face against his breast. "It almost killed me to see you there with her. I was so cold,—my hands were half frozen, holding the reins,—and I was so afraid of the colt I didn't know what to do; and I had been keeping up my courage on your account; and you seemed so long about it all; and she could have got in perfectly well—as well as her mother did—without your help—" Her voice broke in a miserable sob, and she clutched herself tighter to him.
He smoothed down her hair with his hand. "Why, Marsh! Did you think that made me unhappy? I didn't mind it a bit. I knew what the trouble was, at the time; but I wasn't going to say anything. I knew you would be all right as soon as you could think it over. You don't suppose I care anything for that girl?"
"No," answered a rueful sob. "But I wish you didn't have anything to do with her. I know she'll make trouble for you, somehow."
"Well," said Bartley, "I can't very well turn her off as long as she does her work. But you needn't be worried about making me unhappy. If anything, I rather liked it. It showed how much you did care for me." He bent toward her, with a look of bright raillery, for the parting kiss. "Now then: once, twice, three times,—and good night it is!"
The spectacle of a love affair in which the woman gives more of her heart than the man gives of his is so pitiable that we are apt to attribute a kind of merit to her, as if it were a voluntary self-sacrifice for her to love more than her share. Not only other men, but other women, look on with this canonizing compassion; for women have a lively power of imagining themselves in the place of any sister who suffers in matters of sentiment, and are eager to espouse the common cause in commiserating her. Each of them pictures herself similarly wronged or slighted by the man she likes best, and feels how cruel it would be if he were to care less for her than she for him; and for the time being, in order to realize the situation, she loads him with all the sins of omission proper to the culprit in the alien case. But possibly there is a compensation in merely loving, even where the love given is out of all proportion to the love received.
If Bartley Hubbard's sensations and impressions of the day had been at all reasoned, that night as he lay thinking it over, he could unquestionably have seen many advantages for Marcia in the affair,—perhaps more than for himself. But to do him justice he did not formulate these now, or in any wise explicitly recognize the favors he was bestowing. At twenty-six one does not naturally compute them in musing upon the girl to whom one is just betrothed; and Bartley's mind was a confusion of pleasure. He liked so well to think how fond of him Marcia was, that it did not occur to him then to question whether he were as fond of her. It is possible that as he drowsed, at last, there floated airily through the consciousness which was melting and dispersing itself before the approach of sleep, an intimation from somewhere to some one that perhaps the affair need not be considered too seriously. But in that mysterious limbo one cannot be sure of what is thought and what is dreamed; and Bartley always acquitted himself, and probably with justice, of any want of seriousness.
What he did make sure of when he woke was that he was still out of sorts, and that he had again that dull headache; and his instant longing for sympathy did more than anything else to convince him that he really loved Marcia, and had never, in his obscurest or remotest feeling, swerved in his fealty to her. In the atmosphere of her devotion yesterday, he had so wholly forgotten his sufferings that he had imagined himself well; but now he found that he was not well, and he began to believe that he was going to have what the country people call a fit of sickness. He felt that he ought to be taken care, of, that he was unfit to work; and in his vexation at not being able to go to Marcia for comfort-it really amounted to nothing less—he entered upon the day's affairs with fretful impatience.
The Free Press was published on Tuesdays, and Monday was always a busy time of preparation. The hands were apt also to feel the demoralization that follows a holiday, even when it has been a holy day. The girls who set the type of the Free Press had by no means foregone the rights and privileges of their sex in espousing their art, and they had their beaux on Sunday night like other young ladies. It resulted that on Monday morning they were nervous and impatient, alternating between fits of giggling delight in the interchange of fond reminiscences, and the crossness which is pretty sure to disfigure human behavior from want of sleep. But ordinarily Bartley got on very well with them. In spite of the assumption of equality between all classes in Equity, they stood in secret awe of his personal splendor, and the tradition of his achievements at college and in the great world; and a flattering joke or a sharp sarcasm from him went a great way with them. Besides, he had an efficient lieutenant in Henry Bird, the young printer who had picked up his trade in the office, and who acted as Bartley's foreman, so far as the establishment had an organization. Bird had industry and discipline which were contagious, and that love of his work which is said to be growing rare among artisans in the modern subdivision of trades. This boy—for he was only nineteen—worked at his craft early and late out of pleasure in it. He seemed one of those simple, subordinate natures which are happy in looking up to whatever assumes to be above them. He exulted to serve in a world where most people prefer to be served, and it is uncertain whether he liked his work better for its own sake, or Bartley's, for whom he did it. He was slight and rather delicate in health, and it came natural for Bartley to patronize him. He took him on the long walks of which he was fond, and made him in some sort his humble confidant, talking to him of himself and his plans with large and braggart vagueness. He depended upon Bird in a great many things, and Bird never failed him; for he had a basis of constancy that was immovable. "No," said a philosopher from a neighboring logging-camp, who used to hang about the printing-office a long time after he had got his paper, "there aint a great deal of natural git up and howl about Henry; but he stays put." In the confidences which Bartley used to make Bird, he promised that, when he left the newspaper for the law, he would see that no one else succeeded him. The young fellow did not need this promise to make him Bartley's fast friend, but it colored his affection with ambitious enthusiasm; to edit and publish a newspaper,—his dreams did not go beyond that: to devote it to Bartley's interest in the political life on which Bartley often hinted he might enter,—that would be the sweetest privilege of realized success. Bird already wrote paragraphs for the Free Press, and Bartley let him make up a column of news from the city exchanges, which was partly written and partly selected.
Bartley came to the office rather late on Monday morning, bringing with him the papers from Saturday night's mail, which had lain unopened over Sunday, and went directly into his own room, without looking into the printing-office. He felt feverish and irritable, and he resolved to fill up with selections and let his editorial paragraphing go, or get Bird to do it. He was tired of the work, and sick of Equity; Marcia's face seemed to look sadly in upon his angry discontent, and he no longer wished to go to her for sympathy. His door opened, and, without glancing from the newspaper which he held up before him, he asked, "What is it, Bird? Do you want copy?"
"Well, no, Mr. Hubbard," answered Bird, "we have copy enough for the force we've got this morning."
"Why, what's up?" demanded Bartley, dropping his paper.
"Lizzie Sawyer has sent word that she is sick, and we haven't heard or seen anything of Hannah Morrison."
"Confound the girls!" said Bartley, "there's always something the matter with them." He rubbed his hand over his forehead, as if to rub out the dull pain there. "Well," he said, "I must go to work myself, then." He rose, and took hold of the lapels of his coat, to pull it off; but something in Bird's look arrested him. "What is it?" he asked.
"Old Morrison was here, just before you came in, and said he wanted to see you. I think he was drunk," said Bird, anxiously. "He said he was coming back again."
"All right; let him come," replied Bartley. "This is a free country,—especially in Equity. I suppose he wants Hannah's wages raised, as usual. How much are we behind on the paper, Henry?"
"We're not a great deal behind, Mr. Hubbard, if we were not so weak-handed."
"Perhaps we can get Hannah back, during the forenoon. At any rate, we can ask her honored parent when he comes."
Where Morrison got his liquor was a question that agitated Equity from time to time, and baffled the officer of the law empowered to see that no strong drink came into the town. Under conditions which made it impossible even in the logging-camps, and rendered the sale of spirits too precarious for the apothecary, who might be supposed to deal in them medicinally, Morrison never failed of his spree when the mysterious mechanism of his appetite enforced it. Probably it was some form of bedevilled cider that supplied the material of his debauch; but even cider was not easily to be had.
Morrison's spree was a movable feast, and recurred at irregular intervals of two, or three, or even six weeks; but it recurred often enough to keep him poor, and his family in a social outlawry against which the kindly instincts of their neighbors struggled in vain. Mrs. Morrison was that pariah who, in a village like Equity, cuts herself off from hope by taking in washing; and it was a decided rise in the world for Hannah, a wild girl at school, to get a place in the printing-office. Her father had applied for it humbly enough at the tremulous and penitent close of one of his long sprees, and was grateful to Bartley for taking the special interest in her which she reported at home.
But the independence of a drunken shoemaker is proverbial, and Morrison's meek spirit soared into lordly arrogance with his earliest cups. The first warning which the community had of his change of attitude was the conspicuous and even defiant closure of his shop, and the scornful rejection of custom, however urgent or necessitous. All Equity might go in broken shoes, for any patching or half-soling the people got from him. He went about collecting his small dues, and paying up his debts as long as the money lasted, in token of his resolution not to take any favors from any man thereafter. Then he retired to his house on one of the by streets, and by degrees drank himself past active offence. It was of course in his defiant humor that he came to visit Bartley, who had learned to expect him whenever Hannah failed to appear promptly at her work. The affair was always easily arranged. Bartley instantly assented, with whatever irony he liked, to Morrison's demands; he refused with overwhelming politeness even to permit him to give himself the trouble to support them by argument; he complimented Hannah inordinately as one of the most gifted and accomplished ladies of his acquaintance, and inquired affectionately after the health of each member of the Morrison family. When Morrison rose to go he always said, in shaking hands, "Well, sir, if there was more like you in Equity a poor man could get along. You're a gentleman, sir." After getting some paces away from the street door, he stumbled back up the stairs to repeat, "You're a gentleman!" Hannah came during the day, and the wages remained the same: neither of the contracting parties regarded the increase so elaborately agreed upon, and Morrison, on becoming sober, gratefully ignored the whole transaction, though, by a curious juggle of his brain, he recurred to it in his next spree, and advanced in his new demand from the last rise: his daughter was now nominally in receipt of an income of forty dollars a week, but actually accepted four.
Bartley, on his part, enjoyed the business as an agreeable excitement and a welcome relief from the monotony of his official life. He never hurried Morrison's visits, but amused himself by treating him with the most flattering distinction, and baffling his arrogance by immediate concession. But this morning, when Morrison came back with a front of uncommon fierceness, he merely looked up from his newspapers, to which he had recurred, and said coolly. "Oh, Mr. Morrison! Good morning. I suppose it's that little advance that you wish to see me about. Take a chair. What is the increase you ask this time? Of course I agree to anything."
He leaned forward, pencil in hand, to make a note of the figure Morrison should name, when the drunkard approached and struck the table in front of him with his fist, and blazed upon Bartley's face, suddenly uplifted, with his blue crazy eyes:
"No, sir! I won't take a seat, and I don't come on no such business! No, sir!" He struck the table again, and the violence of his blow upset the inkstand.
Bartley saved himself by suddenly springing away. "Hollo here!" he shouted. "What do you mean by this infernal nonsense?"
"What do you mean," retorted the drunkard, "by makin' up to my girl?"
"You're a fool," cried Bartley, "and drunk!"
"I'll show you whether I'm a fool, and I'll show you whether I'm drunk," said Morrison. He opened the door and beckoned to Bird, with an air of mysterious authority. "Young man! Come here!"
Bird was used to the indulgence with which Bartley treated Morrison's tipsy freaks, and supposed that he had been called by his consent to witness another agreement to a rise in Hannah's wages. He came quickly, to help get Morrison out of the way the sooner, and he was astonished to be met by Bartley with "I don't want you, Bird."
"All right," answered the boy, and he turned to go out of the door.
But Morrison had planted himself against it, and waved Bird austerely back. "I want you," he said, with drunken impressiveness, "for a witness—wick—witness—while I ask Mr. Hubbard what he means by—"
"Hold your tongue!" cried Bartley. "Get out of this!" He advanced a pace or two toward Morrison who stood his ground without swerving.
"Now you—you keep quiet, Mr. Hubbard," said Morrison, with a swift drunken change of mood, by which he passed from arrogant denunciation to a smooth, patronizing mastery of the situation. "I wish this thing all settled amic—ic—amelcabilly."
Bartley broke into a helpless laugh at Morrison's final failure on a word difficult to sober tongues, and the latter went on: "No 'casion for bad feeling on either side. All I want know is what you mean."
"Well, go on!" cried Bartley, good-naturedly, and he sat down in his chair, which he tilted back, and, clasping his hands behind his head, looked up into Morrison's face. "What do I mean by what?"
Probably Morrison had not expected to be categorical, or to bring anything like a bill of particulars against Bartley, and this demand gave him pause. "What you mean," he said, at last, "by always praising her up so?"
"What I said. She's a very good girl, and a very bright one. You don't deny that?"
"No—no matter what I deny. What—what you lend her all them books for?"
"To improve her mind. You don't object to that? I thought you once thanked me for taking an interest in her."
"Don't you mind what I object to, and what I thank you for," said Morrison, with dignity. "I know what I'm about."
"I begin to doubt. But get on. I'm in a great hurry this morning," said Bartley.
Morrison seemed to be making a mental examination of his stock of charges, while the strain of keeping his upright position began to tell upon him, and he swayed to and fro against the door. "What's that word you sent her by my boy, Sat'day night?"
"That she was a smart girl, and would be sure to get on if she was good—or words to that effect. I trust there was no offence in that, Mr. Morrison?"
Morrison surrendered, himself to another season of cogitation, in which he probably found his vagueness growing upon him. He ended by fumbling in all his pockets, and bringing up from the last a crumpled scrap of paper. "What you—what you say that?"
Bartley took the extended scrap with an easy air. "Miss Morrison's handwriting, I think." He held it up before him and read aloud, "'I love my love with an H because he is Handsome.' This appears to be a confidence of Miss Morrison to her Muse. Whom do you think she refers to, Mr. Morrison?"
"What's—what's the first letter your name?" demanded Morrison, with an effort to collect his dispersing severity.
"B," promptly replied Bartley. "Perhaps this concerns you, Henry. Your name begins with an H." He passed the paper up over his head to Bird, who took it silently. "You see," he continued, addressing Bird, but looking at Morrison as he spoke, "Mr. Morrison wishes to convict me of an attempt upon Miss Hannah's affections. Have you anything else to urge, Mr. Morrison?"
Morrison slid at last from his difficult position into a convenient chair, and struggled to keep himself from doubling forward. "I want know what you mean," he said, with dogged iteration.
"I'll show you what I mean," said Bartley with an ugly quiet, while his mustache began to twitch. He sprang to his feet and seized Morrison by the collar, pulling him up out of the chair till he held him clear of the floor, and opened the door with his other hand. "Don't show your face here again,—you or your girl either!" Still holding the man by the collar, he pushed him before him through the office, and gave him a final thust out of the outer door.
Bartley returned to his room in a white heat: "Miserable tipsy rascal!" he panted; "I wonder who has set him on to this thing."
Bird stood pale and silent, still, nolding the crumpled scrap of paper in his hand.
"I shouldn't be surprised if that impudent little witch herself had put him up to it. She's capable of it," said Bartley, fumbling aimlessly about on his table, in his wrath, without looking at Bird.
"It's a lie!" said Bird.
Bartley started as if the other had struck him, and as he glared at Bird the anger went out of his face for pure amazement. "Are you out of your mind, Henry?" he asked calmly. "Perhaps you're drunk too, this morning. The Devil seems to have got into pretty much everybody."
"It's a lie!" repeated the boy, while the tears sprang to his eyes. "She's as good a girl as Marcia Gaylord is, any day!"
"Better go away, Henry," said Bartley, with a deadly sort of gentleness.
"I'm going away," answered the boy, his face twisted with weeping. "I've done my last day's work for you." He pulled down his shirt-sleeves, and buttoned them at the wrists, while the tears ran out over his face,—helpless tears, the sign of his womanish tenderness, his womanish weakness.
Bartley continued to glare at him. "Why, I do believe you're in love with her yourself, you little fool!"
"Oh, I've been a fool!" cried Bird. "A fool to think as much of you as I always have,—a fool to believe that you were a gentleman, and wouldn't take a mean advantage. I was a fool to suppose you wanted to do her any good, when you came praising and flattering her, and turning her head!"
"Well, then," said Bartley with harsh insolence, "don't be a fool any longer. If you're in love with her, you haven't any quarrel with me, my boy. She flies at higher game than humble newspaper editors. The head of Willett's lumbering gang is your man; and so you may go and tell that old sot, her father. Why, Henry! You don't mean to say you care anything for that girl?"
"And do you mean to say you haven't done everything you could to turn her head since she's been in this office? She used to like me well enough at school." All men are blind and jealous children alike, when it comes to question of a woman between them, and this poor boy's passion was turning him into a tiger. "Don't come to me with your lies, any more!" Here his rage culminated, and with a blind cry of "Ay!" he struck the paper which he had kept in his hand into Bartley's face.
The demons, whatever they were, of anger, remorse, pride, shame, were at work in Bartley's heart too, and he returned the blow as instantly as if Bird's touch had set the mechanism of his arm in motion. In contempt of the other's weakness he struck with the flat of his hand; but the blow was enough. Bird fell headlong, and the concussion of his head upon the floor did the rest. He lay senseless.
Bartley hung over the boy with such a terror in his soul as he had never had before. He believed that he had killed him, and in this conviction came with the simultaneity of events in dreams the sense of all his blame, of which the blow given for a blow seemed the least part. He was not so wrong in that as he was wrong in what led to it. He did not abhor in himself so much the wretch who had struck his brother down as the light and empty fool who had trifled with that silly hoyden. The follies that seemed so amusing and resultless in their time had ripened to this bitter effect, and he knew that he, and not she, was mainly culpable. Her self-betrayal, however it came about, was proof that they were more serious with her than with him, and he could not plead to himself even the poor excuse that his fancy had been caught. Amidst the anguish of his self-condemnation the need to conceal what he had done occurred to him. He had been holding Bird's head in his arms, and imploring him, "Henry! Henry! wake up!" in a low, husky voice; but now he turned to the door and locked it, and the lie by which he should escape sprang to his tongue. "He died in a fit." He almost believed it as it murmured itself from his lips. There was no mark, no bruise, nothing to show that he had touched the boy. Suddenly he felt the lie choke him. He pulled down the window to let in the fresh air, and this pure breath of heaven blew into his darkened spirit and lifted there a little the vapors which were thickening in it. The horror of having to tell that lie, even if he should escape by it, all his life long, till he was a gray old man, and to keep the truth forever from his lips, presented itself to him as intolerable slavery. "Oh, my God!" he spoke aloud, "how can I bear that?" And it was in self-pity that he revolted from it. Few men love the truth for its own sake, and Bartley was not one of these; but he practised it because his experience had been that lies were difficult to manage, and that they were a burden on the mind. He was not candid; he did not shun concealments and evasions; but positive lies he had kept from, and now he could not trust one to save his life. He unlocked the door and ran out to find help; he must do that at last; he must do it at any risk; no matter what he said afterward. When our deeds and motives come to be balanced at the last day, let us hope that mercy, and not justice, may prevail.
It must have been mercy that sent the doctor at that moment to the apothecary's, on the other side of the street, and enabled Bartley to get him up into his office, without publicity or explanation other than that Henry Bird seemed to be in a fit. The doctor lifted the boy's head, and explored his bosom with his hand.
"Is he—is he dead?" gasped Bartley, and the words came so mechanically from his tongue that he began to believe he had not spoken them, when the doctor answered.
"No! How did this happen? Tell me exactly."
"We had a quarrel. He struck me. I knocked him down." Bartley delivered up the truth, as a prisoner of war—or a captive brigand, perhaps—parts with his weapons one by one.
"Very well," said the doctor. "Get some water."
Bartley poured some out of the pitcher on his table, and the doctor, wetting his handkerchief, drew it again and again over Bird's forehead.
"I never meant to hurt him," said Bartley. "I didn't even intend to strike him when he hit me."
"Intentions have very little to do with physical effects," replied the doctor sharply. "Henry!"
The boy opened his eyes, and, muttering feebly, "My head!" closed them again.
"There's a concussion here," said the doctor. "We had better get him home. Drive my sleigh over, will you, from Smith's."
Bartley went out into the glare of the sun, which beat upon him like the eye of the world. But the street was really empty, as it often was in the middle of the forenoon at Equity. The apothecary, who saw him untying the doctor's horse, came to his door, and said jocosely, "Hello, Doc! who's sick?"
"I am," said Bartley, solemnly, and the apothecary laughed at his readiness. Bartley drove round to the back of the printing-office, where the farmers delivered his wood. "I thought we could get him out better that way," he explained, and the doctor, who had to befriend a great many concealments in his practice, silently spared Bartley's disingenuousness.
The rush of the cold air, as they drove rapidly down the street, with that limp shape between them, revived the boy, and he opened his eyes, and made an effort to hold himself erect, but he could not; and when they got him into the warm room at home, he fainted again. His mother had met them at the door of her poor little house, without any demonstration of grief or terror; she was far too well acquainted in her widowhood—bereft of all her children but this son—with sickness and death, to show even surprise, if she felt it. When Bartley broke out into his lamentable confession, "Oh, Mrs. Bird! this is my work!" she only wrung her hands and answered, "Your work! Oh, Mr. Hubbard, he thought the world of you!" and did not ask him how or why he had done it. After they had got Henry on the bed, Bartley was no longer of use there; but they let him remain in the corner into which he had shrunk, and from which he watched all that went on, with a dry mouth and faltering breath. It began to appear to him that he was very young to be involved in a misfortune like this; he did not understand why it should have happened to him; but he promised himself that, if Henry lived, he would try to be a better man in every way.
After he had lost all hope, the time seemed so long, the boy on the bed opened his eyes once more, and looked round, while Bartley still sat with his face in his hands. "Where—where is Mr. Hubbard?" he faintly asked, with a bewildered look at his mother and the doctor.
Bartley heard the weak voice, and staggered forward, and fell on his knees beside the bed. "Here, here! Here I am, Henry! Oh, Henry, I didn't intend—" He stopped at the word, and hid his face in the coverlet.
The boy lay as if trying to make out what had happened, and the doctor told him that he had fainted. After a time, he put out his hand and laid it on Bartley's head. "Yes; but I don't understand what makes him cry."
They looked at Bartley, who had lifted his head, and he went over the whole affair, except so far as it related to Hannah Morrison; he did not spare himself; he had often found that strenuous self-condemnation moved others to compassion; and besides, it was his nature to seek the relief of full confession. But Henry heard him through with a blank countenance. "Don't you remember?" Bartley implored at last.
"No, I don't remember. I only remember that there seemed to be something the matter with my head this morning."
"That was the trouble with me, too," said Bartley. "I must have been crazy—I must have been insane—when I struck you. I can't account for it."
"I don't remember it," answered the boy.
"That's all right," said the doctor. "Don't try. I guess you better let him alone, now," he added to Bartley, with such a significant look that the young man retired from the bedside, and stood awkwardly apart. "He'll get along. You needn't be anxious about leaving him. He'll be better alone."
There was no mistaking this hint. "Well, well!" said Bartley, humbly, "I'll go. But I'd rather stay and watch with him,—I sha'n't eat or sleep till he's on foot again. And I can't leave till you tell me that you forgive me, Mrs. Bird. I never dreamed—I didn't intend—" He could not go on.
"I don't suppose you meant to hurt Henry," said the mother. "You always pretended to be so fond of him, and he thought the world of you. But I don't see how you could do it. I presume it was all right."
"No, it was all wrong,—or so nearly all wrong that I must ask your forgiveness on that ground. I loved him,—I thought the world of him, too. I'd ten thousand times rather have hurt myself," pleaded Bartley. "Don't let me go till you say that you forgive me."
"I'll see how Henry gets along," said Mrs. Bird. "I don't know as I could rightly say I forgive you just yet." Doubtless she was dealing conscientiously with herself and with him. "I like to be sure of a thing when I say it," she added.
The doctor followed him into the hall, and Bartley could not help turning to him for consolation. "I think Mrs. Bird is very unjust, Doctor. I've done everything I could, and said everything to explain the matter; and I've blamed myself where I can't feel that I was to blame; and yet you see how she holds out against me."
"I dare say," answered the doctor dryly, "she'll feel differently, as she says, if the boy gets along."
Bartley dropped his hat to the floor. "Get along! Why—why you think he'll get well now, don't you, Doctor?"
"Oh, yes; I was merely using her words. He'll get well."
"And—and it wont affect his mind, will it? I thought it was very strange, his not remembering anything about it—"
"That's a very common phenomenon," said the doctor. "The patient usually forgets everything that occurred for some little time before the accident, in cases of concussion of the brain." Bartley shuddered at the phrase, but he could not ask anything further. "What I wanted to say to you," continued the doctor, "was that this may be a long thing, and there may have to be an inquiry into it. You're lawyer enough to understand what that means. I should have to testify to what I know, and I only know what you told me."
"Why, you don't doubt—"
"No, sir; I've no reason to suppose you haven't told me the truth, as far as it goes. If you have thought it advisable to keep anything back from me, you may wish to tell the whole story to an attorney."
"I haven't kept anything back, Doctor Wills," said Bartley. "I've told you everything—everything that concerned the quarrel. That drunken old scoundrel of a Morrison got us into it. He accused me of making love to his daughter; and Henry was jealous—I never knew he cared anything for her. I hated to tell you this before his mother. But this is the whole truth, so help me God."
"I supposed it was something of the kind," replied the doctor. "I'm sorry for you. You can't keep it from having an ugly look if it gets out; and it may have to be made public. I advise you to go and see Squire Gaylord; he's always stood your friend."
"I—I was just going there," said Bartley; and this was true.
Through all, he had felt the need of some sort of retrieval,—of re-establishing himself in his own esteem by some signal stroke; and he could think of but one thing. It was not his fault if he believed that this must combine self-sacrifice with safety, and the greatest degree of humiliation with the largest sum of consolation. He was none the less resolved not to spare himself at all in offering to release Marcia from her engagement. The fact that he must now also see her father upon the legal aspect of his case certainly complicated the affair, and detracted from its heroic quality. He could not tell which to see first, for he naturally wished his action to look as well as possible; and if he went first to Marcia, and she condemned him, he did not know in what figure he should approach her father. If, on the other hand, he went first to Squire Gaylord, the old lawyer might insist that the engagement was already at an end by Bartley's violent act, and might well refuse to let a man in his position even see his daughter. He lagged heavy-heartedly up the middle of the street, and left the question to solve itself at the last moment. But when he reached Squire Gaylord's gate, it seemed to him that it would be easier to face the father first; and this would be the right way too.
He turned aside to the little office, and opened the door without knocking, and as he stood with the knob in his hand, trying to habituate his eyes, full of the snow-glare, to the dimmer light within, he heard a rapturous cry of "Why Bartley!" and he felt Marcia's arms flung around his neck. His burdened heart yearned upon her with a tenderness he had not known before; he realized the preciousness of an embrace that might be the last; but he dared not put down his lips to hers. She pushed back her head in a little wonder, and saw the haggardness of his face, while he discovered her father looking at them. How strong and pure the fire in her must be when her father's presence could not abash her from this betrayal of her love! Bartley sickened, and he felt her arms slip from his neck. "Why—why—what is the matter?"
In spite of some vaguely magnanimous intention to begin at the beginning, and tell the whole affair just as it happened, Bartley found himself wishing to put the best face on it at first, and trust to chances to make it all appear well. He did not speak at once, and Marcia pressed him into a chair, and then, like an eager child, who will not let its friend escape till it has been told what it wishes to know, she set herself on his knee, and put her hand on his shoulder. He looked at her father, not at her, while he spoke hoarsely: "I have had trouble with Henry Bird, Squire Gaylord, and I've come to tell you about it."
The old squire did not speak, but Marcia repeated in amazement, "With Henry Bird?"
"He struck me—"
"Henry Bird struck you!" cried the girl. "I should like to know why Henry Bird struck you, when you've made so much of him, and he's always pretended to be so grateful—"
Bartley still looked at her father. "And I struck him back."
"You did perfectly right, Bartley," exclaimed Marcia, "and I should have despised you if you had let any one run over you. Struck you! I declare—"
He did not heed her, but continued to look at her father. "I didn't intend to hurt him,—I hit him with my open hand,—but he fell and struck his head on the floor. I'm afraid it hurt him pretty badly." He felt the pang that thrilled through the girl at his words, and her hand trembled on his shoulder; but she did not take it away.
The old man came forward from the pile of books which he and Marcia had been dusting, and sat down in a chair on the other side of the stove. He pushed back his hat from his forehead, and asked drily, "What commenced it?"
Bartley hesitated. It was this part of the affair which he would rather have imparted to Marcia after seeing it with her father's eyes, or possibly, if her father viewed it favorably, have had him tell her. The old man noticed his reluctance. "Hadn't you better go into the house, Marsh?"
She merely gave him a look of utter astonishment for answer, and did not move. He laughed noiselessly, and said to Bartley, "Go on."
"It was that drunken old scoundrel of a Morrison who began it!" cried Bartley, in angry desperation. Marcia dropped her hand from his shoulder, while her father worked his jaws upon the bit of stick he had picked up from the pile of wood, and put between his teeth. "You know that whenever he gets on a spree he comes to the office and wants Hannah's wages raised."
Marcia sprang to her feet. "Oh, I knew it! I knew it! I told you she would get you into trouble! I told you so!" She stood clinching her hands, and her father bent his keen scrutiny first upon her, and then upon the frowning face with which Bartley regarded her.
"Did he come to have her wages raised to-day?"
"What did he come for?" He involuntarily assumed the attitude of a lawyer crossquestioning a slippery witness.
"He came for—He came—He accused me of—He said I had—made love to his confounded girl."
"What made him think you had?"
"It wasn't necessary for him to have any reason. He was drunk. I had been kind to the girl, and favored her all I could, because she seemed to be anxious to do her work well; and I praised her for trying."
"Um-umph," commented the Squire. "And that made Henry Bird jealous?"
"It seems that he was fond of her. I never dreamed of such a thing, and when I put old Morrison out of the office, and came back, he called me a liar, and struck me in the face." He did not lift his eyes to the level of Marcia's, who in her gray dress stood there like a gray shadow, and did not stir or speak.
"And you never had made up to the girl at all?"
"Kissed her, I suppose, now and then?" suggested the Squire.
Bartley did not reply.
"Flattered her up, and told how much you thought of her, occasionally?"
"I don't see what that has to do with it," said Bartley with a sulky defiance.
"No, I suppose it's what you'd do with most any pretty girl," returned the Squire. He was silent awhile. "And so you knocked Henry down. What happened then?"
"I tried to bring him to, and then I went for the doctor. He revived, and we got him home to his mother's. The doctor says he will get well; but he advised me to come and see you."
"Any witnesses of the assault?"
"No; we were alone in my own room."
"Told any one else about it?"
"I told the doctor and Mrs. Bird. Henry couldn't remember it at all."
"Couldn't remember about Morrison, or what made him mad at you?"
"And that's all about it?"
The two men had talked across the stove at each other, practically ignoring the girl, who stood apart from them, gray in the face as her dress, and suppressing a passion which had turned her as rigid as stone.
"Now, Marcia," said her father, kindly, "better go into the house. That's all there is of it."
"No, that isn't all," she answered. "Give me my ring, Bartley. Here's yours." She slipped it off her finger, and put it into his mechanically extended hand.
"Marcia!" he implored, confronting her.
"Give me my ring, please."
He obeyed, and put it into her hand. She slipped it back on the finger from which she had so fondly suffered him to take it yesterday, and replace it with his own.
"I'll go into the house now, father. Good by, Bartley." Her eyes were perfectly clear and dry, and her voice controlled; and as he stood passive before her, she took him round the neck, and pressed against his face, once, and twice, and thrice, her own gray face, in which all love, and unrelenting, and despair, were painted. Once and again she held him, and looked him in the eyes, as if to be sure it was he. Then, with a last pressure of her face to his, she released him, and passed out of the door.
"She's been talking about you, here, all the morning," said the Squire, with a sort of quiet absence, as if nothing in particular had happened, and he were commenting on a little fact that might possibly interest Bartley. He ruminated upon the fragment of wood in his mouth awhile before he added: "I guess she won't want to talk about you any more. I drew you out a little on that Hannah Morrison business, because I wanted her to understand just what kind of fellow you were. You see it isn't the trouble you've got into with Henry Bird that's killed her; it's the cause of the trouble. I guess if it had been anything else, she'd have stood by you. But you see that's the one thing she couldn't bear, and I'm glad it's happened now instead of afterwards: I guess you're one of that kind, Mr. Hubbard."
"Squire Gaylord!" cried Bartley, "upon my sacred word of honor, there isn't any more of this thing than I've told you. And I think it's pretty hard to be thrown over for—for—"
"Fooling with a pretty girl, when you get a chance, and the girl seems to like it? Yes, it is rather hard. And I suppose you haven't even seen her since you were engaged to Marcia?"
"Of course not! That is—"
"It's a kind of retroactive legislation on Marcia's part," said the Squire, rubbing his chin, "and that's against one of the first principles of law. But women don't seem to be able to grasp that idea. They're queer about some things. They appear to think they marry a man's whole life,—his past as well as his future,—and that makes 'em particular. And they distinguish between different kinds of men. You'll find 'em pinning their faith to a fellow who's been through pretty much everything, and swearing by him from the word go; and another chap, who's never done anything very bad, they won't trust half a minute out of their sight. Well, I guess Marcia is of rather a jealous disposition," he concluded, as if Bartley had urged this point.
"She's very unjust to me," Bartley began.
"Oh, yes,—she's unjust," said her father. "I don't deny that. But it wouldn't be any use talking to her. She'd probably turn round with some excuse about what she had suffered, and that would be the end of it. She would say that she couldn't go through it again. Well, it ought to be a comfort to you to think you don't care a great deal about it."
"But I do care!" exclaimed Bartley. "I care all the world for it. I—"
"Since when?" interrupted the Squire. "Do you mean to say that you didn't know till you asked her yesterday that Marcia was in love with you?"
Bartley was silent.
"I guess you knew it as much as a year ago, didn't you? Everybody else did. But you'd just as soon it had been Hannah Morrison, or any other pretty girl. You didn't care! But Marcia did, you see. She wasn't one of the kind that let any good-looking fellow make love to them. It was because it was you; and you knew it. We're plain men, Mr. Hubbard; and I guess you'll get over this, in time. I shouldn't wonder if you began to mend, right away."
Bartley found himself helpless in the face of this passionless sarcasm. He could have met stormy indignation or any sort of invective in kind; but the contemptuous irony with which his pretensions were treated, the cold scrutiny with which his motives were searched, was something he could not meet. He tried to pull himself together for some sort of protest, but he ended by hanging his head in silence. He always believed that Squire Gaylord had liked him, and here he was treating him like his bitterest enemy, and seeming to enjoy his misery. He could not understand it; he thought it extremely unjust, and past all the measure of his offence. This was true, perhaps: but it is doubtful if Bartley would have accepted any suffering, no matter how nicely proportioned, in punishment of his wrong-doing. He sat hanging his head, and taking his pain in rebellious silence, with a gathering hate in his heart for the old man.
"M-well!" said the Squire, at last, rising from his chair, "I guess I must be going."
Bartley sprang to his feet aghast. "You're not going to leave me in the lurch, are you? You're not—"
"Oh, I shall take care of you, young man,—don't be afraid. I've stood your friend too long, and your name's been mixed up too much with my girl's, for me to let you come to shame openly, if I can help it. I'm going to see Dr. Wills about you, and I'm going to see Mrs. Bird, and try to patch it up somehow."
"And—and—where shall I go?" gasped Bartley.
"You might go to the Devil, for all I cared for you," said the old man, with the contempt which he no longer cared to make ironical. "But I guess you better go back to your office, and go to work as if nothing had happened—till something does happen. I shall close the paper out as soon as I can. I was thinking of doing that just before you came in. I was thinking of taking you into the law business with me. Marcia and I were talking about it here. But I guess you wouldn't like the idea now."
He seemed to get a bitter satisfaction out of these mockeries, from which, indeed, he must have suffered quite as much as Bartley. But he ended, sadly and almost compassionately, with, "Come, come! You must start some time." And Bartley dragged his leaden weight out of the door. The Squire closed it after him; but he did not accompany him down the street. It was plain that he did not wish to be any longer alone with Bartley, and the young man suspected, with a sting of shame, that he scorned to be seen with him.
The more Bartley dwelt upon his hard case, during the week that followed, the more it appeared to him that he was punished out of all proportion to his offence. He was in no mood to consider such mercies as that he had been spared from seriously hurting Bird; and that Squire Gaylord and Doctor Wills had united with Henry's mother in saving him from open disgrace. The physician, indeed, had perhaps indulged a professional passion for hushing the matter up, rather than any pity for Bartley. He probably had the scientific way of looking at such questions; and saw much physical cause for moral effects. He refrained, with the physician's reticence, from inquiring into the affair; but he would not have thought Bartley without excuse under the circumstances. In regard to the relative culpability in matters of the kind, his knowledge of women enabled him to take much the view of the woman's share that other women take.
But Bartley was ignorant of the doctor's leniency, and associated him with Squire Gaylord in the feeling that made his last week in Equity a period of social outlawry. There were moments in which he could not himself escape the same point of view. He could rebel against the severity of the condemnation he had fallen under in the eyes of Marcia and her father; he could, in the light of example and usage, laugh at the notion of harm in his behavior to Hannah Morrison; yet he found himself looking at it as a treachery to Marcia. Certainly, she had no right to question his conduct before his engagement. Yet, if he knew that Marcia loved him, and was waiting with life-and-death anxiety for some word of love from him, it was cruelly false to play with another at the passion which was such a tragedy to her. This was the point that, put aside however often, still presented itself, and its recurrence, if he could have known it, was mercy and reprieve from the only source out of which these could come.
Hannah Morrison did not return to the printing-office, and Bird was still sick, though it was now only a question of time when he should be out again. Bartley visited him some hours every day, and sat and suffered under the quiet condemnation of his mother's eyes. She had kept Bartley's secret with the same hardness with which she had refused him her forgiveness, and the village had settled down into an ostensible acceptance of the theory of a faint as the beginning of Bird's sickness, with such other conjectures as the doctor freely permitted each to form. Bartley found his chief consolation in the work which kept him out of the way of a great deal of question. He worked far into the night, as he must, to make up for the force that was withdrawn from the office. At the same time he wrote more than ever in the paper, and he discovered in himself that dual life of which every one who sins or sorrows is sooner or later aware: that strange separation of the intellectual activity from the suffering of the soul, by which the mind toils on in a sort of ironical indifference to the pangs that wring the heart; the realization that, in some ways, his brain can get on perfectly well without his conscience.
There was a great deal of sympathy felt for Bartley at this time, and his popularity in Equity was never greater than now when his life there was drawing to a close. The spectacle of his diligence was so impressive that when, on the following Sunday, the young minister who had succeeded to the pulpit of the orthodox church preached a sermon on the beauty of industry from the text "Consider the lilies," there were many who said that they thought of Bartley the whole while, and one—a lady—asked Mr. Savin if he did not have Mr. Hubbard in mind in the picture he drew of the Heroic Worker. They wished that Bartley could have heard that sermon.
Marcia had gone away early in the week to visit in the town where she used to go to school, and Bartley took her going away as a sign that she wished to put herself wholly beyond his reach, or any danger of relenting at sight of him. He talked with no one about her; and going and coming irregularly to his meals, and keeping himself shut up in his room when he was not at work, he left people very little chance to talk with him. But they conjectured that he and Marcia had an understanding; and some of the ladies used such scant opportunity as he gave them to make sly allusions to her absence and his desolate condition. They were confirmed in their surmise by the fact, known from actual observation, that Bartley had not spoken a word to any other young lady since Marcia went away.
"Look here, my friend," said the philosopher from, the logging-camp, when he came in for his paper on the Tuesday afternoon following, "seems to me from what I hear tell around here, you're tryin' to kill yourself on this newspaper. Now, it won't do; I tell you it won't do."
Bartley was addressing for the mail the papers which one of the girls was folding. "What are you going to do about it?" he demanded of his sympathizer with whimsical sullenness, not troubling himself to look up at him.
"Well, I haint exactly settled yet," replied the philosopher, who was of a tall, lank figure, and of a mighty brown beard. "But I've been around pretty much everywhere, and I find that about the poorest use you can put a man to is to kill him."
"It depends a good deal on the man," said Bartley. "But that's stale, Kinney. It's the old formula of the anti-capital-punishment fellows. Try something else. They're not talking of hanging me yet." He kept on writing, and the philosopher stood over him with a humorous twinkle of enjoyment at Bartley's readiness.
"Well, I'll allow it's old," he admitted. "So's Homer."
"Yes; but you don't pretend that you wrote Homer."
Kinney laughed mightily; then he leaned forward, and slapped Bartley on the shoulder with his newspaper. "Look here!" he exclaimed, "I like you!"
"Oh, try some other tack! Lots of fellows like me." Bartley kept on writing. "I gave you your paper, didn't I, Kinney?"
"You mean that you want me to get out?"
"Far be it from me to say so."
This delighted Kinney as much as the last refinement of hospitality would have pleased another man. "Look here!" he said, "I want you should come out and see our camp. I can't fool away any more time on you here; but I want you should come out and see us. Give you something to write about. Hey?"
"The invitation comes at a time when circumstances over which I have no control oblige me to decline it. I admire your prudence, Kinney."
"No, honest Injian, now," protested Kinney. "Take a day off, and fill up with dead advertisements. That's the way they used to do out in Alkali City when they got short of help on the Eagle, and we liked it just as well."
"Now you are talking sense," said Bartley, looking up at him. "How far is it to your settlement?"
"Two miles, if you're goin'; three and a half, if you aint."
"When are you coming in?"
"I'm in, now."
"I can't go with you to-day."
"Well, how'll to-morrow morning suit?"
"To-morrow morning will suit," said Bartley.
"All right. If anybody comes to see the editor to-morrow morning, Marilla," said Kinney to the girl, "you tell 'em he's sick, and gone a-loggin', and won't be back till Saturday. Say," he added, laying his hand on Bartley's shoulder, "you aint foolin'?"
"If I am," replied Bartley, "just mention it."
"Good!" said Kinney. "To-morrow it is, then."
Bartley finished addressing the newspapers, and then he put them up in wrappers and packages for the mail. "You can go, now, Marilla," he said to the girl. "I'll leave some copy for you and Kitty; you'll find it on my table in the morning."
"All right," answered the girl.
Bartley went to his supper, which he ate with more relish than he had felt for his meals since his troubles began, and he took part in the supper-table talk with something of his old audacity. The change interested the lady boarders, and they agreed that he must have had a letter. He returned to his office, and worked till nine o'clock, writing and selecting matter out of his exchanges. He spent most of the time in preparing the funny column, which was a favorite feature in the Free Press. Then he put the copy where the girls would find it in the morning, and, leaving the door unlocked, took his way up the street toward Squire Gaylord's.
He knew that he should find the lawyer in his office, and he opened the office door without knocking, and went in. He had not met Squire Gaylord since the morning of his dismissal, and the old man had left him for the past eight days without any sign as to what he expected of Bartley, or of what he intended to do in his affair.
They looked at each other, but exchanged no sort of greeting, as Bartley, unbidden, took a chair on the opposite side of the stove; the Squire did not put down the book he had been reading.
"I've come to see what you're going to do about the Free Press," said Bartley.
The old man rubbed his bristling jaw, that seemed even lanker than when Bartley saw it last. He waited almost a minute before he replied, "I don't know as I've got any call to tell you."
"Then I'll tell you what I'm going to do about it," retorted Bartley. "I'm going to leave it. I've done my last day's work on that paper. Do you think," he cried, angrily, "that I'm going to keep on in the dark, and let you consult your pleasure as to my future? No, sir! You don't know your man quite, Mr. Gaylord!"
"You've got over your scare," said the lawyer.
"I've got over my scare," Bartley retorted.
"And you think, because you're not afraid any longer, that you're out of danger. I know my man as well as you do, I guess."
"If you think I care for the danger, I don't. You may do what you please. Whatever you do, I shall know it isn't out of kindness for me. I didn't believe from the first that the law could touch me, and I wasn't uneasy on that account. But I didn't want to involve myself in a public scandal, for Miss Gaylord's sake. Miss Gaylord has released me from any obligations to her; and now you may go ahead and do what you like." Each of the men knew how much truth there was in this; but for the moment in his anger, Bartley believed himself sincere, and there is no question but his defiance was so. Squire Gaylord made him no answer, and after a minute of expectation Bartley added, "At any rate, I've done with the Free Press. I advise you to stop the paper, and hand the office over to Henry Bird, when he gets about. I'm going out to Willett's logging-camp tomorrow, and I'm coming back to Equity on Saturday. You'll know where to find me till then, and after that you may look me up if you want me."
He rose to go, but stopped with his hand on the door-knob, at a sound, preliminary to speaking, which the old man made in his throat. Bartley stopped, hoping for a further pretext of quarrel, but the lawyer merely asked, "Where's the key?"
"It's in the office door."
The old man now looked at him as if he no longer saw him, and Bartley went out, balked of his purpose in part, and in that degree so much the more embittered.
Squire Gaylord remained an hour longer; then he blew out his lamp, and left the little office for the night. A light was burning in the kitchen, and he made his way round to the back door of the house, and let himself in. His wife was there, sitting before the stove, in those last delicious moments before going to bed, when all the house is mellowed to such a warmth that it seems hard to leave it to the cold and dark. In this poor lady, who had so long denied herself spiritual comfort, there was a certain obscure luxury: she liked little dainties of the table; she liked soft warmth, an easy cushion. It was doubtless in the disintegration of the finer qualities of her nature, that, as they grew older together, she threw more and more the burden of acute feeling upon her husband, to whose doctrine of life she had submitted, but had never been reconciled. Marriage is, with all its disparities, a much more equal thing than appears, and the meek little wife, who has all the advantage of public sympathy, knows her power over her oppressor, and at some tender spot in his affections or his nerves can inflict an anguish that will avenge her for years of coarser aggression. Thrown in upon herself in so vital a matter as her religion, Mrs. Gaylord had involuntarily come to live largely for herself, though her talk was always of her husband. She gave up for him, as she believed, her soul's salvation, but she held him to account for the uttermost farthing of the price. She padded herself round at every point where she could have suffered through her sensibilities, and lived soft and snug in the shelter of his iron will and indomitable courage. It was not apathy that she had felt when their children died one after another, but an obscure and formless exultation that Mr. Gaylord would suffer enough for both.
Marcia was the youngest, and her mother left her training almost wholly to her father; she sometimes said that she never supposed the child would live. She did not actually urge this in excuse, but she had the appearance of doing so; and she held aloof from them both in their mutual relations, with mildly critical reserves. They spoiled each other, as father and daughter are apt to do when left to themselves. What was good in the child certainly received no harm from his indulgence; and what was naughty was after all not so very naughty. She was passionate, but she was generous; and if she showed a jealous temperament that must hereafter make her unhappy, for the time being it charmed and flattered her father to have her so fond of him that she could not endure any rivalry in his affection.
Her education proceeded fitfully. He would not let her be forced to household tasks that she disliked; and as a little girl she went to school chiefly because she liked to go, and not because she would have been obliged to it if she had not chosen. When she grew older, she wished to go away to school, and her father allowed her; he had no great respect for boarding-schools, but if Marcia wanted to try it, he was willing to humor the joke.
What resulted was a great proficiency in the things that pleased her, and ignorance of the other things. Her father bought her a piano, on which she did not play much, and he bought her whatever dresses she fancied. He never came home from a journey without bringing her something; and he liked to take her with him when he went away to other places. She had been several times at Portland, and once at Montreal; he was very proud of her; he could not see that any one was better-looking, or dressed any better than his girl.
He came into the kitchen, and sat down with his hat on, and, taking his chin between his fingers, moved uneasily about on his chair.
"What's brought you in so early?" asked his wife.
"Well, I got through," he briefly explained. After a while he said, "Bartley Hubbard's been out there."
"You don't mean 't he knew she—"
"No, he didn't know anything about that. He came to tell me he was going away."
"Well, I don't know what you're going to do, Mr. Gaylord," said his wife, shifting the responsibility wholly upon him. "'D he seem to want to make it up?"