Bartley closed the doors, and then, with his hands in his pockets, confronted her with a smile of wicked coolness. "Will you be good enough to tell me what you're talking about?"
"Do you pretend that you don't know? I met a woman at the bottom of the street just now. Do you know who?"
"No; but it's very dramatic. Go on!"
"It was Hannah Morrison! She reeled against me; and when I—such a fool as I was!—pitied her, because I was on my way home to you, and was thinking about you and loving you, and was so happy in it, and asked her how she came to that, she struck me, and told me to—to—ask my—husband!"
The transport broke in tears; the denunciation had turned to entreaty in everything but words; but Bartley had hardened his heart now past all entreaty. The idiotic penitent that he had been a few moments ago, the soft, well-meaning dolt, was so far from him now as to be scarce within the reach of his contempt. He was going to have this thing over once for all; he would have no mercy upon himself or upon her; the Devil was in him, and uppermost in him, and the Devil is fierce and proud, and knows how to make many base emotions feel like a just self-respect. "And did you believe a woman like that?" he sneered.
"Do I believe a man like this?" she demanded, with a dying flash of her fury. "You—you don't dare to deny it."
"Oh, no, I don't deny it. For one reason, it would be of no use. For all practical purposes, I admit it. What then?"
"What then?" she asked, bewildered. "Bartley; You don't mean it!"
"Yes, I do. I mean it. I don't deny it. What then? What are you going to do about it?" She gazed at him in incredulous horror. "Come! I mean what I say. What will you do?"
"Oh, merciful God! what shall I do?" she prayed aloud.
"That's just what I'm curious to know. When you leaped in here, just now, you must have meant to do something, if I couldn't convince you that the woman was lying. Well, you see that I don't try. I give you leave to believe whatever she said. What then?"
"Bartley!" she besought him in her despair. "Do you drive me from you?"
"Oh, no, certainly not. That isn't my way. You have driven me from you, and I might claim the right to retaliate, but I don't. I've no expectation that you'll go away, and I want to see what else you'll do. You would have me, before we were married; you were tolerably shameless in getting me; when your jealous temper made you throw me away, you couldn't live till you got me back again; you ran after me. Well, I suppose you've learnt wisdom, now. At least you won't try that game again. But what will you do?" He looked at her smiling, while he dealt her these stabs one by one.
She set down the child, and went out to the entry where its hat and cloak hung. She had not taken off her own things, and now she began to put on the little one's garments with shaking hands, kneeling before it. "I will never live with you again, Bartley," she said.
"Very well. I doubt it, as far as you're concerned; but if you go away now, you certainly won't live with me again, for I shall not let you come back. Understand that."
Each had most need of the other's mercy, but neither would have mercy.
"It isn't for what you won't deny. I don't believe that. It's for what you've said now." She could not make the buttons and the button-holes of the child's sack meet with her quivering fingers; he actually stooped down and buttoned the little garment for her, as if they had been going to take the child out for a walk between them. She caught it up in her arms, and, sobbing "Good by, Bartley!" ran out of the room.
"Recollect that if you go, you don't come back," he said. The outer door crashing to behind her was his answer.
He sat down to think, before the fire he had built for her. It was blazing brightly now, and the whole room had a hideous cosiness. He could not think, he must act. He went up to their room, where the gas was burning low, as if she had lighted it and then frugally turned it down as her wont was. He did not know what his purpose was, but it developed itself. He began to pack his things in a travelling-bag which he took out of the closet, and which he had bought for her when she set out for Equity in the summer; it had the perfume of her dresses yet.
When this was finished, he went down stairs again and being now strangely hungry he made a meal of such things as he found set out on the tea-table. Then he went over the papers in his secretary; he burnt some of them, and put others into his bag.
After all this was done he sat down by the fire again, and gave Marcia a quarter of an hour longer in which to return. He did not know whether he was afraid that she would or would not come. But when the time ended, he took up his bag and went out of the house. It began to rain, and he went back for an umbrella: he gave her that one chance more, and he ran up into their room. But she had not come back. He went out again, and hurried away through the rain to the Albany Depot, where he bought a ticket for Chicago. There was as yet nothing definite in his purpose, beyond the fact that he was to be rid of her: whether for a long or short time, or forever, he did not yet know; whether he meant ever to communicate with her, or seek or suffer a reconciliation, the locomotive that leaped westward into the dark with him knew as well as he.
Yet all the mute, obscure forces of habit, which are doubtless the strongest forces in human nature, were dragging him back to her. Because their lives had been united so long, it seemed impossible to sever them, though their union had been so full of misery and discord; the custom of marriage was so subtile and so pervasive, that his heart demanded her sympathy for what he was suffering in abandoning her. The solitude into which he had plunged stretched before him so vast, so sterile and hopeless, that he had not the courage to realize it; he insensibly began to give it limits: he would return after so many months, weeks, days.
He passed twenty-four hours on the train, and left it at Cleveland for the half-hour it stopped for supper. But he could not eat; he had to own to himself that he was beaten, and that he must return, or throw himself into the lake. He ran hastily to the baggage-car, and effected the removal of his bag; then he went to the ticket-office, and waited at the end of a long queue for his turn at the window. His turn came at last, and he confronted the nervous and impatient ticket-agent, without speaking.
"Well, sir, what do you want?" demanded the agent. Then, with rising temper, "What is it? Are you deaf? Are you dumb? You can't expect to stand there all night!"
The policeman outside the rail laid his hand on Bartley's shoulder: "Move on, my friend."
He obeyed, and reeled away in a fashion that confirmed the policeman's suspicions. He searched his pockets again and again; but his porte-monnaie was in none of them. It had been stolen, and Halleck's money with the rest. Now he could not return; nothing remained for him but the ruin he had chosen.
Halleck prolonged his summer vacation beyond the end of October. He had been in town from time to time and then had set off again on some new absence; he was so restless and so far from well during the last of these flying visits, that the old people were glad when he wrote them that he should stay as long as the fine weather continued. He spoke of an interesting man whom he had met at the mountain resort where he was staying; a Spanish-American, attached to one of the Legations at Washington, who had a scheme for Americanizing popular education in his own country. "He has made a regular set at me," Halleck wrote, "and if I had not fooled away so much time already on law and on leather, I should like to fool away a little more on such a cause as this." He did not mention the matter again in his letters; but the first night after his return, when they all sat together in the comfort of having him at home again, he asked his father, "What should you think of my going to South America?"
The old man started up from the pleasant after-supper drowse into which he was suffering himself to fall, content with Halleck's presence, and willing to leave the talk to the women folk. "I don't know what you mean, Ben?"
"I suppose it's my having the matter so much in mind that makes me feel as if we had talked it over. I mentioned it in one of my letters."
"Yes," returned his father; "but I presumed you were joking."
Halleck frowned impatiently; he would not meet the gaze of his mother and sisters, but he addressed himself again to his father. "I don't know that I was in earnest." His mother dropped her eyes to her mending, with a faint sigh of relief. "But I can't say," he added, "that I was joking, exactly. The man himself was very serious about it." He stopped, apparently to govern an irritable impulse, and then he went on to set the project of his Spanish-American acquaintance before them, explaining it in detail.
At the end, "That's good," said his father, "but why need you have gone, Ben?"
The question seemed to vex Halleck; he did not answer at once. His mother could not bear to see him crossed, and she came to his help against herself and his father, since it was only supposing the case. "I presume," she said, "that we could have looked at it as a missionary work."
"It isn't a missionary work, mother," answered Halleck, severely, "in any sense that you mean. I should go down there to teach, and I should be paid for it. And I want to say at once that they have no yellow-fever nor earthquakes, and that they have not had a revolution for six years. The country's perfectly safe every way, and so wholesome that it will be a good thing for me. But I shouldn't expect to convert anybody."
"Of course not, Ben," said his mother, soothingly.
"I hope you wouldn't object to it if it were a missionary work," said one of the elder sisters.
"No, Anna," returned Ben.
"I merely wanted to know," said Anna.
"Then I hope you're satisfied, Anna," Olive cut in. "Ben won't refuse to convert the Uruguayans if they apply in a proper spirit."
"I think Anna had a right to ask," said Miss Louisa, the eldest.
"Oh, undoubtedly, Miss Halleck," said Olive. "I like to see Ben reproved for misbehavior to his mother, myself."
Her father laughed at Olive's prompt defence. "Well, it's a cause that we've all got to respect; but I don't see why you should go, Ben, as I said before. It would do very well for some young fellow who had no settled prospects, but you've got your duties here. I presume you looked at it in that light. As you said in your letter, you've fooled away so much time on leather and law—"
"I shall never amount to anything in the law!" Ben broke out. His mother looked at him in anxiety; his father kept a steady smile on his face; Olive sat alert for any chance that offered to put down her elder sisters, who drew in their breath, and grew silently a little primmer. "I'm not well—"
"Oh, I know you're not, dear," interrupted his mother, glad of another chance to abet him.
"I'm not strong enough to go on with the line of work I've marked out, and I feel that I'm throwing away the feeble powers I have."
His father answered with less surprise than Halleck had evidently expected, for he had thrown out his words with a sort of defiance; probably the old man had watched him closely enough to surmise that it might come to this with him at last. At any rate, he was able to say, without seeming to assent too readily, "Well, well, give up the law, then, and come back into leather, as you call it. Or take up something else. We don't wish to make anything a burden to you; but take up some useful work at home. There are plenty of things to be done."
"Not for me," said Halleck, gloomily.
"Oh, yes, there are," said the old man.
"I see you are not willing to have me go," said Halleck, rising in uncontrollable irritation. "But I wish you wouldn't all take this tone with me!"
"We haven't taken any tone with you, Ben," said his mother, with pleading tenderness.
"I think Anna has decidedly taken a tone," said Olive.
Anna did not retort, but "What tone?" demanded Louisa, in her behalf.
"Hush, children," said their mother.
"Well, well," suggested his father to Ben. "Think it over, think it over. There's no hurry."
"I've thought it over; there is hurry," retorted Halleck. "If I go, I must go at once."
His mother arrested her thread, half drawn through the seam, letting her hand drop, while she glanced at him.
"It isn't so much a question of your giving up the law, Ben, as of your giving up your family and going so far away from us all," said his father. "That's what I shouldn't like."
"I don't like that, either. But I can't help it." He added, "Of course, mother, I shall not go without your full and free consent. You and father must settle it between you." He fetched a quick, worried sigh as he put his hand on the door.
"Ben isn't himself at all," said Mrs. Halleck, with tears in her eyes, after he had left the room.
"No," said her husband. "He's restless. He'll get over this idea in a few days." He urged this hope against his wife's despair, and argued himself into low spirits.
"I don't believe but what it would be the best thing for his health, may be," said Mrs. Halleck, at the end.
"I've always had my doubts whether he would ever come to anything in the law," said the father.
The elder sisters discussed Halleck's project apart between themselves, as their wont was with any family interest, and they bent over a map of South America, so as to hide what they were doing from their mother.
Olive had left the room by another door, and she intercepted Halleck before he reached his own.
"What is the matter, Ben?" she whispered.
"Nothing," he answered, coldly. But he added, "Come in, Olive."
She followed him, and hovered near after he turned up the gas.
"I can't stand it here, I must go," he said, turning a dull, weary look upon her.
"Who was at the Elm House that you knew this last time?" she asked, quickly.
"Laura Dixmore isn't driving me away, if you mean that," replied Halleck.
"I couldn't believe it was she! I should have despised you if it was. But I shall hate her, whoever it was."
Halleck sat down before his table, and his sister sank upon the corner of a chair near it, and looked wistfully at him. "I know there is some one!"
"If you think I've been fool enough to offer myself to any one, Olive, you're very much mistaken."
"Oh, it needn't have come to that," said Olive, with indignant pity.
"My life's a failure here," cried Halleck, moving his head uneasily from side to side. "I feel somehow as if I could go out there and pick up the time I've lost. Great Heaven!" he cried, "if I were only running away from some innocent young girl's rejection, what a happy man I should be!"
"It's some horrid married thing, then, that's been flirting with you!"
He gave a forlorn laugh. "I'd almost confess it to please you, Olive. But I'd prefer to get out of the matter without lying, if I could. Why need you suppose any reason but the sufficient one I've given?—Don't afflict me! don't imagine things about me, don't make a mystery of me! I've been blunt and awkward, and I've bungled the business with father and mother; but I want to get away because I'm a miserable fraud here, and I think I might rub on a good while there before I found myself out again."
"Ben," demanded Olive, regardless of his words, "what have you been doing?"
"The old story,—nothing."
"Is that true, Ben?"
"You used to be satisfied with asking once, Olive."
"You haven't been so wicked, so careless, as to get some poor creature in love with, you, and then want to run away from the misery you've made?"
"I suppose if I look it there's no use denying it," said Halleck, letting his sad eyes meet hers, and smiling drearily. "You insist upon having a lady in the case?"
"Yes. But I see you won't tell me anything; and I won't afflict you. Only I'm afraid it's just some silly thing, that you've got to brooding over, and that you'll let drive you away."
"Well, you have the comfort of reflecting that I can't get away, whatever the pressure is."
"You know better than that, Ben; and so do I. You know that, if you haven't got father and mother's consent already, it's only because you haven't had the heart to ask for it. As far as that's concerned, you're gone already. But I hope you won't go without thinking it over, as father says,—and talking it over. I hate to have you seem unsteady and fickle-minded, when I know you're not; and I'm going to set myself against this project till I know what's driving you from us,—or till I'm sure that it's something worth while. You needn't expect that I shall help to make it easy for you; I shall help to make it hard."
Her loving looks belied her threats; if the others could not resist Ben when any sort of desire showed itself through his habitual listlessness, how could she, who understood him best and sympathized with him most? "There was something I was going to talk to you about, to-night, if you hadn't scared us all with this ridiculous scheme, and ask you whether you couldn't do something." She seemed to suggest the change of interest with the hope of winning his thoughts away from the direction they had taken; but he listened apathetically, and left her to go further or not as she chose. "I think," she added abruptly, "that some trouble is hanging over those wretched Hubbards."
"Some new one?" asked Halleck, with sad sarcasm, turning his eyes towards her, as if with the resolution of facing her.
"You know he's left his place on that newspaper."
"Yes, I heard that when I was at home before."
"There are some very disagreeable stories about it. They say he was turned away by Mr. Witherby for behaving badly,—for printing something he oughtn't to have done."
"That was to have been expected," said Halleck.
"He hasn't found any other place, and Marcia says he gets very little work to do. He must be running into debt, terribly. I feel very anxious about them. I don't know what they're living on."
"Probably on some money I lent him," said Halleck, quietly. "I lent him fifteen hundred in the spring. It ought to make him quite comfortable for the present."
"Oh, Ben! Why did you lend him money? You might have known he wouldn't do any good with it."
Halleck explained how and why the loan had been made, and added: "If he's supporting his family with it, he's doing some good. I lent it to him for her sake."
Halleck looked hardily into his sister's face, but he dropped his eyes when she answered, simply: "Yes, of course. But I don't believe she knows anything about it; and I'm glad of it: it would only add to her trouble. She worships you, Ben!"
"She seems to think you are perfect, and she never comes here but she asks when you're to be home. I suppose she thinks you have a good influence on that miserable husband of hers. He's going from bad to worse, I guess. Father heard that he is betting on the election. That's what he's doing with your money."
"It would be somebody else's money if it wasn't mine," said Halleck. "Bartley Hubbard must live, and he must have the little excitements that make life agreeable."
"Poor thing!" sighed Olive, "I don't know what she would do if she heard that you were going away. To hear her talk, you would think she had been counting the days and hours till you got back. It's ridiculous, the way she goes on with mother; asking everything about you, as if she expected to make Bartley Hubbard over again on your pattern. I should hate to have anybody think me such a saint as she does you. But there isn't much danger, thank goodness! I could laugh, sometimes, at the way she questions us all about you, and is so delighted when she finds that you and that wretch have anything in common. But it's all too miserably sad. She certainly is the most single-hearted creature alive," continued Olive, reflectively. "Sometimes she scares me with her innocence. I don't believe that even her jealousy ever suggested a wicked idea to her: she's furious because she feels the injustice of giving so much more than he does. She hasn't really a thought for anybody else: I do believe that if she were free to choose from now till doomsday she would always choose Bartley Hubbard, bad as she knows him to be. And if she were a widow, and anybody else proposed to her, she would be utterly shocked and astonished."
"Very likely," said Halleck, absently.
"I feel very unhappy about her," Olive resumed. I know that she's anxious and troubled all the time. Can't you do something, Ben? Have a talk with that disgusting thing, and see if you can't put him straight again, somehow?"
"No!" exclaimed Halleck, bursting violently from his abstraction. "I shall have nothing to do with them! Let him go his own way and the sooner he goes to the—I won't interfere,—I can't, I mustn't! I wonder at you, Olive!" He pushed away from the table, and went limping about the room, searching here and there for his hat and stick, which were on the desk where he had put them, in plain view. As he laid hand on them at last, he met his sister's astonished eyes. "If I interfered, I should not interfere because I cared for him at all!" he cried.
"Of course not," said Olive. "But I don't see anything to make you wonder at me about that."
"It would be because I cared for her—"
"Certainly! You didn't suppose I expected you to interfere from any other motive?"
He stood looking at her in stupefaction, with his hand on his hat and stick, like a man who doubts whether he has heard aright. Presently a shiver passed over him, another light came into his eyes, and he said quietly, "I'm going out to see Atherton."
"To-night?" said his sister, accepting provisionally, as women do, the apparent change of subject. "Don't go to-night, Ben! You're too tired."
"I'm not tired. I intended to see him to-night, at any rate. I want to talk over this South American scheme with him." He put on his hat, and moved quickly toward the door.
"Ask him about the Hubbards," said Olive. "Perhaps he can tell you something."
"I don't want to know anything. I shall ask him nothing."
She slipped between him and the door. "Ben, you haven't heard anything against poor Marcia, have you?"
"You don't think she's to blame in any way for his going wrong, do you?
"How could I?"
"Then I don't understand why you won't do anything to help her."
He looked at her again, and opened his lips to speak once, but closed them before he said, "I've got my own affairs to worry me. Isn't that reason enough for not interfering in theirs?"
"Not for you, Ben."
"Then I don't choose to mix myself up in other people's misery. I don't like it, as you once said."
"But you can't help it sometimes, as you said."
"I can this time, Olive. Don't you see,—" he began.
"I see there's something you won't tell me. But I shall find it out." She threatened him half playfully.
"I wish you could," he answered. "Then perhaps you'd let me know." She opened the door for him now, and as he passed out he said gently, "I am tired, but I sha'n't begin to rest till I have had this talk with Atherton. I had better go."
"Yes," Olive assented, "you'd better." She added in banter, "You're altogether too mysterious to be of much comfort at home."
The family heard him close the outside door behind him after Olive came back to them, and she explained, "He's gone out to talk it over with Mr. Atherton."
His father gave a laugh of relief. "Well, if he leaves it to Atherton, I guess we needn't worry about it."
"The child isn't at all well," said his mother.
Halleck met Atherton at the door of his room with his hat and coat on. "Why, Halleck! I was just going to see if you had come home!"
"You needn't now," said Halleck, pushing by him into the room. "I want to see you, Atherton, on business."
Atherton took off his hat, and closed the door with one hand, while he slipped the other arm out of his overcoat sleeve. "Well, to tell the truth, I was going to mingle a little business myself with the pleasure of seeing you." He turned up the gas in his drop-light, and took the chair from which he had looked across the table at Halleck, when they talked there before. "It's the old subject," he said, with a sense of repetition in the situation. "I learn from Witherby that Hubbard has taken that money of yours out of the Events, and from what I hear elsewhere he is making ducks and drakes of it on election bets. What shall you do about it?"
"Nothing," said Halleck.
"Oh! Very well," returned Atherton, with the effect of being a little snubbed, but resolved to take his snub professionally. He broke out, however, in friendly exasperation: "Why in the world did you lend the fellow that money?"
Halleck lifted his brooding eyes, and fixed them half pleadingly, half defiantly upon his friend's face. "I did it for his wife's sake."
"Yes, I know," returned Atherton. "I remember how you felt. I couldn't share your feeling, but I respected it. However, I doubt if your loan was a benefit to either of them. It probably tempted him to count upon money that he hadn't earned, and that's always corrupting."
"Yes," Halleck replied. "But I can't say that, so far as he's concerned, I'm very sorry. I don't suppose it would do her any good if I forced him to disgorge any balance he may have left from his wagers?"
"Then I shall let him alone."
The subject was dismissed, and Atherton waited for Halleck to speak of the business on which he had come. But Halleck only played with the paper cutter which his left hand had found on the table near him, and, with his chin sunk on his breast, seemed lost in an unhappy reverie.
"I hope you won't accuse yourself of doing him an injury," said Atherton, at last, with a smile.
"Injury?" demanded Halleck, quickly. "What injury? How?"
"By lending him that money."
"Oh! I had forgotten that; I wasn't thinking of it," returned Halleck impatiently. "I was thinking of something different. I'm aware of disliking the man so much, that I should be willing to have greater harm than that happen to him,—the greatest, for what I know. Though I don't know, after all, that it would be harm. In another life, if there is one, he might start in a new direction; but that isn't imaginable of him here; he can only go from bad to worse; he can only make more and more sorrow and shame. Why shouldn't one wish him dead, when his death could do nothing but good?"
"I suppose you don't expect me to answer such a question seriously."
"But suppose I did?"
"Then I should say that no man ever wished any such good as that, except from the worst motive; and the less one has to do with such questions, even as abstractions, the better."
"You're right," said Halleck. "But why do you call it an abstraction?"
"Because, in your case, nothing else is conceivable."
"I told you I was willing the worst should happen to him."
"And I didn't believe you."
Halleck lay back in his chair, and laughed wearily. "I wish I could convince somebody of my wickedness. But it seems to be useless to try. I say things that ought to raise the roof, both to you here and to Olive at home, and you tell me you don't believe me, and she tells me that Mrs. Hubbard thinks me a saint. I suppose now, that if I took you by the button-hole and informed you confidentially that I had stopped long enough at 129 Clover Street to put Bartley Hubbard quietly out of the way, you wouldn't send for a policeman."
"I should send for a doctor," said Atherton.
"Such is the effect of character! And yet out of the fulness of the heart, the mouth speaketh. Out of the heart proceed all those unpleasant things enumerated in Scripture; but if you bottle them up there, and keep your label fresh, it's all that's required of you, by your fellow-beings, at least. What an amusing thing morality would be if it were not—otherwise. Atherton, do you believe that such a man as Christ ever lived?"
"I know you do, Halleck," said Atherton.
"Well, that depends upon what you call me. It what I was—if my well Sunday-schooled youth—is I, I do. But if I, poising dubiously on the momentary present, between the past and future, am I, I'm afraid I don't. And yet it seems to me that I have a fairish sort of faith. I know that, if Christ never lived on earth, some One lived who imagined him, and that One must have been a God. The historical fact oughtn't to matter. Christ being imagined, can't you see what a comfort, what a rapture, it must have been to all these poor souls to come into such a presence and be looked through and through? The relief, the rest, the complete exposure of Judgment Day—"
"Every day is Judgment Day," said Atherton.
"Yes, I know your doctrine. But I mean the Last Day. We ought to have something in anticipation of it, here, in our social system. Character is a superstition, a wretched fetish. Once a year wouldn't be too often to seize upon sinners whose blameless life has placed them above suspicion, and turn them inside out before the community, so as to show people how the smoke of the Pit had been quietly blackening their interior. That would destroy character as a cult." He laughed again. "Well, this isn't business,—though it isn't pleasure, either, exactly. What I came for was to ask you something. I've finished at the Law School, and I'm just ready to begin here in the office with you. Don't you think it would be a good time for me to give up the law? Wait a moment!" he said, arresting in Atherton an impulse to speak. "We will take the decent surprise, the friendly demur, the conscientious scruple, for granted. Now, honestly, do you believe I've got the making of a lawyer in me?"
"I don't think you're very well, Halleck," Atherton began.
"Ah, you're a lawyer! You won't give me a direct answer!"
"I will if you wish," retorted Atherton.
"Do you want to give it up?"
"Then do it. No man ever prospered in it yet who wanted to leave it. And now, since it's come to this, I'll tell you what I really have thought, all along. I've thought that, if your heart was really set on the law, you would overcome your natural disadvantages for it; but if the time ever came when you were tired of it, your chance was lost: you never would make a lawyer. The question is, whether that time has come."
"It has," said Halleck.
"Then stop, here and now. You've wasted two years' time, but you can't get it back by throwing more after it. I shouldn't be your friend, I shouldn't be an honest man, if I let you go on with me, after this. A bad lawyer is such a very bad thing. This isn't altogether a surprise to me, but it will be a blow to your father," he added, with a questioning look at Halleck, after a moment.
"It might have been, if I hadn't taken the precaution to deaden the place by a heavier blow first."
"Ah! you've spoken to him already?"
"Yes, I've had it out in a sneaking, hypothetical way. But I could see that, so far as the law was concerned it was enough; it served. Not that he's consented to the other thing; there's where I shall need your help, Atherton. I'll tell you what my plan is." He stated it bluntly at first; and then went over the ground and explained it fully, as he had done at home. Atherton listened without permitting any sign of surprise to escape him; but he listened with increasing gravity, as if he heard something not expressed in Halleck's slow, somewhat nasal monotone, and at the end he said, "I approve of any plan that will take you away for a while. Yes, I'll speak to your father about it."
"If you think you need any conviction, I could use arguments to bring it about in you," said Halleck, in recognition of his friend's ready concurrence.
"No, I don't need any arguments to convince me, I believe," returned Atherton.
"Then I wish you'd say something to bring me round! Unless argument is used by somebody, the plan always produces a cold chill in me." Halleck smiled, but Atherton kept a sober face. "I wish my Spanish American was here! What makes you think it's a good plan? Why should I disappoint my father's hopes again, and wring my mother's heart by proposing to leave them for any such uncertain good as this scheme promises?" He still challenged his friend with a jesting air, but a deeper and stronger feeling of some sort trembled in his voice.
Atherton would not reply to his emotion; he answered, with obvious evasion: "It's a good cause; in some sort—the best sort—it's a missionary work."
"That's what my mother said to me."
"And the change will be good for your health."
"That's what I said to my mother!"
Atherton remained silent, waiting apparently for Halleck to continue, or to end the matter there, as he chose.
It was some moments before Halleck went on; "You would say, wouldn't you, that my first duty was to my own undertakings, and to those who had a right to expect their fulfilment from me? You would say that it was an enormity to tear myself away from the affection that clings to me in that home of mine, yonder, and that nothing but some supreme motive, could justify me? And yet you pretend to be satisfied with the reasons I've given you. You're not dealing honestly with me, Atherton!"
"No," said Atherton, keeping the same scrutiny of Halleck's face which he had bent upon him throughout, but seeming now to hear his thoughts rather than his words. "I knew that you would have some supreme motive; and if I have pretended to approve your scheme on the reasons you have given me, I haven't dealt honestly with you. But perhaps a little dishonesty is the best thing under the circumstances. You haven't told me your real motive, and I can't ask it"
"But you imagine it?"
"And what do you imagine? That I have been disappointed in love? That I have been rejected? That the girl who had accepted me has broken her engagement? Something of that sort?" demanded Halleck, scornfully.
Atherton did not answer.
"Oh, how far you are from the truth! How blest and proud and happy I should be if it were the truth!" He looked into his friend's eyes, and added bitterly: "You're not curious, Atherton; you don't ask me what my trouble really is! Do you wish me to tell you what it is without asking?"
Atherton kept turning a pencil end for end between his fingers, while a compassionate smile slightly curved his lips. "No," he said, finally, "I think you had better not tell me your trouble. I can believe very well without knowing it that it's serious—"
"Oh, tragic!" said Halleck, self-contemptuously.
"But I doubt if it would help you to tell it. I've too much respect for your good sense to suppose that it's an unreality; and I suspect that confession would only weaken you. If you told me, you would feel that you had made me a partner in your responsibility, and you would be tempted to leave the struggle to me. If you're battling with some temptation, some self-betrayal, you must make the fight alone: you would only turn to an ally to be flattered into disbelief of your danger or your culpability."
Halleck assented with a slight nod to each point that the lawyer made. "You're right," he said, "but a man of your subtlety can't pretend that he doesn't know what the trouble is in such a simple case as mine."
"I don't know anything certainly," returned Atherton, "and as far as I can I refuse to imagine anything. If your trouble concerns some one besides yourself,—and no great trouble can concern one man alone,—you've no right to tell it."
"Another Daniel come to judgment!"
"You must trust to your principles, your self-respect, to keep you right—"
Halleck burst into a harsh laugh, and rose from his chair: "Ah, there you abdicate the judicial function! Principles, self-respect! Against that? Don't you suppose I was approached through my principles and self-respect? Why, the Devil always takes a man on the very highest plane. He knows all about our principles and self-respect, and what they're made of. How the noblest and purest attributes of our nature, with which we trap each other so easily, must amuse him! Pity, rectitude, moral indignation, a blameless life,—he knows that they're all instruments for him. No, sir! No more principles and self-respect for me,—I've had enough of them; there's nothing for me but to run, and that's what I'm going to do. But you're quite right about the other thing, Atherton, and I give you a beggar's thanks for telling me that my trouble isn't mine alone, and I've no right to confide it to you. It is mine in the sense that no other soul is defiled with the knowledge of it, and I'm glad you saved me from the ghastly profanation, the sacrilege, of telling it. I was sneaking round for your sympathy; I did want somehow to shift the responsibility on to you; to get you—God help me!—to flatter me out of my wholesome fear and contempt of myself. Well! That's past, now, and—Good night!" He abruptly turned away from Atherton and swung himself on his cane toward the door.
Atherton took up his hat and coat. "I'll walk home with you," he said.
"All right," returned Halleck, listlessly.
"How soon shall you go?" asked the lawyer, when they were in the street.
"Oh, there's a ship sailing from New York next week," said Halleck, in the same tone of weary indifference. "I shall go in that."
They talked desultorily of other things.
When they came to the foot of Clover Street, Halleck plucked his hand out of Atherton's arm. "I'm going up through here!" he said, with sullen obstinacy.
"Better not," returned his friend, quietly.
"Will it hurt her if I stop to look at the outside of the house where she lives?"
"It will hurt you," said Atherton.
"I don't wish to spare myself!" retorted Halleck. He shook off the touch that Atherton had laid upon his shoulder, and started up the hill; the other overtook him, and, like a man who has attempted to rule a drunkard by thwarting his freak, and then hopes to accomplish his end by humoring it, he passed his arm through Halleck's again, and went with him. But when they came to the house, Halleck did not stop; he did not even look at it; but Atherton felt the deep shudder that passed through him.
In the week that followed, they met daily, and Halleck's broken pride no longer stayed him from the shame of open self-pity and wavering purpose. Atherton found it easier to persuade the clinging reluctance of the father and mother, than to keep Halleck's resolution for him: Halleck could no longer keep it for himself. "Not much like the behavior of people we read of in similar circumstances," he said once. "They never falter when they see the path of duty: they push forward without looking to either hand; or else," he added, with a hollow laugh at his own satire, "they turn their backs on it,—like men! Well!"
He grew gaunt and visibly feeble. In this struggle the two men changed places. The plan for Halleck's flight was no longer his own, but Atherton's; and when he did not rebel against it, he only passively acquiesced. The decent pretence of ignorance on Atherton's part necessarily disappeared: in all but words the trouble stood openly confessed between them, and it came to Atherton's saying, in one of Halleck's lapses of purpose, from which it had required all the other's strength to lift him: "Don't come to me any more, Halleck, with the hope that I shall somehow justify your evil against your good. I pitied you at first; but I blame you now."
"You're atrocious," said Halleck, with a puzzled, baffled look. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you secretly think you have somehow come by your evil virtuously; and you want me to persuade you that it is different from other evils of exactly the same kind,—that it is beautiful and sweet and pitiable, and not ugly as hell and bitter as death, to be torn out of you mercilessly and flung from you with abhorrence. Well, I tell you that you are suffering guiltily, for no man suffers innocently from such a cause. You must go, and you can't go too soon. Don't suppose that I find anything noble in your position. I should do you a great wrong if I didn't do all I could to help you realize that you're in disgrace, and that you're only making a choice of shames in running away. Suppose the truth was known,—suppose that those who hold you dear could be persuaded of it,—could you hold up your head?"
"Do I hold up my head as it is?" asked Halleck. "Did you ever see a more abject dog than I am at this moment? Your wounds are faithful, Atherton; but perhaps you might have spared me this last stab. If you want to know, I can assure you that I don't feel any melodramatic vainglory. I know that I'm running away because I'm beaten, but no other man can know the battle I've fought. Don't you suppose I know how hideous this thing is? No one else can know it in all its ugliness!" He covered his face with his hands. "You are right," he said, when he could find his voice. "I suffer guiltily. I must have known it when I seemed to be suffering for pity's sake; I knew it before, and when you said that love without marriage was a worse hell than any marriage without love, you left me without refuge: I had been trying not to face the truth, but I had to face it then. I came away in hell, and I have lived in hell ever since. I had tried to think it was a crazy fancy, and put it on my failing health; I used to make believe that some morning I should wake and find the illusion gone. I abhorred it from the beginning as I do now; it has been torment to me; and yet somewhere in my lost soul—the blackest depth, I dare say!—this shame has been so sweet,—it is so sweet,—the one sweetness of life—Ah!" He dashed the weak tears from his eyes, and rose and buttoned his coat about him. "Well, I shall go. And I hope I shall never come back. Though you needn't mention this to my father as an argument for my going when you talk me over with him," he added, with a glimmer of his wonted irony. He waited a moment, and then turned upon his friend, in sad upbraiding: "When I came to you a year and a half ago, after I had taken that ruffian home drunk to her—Why didn't you warn me then, Atherton? Did you see any danger?"
Atherton hesitated: "I knew that, with your habit of suffering for other people, it would make you miserable; but I couldn't have dreamed this would come of it. But you've never been out of your own keeping for a moment. You are responsible, and you are to blame if you are suffering now, and can find no safety for yourself but in running away."
"That's true," said Halleck, very humbly, "and I won't trouble you any more. I can't go on sinning against her belief in me here, and live. I shall go on sinning against it there, as long as I live; but it seems to me the harm will be a little less. Yes, I will go."
But the night before he went, he came to Atherton's lodging to tell him that he should not go; Atherton was not at home, and Halleck was spared this last dishonor. He returned to his father's house through the rain that was beginning to fall lightly, and as he let himself in with his key Olive's voice said, "It's Ben!" and at the same time she laid her hand upon his arm with a nervous, warning clutch. "Hush! Come in here!" She drew him from the dimly lighted hall into the little reception-room near the door. The gas was burning brighter there, and in the light he saw Marcia white and still, where she sat holding her baby in her arms. They exchanged no greeting: it was apparent that her being there transcended all usage, and that they need observe none.
"Ben will go home with you," said Olive, soothingly. "Is it raining?" she asked, looking at her brother's coat. "I will get my water-proof."
She left them a moment. "I have been—been walking—walking about," Marcia panted. "It has got so dark—I'm—afraid to go home. I hate to—take you from them—the last—night."
Halleck answered nothing; he sat staring at her till Olive came back with the water-proof and an umbrella. Then, while his sister was putting the waterproof over Marcia's shoulders, he said, "Let me take the little one," and gathered it, with or without her consent, from her arms into his. The baby was sleeping; it nestled warmly against him with a luxurious quiver under the shawl that Olive threw round it. "You can carry the umbrella," he said to Marcia.
They walked fast, when they got out into the rainy dark, and it was hard to shelter Halleck as he limped rapidly on. Marcia ran forward once, to see if her baby were safely kept from the wet, and found that Halleck had its little face pressed close between his neck and cheek. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I'm looking out for it."
His voice sounded broken and strange, and neither of them spoke again till they came in sight of Marcia's door. Then she tried to stop him. She put her hand on his shoulder. "Oh, I'm afraid—afraid to go in," she pleaded.
He halted, and they stood confronted in the light of a street lamp; her face was twisted with weeping. "Why are you afraid?" he demanded, harshly.
"We had a quarrel, and I—I ran away—I said that I would never come back. I left him—"
"You must go back to him," said Halleck. "He's your husband!" He pushed on again, saying over and over, as if the words were some spell in which he found safety, "You must go back, you must go back, you must go back!"
He dragged her with him now, for she hung helpless on his arm, which she had seized, and moaned to herself. At the threshold, "I can't go in!" she broke out. "I'm afraid to go in! What will he say? What will he do? Oh, come in with me! You are good,—and then I shall not be afraid!"
"You must go in alone! No man can be your refuge from your husband! Here!" He released himself, and, kissing the warm little face of the sleeping child, he pressed it into her arms. His fingers touched hers under the shawl; he tore his hand away with a shiver.
She stood a moment looking at the closed door; then she flung it open, and, pausing as if to gather her strength, vanished into the brightness within.
He turned, and ran crookedly down the street, wavering from side to side in his lameness, and flinging up his arms to save himself from falling as he ran, with a gesture that was like a wild and hopeless appeal.
Marcia pushed into the room where she had left Bartley. She had no escape from her fate; she must meet it, whatever it was. The room was empty, and she began doggedly to search the house for him, up stairs and down, carrying the child with her. She would not have been afraid now to call him; but she had no voice, and she could not ask the servant anything when she looked into the kitchen. She saw the traces of the meal he had made in the dining-room, and when she went a second time to their chamber to lay the little girl down in her crib, she saw the drawers pulled open, and the things as he had tossed them about in packing his bag. She looked at the clock on the mantel—an extravagance of Bartley's, for which she had scolded him—and it was only half past eight; she had thought it must be midnight.
She sat all night in a chair beside the bed; in the morning she drowsed and dreamed that she was weeping on Bartley's shoulder, and he was joking her and trying to comfort her, as he used to do when they were first married; but it was the little girl, sitting up in her crib, and crying loudly for her breakfast. She put on the child a pretty frock that Bartley liked, and when she had dressed her own tumbled hair she went down stairs, feigning to herself that they should find him in the parlor. The servant was setting the table for breakfast, and the little one ran forward: "Baby's chair; mamma's chair; papa's chair!"
"Yes," answered Marcia, so that the servant might hear too. "Papa will soon be home."
She persuaded herself that he had gone as before for the night, and in this pretence she talked with the child at the table, and she put aside some of the breakfast to be kept warm for Bartley. "I don't know just when he may be in," she explained to the girl. The utterance of her pretence that she expected him encouraged her, and she went about her work almost cheerfully.
At dinner she said, "Mr. Hubbard must have been called away, somewhere. We must get his dinner for him when he comes: the things dry up so in the oven."
She put Flavia to bed early, and then trimmed the fire, and made the parlor cosey against Bartley's coming. She did not blame him for staying away the night before; it was a just punishment for her wickedness, and she should tell him so, and tell him that she knew he never was to blame for anything about Hannah Morrison. She enacted over and over in her mind the scene of their reconciliation. In every step on the pavement he approached the door; at last all the steps died away, and the second night passed.
Her head was light, and her brain confused with loss of sleep. When the child called her from above, and woke her out of her morning drowse, she went to the kitchen and begged the servant to give the little one its breakfast, saying that she was sick and wanted nothing herself. She did not say anything about Bartley's breakfast, and she would not think anything; the girl took the child into the kitchen with her, and kept it there all day.
Olive Halleck came during the forenoon, and Marcia told her that Bartley had been unexpectedly called away. "To New York," she added, without knowing why.
"Ben sailed from there to-day," said Olive sadly.
"Yes," assented Marcia.
"We want you to come and take tea with us this evening," Olive began.
"Oh, I can't," Marcia broke in. "I mustn't be away when Bartley gets back." The thought was something definite in the sea of uncertainty on which she was cast away; she never afterwards lost her hold of it; she confirmed herself in it by other inventions; she pretended that he had told her where he was going, and then that he had written to her. She almost believed these childish fictions as she uttered them. At the same time, in all her longing for his return, she had a sickening fear that when he came back he would keep his parting threat and drive her away: she did not know how he could do it, but this was what she feared.
She seldom left the house, which at first she kept neat and pretty, and then let fall into slatternly neglect. She ceased to care for her dress or the child's; the time came when it seemed as if she could scarcely move in the mystery that beset her life, and she yielded to a deadly lethargy which paralyzed all her faculties but the instinct of concealment.
She repelled the kindly approaches of the Hallecks, sometimes sending word to the door when they came, that she was sick and could not see them; or when she saw any of them, repeating those hopeless lies concerning Bartley's whereabouts, and her expectations of his return.
For the time she was safe against all kindly misgivings; but there were some of Bartley's creditors who grew impatient of his long absence, and refused to be satisfied with her fables. She had a few dollars left from some money that her father had given her at home, and she paid these all out upon the demand of the first-comer. Afterwards, as other bills were pressed, she could only answer with incoherent promises and evasions that scarcely served for the moment. The pursuit of these people dismayed her. It was nothing that certain of them refused further credit; she would have known, both for herself and her child, how to go hungry and cold; but there was one of them who threatened her with the law if she did not pay. She did not know what he could do; she had read somewhere that people who did not pay their debts were imprisoned, and if that disgrace were all she would not care. But if the law were enforced against her, the truth would come out; she would be put to shame before the world as a deserted wife; and this when Bartley had not deserted her. The pride that had bidden her heart break in secret rather than suffer this shame even before itself, was baffled: her one blind device had been concealment, and this poor refuge was possible no longer. If all were not to know, some one must know.
The law with which she had been threatened might be instant in its operation; she could not tell. Her mind wavered from fear to fear. Even while the man stood before her, she perceived the necessity that was upon her, and when he left her she would not allow herself a moment's delay.
She reached the Events building, in which Mr. Atherton had his office, just as a lady drove away in her coupe. It was Miss Kingsbury, who made a point of transacting all business matters with her lawyer at his office, and of keeping her social relations with him entirely distinct, as she fancied, by this means. She was only partially successful, but at least she never talked business with him at her house, and doubtless she would not have talked anything else with him at his office, but for that increasing dependence upon him in everything which she certainly would not have permitted herself if she had realized it. As it was, she had now come to him in a state of nervous exaltation, which was not business-like. She had been greatly shocked by Ben Halleck's sudden freak; she had sympathized with his family till she herself felt the need of some sort of condolence, and she had promised herself this consolation from Atherton's habitual serenity. She did not know what to do when he received her with what she considered an impatient manner, and did not seem at all glad to see her. There was no reason why he should be glad to see a lady calling on business, and no doubt he often found her troublesome, but he had never shown it before. She felt like crying at first; then she passed through an epoch of resentment, and then through a period of compassion for him. She ended by telling him with dignified severity that she wanted some money: they usually made some jokes about her destitution when she came upon that errand. He looked surprised and vexed, and "I have spent what you gave me last month," she explained.
"Then you wish to anticipate the interest on your bonds?"
"Certainly not," said Clara, rather sharply. "I wish to have the interest up to the present time."
"But I told you," said Atherton, and he could not, in spite of himself, help treating her somewhat as a child, "I told you then that I was paying you the interest up to the first of November. There is none due now. Didn't you understand that?"
"No, I didn't understand," answered Clara. She allowed herself to add, "It is very strange!" Atherton struggled with his irritation, and made no reply. "I can't be left without money," she continued. "What am I to do without it?" she demanded with an air of unanswerable argument. "Why, I must have it!"
"I felt that I ought to understand you fully," said Atherton, with cold politeness. "It's only necessary to know what sum you require."
Clara flung up her veil and confronted him with an excited face. "Mr. Atherton, I don't wish a loan; I can't permit it; and you know that my principles are entirely against anticipating interest."
Atherton, from stooping over his table, pencil in hand, leaned back in his chair, and looked at her with a smile that provoked her: "Then may I ask what you wish me to do?"
"No! I can't instruct you. My affairs are in your hands. But I must say—" She bit her lip, however, and did not say it. On the contrary she asked, rather feebly, "Is there nothing due on anything?"
"I went over it with you, last month," said Atherton patiently, "and explained all the investments. I could sell some stocks, but this election trouble has disordered everything, and I should have to sell at a heavy loss. There are your mortgages, and there are your bonds. You can have any amount of money you want, but you will have to borrow it."
"And that you know I won't do. There should always be a sum of money in the bank," said Clara decidedly.
"I do my very best to keep a sum there, knowing your theory; but your practice is against me. You draw too many checks," said Atherton, laughing.
"Very well!" cried the lady, pulling down her veil. "Then I'm to have nothing?"
"You won't allow yourself to have anything," Atherton began. But she interrupted him haughtily.
"It is certainly very odd that my affairs should be in such a state that I can't have all the money of my own that I want, whenever I want it."
Atherton's thin face paled a little more than usual. "I shall be glad to resign the charge of your affair Miss Kingsbury."
"And I shall accept your resignation," cried Clara, magnificently, "whenever you offer it." She swept out of the office, and descended to her coupe like an incensed goddess. She drew the curtains and began to cry. At her door, she bade the servant deny her to everybody, and went to bed, where she was visited a little later by Olive Halleck, whom no ban excluded. Clara lavishly confessed her sin and sorrow. "Why, I went there, more than half, to sympathize with him about Ben; I don't need any money, just yet; and the first thing I knew, I was accusing him of neglecting my interests, and I don't know what all! Of course he had to say he wouldn't have anything more to do with them, and I should have despised him if he hadn't. And now I don't care what becomes of the property: it's never been anything but misery to me ever since I had it, and I always knew it would get me into trouble sooner or later." She whirled her face over into her pillow, and sobbed, "But I didn't suppose it would ever make me insult and outrage the best friend I ever had,—and the truest man,—and the noblest gentleman! Oh, what will he think of me?"
Olive remained sadly quiet, as if but superficially interested in these transports, and Clara lifted her face again to say in her handkerchief, "It's a shame, Olive, to burden you with all this at a time when you've care enough of your own."
"Oh, I'm rather glad of somebody else's care; it helps to take my mind off," said Olive.
"Then what would you do?" asked Clara, tempted by the apparent sympathy with her in the effect of her naughtiness.
"You might make a party for him, Clara," suggested Olive, with lack-lustre irony.
Clara gave way to a loud burst of grief. "Oh, Olive Halleck! I didn't suppose you could be so cruel!"
Olive rose impatiently. "Then write to him, or go to him and tell him that you're ashamed of yourself, and ask him to take your property back again."
"Never!" cried Clara, who had listened with fascination. "What would he think of me?"
"Why need you care? It's purely a matter of business!"
"And you needn't mind what he thinks."
"Of course," admitted Clara, thoughtfully.
"He will naturally despise you," added Olive, "but I suppose he does that, now."
Clara gave her friend as piercing a glance as her soft blue eyes could emit, and, detecting no sign of jesting in Olive's sober face, she answered haughtily, "I don't see what right Mr. Atherton has to despise me!"
"Oh, no! He must admire a girl who has behaved to him as you've done."
Clara's hauteur collapsed, and she began to truckle to Olive. "If he were merely a business man, I shouldn't mind it; but knowing him socially, as I do, and as a—friend, and—an acquaintance, that way, I don't see how I can do it."
"I wonder you didn't think of that before you accused him of fraud and peculation, and all those things."
"I didn't accuse him of fraud and peculation!" cried Clara, indignantly.
"You said you didn't know what all you'd called him," said Olive, with her hand on the door.
Clara followed her down stairs. "Well, I shall never do it in the world," she said, with reviving hope in her voice.
"Oh, I don't expect you to go to him this morning," said Olive dryly. "That would be a little too barefaced."
Her friend kissed, her. "Olive Halleck, you're the strangest girl that ever was. I do believe you'd joke at the point of death! But I'm so glad you have been perfectly frank with me, and of course it's worth worlds to know that you think I've behaved horridly, and ought to make some reparation."
"I'm glad you value my opinion, Clara. And if you come to me for frankness, you can always have all you want; it's a drug in the market with me." She meagrely returned Clara's embrace, and left her in a reverie of tactless scheming for the restoration of peace with Mr. Atherton.
Marcia came in upon the lawyer before he had thought, after parting with Miss Kingsbury, to tell the clerk in the outer office to deny him; but she was too full of her own trouble to see the reluctance which it tasked all his strength to quell, and she sank into the nearest chair unbidden. At sight of her, Atherton became the prey of one of those fantastic repulsions in which men visit upon women the blame of others' thoughts about them: he censured her for Halleck's wrong; but in another instant he recognized his cruelty, and atoned by relenting a little in his intolerance of her presence. She sat gazing at him with a face of blank misery, to which he could not refuse the charity of a prompting question: "Is there something I can do for you, Mrs. Hubbard?"
"Oh, I don't know,—I don't know!" She had a folded paper in her hands, which lay helpless in her lap. After a moment she resumed, in a hoarse, low voice: "They have all begun to come for their money, and this one—this one says he will have the law of me—I don't know what he means—if I don't pay him."
Marcia could not know how hard Atherton found it to govern the professional suspicion which sprung up at the question of money. But he overruled his suspicion by an effort that was another relief to the struggle in which he was wrenching his mind from Miss Kingsbury's outrageous behavior. "What have you got there?" he asked gravely, and not unkindly, and being used to prompt the reluctance of lady clients, he put out his hand for the paper she held. It was the bill of the threatening creditor, for indefinitely repeated dozens of tivoli beer.
"Why do they come to you with this?"
"Mr. Hubbard is away."
"Oh, yes. I heard. When do you expect him home?"
"I don't know."
"Where is he?"
She looked at him piteously without speaking.
Atherton stepped to his door, and gave the order forgotten before. Then he closed the door, and came back to Marcia. "Don't you know where your husband is, Mrs. Hubbard?"
"Oh, he will come back! He couldn't leave me! He's dead,—I know he's dead; but he will come back! He only went away for the night, and something must have happened to him."
The whole tragedy of her life for the past fortnight was expressed in these wild and inconsistent words; she had not been able to reason beyond the pathetic absurdities which they involved; they had the effect of assertions confirmed in the belief by incessant repetition, and doubtless she had said them to herself a thousand times. Atherton read in them, not only the confession of her despair, but a prayer for mercy, which it would have been inhuman to deny, and for the present he left her to such refuge from herself as she had found in them. He said, quietly, "You had better give me that paper, Mrs. Hubbard," and took the bill from her. "If the others come with their accounts again, you must send them to me. When did you say Mr. Hubbard left home?"
"The night after the election," said Marcia.
"And he didn't say how long he should be gone?" pursued the lawyer, in the feint that she had known he was going.
"No," she answered.
"He took some things with him?"
"Perhaps you could judge how long he meant to be absent from the preparation he made?"
"I've never looked to see. I couldn't!"
Atherton changed the line of his inquiry. "Does any one else know of this?"
"No," said Marcia, quickly, "I told Mrs. Halleck and all of them that he was in New York, and I said that I had heard from him. I came to you because you were a lawyer, and you would not tell what I told you."
"Yes," said Atherton.
"I want it kept a secret. Oh, do you think he's dead?" she implored.
"No," returned Atherton, gravely, "I don't think he's dead."
"Sometimes it seems to me I could bear it better if I knew he was dead. If he isn't dead, he's out of his mind! He's out of his mind, don't you think, and he's wandered off somewhere?"
She besought him so pitifully to agree with her, bending forward and trying to read the thoughts in his face, that he could not help saying, "Perhaps."
A gush of grateful tears blinded her, but she choked down her sobs.
"I said things to him that night that were enough to drive him crazy. I was always the one in fault, but he was always the one to make up first, and he never would have gone away from me if he had known what he was doing! But he will come back, I know he will," she said, rising. "And oh, you won't say anything to anybody, will you? And he'll get back before they find out. I will send those men to you, and Bartley will see about it as soon as he comes home—"
"Don't go, Mrs. Hubbard," said the lawyer. "I want to speak with you a little longer." She dropped again in her chair, and looked at him inquiringly. "Have you written to your father about this?"
"Oh, no," she answered quickly, with an effect of shrinking back into herself.
"I think you had better do so. You can't tell when your husband will return, and you can't go on in this way."
"I will never tell father," she replied, closing her lips inexorably.
The lawyer forbore to penetrate the family trouble he divined. "Are you all alone in the house?" he asked.
"The girl is there. And the baby."
"That won't do, Mrs. Hubbard," said Atherton, with a compassionate shake of the head. "You can't go on living there alone."
"Oh, yes, I can. I'm not afraid to be alone," she returned with the air of having thought of this.
"But he may be absent some time yet," urged the lawyer; "he may be absent indefinitely. You must go home to your father and wait for him there."
"I can't do that. He must find me here when he comes," she answered firmly.
"But how will you stay?" pleaded Atherton; he had to deal with an unreasonable creature who could not be driven, and he must plead. "You have no money, and how can you live?"
"Oh," replied Marcia, with the air of having thought of this too, "I will take boarders."
Atherton smiled at the hopeless practicality, and shook his head; but he did not oppose her directly. "Mrs. Hubbard," he said earnestly, "you have done well in coming to me, but let me convince you that this is a matter which can't be kept. It must be known. Before you can begin to help yourself, you must let others help you. Either you must go home to your father and let your husband find you there—"
"He must find me here, in our own house."
"Then you must tell your friends here that you don't know where he is, nor when he will return, and let them advise together as to what can be done. You must tell the Hallecks—"
"I will never tell them!" cried Marcia. "Let me go! I can starve there and freeze, and if he finds me dead in the house, none of them shall have the right to blame him,—to say that he left me,—that he deserted his little child! Oh! oh! oh! oh! What shall I do?"
The hapless creature shook with the thick-coming sobs that overpowered her now, and Atherton refrained once more. She did not seem ashamed before him of the sorrows which he felt it a sacrilege to know, and in a blind instinctive way he perceived that in proportion as he was a stranger it was possible for her to bear her disgrace in his presence. He spoke at last from the hint he found in this fact: "Will you let me mention the matter to Miss Kingsbury?"
She looked at him with sad intensity in the eyes, as if trying to fathom any nether thought that he might have. It must have seemed to her at first that he was mocking her, but his words brought her the only relief from her self-upbraiding she had known. To suffer kindness from Miss Kingsbury would be in some sort an atonement to Bartley for the wrong her jealousy had done him; it would be self-sacrifice for his sake; it would be expiation. "Yes, tell her," she answered with a promptness whose obscure motive was not illumined by the flash of passionate pride with which she added, "I shall not care for her."
She rose again, and Atherton did not detain her; but when she had left him he lost no time in writing to her father the facts of the case as her visit had revealed them. He spoke of her reluctance to have her situation known to her family, but assured the Squire that he need have no anxiety about her for the present. He promised to keep him fully informed in regard to her, and to telegraph the first news of Mr. Hubbard. He left the Squire to form his own conjectures, and to take whatever action he thought best. For his own part, he had no question that Hubbard had abandoned his wife, and had stolen Halleck's money; and the detectives to whom he went were clear that it was a case of European travel.
Atherton went from the detectives to Miss Kingsbury, and boldly resisted the interdict at her door, sending up his name with the message that he wished to see her immediately on business. She kept him waiting while she made a frightened toilet, and leaving the letter to him which she had begun half finished on her desk, she came down to meet him in a flutter of despondent conjecture. He took her mechanically yielded hand, and seated himself on the sofa beside her. "I sent word that I had come on business," he said, "but it is no affair of yours,"—she hardly knew whether to feel relieved or disappointed,—"except as you make all unhappy people's affairs your own."
"Oh!" she murmured in meek protest, and at the same time she remotely wondered if these affairs were his.
"I came to you for help," he began again, and again she interrupted him in deprecation.
"You are very good, after—after—what I—what happened,—I'm sure." She put up her fan to her lips, and turned her head a little aside. "Of course I shall be glad to help you in anything, Mr. Atherton; you know I always am."
"Yes, and that gave me courage to come to you, even after the way in which we parted this morning. I knew you would not misunderstand me"—
"No," said Clara softly, doing her best to understand him.
"Or think me wanting in delicacy—"
"Oh, no, no!"
"If I believed that we need not have any embarrassment in meeting in behalf of the poor creature who came to see me just after you left me. The fact is," he went on, "I felt a little freer to promise your interest since I had no longer any business relation to you, and could rely on your kindness like—like—any other."
"Yes," assented Clara, faintly; and she forbore to point out to him, as she might fitly have done, that he had never had the right to advise or direct her at which he hinted, except as she expressly conferred it from time to time. "I shall be only too glad—"
"And I will have a statement of your affairs drawn up to-morrow, and sent to you." Her heart sank; she ceased to move the fan which she had been slowly waving back and forth before her face. "I was going to set about it this morning, but Mrs. Hubbard's visit—"
"Mrs. Hubbard!" cried Clara, and a little air of pique qualified her despair.
"Yes; she is in trouble,—the greatest: her husband has deserted her."
"Oh, Mr. Atherton!" Clara's mind was now far away from any concern for herself. The woman whose husband has deserted her supremely appeals to all other women. "I can't believe it! What makes you think so?"
"What she concealed, rather than what she told me, I believe," answered Atherton. He ran over the main points of their interview, and summed up his own conjectures. "I know from things Halleck has let drop that they haven't always lived happily together; Hubbard has been speculating with borrowed money, and he's in debt to everybody. She's been alone in her house for a fortnight, and she only came to me because people had begun to press her for money. She's been pretending to the Hallecks that she hears from her husband, and knows where he is."
"Oh, poor, poor thing!" said Clara, too shocked to say more. "Then they don't know?"
"No one knows but ourselves. She came to me because I was a comparative stranger, and it would cost her less to confess her trouble to me than to them, and she allowed me to speak to you for very much the same reason."
"But I know she dislikes me!"
"So much the better! She can't doubt your goodness—"
"And if she dislikes you, she can keep her pride better with you."
Clara let her eyes fall, and fingered the edges of her fan. There was reason in this, and she did not care that the opportunity of usefulness was personally unflattering, since he thought her capable of rising above the fact. "What do you want me to do?" she asked, lifting her eyes docilely to his.
"You must find some one to stay with her, in her house, till she can be persuaded to leave it, and you must lend her some money till her father can come to her or write to her. I've just written to him, and I've told her to send all her bills to me; but I'm afraid she may be in immediate need."
"Terrible!" sighed Clara to whom the destitution of an acquaintance was appalling after all her charitable knowledge of want and suffering. "Of course, we mustn't lose a moment," she added; but she lingered in her corner of the sofa to discuss ways and means with him, and to fathom that sad enjoyment which comfortable people find in the contemplation of alien sorrows. It was not her fault if she felt too kindly toward the disaster that had brought Atherton back to her on the old terms; or if she arranged her plans for befriending Marcia in her desolation with too buoyant a cheerfulness. But she took herself to task for the radiant smile she found on her face, when she ran up stairs and looked into her glass to see how she looked in parting with Atherton: she said to herself that he would think her perfectly heartless.
She decided that it would be indecent to drive to Marcia's under the circumstances, and she walked; though with all the time this gave her for reflection she had not wholly banished this smile when she looked into Marcia's woe-begone eyes. But she found herself incapable of the awkwardnesses she had deliberated, and fell back upon the native motherliness of her heart, into which she took Marcia with sympathy that ignored everything but her need of help and pity. Marcia's bruised pride was broken before the goodness of the girl she had hated, and she performed her sacrifice to Bartley's injured memory, not with the haughty self-devotion which she intended should humiliate Miss Kingsbury, but with the prostration of a woman spent with watching and fasting and despair. She held Clara away for a moment of scrutiny, and then submitted to the embrace in which they recognized and confessed all.
It was scarcely necessary for Clara to say that Mr. Atherton had told her; Marcia already knew that; and Clara became a partisan of her theory of Bartley's absence almost without an effort, in spite of the facts that Atherton had suggested to the contrary. "Of course! He has wandered off somewhere, and at soon as he comes to his senses he will hurry home. Why I was reading of such a case only the other day,—the case of a minister who wandered off in just the same way, and found himself out in Western New York somewhere, after he had been gone three mouths."
"Bartley won't be gone three months," protested Marcia.
"Certainly not!" cried Clara, in severe self-rebuke. Then she talked of his return for a while as if it might be expected any moment. "In the mean time," she added, "you must stay here; you're quite right about that, too, but you mustn't stay here alone: he'd be quite as much shocked at that as if he found you gone when he came back. I'm going to ask you to let my friend Miss Strong stay with you; and she must pay her board; and you must let me lend you all the money you need. And, dear,"—Clara dropped her voice to a lower and gentler note,—"you mustn't try to keep this from your friends. You must let Mr. Atherton write to your father; you must let me tell the Hallecks: they'll be hurt if you don't. You needn't be troubled; of course he wandered off in a temporary hallucination, and nobody will think differently."
She adopted the fiction of Bartley's aberration with so much fervor that she even silenced Atherton's injurious theories with it when he came in the evening to learn the result of her intervention. She had forgotten, or she ignored, the facts as he had stated them in the morning; she was now Bartley's valiant champion, as well as the tender protector of Marcia: she was the equal friend of the whole exemplary Hubbard family.
Atherton laughed, and she asked what he was laughing at.
"Oh," he answered, "at something Ben Halleck once said: a real woman can make righteousness delicious and virtue piquant."
Clara reflected. "I don't know whether I like that," she said finally.
"No?" said Atherton. "Why not?"
She was serving him with an after-dinner cup of tea, which she had brought into the drawing-room, and in putting the second lump of sugar into his saucer she paused again, thoughtfully, holding the little cube in the tongs. She was rather elaborately dressed for so simple an occasion, and her silken train coiled itself far out over the mossy depth of the moquette carpet; the pale blue satin of the furniture, and the delicate white and gold of the decorations, became her wonderfully.
"I can't say, exactly. It seems depreciatory, somehow, as a generalization. But a man might say it of the woman he was in love with," she concluded.
"And you wouldn't approve of a man's saying it of the woman his friend was in love with?" pursued Atherton, taking his cup from her.
"If they were very close friends." She did not know why, but she blushed, and then grew a little pale.
"I understand what you mean," he said, "and I shouldn't have liked the speech from another kind of man. But Halleck's innocence characterized it." He stirred his tea, and then let it stand untasted in his abstraction.
"Yes, he is good," sighed Clara. "If he were not so good, it would be hard to forgive him for disappointing all their hopes in the way he's done."
"It's the best thing he could have done," said Atherton gravely, even severely.
"I know you advised it," asserted Clara. "But it's a great blow to them. How strange that Mr. Hubbard should have disappeared the last night Ben was at home! I'm glad that he got away without knowing anything about it."
Atherton drank off his tea, and refused a second cup with a gesture of his hand. "Yes, so am I," he said. "I'm glad of every league of sea he puts behind him." He rose, as if eager to leave the subject.
Clara rose too, with the patient acquiescence of a woman, and took his hand proffered in parting. They had certainly talked out, but there seemed no reason why he should go. He held her hand, while he asked, "How shall I make my peace with you?"
"My peace? What for?" She flushed joyfully. "I was the one in fault."
He looked at her mystified. "Why, surely, you didn't repeat Halleck's remark?"
"Oh!" she cried indignantly, withdrawing her hand. "I meant this morning. It doesn't matter," she added. "If you still wish to resign the charge of my affairs, of course I must submit. But I thought—I thought—" She did not go on, she was too deeply hurt. Up to this moment she had imagined that she had befriended Marcia, and taken all that trouble upon herself for goodness' sake; but now she was ready to upbraid him for ingratitude in not seeing that she had done it for his sake. "You can send me the statement, and then—and then—I don't know what I shall do! Why do you mind what I said? I've often said quite as much before, and you know that I didn't mean it. I want you to take my property back again, and never to mind anything I say: I'm not worth minding." Her intended upbraiding had come to this pitiful effect of self-contempt, and her hand somehow was in his again. "Do take it back!"
"If I do that," said Atherton, gravely, "I must make my conditions," and now they sat down together on the sofa from which he had risen. "I can't be subjected again to your—disappointments,"—he arrested with a motion of his hand the profuse expression of her penitence and good intentions,—"and I've felt for a long time that this was no attitude for your attorney. You ought to have the right to question and censure; but I confess I can't grant you this. I've allowed myself to make your interests too much my own in everything to be able to bear it. I've thought several times that I ought to give up the trust; but it seemed like giving up so much more, that I never had the courage to do it in cold blood. This morning you gave me my chance to do it in hot blood, and if I resume it, I must make my terms."
It seemed a long speech to Clara, who sometimes thought she knew whither it tended, and sometimes not. She said in a low voice, "Yes."
"I must be relieved," continued Atherton, "of the sense I've had that it was indelicate in me to keep it, while I felt as I've grown to feel—towards you." He stopped: "If I take it back, you must come with it!" he suddenly concluded.
The inconsistency of accepting these conditions ought to have struck a woman who had so long imagined herself the chase of fortune-hunters. But Clara apparently found nothing alarming in the demand of a man who openly acted upon his knowledge of what could only have been matter of conjecture to many suitors she had snubbed. She found nothing incongruous in the transaction, and she said, with as tremulous breath and as swift a pulse as if the question had been solely of herself, "I accept—the conditions."
In the long, happy talk that lasted till midnight, they did not fail to recognize that, but for their common pity of Marcia, they might have remained estranged, and they were decently ashamed of their bliss when they thought of misery like hers. When Atherton rose to bid Clara good night, Marcia was still watching for Bartley, indulging for the last time the folly of waiting for him as if she definitely expected him that night.
Every night since he disappeared, she had kept the lights burning in the parlor and hall, and drowsed before the fire till the dawn drove her to a few hours of sleep in bed. But with the coming of the stranger who was to be her companion, she must deny herself even this consolation, and openly accept the fact that she no longer expected Bartley at any given time. She bitterly rebelled at the loss of her solitude, in which she could be miserable in whatever way her sorrow prompted, and the pangs with which she had submitted to Miss Kingsbury's kindness grew sharper hour by hour till she maddened in a frenzy of resentment against the cruelty of her expiation. She longed for the day to come that she might go to her, and take back her promises and her submission, and fling her insulting good-will in her face. She said to herself that no one should enter her door again till Bartley opened it; she would die there in the house, she and her baby, and as she stood wringing her hands and moaning over the sleeping little one, a hideous impulse made her brain reel; she wished to look if Bartley had left his pistol in its place; a cry for help against herself broke from her; she dropped upon her knees.
The day came, and the hope and strength which the mere light so strangely brings to the sick in spirit as well as the sick in body visited Marcia. She abhorred the temptation of the night like the remembrance of a wicked dream, and she went about with a humble and grateful prayer—to something, to some one—in her heart. Her housewifely pride stirred again: that girl should not think she was a slattern; and Miss Strong, when she preceded her small trunk in the course of the forenoon, found the parlor and the guest-chamber, which she was to have, swept, and dusted, and set in perfect order by Marcia's hands. She had worked with fury, and kept her heart-ache still, but it began again at sight of the girl. Fortunately, the conservatory pupil had embraced with even more than Miss Kingsbury's ardor the theory of Bartley's aberration, and she met Marcia with a sympathy in her voice and eyes that could only have come from sincere conviction. She was a simple country thing, who would never be a prima donna; but the overflowing sentimentality which enabled her to accept herself at the estimate of her enthusiastic fellow-villagers made her of far greater comfort to Marcia than the sublimest musical genius would have done. She worshipped the heroine of so tragic a fact, and her heart began to go out to her in honest helpfulness from the first. She broke in upon the monotony of Marcia's days with the offices and interests of wholesome commonplace, and exorcised the ghostly silence with her first stroke on the piano,—which Bartley had bought on the instalment plan and had not yet paid for.
In fine, life adjusted itself with Marcia to the new conditions, as it does with women less wofully widowed by death, who promise themselves reunion with their lost in another world, and suffer through the first weeks and days in the hope that their parting will be for but days or weeks, and then gradually submit to indefinite delay. She prophesied Bartley's return, and fixed it in her own mind for this hour and that. "Now, in the morning, I shall wake and find him standing by the bed. No, at night he will come in and surprise us at dinner." She cheated herself with increasing faith at each renewal of her hopes. When she ceased to formulate them at last, it was because they had served their end, and left her established, if not comforted, in the superstition by which she lived. His return at any hour or any moment was the fetish which she let no misgiving blaspheme; everything in her of woman and of wife consecrated it. She kept the child in continual remembrance of him by talking of him, and by making her recognize the photographs in which Bartley had abundantly perpetuated himself; at night, when she folded the little one's hands for prayer, she made her pray God to take care of poor papa and send him home soon to mamma. She was beginning to canonize him.
Her father came to see her as soon as he thought it best after Atherton's letter; and the old man had to endure talk of Bartley to which all her former praises were as refreshing shadows of defamation. She required him to agree with everything she said, and he could not refuse; she reproached him for being with herself the cause of all Bartley's errors, and he had to bear it without protest. At the end he could say nothing but "Better come home with me, Marcia," and he suffered in meekness the indignation with which she rebuked him: "I will stay in Bartley's house till he comes back to me. If he is dead, I will die here."
The old man had satisfied himself that Bartley had absconded in his own rascally right mind, and he accepted with tacit grimness the theory of the detectives that he had not gone to Europe alone. He paid back the money which Bartley had borrowed from Halleck, and he set himself as patiently as he could to bear with Marcia's obstinacy. It was a mania which must be indulged for the time, and he could only trust to Atherton to keep him advised concerning her. When he offered her money at parting, she hesitated. But she finally took it, saying, "Bartley will pay it back, every cent, as soon as he gets home. And if," she added, "he doesn't get back soon, I will take some other boarders and pay it myself."
He could see that she was offended with him for asking her to go home. But she was his girl; he only pitied her. He shook hands with her as usual, and kissed her with the old stoicism; but his lips, set to fierceness by the life-long habit of sarcasm, trembled as he turned away. She was eager to have him go; for she had given him Miss Strong's room, and had taken the girl into her own, and Bartley would not like it if he came back and found her there.
Bartley's disappearance was scarcely a day's wonder with people outside his own circle in that time of anxiety for a fair count in Louisiana and Florida, and long before the Returning Boards had partially relieved the tension of the public mind by their decision he had quite dropped out of it. The reporters who called at his house to get the bottom facts in the case, adopted Marcia's theory, given them by Miss Strong, and whatever were their own suspicions or convictions, paragraphed him with merciful brevity as having probably wandered away during a temporary hallucination. They spoke of the depression of spirits which many of his friends had observed in him, and of pecuniary losses, as the cause. They mentioned his possible suicide only to give the report the authoritative denial of his family; and they added, that the case was in the hands of the detectives, who believed themselves in possession of important clews. The detectives in fact remained constant to their original theory, that Bartley had gone to Europe, and they were able to name with reasonable confidence the person with whom he had eloped. But these were matters hushed up among the force and the press. In the mean time, Bartley had been simultaneously seen at Montreal and Cincinnati, at about the same time that an old friend had caught a glimpse of him on a train bound westward from Chicago.
So far as the world was concerned, the surmise with which Marcia saved herself from final despair was the only impression that even vaguely remained of the affair. Her friends, who had compassionately acquiesced in it at first, waited for the moment when they could urge her to relinquish it and go home to her father; but while they waited, she gathered strength to establish herself immovably in it, and to shape her life more and more closely about it. She had no idea, no instinct, but to stay where he had left her till he came back. She opposed this singly and solely against all remonstrance, and treated every suggestion to the contrary as an instigation to crime. Her father came from time to time during the winter to see her, but she would never go home with him even for a day. She put her plan in force; she took other boarders: other girl students like Miss Strong, whom her friends brought her when they found that it was useless to oppose her and so began to abet her; she worked hard, and she actually supported herself at last in a frugal independence. Her father consulted with Atherton and the Hallecks; he saw that she was with good and faithful friends, and he submitted to what he could not help. When the summer came, he made a last attempt to induce her to go home with him. He told her that her mother wished to see her. She would not understand. "I'll come," she said, "if mother gets seriously sick. But I can't go home for the summer. If I hadn't been at home last summer, he would never have got into that way, and it would never have happened."
She went home at last, in obedience to a peremptory summons; but her mother was too far gone to know her when she came. Her quiet, narrow life had grown colder and more inward to the end, and it passed without any apparent revival of tenderness for those once dear to her; the funeral publicity that followed seemed a final touch of the fate by which all her preferences had been thwarted in the world.
Marcia stayed only till she could put the house in order after they had laid her mother to rest among the early reddening sumacs under the hot glare of the August sun; and when she came away, she brought her father with her to Boston, where he spent his days as he might, taking long and aimless walks, devouring heaps of newspapers, rusting in idleness, and aging fast, as men do in the irksomeness of disuse.
Halleck's father was beginning to show his age, too; and Halleck's mother lived only in her thoughts of him, and her hopes of his return; but he did not even speak of this in his letters to them. He said very little of himself, and they could merely infer that the experiment to which he had devoted himself was becoming less and less satisfactory. Their sense of this added its pang to their unhappiness in his absence.
One day Marcia said to Olive Halleck, "Has any one noticed that you are beginning to look like your sisters?"
"I've noticed it," answered the girl. "I always was an old maid, and now I'm beginning to show it."
Marcia wondered if she had not hurt Olive's feelings; but she would never have known how to excuse herself; and latterly she had been growing more and more like her father in certain traits. Perhaps her passion for Bartley had been the one spring of tenderness in her nature, and, if ever it were spent, she would stiffen into the old man's stern aridity.