It was nearly two years after Atherton's marriage that Halleck one day opened the door of the lawyer's private office, and, turning the key in the lock, limped forward to where the latter was sitting at his desk. Halleck was greatly changed: the full beard that he had grown scarcely hid the savage gauntness of his face; but the change was not so much in lines and contours as in that expression of qualities which we call looks.
The friends looked at each other; and Atherton finally broke from his amaze and offered his hand, with an effect, even then, of making conditions. But it was Halleck who was the first to speak again.
"How is she? Is she well? Is she still here? Have they heard anything from him yet?"
"No," said Atherton, answering the last question with the same provisional effect as before.
"Then he is dead. That's what I knew; that's what I said! And here I am. The fight is over, and that's the end of it. I'm beaten."
"You look it," said Atherton, sadly.
"Oh, yes; I look it. That's the reason I can afford to be frank, in coming back to my friends. I knew that with this look in my face I should make my own welcome; and it's cordial even beyond my expectations."
"I'm not glad to see you, Halleck," said Atherton. "For your own sake I wish you were at the other end of the world."
"Oh, I know that. How are my people? Have you seen my father lately? Or my mother? Or—Olive?" A pathetic tremor shook his voice.
"Why, haven't you seen them yet?" demanded Atherton.
Halleck laughed cynically. "My dear friend, my steamer arrived this morning, and I'm just off the New York train. I've hurried to your office in all the impatience of friendship. I'm very lucky to find you here so late in the day! You can take me home to dinner, and let your domestic happiness preach to me. Come, I rather like the notion of that!"
"Halleck," said Atherton, without heeding his banter, "I wish you would go away again! No one knows you are here, you say, and no one need ever know it."
Halleck set his lips and shook his head, with a mocking smile. "I'm surprised at you, Atherton, with your knowledge of human nature. I've come to stay; you must know that. You must know that I had gone through everything before I gave up, and that I haven't the strength to begin the struggle over again. I tell you I'm beaten, and I'm glad of it; for there is rest in it. You would waste your breath, if you talked to me in the old way; there's nothing in me to appeal to, any more. If I was wrong—But I don't admit, any more, that I was wrong: by heaven, I was right!"
"You are beaten, Halleck," said Atherton sorrowfully. He pushed himself back in his chair, and clasped his hands together behind his head, as his habit was in reasoning with obstinate clients. "What do you propose to do?"
"I propose to stay."
"What for? Till I can prove that he is dead."
"Then I shall be free to ask her." He added angrily, "You know what I've come back for: why do you torment me with these questions? I did what I could; I ran away. And the last night I saw her, I thrust her back into that hell she called her home, and I told her that no man could be her refuge from that devil, her husband,—when she had begged me in her mortal terror to go in with her, and save her from him. That was the recollection I had to comfort me when I tried to put her out of my mind,—out of my soul! When I heard that he was gone, I respected her days of mourning. God knows how I endured it, now it's over; but I did endure it. I waited, and here I am. And you ask me to go away again! Ah!" He fetched his breath through his set teeth, and struck his fist on his knee. "He is dead! And now, if she will, she can marry me. Don't look at me as if I had killed him! There hasn't been a time in these two infernal years when I wouldn't have given my life to save his—for her sake. I know that, and that gives me courage, it gives me hope."
"But if he isn't dead?"
"Then he has abandoned her, and she has the right to be free: she can get a divorce!"
"Oh," said Atherton, compassionately, "has that poison got into you, Halleck? You might ask her, if she were a widow, to marry you; but how will you ask her, if she's still a wife, to get a divorce and then marry you? How will you suggest that to a woman whose constancy to her mistake has made her sacred to you?" Halleck seemed about to answer; but he only panted, dry-lipped and open-mouthed, and Atherton continued: "You would have to corrupt her soul first. I don't know what change you've made in yourself during these two years; you look like a desperate and defeated man, but you don't look like that. You don't look like one of those scoundrels who lure women from their duty, ruin homes, and destroy society, not in the old libertine fashion in which the seducer had at least the grace to risk his life, but safely, smoothly, under the shelter of our infamous laws. Have you really come back here to give your father's honest name, and the example of a man of your own blameless life, in support of conditions that tempt people to marry with a mental reservation, and that weaken every marriage bond with the guilty hope of escape whenever a fickle mind, or secret lust, or wicked will may dictate? Have you come to join yourself to those miserable spectres who go shrinking through the world, afraid of their own past, and anxious to hide it from those they hold dear; or do you propose to defy the world, to help form within it the community of outcasts with whom shame is not shame, nor dishonor, dishonor? How will you like the society of those uncertain men, those certain women?"
"You are very eloquent," said Halleck, "but I ask you to observe that these little abstractions don't interest me. I've a concrete purpose, and I can't contemplate the effect of other people's actions upon American civilization. When you ask me to believe that I oughtn't to try to rescue a woman from the misery to which a villain has left her, simply because some justice of the peace consecrated his power over her, I decline to be such a fool. I use my reason, and I see who it was that defiled and destroyed that marriage, and I know that she is as free in the sight of God as if he had never lived. If the world doesn't like my open shame, let it look to its own secret shame,—the marriages made and maintained from interest, and ambition, and vanity, and folly. I will take my chance with the men and women who have been honest enough to own their mistake, and to try to repair it, and I will preach by my life that marriage has no sanctity but what love gives it, and that when love ceases marriage ceases, before heaven. If the laws have come to recognize that, by whatever fiction, so much the better for the laws!" Halleck rose.
"Well, then," cried Atherton, rising, too, "you shall meet me on your own ground! This poor creature is constant in every breath she draws to the ruffian who has abandoned her. I must believe, since you say it, that you are ready to abet her in getting a divorce, even one of those divorces that are 'obtained without publicity, and for any cause,'"—Halleck winced,—"that you are willing to put your sisters to shame before the world, to break your mother's heart, and your father's pride,—to insult the ideal of goodness that she herself has formed of you; but how will you begin? The love on her part, at least, hasn't ceased: has the marriage?"
"She shall tell me," answered Halleck. He left Atherton without another word, and in resentment that effaced all friendship between them, though after this parting they still kept up its outward forms, and the Athertons took part in the rejoicings with which the Hallecks celebrated Ben's return. His meeting with the lawyer was the renewal of the old conflict on terms of novel and hopeless degradation. He had mistaken for peace that exhaustion of spirit which comes to a man in battling with his conscience; he had fancied his struggle over, and he was to learn now that its anguish had just begun. In that delusion his love was to have been a law to itself, able to loose and to bind, and potent to beat down all regrets, all doubts, all fears, that questioned it; but the words with which Marcia met him struck his passion dumb.
"Oh, I am so glad you have come lack!" she said. "Now I know that we can find him. You were such friends with him, and you understood him so well, that you will know just what to do. Yes, we shall find him now, and we should have found him long ago if you had been here. Oh, if you had never gone away! But I can never be grateful enough for what you said to me that night when you would not come in with me. The words have rung in my ears ever since; they showed that you had faith in him, more faith than I had, and I've made them my rule and my guide. No one has been my refuge from him, and no one ever shall be. And I thank you—yes, I thank you on my bended knees—for making me go into the house alone; it's my one comfort that I had the strength to come back to him, and let him do anything he would to me, after I had treated him so; but I've never pretended it was my own strength. I have always told everybody that the strength came from you!"
Halleck had brought Olive with him; she and Marcia's father listened to these words with the patience of people who had heard them many times before; but at the end Olive glanced at Halleck's downcast face with fond pride in the satisfaction she imagined they must give him. The old man ruminated upon a bit of broom straw, and absently let the little girl catch by his hands, as she ran to and fro between him and her mother while her mother talked. Halleck made a formless sound in his throat, for answer, and Marcia went on.
"I've got a new plan now, but it seems as if father took a pleasure in discouraging all my plans. I know that Bartley's shut up, somewhere, in some asylum, and I want them to send detectives to all the asylums in the United States and in Canada,—you can't tell how far off he would wander in that state,—and inquire if any stray insane person has been brought to them. Doesn't it seem to you as if that would be the right way to find him? I want to talk it all over with you, Mr. Halleck, for I know you can sympathize with me; and if need be I will go to the asylums myself; I will walk to them, I will crawl to them on my knees! When I think of him shut up there among those raving maniacs, and used as they use people in some of the asylums—Oh, oh, oh, oh!"
She broke out into sobs, and caught her little girl to her breast. The child must have been accustomed to her mother's tears; she twisted her head round, and looked at Halleck with a laughing face.
Marcia dried her eyes, and asked, with quivering lips, "Isn't she like him?"
"Yes," replied Halleck huskily.
"She has his long eyelashes exactly, and his hair and complexion, hasn't she?"
The old man sat chewing his broom straw in silence; but when Marcia left the room to get Bartley's photograph, so that Halleck might see the child's resemblance to him, her father looked at Halleck from under his beetling brows: "I don't think we need trouble the asylums much for Bartley Hubbard. But if it was to search the States prisons and the jails, the rum-holes and the gambling-hells, or if it was to dig up the scoundrels who have been hung under assumed names during the last two years, I should have some hopes of identifying him."
Marcia came back, and the old man sat in cast-iron quiet, as if he had never spoken; it was clear that whatever hate he felt for Bartley he spared her; and that if he discouraged her plans, as she said, it was because they were infected by the craze in which she canonized Bartley.
"You see how she is," said Olive, when they came away.
"Yes, yes, yes," Halleck desolately assented.
"Sometimes she seems to me just like a querulous, vulgar, middle-aged woman in her talk; she repeats herself in the same scolding sort of way; and she's so eager to blame somebody besides Bartley for Bartley's wickedness that, when she can't punish herself, she punishes her father. She's merciless to that wretched old man, and he's wearing his homesick life out here in the city for her sake. You heard her just now, about his discouraging her plans?"
"Yes," said Halleck, as before.
"She's grown commoner and narrower, but it's hardly her fault, poor thing, and it seems terribly unjust that she should be made so by what she has suffered. But that's just the way it has happened. She's so undisciplined, that she couldn't get any good out of her misfortunes; she's only got harm: they've made her selfish, and there seems to be nothing left of what she was two years ago but her devotion to that miserable wretch. You mustn't let it turn you against her, Ben; you mustn't forget what she might have been. She had a rich nature; but how it's been wasted, and turned back upon itself! Poor, untrained, impulsive, innocent creature,—my heart aches for her! It's been hard to bear with her at times, terribly hard, and you'll find it so, Ben. But you must bear with her. The awfulest thing about people in trouble is that they are such bores; they tire you to death. But you'll only have to stand her praises of what Bartley was, and we had to stand them, and her hopes of what you would be if you were only at home, besides. I don't know what all she expects of you; but you must try not to disappoint her; she worships the ground you tread on, and I really think she believes you can do anything you will, just because you're good."
Halleck listened in silence. He was indeed helpless to be otherwise than constant. With shame and grief in his heart, he could only vow her there the greater fealty because of the change he found in her.
He was doomed at every meeting to hear her glorify a man whom he believed a heartless traitor, to plot with her for the rescue from imaginary captivity of the wretch who had cruelly forsaken her. He actually took some of the steps she urged; he addressed inquiries to the insane asylums, far and near; and in these futile endeavors, made only with the desire of failure, his own reason seemed sometimes to waver. She insisted that Atherton should know all the steps they were taking; and his sense of his old friend's exact and perfect knowledge of his motives was a keener torture than even her father's silent scorn of his efforts, or the worship in which his own family held him for them.
Halleck had come home in broken health, and had promised his family, with the self-contempt that depraves, not to go away again, since the change had done him no good. There was no talk for the present of his trying to do anything but to get well; and for a while, under the strong excitement, he seemed to be better. But suddenly he failed; he kept his room, and then he kept his bed; and the weeks stretched into months before he left it.
When the spring weather came, he was able to go out again, and he spent most of his time in the open air, feeling every day a fresh accession of strength. At the end of one long April afternoon, he walked home with a light heart, whose right to rejoice he would not let his conscience question. He had met Marcia in the Public Garden, where they sat down on a bench and talked, while her father and the little girl wandered away in the restlessness of age and the restlessness of childhood.
"We are going home to Equity this summer," she said, "and perhaps we shall not come back. No, we shall not come back. I have given up. I have waited, hoping—hoping. But now I know that it is no use waiting any longer: he is dead." She spoke in tearless resignation, and the peace of accepted widowhood seemed to diffuse itself around her.
Her words repeated themselves to Halleck, as he walked homeward. He found the postman at the door with a newspaper, which he took from him with a smile at its veteran appearance, and its probable adventures in reaching him. The wrapper seemed to have been several times slipped off, and then slit up; it was tied with a string, now, and was scribbled with rejections in the hands of various Hallocks and Halletts, one of whom had finally indorsed upon it, "Try 97 Rumford Street." It was originally addressed, as he made out, to "Mr. B. Halleck, Boston, Mass.," and he carried it to his room before he opened it, with a careless surmise as to its interest for him. It proved to be a flimsy, shabbily printed country newspaper, with an advertisement marked in one corner.
State of Indiana, Tecumseh County
In Tecumseh Circuit Court, April Term, 1879.
BARTLEY J. HUBBARD
MARCIA G. HUBBARD.
Divorce. No. 5793.
It appearing by affidavit this day filed in the office of the Clerk of the Tecumseh Circuit Court, that Marcia G. Hubbard, defendant in the above entitled action for divorce on account of abandonment and gross neglect of duty, is a non-resident of the State of Indiana, notice of the pendency of such action is therefore hereby given said defendant above named, and that the same will be called for answer on the 11th day of April, 1879, the same being the 3d judicial day of the April term of said court, for said year, which said term of said court will begin on the first Monday in April, 1879, and will be held at the Court House, in the town of Tecumseh, in said County and State, said 11th day of April, 1879, being the time fixed by said plaintiff by indorsement on his complaint, at which said time said defendant is required to answer herein.
Witness my hand and the seal of the said Court, this 4th day of March, 1879.
AUGUSTUS H. HAWKINS,
Milikin & Ayres, Att'ys for Plff.
Halleck read this advertisement again and again, with a dull, mechanical action of the brain. He saw the familiar names, but they were hopelessly estranged by their present relation to each other; the legal jargon reached no intelligence in him that could grasp its purport.
When his daze began to yield, he took evidence of his own reality by some such tests as one might in waking from a long faint. He looked at his hands, his feet; he rose and looked at his face in the glass. Turning about, he saw the paper where he had left it on the table; it was no illusion. He picked up the cover from the floor, and scanned it anew, trying to remember the handwriting on it, to make out who had sent this paper to him, and why. Then the address seemed to grow into something different under his eye: it ceased to be his name; he saw now that the paper was directed to Mrs. B. Hubbard, and that by a series of accidents and errors it had failed to reach her in its wanderings, and by a final blunder had fallen into his hands.
Once solved, it was a very simple affair, and he had now but to carry it to her; that was very simple, too. Or he might destroy it; this was equally simple. Her words repeated themselves once more: "I have given up. He is dead." Why should he break the peace she had found, and destroy her last sad illusion? Why should he not spare her the knowledge of this final wrong, and let the merciful injustice accomplish itself? The questions seemed scarcely to have any personal concern for Halleck; his temptation wore a heavenly aspect. It softly pleaded with him to forbear, like something outside of himself. It was when he began to resist it that he found it the breath in his nostrils, the blood in his veins. Then the mask dropped, and the enemy of souls put forth his power against this weak spirit, enfeebled by long strife and defeat already acknowledged.
At the end Halleck opened his door, and called, "Olive, Olive!" in a voice that thrilled the girl with strange alarm where she sat in her own room. She came running, and found him clinging to his doorpost, pale and tremulous. "I want you—want you to help me," he gasped. "I want to show you something—Look here!"
He gave her the paper, which he had kept behind him, clutched fast in his hand as if he feared it might somehow escape him at last, and staggered away to a chair.
His sister read the notice. "Oh, Ben!" She dropped her hands with the paper in them before her, a gesture of helpless horror and pity, and looked at him. "Does she know it? Has she seen it?"
"No one knows it but you and I. The paper was left here for me by mistake. I opened it before I saw that it was addressed to her."
He panted forth these sentences in an exhaustion that would have terrified her, if she had not been too full of indignant compassion for Marcia to know anything else. She tried to speak.
"Don't you understand, Olive? This is the notice that the law requires she shall have to come and defend her cause, and it has been sent by the clerk of the court, there, to the address that villain must have given in the knowledge that it could reach her only by one chance in ten thousand."
"And it has come to you! Oh, Ben! Who sent it to you?" The brother and sister looked at each other, but neither spoke the awestricken thought that was in both their hearts. "Ben," she cried in a solemn ecstasy of love and pride, "I would rather be you this minute than any other man in the world!"
"Don't!" pleaded Halleck. His head dropped, and then he lifted it by a sudden impulse. "Olive!"—But the impulse failed, and he only said, "I want you to go to Atherton with me. We mustn't lose time. Have Cyrus get a carriage. Go down and tell them we're going out. I'll be ready as soon as you are."
But when she called to him from below that the carriage had come and she was waiting, he would have refused to go with her if he durst. He no longer wished to keep back the fact, but he felt an invalid's weariness of it, a sick man's inadequacy to the farther demands it should make upon him. He crept slowly down the stairs, keeping a tremulous hold upon the rail; and he sank with a sigh against the carriage cushions, answering Olive's eager questions and fervid comments with languid monosyllables.
They found the Athertons at coffee, and Clara would have them come to the dining-room and join them. Halleck refused the coffee, and while Olive told what had happened he looked listlessly about the room, aware of a perverse sympathy with Bartley, from Bartley's point of view: Bartley might never have gone wrong if he had had all that luxury; and why should he not have had it, as well as Atherton? What right had the untempted prosperity of such a man to judge the guilt of such men as himself and Bartley Hubbard?
Olive produced the newspaper from her lap, where she kept both hands upon it, and opened it to the advertisement in dramatic corroboration of what she had been telling Atherton. He read it and passed it to Clara.
"When did this come to you?"
Olive answered for him. "This evening,—just now. Didn't I say that?"
"No," said Atherton; and he added to Halleck, gently: "I beg your pardon. Did you notice the dates?"
"Yes," answered Halleck, with cold refusal of Atherton's tone of reparation.
"The cause is set for hearing on the 11th," said Atherton. "This is the 8th. The time is very short."
"It's long enough," said Halleck, wearily.
"Oh, telegraph!" cried Clara. "Telegraph them instantly that she never dreamt of leaving him! Abandonment! Oh, if they only knew how she had been slaving her lingers off for the last two years to keep a home for him to come back to, they'd give her the divorce!"
Atherton smiled and turned to Halleck: "Do you know what their law is, now? It was changed two years ago."
"Yes," said Halleck, replying to the question Atherton had asked and the subtler question he had looked, "I have read up the whole subject since I came home. The divorce is granted only upon proof, even when the defendant fails to appear, and if this were to go against us,"—he instinctively identified himself with Marcia's cause,—"we can have the default set aside, and a new trial granted, for cause shown."
The women listened in awe of the legal phrases; but when Atherton rose, and asked, "Is your carriage here?" his wife sprang to her feet.
"Why, where are you going?" she demanded, anxiously.
"Not to Indiana, immediately," answered her husband. "We're first going to Clover Street, to see Squire Gaylord and Mrs. Hubbard. Better let me take the paper, dear," he said, softly withdrawing it from her hands.
"Oh, it's a cruel, cruel law!" she moaned, deprived of this moral support. "To suppose that such a notice as this is sufficient! Women couldn't have made such a law."
"No, women only profit by such laws after they're made: they work both ways. But it's not such a bad law, as divorce laws go. We do worse, now, in some New England States."
They found the Squire alone in the parlor, and, with a few words of explanation, Atherton put the paper in his hands, and he read the notice in emotionless quiet. Then he took off his spectacles, and shut them in their case, which he put back into his waistcoat pocket. "This is all right," he said. He cleared his throat, and, lifting the fierce glimmer of his eyes to Atherton's, he asked, drily, "What is the law, at present?"
Atherton briefly recapitulated the points as he had them from Halleck.
"That's good," said the old man. "We will fight this, gentlemen." He rose, and from his gaunt height looked down on both of them, with his sinuous lips set in a bitter smile. "Bartley must have been disappointed when he found a divorce so hard to get in Indiana. He must have thought that the old law was still in force there. He's not the fellow to swear to a lie if he could help it; but I guess he expects to get this divorce by perjury."
Marcia was putting little Flavia to bed. She heard the talking below; she thought she heard Bartley's name. She ran to the stairs, and came hesitantly down, the old wild hope and wild terror fluttering her pulse and taking her breath. At sight of the three men, apparently in council, she crept toward them, holding out her hands before her like one groping his way. "What—what is it?" She looked from Atherton's face to her father's; the old man stopped, and tried to smile reassuringly; he tried to speak; Atherton turned away.
It was Halleck who came forward, and took her wandering hands. He held them quivering in his own, and said gravely and steadily, using her name for the first time in the deep pity which cast out all fear and shame, "Marcia, we have found your husband."
"Dead?" she made with her lips.
"He is alive," said Halleck. "There is something in this paper for you to see,—something you must see—"
"I can bear anything if he is not dead. Where—what is it? Show it to me—" The paper shook in the hands which Halleck released; her eyes strayed blindly over its columns; he had to put his finger on the place before she could find it. Then her tremor ceased, and she seemed without breath or pulse while she read it through. She fetched a long, deep sigh, and passed her hand over her eyes, as if to clear them; staying herself unconsciously against Halleck's breast, and laying her trembling arm along his arm till her fingers knit themselves among his fingers, she read it a second time and a third. Then she dropped the paper, and turned to look up at him. "Why!" she cried, as if she had made it out at last, while an awful, joyful light of hope flashed into her face. "It is a mistake! Don't you see? He thinks that I never came back! He thinks that I meant to abandon him. That I—that I—But you know that I came back,—you came back with me! Why, I wasn't gone an hour,—a half-hour, hardly. Oh, Bartley, poor Bartley! He thought I could leave him, and take his child from him; that I could be so wicked, so heartless—Oh, no, no, no! Why, I only stayed away that little time because I was afraid to go back! Don't you remember how I told you I was afraid, and wanted you to come in with me?" Her exaltation broke in a laugh. "But we can explain it now, and it will be all right. He will see—he will understand—I will tell him just how it was—Oh, Flavia, Flavia, we've found papa, we've found papa! Quick!"
She whirled away toward the stairs, but her father caught her by the arm. "Marcia!" he shouted, in his old raucous voice, "You've got to understand! This"—he hesitated, as if running over all terms of opprobrium in his mind, and he resumed as if he had found them each too feeble—"Bartley hasn't acted under any mistake."
He set the facts before her with merciless clearness, and she listened with an audible catching of the breath at times, while she softly smoothed her forehead with her left hand. "I don't believe it," she said when he had ended. "Write to him, tell him what I say, and you will see."
The old man uttered something between a groan and a curse. "Oh, you poor, crazy child! Can nothing make you understand that Bartley wants to get rid of you, and that he's just as ready for one lie as another? He thinks he can make out a case of abandonment with the least trouble, and so he accuses you of that, but he'd just as soon accuse you of anything else. Write to him? You've got to go to him! You've got to go out there and fight him in open court, with facts and witnesses. Do you suppose Bartley Hubbard wants any explanation from you? Do you think he's been waiting these two years to hear that you didn't really abandon him, but came back to this house an hour after you left it, and that you've waited for him here ever since? When he knows that, will he withdraw this suit of his and come home? He'll want the proof, and the way to do is to go out there and let him have it. If I had him on the stand for five minutes," said the old man between his set teeth,—"just five minutes,—I'd undertake to convince him from his own lips that he was wrong about you! But I am afraid he wouldn't mind a letter! You think I say so because I hate him; and you don't believe me. Well, ask either of these gentlemen here whether I'm telling you the truth."
She did not speak, but, with a glance at their averted faces, she sank into a chair, and passed one hand over the other, while she drew her breath in long, shuddering respirations, and stared at the floor with knit brows and starting eyes, like one stifling a deadly pang. She made several attempts to speak before she could utter any sound; then she lifted her eyes to her father's: "Let us—let us—go—home! Oh, let us go home! I will give him up. I had given him up already; I told you," she said, turning to Halleck, and speaking in a slow, gentle tone, "only an hour ago, that he was dead. And this—this that's happened, it makes no difference. Why did you bring the paper to me when you knew that I thought he was dead?"
"God knows I wished to keep it from you."
"Well, no matter now. Let him go free if he wants to. I can't help it."
"You can help it," interrupted her father. "You've got the facts on your side, and you've got the witnesses!"
"Would you go out with me, and tell him that I never meant to leave him?" she asked simply, turning to Halleck. "You—and Olive?"
"We would do anything for you, Marcia!"
She sat musing, and drawing her hands one over the other again, while her quivering breath came and went on the silence. She let her hands fall nervelessly on her lap. "I can't go; I'm too weak; I couldn't bear the journey. No!" She shook her head. "I can't go!"
"Marcia," began her father, "it's your duty to go!"
"Does it say in the law that I have to go, if I don't choose?" she asked of Halleck.
"No, you certainly need not go, if you don't choose!"
"Then I will stay. Do you think it's my duty to go?" she asked, referring her question first to Halleck and then to Atherton. She turned from the silence by which they tried to leave her free. "I don't care for my duty, any more. I don't want to keep him, if it's so that he—left me—and—and meant it—and he doesn't—care for me any—more."
"Care for you? He never cared for you, Marcia! And you may be sure he doesn't care for you now."
"Then let him go, and let us go home."
"Very well!" said the old man. "We will go home, then, and before the week's out Bartley Hubbard will be a perjured bigamist."
"Bigamist?" Marcia leaped to her feet.
"Yes, bigamist! Don't you suppose he had his eye on some other woman out there before he began this suit?"
The languor was gone from Marcia's limbs. As she confronted her father, the wonderful likeness in the outline of their faces appeared. His was dark and wrinkled with age, and hers was gray with the anger that drove the blood back to her heart, but one impulse animated those fierce profiles, and the hoarded hate in the old man's soul seemed to speak in Marcia's thick whisper, "I will go."
The Athertons sat late over their breakfast in the luxurious dining-room where the April sun came in at the windows overlooking the Back Bay, and commanding at that stage of the tide a long stretch of shallow with a flight of white gulls settled upon it.
They had let Clara's house on the hill, and she had bought another on the new land; she insisted upon the change, not only because everybody was leaving the hill, but also because, as she said, it would seem too much like taking Mr. Atherton to board, if they went to housekeeping where she had always lived; she wished to give him the effect before the world of having brought her to a house of his own. She had even furnished it anew for the most part, and had banished as far as possible the things that reminded her of the time when she was not his wife. He humored her in this fantastic self-indulgence, and philosophized her wish to give him the appearance of having the money, as something orderly in its origin, and not to be deprecated on other grounds, since probably it deceived nobody. They lived a very tranquil life, and Clara had no grief of her own unless it was that there seemed to be no great things she could do for him. One day when she whimsically complained of this, he said: "I'm very glad of that. Let's try to be equal to the little sacrifices we must make for each other; they will be quite enough. Many a woman who would be ready to die for her husband makes him wretched because she won't live for him. Don't despise the day of small things."
"Yes, but when every day seems the day of small things!" she pouted.
"Every day is the day of small things," said Atherton, "with people who are happy. We're never so prosperous as when we can't remember what happened last Monday."
"Oh, but I can't bear to be always living in the present."
"It's not so spacious, I know, as either the past or the future, but it's all we have."
"There!" cried Clara. "That's fatalism! It's worse than fatalism!"
"And is fatalism so very bad?" asked her husband.
"Well, it isn't necessarily a plurality of wives," returned Atherton, in subtle anticipation of her next point. "And it's really only another name for resignation, which is certainly a good thing."
"Resignation? Oh, I don't know about that!"
Atherton laughed, and put his arm round her waist: an argument that no woman can answer in a man she loves; it seems to deprive her of her reasoning faculties. In the atmosphere of affection which she breathed, she sometimes feared that her mental powers were really weakening. As a girl she had lived a life full of purposes, which, if somewhat vague, were unquestionably large. She had then had great interests,—art, music, literature,—the symphony concerts, Mr. Hunt's classes, the novels of George Eliot, and Mr Fiske's lectures on the cosmic philosophy; and she had always felt that they expanded and elevated existence. In her moments of question as to the shape which her life had taken since, she tried to think whether the happiness which seemed so little dependent on these things was not beneath the demands of a spirit which was probably immortal and was certainly cultivated. They all continued to be part of her life, but only a very small part; and she would have liked to ask her husband whether his influence upon her had been wholly beneficial. She was not sure that it had; but neither was she sure that it had not. She had never fully consented to the distinctness with which he classified all her emotions and ideas as those of a woman: in her heart she doubted whether a great many of them might not be those of a man, though she had never found any of them exactly like his. She could not complain that he did not treat her as an equal; he deferred to her, and depended upon her good sense to an extent that sometimes alarmed her, for she secretly knew that she had a very large streak of silliness in her nature. He seemed to tell her everything, and to be greatly ruled by her advice, especially in matters of business; but she could not help observing that he often kept matters involving certain moral questions from her till the moment for deciding them was past. When she accused him of this, he confessed that it was so; but defended himself by saying that he was afraid her conscience might sway him against his judgment.
Clara now recurred to these words of his as she sat looking at him through her tears across the breakfast table. "Was that the reason you never told me about poor Ben before?"
"Yes, and I expect you to justify me. What good would it have done to tell you?"
"I could have told you, at least, that, if Ben had any such feeling as that, it wasn't his fault altogether."
"But you wouldn't have believed that, Clara," said Atherton. "You know that, whatever that poor creature's faults are, coquetry isn't one of them."
Clara only admitted the fact passively. "How did he excuse himself for coming back?" she asked.
"He didn't excuse himself; he defied himself. We had a stormy talk, and he ended by denying that he had any social duty in the matter."
"And I think he was quite right!" Clara flashed out. "It was his own affair."
"He said he had a concrete purpose, and wouldn't listen to abstractions. Yes, he talked like a woman. But you know he wasn't right, Clara, though you talk like a woman, too. There are a great many things that are not wrong except as they wrong others. I've no doubt that, as compared with the highest love her husband ever felt for her, Ben's passion was as light to darkness. But if he could only hope for its return through the perversion of her soul,—through teaching her to think of escape from her marriage by a divorce,—then it was a crime against her and against society."
"Ben couldn't do such a thing!"
"No, he could only dream of doing it. When it came to the attempt, everything that was good in him revolted against it and conspired to make him help her in the efforts that would defeat his hopes if they succeeded. It was a ghastly ordeal, but it was sublime; and when the climax came,—that paper, which he had only to conceal for a few days or weeks,—he was equal to the demand upon him. But suppose a man of his pure training and traditions had yielded to temptation,—suppose he had so far depraved himself that he could have set about persuading her that she owed no allegiance to her husband, and might rightfully get a divorce and marry him,—what a ruinous blow it would have been to all who knew of it! It would have disheartened those who abhorred it, and encouraged those who wanted to profit by such an example. It doesn't matter much, socially, what undisciplined people like Bartley and Marcia Hubbard do; but if a man like Ben Halleck goes astray, it's calamitous; it 'confounds the human conscience,' as Victor Hugo says. All that careful nurture in the right since he could speak, all that life-long decency of thought and act, that noble ideal of unselfishness and responsibility to others, trampled under foot and spit upon,—it's horrible!"
"Yes," answered Clara, deeply moved, even as a woman may be in a pretty breakfast-room, "and such a good soul as Ben always was naturally. Will you have some more tea?"
"Yes, I will take another cup. But as for natural goodness—"
"Wait! I will ring for some hot water."
When the maid had appeared, disappeared, reappeared, and finally vanished, Atherton resumed. "The natural goodness doesn't count. The natural man is a wild beast, and his natural goodness is the amiability of a beast basking in the sun when his stomach is full. The Hubbards were full of natural goodness, I dare say, when they didn't happen to cross each other's wishes. No, it's the implanted goodness that saves,—the seed of righteousness treasured from generation to generation, and carefully watched and tended by disciplined fathers and mothers in the hearts where they have dropped it. The flower of this implanted goodness is what we call civilization, the condition of general uprightness that Halleck declared he owed no allegiance to. But he was better than his word."
Atherton lifted, with his slim, delicate hand, the cup of translucent china, and drained off the fragrant Souchong, sweetened, and tempered with Jersey cream to perfection. Something in the sight went like a pang to his wife's heart. "Ah!" she said, "it is easy enough for us to condemn. We have everything we want!"
"I don't forget that, Clara," said Atherton, gravely. "Sometimes when I think of it, I am ready to renounce all judgment of others. The consciousness of our comfort, our luxury, almost paralyzes me at those times, and I am ashamed and afraid even of our happiness."
"Yes, what right," pursued Clara, rebelliously, "have we to be happy and united, and these wretched creatures so—"
"No right,—none in the world! But somehow the effects follow their causes. In some sort they chose misery for themselves,—we make our own hell in this life and the next,—or it was chosen for them by undisciplined wills that they inherited. In the long run their fate must be a just one."
"Ah, but I have to look at things in the short run, and I can't see any justice in Marcia's husband using her so!" cried Clara. "Why shouldn't you use me badly? I don't believe that any woman ever meant better by her husband than she did."
"Oh, the meaning doesn't count! It's our deeds that judge us. He is a thoroughly bad fellow, but you may be sure she has been to blame. Though I don't blame the Hubbards, either of them, so much as I blame Halleck. He not only had everything he wished, but the training to know what he ought to wish."
"I don't know about his having everything. I think Ben must have been disappointed, some time," said Clara, evasively.
"Oh, that's nothing," replied Atherton, with the contented husband's indifference to sentimental grievances.
Clara did not speak for some moments, and then she summed up a turmoil of thoughts in a profound sigh. "Well, I don't like it! I thought it was bad enough having a man, even on the outskirts of my acquaintance, abandon his wife; but now Ben Halleck, who has been like a brother to me, to have him mixed up in such an affair in the way he is, it's intolerable!"
"I agree with you," said Atherton, playing with his spoon. "You know how I hate anything that sins against order, and this whole thing is disorderly. It's intolerable, as you say. But we must bear our share of it. We're all bound together. No one sins or suffers to himself in a civilized state,—or religious state; it's the same thing. Every link in the chain feels the effect of the violence, more or less intimately. We rise or fall together in Christian society. It's strange that it should be so hard to realize a thing that every experience of life teaches. We keep on thinking of offences against the common good as if they were abstractions!"
"Well, one thing," said Clara, "I shall always think unnecessarily shocking and disgraceful about it. And that is Ben's going out with her on this journey. I don't see how you could allow that, Eustace."
"Yes," said Atherton, after a thoughtful silence, "it is shocking. The only consolation is that it is not unnecessarily shocking. I'm afraid that it's necessarily so. When any disease of soul or body has gone far enough, it makes its own conditions, and other things must adjust themselves to it. Besides, no one knows the ugliness of the situation but Halleck himself. I don't see how I could have interfered; and upon the whole I don't know that I ought to have interfered, if I could. She would be helpless without him; and he can get no harm from it. In fact, it's part of his expiation, which must have begun as soon as he met her again after he came home."
Clara was convinced, but not reconciled. She only said, "I don't like it."
Her husband did not reply; he continued musingly: "When the old man made that final appeal to her jealousy,—all that there is really left, probably, of her love for her husband,—and she responded with a face as wicked as his, I couldn't help looking at Halleck—"
"Oh, poor Ben! How did he take it? It must have scared, it must have disgusted him!"
"That's what I had expected. But there was nothing in his face but pity. He understood, and he pitied her. That was all."
Clara rose, and turned to the window, where she remained looking through her tears at the gulls on the shallow. It seemed much more than twenty-four hours since she had taken leave of Marcia and the rest at the station, and saw them set out on their long journey with its uncertain and unimaginable end. She had deeply sympathized with them all, but at the same time she had felt very keenly the potential scandalousness of the situation; she shuddered inwardly when she thought what if people knew; she had always revolted from contact with such social facts as their errand involved. She got Olive aside for a moment, and asked her, "Don't you hate it, Olive? Did you ever dream of being mixed up in such a thing? I should die,—simply die!"
"I shall not think of dying, unless we fail," answered Olive. "And, as for hating it, I haven't consulted my feelings a great deal; but I rather think I like it."
"Like going out to be a witness in an Indiana divorce case!"
"I don't look at it in that way, Clara. It's a crusade to me; it's a holy war; it's the cause of an innocent woman against a wicked oppression. I know how you would feel about it, Clara; but I never was as respectable as you are, and I'm quite satisfied to do what Ben, and father, and Mr. Atherton approve. They think it's my duty, and I am glad to go, and to be of all the use I can. But you shall have my heartfelt sympathy through all, Clara, for your involuntary acquaintance with our proceedings."
"Olive! You know that I'm proud of your courage and Ben's goodness, and that I fully appreciate the sacrifice you're making. And I'm not ashamed of your business: I think it's grand and sublime, and I would just as soon scream it out at the top of my voice, right here in the Albany depot."
"Don't," said Olive. "It would frighten the child." She had Flavia by the hand, and she made the little girl her special charge throughout the journey. The old Squire seemed anxious to be alone, and he restlessly escaped from Marcia's care. He sat all the first day apart, chewing upon some fragment of wood that he had picked up, and now and then putting up a lank hand to rasp his bristling jaw; glancing furtively at people who passed him, and lapsing into his ruminant abstraction. He had been vexed that they did not start the night before; and every halt the train made visibly afflicted him. He would not leave his place to get anything to eat when they stopped for refreshment, though he hungrily devoured the lunch that Marcia brought into the car for him. At New York he was in a tumult of fear lest they should lose the connecting train on the Pennsylvania Road; and the sigh of relief with which he sank into his seat in the sleeping-car expressed the suffering he had undergone. He said he was not tired, but he went to bed early, as if to sleep away as much of the time as he could.
When Halleck came into their car, the next morning, he found Marcia and her father sitting together, and looking out of the window at the wooded slopes of the Alleghanies through which the train was running. The old man's impatience had relaxed; he let Marcia lay her hand on his, and he answered her with quiet submission, when she spoke now and then of the difference between these valleys, where the wild rhododendrons were growing, and the frozen hollows of the hills at home, which must be still choked with snow.
"But, oh! how much I would rather see them!" she said at last with a homesick throb.
"Well," he assented, "we can go right back—afterwards."
"Yes," she whispered.
"Well, sir, good morning," said the old man to Halleck, "we are getting along, sir. At this rate, unless our calculations were mistaken, we shall be there by midnight. We are on time, the porter tells me."
"Yes, we shall soon be at Pittsburg," said Halleck, and he looked at Marcia, who turned away her face. She had not spoken of the object of the journey to him since they had left Boston, and it had not been so nearly touched by either of them before.
He could see that she recoiled from it, but the old man, once having approached it, could not leave it. "If everything goes well, we shall have our grip on that fellow's throat in less than forty-eight hours." He looked down mechanically at his withered hands, lean and yellow like the talons of a bird, and lifted his accipitral profile with a predatory alertness. "I didn't sleep very well the last part of the night, but I thought it all out. I sha'n't care whether I get there before or after judgment is rendered; all I want is to get there before he has a chance to clear out. I think I shall be able to convince Bartley Hubbard that there is a God in Israel yet! Don't you be anxious, Marcia; I've got this thing at my fingers' ends, as clear as a bell. I intend to give Bartley a little surprise!"
Marcia kept her face averted, and Halleck relinquished his purpose of sitting down with them, and went forward to the state-room that Marcia and Olive had occupied with the little girl. He tapped on the door, and found his sister dressed, but the child still asleep.
"What is the matter, Ben?" she asked. "You don't look well. You oughtn't to have undertaken this journey."
"Oh, I'm all right. But I've been up a good while, with nothing to eat. That old man is terrible. Olive!"
"Her father? Yes, he's a terrible old man!"
"It sickened me to hear him talk, just now,—throwing out his threats of vengeance against Hubbard. It made me feel a sort of sympathy for that poor dog. Do you suppose she has the same motive? I couldn't forgive her!" he said, with a kind of passionate weakness. "I couldn't forgive myself!"
"We've got nothing to do with their motive, Ben. We are to be her witnesses for justice against a wicked wrong. I don't believe in special providences, of course; but it does seem as if we had been called to this work, as mother would say. Your happening to go home with her, that night, and then that paper happening to come to you,—doesn't it look like it?"
"It looks like it, yes."
"We couldn't have refused to come. That's what consoles me for being here this minute. I put on a bold face with Clara Atherton, yesterday morning at the depot; but I was in a cold chill, all the time. Our coming off, in this way, on such an errand, is something so different from the rest of our whole life! And I do like quiet, and orderly ways, and all that we call respectability! I've been thinking that the trial will be reported by some such interviewing wretch as Bartley himself, and that we shall figure in the newspapers. But I've concluded that we mustn't care. It's right, and we must do it. I don't shut my eyes to the kind of people we're mixed up with. I pity Marcia, and I love her—poor, helpless, unguided thing!—but that old man is terrible! He's as cruel as the grave where he thinks he's been wronged, and crueller where he thinks she's been wronged. You've forgiven so much, Ben, that you can't understand a man who forgives nothing; but I can, for I'm a pretty good hater, myself. And Marcia's just like her father, at times. I've seen her look at Clara Atherton as if she could kill her!"
The little girl stirred in her berth, and then lifted herself on her hands, and stared round at them through her tangled golden hair. "Is it morning, yet?" she asked sleepily. "Is it to-morrow?"
"Yes; it's to-morrow, Flavia," said Olive. "Do you want to get up?"
"And is next day the day after to-morrow?"
"Then it's only one day till I shall see papa. That's what mamma said. Where is mamma?" asked the child, rising to her knees, and sweeping back her hair from her face with either hand.
"I will go and send her to you," said Halleck.
At Pittsburg the Squire was eager for his breakfast, and made amends for his fast of the day before. He ate grossly of the heterogeneous abundance of the railroad restaurant, and drank two cups of coffee that in his thin, native air would have disordered his pulse for a week. But he resumed his journey with a tranquil strength that seemed the physical expression of a mind clear and content. He was willing and even anxious to tell Halleck what his theories and plans were; but the young man shrank from knowing them. He wished only to know whether Marcia were privy to them, and this, too, he shrank from knowing.
They left Pittsburg under the dun pall of smoke that hangs perpetually over the city, and ran out of a world where the earth seemed turned to slag and cinders, and the coal grime blackened even the sheathing from which the young leaves were unfolding their vivid green. Their train twisted along the banks of the Ohio, and gave them now and then a reach of the stream, forgetful of all the noisy traffic that once fretted its waters, and losing itself in almost primitive wildness among its softly rounded hills. It is a beautiful land, and it had, even to their loath eyes, a charm that touched their hearts. They were on the borders of the illimitable West, whose lands stretch like a sea beyond the hilly Ohio shore; but as yet this vastness, which appalls and wearies all but the born Westerner, had not burst upon them; they were still among heights and hollows, and in a milder and softer New England.
"I have a strange feeling about this journey," said Marcia, turning from the window at last, and facing Halleck on the opposite seat. "I want it to be over, and yet I am glad of every little stop. I feel like some one that has been called to a death-bed, and is hurrying on and holding back with all her might, at the same time. I shall have no peace till I am there, and then shall I have peace?" She fixed her eyes imploringly on his. "Say something to me, if you can! What do you think?"
"Whether you will—succeed?" He was confounding what he knew of her father's feeling with what he had feared of hers.
"Do you mean about the lawsuit? I don't care for that! Do you think he will hate me when he sees me? Do you think he will believe me when I tell him that I never meant to leave him, and that I'm sorry for what I did to drive him away?"
She seemed to expect him to answer, and he answered as well as he could: "He ought to believe that,—yes, he must believe it."
"Then all the rest may go," she said. "I don't care who gains the case. But if he shouldn't believe me,—if he should drive me away from him, as I drove him from me—" She held her breath in the terror of such a possibility, and an awe of her ignorance crept over Halleck. Apparently she had not understood the step that Bartley had taken, except as a stage in their quarrel from which they could both retreat, if they would, as easily as from any other dispute; she had not realized it as a final, an almost irrevocable act on his part, which could only be met by reprisal on hers. All those points of law which had been so sharply enforced upon her must have fallen blunted from her longing to be at one with him; she had, perhaps, not imagined her defence in open court, except as a sort of public reconciliation.
But at another time she recurred to her wrongs in all the bitterness of her father's vindictive purpose. A young couple entered the car at one of the country stations, and the bride made haste to take off her white bonnet, and lay her cheek on her husband's shoulder, while he passed his arm round her silken waist, and drew her close to him on the seat, in the loving rapture which is no wise inconvenienced by publicity on our railroad trains. Indeed, after the first general recognition of their condition, no one noticed them except Marcia, who seemed fascinated by the spectacle of their unsophisticated happiness; it must have recalled the blissful abandon of her own wedding journey to her. "Oh, poor fool!" she said to Olive. "Let her wait, and it will not be long before she will know that she had better lean on the empty air than on him. Some day, he will let her fall to the ground, and when she gathers herself up all bruised and bleeding—But he hasn't got the all-believing simpleton to deal with that he used to have; and he shall pay me back for all—drop by drop, and ache for ache!"
She was in that strange mental condition into which women fall who brood long upon opposing purposes and desires. She wished to be reconciled, and she wished to be revenged, and she recurred to either wish for the time as vehemently as if the other did not exist. She took Flavia on her knee, and began to prattle to her of seeing papa to-morrow, and presently she turned to Olive, and said: "I know he will find us both a great deal changed. Flavia looks so much older,—and so do I. But I shall soon show him that I can look young again. I presume he's changed too."
Marcia held the little girl up at the window. They had now left the river hills and the rolling country beyond, and had entered the great plain which stretches from the Ohio to the Mississippi; and mile by mile, as they ran southward and westward, the spring unfolded in the mellow air under the dull, warm sun. The willows were in perfect leaf, and wore their delicate green like veils caught upon their boughs; the may-apples had already pitched their tents in the woods, beginning to thicken and darken with the young foliage of the oaks and hickories; suddenly, as the train dashed from a stretch of forest, the peach orchards flushed pink beside the brick farmsteads. The child gave a cry of delight, and pointed; and her mother seemed to forget all that had gone before, and abandoned herself to Flavia's joy in the blossoms, as if there were no trouble for her in the world.
Halleck rose and went into the other car; he felt giddy, as if her fluctuations of mood and motive had somehow turned his own brain. He did not come back till the train stopped at Columbus for dinner. The old Squire showed the same appetite as at breakfast: he had the effect of falling upon his food like a bird of prey; and as soon as the meal was despatched he went back to his seat in the car, where he lapsed into his former silence and immobility, his lank jaws working with fresh activity upon the wooden toothpick he had brought away from the table. While they waited for a train from the north which was to connect with theirs, Halleck walked up and down the vast, noisy station with Olive and Marcia, and humored the little girl in her explorations of the place. She made friends with a red-bird that sang in its cage in the dining-hall, and with an old woman, yellow, and wrinkled, and sunken-eyed, sitting on a bundle tied up in a quilt beside the door, and smoking her clay pipe, as placidly as if on her own cabin threshold. "'Pears like you ain't much afeard of strangers, honey," said the old woman, taking her pipe out of her mouth, to fill it. "Where do you live at when you're home?"
"Boston," said the child, promptly. "Where do you live?"
"I used to live in Old Virginny. But my son, he's takin' me out to Illinoy, now. He's settled out there." She treated the child with the serious equality which simple old people use with children; and spat neatly aside in resuming her pipe. "Which o' them ladies yender is your maw, honey?"
The old woman nodded.
Flavia ran away and laid her hand on Marcia's dress, and then ran back to the old woman.
"That your paw, with her?" Flavia looked blank, and the old woman interpreted, "Your father."
"No! We're going out to see papa,—out West. We're going to see him to-morrow, and then he's coming back with us. My grandpa is in that car."
The old woman now laid her folded arms on her knees, and smoked obliviously. The little girl lingered a moment, and then ran off laughing to her mother, and pulled her skirt. "Wasn't it funny, mamma? She thought Mr. Halleck was my papa!" She hung forward by the hold she had taken, as children do, and tilted her head back to look into her mother's face. "What is Mr. Halleck, mamma?"
"What is he?" The group halted involuntarily.
"Yes, what is he? Is he my uncle, or my cousin, or what? Is he going out to see papa, too? What is he going for? Oh, look, look!" The child plucked away her hand, and ran off to join the circle of idle men and half-grown boys who were forming about two shining negroes with banjos. The negroes flung their hands upon the strings with an ecstatic joy in the music, and lifted their black voices in a wild plantation strain. The child began to leap and dance, and her mother ran after her.
"Naughty little girl!" she cried. "Come into the car with me, this minute."
Halleck did not see Marcia again till the train had run far out of the city, and was again sweeping through the thick woods, and flashing out upon the levels of the fields where the farmers were riding their sulky-plows up and down the long furrows in the pleasant afternoon sun. There was something in this transformation of man's old-time laborious dependence into a lordly domination over the earth which strikes the westward journeyer as finally expressive of human destiny in the whole mighty region, and which penetrated even to Halleck's sore and jaded thoughts. A different type of men began to show itself in the car, as the Western people gradually took the places of his fellow-travellers from the East. The men were often slovenly and sometimes uncouth in their dress; but they made themselves at home in the exaggerated splendor and opulence of the car, as if born to the best in every way; their faces suggested the security of people who trusted the future from the past, and had no fears of the life that had always used them well; they had not that eager and intense look which the Eastern faces wore; there was energy enough and to spare in them, but it was not an anxious energy. The sharp accent of the seaboard yielded to the rounded, soft, and slurring tones, and the prompt address was replaced by a careless and confident neighborliness of manner.
Flavia fretted at her return to captivity in the car, and demanded to be released with a teasing persistence from which nothing she was shown out of the window could divert her. A large man leaned forward at last from a seat near by, and held out an orange. "Come here to me, little Trouble," he said; and Flavia made an eager start toward this unlooked-for friend.
Marcia wished to check her; but Halleck pleaded to have her go. "It will be a relief to you," he said.
"Well, let her go," Marcia consented. "But she was no trouble, and she is no relief." She sat looking dully at the little girl after the Westerner had gathered her up into his lap. "Should I have liked to tell her," she said, as if thinking aloud, "how we were really going to meet her father, and that you were coming with me to be my witness against him in a court,—to put him down and disgrace him,—to fight him, as father says?"
"You mustn't think of it in that way," said Halleck, gently, but, as he felt, feebly and inadequately.
"Oh, I shall not think of it in that way long," she answered. "My head is in a whirl, and I can't hold what we're doing before my mind in any one shape for a minute at a time. I don't know what will become of me,—I don't know what will become of me!"
But in another breath she rose from this desolation, and was talking with impersonal cheerfulness of the sights that the car-window showed. As long as the light held, they passed through the same opulent and monotonous landscape; through little towns full of signs of material prosperity, and then farms, and farms again; the brick houses set in the midst of evergreens, and compassed by vast acreages of corn land, where herds of black pigs wandered, and the farmers were riding their ploughs, or heaping into vast windrows for burning the winter-worn stalks of the last year's crop. Where they came to a stream the landscape was roughened into low hills, from which it sank again luxuriously to a plain. If there was any difference between Ohio and Indiana, it was that in Indiana the spring night, whose breath softly buffeted their cheeks through the open window, had gathered over those eternal cornfields, where the long crooked windrows, burning on either hand, seemed a trail of fiery serpents writhing away from the train as it roared and clamored over the track.
They were to leave their car at Indianapolis, and take another road which would bring them to Tecumseh by daylight the next morning. Olive went away with the little girl, and put her to bed on the sofa in their state-room, and Marcia suffered them to go alone; it was only by fits that she had cared for the child, or even noticed it. "Now tell me again," she said to Halleck, "why we are going."
"Surely you know."
"Yes, yes, I know; but I can't think,—I don't seem to remember. Didn't I give it up once? Didn't I say that I would rather go home, and let Bartley get the divorce, if he wanted?"
"Yes, you said that, Marcia."
"I used to make him very unhappy; I was very strict with him, when I knew he couldn't bear any kind of strictness. And he was always so patient with me; though he never really cared for me. Oh, yes, I knew that from the first! He used to try; but he must have been glad to get away. Poor Bartley! It was cruel, cruel, to put that in about my abandoning him when he knew I would come back; but perhaps the lawyers told him he must; he had to put in something! Why shouldn't I let him go? Father said he only wanted to get rid of me, so that he could marry some one else—Yes, yes; it was that that made me start! Father knew it would! Oh," she grieved, with a wild self-pity that tore Halleck's heart, "he knew it would!" She fell wearily back against the seat, and did not speak for some minutes. Then she said, in a slow, broken utterance: "But now I don't seem to mind even that, any more. Why shouldn't he marry some one else that he really likes, if he doesn't care for me?"
Halleck laughed in bitterness of soul as his thought recurred to Atherton's reasons. "Because," he said, "you have a public duty in the matter. You must keep him bound to you, for fear some other woman, whose husband doesn't care for her, should let him go, too, and society be broken up, and civilization destroyed. In a matter like this, which seems to concern yourself alone, you are only to regard others."
His reckless irony did not reach her through her manifold sorrow. "Well," she said, simply, "it must be that. But, oh! how can I bear it! how can I bear it!"
The time passed; Olive did not return for an hour; then she merely said that the little girl had just fallen asleep, and that she should go back and lie down with her; that she was sleepy too.
Marcia did not answer, but Halleck said he would call her in good time before they reached Indianapolis.
The porter made up the berths of such as were going through to St. Louis, and Marcia was left sitting alone with Halleck. "I will go and get your father to come here," he said.
"I don't want him to come! I want to talk to you—to say something—What was it? I can't think!" She stopped, like one trying to recover a faded thought; he waited, but she did not speak again. She had laid a nervous clutch upon his arm, to detain him from going for her father, and she kept her hand there mechanically; but after a while he felt it relax; she drooped against him, and fell away into a sleep in which she started now and then like a frightened child. He could not release himself without waking her; but it did not matter; her sorrow had unsexed her; only the tenderness of his love for this hapless soul remained in his heart, which ached and evermore heavily sank within him.
He woke her at last when he must go to tell Olive that they were running into Indianapolis. Marcia struggled to her feet: "Oh, oh! Are we there? Are we there?"
"We are at Indianapolis," said Halleck.
"I thought it was Tecumseh!" She shuddered. "We can go back; oh, yes, we can still go back!"
They alighted from the train in the chilly midnight air, and found their way through the crowd to the eating-room of the station. The little girl cried with broken sleep and the strangeness, and Olive tried to quiet her. Marcia clung to Halleck's arm, and shivered convulsively. Squire Gaylord stalked beside them with a demoniac vigor. "A few more hours, a few more hours, sir!" he said. He made a hearty supper, while the rest scalded their mouths with hot tea, which they forced with loathing to their lips.
Some women who were washing the floor of the ladies' waiting-room told them they must go into the men's room, and wait there for their train, which was due at one o'clock. They obeyed, and found the room full of emigrants, and the air thick with their tobacco smoke. There was no choice; Olive went in first and took the child on her lap, where it straightway fell asleep; the Squire found a seat beside them, and sat erect, looking round on the emigrants with the air of being amused at their outlandish speech, into which they burst clamorously from their silence at intervals. Marcia stopped Halleck at the threshold. "Stay out here with me," she whispered. "I want to tell you something," she added, as he turned mechanically and walked away with her up the vast lamp-shot darkness of the depot. "I am not going on! I am going back. We will take the train that goes to the East; father will never know till it is too late. We needn't speak to him about it—"
Halleck set himself against this delirious folly: he consented to her return; she could do what she would; but he would not consent to cheat her father. "We must go and tell him," he said, for all answer to all her entreaties. He dragged her back to the waiting-room; but at the door she started at the figure of a man who was bending over a group of emigrant children asleep in the nearest corner,—poor, uncouth, stubbed little creatures, in old-mannish clothes, looking like children roughly blocked out of wood, and stiffly stretched on the floor, or resting woodenly against their mother.
"There!" said the man, pressing a mug of coffee on the woman. "You drink that! It'll do you good,—every drop of it! I've seen the time," he said, turning round with the mug, when she had drained it, in his hand, and addressing Marcia and Halleck as the most accessible portion of the English-speaking public, "when I used to be down on coffee; I thought it was bad for the nerves; but I tell you, when you're travelling it's a brain-food, if ever there was a brain—" He dropped the mug, and stumbled back into the heap of sleeping children, fixing a ghastly stare on Marcia.
She ran toward him. "Mr. Kinney!"
"No, you don't!—no, you don't!"
"Why, don't you know me? Mrs. Hubbard?"
"He—he—told me you—was dead!" roared Kinney.
"He told you I was dead?"
"More'n a year ago! The last time I seen him! Before I went out to Leadville!"
"He told you I was dead," repeated Marcia huskily. "He must have wished it!" she whispered. "Oh, mercy, mercy, mercy!" She stopped, and then she broke into a wild laugh: "Well, you see he was wrong. I'm on my way to him now to show him that I'm alive!"
Halleck woke at daybreak from the drowse into which he had fallen. The train was creeping slowly over the track, feeling its way, and he heard fragments of talk among the passengers about a broken rail that the conductor had been warned of. He turned to ask some question, when the pull of rising speed came from the locomotive, and at the same moment the car stopped with a jolting pitch. It settled upon the track again; but the two cars in front were overturned, and the passengers were still climbing from their windows, when Halleck got his bewildered party to the ground. Children were crying, and a woman was led by with her face cut and bleeding from the broken glass; but it was reported that no one else was hurt, and the trainmen gave their helplessness to the inspection of the rotten cross-tie that had caused the accident. One of the passengers kicked the decayed wood with his boot. "Well," he said, "I always like a little accident like this, early; it makes us safe the rest of the day." The sentiment apparently commended itself to popular acceptance; Halleck went forward with part of the crowd to see what was the matter with the locomotive: it had kept the track, but seemed to be injured somehow; the engineer was working at it, hammer in hand; he exchanged some dry pleasantries with a passenger who asked him if there was any chance of hiring a real fast ox-team in that neighborhood, in case a man was in a hurry to get on to Tecumseh.
They were in the midst of a level prairie that stretched all round to the horizon, where it was broken by patches of timber; the rising sun slanted across the green expanse, and turned its distance to gold; the grass at their feet was full of wild-flowers, upon which Flavia flung herself as soon as they got out of the car. By the time Halleck returned to them, she was running with cries of joy and wonder toward a windmill that rose beautiful above the roofs of a group of commonplace houses, at a little distance from the track; it stirred its mighty vans in the thin, sweet inland breeze, and took the sun gayly on the light gallery that encircled it.
A vision of Belgian plains swept before Halleck's eyes. "There ought to be storks on its roof," he said, absently.
"How strange that it should be here, away out in the West!" said Olive.
"If it were less strange than we are, here, I couldn't stand it," he answered.
A brakeman came up with a flag in his hand, and nodded toward Flavia. "She's on the right track for breakfast," he said. "There's an old Dutchman at that mill, and his wife knows how to make coffee like a fellow's mother. You'll have plenty of time. This train has come here to stay—till somebody can walk back five miles and telegraph for help."
"How far are we from Tecumseh?" asked Halleck.
"Fifty miles," the brakeman called back over his shoulder.
"Don't you worry any, Marcia," said her father, moving off in pursuit of Flavia. "This accident makes it all right for us, if we don't get there for a week."
Marcia answered nothing. Halleck began to talk to her of that Belgian landscape in which he had first seen a windmill, and he laughed at the blank unintelligence with which she received his reminiscences of travel. For the moment, the torturing stress was lifted from his soul; he wished that the breakfast in the miller's house might never come to an end; he explored the mill with Flavia; he bantered the Squire on his saturnine preference for steam power in the milling business; he made the others share his mood; he pushed far from him the series of tragic or squalid facts which had continually brought the end to him in reveries in which he found himself holding his breath, as if he might hold it till the end really came.
But this respite could not last. A puff of white steam showed on the horizon, and after an interval the sound of the locomotive whistle reached them, as it came backing down a train of empty cars towards them. They were quickly on their journey again, and a scanty hour before noon they arrived at Tecumseh.
The pretty town, which in prospect had worn to Olive Halleck's imagination the blended hideousness of Sodom and Gomorrah, was certainly very much more like a New England village in fact. After the brick farmsteads and coal-smoked towns of Central Ohio, its wooden houses, set back from the street with an ample depth of door-yard, were appealingly familiar, and she exchanged some homesick whispers with Marcia about them, as they drove along under the full-leaved maples which shadowed the way. The grass was denser and darker than in New England, and, pretty as the town was, it wore a more careless and unscrupulous air than the true New England village; the South had touched it, and here and there it showed a wavering line of fence and a faltering conscientiousness in its paint. Presently all aspects of village quiet and seclusion ceased, and a section of conventional American city, with flab-roofed brick blocks, showy hotel, stores, paved street, and stone sidewalks expressed the readiness of Tecumseh to fulfil the destiny of every Western town, and become a metropolis at a day's notice, if need be. The second-hand omnibus, which reflected the actuality of Tecumseh, set them down at the broad steps of the court-house, fronting on an avenue which for a city street was not very crowded or busy. Such passers as there were had leisure and inclination, as they loitered by, to turn and stare at the strangers; and the voice of the sheriff, as he called from an upper window of the court-house the names of absentee litigants or witnesses required to come into court, easily made itself heard above all the other noises.
It seemed to Halleck as if the sheriff were calling them; he lifted his head and looked at Olive, but she would not meet his eye; she led by the hand the little girl, who kept asking, "Is this the house where papa lives?" with the merciless iteration of a child. Halleck dragged lamely after the Squire, who had mounted the steps with unnatural vigor; he promptly found his way to the clerk's office, where he examined the docket, and then returned to his party triumphant. "We are in time," he said, and he led them on up into the court-room.
A few spectators, scattered about on the rows of benching, turned to look at them as they walked up the aisle, where the cocoa matting, soaked and dried, and soaked again, with perpetual libations of tobacco-juice, mercifully silenced their footsteps; most of the faces turned upon them showed a slow and thoughtful movement of the jaws, and, as they were dropped or averted, a general discharge of tobacco-juice seemed to express the general adoption of the new-comers, whoever they were, as a necessary element of the scene, which it was useless to oppose, and about which it was idle to speculate. Before the Squire had found his party seats on one of the benches next the bar, the spectators had again given their languid attention to the administration of justice, which is everywhere informal with us, and is only a little more informal in the West than in the East. An effect of serene disoccupation pervaded the place, such as comes at the termination of an interesting affair; and no one seemed to care for what the clerk was reading aloud in a set, mechanical tone. The judge was busy with his docket; the lawyers, at their several little tables within the bar, lounged in their chairs, or stalked about laughing and whispering to each other; the prosecuting attorney leaned upon the shoulder of a jolly-looking man, who lifted his face to joke up at him, as he tilted his chair back; a very stout, youngish person, who sat next him, kept his face dropped while the clerk proceeded:—
"And now, on motion of plaintiff, it is ordered by the Court that said defendant be now here three times called, which is done in open court, and she comes not; but wholly makes default herein. And this cause is now submitted to the Court for trial, and the Court having heard the evidence, and being fully advised, find for the plaintiff,—that the allegations of his complaint are true, and that he is entitled to a divorce. It is therefore considered by the Court, that said plaintiff be and he is hereby divorced, and the bonds of matrimony heretofore existing between said parties are dissolved and held for naught."
As the clerk closed the large volume before him, the jolly lawyer, as if the record had been read at his request, nodded to the Court, and said, "The record of the decree seems correct, your honor." He leaned forward, and struck the fat man's expanse of back with the flat of his hand. "Congratulate you, my dear boy!" he said in a stage whisper that was heard through the room. "Many happy returns of the day!"
A laugh went round, and the judge said severely, "Mr. Sheriff, see that order is kept in the courtroom."
The fat man rose to shake hands with another friend, and at the same moment Squire Gaylord stretched himself to his full height before stooping over to touch the shoulder of one of the lawyers within the bar, and his eyes encountered those of Bartley Hubbard in mutual recognition.
It was not the fat on Bartley's ribs only that had increased: his broad cheeks stood out and hung down with it, and his chin descended by the three successive steps to his breast. His complexion was of a tender pink, on which his blonde moustache showed white; it almost vanished in the tallowy pallor to which the pink turned as he saw his father-in-law, and then the whole group which the intervening spectators had hitherto hidden from him. He dropped back into his chair, and intimated to his lawyer, with a wave of his hand and a twist of his head, that some hopeless turn in his fortunes had taken place. That jolly soul turned to him for explanation, and at the same time the lawyer whom Squire Gaylord had touched on the shoulder responded to a few whispered words from him by beckoning to the prosecuting attorney, who stepped briskly across to where they stood. A brief dumb-show ensued, and the prosecutor ended by taking the Squire's hand, and inviting him within the bar; the other attorney politely made room for him at his table, and the prosecutor returned to his place near the jury-box, where he remained standing for a moment.
"If it please the Court," he began, in a voice breaking heavily upon the silence that had somehow fallen upon the whole room, "I wish to state that the defendant in the case of Hubbard vs. Hubbard is now and here present, having been prevented by an accident on the road between this place and Indianapolis from arriving in time to make defence. She desires to move the Court to set aside the default."
The prosecutor retired a few paces, and nodded triumphantly at Bartley's lawyer, who could not wholly suppress his enjoyment of the joke, though it told so heavily against him and his client. But he was instantly on his feet with a technical objection.
The judge heard him through, and then opened his docket, at the case of Hubbard vs. Hubbard. "What name shall I enter for the defence?" he inquired formally.
Squire Gaylord turned with an old-fashioned state and deliberation which had their effect, and cast a glance of professional satisfaction in the situation at the attorneys and the spectators. "I ask to be allowed to appear for the defence in this case, if the Court please. My friend, Mr. Hathaway, will move my admission to this bar."
The attorney to whom the Squire had first introduced himself promptly complied: "Your honor, I move the admission of Mr. F. J. Gaylord, of Equity, Equity County, Maine, to practise at this bar."
The judge bowed to the Squire, and directed the clerk to administer the usual oath. "I have entered your name for the defence, Mr. Gaylord. Do you desire to make any motion in the case?" he pursued, the natural courtesy of his manner further qualified by a feeling which something pathetic in the old Squire's bearing inspired.
"Yes, your honor, I move to set aside the default, and I shall offer in support of this motion my affidavit, setting forth the reasons for the non-appearance of the defendant at the calling of the cause."
"Shall I note your motion as filed?" asked the Judge.
"Yes, your honor," replied the old man. He made a futile attempt to prepare the paper; the pen flew out of his trembling hand. "I can't write," he said in despair that made other hands quick to aid him. A young lawyer at the next desk rapidly drew up the paper, and the Squire duly offered it to the clerk of the Court. The clerk stamped it with the file-mark of the Court, and returned it to the Squire, who read aloud the motion and affidavit, setting forth the facts of the defendant's failure to receive the notice in time to prepare for her defence, and of the accident which had contributed to delay her appearance, declaring that she had a just defence to the plaintiff's bill, and asking to be heard upon the facts.
Bartley's attorney was prompt to interpose again. He protested that the printed advertisement was sufficient notice to the defendant, whenever it came to her knowledge, or even if it never came to her knowledge, and that her plea of failure to receive it in time was not a competent excuse. This might be alleged in any case, and any delay of travel might be brought forward to account for non-appearance as plausibly as this trumped-up accident in which nobody was hurt. He did his best, which was also his worst, and the judge once more addressed the Squire, who stood waiting for Bartley's counsel to close. "I was about to adjourn the Court," said the judge, in that accent which is the gift of the South to some parts of the West; it is curiously soft and gentle, and expressive, when the speaker will, of a caressing deference. "But we have still some minutes before noon in which we can hear you in support of your motion, if you are ready."
"I am m-ready, your honor!" The old man's nasals cut across the judge's rounded tones, almost before they had ceased. His lips compressed themselves to a waving line, and his high hawk-beak came down over them; the fierce light burned in his cavernous eyes, and his grizzled hair erected itself like a crest. He swayed slightly back and forth at the table, behind which he stood, and paused as if waiting for his hate to gather head.
In this interval it struck several of the spectators, who had appreciative friends outside, that it was a pity they should miss the coming music, and they risked the loss of some strains themselves that they might step out and inform these dilettanti. One of them was stopped by a man at the door. "What's up, now?" The other impatiently explained; but the inquirer, instead of hurrying in to enjoy the fun, turned quickly about, and ran down the stairs. He crossed the street, and, by a system of alleys and byways, modestly made his way to the outlying fields of Tecumseh, which he traversed at heightened speed, plunging at last into the belt of timber beyond. This excursion, which had so much the appearance of a chase, was an exigency of the witness who had corroborated on oath the testimony of Bartley in regard to his wife's desertion. Such an establishment of facts, purely imaginary with the witness, was simple enough in the absence of rebutting testimony; but confronted with this, it became another affair; it had its embarrassments, its risks.
"M-ready," repeated Squire Gay lord, "m-ready with facts and witnesses!" The word, in which he exulted till it rang and echoed through the room, drew the eyes of all to the little group on the bench next the bar, where Marcia, heavily veiled in the black which she had worn ever since Bartley's disappearance, sat with Halleck and Olive. The little girl, spent with her long journey, rested her head on her mother's lap, and the mother's hand tremulously smoothed her hair, and tried to hush the grieving whisper in which she incessantly repeated, "Where is papa? I want to see papa!"
Olive looked straight before her, and Halleck's eyes were fixed upon the floor. After the first glance at them Bartley did not lift his head, but held it bent forward where he sat, and showed only a fold of fat red neck above his coat-collar. Marcia might have seen his face in that moment before it blanched and he sank into his chair; she did not look toward him again.
"Mr. Sheriff, keep silence in the Court!" ordered the judge, in reprimand of the stir that ensued upon the general effort to catch sight of the witnesses.
"Silence in the Court! Keep your seats, gentlemen!" cried the sheriff.
"And I thank the Court," resumed the Squire, "for this immediate opportunity to redress an atrocious wrong, and to vindicate an innocent and injured woman. Sir, I think it will prejudice our cause with no one, when I say that we are here not only in the relation of attorney and client, but in that of father and daughter, and that I stand in this place singularly and sacredly privileged to demand justice for my own child!"
"Order, order!" shouted the sheriff. But he could not quell the sensation that followed; the point had been effectively made, and it was some moments before the noise of the people beginning to arrive from the outside permitted the Squire to continue. He waited, with one lean hand hanging at his side, and the other resting in a loosely folded fist on the table before him. He took this fist up as if it were some implement he had laid hold of, and swung it in the air.
"By a chance which I shall not be the last to describe as providential,"—he paused, and looked round the room as if defying any one there to challenge the sincerity of his assertion,—"the notice, which your law requires to be given by newspaper advertisement to the non-resident defendant in such a case as this, came, by one chance in millions, to her hand. By one chance more or less, it would not have reached her, and a monstrous crime against justice would have been irrevocably accomplished. For she had mourned this man as dead,—dead to the universal frame of things, when he was only dead to honor, dead to duty, and dead to her; and it was that newspaper, sent almost at random through the mail, and wandering from hand to hand, and everywhere rejected, for weeks, before it reached her at last, which convinced her that he was still in such life as a man may live who has survived his own soul. We are therefore here, standing upon our right, and prepared to prove it God's right, and the everlasting truth. Two days ago, a thousand miles and a thousand uncertainties intervened between us and this right, but now we are here to show that the defendant, basely defamed by the plea of abandonment, returned to her home within an hour after she had parted there with the plaintiff, and has remained there day and night ever since." He stopped. "Did I say she had never absented herself during all this time? I was wrong. I spoke hastily. I forgot." He dropped his voice. "She did absent herself at one time,—for three days,—while she could come home to close her mother's dying eyes, and help me to lay her in the grave!" He tried to close his lips firmly again, but the sinuous line was broken by a convulsive twitching. "Perhaps," he resumed with the utmost gentleness, "the plaintiff returned in this interval, and, finding her gone, was confirmed in his belief that she had abandoned him."
He felt blindly about on the table with his trembling hands, and his whole figure had a pathos that gave the old dress-coat statuesque dignity. The spectators quietly changed their places, and occupied the benches near him, till Bartley was left sitting alone with his counsel. We are beginning to talk here at the East of the decline of oratory; but it is still a passion in the West, and his listeners now clustered about the Squire in keen appreciation of his power; it seemed to summon even the loiterers in the street, whose ascending tramp on the stairs continually made itself heard; the lawyers, the officers of the court, the judge, forgot their dinner, and posed themselves anew in their chairs to listen.