"Quite," said Maxwell, and with a slight bow to Louise, he went out.
"Oh, papa!" Louise moaned out, "how could you treat him so?"
"Treat him so? Why shouldn't I treat him so? Confound his impudence! What does he mean by thrusting himself in here and taking possession of my library? Why didn't he wait in the hall?"
"Patrick showed him in here. He saw that he was a gentleman!"
"Saw that he was a gentleman?"
"Yes, certainly. He is very cultivated. He's not—not a common reporter at all!" Louise's voice trembled with mortification for her father, and pity for Maxwell, as she adventured this assertion from no previous experience of reporters. It was shocking to feel that it was her father who had not been the gentleman. "You—you might have been a little kinder, papa; he wasn't at all obtrusive; and he only asked you whether you would say anything. He didn't persist."
"I didn't intend he should persist," said Hilary. His fire of straw always burnt itself out in the first blaze; it was uncomfortable to find himself at variance with his daughter, who was usually his fond and admiring ally; but he could not give up at once. "If you didn't like the way I treated him, why did you stay?" he demanded. "Was it necessary for you to entertain him till I came in? Did he ask for the family? What does it all mean?"
The tears came into her eyes, and she said with indignant resentment: "Patrick didn't know I was here when he brought him in; I'm sure I should have been glad to go, when you began raging at him, papa, if I could. It wasn't very pleasant to hear you. I won't come any more, if you don't want me to. I thought you liked me to be here. You said you did."
Her father blustered back: "Don't talk nonsense. You'll come, just as you always have. I suppose," he added, after a moment, in which Louise gathered up her shoes, and stood with them in one hand behind her, a tall figure of hurt affection and wounded pride, "I suppose I might have been a little smoother with the fellow, but I've had twenty reporters after me to-day, and between them, and you, and Matt, in all this bother, I hardly know what I'm about. Didn't Matt see that his going to Wellwater in behalf of Northwick's family must involve me more and more?"
"I don't see how he could help offering to go, when he found Suzette was going alone. He couldn't do less."
"Oh, do less!" said Hilary, with imperfectly sustained passion. He turned, to avoid looking at Louise, and his eyes fell on a strange-looking note-book on the table where Maxwell had sat. "What's this?"
He took it up, and Louise said, "He must have left it." And she thought, "Of course he will come back for it."
"Well, I must send it to him. And I'll—I'll write him a note," Hilary groaned.
Louise smiled eager forgiveness. "He seemed very intelligent, poor fellow, in some ways. Didn't you notice what a cultivated tone he had? It's shocking to think of his having to go about and interview people, and meet all kinds of rebuffs."
"I guess you'd better not waste too much sympathy on him," said Hilary, with some return to his grudge.
"Oh, I didn't mean you, papa," said Louise, sweetly.
The door-bell rang, and after some parley at the threshold, Patrick came up to say, "The gentleman that was just here thinks he left his note-book, he—"
Hilary did not let him get the words out; "Oh, yes, show him up! Here it is." He ran half down the stairs himself to meet Maxwell.
Louise stole a glance at herself across the room in the little triptych mirror against one of the shelves. Her hair was not tumbled, and she completed her toilet to the eye by dropping her shoes and extending the edge of her skirt over them where she stood.
Her father brought Maxwell in by the door, and she smiled a fresh greeting to him. "We—I had just picked your note-book up. I—I'm glad you came back, I—was a little short with you a moment ago. I—I—Mayn't I offer you a cigar?"
"No, thanks. I don't smoke," said Maxwell.
"Then a glass of—It's pretty cold out!"
"Thank you; I never drink."
"Well, that's good! That's—sit down; sit down!—that's a very good thing. I assure you, I don't think it's the least use, though I do both. My boy doesn't, he's a pattern to his father."
In spite of Hilary's invitation Maxwell remained on foot, with the effect of merely hearing him out as he went on.
"I—I'm sorry I haven't anything to tell about that accident. I've been telegraphing all day, without finding out anything beyond the fact as first reported; and now my son's gone up to Wellwater, to look it up on the ground. It may have been our Mr. Northwick, or it may not. May I ask how much you know?"
"I don't know that I'm quite free to say," answered Maxwell.
"And I didn't expect you to say anything unless you wished to make something known. It's a matter of business."
"Exactly," said Hilary. "But I think I might been a little civiller in saying what I did. The rumor's been a great annoyance to me; and I like to share my annoyances with other people. I suppose your business often brings you in contact with men of that friendly disposition? Heigh?" Hilary rolled the cigar he was about to light between his lips.
"We see the average man," said Maxwell, not at all flattered from his poise by Hilary's apologies. "It's a bore to be interviewed; I know that from the bore it is to interview."
"I dare say that's often the worst part of it," said Hilary, lighting his cigar, and puffing out the first great clouds. "Well, then, I may congratulate myself on sparing you an unpleasant duty. I didn't know I should come off so handsomely."
There seemed nothing more to say, and Maxwell did not attempt to make conversation. Hilary offered him his hand, and he said, as if to relieve the parting of abruptness, "If you care to look in on me again, later on, perhaps—"
"Thank you," said Maxwell, and he turned to go. Then he turned back, and after a moment's hesitation, bowed to Louise, and said very stiffly, "Good-evening!" and went out.
Louise fetched a deep breath. "Why didn't you keep him longer, papa, and find out all about him?"
"I think we know all that's necessary," said her father, dryly. "At least he isn't on my conscience any longer; and now I hope you're satisfied."
"Yes—yes," she hesitated. "You don't think you were too patronizing in your reparation, papa?"
"Patronizing?" Hilary's crest began to rise.
"Oh, I don't mean that; but I wish you hadn't let him see that you expected him to leap for joy when you stooped to excuse yourself."
Hilary delayed, for want of adequate terms, the violence he was about to permit himself. "The next time, if you don't like my manner with people, don't stay, Louise."
"I knew you wanted me to stay, papa, to see how beautifully you could do it; and you did do it beautifully. It was magnificent—perhaps too magnificent." She began to laugh and to kiss away the vexation from her father's face, keeping her hands behind her with her shoes she had picked up again, in them, as she came and leaned over him, where he sat.
"And did I want you to stay and entertain him here till I came in?" he demanded, to keep from being mollified too soon.
"No," she faltered. "That was a work of necessity. He looked so sick and sad, that he appealed to my sympathy, and besides—Do you think I could trust you with a secret, papa?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Why, you see I thought he was a walking-delegate at first."
"And was that the reason you stayed?"
"No. That was what frightened me, and then interested me. I wanted to find out what they were like. But that isn't the secret."
"It's probably quite as important," Hilary growled.
"Well, you see it's such a good lesson to me! I had slipped off my shoes when I was lying down, and I couldn't get away, he came in so suddenly."
"And do you mean to tell me, Louise, that you were talking to that reporter all the time in—"
"How should he know it? You didn't know it yourself, papa. I couldn't get my shoes on after he came, of course!" She brought them round before her in evidence.
"Well, it's scandalous, Louise, simply scandalous! I never come in after you've been here without finding some part of your gear lying round—hair-pins, or gloves, or ribbons, or belts, or handkerchiefs, or something—and I won't have it. I want you to understand that I think it's disgraceful. I'm ashamed of you."
"Oh, no! Not ashamed, papa!"
"Yes, I am!" said her father; but he had to relent under her look of meek imploring, and say, "or I ought to be. I don't see how you could hold up your head."
"I held it very high up. When you haven't got your shoes on—in company—it gives you a sort of—internal majesty; and I behaved very loftily. But it's been a fearful lesson to me, papa!" She made her father laugh, and then she flung herself upon him, and kissed him for his amiability.
She said at the end of this rite, "He didn't seem much impressed even after you had apologized, do you think, papa?"
"No, he didn't," Hilary grumbled. "He's as stiff-necked as need be."
"Yes," said Louise, thoughtfully. "He must be proud. How funny proud people are, papa! I can't understand them. That was what always fascinated me with Suzette."
Hilary's face saddened as it softened. "Ah, poor thing! She'll have need of all her pride, now."
"You mean about her father," said Louise, sobered too. "Don't you hope he's got away?"
"What do you mean, child? That would be a very rascally wish in me."
"Well, you'd rather he had got away than been killed?"
"Why, of course, of course," Hilary ruefully assented. "But if Matt finds he wasn't—in the accident, it's my business to do all I can to bring him to justice. The man's a thief."
"Well, then, I hope he's got away."
"You mustn't say such things, Louise."
"Oh, no, papa! Only think them."
Hilary had to yield to the pressure on him and send detectives to look into the question of Northwick's fate at the scene of the accident. It was a formal violation of his promise to Northwick that he should have three days unmolested; but perhaps the circumstances would have justified Hilary to any business man, and it could really matter nothing to the defaulter dead or alive. In either case he was out of harm's way. Matt, all the same, felt the ghastliness of being there on the same errand with these agents of his father, and reaching the same facts with them. At moments it seemed to him as if he were tacitly working in agreement with them, for the same purpose as well as to the same end; but he would not let this illusion fasten upon him; and he kept faith with Suzette in the last degree. He left nothing undone which she could have asked if he had done; he invented some quite useless things to do, and did them, to give his conscience no cause against him afterwards. The fire had left nothing but a few charred fragments of the wreck. There had been no means of stopping it, and it had almost completely swept away the cars in which it had broken out. Certain of the cars to the windward were not burnt; these lay capsized beside the track, bent and twisted, and burst athwart, fantastically like the pictures of derailed cars as Matt had seen them in the illustrated papers; the locomotive, pitched into a heavy drift, was like some dead monster that had struggled hard for its life. Where the fire had raged, there was a wide black patch in the whiteness glistening everywhere else; there were ashes, and writhen iron-work; and bits of charred wood-work; but nothing to tell who or how many had died there. It was certain that the porter and the parlor-car conductor were among the lost; and his list of passengers had perished with the conductor; there was only left with the operator the original of that telegram, asking to have a chair reserved in the Pullman from Wellwater, and signed with Northwick's name, but those different initials, which had given rise to the report of his death.
This was the definite fact which Matt could carry back with him to Northwick's family, and this they knew already. It settled nothing; it left the question of his death just where it was before. But Matt struggled with it as if it were some quite new thing, and spent himself in trying to determine how he should present it to them. In his own mind he had very great doubt whether Northwick was in the accident, and whether that dispatch was not a trick, a ruse to cover up the real course of his flight. But then there was no sense in his trying to hide his track, for he must have known that as yet there was no pursuit. If the telegram was a ruse, it was a ruse to conceal the fact that Northwick was still in the country, and had not gone to Canada at all. But Matt could not imagine any reason for such a ruse; the motive must be one of those illogical impulses which sometimes govern criminals. In any case, Matt could not impart his conjectures to the poor women who must be awaiting his return with such cruel anxiety. If the man were really dead, it would simplify the matter beyond the power of any other fact; Matt perceived how it would mitigate the situation for his family; he could understand how people should hold that suicide was the only thing left for a man in Northwick's strait. He blamed himself for coming a moment to that ground, and owned the shame of his interested motive; but it was, nevertheless, a relief which he did not know how to refuse when Suzette Northwick took what he had to tell as final proof that her father was dead.
She said that she had been talking it all over with her sister, and they were sure of it; they were prepared for it; they expected him to tell them so.
Matt tried to have her realize that he had not told her so; and he urged, as far as he could, the grounds for hoping that her father was not in the accident.
She put them all aside. The difference in the initials was really no difference; and besides, and above all, there was the fact that if her father were anywhere alive, he must have seen the report of his death by this time, and sent some word, made some sign for their relief. She was doubly sure of this, because he was so anxiously thoughtful of them when they were separated. He expected them to notify him of every slight change in their plans when they were away, and always telegraphed as to his own. The only mystery was his going to Canada without letting them know his plans before or afterwards. It must have been upon some very suddenly urgent business that took his mind off everything else.
Matt silently hung his head, dreading lest she should ask him what he thought, and wondering how he must answer if she did. He perceived that he had no choice but to lie, if she asked him; but when he volunteered nothing, she did not ask him.
It was the second morning after he had left her; but he could see that she had lived long since their parting. He thought, "That is the way she will look as she grows old." The delicate outline of her cheeks showed a slight straightening of its curve; her lips were pinched; the aquiline jut of her nose was sharpened. There was no sign of tears in her eyes; but Adeline wept, and constantly dried her tears with her handkerchief. She accepted her affliction meekly, as Suzette accepted it proudly, and she seemed to leave all the conjectures and conclusions to her sister.
Suzette was in the exaltation which death first brings to the bereaved, when people say that they do not realize it yet, and that they will feel it later. Then they go about, especially if they are women, in a sort of hysterical strength; they speak calmly of what has happened; they help those beyond the immediate circle of their loss to bear up against it; these look to see them break suddenly under the stress of their bereavement, and wonder at their impassioned fortitude.
Matt knew neither how to stay nor to get away; it seemed intrusive to linger, and inhuman to go when he had told the little he had to tell. Suzette had been so still, so cold, in receiving him, that he was astonished at her intensity when he rose to leave her at last.
"I shall never forget what you have done for us, Mr. Hilary. Never! Don't belittle it, or try to make it seem nothing! It was everything! I wonder you could do it!"
"Yes!" Adeline put in, as if they had been talking his kindness over, as well as their loss, and were of one mind about it.
"Oh, indeed!" he began. "Any one would have done it—"
"Don't say so!" cried Suzette. "You think that because you would have done it for any one! But you have done it for us; and as long as I live I shall remember that! Oh"—She broke off; and dropped her face with a pathetic, childlike helplessness on her lifted arm; and now he was less than ever able to leave her. They all sat down again, after they had risen to part; Matt felt the imperative necessity of encouraging them; of rescuing her from the conjecture which she had accepted as certainty. He was one of those men in whom passion can be born only of some form of unselfish kindness; and who alone can make women happy. If it was love that was now stirring so strangely at his heart, he did not know it was love; he thought it was still the pity that he had felt for the girl's immense calamity. He knew that from every phase of it he could not save her, but he tried to save her from that which now confronted them, and from which he saw her suffering. He went over all the facts again with the hapless creatures, and reasoned from them the probability that their father was still alive. It was respite from sorrow which misery must follow; it was insane, it was foolish, it was even guilty, but he could not help trying to win it for them; and when he left them at last, they were bright with the hope he had given them, and which the event, whether it was death or whether it was disgrace, must quench in a blacker despair.
The truth of this rushed upon him when he found himself staggering away from the doomed house which cast its light gayly out upon the snow, and followed him with a perverse sense of its warmth and luxury into the night. But a strange joy mixed with the trouble in his soul; and for all that sleepless night, the conflict of these emotions seemed to toss him to and fro as if he were something alien and exterior to them. Northwick was now dead, and his death had averted the disgrace which overhung his name; now he was still alive, and his escape from death had righted all the wrong he had done. Then his escape had only deepened the shame he had fled from; his death had fixed a stain of a blood-guiltiness on his misdeeds, and was no caprice of fate, but a judgment of the eternal justice. Against this savage conclusion Matt rebelled, and made his stand.
For forty-eight hours longer the fact of the defalcation was kept back; but then, in view of the legal action urged by those who did not accept the theory of Northwick's death, it had to come out, and it broke all bounds in overwhelming floods of publicity.
Day after day the papers were full of the facts, and it was weeks before the editorial homilies ceased. From time to time, fresh details and unexpected revelations, wise guesses and shameless fakes, renewed the interest of the original fact. There were days when there was nothing about it in the papers, and then days when it broke out in vivid paragraphs and whole lurid columns again. It was not that the fraud was singular in its features; these were common to most of the defalcations, great and small, which were of daily fame in the newspapers. But the doubt as to the man's fate, and the enduring mystery of his whereabouts, if he were still alive, were qualities that gave peculiar poignancy to Northwick's case. Its results in the failure of people not directly involved, were greater than could have been expected; and the sum of his peculations mounted under investigation. It was all much worse than had been imagined, and in most of the editorial sermons upon it the moral gravity of the offence was measured by the amounts stolen and indirectly lost by it. There was a great deal of mere astonishment, as usual, that the crime should have been that of a man whom no one would have dreamed of suspecting, and there was some sufficiently ridiculous consternation at the presence of such moral decay in the very heart of the commercial life of Boston.
In the Events, Pinney made his report of the affair the work of art which he boasted should come from his hand. It was really a space-man's masterpiece; and it appealed to every nerve in the reader's body, with its sensations repeated through many columns, and continued from page to page with a recurrent efflorescence of scare-heads and catch-lines. In the ardor of production, all scruples and reluctances became fused in a devotion to the interests of the Events and its readers. With every hour the painful impressions of his interview with Miss Northwick grew fainter, and the desire to use it stronger, and he ended by sparing no color of it. But he compromised with his sympathy for her, by deepening the shadows in the behavior of the man who could bring all this sorrow upon those dearest to him. He dwelt upon the unconsciousness of the family, the ignorance of the whole household, in which life ran smoothly on, while the head of both was a fugitive from justice, if not the victim of a swift retribution. He worked in all the pathos which the facts were capable of holding, and at certain points he enlarged the capacity of the facts. He described with a good deal of graphic force the Northwick interior. Under his touch the hall expanded, the staircase widened and curved, the carpets thickened, the servants multiplied, the library into which "the Events' representative was politely ushered," was furnished with "all the appliances of a cultured taste." The works of the standard authors in costly bindings graced its shelves; magnificent paintings and groups of statuary adorned its walls and alcoves. The dress of the lady who courteously received the Events' reporter, was suitably enriched; her years were discounted, and her beauty approached to the patrician cast. There was nothing mean about Pinney, and while he was at it he lavished a manorial grandeur upon the Northwick place, outside as well as inside. He imparted a romantic consequence to Hatboro' itself: "A thriving New England town, proud of its historic past, and rejoicing in its modern prosperity, with a population of some five or six thousand souls, among whose working men and women modern ideas of the most advanced character had been realized in the well-known Peck Social Union, with its co-operative kitchen and its clientele of intelligent members and patrons."
People of all occupations became leading residents in virtue of taking Pinney into their confidence, and "A Prominent Proletarian" achieved the distinction of a catch-line by freely imparting the impressions of J. M. Northwick's character among the working-classes. "The Consensus of Public Feeling," in portraying which Pinney did not fail to exploit the proprietary word he had seized, formed the subject of some dramatic paragraphs; and the whole formed a rich and fit setting for the main facts of Northwick's undoubted fraud and flight, and for the conjectures which Pinney indulged in concerning his fate.
Pinney's masterpiece was, in fine, such as he could write only at that moment of his evolution as a man, and such as the Events could publish only at that period of its development as a newspaper. The report was flashy and vulgar and unscrupulous, but it was not brutal, except by accident, and not unkind except through the necessities of the case. But it was helplessly and thoroughly personal, and it was no more philosophized than a monkish chronicle of the Middle Ages.
The Abstract addressed a different class of readers, and aimed at a different effect in its treatment of public affairs. We look upon newspapers as having a sort of composite temperament, formed from the temperaments of all the different men employed on them; but, as a matter of fact, they each express the disposition and reflect the temperament of one controlling spirit, which all the other dispositions and temperaments yield to. This is so much the case that it is hard to efface the influence of a strong mind from the journal it has shaped, even when it is no longer actively present in it. A good many years before the time of the Northwick defalcation, the Events had been in the management of a journalist, once well-known in Boston, a certain Bartley Hubbard, who had risen from the ranks of the reporters, and who had thoroughly reporterized it in the worst sense. After he left it, the owner tried several devices for elevating and reforming it, but failed, partly because he was himself a man of no ideals but those of the counting-room, and largely because the paper could not recover from the strong slant given it without self-destruction. So the Events continued what Bartley Hubbard had made it, and what the readers he had called about it liked it to be: a journal without principles and without convictions, but with interests only; a map of busy life, indeed, but glaringly colored, with crude endeavors at picturesqueness, and with no more truth to life than those railroad maps where the important centres converge upon the broad black level of the line advertised, and leave rival roads wriggling faintly about in uninhabited solitudes. In Hubbard's time the Abstract, then the Chronicle-Abstract, was in charge of the editor who had been his first friend on the Boston press, and whom he finally quarreled with on a point which this friend considered dishonorable to Hubbard. Ricker had not since left the paper, and though he was called a crank by some of the more progressive and reckless of the young men, he clung to his ideal of a conscience in journalism; he gave the Abstract a fixed character and it could no more have changed than the Events, without self-destruction. The men under him were not so many as Caesar's soldiers, and that, perhaps, was the reason why he knew not only their names but their qualities. When Maxwell came with the fact of the defalcation which the detectives had entrusted to him for provisional use, and asked to be assigned to the business of working it up, Kicker consented, but he consented reluctantly. He thought Maxwell was better for better things; he knew he was a ravenous reader of philosophy and sociology, and he had been early in the secret of his being a poet; it had since become an open secret among his fellow-reporters, for which he suffered both honor and dishonor.
"I shouldn't think you'd like to do it, Maxwell," said Ricker, kindly. "It isn't in your line, is it? Better give it to some of the other fellows."
"It's more in my line than you suppose, Mr. Ricker," said the young fellow. "It's a subject I've looked up a great deal lately. I once thought"—he looked down bashfully—"of trying to write a play about a defaulter, and I got together a good many facts about defalcation. You've no idea how common it is; it's about the commonest fact of our civilization."
"Ah! Is that so?" asked Ricker with ironical deference to the bold generalizer. "Who else is 'onto' this thing?"
"Pinney, of the Events."
"Well, he's a dangerous rival, in some ways," said Ricker. "When it comes to slush and a whitewash brush, I don't think you're a match for him. But perhaps you don't intend to choose the same weapons." Ricker pulled down the green-lined pasteboard peak that he wore over his forehead by gaslight, and hitched his chair round to his desk again, and Maxwell knew that he was authorized to do the work.
He got no word from the detective, who had given him a hint of the affair, to go ahead the night after his return from Hatboro', as he had expected, but he knew that the fact could not be kept back, and he worked as hard at his report as Pinney and Pinney's wife had worked at theirs. He waited till the next morning to begin, however, for he was too fagged after he came home from the Hilarys'; he rose early and got himself a cup of tea over the gas-burner; before the house was awake he was well on in his report. By nightfall he had finished it, and then he carried it to Ricker. The editor had not gone to dinner yet, and he gave Maxwell's work the critical censure of a hungry man. It was in two separate parts: one, a careful and lucid statement of all the facts which had come to Maxwell's knowledge, in his quality of reporter, set down without sensation, and in that self-respectful decency of tone which the Abstract affected; the other, an editorial comment upon the facts. Ricker read the first through without saying anything; when he saw what the second was, he pushed up his green-lined peak, and said, "Hello, young man! Who invited you to take the floor?"
"Nobody. I found I couldn't embody my general knowledge of defalcation in the report without impertinence, and as I had to get my wisdom off my mind somehow, I put it in editorial shape. I don't expect you to take it. Perhaps I can sell it somewhere."
Ricker seemed to pay no attention to his explanation. He went on reading the manuscript, and when he ended, he took up the report again, and compared it with the editorial in length. "If we printed these things as they stand it would look like a case of the tail wagging the dog."
Maxwell began again, "Oh, I didn't expect—"
"Oh, yes, you did," said Ricker. "Of course, you felt that the report was at least physically inadequate."
"I made as much as I honestly could of it. I knew you didn't like padding or faking, and I don't myself."
Ricker was still holding the two manuscripts up before him. He now handed them over his shoulder to Maxwell, where he stood beside him. "Do you think you could weld these two things together?"
"I don't know."
"Suppose you try."
"As editorial, or—"
"Either. I'll decide after you're done. Do it here."
He pushed some papers off the long table beside him, and Maxwell sat down to his task. It was not difficult. The material was really of kindred character throughout. He had merely to write a few prefatory sentences, in the editorial attitude, to his report, and then append the editorial, with certain changes, again. It did not take him long; in half an hour he handed the result to Ricker.
"Yes," said Ricker, and he began to read it anew, with his blue pencil in his hand.
Maxwell had come with nerves steeled to bear the rejection of his article entire, but he was not prepared to suffer the erasure of all his pet phrases and favorite sentences, sometimes running to entire paragraphs.
When Ricker handed it back to him at last with "What do you think of it now?" Maxwell had the boldness to answer, "Well, Mr. Ricker, if I must say, I think you've taken all the bones and blood out of it."
Ricker laughed. "Oh, no! Merely the fangs and poison-sacks. Look here, young man! Did you believe all those cynical things when you were saying them?"
"I don't know—"
"I know. I know you didn't. Every one of them rang false. They were there for literary effect, and for the pleasure of the groundlings. But by and by, if you keep on saying those things, you'll get to thinking them, and what a man thinks a man is. There are things there that you ought to be ashamed of, if you really thought them, but I know you didn't, so I made free to strike them all out." Maxwell looked foolish; he wished to assert himself, but he did not know how. Ricker went on: "Those charming little sarcasms and innuendoes of yours would have killed your article for really intelligent readers. They would have suspected a young fellow having his fling, or an old fool speaking out of the emptiness of his heart. As it is, we have got something unique, and I don't mind telling you I'm very glad to have it. I've never made any secret of my belief that you have talent."
"You've been very good," said Maxwell, a little rueful still. The surgeon's knife hurts though it cures.
When Maxwell went home, he met his mother. "Why, mother," said the young fellow, "old Ricker is going to print my report as editorial; and we're not going to have any report."
"I told you it was good!"
Maxwell felt it was due to himself to keep some grudge, and he said, "Yes; but he's taken all the life out of it with his confounded blue pencil. It's perfectly dead."
It did not seem so when he saw it in proof at the office later, and it did not seem so when he got it in the paper. He had not slept well; he was excited by several things; by the use Ricker had made of his work, and by the hopes of advancement which this use quickened in him. He was not ashamed of it; he was very proud of it; and he wondered at its symmetry and force, as he read and read it again.
He had taken very high philosophical ground in his view of the matter, and had accused the structure of society. There must be something rotten, he said, at the core of our civilization, when every morning brought the story of a defalcation, great or small, in some part of our country: not the peculations of such poor clerks and messengers as their employers could be insured against, but of officials, public and corporate, for whom we had no guaranty but the average morality of our commercial life. How low this was might be inferred from the fact that while such a defalcation as that of J. M. Northwick created dismay in business and social circles, it could not fairly be said to create surprise. It was, most unhappily, a thing to be expected, in proof of which no stronger evidence need be alleged than that patent to the Abstract reporter in the community where the defaulter had his home, and where, in spite of his reputation for the strictest probity, it was universally believed that he had run away with other people's money merely because he had been absent twenty-four hours without accounting for his whereabouts.
At this point Maxwell wove in the material he had gathered on his visit to Hatboro', and without using names or persons contrived to give a vivid impression of the situation and the local feeling. He aimed at the historical attitude, and with some imitation of Taino's method and manner, he achieved it. His whole account of the defalcation had a closeness of texture which involved every significant detail, from the first chance suspicion of the defaulter's honesty, to the final opinions and conjectures of his fate. At the same time the right relation and proportion of the main facts were kept, and the statement was throughout so dignified and dispassionate that it had the grace of something remote in time and place. It was when the narrative ended and the critical comment began that the artistic values made themselves felt. Ricker had been free in his recognition of the excellence of Maxwell's work, and quick to appreciate its importance to the paper. He made the young fellow disjointed compliments and recurrent predictions concerning it when they were together, but there were qualities in it that he felt afterwards he had not been just to. Of course it owed much to the mere accident of Maxwell's accumulation of material about defalcations for his play; but he had known men break down under the mass of their material, and it surprised and delighted him to see how easily and strongly Maxwell handled his. That sick little youngster carried it all off with an air of robust maturity that amused as well as surprised Ricker. He saw where the fellow had helped himself out, consciously or unconsciously, with the style and method of his favorite authors; and he admired the philosophic poise he had studied from them; but no one except Maxwell himself was in the secret of the forbearance, the humane temperance with which Northwick was treated. This was a color from the play which had gone to pieces in his hands; he simply adapted the conception of a typical defaulter, as he had evolved it from a hundred instances, to the case of the defaulter in hand, and it fitted perfectly. He had meant his imaginary defaulter to appeal rather to the compassion than the justice of the theatre, and he presented to the reader the almost fatal aspect of the offence. He dwelt upon the fact that the case, so far from being isolated or exceptional, was without peculiarities, was quite normal. He drew upon his accumulated facts for the proof of this, and with a rapid array of defaulting treasurers, cashiers, superintendents, and presidents, he imparted a sense of the uniformity in their malfeasance which is so evident to the student. They were all comfortably placed and in the way to prosperity if not fortune; they were all tempted by the possession of means to immediate wealth; they all yielded so far as to speculate with the money that did not belong to them; they were all easily able to replace the first loans they made themselves; they all borrowed again and then could not replace the loans; they were all found out, and all were given a certain time to make up their shortage. After that a certain diversity appeared: some shot themselves, and some hanged themselves, others decided to stand their trial; the vastly greater number ran away to Canada.
In this presentation of the subject, Maxwell had hardly to do more than to copy the words of a certain character in his play: one of those cynical personages, well-known to the drama, whose function is to observe the course of the action, and to make good-humored sarcasms upon the conduct and motives of the other characters. It was here that Ricker employed his blue pencil the most freely, and struck out passages of almost diabolical persiflage, and touched the colors of the black pessimism with a few rays of hope. The final summing up, again, was adapted from a drama that had been rejected by several purveyors of the leg-burlesque as immoral. In a soliloquy intended to draw tears from the listener, the hero of Maxwell's play, when he parted from his young wife and children, before taking poison, made some apposite reflections on his case, in which he regarded himself as the victim of conditions, and in prophetic perspective beheld an interminable line of defaulters to come, who should encounter the same temptations and commit the same crimes under the same circumstances. Maxwell simply recast this soliloquy in editorial terms; and maintained that not only was there nothing exceptional in Northwick's case, but that it might be expected to repeat itself indefinitely. On one hand, you had men educated to business methods which permitted this form of dishonesty and condemned that; their moral fibre was strained, if not weakened, by the struggle for money going on all around us; on the other hand, you had opportunity, the fascination of chance, the uncertainty of punishment. The causes would continue the same, and the effects would continue the same. He declared that no good citizen could wish a defaulter to escape the penalty of his offence against society; but it behooved society to consider how far it was itself responsible, which it might well do without ignoring the responsibility of the criminal. He ended with a paragraph in which he forecast a future without such causes and without such effects; but Ricker would not let this pass, even in the semi-ironical temper Maxwell had given it. He said it was rank socialism, and he cut it out in the proof, where he gave the closing sentences of the article an interrogative instead of an affirmative shape.
The Hilarys always straggled down to breakfast as they chose. When Matt was at home, his mother and he were usually first; then his father came, and Louise last. They took the Events, as many other people did, because with all its faults it was a thorough newspaper; and they maintained their self-respect by taking the Abstract. The morning that the defalcation came out, Matt sent and got all the other papers, which he had glanced through and talked over with his mother before his father joined them at nine o'clock.
Several of them had illustrations: likenesses of Northwick, and views of his house in Boston, and his house in Hatboro'; views of the company's Mills at Ponkwasset; views of the railroad wreck at Wellwater; but it was Pinney's masterpiece which really made Hilary sick. All the papers were atrocious, but that was loathsome. Yet there was really nothing more to blame in the attitude of the papers than in that of the directors, who gave the case to the detectives, and set the machinery of publicity at work. Both were acting quite within their rights, both were fulfilling an official duty. Hilary, however, had been forced against his grain into the position, almost, of Northwick's protector; he had suffered keenly from the falsity of this position, for no one despised the sort of man Northwick was more than he; but when you have suffered, even for a rogue, you begin to feel some kindness for him. All these blows fell upon his growing sympathy for the poor devil, as he called him. He got through the various accounts in the various papers, by broken efforts, taking them as if in successive shocks from these terrible particulars, which seemed to shower themselves upon him when he came in range of them, till he felt bruised and beaten all over.
"Well, at least, it's out, my dear," said his wife, who noted the final effect of his sufferings across the table, and saw him pause bewildered from the last paper he had dropped. "There's that comfort."
"Is that a comfort?" he asked, huskily.
"Why, yes, I think it is. The suspense is over, and now you can begin to pick yourself up."
"I suppose there's something in that." He kept looking at Matt, or rather, at the copy of the Abstract which Matt was hiding behind, and he said, "What have you got there, Matt?"
"Perhaps I'd better read it out," said Matt. "It seems to me most uncommonly good. I wonder who could have done it!"
"Suppose you do your wondering afterwards," said his father impatiently; and Matt began to read. The positions of the article were not such as Hilary could have taken, probably, if he had been in a different mood; its implications were, some of them, such as he must have decidedly refused; but the temper of the whole was so humane, so forbearing, so enlightened, that Hilary was in a glow of personal gratitude to the writer, for what he called his common decency, by the time the reading was over. "That is a very extraordinary article," he said, and he joined Matt in wondering who could have done it, with the usual effect in such cases.
"I wish," said Mrs. Hilary, "that every other newspaper could be kept from those poor things." She meant Northwick's daughters, and she added, "If they must know the facts, they couldn't be more mercifully told them."
"Why, that was what I was thinking, mother," said Matt. "But they can't be kept to this version, unhappily. The misery will have to come on them shapelessly, as all our miseries do. I don't know that the other papers are so bad—"
"Not bad!" cried his father.
"No. They're not unkind to them, except as they are just to him. They probably represent fairly enough the average thinking and feeling about the matter; the thing they'll have to meet all their lives and get used to. But I wish I knew who did this Abstract article; I should like to thank him."
"The question is, now," said Mrs. Hilary, "What can we do for them there? Are you sure you made it clear to them, Matt, that we were willing to have them come to us, no matter what happened?"
"Louise and I both tried to do that," said her son, "when we were there together; and when I reported to them after Wellwater, I told them again and again what our wish was."
"Well," said Mrs. Hilary, "I am glad we have done everything we could. At first I doubted the wisdom of your taking Louise to see them; but now I'm satisfied that it was right. And I'm satisfied that your father did right in getting that wretched creature the chance he abused."
"Oh, yes," said Matt. "That was right. And I'm thoroughly glad he's out of it. If he's still alive, I'm glad he's out of it."
Hilary had kept silent, miserably involved in his various remorses and misgivings, but now he broke out. "And I think you're talking abominable nonsense, Matt. I didn't get Northwick given that chance to enable him to escape the consequences of his rascality. Why shouldn't he be punished for it?"
"Because it wouldn't do the least good, to him or to any one else. It wouldn't reform him, it wouldn't reform anything. Northwick isn't the disease; he's merely the symptom. You can suppress him; but that won't cure the disease. It's the whole social body that's sick, as this article in the Abstract implies."
"I don't see any such implication in it," his father angrily retorted. "Your theory would form an excuse for the scoundrelism of every scoundrel unhung. Where is the cure of the social body to begin if it doesn't begin at home, with every man in it? I tell you, it would be a very good thing for Northwick, and every rogue like him, if he could be made serve his term in State's prison."
The controversy raged a long time without departing from these lines of argument on either side. Mrs. Hilary listened with the impatience women feel at every absence from the personal ground, the only ground of reality. When Matt had got so far from it as to be saying to his father, "Then I understand you to maintain that if A is properly punished for his sins, B will practice virtue in the same circumstances and under the same temptations that were too much for A," his mother tried to break in upon them. She did not know much about the metaphysical rights and wrongs of the question; she only felt that Matt was getting his father, who loved him so proudly and indulgently, into a corner, and she saw that this was unseemly. Besides, when anything wrong happens, a woman always wants some one punished; some woman, first, or then some other woman's men kindred. Every woman is a conservative in this, and Mrs. Hilary made up her mind to stop the talk between her son and husband, because she felt Matt to be doubly wrong.
But when she spoke, her husband roared at her, "Don't interrupt, Sarah!" and then he roared at Matt, "I tell you that the individual is not concerned in the matter! I tell you that it is the interest, the necessity of the community to punish A for his sins without regard to B, and for my part, I shall leave no stone unturned till we have found Northwick, dead or alive; and if he is alive, I shall spare no effort to have him brought to trial, conviction and punishment." He shouted these words out, and thumped the breakfast table so that the spoons clattered in the cups, and Mrs. Hilary could hardly hear what Patrick was saying just inside the door.
"To see Mr. Hilary? A lady? Did she send her card?"
"She wouldn't give her name, ma'am; she said she didn't wish to, ma'am. She wished to see Mr. Hilary just a moment in the reception-room."
Hilary was leaning forward to give the table another bang with his fist, but his wife succeeded in stopping him, with a repetition of Patrick's message.
"I won't see her," he answered. "It's probably a woman reporter. They're in our very bread trough. I tell you," he went on to Matt, "there are claims upon you as a citizen, as a social factor, which annul all your sentimental obligations to B as a brother. God bless my soul! Isn't C a brother, too, and all the rest of the alphabet? If A robs the other letters, then let B take a lesson from the wholesome fact that A's little game has landed him in jail."
"Oh, I admit that the A's had better suffer for their sins; but I doubt if the punishment which a man gets against his will is the right kind of suffering. If this man had come forward voluntarily, and offered to bear the penalty he had risked by his misdeed, it would have been a good thing for himself and for everybody else; it would have been a real warning. But he ran away."
"And so he ought to be allowed to stay away! You are a pretty Dogberry come to judgment! You would convict a thief by letting him steal out of your company."
"It seems to me that's what you did, father. And I think you did right, as I've told you."
"What I did?" shouted Hilary. "No, sir, I did nothing of the kind! I gave him a chance to make himself an honest man—"
"My dear," said Mrs. Hilary, "you must go and get rid of that woman, at least; or let me."
Hilary flung down his napkin, and red from argument cast a dazed look about him, and without really quite knowing what he was about rushed out of the room.
His wife hardly had time to say, "You oughtn't to have got into a dispute with your father, Matt, when you know he's been so perplexed," before they heard his voice call out, "Good heavens, my poor child!" For the present they could not know that this was a cry of dismay at the apparition of Suzette Northwick, who met him in the reception-room with the demand:
"What is this about my father, Mr. Hilary?"
"About your father, my dear?" He took the hands she put out to him with her words, and tried to think what pitying and helpful thing he could say. She got them away from him, and held one fast with the other.
"Is it true?" she asked.
He permitted himself the pretence of not understanding her; he had to do it. "Why, we hope—we hope it isn't true. Nothing more is known about his being in the accident than we knew at first. Didn't Matt—"
"It isn't that. It's worse than that. It's that other thing—that the papers say—that he was a defaulter—dishonest. Is that true?"
"Oh, no, no! Nothing of the kind, my dear!" Hilary had to say this; he felt that it would be inhuman to say anything else; nothing else would have been possible. "Those newspapers—confound them!—you know how they get things all—You needn't mind what the papers say."
"But why should they say anything about my father, at such a time, when he's—What does it all mean, Mr. Hilary? I don't believe the papers, and so I came to you—as soon as I could, this morning. I knew you would tell me the truth. You have known my father so long; and you know how good he is! I—You know that he never wronged any one—that he couldn't!"
"Of course, of course!" said Hilary. "It was quite right to come to me—quite right. How—how is your sister? You must stay, now—Louise isn't down, yet—and have breakfast with her. I've just left Mrs. Hilary at the table. You must join us. She can assure you—Matt is quite confident that there's nothing to be distressed about in regard to the—He—"
Hilary kept bustling aimlessly about as he spoke these vague phrases, and he now tried to have her go out of the room before him; but she dropped into a chair, and he had to stay.
"I want you to tell me, Mr. Hilary, whether there is the slightest foundation for what the papers say this morning?"
"How, foundation? My dear child—"
"Has there been any trouble between my father and the company?"
"Well—well, there are always questions arising."
"Is there any question of my father's accounts—his honesty?"
"People question everything nowadays, when there is so much—want of confidence in business. There have to be investigations, from time to time."
"And has there been any reason to suspect my father? Does any one suspect him?"
Hilary looked round the room with a roving eye, that he could not bring to bear upon the girl's face. "Why, I suppose that some of us—some of the directors—have had doubts—"
"My dear girl—my poor child! You couldn't understand. But I can truly say, that when this examination—when the subject came up for discussion at the board-meeting, I felt warranted in insisting that your father should have time to make it all right. He said he could; and we agreed that he should have the chance." Hilary said this for the sake of the girl; and he was truly ashamed of the magnanimous face it put upon his part in the affair. He went on: "It is such a very, very common thing for people in positions of trust to use the resources in their charge, and then replace them, that these things happen every day, and no harm is meant, and none is done—unless—unless the venture turns out unfortunately. It's not an isolated case!" Hilary felt that he was getting on now, though he was aware that he was talking very immorally; but he knew that he was not corrupting the poor child before him, and that he was doing his best to console her, to comfort her. "The whole affair was very well put in the Abstract. Have you seen it? You must see that, and not mind what the other papers say. Come in to Mrs. Hilary—we have the paper—"
Suzette rose. "Then some of the directors believe that my father has been taking the money of the company, as the papers say?"
"Their believing this or that, is nothing to the point—"
"I can't say—I don't think he meant——He expected to restore it, of course. He was given time for that." Hilary hesitated, and then he thought he had better say: "But he had certainly been employing the company's funds in his private enterprises."
"That is all," said the girl, and she now preceded Hilary out of the room. It was with inexpressible relief that he looked up and saw Louise coming down the stairs.
"Why, Sue!" she cried; and she flew down the steps, and threw her arms around her friend's neck. "Oh, Sue, Sue!" she said, in that voice a woman uses to let another woman know that she understands and sympathizes utterly with her.
Suzette coldly undid her clasping arms. "Let me go, Louise."
"No, no! You shan't go. I want you—you must stay with us, now. I know Matt doesn't believe at all in that dreadful report."
"That wouldn't be anything now, even if it were true. There's another report—don't you know it?—in the paper this morning." Louise tried to look unconscious in the slight pause Suzette made before she said: "And your father has been saying my father is a thief."
"Oh, papa!" Louise wailed out.
It was outrageously unfair and ungrateful of them both; and Hilary gave a roar of grief and protest. Suzette escaped from Louise, and before he could hinder it, flashed by Hilary to the street door, and was gone.
The sorrow that turned to shame in other eyes remained sorrow to Northwick's daughters. When their father did not come back, or make any sign of being anywhere in life, they reverted to their first belief, and accepted the fact of his death. But it was a condition of their grief, that they must refuse any thought of guilt in him. Their love began to work that touching miracle which is possible in women's hearts, and to establish a faith in his honor which no proof of his dishonesty could shake.
Even if they could have believed all the things those newspapers accused him of, they might not have seen the blame that others did in his acts. But as women, they could not make the fine distinctions that men make in business morality, and as Northwick's daughters, they knew that he would not have done what he did if it was wrong. Their father had borrowed other people's money, intending to pay it back, and then had lost his own, and could not; that was all.
With every difference of temperament they agreed upon this, and they were agreed that it would be a sort of treason to his memory if they encouraged the charges against him by making any change in their life. But it was a relief to them, especially to Suzette, who held the purse, when the changes began to make themselves, and their costly establishment fell away, through the discontent and anxiety of this servant and that, till none were left but Elbridge Newton and his wife. She had nothing to do now but grieve for the child she had lost, and she willingly came in to help about the kitchen and parlor work, while her husband looked after the horses and cattle as well as he could, and tended the furnaces, and saw that the plants in the greenhouses did not freeze. He was up early and late; he had no poetic loyalty to the Northwicks; but as nearly as he could explain his devotion, they had always treated him well, and he could not bear to see things run behind.
Day after day went by, and week after week, and the sisters lived on in the solitude to which the compassion, the diffidence, or the contempt of their neighbors left them. Adeline saw Wade, whenever he came to the house, where he felt it his duty and his privilege to bring the consolation that his office empowered him to offer in any house of mourning; but Suzette would not see him; she sent him grateful messages and promises, when he called, and bade Adeline tell him each time that the next time she hoped to see him.
One of the ladies of South Hatboro', a Mrs. Munger, who spent her winters as well as her summers there, penetrated as far as the library, upon her own sense of what was due to herself as a neighbor; but she failed to find either of the sisters. She had to content herself with urging Mrs. Morrell, the wife of the doctor, to join her in a second attempt upon their privacy; but Mrs. Morrell had formed a notion of Suzette's character and temper adverse to the motherly impulse of pity which she would have felt for any one else in the girl's position. Mrs. Gerrish, the wife of the leading merchant in Hatboro', who distinguished himself by coming up from Boston with Northwick, on the very day of the directors' meeting, would have joined Mrs. Munger, but her husband forbade her. He had stood out against the whole community in his belief in Northwick's integrity and solvency; and while every one else accused him of running away as soon as he was reported among the missing in the railroad accident, Gerrish had refused to admit it. The defalcation came upon him like thunder out of a clear sky; he felt himself disgraced before his fellow-citizens; and he resented the deceit which Northwick had tacitly practised upon him. He was impatient of the law's delays in seizing the property the defaulter had left behind him, and which was now clearly the property of his creditors. Other people in Hatboro', those who had been the readiest to suspect Northwick, cherished a guilty leniency toward him in their thoughts. Some believed that he had gone to his account in other courts; some that he was still alive in poverty and exile, which were punishment enough, as far as he was concerned. But Gerrish demanded something exemplary, something dramatic from the law. He blamed the Ponkwasset directors for a species of incivism, in failing to have Northwick indicted at once, dead or alive.
"Why don't they turn his family out of that house, and hand it over to the stockholders he has robbed?" he asked one morning in the chance conclave of loungers in his store. "I understand it is this man Hilary, in Boston, who has shielded and—and protected him from the start, and—and right along. I don't know why; but if I was one of the Ponkwasset stockholders, I think I should. I should make a point of inquiring why Northwick's family went on living in my house after he had plundered me of everything he could lay his hands on."
The lawyer Putney was present, and he shifted the tobacco he had in one cheek to the other cheek, and set his little, firm jaw. "Well, Billy, I'll tell you why. Because the house, and farm, and all the real estate belong to Northwick's family and not to Northwick's creditors." The listeners laughed, and Putney went on, "That was a point that brother Northwick looked after a good while ago, I guess. I guess he must have done it as long ago as when you first wanted his statue put on top of the soldier's monument."
"I never wanted his statue put on top of the soldier's monument!" Mr. Gerrish retorted angrily.
Putney's spree was past, and he was in the full enjoyment of the contempt for Gerrish, which was apt to turn to profound respect when he was in his cups. He was himself aware of the anomalous transition by which he then became a leader of conservative feeling on all subjects and one of the staunchest friends of the status; he said it was the worst thing he knew against the existing condition of things. He went on, now: "Didn't you? Well, I think it would look better than that girl they've got there in circus-clothes." They all laughed; Putney had a different form of derision for the Victory of the soldier's monument every time he spoke of it. "And it would suggest what those poor fellows really died for: that we could have more and more Northwicks, and a whole Northwick system of things. Heigh? You see, Billy, I don't have to be so hard on the Northwicks, personally, because I regard them as a necessary part of the system. What would become of the laws and the courts if there were no rogues? We must have Northwicks. It's a pity that the Northwicks should have families; but I don't blame the Northwicks for providing against the evil day that Northwickism is sure to end in. I'm glad the roof can't be taken from over those women's heads; I respect the paternal love and foresight of J. Milton in deeding the property to them."
"It's downright robbery of his creditors for them to keep it!" Gerrish shouted.
"Oh, no, it isn't, Billy. It's law. You must respect the law and the rights of property. You'll be wanting the strikers to burn down the shoe-shops the next time we have trouble here. You're getting awfully incendiary, Billy."
Putney carried the laugh against Gerrish, but there were some of the group, and there were many people in Hatboro', including most of the women, who felt the want of exemplary measures in dealing with Northwick's case. These ladies did not see the sense of letting those girls live on just as if nothing had happened, in a house that their father's crimes had forfeited to his victims, while plenty of honest people did not know where they were going to sleep that night, or where the next mouthful of victuals was to come from. It was not really the houseless and the hungry who complained of this injustice; it was not even those who toiled for their daily bread in the Hatboro' shops who said such things. They were too busy, and then too tired, to think much about them, and the noise of Northwick's misdeeds died first amid the din of machinery. It was in the close, stove-heated parlors of the respectable citizens, behind the windows that had so long commanded envious views of the Northwicks going by in their carriages and sledges, and among women of leisure and conscience, that his infamy endured, and that the injuries of his creditors cried out for vengeance on those daughters of his; they had always thought themselves too good to speak to other folks. Such women could not understand what the Ponkwasset Mills Company meant by not turning those girls right out of doors, and perhaps they could not have been taught why the company had no power to do this, or why the president, at least, had no wish to do it. When they learned that his family still kept up friendly relations with the Northwick girls, they were not without their suspicions, which were not long in becoming their express belief, that the Hilarys were sharing in the booty. They were not cruel, and would not really have liked to see the Northwick girls suffer, if it had come to that; but they were greedy of the vengeance promised upon the wicked, and they had no fear of judging or of meting with the fullest measure.
In the freer air of the streets and stores and offices, their husbands were not so eager. In fact, it might be said that no man was eager but Gerrish. After the first excitement, and the successive shocks of sensation imparted by the newspapers had passed, there came over the men of Hatboro' a sort of resignation which might or might not be regarded as proof of a general demoralization. The defalcation had startled them, but it could not be said to have surprised any one; it was to be expected of a man in Northwick's position; it happened every day somewhere, and the day had come when it should happen there. They did not say God was good and that Mahomet was His prophet, but they were fatalists all the same. They accepted the accomplished fact, and, reflecting that the disaster did not really concern them, many of them regarded it dispassionately, even jocosely. They did not care for a lot of rich people in Boston who had been supplying Northwick with funds to gamble in stocks; it was not as if the Hatboro' bank had been wrecked, and hard-working folks had lost their deposits. They could look at the matter with an impartial eye, and in their hearts they obscurely believed that any member of the Ponkwasset Company would have done the same thing as Northwick if he had got the chance. Beyond that they were mostly interested in the question whether Northwick had perished in the railroad accident, or had put up a job on the public, and was possessing his soul in peace somewhere in Rogue's Rest, as Putney called the Dominion of Canada. Putney represented the party in favor of Northwick's survival; and Gates, the provision man, led the opposite faction. When Putney dropped in to order his marketing, he usually said something like, "Well, Joel, how's cremation, this morning?"
"Just booming, Squire. That stock's coming up, right along. Bound to be worth a hundred cents on the dollar before hayin', yet." This, or something like it, was what Gates usually answered, but one morning he asked, "Heard how it stands with the Ponkwasset folks, I suppose? They say—paper does—that the reason the president hung off from making a complaint was that he didn't rightly see how he could have the ashes indicted. He believes in it, any way."
"Well," said Putney, "the fathers of New England all died in the blessed hope of infant damnation. But that didn't prove it."
"That's something so, Squire. Guess you got me there," said Gates.
"I can understand old Hilary's not wanting to push the thing, under the circumstances, and I don't blame him. But the law must have its course. Hilary's got his duty to do. I don't want to do it for him."
Hilary could not help himself, though when he took the legal steps he was obliged to, it seemed to him that he was wilfully urging on the persecution of that poor young girl and that poor old maid. It was really ghastly to go through the form of indicting a man who, so far as any one could prove to the contrary, had passed with his sins before the tribunal that searches hearts and judges motives rather than acts. But still the processes had to go on, and Hilary had to prompt them. It was all talked over in Hilary's family, where he was pitied and forgiven in that affection which keeps us simple and sincere in spite of the masks we wear to the world. His wife and his children knew how kind he was, and how much he suffered in this business which, from the first, he had tried to be so lenient in. When he wished to talk of it, they all agreed that Matt must not vex him with his theories and his opinions; and when he did not talk of it, no one must mention it.
Hilary felt the peculiar hardships of his position, all the more keenly because he had a conscience that would not permit him to shirk his duty. He had used his influence, the weight of his character and business repute, to control the action of the Board towards Northwick, when the defalcation became known, and now he was doubly bound to respond to the wishes of the directors in proceeding against him. Most of them believed that Northwick was still alive; those who were not sure regarded it as a public duty to have him indicted at any rate, and they all voted that Hilary should make the necessary complaint. Then Hilary had no choice but to obey. Another man in his place might have resigned, but he could not, for he knew that he was finally responsible for Northwick's escape.
He made it no less his duty to find out just how much hardship it would work Northwick's daughters, and he tried to lend them money. But Suzette answered for both that her father had left them some money when he went away; and Hilary could only send Louise to explain how he must formally appear in the legal proceedings; he allowed Louise to put whatever warmth of color she wished into his regrets and into his advice that they should consult a lawyer. It was not business-like; if it were generally known it might be criticised; but in the last resort, with a thing like that, Hilary felt that he could always tell his critics to go to the deuce, and fall back upon a good conscience.
It seemed to Louise, at first, that Suzette was unwilling to separate her father from his office, or fully to appreciate his forbearance. She treated her own father's course as something above suspicion, as something which he was driven to by enemies, whom he would soon have returned to put to confusion, if he had lived. It made no difference to her and Adeline what was done; their father was safe, now, and some day his name would be cleared. Adeline added that they were in the home where he had left them; it was their house, and no one could take it from them.
Louise compassionately assented to everything. She thought Suzette might have been a little more cordial in the way she received her father's regrets. But she remembered that Suzette was always undemonstrative, and she did not blame her, after her first disappointment. She could see the sort of neglect that was already falling upon the house, the expression in housekeeping terms of the despair that was in their minds. The sisters did not cry, but Louise cried a good deal in pity for their forlornness, and at last her tears softened them into something like compassion for themselves. They had her stay to lunch rather against her will, but she thought she had better stay. The lunch was so badly cooked and so meagre that Louise fancied they were beginning to starve themselves, and wanted to cry into her tea-cup. The woman who waited wore such dismal black, and went about with her eyes staring and her mouth tightly pursed, and smelt faintly of horses. It was Mrs. Newton; she had let Louise in when she came, and she was the only servant whom the girl saw.
Suzette said nothing about their plans for the future, and Louise did not like to ask her. She felt as if she was received under a flag of truce, and that there could be no confidence between them. Both of the sisters seemed to stand on the defensive with her; but when she started to come away, Suzette put on her hat and jacket, and said she would go to the avenue gate with her, and meet Simpson, who was coming to take Louise back to the station.
It was a clear day of middle March; the sun rode high in a blue sky, and some jays bragged and jeered in the spruces. The frost was not yet out of the ground, but the shaded road was dry underfoot.
They talked at arm's length of the weather; and then Suzette said abruptly, "Of course, Louise, your father will have to do what they want him to, against—papa. I understand that."
"Don't! I should wish him to know that I wasn't stupid about it."
"I'm sure," Louise adventured, "he would do anything to help you!"
Suzette put by the feeble expression of mere good feeling. "We don't believe papa has done anything wrong, or anything he wouldn't have made right if he had lived. We shall not let them take his property from us if we can help it."
"Of course not! I'm sure papa wouldn't wish you to."
"It would be confessing that they were right, and we will never do that. But I don't blame your father, and I want him to know it."
Louise stopped short and kissed Suzette. In her affectionate optimism it seemed to her for the moment that all the trouble was over now. She had never realized anything hopelessly wrong in the affair; it was like a misunderstanding that could be explained away, if the different people would listen to reason.
Sue released herself, and said, looking away from her friend: "It has been hard. He is dead; but we haven't even been allowed to see him laid in the grave."
"Oh, perhaps," Louise sobbed out, "he isn't dead! So many people think he isn't—"
Suzette drew away from her in stern offence. "Do you think that if he were alive he would leave us without a word—a sign?"
"No, no! He couldn't be so cruel! I didn't mean that! He is dead, and I shall always say it."
They walked on without speaking, but at the gate Suzette offered to return Louise's embrace. The tears stood in her eyes, as she said, "I would like to send my love to your mother—if she would care for it."
"Care for it!"
"And tell your brother I can never forget what he did for us."
"He can never forget that you let him do it," said Louise, with eager gratitude. "He would have liked to come with me, if he hadn't thought it might seem intrusive."
"Intrusive! Your brother!" Sue spoke the words as if Matt were of some superior order of beings.
The intensity of feeling she put into her voice brought another gush of tears into Louise's eyes. "Matt is good. And I will tell him what you say. He will like to hear it." They looked down the road, but they could not see Simpson coming yet. "Don't wait, Sue," she pleaded. "Do go back! You will be all worn out."
"No, I will stay till your carriage comes," said Suzette; and they remained a moment silent together.
Then Louise said, "Matt has got a new fad: a young man that writes on the newspapers—"
"The newspapers!" Suzette repeated with an intimation of abhorrence.
"Oh, but he isn't like the others," Louise hastened to explain. "Very handsome, and interesting, and pale, and sick. He is going to be a poet, but he's had to be a reporter. He's awfully clever; but Matt says he's awfully poor, and he has had such a hard time. Now they think he won't have to interview people any more—he came to interview papa, the first time; and poor papa was very blunt with him; and then so sorry. He's got some other kind of newspaper place; I don't know what. Matt liked what he wrote about—about, your—troubles, Sue."
"Where was it?" asked Sue. "They were all wickedly false and cruel."
"His wasn't cruel. It was in the Abstract."
"Yes, I remember. But he said papa had taken the money," Sue answered unrelentingly.
"Did he? I thought he only said if he did. I don't believe he said more. Matt wouldn't have liked it so much if he had. He's in such bad health. But he's awfully clever."
The hack came in sight over the rise of ground, with Simpson driving furiously, as he always did when he saw people. Louise threw her arms round her friend again. "Let me go back and stay with you, Sue! Or, come home with me, you and Miss Northwick. We shall all be so glad to have you, and I hate so to leave you here alone. It seems so dreadful!"
"Yes. But it's easier to bear it here than anywhere else. Some day all the falsehood will be cleared up, and then we shall be glad that we bore it where he left us. We have decided what we shall do, Adeline and I. We shall try to let the house furnished for the summer, and live in the lodge here."
Louise looked round at the cottage by the avenue gate, and said it would be beautiful.
"We've never used it for any one, yet," Suzette continued, "and we can move back into the house in the winter."
This again seemed to Louise an admirable notion, and she parted from her friend in more comfort than she could have imagined when they met. She carried her feeling of elation home with her, and was able to report Sue in a state of almost smiling prosperity, and of perfect resignation, if not acquiescence, in whatever the company should make Hilary do. She figured her father, in his reluctance, as a sort of ally of the Northwicks, and she was disappointed that he seemed to derive so little pleasure from Sue's approval. But he generally approved of all that she could remember to have said for him to the Northwicks, though he did not show himself so appreciative of the situation as Matt. She told her brother what Sue had said when she heard of his unwillingness to intrude upon her, and she added that now he must certainly go to see her.
A day or two later, when Matt Hilary went to Hatboro', he found Wade in his study at the church, and he lost no time in asking him, "Wade, what do you know of the Miss Northwicks? Have you seen them lately?"
Wade told him how little he had seen Miss Northwick, and how he had not seen Suzette at all. Then Matt said, "I don't know why I asked you, because I knew all this from Louise; she was up here the other day, and they told her. What I am really trying to get at is, whether you know anything more about how that affair with Jack Wilmington stands. Do you know whether he has tried to see her since the trouble about her father came out?"
Adeline Northwick had dropped from the question, as usual, and it really related so wholly to Suzette in the thoughts of both the young men, that neither of them found it necessary to limit it explicitly.
"I feel quite sure he hasn't," said Wade, "though I can't answer positively."
"Then that settles it!" Matt walked away to one of Wade's gothic windows, and looked out. When he turned and came back to his friend, he said, "If he had ever been in earnest about her, I think he would have tried to see her at such a time, don't you?"
"I can't imagine his not doing it. I never thought him a cad."
"No, nor I."
"He would have done it unless—unless that woman has some hold that gives her command of him. He's shown great weakness, to say the least. But I don't believe there's anything worse. What do the village people believe?"
"All sorts of lurid things, some of them; others believe that the affair is neither more nor less than it appears to be. It's a thing that could be just what it is in no other country in the world. It's the phase that our civilization has contributed to the physiognomy of scandal, just as the exile of the defaulter is the phase we have contributed to the physiognomy of crime. Public opinion here isn't severe upon Mrs. Wilmington or Mr. Northwick."
"I'm not prepared to quarrel with it on that account," said Matt, with the philosophical serenity which might easily be mistaken for irony in him. "The book we get our religion from teaches leniency in the judgment of others."
"It doesn't teach cynical indifference," Wade suggested.
"Perhaps that isn't what people feel," said Matt.
"I don't know. Sometimes I dread to think how deeply our demoralization goes in certain directions."
Matt did not follow the lure to that sort of speculative inquiry he and Wade were fond of. He said, with an abrupt return to the personal ground: "Then you don't think Jack Wilmington need be any further considered in regard to her?"
"In regard to Miss Sue Northwick? I don't know whether I quite understand what you mean."
"I mean, is it anybody's duty—yours or mine—to go to the man and find him out; what he really thinks, what he really feels? I don't mean, make an appeal to him. That would be unworthy of her. But perhaps he's holding back from a mistaken feeling of delicacy, of remorse; when if he could be made to see that it was his right, his privilege, to be everything to her now that a man could be to a woman, and infinitely more than any man could hope to be to a happy or fortunate woman—What do you think? He could be reparation, protection, safety, everything!"
Wade shook his head. "It would be useless. Wilmington knows very well that such a girl would never let him be anything to her now when he had slighted her fancy for him before. Even if he were ever in love with her, which I doubt, he couldn't do it."
"No, I suppose not," said Matt. After a little pause, he added, "Then I must go myself."
"Go, yourself? What do you mean?" Wade asked.
"Some one must try to make them understand just how they are situated. I don't think Louise did; I don't think she knew herself, how the legal proceedings would affect them; and I think I'd better go and make it perfectly clear."
"I can imagine it won't be pleasant," said Wade.
"No," said Matt, "I don't expect that. But I inferred, from what she said to Louise, that she would be willing to see me, and I think I had better go."
He put his conviction interrogatively, and Wade said heartily, "Why, of course. It's the only thing," and Matt went away with a face which was cheerful with good-will, if not the hope of pleasure.
He met Suzette in the avenue, dressed for walking, and coming forward with the magnificent, haughty movement she had. As she caught sight of him, she started, and then almost ran toward him. "Oh! You!" she said, and she shrank back a little, and then put her hand impetuously out to him.
He took it in his two, and bubbled out, "Are you walking somewhere? Are you well? Is your sister at home? Don't let me keep you! May I walk with you?"
Her smile clouded. "I'm only walking here in the avenue. How is Louise? Did she get home safely? It was good of her to come here. It isn't the place for a gay visit."
"Oh, Miss Northwick! It was good of you to see her. And we were very happy—relieved—to find that you didn't feel aggrieved with any of us for what must happen. And I hope you don't feel that I've taken an advantage of your kindness in coming?"
"I've just been to see Wade." Matt reddened consciously. "But it doesn't seem quite fair to have met you where you had no choice but to receive me!"
"I walk here every morning," she returned, evasively. "I have nowhere else. I never go out of the avenue. Adeline goes to the village, sometimes. But I can't meet people."
"I know," said Matt, with caressing sympathy; and his head swam in the sudden desire to take her in his arms, and shelter her from that shame and sorrow preying upon her. Her eyes had a trouble in them that made him ache with pity; he recognized, as he had not before, that they were the translation in feminine terms, of her father's eyes. "Poor Wade," he went on, without well knowing what he was saying, "told me that he—he was very sorry he had not been able to see you—to do anything—"
"What would have been the use? No one can do anything. We must bear our burden; but we needn't add to it by seeing people who believe that—that my father did wrong."
Matt's breath almost left him. He perceived that the condition on which she was bearing her sorrow was the refusal of her shame. Perhaps it could not have been possible for one of her nature to accept it, and it required no effort in her to frame the theory of her father's innocence; perhaps no other hypothesis was possible to her, and evidence had nothing to do with the truth as she felt it.
"The greatest comfort we have is that none of you believe it; and your father knew my father better than any one else. I was afraid I didn't make Louise understand how much I felt that, and how much Adeline did. It was hard to tell her, without seeming to thank you for something that was no more than my father's due. But we do feel it, both of us; and I would like your father to know it. I don't blame him for what he is going to do. It's necessary to establish my father's innocence to have the trial. I was very unjust to your father that first day, when I thought he believed those things against papa. We appreciate his kindness in every way, but we shall not get any lawyer to defend us."
Matt was helplessly silent before this wild confusion of perfect trust and hopeless error. He would not have known where to begin to set her right; he did not see how he could speak a word without wounding her through her love, her pride.
She hurried on, walking swiftly, as if to keep up with the rush of her freed emotions. "We are not afraid but that it will come out so that our father's name, who was always so perfectly upright, and so good to every one, will be cleared, and those who have accused him so basely will be punished as they deserve."
She had so wholly misconceived the situation and the character of the impending proceedings that it would not have been possible to explain it all to her; but he could not leave her in her error, and he made at last an effort to enlighten her.
"I think my father was right in advising you to see a lawyer. It won't be a question of the charges against your father's integrity, but of his solvency. The proceedings will be against his estate; and you mustn't allow yourselves to be taken at a disadvantage."
She stopped. "What do we care for the estate, if his good name isn't cleared up?"
"I'm afraid—I'm afraid," Matt entreated, "that you don't exactly understand."
"If my father never meant to keep the money, then the trial will show," the girl returned.
"But a lawyer—indeed you ought to see a lawyer!—could explain how such a trial would leave that question where it was. It wouldn't be the case against your father, but against you."
"Against us? What do they say we have done?"
Matt could have laughed at her heroic misapprehension of the affair, if it had not been for the pity of it. "Nothing! Nothing! But they can take everything here that belonged to your father—everything on the place, to satisfy his creditors. The question of his wrong-doing won't enter. I can't tell you how. But you ought to have a lawyer who would defend your rights in the case."
"If they don't pretend we've done anything then they can't do anything to us!"
"They can take everything your father had in the world to pay his debts."
"Then let them take it," said the girl. "If he had lived he would have paid them. We will never admit that he did anything for us to be ashamed of; that he ever wilfully wronged any one."
Matt could see that the profession of her father's innocence was essential to her. He could not know how much of it was voluntary, a pure effect of will, in fulfilment of the demands of her pride, and how much was real belief. He only knew that, whatever it was, his wish was not to wound her or to molest her in it, but to leave what should be sacred from human touch to the mystery that we call providence. It might have been this very anxiety that betrayed him, for a glance at his face seemed to stay her.
"Don't you think I am right, Mr. Hilary?"
"Yes, yes!" Matt began; and he was going to say that she was right in every way, but he found that his own truth was sacred to him as well as her fiction, and he said, "I've no right to judge your father. It's the last thing I should be willing to do. I certainly don't believe he ever wished to wrong any one if he could have helped it."
"Thank you!" said the girl. "That was not what I asked you. I know what my father meant to do, and I didn't need any reassurance. I'm sorry to have troubled you with all these irrelevant questions; and I thank you very much for the kind advice you have given me."
"Oh, don't take it so!" he entreated, simply. "I do wish to be of use to you—all the use that the best friend in the world can be; and I see that I have wounded you. Don't take my words amiss; I'm sure you couldn't take my will so, if you knew it! If the worst that anybody has said about your father were ten times true, it couldn't change my will, or—"
"Thank you! Thank you!" she said perversely. "I don't think we understand each other, Mr. Hilary. It's scarcely worth while to try. I think I must say good-by. My sister will be expecting me." She nodded, and he stood aside, lifting his hat. She dashed by him, and he remained staring after her till she vanished in the curve of the avenue. She suddenly reappeared, and came quickly back toward him. "I wanted to say that, no matter what you think or say, I shall never forget what you have done, and I shall always be grateful for it." She launched these words fiercely at him, as if they were a form of defiance, and then whirled away, and was quickly lost to sight again.
That evening Adeline said to her sister, at the end of the meagre dinner they allowed themselves in these days, "Elbridge says the hay is giving out, and we have got to do something about those horses that are eating their heads off in the barn. And the cows: there's hardly any feed for them."
"We must take some of the money and buy feed," said Suzette, passively. Adeline saw by her eyes that she had been crying; she did not ask her why; each knew why the other cried.
"I'm afraid to," said the elder sister. "It's going so fast, as it is, that I don't know what we shall do pretty soon. I think we ought to sell some of the cattle."
"We can't. We don't know whether they're ours."
"They may belong to the creditors. We must wait till the trial is over."
Adeline made no answer. They had disputed enough about that trial, which they understood so little. Adeline had always believed they ought to speak to a lawyer about it; but Suzette had not been willing. Even when a man came that morning with a paper which he said was an attachment, and left it with them, they had not agreed to ask advice. For one thing, they did not know whom to ask. Northwick had a lawyer in Boston; but they had been left to the ignorance in which most women live concerning such matters, and they did not know his name.
Now Adeline resolved to act upon a plan of her own that she had kept from Suzette because she thought Suzette would not like it. Her sister went to her room after dinner, and then Adeline put on her things and let herself softly out into the night. She took that paper the man had left, and she took the deeds of the property which her father had given her soon after her mother died, while Sue was a little girl. He said that the deeds were recorded, and that she could keep them safely enough, and she had kept them ever since in the box where her old laces were, and her mother's watch, that had never been wound up since her death.
Adeline was not afraid of the dark on the road or in the lonely village-streets; but when she rang at the lawyer Putney's door, her heart beat so with fright that it seemed as if it must jump out of her mouth. She came to him because she had always heard that, in spite of his sprees, he was the smartest lawyer in Hatboro'; and she believed that he could protect their rights if any one could. At the same time she wished justice to be done, though they should suffer, and she came to Putney, partly because she knew he had always disliked her father, and she reasoned that such a man would be less likely to advise her against the right in her interest than a friendlier person.