WITHOUT a note of warning, the public were startled by the news that Mrs. Dexter had left her husband. Wisely, sober second thought laid upon the lips of Mr. Dexter the seal of silence. He gave no reason for the step his wife had taken, and declined answering all inquiries, even from his nearest friends. From a man of impulse, he seemed changed at once into a man of deliberate purpose. His elegant home was not given up, though he lived in it a kind of half hermit life. Abroad, he was reserved; while everything about him gave signs of a painful inward conflict.
Of course, the social air was full of rumors, probable and improbable, but none of them exactly true. Mrs. Dexter was wholly silent, except to her wisest and truest friend, Mrs. De Lisle--and her discretion ever kept her guarded. Mrs. Loring simply alleged "incompatibility of temper"--that vague allegation which covers with its broad mantle so wide a range of domestic antagonisms. And so the public had its appetite piqued, and the nine days' wonder became the wonder of a season. Hints towards the truth were embellished by gossips' ready imaginations, and stories of wrong, domestic (sic) tyrrany, infidelity, and the like, were passed around, and related with a degree of circumstantiality that gave them wide credence. Yet in no instance was the name of Hendrickson connected with that of Mrs. Dexter. So transient had been their intercourse, that no eye but that of jealousy had noted their meeting as anything beyond the meeting of indifferent acquaintances.
It was just one week from the day Paul Hendrickson caught an unexpected glimpse of Mrs. Dexter's face at the window, and passed on with her image freshened in his heart, that he called in at the Ardens', after an unusually long absence, to spend an evening. Miss Arden's countenance lighted with a sudden glow on his appearance, the rich blood dyeing her cheeks, and giving her face a heightened charm; and in the visitor's eyes there was something gentler and softer in her beauty than he had before observed. He probably guessed the cause; and the thought touched his feelings, and drew his heart something nearer to her.
"That is a painful story about Mrs. Dexter," said Mrs. Arden, almost as soon as the young man came in. The recently heard facts were uppermost in her thoughts.
"What story? I have not heard anything." Hendrickson was on his guard in a moment; though he betrayed unusual interest.
"It is dreadful to think of!" said Miss Arden. "What a wretched creature she must be! I always thought her one of the best of women. Though I must own that at Saratoga last summer, she showed rather more fondness for the society of other men than she did for that of her husband."
"I am still in the dark," said Mr. Hendrickson, with suppressed excitement.
"Then you haven't heard of it? Why, it's the town talk."
"There's been a separation between Mrs. Dexter and her husband," remarked Mrs. Arden. "She left him several days ago, and is now with her aunt, Mrs. Loring."
"A separation! On what ground?" Hendrickson's breathing oppressed him.
"Something wrong with Mrs. Dexter, I am told. She had too many admirers--so the story goes; and, worse still--for admiration she couldn't help--one lover."
It was Mrs. Arden who said this.
"Who was the lover?" asked Mr. Hendrickson. His voice was so quiet, and his tones so indifferent, that none suspected the intense interest with which he was listening.
"I have not heard his name," replied Mrs. Arden.
"Does he live in this city?"
"I believe not. Some new acquaintance, made at Newport, I think. You remember that she was very ill there last summer?"
"Well, the cause of that illness is now said to have been a discovery by Mr. Dexter of some indiscretion on her part, followed by angry remonstrance on his."
"That is the story?"
"And what caused the separation which has just taken place?"
"A renewal of this intimacy," said Mrs. Arden.
"A very serious charge; and, I believe without foundation in truth," replied Hendrickson. He spoke slowly, yet not with strong emphasis. His auditors did not know that he was simply controlling his voice to hide his agitation.
"Oh, there is no doubt as to its truth," said Mrs. Arden. "The facts have been substantiated; so Mrs. Anthony told me to-day; and she has been one of Mrs. Dexter's most intimate friends."
"What facts?" inquired Hendrickson.
"Facts, that if they do not prove crime against Mrs. Dexter, show her to have been imprudent to the verge of crime."
"Can you particularize?" said the young man.
"Well, no I can't just do that. Mrs. Anthony ran on at such a rate that I couldn't get the affair adjusted in my mind. But she asserts positively that Mrs. Dexter has gone considerably beyond the boundary of prudence; and she is no friend of Dexter's, I can assure you. As far as I can learn, there have been frequent meetings between this lover and Mrs. Dexter during the husband's absence. An earlier return home, a few days ago, led to a surprise and an exposure. The result you know."
"I must make bold to pronounce this whole story a fabrication," said Mr. Hendrickson, with rising warmth; "It is too improbable."
"Worse things than that have happened, and are happening every day," remarked Mrs. Arden.
"Still I shall disbelieve the story," said Mr. Hendrickson, firmly.
"What else would justify him in sending her home to her aunt?" asked Mrs. Arden.
"He sent her home, then? That is the report?" remarked Hendrickson.
"Some say one thing and some another."
"And a story loses nothing in the repetition."
"You are very skeptical," said Miss Arden.
"I wish all men and women were more skeptical than they are, in touching the wrong doings of others," replied the young man. "The world is not so bad as it seems. Now I am sure that if the truth of this affair could really be known, we should find scarcely a single fact in agreement with the report. I have heard that Mr. Dexter is blindly jealous of his wife."
"Oh, as to that, Mrs. Anthony says that he made himself ridiculous by his jealousy at Saratoga last summer. And I now remember that he used to act strangely sometimes," said Mrs. Arden.
"A jealous man," returned Hendrickson, "is a very bad judge of his wife's conduct; and more likely to see guilt than innocence in any circumstance that will bear a double explanation. Let us then lean to the side of charity, and suppose good until the proof of evil stares us in the very face; as I shall do in this instance. I have always believed Mrs. Dexter to be the purest of women; and I believe so still."
Both Mrs. Arden and her daughter seemed annoyed at this defence of a woman against whom they had so readily accepted the common rumor. But they said nothing farther. After that an unusual embarrassment marked their intercourse. As early as he could, with politeness, retire, Hendrickson went away. He did not err in his own elucidation of the mystery; for he remembered well the vision of Mrs. Dexter's face at the window--her instant sign of feeling--his own quick but not meditated response--and the sudden appearance of her husband, whose clouded countenance was full of angry suspicion.
"To this!--and so soon!" said Hendrickson to himself, as he left the house of Mrs. Arden. "Oh, that I could stretch out my hand to save her!--That I could shield her from the tempests!--That I could shelter her from the burning heats! But I cannot. There is a great gulf between us, and I may not pass to her, nor she to me. Oh, my soul! is this separation to be for all time?"
There was rebellion in the heart of Paul Hendrickson when he reached his home; and a wild desire to overleap all barriers of separation.
"There will be a divorce in all probability," so he began talking with himself. "Jessie will never return to him after this violent separation; and he, after a time, will ask to have the marriage annulled. He will not be able to bring proof of evil against her--will, I am sure, not even attempt it; for no evidence exists. But her steady refusal to live with him as his wife, will enable him, it may be, to get a divorce. And then!"
There was a tone of exultation in his voice at the closing words.
"And whosoever marrieth her which is put away, committeth adultery."
Hendrickson started to his feet, his face as pale as ashes, and glanced almost fearfully about the room. The voice seemed spoken in the air--but it was not so. The warning had reached his sense of hearing by an inner way.
Then he sat down, and pondered this new question, so suddenly presented for solution, turning it towards every light--viewing it now from the side of human feeling and human reason--and now with the light of Divine Revelation shining upon it. But he was not satisfied. The letter of the record was against him; but nature cried out for some different reading. At length he made an effort to thrust the subject aside.
"What folly is this?" he said, still talking with himself. "Wait! wait! wait!--the time is not yet. Separation only exists. There is no divorce. The great, impassable gulf is yet between us. I cannot go to her. She cannot come to me. I must wait, hopefully, if not patiently, the issue of events."
The thoughts of Hendrickson had once more been turning themselves towards Miss Arden, and he had felt the glow of warmer feelings. He had even begun to think again of marriage.
"Let that illusion go!" he said. "It must no longer tempt me to the commission of an act that reason and conscience both pronounce wrong. I do not love Mary Arden; therefore, I will not marry her. I settle that matter now, and forever."
And the decision was final. He did not visit her again for many months, and then only after her engagement to another.
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