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Chapter 23

XXIII.

When the spring opened, Bartley pushed Flavia about the sunny pavements in a baby carriage, while Marcia paced alongside, looking in under the calash top from time to time, arranging the bright afghan, and twitching the little one's lace hood into place. They never noticed that other perambulators were pushed by Irish nurse-girls or French bonnes; they had paid somewhat more than they ought for theirs, and they were proud of it merely as a piece of property. It was rather Bartley's ideal, as it is that of most young American fathers, to go out with his wife and baby in that way; he liked to have his friends see him; and he went out every afternoon he could spare. When he could not go, Marcia went alone. Mrs. Halleck had given her a key to the garden, and on pleasant mornings she always found some of the family there, when she pushed the perambulator up the path, to let the baby sleep in the warmth and silence of the sheltered place. She chatted with Olive or the elder sisters, while Mrs. Halleck drove Cyrus on to the work of tying up the vines and trimming the shrubs, with the pitiless rigor of women when they get a man about some outdoor labor. Sometimes, Ben Halleck was briefly of the party; and one morning when Marcia opened the gate, she found him there alone with Cyrus, who was busy at some belated tasks of horticulture. The young man turned at the unlocking of the gate, and saw Marcia lifting the front wheels of the perambulator to get it over the steps of the pavement outside. He limped hastily down the walk to help her, but she had the carriage in the path before he could reach, her, and he had nothing to do but to walk back at its side, as she propelled it towards the house. "You see what a useless creature a cripple is," he said.

Marcia did not seem to have heard him. "Is your mother at home?" she asked.

"I think she is," said Halleck. "Cyrus, go in and tell mother that Mrs.
Hubbard is here, won't you?"

Cyrus went, after a moment of self-respectful delay, and Marcia sat down on a bench under a pear-tree beside the walk. Its narrow young leaves and blossoms sprinkled her with shade shot with vivid sunshine, and in her light dress she looked like a bright, fresh figure from some painter's study of spring. She breathed quickly from her exertion, and her cheeks had a rich, dewy bloom. She had pulled the perambulator round so that she might see her baby while she waited, and she looked at the baby now, and not at Halleck, as she said, "It is quite hot in the sun to-day." She had a way of closing her lips, after speaking, in that sweet smile of hers, and then of glancing sidelong at the person to whom she spoke.

"I suppose it is," said Halleck, who remained on foot. "But I haven't been out yet. I gave myself a day off from the Law School, and I hadn't quite decided what to do with it."

Marcia leaned forward, and brushed a tendril of the baby's hair out of its eye. "She's the greatest little sleeper that ever was when she gets into her carriage," she half mused, leaning back with her hands folded in her lap, and setting her head on one side for the effect of the baby without the stray ringlet. "She's getting so fat!" she said, proudly.

Halleck smiled. "Do you find it makes a difference in pushing her carriage, from day to day?"

Marcia took his question in earnest, as she must take anything but the most obvious pleasantry concerning her baby. "The carriage runs very easily; we picked out the lightest one we could, and I never have any trouble with it, except getting up curbstones and crossing Cambridge Street. I don't like to cross Cambridge Street, there are always so many horse-cars. But it's all down-hill coming here: that's one good thing."

"That makes it a very bad thing going home, though," said Halleck.

"Oh, I go round by Charles Street, and come up the hill from the other side; it isn't so steep there."

There was no more to be said upon this point, and in the lapse of their talk Halleck broke off some boughs of the blooming pear, and dropped them on the baby's afghan.

"Your mother won't like your spoiling her pear-tree," said Marcia, seriously.

"She will when she knows that I did it for Miss Hubbard."

"Miss Hubbard!" repeated the young mother, and she laughed in fond derision. "How funny to hear you saying that! I thought you hated babies!"

Halleck looked at her with strong self-disgust, and he dropped the bough which he had in his hand upon the ground. There is something in a young man's ideal of women, at once passionate and ascetic, so fine that any words are too gross for it. The event which intensified the interest of his mother and sisters in Marcia had abashed Halleck; when she came so proudly to show her baby to them all, it seemed to him like a mockery of his pity for her captivity to the love that profaned her. He went out of the room in angry impatience, which he could hardly hide, when one of his sisters tried to make him take the baby. Little by little his compassion adjusted itself to the new conditions; it accepted the child as an element of her misery in the future, when she must realize the hideous deformity of her marriage. His prophetic feeling of this, and of her inaccessibility to human help here and hereafter, made him sometimes afraid of her; but all the more severely he exacted of his ideal of her that she should not fall beneath the tragic dignity of her fate through any levity of her own. Now, at her innocent laugh, a subtile irreverence, which he was not able to exorcise, infused itself into his sense of her.

He stood looking at her, after he dropped the pear-bough, and seeing her mere beauty as he had never seen it before. The bees hummed in the blossoms, which gave out a dull, sweet smell; the sunshine had the luxurious, enervating warmth of spring. He started suddenly from his reverie: Marcia had said something. "I beg your pardon?" he queried.

"Oh, nothing. I asked if you knew where I went to church yesterday?"

Halleck flushed, ashamed of the wrong his thoughts, or rather his emotions, had done. "No, I don't," he answered.

"I was at your church."

"I ought to have been there myself," he returned, gravely, "and then I should have known."

She took his self-reproach literally. "You couldn't have seen me. I was sitting pretty far back, and I went out before any of your family saw me. Don't you go there?"

"Not always, I'm sorry to say. Or, rather, I'm sorry not to be sorry. What church do you generally go to?"

"Oh, I don't know. Sometimes to one, and sometimes to another. Bartley used to report the sermons, and we went round to all the churches then. That is the way I did at home, and it came natural to me. But I don't like it very well. I want Flavia should belong to some particular church."

"There are enough to choose from," said Halleck, with pensive sarcasm.

"Yes, that's the difficulty. But I shall make up my mind to one of them, and then I shall always keep to it. What I mean is that I should like to find out where most of the good people belong, and then have her be with them," pursued Marcia. "I think it's best to belong to some church, don't you?"

There was something so bare, so spiritually poverty-stricken, in these confessions and questions, that Halleck found nothing to say to them. He was troubled, moreover, as to what the truth was in his own mind. He answered, with a sort of mechanical adhesion to the teachings of his youth, "I should be a recreant not to think so. But I'm not sure that I know what you mean by belonging to some church," he added. "I suppose you would want to believe in the creed of the church, whichever it was."

"I don't know that I should be particular," said Marcia, with perfect honesty.

Halleck laughed sadly. "I'm afraid they would, then, unless you joined the Broad Church."

"What is that?" He explained as well as he could. At the end she repeated, as if she had not followed him very closely: "I should like her to belong to the church where most of the good people went. I think that would be the right one, if you could only find which it is." Halleck laughed again. "I suppose what I say must sound very queer to you; but I've been thinking a good deal about this lately."

"I beg your pardon," said Halleck. "I had no reason to laugh, either on your account or my own. It's a serious subject." She did not reply, and he asked, as if she had left the subject, "Do you intend to pass the summer in Boston?"

"No; I'm going down home pretty early, and I wanted to ask your mother what is the best way to put away my winter things."

"You'll find my mother very good authority on such matters," said Halleck. Through an obscure association with moths that corrupt, he added, "She's a good authority on church matters, too."

"I guess I shall talk with her about Flavia," said Marcia.

Cyrus came out of the house. "Mis' Halleck will be here in a minute. She's got to get red of a lady that's calling, first," he explained.

"I will leave you, then," said Halleck, abruptly.

"Good by," answered Marcia, tranquilly. The baby stirred; she pushed the carriage to and fro, without glancing after him as he walked away.

His mother came down the steps from the house, and kissed Marcia for welcome, and looked under the carriage-top at the sleeping baby. "How she does sleep!" she whispered.

"Yes," said Marcia, with the proud humility of a mother, who cannot deny the merit of her child, "and she sleeps the whole night through. I'm never up with her. Bartley says she's a perfect Seven-Sleeper. It's a regular joke with him,—her sleeping."

"Ben was a good baby for sleeping, too," said Mrs. Halleck, retrospectively emulous. "It's one of the best signs. It shows that the child is strong and healthy." They went on to talk of their children, and in their community of motherhood they spoke of the young man as if he were still an infant. "He has never been a moment's care to me," said Mrs. Halleck. "A well baby will be well even in teething."

"And I had somehow thought of him as sickly!" said Marcia, in self-derision.

Tears of instant intelligence sprang into his mother's eyes. "And did you suppose he was always lame?" she demanded, with gentle indignation. "He was the brightest and strongest boy that ever was, till he was twelve years old. That's what makes it so hard to bear; that's what makes me wonder at the way the child bears it! Did you never hear how it happened? One of the big boys, as he called him, tripped him up at school, and he fell on his hip. It kept him in bed for a year, and he's never been the same since; he will always be a cripple," grieved the mother. She wiped her eyes; she never could think of her boy's infirmity without weeping. "And what seemed the worst of all," she continued, "was that the boy who did it never expressed any regret for it, or acknowledged it by word or deed, though he must have known that Ben knew who hurt him. He's a man here, now; and sometimes Ben meets him. But Ben always says that he can stand it, if the other one can. He was always just so from the first! He wouldn't let us blame the boy; he said that he didn't mean any harm, and that all was fair in play. And now he says he knows the man is sorry, and would own to what he did, if he didn't have to own to what came of it. Ben says that very few of us have the courage to face the consequences of the injuries we do, and that's what makes people seem hard and indifferent when they are really not so. There!" cried Mrs. Halleck. "I don't know as I ought to have told you about it; I know Ben wouldn't like it. But I can't bear to have any one think he was always lame, though I don't know why I shouldn't: I'm prouder of him since it happened than ever I was before. I thought he was here with you," she added, abruptly.

"He went out just before you came," said Marcia, nodding toward the gate. She sat listening to Mrs, Halleck's talk about Ben; Mrs. Halleck took herself to task from time to time, but only to go on talking about him again. Sometimes Marcia commented on his characteristics, and compared them with Bartley's, or with Flavia's, according to the period of Ben's life under consideration.

At the end Mrs. Halleck said: "I haven't let you get in a word! Now you must talk about your baby. Dear little thing! I feel that she's been neglected. But I'm always just so selfish when I get to running on about Ben. They all laugh at me."

"Oh, I like to hear about other children," said Marcia, turning the perambulator round. "I don't think any one can know too much that has the care of children of their own." She added, as if it followed from something they had been saying of vaccination, "Mrs. Halleck, I want to talk with you about getting Flavia christened. You know I never was christened."

"Weren't you?" said Mrs. Halleck, with a dismay which she struggled to conceal.

"No," said Marcia, "father doesn't believe in any of those things, and mother had got to letting them go, because he didn't take any interest in them. They did have the first children christened, but I was the last."

"I didn't speak with your father on the subject," faltered Mrs. Halleck. "I didn't know what his persuasion was."

"Why, father doesn't belong to any church! He believes in a God, but he doesn't believe in the Bible." Mrs. Halleck sank down on the garden seat too much shocked to speak, and Marcia continued. "I don't know whether the Bible is true or not; but I've often wished that I belonged to church."

"You couldn't, unless you believed in the Bible," said Mrs. Halleck.

"Yes, I know that. Perhaps I should, if anybody proved it to me. I presume it could be explained. I never talked much with any one about it. There must be a good many people who don't belong to church, although they believe in the Bible. I should be perfectly willing to try, if I only knew how to begin."

In view of this ruinous open-mindedness, Mrs. Halleck could only say, "The way to begin is to read it."

"Well, I will try. How do you know, after you've become so that you believe the Bible, whether you're fit to join the church?"

"It's hard to tell you, my dear. You have to feel first that you have a
Saviour,—that you've given your whole heart to him,—that he can save you,
and that no one else can,—that all you can do yourself won't help you.
It's an experience."

Marcia looked at her attentively, as if this were all a very hard saying. "Yes, I've heard of that. Some of the girls had it at school. But I never did. Well," she said at last, "I don't feel so anxious about myself, just at present, as I do about Flavia. I want to do everything I can for Flavia, Mrs. Halleck. I want her to be christened,—I want her to be baptized into some church. I think a good deal about it. I think sometimes, what if she should die, and I hadn't done that for her, when may be it was one of the most important things—" Her voice shook, and she pressed her lips together.

"Of course," said Mrs. Halleck, tenderly, "I think it is the most important thing."

"But there are so many churches," Marcia resumed. "And I don't know about any of them. I told Mr. Halleck just now, that I should like her to belong to the church where the best people went, if I could find it out. Of course, it was a ridiculous way to talk; I knew he thought so. But what I meant was that I wanted she should be with good people all her life; and I didn't care what she believed."

"It's very important to believe the truth, my dear," said Mrs. Halleck.

"But the truth is so hard to be certain of, and you know goodness as soon as you see it. Mrs. Halleck, I'll tell you what I want: I want Flavia should be baptized into your church. Will you let her?"

"Let her? O my dear child, we shall be humbly thankful that it has been put into your heart to choose for her what we think is the true church," said Mrs. Halleck, fervently.

"I don't know about that," returned Marcia. "I can't tell whether it's the true church or not, and I don't know that I ever could; but I shall be satisfied—if it's made you what you are," she added, simply.

Mrs. Halleck did not try to turn away her praise with vain affectations of humility. "We try to do right, Marcia," she said. "Whenever we do it, we must be helped to it by some power outside of ourselves. I can't tell you whether it's our church; I'm not so sure of that as I used to be. I once thought that there could be no real good out of it; but I can't think that, any more. Olive and Ben are as good children as ever lived; I know they won't be lost; but neither of them belongs to our church."

"Why, what church does he belong to?"

"He doesn't belong to any, my dear," said Mrs. Halleck, sorrowfully.

Marcia looked at her absently. "I knew Olive was a Unitarian; but I thought—I thought he—"

"No, he doesn't," returned Mrs. Halleck. "It has been a great cross to his father and me. He is a good boy; but we think the truth is in our church!"

Marcia was silent a moment. Then she said, decisively, "Well, I should like
Flavia to belong to your church."

"She couldn't belong to it now," Mrs. Halleck explained. "That would have to come later, when she could understand. But she could be christened in it—dear little thing!"

"Well, christened, then. It must be the training he got in it. I've thought a great deal about it, and I think my worst trouble is that I've been left too free in everything. One mustn't be left too free. I've never had any one to control me, and now I can't control myself at the very times when I need to do it the most, with—with—When I 'in in danger of vexing—When Bartley and I—"

"Yes," said Mrs. Halleck, sympathetically.

"And Bartley is just so, too. He's always been left to himself. And Flavia will need all the control we can give her,—I know she will. And I shall have her christened in your church, and I shall teach her all about it. She shall go to the Sunday school, and I will go to church, so that she can have an example. I told father I should do it when he was up here, and he said there couldn't be any harm in it. And I've told Bartley, and he doesn't care."

They were both far too single-minded and too serious to find anything droll in the terms of the adhesion of Marcia's family to her plan, and Mrs. Halleck entered into its execution with affectionate zeal.

"Ben, dear," she said, tenderly, that evening, when they were all talking it over in the family council, "I hope you didn't drop anything, when that poor creature spoke to you about it this morning, that could unsettle her mind in any way?"

"No, mother," said Halleck, gently.

"I was sure you didn't," returned his mother, repentantly.

They had been talking a long time of the matter, and Halleck now left the room.

"Mother! How could you say such a thing to Ben?" cried Olive, in a quiver of indignant sympathy. "Ben say anything to unsettle anybody's religious purposes! He's got more religion now than all the rest of the family put together!"

"Speak for yourself, Olive," said one of the intermediary sisters.

"Why, Olive, I spoke because I thought she seemed to place more importance on Ben's belonging to the church than anything else, and she seemed so surprised when I told her he didn't belong to any."

"I dare say she thinks Ben is good when she compares him with that mass of selfishness of a husband of hers," said Olive. "But I will thank her," she added, hotly, "not to compare Ben with Bartley Hubbard, even to Bartley Hubbard's disadvantage. I don't feel flattered by it."

"Of course she thinks all the world of her husband," said Mrs. Halleck. "And I know Ben is good; and, as you say, he is religious; I feel that, though I don't understand how, exactly. I wouldn't hurt his feelings for the world, Olive, you know well enough. But it was a stumbling-block when I had to tell that poor, pretty young thing that Ben didn't belong to church; and I could see that it puzzled her. I couldn't have believed," continued Mrs. Halleck, "that there was any person in a Christian land, except among the very lowest, that seemed to understand so little about the Christian religion, or any scheme of salvation. Really, she talked to me like a pagan. She sat there much better dressed and better educated than I was; but I felt like a missionary talking to a South Sea Islander."

"I wonder the old Bartlett pear didn't burst into a palm-tree over your heads," said Olive. Mrs. Halleck looked grieved at her levity, and Olive hastened to add: "Don't take it to heart, mother! I understood just what you meant, and I can imagine just how shocking Mrs. Hubbard's heathen remarks must have been. We should all be shocked if we knew how many people there were like her, and we should all try to deny it, and so would they. I guess Christianity is about as uncommon as civilization,—and that's very uncommon. If her poor, feeble mind was such a chaos, what do you suppose her husband's is?"

This would certainly not have been easy for Mrs. Halleck to say then, or to say afterward, when Bartley walked up to the font in her church, with Marcia at his side, and Flavia in his arms, and a faintly ironical smile on his face, as if he had never expected to be got in for this, but was going to see it through now. He had, in fact, said, "Well, let's go the whole figure," when Marcia had expressed a preference for having the rite performed in church, instead of in their own house.

He was unquestionably growing stout, and even Mrs. Halleck noticed that his blonde face was unpleasantly red that day. He was, of course, not intemperate. He always had beer with his lunch, which he had begun to take down town since the warm weather had come on and made the walk up the hill to Clover Street irksome: and he drank beer at his dinner,—he liked a late dinner, and they dined at six, now,—because it washed away the fatigues of the day, and freshened you up. He was rather particular about his beer, which he had sent in by the gross,—it came cheaper that way; after trying both the Cincinnati and the Milwaukee lagers, and making a cursory test of the Boston brand, he had settled down upon the American tivoli; it was cheap, and you could drink a couple of bottles without feeling it. Freshened up by his two bottles, he was apt to spend the evening in an amiable drowse and get early to bed, when he did not go out on newspaper duty. He joked about the three fingers of fat on his ribs, and frankly guessed it was the beer that did it; at such times he said that perhaps he should have to cut down on his tivoli.

Marcia and he had not so much time together as they used to have; she was a great deal taken up with the baby, and he found it dull at home, not doing anything or saying anything; and when he did not feel sleepy, he sometimes invented work that took him out at night. But he always came upstairs after putting his hat on, and asked Marcia if he could help her about anything.

He usually met other newspaper men on these excursions, and talked newspaper with them, airing his favorite theories. He liked to wander about with reporters who were working up cases; to look in at the police stations, and go to the fires; and he was often able to give the Events men points that had escaped the other reporters. If asked to drink, he always said, "Thanks, no; I don't do anything in that way. But if you'll make it beer, I don't mind." He took nothing but beer when he hurried out of the theatre into one of the neighboring resorts, just as the great platters of stewed kidneys and lyonnaise potatoes came steaming up out of the kitchen, prompt to the drop of the curtain on the last act. Here; sometimes, he met a friend, and shared with him his dish of kidneys and his schooner of beer; and he once suffered himself to be lured by the click of the balls into the back room. He believed that he played a very good game of billiards; but he was badly beaten that night. He came home at daylight, fifty dollars out. But he had lost like a gentleman in a game with gentlemen; and he never played again.

By day he worked hard, and since his expenses had been increased by Flavia's coming, he had undertaken more work for more pay. He still performed all the routine labor of a managing editor, and he now wrote the literary notices of the Events, and sometimes, especially if there was anything new, the dramatic criticisms; he brought to the latter task all the freshness of a man who, till the year before, had not been half a dozen times inside a theatre.

He attributed the fat on his ribs to the tivoli; perhaps it was also owing in some degree to a good conscience, which is a much easier thing to keep than people imagine. At any rate, he now led a tranquil, industrious, and regular life, and a life which suited him so well that he was reluctant to interrupt it by the visit to Equity, which he and Marcia had talked of in the early spring. He put it off from time to time, and one day when she was pressing him to fix some date for it he said, "Why can't you go, Marcia?"

"Alone?" she faltered.

"Well, no; take the baby, of course. And I'll run down for a day or two when I get a chance."

Marcia seemed in these days to be schooling herself against the impulses that once brought on her quarrels with Bartley. "A day or two—" she began, and then stopped and added gravely, "I thought you said you were going to have several weeks' vacation."

"Oh, don't tell me what I said!" cried Bartley. "That was before I undertook this extra work, or before I knew what a grind it was going to be. Equity is a good deal of a dose for me, any way. It's all well enough for you, and I guess the change from Boston will do you good, and do the baby good, but I shouldn't look forward to three weeks in Equity with unmitigated hilarity."

"I know it will be stupid for you. But you need the rest. And the Hallecks are going to be at North Conway, and they said they would come over," urged Marcia. "I know we should have a good time."

Bartley grinned. "Is that your idea of a good time, Marsh? Three weeks of Equity, relieved by a visit from such heavy weights as Ben Halleck and his sisters? Not any in mine, thank you."

"How can you—how dare you speak of them so!" cried Marcia lightening upon him. "Such good friends of yours—such good people—" Her voice shook with indignation and wounded feeling.

Bartley rose and took a turn about the room, pulling down his waistcoat and contemplating its outward slope with a smile. "Oh, I've got more friends than I can shake a stick at. And with pleasure at the helm, goodness is a drug in the market,—if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. Look here, Marcia," he added, severely. "If you like the Hallecks, all well and good; I sha'n't interfere with you; but they bore me. I outgrew Ben Halleck years ago. He's duller than death. As for the old people, there's no harm in them,—though they're bores, too,—nor in the old girls; but Olive Halleck doesn't treat me decently. I suppose that just suits you: I've noticed that you never like the women that do treat me decently."

"They don't treat me decently!" retorted Marcia.

"Oh, Miss Kingsbury treated you very well that night. She couldn't imagine your being jealous of her politeness to me."

Marcia's temper fired at his treacherous recurrence to a grievance which he had once so sacredly and sweetly ignored. "If you wish to take up bygones, why don't you go back to Hannah Morrison at once? She treated you even better than Miss Kingsbury."

"I should have been very willing to do that," said Bartley, "but I thought it might remind you of a disagreeable little episode in your own life, when you flung me away, and had to go down on your knees to pick me up again."

These thrusts which they dealt each other in their quarrels, however blind and misdirected, always reached their hearts: it was the wicked will that hurt, rather than the words. Marcia rose, bleeding inwardly, and her husband felt the remorse of a man who gets the best of it in such an encounter.

"Oh, I'm sorry I said that, Marcia! I didn't mean it; indeed I—" She disdained to heed him, as she swept out of the room, and up the stairs; and his anger flamed out again.

"I give you fair warning," he called after her, "not to try that trick of locking the door, or I will smash it in."

Her answer was to turn the key in the door with a click which he could not fail to hear.

The peace in which they had been living of late was very comfortable to Bartley; he liked it; he hated to have it broken; he was willing to do what he could to restore it at once. If he had no better motive than this, he still had this motive; and he choked down his wrath, and followed Marcia softly upstairs. He intended to reason with her, and he began, "I say, Marsh," as he turned the door-knob. But you cannot reason through a keyhole, and before he knew he found himself saying, "Will you open this?" in a tone whose quiet was deadly. She did not answer; he heard her stop in her movements about the room, and wait, as if she expected him to ask again. He hesitated a moment whether to keep his threat of breaking the door in; but he turned away and went down stairs, and so into the street. Once outside, he experienced the sense of release that comes to a man from the violation of his better impulses; but he did not know what to do or where to go. He walked rapidly away; but Marcia's eyes and voice seemed to follow him, and plead with him for his forbearance. But he answered his conscience, as if it had been some such presence, that he had forborne too much already, and that now he should not humble himself; that he was right and should stand upon his right. There was not much comfort in it, and he had to brace himself again and again with vindictive resolution.

William Dean Howells