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Chapter 26

XXVI.

Bartley would willingly have passed this affair over with Marcia, like some of their quarrels, and allowed a reconciliation to effect itself through mere lapse of time and daily custom. But there were difficulties in the way to such an end; his shameful escapade had given the quarrel a character of its own, which could not be ignored. He must keep his word about making a clean breast of it to Marcia, whether he liked or not; but she facilitated his confession by the meek and dependent fashion in which she hovered about, anxious to do something or anything for him. If, as he suggested to Halleck, she had divined the truth, she evidently did not hold him wholly to blame for what had happened, and he was not without a self-righteous sense of having given her a useful and necessary lesson. He was inclined to a severity to which his rasped and shaken nerves contributed, when he spoke to her that night, as they sat together after tea; she had some sewing in her lap, little mysteries of soft muslin for the baby, which she was edging with lace, and her head drooped over her work, as if she could not confront him with her swollen eyes.

"Look here, Marcia," he said, "do you know what was the matter with me this morning?"

She did not answer in words; her hands quivered a moment; then she caught up the things out of her lap, and sobbed into them. The sight unmanned Bartley; he hated to see any one cry,—even his wife, to whose tears he was accustomed. He dropped down beside her on the sofa, and pulled her head over on his shoulder.

"It was my fault! it was my fault, Bartley!" she sobbed. "Oh, how can I ever get over it?"

"Well, don't cry, don't cry! It wasn't altogether your fault," returned
Bartley. "We were both to blame."

"No! I began it. If I hadn't broken my promise about speaking of Hannah Morrison, it never would have happened." This was so true that Bartley could not gainsay it. "But I couldn't seem to help it; and you were—you were—so quick with me; you didn't give me time to think; you—But I was the one to blame, I was to blame!"

"Oh, well, never mind about it; don't take on so," coaxed Bartley. "It's all over now, and it can't be helped. And I can promise you," he added, "that it shall never happen again, no matter what you do," and in making this promise he felt the glow of virtuous performance. "I think we've both had a lesson. I suppose," he continued sadly, as one might from impersonal reflection upon the temptations and depravity of large cities, "that it's common enough. I dare say it isn't the first time Ben Halleck has taken a fellow home in a hack." Bartley got so much comfort from the conjecture he had thrown out for Marcia's advantage, that he felt a sort of self-approval in the fact with which he followed it up. "And there's this consolation about it, if there isn't any other: that it wouldn't have happened now, if it had ever happened before."

Marcia lifted her head and looked into his face: "What—what do you mean,
Bartley?"

"I mean that I never was overcome before in my life by—wine." He delicately avoided saying whiskey.

"Well?" she demanded.

"Why, don't you see? If I'd had the habit of drinking, I shouldn't have been affected by it."

"I don't understand," she said, anxiously.

"Why, I knew I shouldn't be able to sleep, I was so mad at you—"

"Oh!"

"And I dropped into the hotel bar-room for a nightcap,—for something to make me sleep."

"Yes, yes!" she urged eagerly.

"I took what wouldn't have touched a man that was in the habit of it."

"Poor Bartley!"

"And the first thing I knew I had got too much. I was drunk,—wild drunk," he said with magnanimous frankness.

She had been listening intensely, exculpating him at every point, and now his innocence all flashed upon her. "I see! I see!" she cried. "And it was because you had never tasted it before—"

"Well, I had tasted it once or twice," interrupted Bartley, with heroic veracity.

"No matter! It was because you had never more than hardly tasted it that a very little overcame you in an instant. I see!" she repeated, contemplating him in her ecstasy, as the one habitually sober man in a Boston full of inebriates. "And now I shall never regret it; I shall never care for it; I never shall think about it again! Or, yes! I shall always remember it, because it shows—because it proves that you are always strictly temperance. It was worth happening for that. I am glad it happened!"

She rose from his side, and took her sewing nearer the lamp, and resumed her work upon it with shining eyes.

Bartley remained in his place on the sofa, feeling, and perhaps looking, rather sheepish. He had made a clean breast of it, and the confession had redounded only too much to his credit. To do him justice, he had not intended to bring the affair to quite such a triumphant conclusion; and perhaps something better than his sense of humor was also touched when he found himself not only exonerated, but transformed into an exemplar of abstinence.

"Well," he said, "it isn't exactly a thing to be glad of, but it certainly isn't a thing to worry yourself about. You know the worst of it, and you know the best of it. It never happened before, and it never shall happen again; that's all. Don't lament over it, don't accuse yourself; just let it go, and we'll both see what we can do after this in the way of behaving better."

He rose from the sofa, and began to walk about the room.

"Does your head still ache?" she asked, fondly. "I wish I could do something for it!"

"Oh, I shall sleep it off," returned Bartley.

She followed him with her eyes. "Bartley!"

"Well?"

"Do you suppose—do you believe—that Mr. Halleck—that he was ever—"

"No, Marcia, I don't," said Bartley, stopping. "I know he never was. Ben Halleck is slow; but he's good. I couldn't imagine his being drunk any more than I could imagine your being so. I'd willingly sacrifice his reputation to console you," added Bartley, with a comical sense of his own regret that Halleck was not, for the occasion, an habitual drunkard, "but I cannot tell a lie." He looked at her with a smile, and broke into a sudden laugh. "No, my dear, the only person I think of just now as having suffered similarly with myself is the great and good Andrew Johnson. Did you ever hear of him?"

"Was he the one they impeached?" she faltered, not knowing what Bartley would be at, but smiling faintly in sympathy with his mirth.

"He was the one they impeached. He was the one who was overcome by wine on his inauguration day, because he had never been overcome before. It's a parallel case!" Bartley got a great deal more enjoyment out of the parallel case than Marcia. The smile faded from her face.

"Come, come," he coaxed, "be satisfied with Andrew Johnson, and let Halleck go. Ah, Marcia!" he added, seriously, "Ben Halleck is the kind of man you ought to have married! Don't you suppose that I know I'm not good enough for you? I'm pretty good by fits and starts; but he would have been good right straight along. I should never have had to bring him home in a hack to you!"

His generous admission had the just effect. "Hush, Bartley! Don't talk so! You know that you're better for me than the best man in the world, dear, and even if you were not, I should love you the best. Don't talk, please, that way, of any one else, or it will make me hate you!"

He liked that; and after all he was not without an obscure pride in his last night's adventure as a somewhat hazardous but decided assertion of manly supremacy. It was not a thing to be repeated; but for once in a way it was not wholly to be regretted, especially as he was so well out of it.

He pulled up a chair in front of her, and began to joke about the things she had in her lap; and the shameful and sorrowful day ended in the bliss of a more perfect peace between them than they had known since the troubles of their married life began. "I tell you," said Bartley to Marcia, "I shall stick to tivoli after this, religiously."

It was several weeks later that Halleck limped into Atherton's lodgings, and dropped into one of his friend's easy-chairs. The room had a bachelor comfort of aspect, and the shaded lamp on the table shed a mellow light on the green leather-covered furniture, wrinkled and creased, and worn full of such hospitable hollows as that which welcomed Halleck. Some packages of law papers were scattered about on the table; but the hour of the night had come when a lawyer permits himself a novel. Atherton looked up from his as Halleck entered, and stretched out a hand, which the latter took on his way to the easy-chair across the table.

"How do you do?" said Atherton, after allowing him to sit for a certain time in the silence, which expressed better than words the familiarity that existed between them in spite of the lawyer's six or seven years of seniority.

Halleck leaned forward and tapped the floor with his stick; then he fell back again, and laid his cane across the arms of his chair, and drew a long breath. "Atherton," he said, "if you had found a blackguard of your acquaintance drunk on your doorstep early one morning, and had taken him home to his wife, how would you have expected her to treat you the next time you saw her?"

The lawyer was too much used to the statement, direct and hypothetical, of all sorts of cases, to be startled at this. He smiled slightly, and said, "That would depend a good deal upon the lady."

"Oh, but generalize! From what you know of women as Woman, what should you expect? Shouldn't you expect her to make you pay somehow for your privity to her disgrace, to revenge her misery upon you? Isn't there a theory that women forgive injuries, but never ignominies?"

"That's what the novelists teach, and we bachelors get most of our doctrine about women from them." He closed his novel on the paper-cutter, and, laying the book upon the table, clasped his hands together at the back of his head. "We don't go to nature for our impressions; but neither do the novelists, for that matter. Now and then, however, in the way of business, I get a glimpse of realities that make me doubt my prophets. Who had this experience?"

"I did."

"I'm sorry for that," said Atherton.

"Yes," returned Halleck, with whimsical melancholy; "I'm not particularly adapted for it. But I don't know that it would be a very pleasant experience for anybody."

He paused drearily, and Atherton said, "And how did she actually treat you?"

"I hardly know. I hadn't been at the pains to look them up since the thing happened, and I had been carrying their squalid secret round for a fortnight, and suffering from it as if it were all my own."

Atherton smiled at the touch of self-characterization.

"When I met her and her husband and her baby to-day,—a family party,—well, she made me ashamed of the melodramatic compassion I had been feeling for her. It seemed that I had been going about unnecessarily, not to say impertinently, haggard with the recollection of her face as I saw it when she opened the door for her blackguard and me that morning. She looked as if nothing unusual had happened at our last meeting. I couldn't brace up all at once: I behaved like a sneak, in view of her serenity."

"Perhaps nothing unusual had happened," suggested Atherton.

"No, that theory isn't tenable," said Halleck. "It was the one fact in the blackguard's favor that she had evidently never seen him in that state before, and didn't know what was the matter. She was wild at first; she wanted to send for a doctor. I think towards the last she began to suspect. But I don't know how she looked then: I couldn't look at her." He stopped as if still in the presence of the pathetic figure, with its sidelong, drooping head.

Atherton respected his silence a moment before he again suggested, as lightly as before, "Perhaps she is magnanimous."

"No," said Halleck, with the effect of having also given that theory consideration. "She's not magnanimous, poor soul. I fancy she is rather a narrow-minded person, with strict limitations in regard to people who think ill—or too well—of her husband."

"Then perhaps," said Atherton, with the air of having exhausted conjecture, "she's obtuse."

"I have tried, to think that too," replied Halleck, "but I can't manage it. No, there are only two ways out of it; the fellow has abused her innocence and made her believe it's a common and venial affair to be brought home in that state, or else she's playing a part. He's capable of telling her that neither you nor I, for example, ever go to bed sober. But she isn't obtuse: I fancy she's only too keen in all the sensibilities that women suffer through; and I'd rather think that he had deluded her in that way, than that she was masquerading about it, or she strikes me as an uncommonly truthful person. I suppose you know whom I'm talking about, Atherton?" he said, with a sudden look at his friend's face across the table.

"Yes, I know," said the lawyer. "I'm sorry it's come to this already.
Though I suppose you're not altogether surprised."

"No; something of the kind was to be expected," Halleck sighed, and rolled his cane up and down on the arms of his chair. "I hope we know the worst."

"Perhaps we do. But I recollect a wise remark you made the first time we talked of these people," said Atherton, replying to the mood rather than the speech of his friend. "You suggested that we rather liked to grieve over the pretty girls that other fellows marry, and that we never thought of the plain ones as suffering."

"Oh, I hadn't any data for my pity in this case, then," replied Halleck. "I'm willing to allow that a plain woman would suffer under the same circumstances; and I think I should be capable of pitying her. But I'll confess that the notion of a pretty woman's sorrow is more intolerable; there's no use denying a fact so universally recognized by the male consciousness. I take my share of shame for it. I wonder why it is? Pretty women always seem to appeal to us as more dependent and childlike. I dare say they're not."

"Some of them are quite able to take care of themselves," said Atherton. "I've known striking instances of the kind. How do you know but the object of your superfluous pity was cheerful because fate had delivered her husband, bound forever, into her hand, through this little escapade of his?"

"Isn't that rather a coarse suggestion?" asked Halleck.

"Very likely. I suggest it; I don't assert it. But I fancy that wives sometimes like a permanent grievance that is always at hand, no matter what the mere passing occasion of the particular disagreement is. It seems to me that I have detected obscure appeals to such a weapon in domestic interviews at which I've assisted in the way of business."

"Don't, Atherton!" cried Halleck.

"Don't how? In this particular case, or in regard to wives generally. We can't do women a greater injustice than not to account for a vast deal of human nature in them. You may be sure that things haven't come to the present pass with those people without blame on both sides."

"Oh, do you defend a man for such beastliness, by that stale old plea of blame on both sides?" demanded Halleck, indignantly.

"No; but I should like to know what she had said or done to provoke it, before I excused her altogether."

"You would! Imagine the case reversed."

"It isn't imaginable."

"You think there is a special code of morals for women,—sins and shames for them that are no sins and shames for us!"

"No, I don't think that! I merely suggest that you don't idealize the victim in this instance. I dare say she hasn't suffered half as much as you have. Remember that she's a person of commonplace traditions, and probably took a simple view of the matter, and let it go as something that could not be helped."

"No, that would not do, either," said Halleck.

"You're hard to please. Suppose we imagine her proud enough to face you down on the fact, for his sake; too proud to revenge her disgrace on you—"

"Oh, you come back to your old plea of magnanimity! Atherton, it makes me sick at heart to think of that poor creature. That look of hers haunts me! I can't get rid of it!"

Atherton sat considering his friend with a curious smile. "Well, I'm sorry this has happened to you, Halleck."

"Oh, why do you say that to me?" demanded Halleck, impatiently. "Am I a nervous woman, that I must be kept from unpleasant sights and disagreeable experiences? If there's anything of the man about me, you insult it! Why not be a little sorry for her?"

"I'm sorry enough for her; but I suspect that, so far, you have been the principal sufferer. She's simply accepted the fact, and survived it."

"So much the worse, so much the worse!" groaned Halleck. "She'd better have died!"

"Well, perhaps. I dare say she thinks it will never happen again, and has dismissed the subject; while you've had it happening ever since, whenever you've thought of her."

Halleck struck the arms of his chair with his clinched hands. "Confound the fellow! What business has he to come back into my way, and make me think about his wife? Oh, very likely it's quite as you say! I dare say she's stupidly content with him; that she's forgiven it and forgotten all about it. Probably she's told him how I behaved, and they've laughed me over together. But does that make it any easier to bear?"

"It ought," said Atherton. "What did the husband do when you met them?"

"Everything but tip me the wink,—everything but say, in so many words,
'You see I've made it all right with her: don't you wish you knew—how?'"
Halleck dropped his head, with a wrathful groan.

"I fancy," said Atherton, thoughtfully, "that, if we really knew how, it would surprise us. Married life is as much a mystery to us outsiders as the life to come, almost. The ordinary motives don't seem to count; it's the realm of unreason. If a man only makes his wife suffer enough, she finds out that she loves him so much she must forgive him. And then there's a great deal in their being bound. They can't live together in enmity, and they must live together. I dare say the offence had merely worn itself out between them."

"Oh, I dare say," Halleck assented, wearily. "That isn't my idea of marriage, though."

"It's not mine, either," returned Atherton. "The question is whether it isn't often the fact in regard to such people's marriages."

"Then they are so many hells," cried Halleck, "where self-respect perishes with resentment, and the husband and wife are enslaved to each other. They ought to be broken up!"

"I don't think so," said Atherton, soberly. "The sort of men and women that marriage enslaves would be vastly more wretched and mischievous if they were set free. I believe that the hell people make for themselves isn't at all a bad place for them. It's the best place for them."

"Oh, I know your doctrine," said Halleck, rising. "It's horrible! How a man with any kindness in his heart can harbor such a cold-blooded philosophy I don't understand. I wish you joy of it. Good night," he added, gloomily, taking his hat from the table. "It serves me right for coming to you with a matter that I ought to have been man enough to keep to myself."

Atherton followed him toward the door. "It won't do you any harm to consider your perplexity in the light of my philosophy. An unhappy marriage isn't the only hell, nor the worst."

Halleck turned. "What could be a worse hell than marriage without love?" he demanded, fiercely.

"Love without marriage," said Atherton.

Halleck looked sharply at his friend. Then he shrugged his shoulders as he turned again and swung out of the door. "You're too esoteric for me. It's quite time I was gone."

The way through Clover Street was not the shortest way home; but he climbed the hill and passed the little house. He wished to rehabilitate in its pathetic beauty the image which his friend's conjectures had jarred, distorted, insulted; and he lingered for a moment before the door where this vision had claimed his pity for anguish that no after serenity could repudiate. The silence in which the house was wrapped was like another fold of the mystery which involved him. The night wind rose in a sudden gust, and made the neighboring lamp flare, and his shadow wavered across the pavement like the figure of a drunken man. This, and not that other, was the image which he saw.

William Dean Howells