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Chapter 31

XXXI.

One morning in September, not long before Marcia returned, Bartley found Witherby at the office waiting for him. Witherby wore a pensive face, which had the effect of being studied. "Good morning, Mr. Hubbard," he said, and when Bartley answered, "Good morning," cheerfully ignoring his mood, he added, "What is this I hear, Mr. Hubbard, about a personal misunderstanding between you and Mr. Ricker?"

"I'm sure I don't know," said Bartley; "but I suppose that if you have heard anything you know."

"I have heard," proceeded Witherby, a little dashed by Bartley's coolness, "that Mr. Ricker accuses you of having used material in that article you sold him which had been intrusted to you under the seal of confidence, and that you had left it to be inferred by the party concerned—that Mr. Ricker had written the article himself."

"All right," said Bartley.

"But, Mr. Hubbard," said Witherby, struggling to rise into virtuous supremacy, "what am I to think of such a report?"

"I can't say; unless you should think that it wasn't your affair. That would be the easiest thing."

"But I can't think that, Mr. Hubbard! Such a report reflects through you upon the Events; it reflects upon me!" Bartley laughed. "I can't approve of such a thing. If you admit the report, it appears to me that you have—a—done a—a—wrong action, Mr. Hubbard."

Bartley turned upon him with a curious look; at the same time he felt a pang, and there was a touch of real anguish in the sarcasm of his demand, "Have I fallen so low as to be rebuked by you?"

"I—I don't know what you mean by such an expression as that, Mr. Hubbard," said Witherby. "I don't know what I've done to forfeit your esteem,—to justify you in using such language to me."

"I don't suppose you really do," said Bartley. "Go on."

"I have nothing more to say, Mr. Hubbard, except—except to add that this has given me a great blow,—a great blow. I had begun to have my doubts before as to whether we were quite adapted to each other, and this has—increased them. I pass no judgment upon what you have done, but I will say that it has made me anxious and—a—unrestful. It has made me ask myself whether upon the whole we should not be happier apart. I don't say that we should; but I only feel that nine out of ten business men would consider you, in the position you occupy on the Events,—a—a—dangerous person."

Bartley got up from his desk, and walked toward Witherby, with his hands in his pockets; he halted a few paces from him, and looked down on him with a sinister smile. "I don't think they'd consider you a dangerous person in any position."

"May be not, may be not," said Witherby, striving to be easy and dignified. In the effort he took up an open paper from the desk before him, and, lifting it between Bartley and himself, feigned to be reading it.

Bartley struck it out of his trembling hands. "You impudent old scoundrel!
Do you pretend to be reading when I speak to you? For half a cent—"

Witherby, slipping and sliding in his swivel chair, contrived to get to his feet "No violence, Mr. Hubbard, no violence here!"

"Violence!" laughed Bartley. "I should have to touch you! Come! Don't be afraid! But don't you put on airs of any sort! I understand your game. You want, for some reason, to get rid of me, and you have seized the opportunity with a sharpness that does credit to your cunning. I don't condescend to deny this report,"—speaking in this lofty strain, Bartley had a momentary sensation of its being a despicable slander,—"but I see that as far as you are concerned it answers all the purposes of truth. You think that with the chance of having this thing exploited against me I won't expose your nefarious practices, and you can get rid of me more safely now than ever you could again. Well, you're right. I dare say you heard of this report a good while ago, and you've waited till you could fill my place without inconvenience to yourself. So I can go at once. Draw your check for all you owe me, and pay me back the money I put into your stock, and I'll clear out at once." He went about putting together a few personal effects on his desk.

"I must protest against any allusion to nefarious practices, Mr. Hubbard," said Witherby, "and I wish you to understand that I part from you without the slightest ill-feeling. I shall always have a high regard for your ability, and—and—your social qualities." While he made these expressions he hastened to write two checks.

Bartley, who had paid no attention to what Witherby was saying, came up and took the checks. "This is all right," he said of one. But looking at the other, he added, "Fifteen hundred dollars? Where is the dividend?"

"That is not due till the end of the month," said Witherby. "If you withdraw your money now, you lose it."

Bartley looked at the face to which Witherby did his best to give a high judicial expression. "You old thief!" he said good-humoredly, almost affectionately. "I have a mind to tweak your nose!" But he went out of the room without saying or doing anything more. He wondered a little at his own amiability; but with the decay of whatever was right-principled in him, he was aware of growing more and more incapable of indignation. Now, his flash of rage over, he was not at all discontented. With these checks in his pocket, with his youth, his health, and his practised hand, he could have faced the world, with a light heart, if he had not also had to face his wife. But when he thought of the inconvenience of explaining to her, of pacifying her anxiety, of clearing up her doubts on a thousand points, and of getting her simply to eat or sleep till he found something else to do, it dismayed him. "Good Lord!" he said to himself, "I wish I was dead—or some one." That conclusion made him smile again.

He decided not to write to Marcia of the change in his affairs, but to take the chance of finding something better before she returned. There was very little time for him to turn round, and he was still without a place or any prospect when she came home. It had sufficed with his acquaintance when he said that he had left the Events because he could not get on with Witherby; but he was very much astonished when it seemed to suffice with her.

"Oh, well," she said, "I am glad of it. You will do better by yourself; and
I know you can earn just as much by writing on the different papers."

Bartley knew better than this, but he said, "Yes, I shall not be in a hurry to take another engagement just yet. But, Marsh," he added, "I was afraid you would blame me,—think I had been reckless, or at fault—"

"No," she answered after a little pause, "I shall not do that any more. I have been thinking all these things over, while I was away from you, and I'm going to do differently, after this. I shall believe that you've acted for the best,—that you've not meant to do wrong in anything,—and I shall never question you or doubt you any more."

"Isn't that giving me rather too much rope?" asked Bartley, with lightness that masked a vague alarm lest the old times of exaction should be coming back with the old times of devotion.

"No; I see where my mistake has always been. I've always asked too much, and expected too much, even when I didn't ask it. Now, I shall be satisfied with what you don't do, as well as what you do."

"I shall try to live up to my privileges," said Bartley, with a sigh of relief. He gave her a kiss, and then he unclasped Kinney's nugget from his watch-chain, and fastened it on the baby's necklace, which lay in a box Marcia had just taken from her trunk. She did not speak; but Bartley felt better to have the thing off him; Marcia's gentleness, the tinge of sadness in her tone, made him long to confess himself wrong in the whole matter, and justly punished by Ricker's contempt and Witherby's dismissal. But he did not believe that he could trust her to forgive him, and he felt himself unable to go through all that without the certainty of her forgiveness.

As she took the things out of her trunk, and laid them away in this drawer and that, she spoke of events in the village, and told who was dead, who was married, and who had gone away. "I stayed longer than I expected, a little, because father seemed to want me to. I don't think mother's so well as she used to be, I—I'm afraid she seems to be failing, somehow."

Her voice dropped to a lower key, and Bartley said, "I'm sorry to hear that. I guess she isn't failing. But of course she's getting on, and every year makes a difference."

"Yes, that must be it," she answered, looking at a bundle of collars she had in her hand, as if absorbed in the question as to where she should put them.

Before they slept that night she asked, "Bartley, did you hear about Hannah
Morrison?"

"No. What about her?"

"She's gone—gone away. The last time she was seen was in Portland. They don't know what's become of her. They say that Henry Bird is about heart-broken; but everybody knows she never cared for him. I hated to write to you about it."

Bartley experienced so disagreeable a sensation that he was silent for a time. Then he gave a short, bitter laugh. "Well, that's what it was bound to come to, sooner or later, I suppose. It's a piece of good luck for Bird."

Bartley went about picking up work from one paper and another, but not securing a basis on any. In that curious and unwholesome leniency which corrupt natures manifest, he and Witherby met at their next encounter on quite amicable terms. Bartley reported some meetings for the Events, and experienced no resentment when Witherby at the office introduced him to the gentleman with whom he had replaced him. Of course Bartley expected that Witherby would insinuate things to his disadvantage, but he did not mind that. He heard of something of the sort being done in Ricker's presence, and of Ricker's saying that in any question of honor and veracity between Witherby and Hubbard he should decide for Hubbard. Bartley was not very grateful for this generous defence; he thought that if Ricker had not been such an ass in the first place there would have been no trouble between them, and Witherby would not have had that handle against him.

He was enjoying himself very well, and he felt entitled to the comparative rest which had not been of his seeking. He wished that Halleck would come back, for he would like to ask his leave to put that money into some other enterprise. His credit was good, and he had not touched the money to pay any of his accumulated bills; he would have considered it dishonorable to do so. But it annoyed him to have the money lying idle. In his leisure he studied the stock market, and he believed that he had several points which were infallible. He put a few hundreds—two or three—of Halleck's money into a mining stock which was so low that it must rise. In the mean time he tried a new kind of beer,—Norwegian beer, which he found a little lighter even than tivoli. It was more expensive, but it was very light, and it was essential to Bartley to drink the lightest beer he could find.

He stayed a good deal at home, now, for he had leisure, and it was a much more comfortable place since Marcia had ceased to question or reproach him. She did not interfere with some bachelor habits he had formed, in her absence, of sleeping far into the forenoon; he now occasionally did night-work on some of the morning papers, and the rest was necessary; he had his breakfast whenever he got up, as if he had been at a hotel. He wondered upon what new theory she was really treating him; but he had always been apt to accept what was comfortable in life without much question, and he did not wonder long. He was immensely good-natured now. In his frequent leisure he went out to walk with Marcia and Flavia, and sometimes he took the little girl alone. He even went to church with them one Sunday, and called at the Hallecks as often as Marcia liked. The young ladies had returned, but Ben Halleck was still away. It made Bartley smile to hear his wife talking of Halleck with his mother and sisters, and falling quite into the family way of regarding him as if he were somehow a saint and martyr.

Bartley was still dabbling in stocks with Halleck's money; some of it had lately gone to pay an assessment which had unexpectedly occurred in place of a dividend. He told Marcia that he was holding the money ready to return to Halleck when he came back, or to put it into some other enterprise where it would help to secure Bartley a new basis. They were now together more than they had been since the first days of their married life in Boston; but the perfect intimacy of those days was gone; he had his reserves, and she her preoccupations,—with the house, with the little girl, with her anxiety about her mother. Sometimes they sat a whole evening together, with almost nothing to say to each other, he reading and she sewing. After an evening of this sort, Bartley felt himself worse bored than if Marcia had spent it in taking him to task as she used to do. Once he looked at her over the top of his paper, and distinctly experienced that he was tired of the whole thing.

But the political canvass was growing more interesting now. It was almost the end of October, and the speech-making had become very lively. The Democrats were hopeful and the Republicans resolute, and both parties were active in getting out their whole strength, as the saying is, at such times. This was done not only by speech-making, but by long nocturnal processions of torch-lights; by day, as well as by night, drums throbbed and horns brayed, and the feverish excitement spread its contagion through the whole population. But it did not affect Bartley. He had cared nothing about the canvass from the beginning, having an equal contempt for the bloody shirt of the Republicans and the reform pretensions of the Democrats. The only thing that he took an interest in was the betting; he laid his wagers with so much apparent science and sagacity that he had a certain following of young men who bet as Hubbard did. Hubbard, they believed, had a long head; he disdained bets of hats, and of barrels of apples, and ordeals by wheelbarrow; he would bet only with people who could put up their money, and his followers honored him for it; when asked where he got his money, being out of place, and no longer instant to do work that fell in his way, they answered from a ready faith that he had made a good thing in mining stocks.

In her heart, Marcia probably did not share this faith. But she faithfully forbore to harass Bartley with her doubts, and on those evenings when he found her such dull company she was silent because if she spoke she must express the trouble in her mind. Women are more apt to theorize their husbands than men in their stupid self-absorption ever realize. When a man is married, his wife almost ceases to be exterior to his consciousness; she afflicts or consoles him like a condition of health or sickness; she is literally part of him in a spiritual sense, even when he is rather indifferent to her; but the most devoted wife has always a corner of her soul in which she thinks of her husband as him; in which she philosophizes him wholly aloof from herself. In such an obscure fastness of her being, Marcia had meditated a great deal upon Bartley during her absence at Equity,—meditated painfully, and in her sort prayerfully, upon him. She perceived that he was not her young dream of him; and since it appeared to her that she could not forego that dream and live, she could but accuse herself of having somehow had a perverse influence upon him. She knew that she had never reproached him except for his good, but she saw too that she had always made him worse, and not better. She recurred to what he said the first night they arrived in Boston: "I believe that, if you have faith in me, I shall get along; and when you don't, I shall go to the bad." She could reason to no other effect, than that hereafter, no matter what happened, she must show perfect faith in him by perfect patience. It was hard, far harder than she had thought. But she did forbear; she did use patience.

The election day came and went. Bartley remained out till the news of
Tilden's success could no longer be doubted, and then came home jubilant.
Marcia seemed not to understand. "I didn't know you cared so much for
Tilden," she said, quietly. "Mr. Halleck is for Hayes; and Ben Halleck was
coming home to vote."

"That's all right: a vote in Massachusetts makes no difference. I'm for Tilden, because I have the most money up on him. The success of that noble old reformer is worth seven hundred dollars to me in bets." Bartley laughed, rubbed her cheeks with his chilly hands, and went down into the cellar for some beer. He could not have slept without that, in his excitement; but he was out very early the next morning, and in the raw damp of the rainy November day he received a more penetrating chill when he saw the bulletins at the newspaper offices intimating that a fair count might give the Republicans enough Southern States to elect Hayes. This appeared to Bartley the most impudent piece of political effrontery in the whole history of the country, and among those who went about denouncing Republican chicanery at the Democratic club-rooms, no one took a loftier tone of moral indignation than he. The thought that he might lose so much of Halleck's money through the machinations of a parcel of carpet-bagging tricksters filled him with a virtue at which he afterwards smiled when he found that people were declaring their bets off. "I laid a wager on the popular result, not on the decision of the Returning Boards," he said in reclaiming his money from the referees. He had some difficulty in getting it back, but he had got it when he walked homeward at night, after having been out all day; and there now ensued in his soul a struggle as to what he should do with this money. He had it all except the three hundred he had ventured on the mining stock, which would eventually he worth everything he had paid for it. After his frightful escape from losing half of it on those bets, he had an intense longing to be rid of it, to give it back to Halleck, who never would ask him for it, and then to go home and tell Marcia everything, and throw himself on her mercy. Better poverty, better disgrace before Halleck and her, better her condemnation, than this life of temptation that he had been leading. He saw how hideous it was in the retrospect, and he shuddered; his good instincts awoke, and put forth their strength, such as it was; tears came into his eyes; he resolved to write to Kinney and exonerate Ricker, he resolved humbly to beg Ricker's pardon. He must leave Boston; but if Marcia would forgive him, he would go back with her to Equity, and take up the study of the law in her father's office again, and fulfil all her wishes. He would have a hard time to overcome the old man's prejudices, but he deserved a hard time, and he knew he should finally succeed. It would be bitter, returning to that stupid little town, and he imagined the intrusive conjecture and sarcastic comment that would attend his return; but he believed that he could live this down, and he trusted himself to laugh it down. He already saw himself there, settled in the Squire's office, reinstated in public opinion, a leading lawyer of the place, with Congress open before him whenever he chose to turn his face that way.

He had thought of going first to Halleck, and returning the money, but he was willing to give himself the encouragement of Marcia's pleasure, of her forgiveness and her praise in an affair that had its difficulties and would require all his manfulness. The maid met him at the door with little Flavia, and told him that Marcia had gone out to the Hallecks', but had left word that she would soon return, and that then they would have supper together. Her absence dashed his warm impulse, but he recovered himself, and took the little one from the maid. He lighted the gas in the parlor, and had a frolic with Flavia in kindling a fire in the grate, and making the room bright and cheerful. He played with the child and made her laugh; he already felt the pleasure of a good conscience, though with a faint nether ache in his heart which was perhaps only his wish to have the disagreeable preliminaries to his better life over as soon as possible. He drew two easy-chairs up at opposite corners of the hearth, and sat down in one, leaving the other for Marcia; he had Flavia standing on his knees, and clinging fast to his fingers, laughing and crowing while he danced her up and down, when he heard the front door open, and Marcia burst into the room.

She ran to him and plucked the child from him, and then went back as far as she could from him in the room, crying, "Give me the child!" and facing him with the look he knew. Her eyes were dilated, and her visage white with the transport that had whirled her far beyond the reach of reason. The frail structure of his good resolutions dropped to ruin at the sight, but he mechanically rose and advanced upon her till she forbade him with a muffled shriek of "Don't touch me! So!" she went on, gasping and catching her breath, "it was you! I might have known it! I might have guessed it from the first! You! Was that the reason why you didn't care to have me hurry home this summer? Was that—was that—" She choked, and convulsively pressed her face into the neck of the child, which began to cry.

Bartley closed the doors, and then, with his hands in his pockets, confronted her with a smile of wicked coolness. "Will you be good enough to tell me what you're talking about?"

"Do you pretend that you don't know? I met a woman at the bottom of the street just now. Do you know who?"

"No; but it's very dramatic. Go on!"

"It was Hannah Morrison! She reeled against me; and when I—such a fool as I was!—pitied her, because I was on my way home to you, and was thinking about you and loving you, and was so happy in it, and asked her how she came to that, she struck me, and told me to—to—ask my—husband!"

The transport broke in tears; the denunciation had turned to entreaty in everything but words; but Bartley had hardened his heart now past all entreaty. The idiotic penitent that he had been a few moments ago, the soft, well-meaning dolt, was so far from him now as to be scarce within the reach of his contempt. He was going to have this thing over once for all; he would have no mercy upon himself or upon her; the Devil was in him, and uppermost in him, and the Devil is fierce and proud, and knows how to make many base emotions feel like a just self-respect. "And did you believe a woman like that?" he sneered.

"Do I believe a man like this?" she demanded, with a dying flash of her fury. "You—you don't dare to deny it."

"Oh, no, I don't deny it. For one reason, it would be of no use. For all practical purposes, I admit it. What then?"

"What then?" she asked, bewildered. "Bartley; You don't mean it!"

"Yes, I do. I mean it. I don't deny it. What then? What are you going to do about it?" She gazed at him in incredulous horror. "Come! I mean what I say. What will you do?"

"Oh, merciful God! what shall I do?" she prayed aloud.

"That's just what I'm curious to know. When you leaped in here, just now, you must have meant to do something, if I couldn't convince you that the woman was lying. Well, you see that I don't try. I give you leave to believe whatever she said. What then?"

"Bartley!" she besought him in her despair. "Do you drive me from you?"

"Oh, no, certainly not. That isn't my way. You have driven me from you, and I might claim the right to retaliate, but I don't. I've no expectation that you'll go away, and I want to see what else you'll do. You would have me, before we were married; you were tolerably shameless in getting me; when your jealous temper made you throw me away, you couldn't live till you got me back again; you ran after me. Well, I suppose you've learnt wisdom, now. At least you won't try that game again. But what will you do?" He looked at her smiling, while he dealt her these stabs one by one.

She set down the child, and went out to the entry where its hat and cloak hung. She had not taken off her own things, and now she began to put on the little one's garments with shaking hands, kneeling before it. "I will never live with you again, Bartley," she said.

"Very well. I doubt it, as far as you're concerned; but if you go away now, you certainly won't live with me again, for I shall not let you come back. Understand that."

Each had most need of the other's mercy, but neither would have mercy.

"It isn't for what you won't deny. I don't believe that. It's for what you've said now." She could not make the buttons and the button-holes of the child's sack meet with her quivering fingers; he actually stooped down and buttoned the little garment for her, as if they had been going to take the child out for a walk between them. She caught it up in her arms, and, sobbing "Good by, Bartley!" ran out of the room.

"Recollect that if you go, you don't come back," he said. The outer door crashing to behind her was his answer.

He sat down to think, before the fire he had built for her. It was blazing brightly now, and the whole room had a hideous cosiness. He could not think, he must act. He went up to their room, where the gas was burning low, as if she had lighted it and then frugally turned it down as her wont was. He did not know what his purpose was, but it developed itself. He began to pack his things in a travelling-bag which he took out of the closet, and which he had bought for her when she set out for Equity in the summer; it had the perfume of her dresses yet.

When this was finished, he went down stairs again and being now strangely hungry he made a meal of such things as he found set out on the tea-table. Then he went over the papers in his secretary; he burnt some of them, and put others into his bag.

After all this was done he sat down by the fire again, and gave Marcia a quarter of an hour longer in which to return. He did not know whether he was afraid that she would or would not come. But when the time ended, he took up his bag and went out of the house. It began to rain, and he went back for an umbrella: he gave her that one chance more, and he ran up into their room. But she had not come back. He went out again, and hurried away through the rain to the Albany Depot, where he bought a ticket for Chicago. There was as yet nothing definite in his purpose, beyond the fact that he was to be rid of her: whether for a long or short time, or forever, he did not yet know; whether he meant ever to communicate with her, or seek or suffer a reconciliation, the locomotive that leaped westward into the dark with him knew as well as he.

Yet all the mute, obscure forces of habit, which are doubtless the strongest forces in human nature, were dragging him back to her. Because their lives had been united so long, it seemed impossible to sever them, though their union had been so full of misery and discord; the custom of marriage was so subtile and so pervasive, that his heart demanded her sympathy for what he was suffering in abandoning her. The solitude into which he had plunged stretched before him so vast, so sterile and hopeless, that he had not the courage to realize it; he insensibly began to give it limits: he would return after so many months, weeks, days.

He passed twenty-four hours on the train, and left it at Cleveland for the half-hour it stopped for supper. But he could not eat; he had to own to himself that he was beaten, and that he must return, or throw himself into the lake. He ran hastily to the baggage-car, and effected the removal of his bag; then he went to the ticket-office, and waited at the end of a long queue for his turn at the window. His turn came at last, and he confronted the nervous and impatient ticket-agent, without speaking.

"Well, sir, what do you want?" demanded the agent. Then, with rising temper, "What is it? Are you deaf? Are you dumb? You can't expect to stand there all night!"

The policeman outside the rail laid his hand on Bartley's shoulder: "Move on, my friend."

He obeyed, and reeled away in a fashion that confirmed the policeman's suspicions. He searched his pockets again and again; but his porte-monnaie was in none of them. It had been stolen, and Halleck's money with the rest. Now he could not return; nothing remained for him but the ruin he had chosen.

William Dean Howells