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Chapter 32

XXXII.

Halleck prolonged his summer vacation beyond the end of October. He had been in town from time to time and then had set off again on some new absence; he was so restless and so far from well during the last of these flying visits, that the old people were glad when he wrote them that he should stay as long as the fine weather continued. He spoke of an interesting man whom he had met at the mountain resort where he was staying; a Spanish-American, attached to one of the Legations at Washington, who had a scheme for Americanizing popular education in his own country. "He has made a regular set at me," Halleck wrote, "and if I had not fooled away so much time already on law and on leather, I should like to fool away a little more on such a cause as this." He did not mention the matter again in his letters; but the first night after his return, when they all sat together in the comfort of having him at home again, he asked his father, "What should you think of my going to South America?"

The old man started up from the pleasant after-supper drowse into which he was suffering himself to fall, content with Halleck's presence, and willing to leave the talk to the women folk. "I don't know what you mean, Ben?"

"I suppose it's my having the matter so much in mind that makes me feel as if we had talked it over. I mentioned it in one of my letters."

"Yes," returned his father; "but I presumed you were joking."

Halleck frowned impatiently; he would not meet the gaze of his mother and sisters, but he addressed himself again to his father. "I don't know that I was in earnest." His mother dropped her eyes to her mending, with a faint sigh of relief. "But I can't say," he added, "that I was joking, exactly. The man himself was very serious about it." He stopped, apparently to govern an irritable impulse, and then he went on to set the project of his Spanish-American acquaintance before them, explaining it in detail.

At the end, "That's good," said his father, "but why need you have gone,
Ben?"

The question seemed to vex Halleck; he did not answer at once. His mother could not bear to see him crossed, and she came to his help against herself and his father, since it was only supposing the case. "I presume," she said, "that we could have looked at it as a missionary work."

"It isn't a missionary work, mother," answered Halleck, severely, "in any sense that you mean. I should go down there to teach, and I should be paid for it. And I want to say at once that they have no yellow-fever nor earthquakes, and that they have not had a revolution for six years. The country's perfectly safe every way, and so wholesome that it will be a good thing for me. But I shouldn't expect to convert anybody."

"Of course not, Ben," said his mother, soothingly.

"I hope you wouldn't object to it if it were a missionary work," said one of the elder sisters.

"No, Anna," returned Ben.

"I merely wanted to know," said Anna.

"Then I hope you're satisfied, Anna," Olive cut in. "Ben won't refuse to convert the Uruguayans if they apply in a proper spirit."

"I think Anna had a right to ask," said Miss Louisa, the eldest.

"Oh, undoubtedly, Miss Halleck," said Olive. "I like to see Ben reproved for misbehavior to his mother, myself."

Her father laughed at Olive's prompt defence. "Well, it's a cause that we've all got to respect; but I don't see why you should go, Ben, as I said before. It would do very well for some young fellow who had no settled prospects, but you've got your duties here. I presume you looked at it in that light. As you said in your letter, you've fooled away so much time on leather and law—"

"I shall never amount to anything in the law!" Ben broke out. His mother looked at him in anxiety; his father kept a steady smile on his face; Olive sat alert for any chance that offered to put down her elder sisters, who drew in their breath, and grew silently a little primmer. "I'm not well—"

"Oh, I know you're not, dear," interrupted his mother, glad of another chance to abet him.

"I'm not strong enough to go on with the line of work I've marked out, and
I feel that I'm throwing away the feeble powers I have."

His father answered with less surprise than Halleck had evidently expected, for he had thrown out his words with a sort of defiance; probably the old man had watched him closely enough to surmise that it might come to this with him at last. At any rate, he was able to say, without seeming to assent too readily, "Well, well, give up the law, then, and come back into leather, as you call it. Or take up something else. We don't wish to make anything a burden to you; but take up some useful work at home. There are plenty of things to be done."

"Not for me," said Halleck, gloomily.

"Oh, yes, there are," said the old man.

"I see you are not willing to have me go," said Halleck, rising in uncontrollable irritation. "But I wish you wouldn't all take this tone with me!"

"We haven't taken any tone with you, Ben," said his mother, with pleading tenderness.

"I think Anna has decidedly taken a tone," said Olive.

Anna did not retort, but "What tone?" demanded Louisa, in her behalf.

"Hush, children," said their mother.

"Well, well," suggested his father to Ben. "Think it over, think it over.
There's no hurry."

"I've thought it over; there is hurry," retorted Halleck. "If I go, I must go at once."

His mother arrested her thread, half drawn through the seam, letting her hand drop, while she glanced at him.

"It isn't so much a question of your giving up the law, Ben, as of your giving up your family and going so far away from us all," said his father. "That's what I shouldn't like."

"I don't like that, either. But I can't help it." He added, "Of course, mother, I shall not go without your full and free consent. You and father must settle it between you." He fetched a quick, worried sigh as he put his hand on the door.

"Ben isn't himself at all," said Mrs. Halleck, with tears in her eyes, after he had left the room.

"No," said her husband. "He's restless. He'll get over this idea in a few days." He urged this hope against his wife's despair, and argued himself into low spirits.

"I don't believe but what it would be the best thing for his health, may be," said Mrs. Halleck, at the end.

"I've always had my doubts whether he would ever come to anything in the law," said the father.

The elder sisters discussed Halleck's project apart between themselves, as their wont was with any family interest, and they bent over a map of South America, so as to hide what they were doing from their mother.

Olive had left the room by another door, and she intercepted Halleck before he reached his own.

"What is the matter, Ben?" she whispered.

"Nothing," he answered, coldly. But he added, "Come in, Olive."

She followed him, and hovered near after he turned up the gas.

"I can't stand it here, I must go," he said, turning a dull, weary look upon her.

"Who was at the Elm House that you knew this last time?" she asked, quickly.

"Laura Dixmore isn't driving me away, if you mean that," replied Halleck.

"I couldn't believe it was she! I should have despised you if it was. But
I shall hate her, whoever it was."

Halleck sat down before his table, and his sister sank upon the corner of a chair near it, and looked wistfully at him. "I know there is some one!"

"If you think I've been fool enough to offer myself to any one, Olive, you're very much mistaken."

"Oh, it needn't have come to that," said Olive, with indignant pity.

"My life's a failure here," cried Halleck, moving his head uneasily from side to side. "I feel somehow as if I could go out there and pick up the time I've lost. Great Heaven!" he cried, "if I were only running away from some innocent young girl's rejection, what a happy man I should be!"

"It's some horrid married thing, then, that's been flirting with you!"

He gave a forlorn laugh. "I'd almost confess it to please you, Olive. But I'd prefer to get out of the matter without lying, if I could. Why need you suppose any reason but the sufficient one I've given?—Don't afflict me! don't imagine things about me, don't make a mystery of me! I've been blunt and awkward, and I've bungled the business with father and mother; but I want to get away because I'm a miserable fraud here, and I think I might rub on a good while there before I found myself out again."

"Ben," demanded Olive, regardless of his words, "what have you been doing?"

"The old story,—nothing."

"Is that true, Ben?"

"You used to be satisfied with asking once, Olive."

"You haven't been so wicked, so careless, as to get some poor creature in love with, you, and then want to run away from the misery you've made?"

"I suppose if I look it there's no use denying it," said Halleck, letting his sad eyes meet hers, and smiling drearily. "You insist upon having a lady in the case?"

"Yes. But I see you won't tell me anything; and I won't afflict you. Only I'm afraid it's just some silly thing, that you've got to brooding over, and that you'll let drive you away."

"Well, you have the comfort of reflecting that I can't get away, whatever the pressure is."

"You know better than that, Ben; and so do I. You know that, if you haven't got father and mother's consent already, it's only because you haven't had the heart to ask for it. As far as that's concerned, you're gone already. But I hope you won't go without thinking it over, as father says,—and talking it over. I hate to have you seem unsteady and fickle-minded, when I know you're not; and I'm going to set myself against this project till I know what's driving you from us,—or till I'm sure that it's something worth while. You needn't expect that I shall help to make it easy for you; I shall help to make it hard."

Her loving looks belied her threats; if the others could not resist Ben when any sort of desire showed itself through his habitual listlessness, how could she, who understood him best and sympathized with him most? "There was something I was going to talk to you about, to-night, if you hadn't scared us all with this ridiculous scheme, and ask you whether you couldn't do something." She seemed to suggest the change of interest with the hope of winning his thoughts away from the direction they had taken; but he listened apathetically, and left her to go further or not as she chose. "I think," she added abruptly, "that some trouble is hanging over those wretched Hubbards."

"Some new one?" asked Halleck, with sad sarcasm, turning his eyes towards her, as if with the resolution of facing her.

"You know he's left his place on that newspaper."

"Yes, I heard that when I was at home before."

"There are some very disagreeable stories about it. They say he was turned away by Mr. Witherby for behaving badly,—for printing something he oughtn't to have done."

"That was to have been expected," said Halleck.

"He hasn't found any other place, and Marcia says he gets very little work to do. He must be running into debt, terribly. I feel very anxious about them. I don't know what they're living on."

"Probably on some money I lent him," said Halleck, quietly. "I lent him fifteen hundred in the spring. It ought to make him quite comfortable for the present."

"Oh, Ben! Why did you lend him money? You might have known he wouldn't do any good with it."

Halleck explained how and why the loan had been made, and added: "If he's supporting his family with it, he's doing some good. I lent it to him for her sake."

Halleck looked hardily into his sister's face, but he dropped his eyes when she answered, simply: "Yes, of course. But I don't believe she knows anything about it; and I'm glad of it: it would only add to her trouble. She worships you, Ben!"

"Does she?"

"She seems to think you are perfect, and she never comes here but she asks when you're to be home. I suppose she thinks you have a good influence on that miserable husband of hers. He's going from bad to worse, I guess. Father heard that he is betting on the election. That's what he's doing with your money."

"It would be somebody else's money if it wasn't mine," said Halleck. "Bartley Hubbard must live, and he must have the little excitements that make life agreeable."

"Poor thing!" sighed Olive, "I don't know what she would do if she heard that you were going away. To hear her talk, you would think she had been counting the days and hours till you got back. It's ridiculous, the way she goes on with mother; asking everything about you, as if she expected to make Bartley Hubbard over again on your pattern. I should hate to have anybody think me such a saint as she does you. But there isn't much danger, thank goodness! I could laugh, sometimes, at the way she questions us all about you, and is so delighted when she finds that you and that wretch have anything in common. But it's all too miserably sad. She certainly is the most single-hearted creature alive," continued Olive, reflectively. "Sometimes she scares me with her innocence. I don't believe that even her jealousy ever suggested a wicked idea to her: she's furious because she feels the injustice of giving so much more than he does. She hasn't really a thought for anybody else: I do believe that if she were free to choose from now till doomsday she would always choose Bartley Hubbard, bad as she knows him to be. And if she were a widow, and anybody else proposed to her, she would be utterly shocked and astonished."

"Very likely," said Halleck, absently.

"I feel very unhappy about her," Olive resumed. I know that she's anxious and troubled all the time. Can't you do something, Ben? Have a talk with that disgusting thing, and see if you can't put him straight again, somehow?"

"No!" exclaimed Halleck, bursting violently from his abstraction. "I shall have nothing to do with them! Let him go his own way and the sooner he goes to the—I won't interfere,—I can't, I mustn't! I wonder at you, Olive!" He pushed away from the table, and went limping about the room, searching here and there for his hat and stick, which were on the desk where he had put them, in plain view. As he laid hand on them at last, he met his sister's astonished eyes. "If I interfered, I should not interfere because I cared for him at all!" he cried.

"Of course not," said Olive. "But I don't see anything to make you wonder at me about that."

"It would be because I cared for her—"

"Certainly! You didn't suppose I expected you to interfere from any other motive?"

He stood looking at her in stupefaction, with his hand on his hat and stick, like a man who doubts whether he has heard aright. Presently a shiver passed over him, another light came into his eyes, and he said quietly, "I'm going out to see Atherton."

"To-night?" said his sister, accepting provisionally, as women do, the apparent change of subject. "Don't go to-night, Ben! You're too tired."

"I'm not tired. I intended to see him to-night, at any rate. I want to talk over this South American scheme with him." He put on his hat, and moved quickly toward the door.

"Ask him about the Hubbards," said Olive. "Perhaps he can tell you something."

"I don't want to know anything. I shall ask him nothing."

She slipped between him and the door. "Ben, you haven't heard anything against poor Marcia, have you?"

"No!"

"You don't think she's to blame in any way for his going wrong, do you?

"How could I?"

"Then I don't understand why you won't do anything to help her."

He looked at her again, and opened his lips to speak once, but closed them before he said, "I've got my own affairs to worry me. Isn't that reason enough for not interfering in theirs?"

"Not for you, Ben."

"Then I don't choose to mix myself up in other people's misery. I don't like it, as you once said."

"But you can't help it sometimes, as you said."

"I can this time, Olive. Don't you see,—" he began.

"I see there's something you won't tell me. But I shall find it out." She threatened him half playfully.

"I wish you could," he answered. "Then perhaps you'd let me know." She opened the door for him now, and as he passed out he said gently, "I am tired, but I sha'n't begin to rest till I have had this talk with Atherton. I had better go."

"Yes," Olive assented, "you'd better." She added in banter, "You're altogether too mysterious to be of much comfort at home."

The family heard him close the outside door behind him after Olive came back to them, and she explained, "He's gone out to talk it over with Mr. Atherton."

His father gave a laugh of relief. "Well, if he leaves it to Atherton, I guess we needn't worry about it."

"The child isn't at all well," said his mother.

William Dean Howells