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Chapter 33

XXXIII.

Halleck met Atherton at the door of his room with his hat and coat on.
"Why, Halleck! I was just going to see if you had come home!"

"You needn't now," said Halleck, pushing by him into the room. "I want to see you, Atherton, on business."

Atherton took off his hat, and closed the door with one hand, while he slipped the other arm out of his overcoat sleeve. "Well, to tell the truth, I was going to mingle a little business myself with the pleasure of seeing you." He turned up the gas in his drop-light, and took the chair from which he had looked across the table at Halleck, when they talked there before. "It's the old subject," he said, with a sense of repetition in the situation. "I learn from Witherby that Hubbard has taken that money of yours out of the Events, and from what I hear elsewhere he is making ducks and drakes of it on election bets. What shall you do about it?"

"Nothing," said Halleck.

"Oh! Very well," returned Atherton, with the effect of being a little snubbed, but resolved to take his snub professionally. He broke out, however, in friendly exasperation: "Why in the world did you lend the fellow that money?"

Halleck lifted his brooding eyes, and fixed them half pleadingly, half defiantly upon his friend's face. "I did it for his wife's sake."

"Yes, I know," returned Atherton. "I remember how you felt. I couldn't share your feeling, but I respected it. However, I doubt if your loan was a benefit to either of them. It probably tempted him to count upon money that he hadn't earned, and that's always corrupting."

"Yes," Halleck replied. "But I can't say that, so far as he's concerned, I'm very sorry. I don't suppose it would do her any good if I forced him to disgorge any balance he may have left from his wagers?"

"No, hardly."

"Then I shall let him alone."

The subject was dismissed, and Atherton waited for Halleck to speak of the business on which he had come. But Halleck only played with the paper cutter which his left hand had found on the table near him, and, with his chin sunk on his breast, seemed lost in an unhappy reverie.

"I hope you won't accuse yourself of doing him an injury," said Atherton, at last, with a smile.

"Injury?" demanded Halleck, quickly. "What injury? How?"

"By lending him that money."

"Oh! I had forgotten that; I wasn't thinking of it," returned Halleck impatiently. "I was thinking of something different. I'm aware of disliking the man so much, that I should be willing to have greater harm than that happen to him,—the greatest, for what I know. Though I don't know, after all, that it would be harm. In another life, if there is one, he might start in a new direction; but that isn't imaginable of him here; he can only go from bad to worse; he can only make more and more sorrow and shame. Why shouldn't one wish him dead, when his death could do nothing but good?"

"I suppose you don't expect me to answer such a question seriously."

"But suppose I did?"

"Then I should say that no man ever wished any such good as that, except from the worst motive; and the less one has to do with such questions, even as abstractions, the better."

"You're right," said Halleck. "But why do you call it an abstraction?"

"Because, in your case, nothing else is conceivable."

"I told you I was willing the worst should happen to him."

"And I didn't believe you."

Halleck lay back in his chair, and laughed wearily. "I wish I could convince somebody of my wickedness. But it seems to be useless to try. I say things that ought to raise the roof, both to you here and to Olive at home, and you tell me you don't believe me, and she tells me that Mrs. Hubbard thinks me a saint. I suppose now, that if I took you by the button-hole and informed you confidentially that I had stopped long enough at 129 Clover Street to put Bartley Hubbard quietly out of the way, you wouldn't send for a policeman."

"I should send for a doctor," said Atherton.

"Such is the effect of character! And yet out of the fulness of the heart, the mouth speaketh. Out of the heart proceed all those unpleasant things enumerated in Scripture; but if you bottle them up there, and keep your label fresh, it's all that's required of you, by your fellow-beings, at least. What an amusing thing morality would be if it were not—otherwise. Atherton, do you believe that such a man as Christ ever lived?"

"I know you do, Halleck," said Atherton.

"Well, that depends upon what you call me. It what I was—if my well Sunday-schooled youth—is I, I do. But if I, poising dubiously on the momentary present, between the past and future, am I, I'm afraid I don't. And yet it seems to me that I have a fairish sort of faith. I know that, if Christ never lived on earth, some One lived who imagined him, and that One must have been a God. The historical fact oughtn't to matter. Christ being imagined, can't you see what a comfort, what a rapture, it must have been to all these poor souls to come into such a presence and be looked through and through? The relief, the rest, the complete exposure of Judgment Day—"

"Every day is Judgment Day," said Atherton.

"Yes, I know your doctrine. But I mean the Last Day. We ought to have something in anticipation of it, here, in our social system. Character is a superstition, a wretched fetish. Once a year wouldn't be too often to seize upon sinners whose blameless life has placed them above suspicion, and turn them inside out before the community, so as to show people how the smoke of the Pit had been quietly blackening their interior. That would destroy character as a cult." He laughed again. "Well, this isn't business,—though it isn't pleasure, either, exactly. What I came for was to ask you something. I've finished at the Law School, and I'm just ready to begin here in the office with you. Don't you think it would be a good time for me to give up the law? Wait a moment!" he said, arresting in Atherton an impulse to speak. "We will take the decent surprise, the friendly demur, the conscientious scruple, for granted. Now, honestly, do you believe I've got the making of a lawyer in me?"

"I don't think you're very well, Halleck," Atherton began.

"Ah, you're a lawyer! You won't give me a direct answer!"

"I will if you wish," retorted Atherton.

"Well."

"Do you want to give it up?"

"Yes."

"Then do it. No man ever prospered in it yet who wanted to leave it. And now, since it's come to this, I'll tell you what I really have thought, all along. I've thought that, if your heart was really set on the law, you would overcome your natural disadvantages for it; but if the time ever came when you were tired of it, your chance was lost: you never would make a lawyer. The question is, whether that time has come."

"It has," said Halleck.

"Then stop, here and now. You've wasted two years' time, but you can't get it back by throwing more after it. I shouldn't be your friend, I shouldn't be an honest man, if I let you go on with me, after this. A bad lawyer is such a very bad thing. This isn't altogether a surprise to me, but it will be a blow to your father," he added, with a questioning look at Halleck, after a moment.

"It might have been, if I hadn't taken the precaution to deaden the place by a heavier blow first."

"Ah! you've spoken to him already?"

"Yes, I've had it out in a sneaking, hypothetical way. But I could see that, so far as the law was concerned it was enough; it served. Not that he's consented to the other thing; there's where I shall need your help, Atherton. I'll tell you what my plan is." He stated it bluntly at first; and then went over the ground and explained it fully, as he had done at home. Atherton listened without permitting any sign of surprise to escape him; but he listened with increasing gravity, as if he heard something not expressed in Halleck's slow, somewhat nasal monotone, and at the end he said, "I approve of any plan that will take you away for a while. Yes, I'll speak to your father about it."

"If you think you need any conviction, I could use arguments to bring it about in you," said Halleck, in recognition of his friend's ready concurrence.

"No, I don't need any arguments to convince me, I believe," returned
Atherton.

"Then I wish you'd say something to bring me round! Unless argument is used by somebody, the plan always produces a cold chill in me." Halleck smiled, but Atherton kept a sober face. "I wish my Spanish American was here! What makes you think it's a good plan? Why should I disappoint my father's hopes again, and wring my mother's heart by proposing to leave them for any such uncertain good as this scheme promises?" He still challenged his friend with a jesting air, but a deeper and stronger feeling of some sort trembled in his voice.

Atherton would not reply to his emotion; he answered, with obvious evasion:
"It's a good cause; in some sort—the best sort—it's a missionary work."

"That's what my mother said to me."

"And the change will be good for your health."

"That's what I said to my mother!"

Atherton remained silent, waiting apparently for Halleck to continue, or to end the matter there, as he chose.

It was some moments before Halleck went on; "You would say, wouldn't you, that my first duty was to my own undertakings, and to those who had a right to expect their fulfilment from me? You would say that it was an enormity to tear myself away from the affection that clings to me in that home of mine, yonder, and that nothing but some supreme motive, could justify me? And yet you pretend to be satisfied with the reasons I've given you. You're not dealing honestly with me, Atherton!"

"No," said Atherton, keeping the same scrutiny of Halleck's face which he had bent upon him throughout, but seeming now to hear his thoughts rather than his words. "I knew that you would have some supreme motive; and if I have pretended to approve your scheme on the reasons you have given me, I haven't dealt honestly with you. But perhaps a little dishonesty is the best thing under the circumstances. You haven't told me your real motive, and I can't ask it"

"But you imagine it?"

"Yes."

"And what do you imagine? That I have been disappointed in love? That I have been rejected? That the girl who had accepted me has broken her engagement? Something of that sort?" demanded Halleck, scornfully.

Atherton did not answer.

"Oh, how far you are from the truth! How blest and proud and happy I should be if it were the truth!" He looked into his friend's eyes, and added bitterly: "You're not curious, Atherton; you don't ask me what my trouble really is! Do you wish me to tell you what it is without asking?"

Atherton kept turning a pencil end for end between his fingers, while a compassionate smile slightly curved his lips. "No," he said, finally, "I think you had better not tell me your trouble. I can believe very well without knowing it that it's serious—"

"Oh, tragic!" said Halleck, self-contemptuously.

"But I doubt if it would help you to tell it. I've too much respect for your good sense to suppose that it's an unreality; and I suspect that confession would only weaken you. If you told me, you would feel that you had made me a partner in your responsibility, and you would be tempted to leave the struggle to me. If you're battling with some temptation, some self-betrayal, you must make the fight alone: you would only turn to an ally to be flattered into disbelief of your danger or your culpability."

Halleck assented with a slight nod to each point that the lawyer made. "You're right," he said, "but a man of your subtlety can't pretend that he doesn't know what the trouble is in such a simple case as mine."

"I don't know anything certainly," returned Atherton, "and as far as I can I refuse to imagine anything. If your trouble concerns some one besides yourself,—and no great trouble can concern one man alone,—you've no right to tell it."

"Another Daniel come to judgment!"

"You must trust to your principles, your self-respect, to keep you right—"

Halleck burst into a harsh laugh, and rose from his chair: "Ah, there you abdicate the judicial function! Principles, self-respect! Against that? Don't you suppose I was approached through my principles and self-respect? Why, the Devil always takes a man on the very highest plane. He knows all about our principles and self-respect, and what they're made of. How the noblest and purest attributes of our nature, with which we trap each other so easily, must amuse him! Pity, rectitude, moral indignation, a blameless life,—he knows that they're all instruments for him. No, sir! No more principles and self-respect for me,—I've had enough of them; there's nothing for me but to run, and that's what I'm going to do. But you're quite right about the other thing, Atherton, and I give you a beggar's thanks for telling me that my trouble isn't mine alone, and I've no right to confide it to you. It is mine in the sense that no other soul is defiled with the knowledge of it, and I'm glad you saved me from the ghastly profanation, the sacrilege, of telling it. I was sneaking round for your sympathy; I did want somehow to shift the responsibility on to you; to get you—God help me!—to flatter me out of my wholesome fear and contempt of myself. Well! That's past, now, and—Good night!" He abruptly turned away from Atherton and swung himself on his cane toward the door.

Atherton took up his hat and coat. "I'll walk home with you," he said.

"All right," returned Halleck, listlessly.

"How soon shall you go?" asked the lawyer, when they were in the street.

"Oh, there's a ship sailing from New York next week," said Halleck, in the same tone of weary indifference. "I shall go in that."

They talked desultorily of other things.

When they came to the foot of Clover Street, Halleck plucked his hand out of Atherton's arm. "I'm going up through here!" he said, with sullen obstinacy.

"Better not," returned his friend, quietly.

"Will it hurt her if I stop to look at the outside of the house where she lives?"

"It will hurt you," said Atherton.

"I don't wish to spare myself!" retorted Halleck. He shook off the touch that Atherton had laid upon his shoulder, and started up the hill; the other overtook him, and, like a man who has attempted to rule a drunkard by thwarting his freak, and then hopes to accomplish his end by humoring it, he passed his arm through Halleck's again, and went with him. But when they came to the house, Halleck did not stop; he did not even look at it; but Atherton felt the deep shudder that passed through him.

In the week that followed, they met daily, and Halleck's broken pride no longer stayed him from the shame of open self-pity and wavering purpose. Atherton found it easier to persuade the clinging reluctance of the father and mother, than to keep Halleck's resolution for him: Halleck could no longer keep it for himself. "Not much like the behavior of people we read of in similar circumstances," he said once. "They never falter when they see the path of duty: they push forward without looking to either hand; or else," he added, with a hollow laugh at his own satire, "they turn their backs on it,—like men! Well!"

He grew gaunt and visibly feeble. In this struggle the two men changed places. The plan for Halleck's flight was no longer his own, but Atherton's; and when he did not rebel against it, he only passively acquiesced. The decent pretence of ignorance on Atherton's part necessarily disappeared: in all but words the trouble stood openly confessed between them, and it came to Atherton's saying, in one of Halleck's lapses of purpose, from which it had required all the other's strength to lift him: "Don't come to me any more, Halleck, with the hope that I shall somehow justify your evil against your good. I pitied you at first; but I blame you now."

"You're atrocious," said Halleck, with a puzzled, baffled look. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you secretly think you have somehow come by your evil virtuously; and you want me to persuade you that it is different from other evils of exactly the same kind,—that it is beautiful and sweet and pitiable, and not ugly as hell and bitter as death, to be torn out of you mercilessly and flung from you with abhorrence. Well, I tell you that you are suffering guiltily, for no man suffers innocently from such a cause. You must go, and you can't go too soon. Don't suppose that I find anything noble in your position. I should do you a great wrong if I didn't do all I could to help you realize that you're in disgrace, and that you're only making a choice of shames in running away. Suppose the truth was known,—suppose that those who hold you dear could be persuaded of it,—could you hold up your head?"

"Do I hold up my head as it is?" asked Halleck. "Did you ever see a more abject dog than I am at this moment? Your wounds are faithful, Atherton; but perhaps you might have spared me this last stab. If you want to know, I can assure you that I don't feel any melodramatic vainglory. I know that I'm running away because I'm beaten, but no other man can know the battle I've fought. Don't you suppose I know how hideous this thing is? No one else can know it in all its ugliness!" He covered his face with his hands. "You are right," he said, when he could find his voice. "I suffer guiltily. I must have known it when I seemed to be suffering for pity's sake; I knew it before, and when you said that love without marriage was a worse hell than any marriage without love, you left me without refuge: I had been trying not to face the truth, but I had to face it then. I came away in hell, and I have lived in hell ever since. I had tried to think it was a crazy fancy, and put it on my failing health; I used to make believe that some morning I should wake and find the illusion gone. I abhorred it from the beginning as I do now; it has been torment to me; and yet somewhere in my lost soul—the blackest depth, I dare say!—this shame has been so sweet,—it is so sweet,—the one sweetness of life—Ah!" He dashed the weak tears from his eyes, and rose and buttoned his coat about him. "Well, I shall go. And I hope I shall never come back. Though you needn't mention this to my father as an argument for my going when you talk me over with him," he added, with a glimmer of his wonted irony. He waited a moment, and then turned upon his friend, in sad upbraiding: "When I came to you a year and a half ago, after I had taken that ruffian home drunk to her—Why didn't you warn me then, Atherton? Did you see any danger?"

Atherton hesitated: "I knew that, with your habit of suffering for other people, it would make you miserable; but I couldn't have dreamed this would come of it. But you've never been out of your own keeping for a moment. You are responsible, and you are to blame if you are suffering now, and can find no safety for yourself but in running away."

"That's true," said Halleck, very humbly, "and I won't trouble you any more. I can't go on sinning against her belief in me here, and live. I shall go on sinning against it there, as long as I live; but it seems to me the harm will be a little less. Yes, I will go."

But the night before he went, he came to Atherton's lodging to tell him that he should not go; Atherton was not at home, and Halleck was spared this last dishonor. He returned to his father's house through the rain that was beginning to fall lightly, and as he let himself in with his key Olive's voice said, "It's Ben!" and at the same time she laid her hand upon his arm with a nervous, warning clutch. "Hush! Come in here!" She drew him from the dimly lighted hall into the little reception-room near the door. The gas was burning brighter there, and in the light he saw Marcia white and still, where she sat holding her baby in her arms. They exchanged no greeting: it was apparent that her being there transcended all usage, and that they need observe none.

"Ben will go home with you," said Olive, soothingly. "Is it raining?" she asked, looking at her brother's coat. "I will get my water-proof."

She left them a moment. "I have been—been walking—walking about," Marcia panted. "It has got so dark—I'm—afraid to go home. I hate to—take you from them—the last—night."

Halleck answered nothing; he sat staring at her till Olive came back with the water-proof and an umbrella. Then, while his sister was putting the waterproof over Marcia's shoulders, he said, "Let me take the little one," and gathered it, with or without her consent, from her arms into his. The baby was sleeping; it nestled warmly against him with a luxurious quiver under the shawl that Olive threw round it. "You can carry the umbrella," he said to Marcia.

They walked fast, when they got out into the rainy dark, and it was hard to shelter Halleck as he limped rapidly on. Marcia ran forward once, to see if her baby were safely kept from the wet, and found that Halleck had its little face pressed close between his neck and cheek. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I'm looking out for it."

His voice sounded broken and strange, and neither of them spoke again till they came in sight of Marcia's door. Then she tried to stop him. She put her hand on his shoulder. "Oh, I'm afraid—afraid to go in," she pleaded.

He halted, and they stood confronted in the light of a street lamp; her face was twisted with weeping. "Why are you afraid?" he demanded, harshly.

"We had a quarrel, and I—I ran away—I said that I would never come back.
I left him—"

"You must go back to him," said Halleck. "He's your husband!" He pushed on again, saying over and over, as if the words were some spell in which he found safety, "You must go back, you must go back, you must go back!"

He dragged her with him now, for she hung helpless on his arm, which she had seized, and moaned to herself. At the threshold, "I can't go in!" she broke out. "I'm afraid to go in! What will he say? What will he do? Oh, come in with me! You are good,—and then I shall not be afraid!"

"You must go in alone! No man can be your refuge from your husband! Here!" He released himself, and, kissing the warm little face of the sleeping child, he pressed it into her arms. His fingers touched hers under the shawl; he tore his hand away with a shiver.

She stood a moment looking at the closed door; then she flung it open, and, pausing as if to gather her strength, vanished into the brightness within.

He turned, and ran crookedly down the street, wavering from side to side in his lameness, and flinging up his arms to save himself from falling as he ran, with a gesture that was like a wild and hopeless appeal.

William Dean Howells