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Chapter 34

XXXIV.

Marcia pushed into the room where she had left Bartley. She had no escape from her fate; she must meet it, whatever it was. The room was empty, and she began doggedly to search the house for him, up stairs and down, carrying the child with her. She would not have been afraid now to call him; but she had no voice, and she could not ask the servant anything when she looked into the kitchen. She saw the traces of the meal he had made in the dining-room, and when she went a second time to their chamber to lay the little girl down in her crib, she saw the drawers pulled open, and the things as he had tossed them about in packing his bag. She looked at the clock on the mantel—an extravagance of Bartley's, for which she had scolded him—and it was only half past eight; she had thought it must be midnight.

She sat all night in a chair beside the bed; in the morning she drowsed and dreamed that she was weeping on Bartley's shoulder, and he was joking her and trying to comfort her, as he used to do when they were first married; but it was the little girl, sitting up in her crib, and crying loudly for her breakfast. She put on the child a pretty frock that Bartley liked, and when she had dressed her own tumbled hair she went down stairs, feigning to herself that they should find him in the parlor. The servant was setting the table for breakfast, and the little one ran forward: "Baby's chair; mamma's chair; papa's chair!"

"Yes," answered Marcia, so that the servant might hear too. "Papa will soon be home."

She persuaded herself that he had gone as before for the night, and in this pretence she talked with the child at the table, and she put aside some of the breakfast to be kept warm for Bartley. "I don't know just when he may be in," she explained to the girl. The utterance of her pretence that she expected him encouraged her, and she went about her work almost cheerfully.

At dinner she said, "Mr. Hubbard must have been called away, somewhere. We must get his dinner for him when he comes: the things dry up so in the oven."

She put Flavia to bed early, and then trimmed the fire, and made the parlor cosey against Bartley's coming. She did not blame him for staying away the night before; it was a just punishment for her wickedness, and she should tell him so, and tell him that she knew he never was to blame for anything about Hannah Morrison. She enacted over and over in her mind the scene of their reconciliation. In every step on the pavement he approached the door; at last all the steps died away, and the second night passed.

Her head was light, and her brain confused with loss of sleep. When the child called her from above, and woke her out of her morning drowse, she went to the kitchen and begged the servant to give the little one its breakfast, saying that she was sick and wanted nothing herself. She did not say anything about Bartley's breakfast, and she would not think anything; the girl took the child into the kitchen with her, and kept it there all day.

Olive Halleck came during the forenoon, and Marcia told her that Bartley had been unexpectedly called away. "To New York," she added, without knowing why.

"Ben sailed from there to-day," said Olive sadly.

"Yes," assented Marcia.

"We want you to come and take tea with us this evening," Olive began.

"Oh, I can't," Marcia broke in. "I mustn't be away when Bartley gets back." The thought was something definite in the sea of uncertainty on which she was cast away; she never afterwards lost her hold of it; she confirmed herself in it by other inventions; she pretended that he had told her where he was going, and then that he had written to her. She almost believed these childish fictions as she uttered them. At the same time, in all her longing for his return, she had a sickening fear that when he came back he would keep his parting threat and drive her away: she did not know how he could do it, but this was what she feared.

She seldom left the house, which at first she kept neat and pretty, and then let fall into slatternly neglect. She ceased to care for her dress or the child's; the time came when it seemed as if she could scarcely move in the mystery that beset her life, and she yielded to a deadly lethargy which paralyzed all her faculties but the instinct of concealment.

She repelled the kindly approaches of the Hallecks, sometimes sending word to the door when they came, that she was sick and could not see them; or when she saw any of them, repeating those hopeless lies concerning Bartley's whereabouts, and her expectations of his return.

For the time she was safe against all kindly misgivings; but there were some of Bartley's creditors who grew impatient of his long absence, and refused to be satisfied with her fables. She had a few dollars left from some money that her father had given her at home, and she paid these all out upon the demand of the first-comer. Afterwards, as other bills were pressed, she could only answer with incoherent promises and evasions that scarcely served for the moment. The pursuit of these people dismayed her. It was nothing that certain of them refused further credit; she would have known, both for herself and her child, how to go hungry and cold; but there was one of them who threatened her with the law if she did not pay. She did not know what he could do; she had read somewhere that people who did not pay their debts were imprisoned, and if that disgrace were all she would not care. But if the law were enforced against her, the truth would come out; she would be put to shame before the world as a deserted wife; and this when Bartley had not deserted her. The pride that had bidden her heart break in secret rather than suffer this shame even before itself, was baffled: her one blind device had been concealment, and this poor refuge was possible no longer. If all were not to know, some one must know.

The law with which she had been threatened might be instant in its operation; she could not tell. Her mind wavered from fear to fear. Even while the man stood before her, she perceived the necessity that was upon her, and when he left her she would not allow herself a moment's delay.

She reached the Events building, in which Mr. Atherton had his office, just as a lady drove away in her coupé. It was Miss Kingsbury, who made a point of transacting all business matters with her lawyer at his office, and of keeping her social relations with him entirely distinct, as she fancied, by this means. She was only partially successful, but at least she never talked business with him at her house, and doubtless she would not have talked anything else with him at his office, but for that increasing dependence upon him in everything which she certainly would not have permitted herself if she had realized it. As it was, she had now come to him in a state of nervous exaltation, which was not business-like. She had been greatly shocked by Ben Halleck's sudden freak; she had sympathized with his family till she herself felt the need of some sort of condolence, and she had promised herself this consolation from Atherton's habitual serenity. She did not know what to do when he received her with what she considered an impatient manner, and did not seem at all glad to see her. There was no reason why he should be glad to see a lady calling on business, and no doubt he often found her troublesome, but he had never shown it before. She felt like crying at first; then she passed through an epoch of resentment, and then through a period of compassion for him. She ended by telling him with dignified severity that she wanted some money: they usually made some jokes about her destitution when she came upon that errand. He looked surprised and vexed, and "I have spent what you gave me last month," she explained.

"Then you wish to anticipate the interest on your bonds?"

"Certainly not," said Clara, rather sharply. "I wish to have the interest up to the present time."

"But I told you," said Atherton, and he could not, in spite of himself, help treating her somewhat as a child, "I told you then that I was paying you the interest up to the first of November. There is none due now. Didn't you understand that?"

"No, I didn't understand," answered Clara. She allowed herself to add, "It is very strange!" Atherton struggled with his irritation, and made no reply. "I can't be left without money," she continued. "What am I to do without it?" she demanded with an air of unanswerable argument. "Why, I must have it!"

"I felt that I ought to understand you fully," said Atherton, with cold politeness. "It's only necessary to know what sum you require."

Clara flung up her veil and confronted him with an excited face. "Mr. Atherton, I don't wish a loan; I can't permit it; and you know that my principles are entirely against anticipating interest."

Atherton, from stooping over his table, pencil in hand, leaned back in his chair, and looked at her with a smile that provoked her: "Then may I ask what you wish me to do?"

"No! I can't instruct you. My affairs are in your hands. But I must say—" She bit her lip, however, and did not say it. On the contrary she asked, rather feebly, "Is there nothing due on anything?"

"I went over it with you, last month," said Atherton patiently, "and explained all the investments. I could sell some stocks, but this election trouble has disordered everything, and I should have to sell at a heavy loss. There are your mortgages, and there are your bonds. You can have any amount of money you want, but you will have to borrow it."

"And that you know I won't do. There should always be a sum of money in the bank," said Clara decidedly.

"I do my very best to keep a sum there, knowing your theory; but your practice is against me. You draw too many checks," said Atherton, laughing.

"Very well!" cried the lady, pulling down her veil. "Then I'm to have nothing?"

"You won't allow yourself to have anything," Atherton began. But she interrupted him haughtily.

"It is certainly very odd that my affairs should be in such a state that I can't have all the money of my own that I want, whenever I want it."

Atherton's thin face paled a little more than usual. "I shall be glad to resign the charge of your affair Miss Kingsbury."

"And I shall accept your resignation," cried Clara, magnificently, "whenever you offer it." She swept out of the office, and descended to her coupé like an incensed goddess. She drew the curtains and began to cry. At her door, she bade the servant deny her to everybody, and went to bed, where she was visited a little later by Olive Halleck, whom no ban excluded. Clara lavishly confessed her sin and sorrow. "Why, I went there, more than half, to sympathize with him about Ben; I don't need any money, just yet; and the first thing I knew, I was accusing him of neglecting my interests, and I don't know what all! Of course he had to say he wouldn't have anything more to do with them, and I should have despised him if he hadn't. And now I don't care what becomes of the property: it's never been anything but misery to me ever since I had it, and I always knew it would get me into trouble sooner or later." She whirled her face over into her pillow, and sobbed, "But I didn't suppose it would ever make me insult and outrage the best friend I ever had,—and the truest man,—and the noblest gentleman! Oh, what will he think of me?"

Olive remained sadly quiet, as if but superficially interested in these transports, and Clara lifted her face again to say in her handkerchief, "It's a shame, Olive, to burden you with all this at a time when you've care enough of your own."

"Oh, I'm rather glad of somebody else's care; it helps to take my mind off," said Olive.

"Then what would you do?" asked Clara, tempted by the apparent sympathy with her in the effect of her naughtiness.

"You might make a party for him, Clara," suggested Olive, with lack-lustre irony.

Clara gave way to a loud burst of grief. "Oh, Olive Halleck! I didn't suppose you could be so cruel!"

Olive rose impatiently. "Then write to him, or go to him and tell him that you're ashamed of yourself, and ask him to take your property back again."

"Never!" cried Clara, who had listened with fascination. "What would he think of me?"

"Why need you care? It's purely a matter of business!"

"Yes."

"And you needn't mind what he thinks."

"Of course," admitted Clara, thoughtfully.

"He will naturally despise you," added Olive, "but I suppose he does that, now."

Clara gave her friend as piercing a glance as her soft blue eyes could emit, and, detecting no sign of jesting in Olive's sober face, she answered haughtily, "I don't see what right Mr. Atherton has to despise me!"

"Oh, no! He must admire a girl who has behaved to him as you've done."

Clara's hauteur collapsed, and she began to truckle to Olive. "If he were merely a business man, I shouldn't mind it; but knowing him socially, as I do, and as a—friend, and—an acquaintance, that way, I don't see how I can do it."

"I wonder you didn't think of that before you accused him of fraud and peculation, and all those things."

"I didn't accuse him of fraud and peculation!" cried Clara, indignantly.

"You said you didn't know what all you'd called him," said Olive, with her hand on the door.

Clara followed her down stairs. "Well, I shall never do it in the world," she said, with reviving hope in her voice.

"Oh, I don't expect you to go to him this morning," said Olive dryly. "That would be a little too barefaced."

Her friend kissed, her. "Olive Halleck, you're the strangest girl that ever was. I do believe you'd joke at the point of death! But I'm so glad you have been perfectly frank with me, and of course it's worth worlds to know that you think I've behaved horridly, and ought to make some reparation."

"I'm glad you value my opinion, Clara. And if you come to me for frankness, you can always have all you want; it's a drug in the market with me." She meagrely returned Clara's embrace, and left her in a reverie of tactless scheming for the restoration of peace with Mr. Atherton.

Marcia came in upon the lawyer before he had thought, after parting with Miss Kingsbury, to tell the clerk in the outer office to deny him; but she was too full of her own trouble to see the reluctance which it tasked all his strength to quell, and she sank into the nearest chair unbidden. At sight of her, Atherton became the prey of one of those fantastic repulsions in which men visit upon women the blame of others' thoughts about them: he censured her for Halleck's wrong; but in another instant he recognized his cruelty, and atoned by relenting a little in his intolerance of her presence. She sat gazing at him with a face of blank misery, to which he could not refuse the charity of a prompting question: "Is there something I can do for you, Mrs. Hubbard?"

"Oh, I don't know,—I don't know!" She had a folded paper in her hands, which lay helpless in her lap. After a moment she resumed, in a hoarse, low voice: "They have all begun to come for their money, and this one—this one says he will have the law of me—I don't know what he means—if I don't pay him."

Marcia could not know how hard Atherton found it to govern the professional suspicion which sprung up at the question of money. But he overruled his suspicion by an effort that was another relief to the struggle in which he was wrenching his mind from Miss Kingsbury's outrageous behavior. "What have you got there?" he asked gravely, and not unkindly, and being used to prompt the reluctance of lady clients, he put out his hand for the paper she held. It was the bill of the threatening creditor, for indefinitely repeated dozens of tivoli beer.

"Why do they come to you with this?"

"Mr. Hubbard is away."

"Oh, yes. I heard. When do you expect him home?"

"I don't know."

"Where is he?"

She looked at him piteously without speaking.

Atherton stepped to his door, and gave the order forgotten before. Then he closed the door, and came back to Marcia. "Don't you know where your husband is, Mrs. Hubbard?"

"Oh, he will come back! He couldn't leave me! He's dead,—I know he's dead; but he will come back! He only went away for the night, and something must have happened to him."

The whole tragedy of her life for the past fortnight was expressed in these wild and inconsistent words; she had not been able to reason beyond the pathetic absurdities which they involved; they had the effect of assertions confirmed in the belief by incessant repetition, and doubtless she had said them to herself a thousand times. Atherton read in them, not only the confession of her despair, but a prayer for mercy, which it would have been inhuman to deny, and for the present he left her to such refuge from herself as she had found in them. He said, quietly, "You had better give me that paper, Mrs. Hubbard," and took the bill from her. "If the others come with their accounts again, you must send them to me. When did you say Mr. Hubbard left home?"

"The night after the election," said Marcia.

"And he didn't say how long he should be gone?" pursued the lawyer, in the feint that she had known he was going.

"No," she answered.

"He took some things with him?"

"Yes."

"Perhaps you could judge how long he meant to be absent from the preparation he made?"

"I've never looked to see. I couldn't!"

Atherton changed the line of his inquiry. "Does any one else know of this?"

"No," said Marcia, quickly, "I told Mrs. Halleck and all of them that he was in New York, and I said that I had heard from him. I came to you because you were a lawyer, and you would not tell what I told you."

"Yes," said Atherton.

"I want it kept a secret. Oh, do you think he's dead?" she implored.

"No," returned Atherton, gravely, "I don't think he's dead."

"Sometimes it seems to me I could bear it better if I knew he was dead. If he isn't dead, he's out of his mind! He's out of his mind, don't you think, and he's wandered off somewhere?"

She besought him so pitifully to agree with her, bending forward and trying to read the thoughts in his face, that he could not help saying, "Perhaps."

A gush of grateful tears blinded her, but she choked down her sobs.

"I said things to him that night that were enough to drive him crazy. I was always the one in fault, but he was always the one to make up first, and he never would have gone away from me if he had known what he was doing! But he will come back, I know he will," she said, rising. "And oh, you won't say anything to anybody, will you? And he'll get back before they find out. I will send those men to you, and Bartley will see about it as soon as he comes home—"

"Don't go, Mrs. Hubbard," said the lawyer. "I want to speak with you a little longer." She dropped again in her chair, and looked at him inquiringly. "Have you written to your father about this?"

"Oh, no," she answered quickly, with an effect of shrinking back into herself.

"I think you had better do so. You can't tell when your husband will return, and you can't go on in this way."

"I will never tell father," she replied, closing her lips inexorably.

The lawyer forbore to penetrate the family trouble he divined. "Are you all alone in the house?" he asked.

"The girl is there. And the baby."

"That won't do, Mrs. Hubbard," said Atherton, with a compassionate shake of the head. "You can't go on living there alone."

"Oh, yes, I can. I'm not afraid to be alone," she returned with the air of having thought of this.

"But he may be absent some time yet," urged the lawyer; "he may be absent indefinitely. You must go home to your father and wait for him there."

"I can't do that. He must find me here when he comes," she answered firmly.

"But how will you stay?" pleaded Atherton; he had to deal with an unreasonable creature who could not be driven, and he must plead. "You have no money, and how can you live?"

"Oh," replied Marcia, with the air of having thought of this too, "I will take boarders."

Atherton smiled at the hopeless practicality, and shook his head; but he did not oppose her directly. "Mrs. Hubbard," he said earnestly, "you have done well in coming to me, but let me convince you that this is a matter which can't be kept. It must be known. Before you can begin to help yourself, you must let others help you. Either you must go home to your father and let your husband find you there—"

"He must find me here, in our own house."

"Then you must tell your friends here that you don't know where he is, nor when he will return, and let them advise together as to what can be done. You must tell the Hallecks—"

"I will never tell them!" cried Marcia. "Let me go! I can starve there and freeze, and if he finds me dead in the house, none of them shall have the right to blame him,—to say that he left me,—that he deserted his little child! Oh! oh! oh! oh! What shall I do?"

The hapless creature shook with the thick-coming sobs that overpowered her now, and Atherton refrained once more. She did not seem ashamed before him of the sorrows which he felt it a sacrilege to know, and in a blind instinctive way he perceived that in proportion as he was a stranger it was possible for her to bear her disgrace in his presence. He spoke at last from the hint he found in this fact: "Will you let me mention the matter to Miss Kingsbury?"

She looked at him with sad intensity in the eyes, as if trying to fathom any nether thought that he might have. It must have seemed to her at first that he was mocking her, but his words brought her the only relief from her self-upbraiding she had known. To suffer kindness from Miss Kingsbury would be in some sort an atonement to Bartley for the wrong her jealousy had done him; it would be self-sacrifice for his sake; it would be expiation. "Yes, tell her," she answered with a promptness whose obscure motive was not illumined by the flash of passionate pride with which she added, "I shall not care for her."

She rose again, and Atherton did not detain her; but when she had left him he lost no time in writing to her father the facts of the case as her visit had revealed them. He spoke of her reluctance to have her situation known to her family, but assured the Squire that he need have no anxiety about her for the present. He promised to keep him fully informed in regard to her, and to telegraph the first news of Mr. Hubbard. He left the Squire to form his own conjectures, and to take whatever action he thought best. For his own part, he had no question that Hubbard had abandoned his wife, and had stolen Halleck's money; and the detectives to whom he went were clear that it was a case of European travel.

William Dean Howells