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Atherton went from the detectives to Miss Kingsbury, and boldly resisted the interdict at her door, sending up his name with the message that he wished to see her immediately on business. She kept him waiting while she made a frightened toilet, and leaving the letter to him which she had begun half finished on her desk, she came down to meet him in a flutter of despondent conjecture. He took her mechanically yielded hand, and seated himself on the sofa beside her. "I sent word that I had come on business," he said, "but it is no affair of yours,"—she hardly knew whether to feel relieved or disappointed,—"except as you make all unhappy people's affairs your own."
"Oh!" she murmured in meek protest, and at the same time she remotely wondered if these affairs were his.
"I came to you for help," he began again, and again she interrupted him in deprecation.
"You are very good, after—after—what I—what happened,—I'm sure." She put up her fan to her lips, and turned her head a little aside. "Of course I shall be glad to help you in anything, Mr. Atherton; you know I always am."
"Yes, and that gave me courage to come to you, even after the way in which we parted this morning. I knew you would not misunderstand me"—
"No," said Clara softly, doing her best to understand him.
"Or think me wanting in delicacy—"
"Oh, no, no!"
"If I believed that we need not have any embarrassment in meeting in behalf of the poor creature who came to see me just after you left me. The fact is," he went on, "I felt a little freer to promise your interest since I had no longer any business relation to you, and could rely on your kindness like—like—any other."
"Yes," assented Clara, faintly; and she forbore to point out to him, as she might fitly have done, that he had never had the right to advise or direct her at which he hinted, except as she expressly conferred it from time to time. "I shall be only too glad—"
"And I will have a statement of your affairs drawn up to-morrow, and sent to you." Her heart sank; she ceased to move the fan which she had been slowly waving back and forth before her face. "I was going to set about it this morning, but Mrs. Hubbard's visit—"
"Mrs. Hubbard!" cried Clara, and a little air of pique qualified her despair.
"Yes; she is in trouble,—the greatest: her husband has deserted her."
"Oh, Mr. Atherton!" Clara's mind was now far away from any concern for herself. The woman whose husband has deserted her supremely appeals to all other women. "I can't believe it! What makes you think so?"
"What she concealed, rather than what she told me, I believe," answered Atherton. He ran over the main points of their interview, and summed up his own conjectures. "I know from things Halleck has let drop that they haven't always lived happily together; Hubbard has been speculating with borrowed money, and he's in debt to everybody. She's been alone in her house for a fortnight, and she only came to me because people had begun to press her for money. She's been pretending to the Hallecks that she hears from her husband, and knows where he is."
"Oh, poor, poor thing!" said Clara, too shocked to say more. "Then they don't know?"
"No one knows but ourselves. She came to me because I was a comparative stranger, and it would cost her less to confess her trouble to me than to them, and she allowed me to speak to you for very much the same reason."
"But I know she dislikes me!"
"So much the better! She can't doubt your goodness—"
"And if she dislikes you, she can keep her pride better with you."
Clara let her eyes fall, and fingered the edges of her fan. There was reason in this, and she did not care that the opportunity of usefulness was personally unflattering, since he thought her capable of rising above the fact. "What do you want me to do?" she asked, lifting her eyes docilely to his.
"You must find some one to stay with her, in her house, till she can be persuaded to leave it, and you must lend her some money till her father can come to her or write to her. I've just written to him, and I've told her to send all her bills to me; but I'm afraid she may be in immediate need."
"Terrible!" sighed Clara to whom the destitution of an acquaintance was appalling after all her charitable knowledge of want and suffering. "Of course, we mustn't lose a moment," she added; but she lingered in her corner of the sofa to discuss ways and means with him, and to fathom that sad enjoyment which comfortable people find in the contemplation of alien sorrows. It was not her fault if she felt too kindly toward the disaster that had brought Atherton back to her on the old terms; or if she arranged her plans for befriending Marcia in her desolation with too buoyant a cheerfulness. But she took herself to task for the radiant smile she found on her face, when she ran up stairs and looked into her glass to see how she looked in parting with Atherton: she said to herself that he would think her perfectly heartless.
She decided that it would be indecent to drive to Marcia's under the circumstances, and she walked; though with all the time this gave her for reflection she had not wholly banished this smile when she looked into Marcia's woe-begone eyes. But she found herself incapable of the awkwardnesses she had deliberated, and fell back upon the native motherliness of her heart, into which she took Marcia with sympathy that ignored everything but her need of help and pity. Marcia's bruised pride was broken before the goodness of the girl she had hated, and she performed her sacrifice to Bartley's injured memory, not with the haughty self-devotion which she intended should humiliate Miss Kingsbury, but with the prostration of a woman spent with watching and fasting and despair. She held Clara away for a moment of scrutiny, and then submitted to the embrace in which they recognized and confessed all.
It was scarcely necessary for Clara to say that Mr. Atherton had told her; Marcia already knew that; and Clara became a partisan of her theory of Bartley's absence almost without an effort, in spite of the facts that Atherton had suggested to the contrary. "Of course! He has wandered off somewhere, and at soon as he comes to his senses he will hurry home. Why I was reading of such a case only the other day,—the case of a minister who wandered off in just the same way, and found himself out in Western New York somewhere, after he had been gone three mouths."
"Bartley won't be gone three months," protested Marcia.
"Certainly not!" cried Clara, in severe self-rebuke. Then she talked of his return for a while as if it might be expected any moment. "In the mean time," she added, "you must stay here; you're quite right about that, too, but you mustn't stay here alone: he'd be quite as much shocked at that as if he found you gone when he came back. I'm going to ask you to let my friend Miss Strong stay with you; and she must pay her board; and you must let me lend you all the money you need. And, dear,"—Clara dropped her voice to a lower and gentler note,—"you mustn't try to keep this from your friends. You must let Mr. Atherton write to your father; you must let me tell the Hallecks: they'll be hurt if you don't. You needn't be troubled; of course he wandered off in a temporary hallucination, and nobody will think differently."
She adopted the fiction of Bartley's aberration with so much fervor that she even silenced Atherton's injurious theories with it when he came in the evening to learn the result of her intervention. She had forgotten, or she ignored, the facts as he had stated them in the morning; she was now Bartley's valiant champion, as well as the tender protector of Marcia: she was the equal friend of the whole exemplary Hubbard family.
Atherton laughed, and she asked what he was laughing at.
"Oh," he answered, "at something Ben Halleck once said: a real woman can make righteousness delicious and virtue piquant."
Clara reflected. "I don't know whether I like that," she said finally.
"No?" said Atherton. "Why not?"
She was serving him with an after-dinner cup of tea, which she had brought into the drawing-room, and in putting the second lump of sugar into his saucer she paused again, thoughtfully, holding the little cube in the tongs. She was rather elaborately dressed for so simple an occasion, and her silken train coiled itself far out over the mossy depth of the moquette carpet; the pale blue satin of the furniture, and the delicate white and gold of the decorations, became her wonderfully.
"I can't say, exactly. It seems depreciatory, somehow, as a generalization.
But a man might say it of the woman he was in love with," she concluded.
"And you wouldn't approve of a man's saying it of the woman his friend was in love with?" pursued Atherton, taking his cup from her.
"If they were very close friends." She did not know why, but she blushed, and then grew a little pale.
"I understand what you mean," he said, "and I shouldn't have liked the speech from another kind of man. But Halleck's innocence characterized it." He stirred his tea, and then let it stand untasted in his abstraction.
"Yes, he is good," sighed Clara. "If he were not so good, it would be hard to forgive him for disappointing all their hopes in the way he's done."
"It's the best thing he could have done," said Atherton gravely, even severely.
"I know you advised it," asserted Clara. "But it's a great blow to them. How strange that Mr. Hubbard should have disappeared the last night Ben was at home! I'm glad that he got away without knowing anything about it."
Atherton drank off his tea, and refused a second cup with a gesture of his hand. "Yes, so am I," he said. "I'm glad of every league of sea he puts behind him." He rose, as if eager to leave the subject.
Clara rose too, with the patient acquiescence of a woman, and took his hand proffered in parting. They had certainly talked out, but there seemed no reason why he should go. He held her hand, while he asked, "How shall I make my peace with you?"
"My peace? What for?" She flushed joyfully. "I was the one in fault."
He looked at her mystified. "Why, surely, you didn't repeat Halleck's remark?"
"Oh!" she cried indignantly, withdrawing her hand. "I meant this morning. It doesn't matter," she added. "If you still wish to resign the charge of my affairs, of course I must submit. But I thought—I thought—" She did not go on, she was too deeply hurt. Up to this moment she had imagined that she had befriended Marcia, and taken all that trouble upon herself for goodness' sake; but now she was ready to upbraid him for ingratitude in not seeing that she had done it for his sake. "You can send me the statement, and then—and then—I don't know what I shall do! Why do you mind what I said? I've often said quite as much before, and you know that I didn't mean it. I want you to take my property back again, and never to mind anything I say: I'm not worth minding." Her intended upbraiding had come to this pitiful effect of self-contempt, and her hand somehow was in his again. "Do take it back!"
"If I do that," said Atherton, gravely, "I must make my conditions," and now they sat down together on the sofa from which he had risen. "I can't be subjected again to your—disappointments,"—he arrested with a motion of his hand the profuse expression of her penitence and good intentions,—"and I've felt for a long time that this was no attitude for your attorney. You ought to have the right to question and censure; but I confess I can't grant you this. I've allowed myself to make your interests too much my own in everything to be able to bear it. I've thought several times that I ought to give up the trust; but it seemed like giving up so much more, that I never had the courage to do it in cold blood. This morning you gave me my chance to do it in hot blood, and if I resume it, I must make my terms."
It seemed a long speech to Clara, who sometimes thought she knew whither it tended, and sometimes not. She said in a low voice, "Yes."
"I must be relieved," continued Atherton, "of the sense I've had that it was indelicate in me to keep it, while I felt as I've grown to feel—towards you." He stopped: "If I take it back, you must come with it!" he suddenly concluded.
The inconsistency of accepting these conditions ought to have struck a woman who had so long imagined herself the chase of fortune-hunters. But Clara apparently found nothing alarming in the demand of a man who openly acted upon his knowledge of what could only have been matter of conjecture to many suitors she had snubbed. She found nothing incongruous in the transaction, and she said, with as tremulous breath and as swift a pulse as if the question had been solely of herself, "I accept—the conditions."
In the long, happy talk that lasted till midnight, they did not fail to recognize that, but for their common pity of Marcia, they might have remained estranged, and they were decently ashamed of their bliss when they thought of misery like hers. When Atherton rose to bid Clara good night, Marcia was still watching for Bartley, indulging for the last time the folly of waiting for him as if she definitely expected him that night.
Every night since he disappeared, she had kept the lights burning in the parlor and hall, and drowsed before the fire till the dawn drove her to a few hours of sleep in bed. But with the coming of the stranger who was to be her companion, she must deny herself even this consolation, and openly accept the fact that she no longer expected Bartley at any given time. She bitterly rebelled at the loss of her solitude, in which she could be miserable in whatever way her sorrow prompted, and the pangs with which she had submitted to Miss Kingsbury's kindness grew sharper hour by hour till she maddened in a frenzy of resentment against the cruelty of her expiation. She longed for the day to come that she might go to her, and take back her promises and her submission, and fling her insulting good-will in her face. She said to herself that no one should enter her door again till Bartley opened it; she would die there in the house, she and her baby, and as she stood wringing her hands and moaning over the sleeping little one, a hideous impulse made her brain reel; she wished to look if Bartley had left his pistol in its place; a cry for help against herself broke from her; she dropped upon her knees.
The day came, and the hope and strength which the mere light so strangely brings to the sick in spirit as well as the sick in body visited Marcia. She abhorred the temptation of the night like the remembrance of a wicked dream, and she went about with a humble and grateful prayer—to something, to some one—in her heart. Her housewifely pride stirred again: that girl should not think she was a slattern; and Miss Strong, when she preceded her small trunk in the course of the forenoon, found the parlor and the guest-chamber, which she was to have, swept, and dusted, and set in perfect order by Marcia's hands. She had worked with fury, and kept her heart-ache still, but it began again at sight of the girl. Fortunately, the conservatory pupil had embraced with even more than Miss Kingsbury's ardor the theory of Bartley's aberration, and she met Marcia with a sympathy in her voice and eyes that could only have come from sincere conviction. She was a simple country thing, who would never be a prima donna; but the overflowing sentimentality which enabled her to accept herself at the estimate of her enthusiastic fellow-villagers made her of far greater comfort to Marcia than the sublimest musical genius would have done. She worshipped the heroine of so tragic a fact, and her heart began to go out to her in honest helpfulness from the first. She broke in upon the monotony of Marcia's days with the offices and interests of wholesome commonplace, and exorcised the ghostly silence with her first stroke on the piano,—which Bartley had bought on the instalment plan and had not yet paid for.
In fine, life adjusted itself with Marcia to the new conditions, as it does with women less wofully widowed by death, who promise themselves reunion with their lost in another world, and suffer through the first weeks and days in the hope that their parting will be for but days or weeks, and then gradually submit to indefinite delay. She prophesied Bartley's return, and fixed it in her own mind for this hour and that. "Now, in the morning, I shall wake and find him standing by the bed. No, at night he will come in and surprise us at dinner." She cheated herself with increasing faith at each renewal of her hopes. When she ceased to formulate them at last, it was because they had served their end, and left her established, if not comforted, in the superstition by which she lived. His return at any hour or any moment was the fetish which she let no misgiving blaspheme; everything in her of woman and of wife consecrated it. She kept the child in continual remembrance of him by talking of him, and by making her recognize the photographs in which Bartley had abundantly perpetuated himself; at night, when she folded the little one's hands for prayer, she made her pray God to take care of poor papa and send him home soon to mamma. She was beginning to canonize him.
Her father came to see her as soon as he thought it best after Atherton's letter; and the old man had to endure talk of Bartley to which all her former praises were as refreshing shadows of defamation. She required him to agree with everything she said, and he could not refuse; she reproached him for being with herself the cause of all Bartley's errors, and he had to bear it without protest. At the end he could say nothing but "Better come home with me, Marcia," and he suffered in meekness the indignation with which she rebuked him: "I will stay in Bartley's house till he comes back to me. If he is dead, I will die here."
The old man had satisfied himself that Bartley had absconded in his own rascally right mind, and he accepted with tacit grimness the theory of the detectives that he had not gone to Europe alone. He paid back the money which Bartley had borrowed from Halleck, and he set himself as patiently as he could to bear with Marcia's obstinacy. It was a mania which must be indulged for the time, and he could only trust to Atherton to keep him advised concerning her. When he offered her money at parting, she hesitated. But she finally took it, saying, "Bartley will pay it back, every cent, as soon as he gets home. And if," she added, "he doesn't get back soon, I will take some other boarders and pay it myself."
He could see that she was offended with him for asking her to go home. But she was his girl; he only pitied her. He shook hands with her as usual, and kissed her with the old stoicism; but his lips, set to fierceness by the life-long habit of sarcasm, trembled as he turned away. She was eager to have him go; for she had given him Miss Strong's room, and had taken the girl into her own, and Bartley would not like it if he came back and found her there.
Bartley's disappearance was scarcely a day's wonder with people outside his own circle in that time of anxiety for a fair count in Louisiana and Florida, and long before the Returning Boards had partially relieved the tension of the public mind by their decision he had quite dropped out of it. The reporters who called at his house to get the bottom facts in the case, adopted Marcia's theory, given them by Miss Strong, and whatever were their own suspicions or convictions, paragraphed him with merciful brevity as having probably wandered away during a temporary hallucination. They spoke of the depression of spirits which many of his friends had observed in him, and of pecuniary losses, as the cause. They mentioned his possible suicide only to give the report the authoritative denial of his family; and they added, that the case was in the hands of the detectives, who believed themselves in possession of important clews. The detectives in fact remained constant to their original theory, that Bartley had gone to Europe, and they were able to name with reasonable confidence the person with whom he had eloped. But these were matters hushed up among the force and the press. In the mean time, Bartley had been simultaneously seen at Montreal and Cincinnati, at about the same time that an old friend had caught a glimpse of him on a train bound westward from Chicago.
So far as the world was concerned, the surmise with which Marcia saved herself from final despair was the only impression that even vaguely remained of the affair. Her friends, who had compassionately acquiesced in it at first, waited for the moment when they could urge her to relinquish it and go home to her father; but while they waited, she gathered strength to establish herself immovably in it, and to shape her life more and more closely about it. She had no idea, no instinct, but to stay where he had left her till he came back. She opposed this singly and solely against all remonstrance, and treated every suggestion to the contrary as an instigation to crime. Her father came from time to time during the winter to see her, but she would never go home with him even for a day. She put her plan in force; she took other boarders: other girl students like Miss Strong, whom her friends brought her when they found that it was useless to oppose her and so began to abet her; she worked hard, and she actually supported herself at last in a frugal independence. Her father consulted with Atherton and the Hallecks; he saw that she was with good and faithful friends, and he submitted to what he could not help. When the summer came, he made a last attempt to induce her to go home with him. He told her that her mother wished to see her. She would not understand. "I'll come," she said, "if mother gets seriously sick. But I can't go home for the summer. If I hadn't been at home last summer, he would never have got into that way, and it would never have happened."
She went home at last, in obedience to a peremptory summons; but her mother was too far gone to know her when she came. Her quiet, narrow life had grown colder and more inward to the end, and it passed without any apparent revival of tenderness for those once dear to her; the funeral publicity that followed seemed a final touch of the fate by which all her preferences had been thwarted in the world.
Marcia stayed only till she could put the house in order after they had laid her mother to rest among the early reddening sumacs under the hot glare of the August sun; and when she came away, she brought her father with her to Boston, where he spent his days as he might, taking long and aimless walks, devouring heaps of newspapers, rusting in idleness, and aging fast, as men do in the irksomeness of disuse.
Halleck's father was beginning to show his age, too; and Halleck's mother lived only in her thoughts of him, and her hopes of his return; but he did not even speak of this in his letters to them. He said very little of himself, and they could merely infer that the experiment to which he had devoted himself was becoming less and less satisfactory. Their sense of this added its pang to their unhappiness in his absence.
One day Marcia said to Olive Halleck, "Has any one noticed that you are beginning to look like your sisters?"
"I've noticed it," answered the girl. "I always was an old maid, and now I'm beginning to show it."
Marcia wondered if she had not hurt Olive's feelings; but she would never have known how to excuse herself; and latterly she had been growing more and more like her father in certain traits. Perhaps her passion for Bartley had been the one spring of tenderness in her nature, and, if ever it were spent, she would stiffen into the old man's stern aridity.
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