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Chapter 36

XXXVI.

It was nearly two years after Atherton's marriage that Halleck one day opened the door of the lawyer's private office, and, turning the key in the lock, limped forward to where the latter was sitting at his desk. Halleck was greatly changed: the full beard that he had grown scarcely hid the savage gauntness of his face; but the change was not so much in lines and contours as in that expression of qualities which we call looks.

"Well, Atherton!"

"Halleck! You!"

The friends looked at each other; and Atherton finally broke from his amaze and offered his hand, with an effect, even then, of making conditions. But it was Halleck who was the first to speak again.

"How is she? Is she well? Is she still here? Have they heard anything from him yet?"

"No," said Atherton, answering the last question with the same provisional effect as before.

"Then he is dead. That's what I knew; that's what I said! And here I am. The fight is over, and that's the end of it. I'm beaten."

"You look it," said Atherton, sadly.

"Oh, yes; I look it. That's the reason I can afford to be frank, in coming back to my friends. I knew that with this look in my face I should make my own welcome; and it's cordial even beyond my expectations."

"I'm not glad to see you, Halleck," said Atherton. "For your own sake I wish you were at the other end of the world."

"Oh, I know that. How are my people? Have you seen my father lately? Or my mother? Or—Olive?" A pathetic tremor shook his voice.

"Why, haven't you seen them yet?" demanded Atherton.

Halleck laughed cynically. "My dear friend, my steamer arrived this morning, and I'm just off the New York train. I've hurried to your office in all the impatience of friendship. I'm very lucky to find you here so late in the day! You can take me home to dinner, and let your domestic happiness preach to me. Come, I rather like the notion of that!"

"Halleck," said Atherton, without heeding his banter, "I wish you would go away again! No one knows you are here, you say, and no one need ever know it."

Halleck set his lips and shook his head, with a mocking smile. "I'm surprised at you, Atherton, with your knowledge of human nature. I've come to stay; you must know that. You must know that I had gone through everything before I gave up, and that I haven't the strength to begin the struggle over again. I tell you I'm beaten, and I'm glad of it; for there is rest in it. You would waste your breath, if you talked to me in the old way; there's nothing in me to appeal to, any more. If I was wrong—But I don't admit, any more, that I was wrong: by heaven, I was right!"

"You are beaten, Halleck," said Atherton sorrowfully. He pushed himself back in his chair, and clasped his hands together behind his head, as his habit was in reasoning with obstinate clients. "What do you propose to do?"

"I propose to stay."

"What for?"

"What for? Till I can prove that he is dead."

"And then?"

"Then I shall be free to ask her." He added angrily, "You know what I've come back for: why do you torment me with these questions? I did what I could; I ran away. And the last night I saw her, I thrust her back into that hell she called her home, and I told her that no man could be her refuge from that devil, her husband,—when she had begged me in her mortal terror to go in with her, and save her from him. That was the recollection I had to comfort me when I tried to put her out of my mind,—out of my soul! When I heard that he was gone, I respected her days of mourning. God knows how I endured it, now it's over; but I did endure it. I waited, and here I am. And you ask me to go away again! Ah!" He fetched his breath through his set teeth, and struck his fist on his knee. "He is dead! And now, if she will, she can marry me. Don't look at me as if I had killed him! There hasn't been a time in these two infernal years when I wouldn't have given my life to save his—for her sake. I know that, and that gives me courage, it gives me hope."

"But if he isn't dead?"

"Then he has abandoned her, and she has the right to be free: she can get a divorce!"

"Oh," said Atherton, compassionately, "has that poison got into you, Halleck? You might ask her, if she were a widow, to marry you; but how will you ask her, if she's still a wife, to get a divorce and then marry you? How will you suggest that to a woman whose constancy to her mistake has made her sacred to you?" Halleck seemed about to answer; but he only panted, dry-lipped and open-mouthed, and Atherton continued: "You would have to corrupt her soul first. I don't know what change you've made in yourself during these two years; you look like a desperate and defeated man, but you don't look like that. You don't look like one of those scoundrels who lure women from their duty, ruin homes, and destroy society, not in the old libertine fashion in which the seducer had at least the grace to risk his life, but safely, smoothly, under the shelter of our infamous laws. Have you really come back here to give your father's honest name, and the example of a man of your own blameless life, in support of conditions that tempt people to marry with a mental reservation, and that weaken every marriage bond with the guilty hope of escape whenever a fickle mind, or secret lust, or wicked will may dictate? Have you come to join yourself to those miserable spectres who go shrinking through the world, afraid of their own past, and anxious to hide it from those they hold dear; or do you propose to defy the world, to help form within it the community of outcasts with whom shame is not shame, nor dishonor, dishonor? How will you like the society of those uncertain men, those certain women?"

"You are very eloquent," said Halleck, "but I ask you to observe that these little abstractions don't interest me. I've a concrete purpose, and I can't contemplate the effect of other people's actions upon American civilization. When you ask me to believe that I oughtn't to try to rescue a woman from the misery to which a villain has left her, simply because some justice of the peace consecrated his power over her, I decline to be such a fool. I use my reason, and I see who it was that defiled and destroyed that marriage, and I know that she is as free in the sight of God as if he had never lived. If the world doesn't like my open shame, let it look to its own secret shame,—the marriages made and maintained from interest, and ambition, and vanity, and folly. I will take my chance with the men and women who have been honest enough to own their mistake, and to try to repair it, and I will preach by my life that marriage has no sanctity but what love gives it, and that when love ceases marriage ceases, before heaven. If the laws have come to recognize that, by whatever fiction, so much the better for the laws!" Halleck rose.

"Well, then," cried Atherton, rising, too, "you shall meet me on your own ground! This poor creature is constant in every breath she draws to the ruffian who has abandoned her. I must believe, since you say it, that you are ready to abet her in getting a divorce, even one of those divorces that are 'obtained without publicity, and for any cause,'"—Halleck winced,—"that you are willing to put your sisters to shame before the world, to break your mother's heart, and your father's pride,—to insult the ideal of goodness that she herself has formed of you; but how will you begin? The love on her part, at least, hasn't ceased: has the marriage?"

"She shall tell me," answered Halleck. He left Atherton without another word, and in resentment that effaced all friendship between them, though after this parting they still kept up its outward forms, and the Athertons took part in the rejoicings with which the Hallecks celebrated Ben's return. His meeting with the lawyer was the renewal of the old conflict on terms of novel and hopeless degradation. He had mistaken for peace that exhaustion of spirit which comes to a man in battling with his conscience; he had fancied his struggle over, and he was to learn now that its anguish had just begun. In that delusion his love was to have been a law to itself, able to loose and to bind, and potent to beat down all regrets, all doubts, all fears, that questioned it; but the words with which Marcia met him struck his passion dumb.

"Oh, I am so glad you have come lack!" she said. "Now I know that we can find him. You were such friends with him, and you understood him so well, that you will know just what to do. Yes, we shall find him now, and we should have found him long ago if you had been here. Oh, if you had never gone away! But I can never be grateful enough for what you said to me that night when you would not come in with me. The words have rung in my ears ever since; they showed that you had faith in him, more faith than I had, and I've made them my rule and my guide. No one has been my refuge from him, and no one ever shall be. And I thank you—yes, I thank you on my bended knees—for making me go into the house alone; it's my one comfort that I had the strength to come back to him, and let him do anything he would to me, after I had treated him so; but I've never pretended it was my own strength. I have always told everybody that the strength came from you!"

Halleck had brought Olive with him; she and Marcia's father listened to these words with the patience of people who had heard them many times before; but at the end Olive glanced at Halleck's downcast face with fond pride in the satisfaction she imagined they must give him. The old man ruminated upon a bit of broom straw, and absently let the little girl catch by his hands, as she ran to and fro between him and her mother while her mother talked. Halleck made a formless sound in his throat, for answer, and Marcia went on.

"I've got a new plan now, but it seems as if father took a pleasure in discouraging all my plans. I know that Bartley's shut up, somewhere, in some asylum, and I want them to send detectives to all the asylums in the United States and in Canada,—you can't tell how far off he would wander in that state,—and inquire if any stray insane person has been brought to them. Doesn't it seem to you as if that would be the right way to find him? I want to talk it all over with you, Mr. Halleck, for I know you can sympathize with me; and if need be I will go to the asylums myself; I will walk to them, I will crawl to them on my knees! When I think of him shut up there among those raving maniacs, and used as they use people in some of the asylums—Oh, oh, oh, oh!"

She broke out into sobs, and caught her little girl to her breast. The child must have been accustomed to her mother's tears; she twisted her head round, and looked at Halleck with a laughing face.

Marcia dried her eyes, and asked, with quivering lips, "Isn't she like him?"

"Yes," replied Halleck huskily.

"She has his long eyelashes exactly, and his hair and complexion, hasn't she?"

The old man sat chewing his broom straw in silence; but when Marcia left the room to get Bartley's photograph, so that Halleck might see the child's resemblance to him, her father looked at Halleck from under his beetling brows: "I don't think we need trouble the asylums much for Bartley Hubbard. But if it was to search the States prisons and the jails, the rum-holes and the gambling-hells, or if it was to dig up the scoundrels who have been hung under assumed names during the last two years, I should have some hopes of identifying him."

Marcia came back, and the old man sat in cast-iron quiet, as if he had never spoken; it was clear that whatever hate he felt for Bartley he spared her; and that if he discouraged her plans, as she said, it was because they were infected by the craze in which she canonized Bartley.

"You see how she is," said Olive, when they came away.

"Yes, yes, yes," Halleck desolately assented.

"Sometimes she seems to me just like a querulous, vulgar, middle-aged woman in her talk; she repeats herself in the same scolding sort of way; and she's so eager to blame somebody besides Bartley for Bartley's wickedness that, when she can't punish herself, she punishes her father. She's merciless to that wretched old man, and he's wearing his homesick life out here in the city for her sake. You heard her just now, about his discouraging her plans?"

"Yes," said Halleck, as before.

"She's grown commoner and narrower, but it's hardly her fault, poor thing, and it seems terribly unjust that she should be made so by what she has suffered. But that's just the way it has happened. She's so undisciplined, that she couldn't get any good out of her misfortunes; she's only got harm: they've made her selfish, and there seems to be nothing left of what she was two years ago but her devotion to that miserable wretch. You mustn't let it turn you against her, Ben; you mustn't forget what she might have been. She had a rich nature; but how it's been wasted, and turned back upon itself! Poor, untrained, impulsive, innocent creature,—my heart aches for her! It's been hard to bear with her at times, terribly hard, and you'll find it so, Ben. But you must bear with her. The awfulest thing about people in trouble is that they are such bores; they tire you to death. But you'll only have to stand her praises of what Bartley was, and we had to stand them, and her hopes of what you would be if you were only at home, besides. I don't know what all she expects of you; but you must try not to disappoint her; she worships the ground you tread on, and I really think she believes you can do anything you will, just because you're good."

Halleck listened in silence. He was indeed helpless to be otherwise than constant. With shame and grief in his heart, he could only vow her there the greater fealty because of the change he found in her.

He was doomed at every meeting to hear her glorify a man whom he believed a heartless traitor, to plot with her for the rescue from imaginary captivity of the wretch who had cruelly forsaken her. He actually took some of the steps she urged; he addressed inquiries to the insane asylums, far and near; and in these futile endeavors, made only with the desire of failure, his own reason seemed sometimes to waver. She insisted that Atherton should know all the steps they were taking; and his sense of his old friend's exact and perfect knowledge of his motives was a keener torture than even her father's silent scorn of his efforts, or the worship in which his own family held him for them.

William Dean Howells