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Chapter 37

XXXVII.

Halleck had come home in broken health, and had promised his family, with the self-contempt that depraves, not to go away again, since the change had done him no good. There was no talk for the present of his trying to do anything but to get well; and for a while, under the strong excitement, he seemed to be better. But suddenly he failed; he kept his room, and then he kept his bed; and the weeks stretched into months before he left it.

When the spring weather came, he was able to go out again, and he spent most of his time in the open air, feeling every day a fresh accession of strength. At the end of one long April afternoon, he walked home with a light heart, whose right to rejoice he would not let his conscience question. He had met Marcia in the Public Garden, where they sat down on a bench and talked, while her father and the little girl wandered away in the restlessness of age and the restlessness of childhood.

"We are going home to Equity this summer," she said, "and perhaps we shall not come back. No, we shall not come back. I have given up. I have waited, hoping—hoping. But now I know that it is no use waiting any longer: he is dead." She spoke in tearless resignation, and the peace of accepted widowhood seemed to diffuse itself around her.

Her words repeated themselves to Halleck, as he walked homeward. He found the postman at the door with a newspaper, which he took from him with a smile at its veteran appearance, and its probable adventures in reaching him. The wrapper seemed to have been several times slipped off, and then slit up; it was tied with a string, now, and was scribbled with rejections in the hands of various Hallocks and Halletts, one of whom had finally indorsed upon it, "Try 97 Rumford Street." It was originally addressed, as he made out, to "Mr. B. Halleck, Boston, Mass.," and he carried it to his room before he opened it, with a careless surmise as to its interest for him. It proved to be a flimsy, shabbily printed country newspaper, with an advertisement marked in one corner.

State of Indiana, Tecumseh County

In Tecumseh Circuit Court, April Term, 1879.

BARTLEY J. HUBBARD

vs.

MARCIA G. HUBBARD.

Divorce. No. 5793.

It appearing by affidavit this day filed in the office of the Clerk of the Tecumseh Circuit Court, that Marcia G. Hubbard, defendant in the above entitled action for divorce on account of abandonment and gross neglect of duty, is a non-resident of the State of Indiana, notice of the pendency of such action is therefore hereby given said defendant above named, and that the same will be called for answer on the 11th day of April, 1879, the same being the 3d judicial day of the April term of said court, for said year, which said term of said court will begin on the first Monday in April, 1879, and will be held at the Court House, in the town of Tecumseh, in said County and State, said 11th day of April, 1879, being the time fixed by said plaintiff by indorsement on his complaint, at which said time said defendant is required to answer herein.

Witness my hand and the seal of the said Court, this 4th day of March, 1879.

AUGUSTUS H. HAWKINS,

Clerk.

SEAL

Milikin & Ayres, Att'ys for Plff.

Halleck read this advertisement again and again, with a dull, mechanical action of the brain. He saw the familiar names, but they were hopelessly estranged by their present relation to each other; the legal jargon reached no intelligence in him that could grasp its purport.

When his daze began to yield, he took evidence of his own reality by some such tests as one might in waking from a long faint. He looked at his hands, his feet; he rose and looked at his face in the glass. Turning about, he saw the paper where he had left it on the table; it was no illusion. He picked up the cover from the floor, and scanned it anew, trying to remember the handwriting on it, to make out who had sent this paper to him, and why. Then the address seemed to grow into something different under his eye: it ceased to be his name; he saw now that the paper was directed to Mrs. B. Hubbard, and that by a series of accidents and errors it had failed to reach her in its wanderings, and by a final blunder had fallen into his hands.

Once solved, it was a very simple affair, and he had now but to carry it to her; that was very simple, too. Or he might destroy it; this was equally simple. Her words repeated themselves once more: "I have given up. He is dead." Why should he break the peace she had found, and destroy her last sad illusion? Why should he not spare her the knowledge of this final wrong, and let the merciful injustice accomplish itself? The questions seemed scarcely to have any personal concern for Halleck; his temptation wore a heavenly aspect. It softly pleaded with him to forbear, like something outside of himself. It was when he began to resist it that he found it the breath in his nostrils, the blood in his veins. Then the mask dropped, and the enemy of souls put forth his power against this weak spirit, enfeebled by long strife and defeat already acknowledged.

At the end Halleck opened his door, and called, "Olive, Olive!" in a voice that thrilled the girl with strange alarm where she sat in her own room. She came running, and found him clinging to his doorpost, pale and tremulous. "I want you—want you to help me," he gasped. "I want to show you something—Look here!"

He gave her the paper, which he had kept behind him, clutched fast in his hand as if he feared it might somehow escape him at last, and staggered away to a chair.

His sister read the notice. "Oh, Ben!" She dropped her hands with the paper in them before her, a gesture of helpless horror and pity, and looked at him. "Does she know it? Has she seen it?"

"No one knows it but you and I. The paper was left here for me by mistake.
I opened it before I saw that it was addressed to her."

He panted forth these sentences in an exhaustion that would have terrified her, if she had not been too full of indignant compassion for Marcia to know anything else. She tried to speak.

"Don't you understand, Olive? This is the notice that the law requires she shall have to come and defend her cause, and it has been sent by the clerk of the court, there, to the address that villain must have given in the knowledge that it could reach her only by one chance in ten thousand."

"And it has come to you! Oh, Ben! Who sent it to you?" The brother and sister looked at each other, but neither spoke the awestricken thought that was in both their hearts. "Ben," she cried in a solemn ecstasy of love and pride, "I would rather be you this minute than any other man in the world!"

"Don't!" pleaded Halleck. His head dropped, and then he lifted it by a sudden impulse. "Olive!"—But the impulse failed, and he only said, "I want you to go to Atherton with me. We mustn't lose time. Have Cyrus get a carriage. Go down and tell them we're going out. I'll be ready as soon as you are."

But when she called to him from below that the carriage had come and she was waiting, he would have refused to go with her if he durst. He no longer wished to keep back the fact, but he felt an invalid's weariness of it, a sick man's inadequacy to the farther demands it should make upon him. He crept slowly down the stairs, keeping a tremulous hold upon the rail; and he sank with a sigh against the carriage cushions, answering Olive's eager questions and fervid comments with languid monosyllables.

They found the Athertons at coffee, and Clara would have them come to the dining-room and join them. Halleck refused the coffee, and while Olive told what had happened he looked listlessly about the room, aware of a perverse sympathy with Bartley, from Bartley's point of view: Bartley might never have gone wrong if he had had all that luxury; and why should he not have had it, as well as Atherton? What right had the untempted prosperity of such a man to judge the guilt of such men as himself and Bartley Hubbard?

Olive produced the newspaper from her lap, where she kept both hands upon it, and opened it to the advertisement in dramatic corroboration of what she had been telling Atherton. He read it and passed it to Clara.

"When did this come to you?"

Olive answered for him. "This evening,—just now. Didn't I say that?"

"No," said Atherton; and he added to Halleck, gently: "I beg your pardon.
Did you notice the dates?"

"Yes," answered Halleck, with cold refusal of Atherton's tone of reparation.

"The cause is set for hearing on the 11th," said Atherton. "This is the 8th. The time is very short."

"It's long enough," said Halleck, wearily.

"Oh, telegraph!" cried Clara. "Telegraph them instantly that she never dreamt of leaving him! Abandonment! Oh, if they only knew how she had been slaving her lingers off for the last two years to keep a home for him to come back to, they'd give her the divorce!"

Atherton smiled and turned to Halleck: "Do you know what their law is, now?
It was changed two years ago."

"Yes," said Halleck, replying to the question Atherton had asked and the subtler question he had looked, "I have read up the whole subject since I came home. The divorce is granted only upon proof, even when the defendant fails to appear, and if this were to go against us,"—he instinctively identified himself with Marcia's cause,—"we can have the default set aside, and a new trial granted, for cause shown."

The women listened in awe of the legal phrases; but when Atherton rose, and asked, "Is your carriage here?" his wife sprang to her feet.

"Why, where are you going?" she demanded, anxiously.

"Not to Indiana, immediately," answered her husband. "We're first going to Clover Street, to see Squire Gaylord and Mrs. Hubbard. Better let me take the paper, dear," he said, softly withdrawing it from her hands.

"Oh, it's a cruel, cruel law!" she moaned, deprived of this moral support. "To suppose that such a notice as this is sufficient! Women couldn't have made such a law."

"No, women only profit by such laws after they're made: they work both ways. But it's not such a bad law, as divorce laws go. We do worse, now, in some New England States."

They found the Squire alone in the parlor, and, with a few words of explanation, Atherton put the paper in his hands, and he read the notice in emotionless quiet. Then he took off his spectacles, and shut them in their case, which he put back into his waistcoat pocket. "This is all right," he said. He cleared his throat, and, lifting the fierce glimmer of his eyes to Atherton's, he asked, drily, "What is the law, at present?"

Atherton briefly recapitulated the points as he had them from Halleck.

"That's good," said the old man. "We will fight this, gentlemen." He rose, and from his gaunt height looked down on both of them, with his sinuous lips set in a bitter smile. "Bartley must have been disappointed when he found a divorce so hard to get in Indiana. He must have thought that the old law was still in force there. He's not the fellow to swear to a lie if he could help it; but I guess he expects to get this divorce by perjury."

Marcia was putting little Flavia to bed. She heard the talking below; she thought she heard Bartley's name. She ran to the stairs, and came hesitantly down, the old wild hope and wild terror fluttering her pulse and taking her breath. At sight of the three men, apparently in council, she crept toward them, holding out her hands before her like one groping his way. "What—what is it?" She looked from Atherton's face to her father's; the old man stopped, and tried to smile reassuringly; he tried to speak; Atherton turned away.

It was Halleck who came forward, and took her wandering hands. He held them quivering in his own, and said gravely and steadily, using her name for the first time in the deep pity which cast out all fear and shame, "Marcia, we have found your husband."

"Dead?" she made with her lips.

"He is alive," said Halleck. "There is something in this paper for you to see,—something you must see—"

"I can bear anything if he is not dead. Where—what is it? Show it to me—" The paper shook in the hands which Halleck released; her eyes strayed blindly over its columns; he had to put his finger on the place before she could find it. Then her tremor ceased, and she seemed without breath or pulse while she read it through. She fetched a long, deep sigh, and passed her hand over her eyes, as if to clear them; staying herself unconsciously against Halleck's breast, and laying her trembling arm along his arm till her fingers knit themselves among his fingers, she read it a second time and a third. Then she dropped the paper, and turned to look up at him. "Why!" she cried, as if she had made it out at last, while an awful, joyful light of hope flashed into her face. "It is a mistake! Don't you see? He thinks that I never came back! He thinks that I meant to abandon him. That I—that I—But you know that I came back,—you came back with me! Why, I wasn't gone an hour,—a half-hour, hardly. Oh, Bartley, poor Bartley! He thought I could leave him, and take his child from him; that I could be so wicked, so heartless—Oh, no, no, no! Why, I only stayed away that little time because I was afraid to go back! Don't you remember how I told you I was afraid, and wanted you to come in with me?" Her exaltation broke in a laugh. "But we can explain it now, and it will be all right. He will see—he will understand—I will tell him just how it was—Oh, Flavia, Flavia, we've found papa, we've found papa! Quick!"

She whirled away toward the stairs, but her father caught her by the arm. "Marcia!" he shouted, in his old raucous voice, "You've got to understand! This"—he hesitated, as if running over all terms of opprobrium in his mind, and he resumed as if he had found them each too feeble—"Bartley hasn't acted under any mistake."

He set the facts before her with merciless clearness, and she listened with an audible catching of the breath at times, while she softly smoothed her forehead with her left hand. "I don't believe it," she said when he had ended. "Write to him, tell him what I say, and you will see."

The old man uttered something between a groan and a curse. "Oh, you poor, crazy child! Can nothing make you understand that Bartley wants to get rid of you, and that he's just as ready for one lie as another? He thinks he can make out a case of abandonment with the least trouble, and so he accuses you of that, but he'd just as soon accuse you of anything else. Write to him? You've got to go to him! You've got to go out there and fight him in open court, with facts and witnesses. Do you suppose Bartley Hubbard wants any explanation from you? Do you think he's been waiting these two years to hear that you didn't really abandon him, but came back to this house an hour after you left it, and that you've waited for him here ever since? When he knows that, will he withdraw this suit of his and come home? He'll want the proof, and the way to do is to go out there and let him have it. If I had him on the stand for five minutes," said the old man between his set teeth,—"just five minutes,—I'd undertake to convince him from his own lips that he was wrong about you! But I am afraid he wouldn't mind a letter! You think I say so because I hate him; and you don't believe me. Well, ask either of these gentlemen here whether I'm telling you the truth."

She did not speak, but, with a glance at their averted faces, she sank into a chair, and passed one hand over the other, while she drew her breath in long, shuddering respirations, and stared at the floor with knit brows and starting eyes, like one stifling a deadly pang. She made several attempts to speak before she could utter any sound; then she lifted her eyes to her father's: "Let us—let us—go—home! Oh, let us go home! I will give him up. I had given him up already; I told you," she said, turning to Halleck, and speaking in a slow, gentle tone, "only an hour ago, that he was dead. And this—this that's happened, it makes no difference. Why did you bring the paper to me when you knew that I thought he was dead?"

"God knows I wished to keep it from you."

"Well, no matter now. Let him go free if he wants to. I can't help it."

"You can help it," interrupted her father. "You've got the facts on your side, and you've got the witnesses!"

"Would you go out with me, and tell him that I never meant to leave him?" she asked simply, turning to Halleck. "You—and Olive?"

"We would do anything for you, Marcia!"

She sat musing, and drawing her hands one over the other again, while her quivering breath came and went on the silence. She let her hands fall nervelessly on her lap. "I can't go; I'm too weak; I couldn't bear the journey. No!" She shook her head. "I can't go!"

"Marcia," began her father, "it's your duty to go!"

"Does it say in the law that I have to go, if I don't choose?" she asked of
Halleck.

"No, you certainly need not go, if you don't choose!"

"Then I will stay. Do you think it's my duty to go?" she asked, referring her question first to Halleck and then to Atherton. She turned from the silence by which they tried to leave her free. "I don't care for my duty, any more. I don't want to keep him, if it's so that he—left me—and—and meant it—and he doesn't—care for me any—more."

"Care for you? He never cared for you, Marcia! And you may be sure he doesn't care for you now."

"Then let him go, and let us go home."

"Very well!" said the old man. "We will go home, then, and before the week's out Bartley Hubbard will be a perjured bigamist."

"Bigamist?" Marcia leaped to her feet.

"Yes, bigamist! Don't you suppose he had his eye on some other woman out there before he began this suit?"

The languor was gone from Marcia's limbs. As she confronted her father, the wonderful likeness in the outline of their faces appeared. His was dark and wrinkled with age, and hers was gray with the anger that drove the blood back to her heart, but one impulse animated those fierce profiles, and the hoarded hate in the old man's soul seemed to speak in Marcia's thick whisper, "I will go."

William Dean Howells