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Chapter 38

XXXVIII.

The Athertons sat late over their breakfast in the luxurious dining-room where the April sun came in at the windows overlooking the Back Bay, and commanding at that stage of the tide a long stretch of shallow with a flight of white gulls settled upon it.

They had let Clara's house on the hill, and she had bought another on the new land; she insisted upon the change, not only because everybody was leaving the hill, but also because, as she said, it would seem too much like taking Mr. Atherton to board, if they went to housekeeping where she had always lived; she wished to give him the effect before the world of having brought her to a house of his own. She had even furnished it anew for the most part, and had banished as far as possible the things that reminded her of the time when she was not his wife. He humored her in this fantastic self-indulgence, and philosophized her wish to give him the appearance of having the money, as something orderly in its origin, and not to be deprecated on other grounds, since probably it deceived nobody. They lived a very tranquil life, and Clara had no grief of her own unless it was that there seemed to be no great things she could do for him. One day when she whimsically complained of this, he said: "I'm very glad of that. Let's try to be equal to the little sacrifices we must make for each other; they will be quite enough. Many a woman who would be ready to die for her husband makes him wretched because she won't live for him. Don't despise the day of small things."

"Yes, but when every day seems the day of small things!" she pouted.

"Every day is the day of small things," said Atherton, "with people who are happy. We're never so prosperous as when we can't remember what happened last Monday."

"Oh, but I can't bear to be always living in the present."

"It's not so spacious, I know, as either the past or the future, but it's all we have."

"There!" cried Clara. "That's fatalism! It's worse than fatalism!"

"And is fatalism so very bad?" asked her husband.

"It's Mahometanism!"

"Well, it isn't necessarily a plurality of wives," returned Atherton, in subtle anticipation of her next point. "And it's really only another name for resignation, which is certainly a good thing."

"Resignation? Oh, I don't know about that!"

Atherton laughed, and put his arm round her waist: an argument that no woman can answer in a man she loves; it seems to deprive her of her reasoning faculties. In the atmosphere of affection which she breathed, she sometimes feared that her mental powers were really weakening. As a girl she had lived a life full of purposes, which, if somewhat vague, were unquestionably large. She had then had great interests,—art, music, literature,—the symphony concerts, Mr. Hunt's classes, the novels of George Eliot, and Mr Fiske's lectures on the cosmic philosophy; and she had always felt that they expanded and elevated existence. In her moments of question as to the shape which her life had taken since, she tried to think whether the happiness which seemed so little dependent on these things was not beneath the demands of a spirit which was probably immortal and was certainly cultivated. They all continued to be part of her life, but only a very small part; and she would have liked to ask her husband whether his influence upon her had been wholly beneficial. She was not sure that it had; but neither was she sure that it had not. She had never fully consented to the distinctness with which he classified all her emotions and ideas as those of a woman: in her heart she doubted whether a great many of them might not be those of a man, though she had never found any of them exactly like his. She could not complain that he did not treat her as an equal; he deferred to her, and depended upon her good sense to an extent that sometimes alarmed her, for she secretly knew that she had a very large streak of silliness in her nature. He seemed to tell her everything, and to be greatly ruled by her advice, especially in matters of business; but she could not help observing that he often kept matters involving certain moral questions from her till the moment for deciding them was past. When she accused him of this, he confessed that it was so; but defended himself by saying that he was afraid her conscience might sway him against his judgment.

Clara now recurred to these words of his as she sat looking at him through her tears across the breakfast table. "Was that the reason you never told me about poor Ben before?"

"Yes, and I expect you to justify me. What good would it have done to tell you?"

"I could have told you, at least, that, if Ben had any such feeling as that, it wasn't his fault altogether."

"But you wouldn't have believed that, Clara," said Atherton. "You know that, whatever that poor creature's faults are, coquetry isn't one of them."

Clara only admitted the fact passively. "How did he excuse himself for coming back?" she asked.

"He didn't excuse himself; he defied himself. We had a stormy talk, and he ended by denying that he had any social duty in the matter."

"And I think he was quite right!" Clara flashed out. "It was his own affair."

"He said he had a concrete purpose, and wouldn't listen to abstractions. Yes, he talked like a woman. But you know he wasn't right, Clara, though you talk like a woman, too. There are a great many things that are not wrong except as they wrong others. I've no doubt that, as compared with the highest love her husband ever felt for her, Ben's passion was as light to darkness. But if he could only hope for its return through the perversion of her soul,—through teaching her to think of escape from her marriage by a divorce,—then it was a crime against her and against society."

"Ben couldn't do such a thing!"

"No, he could only dream of doing it. When it came to the attempt, everything that was good in him revolted against it and conspired to make him help her in the efforts that would defeat his hopes if they succeeded. It was a ghastly ordeal, but it was sublime; and when the climax came,—that paper, which he had only to conceal for a few days or weeks,—he was equal to the demand upon him. But suppose a man of his pure training and traditions had yielded to temptation,—suppose he had so far depraved himself that he could have set about persuading her that she owed no allegiance to her husband, and might rightfully get a divorce and marry him,—what a ruinous blow it would have been to all who knew of it! It would have disheartened those who abhorred it, and encouraged those who wanted to profit by such an example. It doesn't matter much, socially, what undisciplined people like Bartley and Marcia Hubbard do; but if a man like Ben Halleck goes astray, it's calamitous; it 'confounds the human conscience,' as Victor Hugo says. All that careful nurture in the right since he could speak, all that life-long decency of thought and act, that noble ideal of unselfishness and responsibility to others, trampled under foot and spit upon,—it's horrible!"

"Yes," answered Clara, deeply moved, even as a woman may be in a pretty breakfast-room, "and such a good soul as Ben always was naturally. Will you have some more tea?"

"Yes, I will take another cup. But as for natural goodness—"

"Wait! I will ring for some hot water."

When the maid had appeared, disappeared, reappeared, and finally vanished, Atherton resumed. "The natural goodness doesn't count. The natural man is a wild beast, and his natural goodness is the amiability of a beast basking in the sun when his stomach is full. The Hubbards were full of natural goodness, I dare say, when they didn't happen to cross each other's wishes. No, it's the implanted goodness that saves,—the seed of righteousness treasured from generation to generation, and carefully watched and tended by disciplined fathers and mothers in the hearts where they have dropped it. The flower of this implanted goodness is what we call civilization, the condition of general uprightness that Halleck declared he owed no allegiance to. But he was better than his word."

Atherton lifted, with his slim, delicate hand, the cup of translucent china, and drained off the fragrant Souchong, sweetened, and tempered with Jersey cream to perfection. Something in the sight went like a pang to his wife's heart. "Ah!" she said, "it is easy enough for us to condemn. We have everything we want!"

"I don't forget that, Clara," said Atherton, gravely. "Sometimes when I think of it, I am ready to renounce all judgment of others. The consciousness of our comfort, our luxury, almost paralyzes me at those times, and I am ashamed and afraid even of our happiness."

"Yes, what right," pursued Clara, rebelliously, "have we to be happy and united, and these wretched creatures so—"

"No right,—none in the world! But somehow the effects follow their causes. In some sort they chose misery for themselves,—we make our own hell in this life and the next,—or it was chosen for them by undisciplined wills that they inherited. In the long run their fate must be a just one."

"Ah, but I have to look at things in the short run, and I can't see any justice in Marcia's husband using her so!" cried Clara. "Why shouldn't you use me badly? I don't believe that any woman ever meant better by her husband than she did."

"Oh, the meaning doesn't count! It's our deeds that judge us. He is a thoroughly bad fellow, but you may be sure she has been to blame. Though I don't blame the Hubbards, either of them, so much as I blame Halleck. He not only had everything he wished, but the training to know what he ought to wish."

"I don't know about his having everything. I think Ben must have been disappointed, some time," said Clara, evasively.

"Oh, that's nothing," replied Atherton, with the contented husband's indifference to sentimental grievances.

Clara did not speak for some moments, and then she summed up a turmoil of thoughts in a profound sigh. "Well, I don't like it! I thought it was bad enough having a man, even on the outskirts of my acquaintance, abandon his wife; but now Ben Halleck, who has been like a brother to me, to have him mixed up in such an affair in the way he is, it's intolerable!"

"I agree with you," said Atherton, playing with his spoon. "You know how I hate anything that sins against order, and this whole thing is disorderly. It's intolerable, as you say. But we must bear our share of it. We're all bound together. No one sins or suffers to himself in a civilized state,—or religious state; it's the same thing. Every link in the chain feels the effect of the violence, more or less intimately. We rise or fall together in Christian society. It's strange that it should be so hard to realize a thing that every experience of life teaches. We keep on thinking of offences against the common good as if they were abstractions!"

"Well, one thing," said Clara, "I shall always think unnecessarily shocking and disgraceful about it. And that is Ben's going out with her on this journey. I don't see how you could allow that, Eustace."

"Yes," said Atherton, after a thoughtful silence, "it is shocking. The only consolation is that it is not unnecessarily shocking. I'm afraid that it's necessarily so. When any disease of soul or body has gone far enough, it makes its own conditions, and other things must adjust themselves to it. Besides, no one knows the ugliness of the situation but Halleck himself. I don't see how I could have interfered; and upon the whole I don't know that I ought to have interfered, if I could. She would be helpless without him; and he can get no harm from it. In fact, it's part of his expiation, which must have begun as soon as he met her again after he came home."

Clara was convinced, but not reconciled. She only said, "I don't like it."

Her husband did not reply; he continued musingly: "When the old man made that final appeal to her jealousy,—all that there is really left, probably, of her love for her husband,—and she responded with a face as wicked as his, I couldn't help looking at Halleck—"

"Oh, poor Ben! How did he take it? It must have scared, it must have disgusted him!"

"That's what I had expected. But there was nothing in his face but pity. He understood, and he pitied her. That was all."

Clara rose, and turned to the window, where she remained looking through her tears at the gulls on the shallow. It seemed much more than twenty-four hours since she had taken leave of Marcia and the rest at the station, and saw them set out on their long journey with its uncertain and unimaginable end. She had deeply sympathized with them all, but at the same time she had felt very keenly the potential scandalousness of the situation; she shuddered inwardly when she thought what if people knew; she had always revolted from contact with such social facts as their errand involved. She got Olive aside for a moment, and asked her, "Don't you hate it, Olive? Did you ever dream of being mixed up in such a thing? I should die,—simply die!"

"I shall not think of dying, unless we fail," answered Olive. "And, as for hating it, I haven't consulted my feelings a great deal; but I rather think I like it."

"Like going out to be a witness in an Indiana divorce case!"

"I don't look at it in that way, Clara. It's a crusade to me; it's a holy war; it's the cause of an innocent woman against a wicked oppression. I know how you would feel about it, Clara; but I never was as respectable as you are, and I'm quite satisfied to do what Ben, and father, and Mr. Atherton approve. They think it's my duty, and I am glad to go, and to be of all the use I can. But you shall have my heartfelt sympathy through all, Clara, for your involuntary acquaintance with our proceedings."

"Olive! You know that I'm proud of your courage and Ben's goodness, and that I fully appreciate the sacrifice you're making. And I'm not ashamed of your business: I think it's grand and sublime, and I would just as soon scream it out at the top of my voice, right here in the Albany depot."

"Don't," said Olive. "It would frighten the child." She had Flavia by the hand, and she made the little girl her special charge throughout the journey. The old Squire seemed anxious to be alone, and he restlessly escaped from Marcia's care. He sat all the first day apart, chewing upon some fragment of wood that he had picked up, and now and then putting up a lank hand to rasp his bristling jaw; glancing furtively at people who passed him, and lapsing into his ruminant abstraction. He had been vexed that they did not start the night before; and every halt the train made visibly afflicted him. He would not leave his place to get anything to eat when they stopped for refreshment, though he hungrily devoured the lunch that Marcia brought into the car for him. At New York he was in a tumult of fear lest they should lose the connecting train on the Pennsylvania Road; and the sigh of relief with which he sank into his seat in the sleeping-car expressed the suffering he had undergone. He said he was not tired, but he went to bed early, as if to sleep away as much of the time as he could.

When Halleck came into their car, the next morning, he found Marcia and her father sitting together, and looking out of the window at the wooded slopes of the Alleghanies through which the train was running. The old man's impatience had relaxed; he let Marcia lay her hand on his, and he answered her with quiet submission, when she spoke now and then of the difference between these valleys, where the wild rhododendrons were growing, and the frozen hollows of the hills at home, which must be still choked with snow.

"But, oh! how much I would rather see them!" she said at last with a homesick throb.

"Well," he assented, "we can go right back—afterwards."

"Yes," she whispered.

"Well, sir, good morning," said the old man to Halleck, "we are getting along, sir. At this rate, unless our calculations were mistaken, we shall be there by midnight. We are on time, the porter tells me."

"Yes, we shall soon be at Pittsburg," said Halleck, and he looked at Marcia, who turned away her face. She had not spoken of the object of the journey to him since they had left Boston, and it had not been so nearly touched by either of them before.

He could see that she recoiled from it, but the old man, once having approached it, could not leave it. "If everything goes well, we shall have our grip on that fellow's throat in less than forty-eight hours." He looked down mechanically at his withered hands, lean and yellow like the talons of a bird, and lifted his accipitral profile with a predatory alertness. "I didn't sleep very well the last part of the night, but I thought it all out. I sha'n't care whether I get there before or after judgment is rendered; all I want is to get there before he has a chance to clear out. I think I shall be able to convince Bartley Hubbard that there is a God in Israel yet! Don't you be anxious, Marcia; I've got this thing at my fingers' ends, as clear as a bell. I intend to give Bartley a little surprise!"

Marcia kept her face averted, and Halleck relinquished his purpose of sitting down with them, and went forward to the state-room that Marcia and Olive had occupied with the little girl. He tapped on the door, and found his sister dressed, but the child still asleep.

"What is the matter, Ben?" she asked. "You don't look well. You oughtn't to have undertaken this journey."

"Oh, I'm all right. But I've been up a good while, with nothing to eat.
That old man is terrible. Olive!"

"Her father? Yes, he's a terrible old man!"

"It sickened me to hear him talk, just now,—throwing out his threats of vengeance against Hubbard. It made me feel a sort of sympathy for that poor dog. Do you suppose she has the same motive? I couldn't forgive her!" he said, with a kind of passionate weakness. "I couldn't forgive myself!"

"We've got nothing to do with their motive, Ben. We are to be her witnesses for justice against a wicked wrong. I don't believe in special providences, of course; but it does seem as if we had been called to this work, as mother would say. Your happening to go home with her, that night, and then that paper happening to come to you,—doesn't it look like it?"

"It looks like it, yes."

"We couldn't have refused to come. That's what consoles me for being here this minute. I put on a bold face with Clara Atherton, yesterday morning at the depot; but I was in a cold chill, all the time. Our coming off, in this way, on such an errand, is something so different from the rest of our whole life! And I do like quiet, and orderly ways, and all that we call respectability! I've been thinking that the trial will be reported by some such interviewing wretch as Bartley himself, and that we shall figure in the newspapers. But I've concluded that we mustn't care. It's right, and we must do it. I don't shut my eyes to the kind of people we're mixed up with. I pity Marcia, and I love her—poor, helpless, unguided thing!—but that old man is terrible! He's as cruel as the grave where he thinks he's been wronged, and crueller where he thinks she's been wronged. You've forgiven so much, Ben, that you can't understand a man who forgives nothing; but I can, for I'm a pretty good hater, myself. And Marcia's just like her father, at times. I've seen her look at Clara Atherton as if she could kill her!"

The little girl stirred in her berth, and then lifted herself on her hands, and stared round at them through her tangled golden hair. "Is it morning, yet?" she asked sleepily. "Is it to-morrow?"

"Yes; it's to-morrow, Flavia," said Olive. "Do you want to get up?"

"And is next day the day after to-morrow?"

"Yes."

"Then it's only one day till I shall see papa. That's what mamma said. Where is mamma?" asked the child, rising to her knees, and sweeping back her hair from her face with either hand.

"I will go and send her to you," said Halleck.

At Pittsburg the Squire was eager for his breakfast, and made amends for his fast of the day before. He ate grossly of the heterogeneous abundance of the railroad restaurant, and drank two cups of coffee that in his thin, native air would have disordered his pulse for a week. But he resumed his journey with a tranquil strength that seemed the physical expression of a mind clear and content. He was willing and even anxious to tell Halleck what his theories and plans were; but the young man shrank from knowing them. He wished only to know whether Marcia were privy to them, and this, too, he shrank from knowing.

William Dean Howells