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Chapter 40

XL.

Halleck woke at daybreak from the drowse into which he had fallen. The train was creeping slowly over the track, feeling its way, and he heard fragments of talk among the passengers about a broken rail that the conductor had been warned of. He turned to ask some question, when the pull of rising speed came from the locomotive, and at the same moment the car stopped with a jolting pitch. It settled upon the track again; but the two cars in front were overturned, and the passengers were still climbing from their windows, when Halleck got his bewildered party to the ground. Children were crying, and a woman was led by with her face cut and bleeding from the broken glass; but it was reported that no one else was hurt, and the trainmen gave their helplessness to the inspection of the rotten cross-tie that had caused the accident. One of the passengers kicked the decayed wood with his boot. "Well," he said, "I always like a little accident like this, early; it makes us safe the rest of the day." The sentiment apparently commended itself to popular acceptance; Halleck went forward with part of the crowd to see what was the matter with the locomotive: it had kept the track, but seemed to be injured somehow; the engineer was working at it, hammer in hand; he exchanged some dry pleasantries with a passenger who asked him if there was any chance of hiring a real fast ox-team in that neighborhood, in case a man was in a hurry to get on to Tecumseh.

They were in the midst of a level prairie that stretched all round to the horizon, where it was broken by patches of timber; the rising sun slanted across the green expanse, and turned its distance to gold; the grass at their feet was full of wild-flowers, upon which Flavia flung herself as soon as they got out of the car. By the time Halleck returned to them, she was running with cries of joy and wonder toward a windmill that rose beautiful above the roofs of a group of commonplace houses, at a little distance from the track; it stirred its mighty vans in the thin, sweet inland breeze, and took the sun gayly on the light gallery that encircled it.

A vision of Belgian plains swept before Halleck's eyes. "There ought to be storks on its roof," he said, absently.

"How strange that it should be here, away out in the West!" said Olive.

"If it were less strange than we are, here, I couldn't stand it," he answered.

A brakeman came up with a flag in his hand, and nodded toward Flavia. "She's on the right track for breakfast," he said. "There's an old Dutchman at that mill, and his wife knows how to make coffee like a fellow's mother. You'll have plenty of time. This train has come here to stay—till somebody can walk back five miles and telegraph for help."

"How far are we from Tecumseh?" asked Halleck.

"Fifty miles," the brakeman called back over his shoulder.

"Don't you worry any, Marcia," said her father, moving off in pursuit of Flavia. "This accident makes it all right for us, if we don't get there for a week."

Marcia answered nothing. Halleck began to talk to her of that Belgian landscape in which he had first seen a windmill, and he laughed at the blank unintelligence with which she received his reminiscences of travel. For the moment, the torturing stress was lifted from his soul; he wished that the breakfast in the miller's house might never come to an end; he explored the mill with Flavia; he bantered the Squire on his saturnine preference for steam power in the milling business; he made the others share his mood; he pushed far from him the series of tragic or squalid facts which had continually brought the end to him in reveries in which he found himself holding his breath, as if he might hold it till the end really came.

But this respite could not last. A puff of white steam showed on the horizon, and after an interval the sound of the locomotive whistle reached them, as it came backing down a train of empty cars towards them. They were quickly on their journey again, and a scanty hour before noon they arrived at Tecumseh.

The pretty town, which in prospect had worn to Olive Halleck's imagination the blended hideousness of Sodom and Gomorrah, was certainly very much more like a New England village in fact. After the brick farmsteads and coal-smoked towns of Central Ohio, its wooden houses, set back from the street with an ample depth of door-yard, were appealingly familiar, and she exchanged some homesick whispers with Marcia about them, as they drove along under the full-leaved maples which shadowed the way. The grass was denser and darker than in New England, and, pretty as the town was, it wore a more careless and unscrupulous air than the true New England village; the South had touched it, and here and there it showed a wavering line of fence and a faltering conscientiousness in its paint. Presently all aspects of village quiet and seclusion ceased, and a section of conventional American city, with flab-roofed brick blocks, showy hotel, stores, paved street, and stone sidewalks expressed the readiness of Tecumseh to fulfil the destiny of every Western town, and become a metropolis at a day's notice, if need be. The second-hand omnibus, which reflected the actuality of Tecumseh, set them down at the broad steps of the court-house, fronting on an avenue which for a city street was not very crowded or busy. Such passers as there were had leisure and inclination, as they loitered by, to turn and stare at the strangers; and the voice of the sheriff, as he called from an upper window of the court-house the names of absentee litigants or witnesses required to come into court, easily made itself heard above all the other noises.

It seemed to Halleck as if the sheriff were calling them; he lifted his head and looked at Olive, but she would not meet his eye; she led by the hand the little girl, who kept asking, "Is this the house where papa lives?" with the merciless iteration of a child. Halleck dragged lamely after the Squire, who had mounted the steps with unnatural vigor; he promptly found his way to the clerk's office, where he examined the docket, and then returned to his party triumphant. "We are in time," he said, and he led them on up into the court-room.

A few spectators, scattered about on the rows of benching, turned to look at them as they walked up the aisle, where the cocoa matting, soaked and dried, and soaked again, with perpetual libations of tobacco-juice, mercifully silenced their footsteps; most of the faces turned upon them showed a slow and thoughtful movement of the jaws, and, as they were dropped or averted, a general discharge of tobacco-juice seemed to express the general adoption of the new-comers, whoever they were, as a necessary element of the scene, which it was useless to oppose, and about which it was idle to speculate. Before the Squire had found his party seats on one of the benches next the bar, the spectators had again given their languid attention to the administration of justice, which is everywhere informal with us, and is only a little more informal in the West than in the East. An effect of serene disoccupation pervaded the place, such as comes at the termination of an interesting affair; and no one seemed to care for what the clerk was reading aloud in a set, mechanical tone. The judge was busy with his docket; the lawyers, at their several little tables within the bar, lounged in their chairs, or stalked about laughing and whispering to each other; the prosecuting attorney leaned upon the shoulder of a jolly-looking man, who lifted his face to joke up at him, as he tilted his chair back; a very stout, youngish person, who sat next him, kept his face dropped while the clerk proceeded:—

"And now, on motion of plaintiff, it is ordered by the Court that said defendant be now here three times called, which is done in open court, and she comes not; but wholly makes default herein. And this cause is now submitted to the Court for trial, and the Court having heard the evidence, and being fully advised, find for the plaintiff,—that the allegations of his complaint are true, and that he is entitled to a divorce. It is therefore considered by the Court, that said plaintiff be and he is hereby divorced, and the bonds of matrimony heretofore existing between said parties are dissolved and held for naught."

As the clerk closed the large volume before him, the jolly lawyer, as if the record had been read at his request, nodded to the Court, and said, "The record of the decree seems correct, your honor." He leaned forward, and struck the fat man's expanse of back with the flat of his hand. "Congratulate you, my dear boy!" he said in a stage whisper that was heard through the room. "Many happy returns of the day!"

A laugh went round, and the judge said severely, "Mr. Sheriff, see that order is kept in the courtroom."

The fat man rose to shake hands with another friend, and at the same moment Squire Gaylord stretched himself to his full height before stooping over to touch the shoulder of one of the lawyers within the bar, and his eyes encountered those of Bartley Hubbard in mutual recognition.

It was not the fat on Bartley's ribs only that had increased: his broad cheeks stood out and hung down with it, and his chin descended by the three successive steps to his breast. His complexion was of a tender pink, on which his blonde moustache showed white; it almost vanished in the tallowy pallor to which the pink turned as he saw his father-in-law, and then the whole group which the intervening spectators had hitherto hidden from him. He dropped back into his chair, and intimated to his lawyer, with a wave of his hand and a twist of his head, that some hopeless turn in his fortunes had taken place. That jolly soul turned to him for explanation, and at the same time the lawyer whom Squire Gaylord had touched on the shoulder responded to a few whispered words from him by beckoning to the prosecuting attorney, who stepped briskly across to where they stood. A brief dumb-show ensued, and the prosecutor ended by taking the Squire's hand, and inviting him within the bar; the other attorney politely made room for him at his table, and the prosecutor returned to his place near the jury-box, where he remained standing for a moment.

"If it please the Court," he began, in a voice breaking heavily upon the silence that had somehow fallen upon the whole room, "I wish to state that the defendant in the case of Hubbard vs. Hubbard is now and here present, having been prevented by an accident on the road between this place and Indianapolis from arriving in time to make defence. She desires to move the Court to set aside the default."

The prosecutor retired a few paces, and nodded triumphantly at Bartley's lawyer, who could not wholly suppress his enjoyment of the joke, though it told so heavily against him and his client. But he was instantly on his feet with a technical objection.

The judge heard him through, and then opened his docket, at the case of Hubbard vs. Hubbard. "What name shall I enter for the defence?" he inquired formally.

Squire Gaylord turned with an old-fashioned state and deliberation which had their effect, and cast a glance of professional satisfaction in the situation at the attorneys and the spectators. "I ask to be allowed to appear for the defence in this case, if the Court please. My friend, Mr. Hathaway, will move my admission to this bar."

The attorney to whom the Squire had first introduced himself promptly complied: "Your honor, I move the admission of Mr. F. J. Gaylord, of Equity, Equity County, Maine, to practise at this bar."

The judge bowed to the Squire, and directed the clerk to administer the usual oath. "I have entered your name for the defence, Mr. Gaylord. Do you desire to make any motion in the case?" he pursued, the natural courtesy of his manner further qualified by a feeling which something pathetic in the old Squire's bearing inspired.

"Yes, your honor, I move to set aside the default, and I shall offer in support of this motion my affidavit, setting forth the reasons for the non-appearance of the defendant at the calling of the cause."

"Shall I note your motion as filed?" asked the Judge.

"Yes, your honor," replied the old man. He made a futile attempt to prepare the paper; the pen flew out of his trembling hand. "I can't write," he said in despair that made other hands quick to aid him. A young lawyer at the next desk rapidly drew up the paper, and the Squire duly offered it to the clerk of the Court. The clerk stamped it with the file-mark of the Court, and returned it to the Squire, who read aloud the motion and affidavit, setting forth the facts of the defendant's failure to receive the notice in time to prepare for her defence, and of the accident which had contributed to delay her appearance, declaring that she had a just defence to the plaintiff's bill, and asking to be heard upon the facts.

Bartley's attorney was prompt to interpose again. He protested that the printed advertisement was sufficient notice to the defendant, whenever it came to her knowledge, or even if it never came to her knowledge, and that her plea of failure to receive it in time was not a competent excuse. This might be alleged in any case, and any delay of travel might be brought forward to account for non-appearance as plausibly as this trumped-up accident in which nobody was hurt. He did his best, which was also his worst, and the judge once more addressed the Squire, who stood waiting for Bartley's counsel to close. "I was about to adjourn the Court," said the judge, in that accent which is the gift of the South to some parts of the West; it is curiously soft and gentle, and expressive, when the speaker will, of a caressing deference. "But we have still some minutes before noon in which we can hear you in support of your motion, if you are ready."

"I am m-ready, your honor!" The old man's nasals cut across the judge's rounded tones, almost before they had ceased. His lips compressed themselves to a waving line, and his high hawk-beak came down over them; the fierce light burned in his cavernous eyes, and his grizzled hair erected itself like a crest. He swayed slightly back and forth at the table, behind which he stood, and paused as if waiting for his hate to gather head.

In this interval it struck several of the spectators, who had appreciative friends outside, that it was a pity they should miss the coming music, and they risked the loss of some strains themselves that they might step out and inform these dilettanti. One of them was stopped by a man at the door. "What's up, now?" The other impatiently explained; but the inquirer, instead of hurrying in to enjoy the fun, turned quickly about, and ran down the stairs. He crossed the street, and, by a system of alleys and byways, modestly made his way to the outlying fields of Tecumseh, which he traversed at heightened speed, plunging at last into the belt of timber beyond. This excursion, which had so much the appearance of a chase, was an exigency of the witness who had corroborated on oath the testimony of Bartley in regard to his wife's desertion. Such an establishment of facts, purely imaginary with the witness, was simple enough in the absence of rebutting testimony; but confronted with this, it became another affair; it had its embarrassments, its risks.

"M-ready," repeated Squire Gay lord, "m-ready with facts and witnesses!" The word, in which he exulted till it rang and echoed through the room, drew the eyes of all to the little group on the bench next the bar, where Marcia, heavily veiled in the black which she had worn ever since Bartley's disappearance, sat with Halleck and Olive. The little girl, spent with her long journey, rested her head on her mother's lap, and the mother's hand tremulously smoothed her hair, and tried to hush the grieving whisper in which she incessantly repeated, "Where is papa? I want to see papa!"

Olive looked straight before her, and Halleck's eyes were fixed upon the floor. After the first glance at them Bartley did not lift his head, but held it bent forward where he sat, and showed only a fold of fat red neck above his coat-collar. Marcia might have seen his face in that moment before it blanched and he sank into his chair; she did not look toward him again.

"Mr. Sheriff, keep silence in the Court!" ordered the judge, in reprimand of the stir that ensued upon the general effort to catch sight of the witnesses.

"Silence in the Court! Keep your seats, gentlemen!" cried the sheriff.

"And I thank the Court," resumed the Squire, "for this immediate opportunity to redress an atrocious wrong, and to vindicate an innocent and injured woman. Sir, I think it will prejudice our cause with no one, when I say that we are here not only in the relation of attorney and client, but in that of father and daughter, and that I stand in this place singularly and sacredly privileged to demand justice for my own child!"

"Order, order!" shouted the sheriff. But he could not quell the sensation that followed; the point had been effectively made, and it was some moments before the noise of the people beginning to arrive from the outside permitted the Squire to continue. He waited, with one lean hand hanging at his side, and the other resting in a loosely folded fist on the table before him. He took this fist up as if it were some implement he had laid hold of, and swung it in the air.

"By a chance which I shall not be the last to describe as providential,"—he paused, and looked round the room as if defying any one there to challenge the sincerity of his assertion,—"the notice, which your law requires to be given by newspaper advertisement to the non-resident defendant in such a case as this, came, by one chance in millions, to her hand. By one chance more or less, it would not have reached her, and a monstrous crime against justice would have been irrevocably accomplished. For she had mourned this man as dead,—dead to the universal frame of things, when he was only dead to honor, dead to duty, and dead to her; and it was that newspaper, sent almost at random through the mail, and wandering from hand to hand, and everywhere rejected, for weeks, before it reached her at last, which convinced her that he was still in such life as a man may live who has survived his own soul. We are therefore here, standing upon our right, and prepared to prove it God's right, and the everlasting truth. Two days ago, a thousand miles and a thousand uncertainties intervened between us and this right, but now we are here to show that the defendant, basely defamed by the plea of abandonment, returned to her home within an hour after she had parted there with the plaintiff, and has remained there day and night ever since." He stopped. "Did I say she had never absented herself during all this time? I was wrong. I spoke hastily. I forgot." He dropped his voice. "She did absent herself at one time,—for three days,—while she could come home to close her mother's dying eyes, and help me to lay her in the grave!" He tried to close his lips firmly again, but the sinuous line was broken by a convulsive twitching. "Perhaps," he resumed with the utmost gentleness, "the plaintiff returned in this interval, and, finding her gone, was confirmed in his belief that she had abandoned him."

He felt blindly about on the table with his trembling hands, and his whole figure had a pathos that gave the old dress-coat statuesque dignity. The spectators quietly changed their places, and occupied the benches near him, till Bartley was left sitting alone with his counsel. We are beginning to talk here at the East of the decline of oratory; but it is still a passion in the West, and his listeners now clustered about the Squire in keen appreciation of his power; it seemed to summon even the loiterers in the street, whose ascending tramp on the stairs continually made itself heard; the lawyers, the officers of the court, the judge, forgot their dinner, and posed themselves anew in their chairs to listen.

No doubt the electrical sphere of sympathy and admiration penetrated to the old man's consciousness. When he pulled off his black satin stock—the relic of ancient fashion which the piety of his daughter kept in repair—and laid it on the table, there was a deep inarticulate murmur of satisfaction which he could not have mistaken. His voice rose again:—

"If the plaintiff indeed came at that time, the walls of those empty rooms, into which he peered like a thief in the night, might have told him—if walls had tongues to speak as they have ears to hear—a tale that would have melted even his heart with remorse and shame. They might have told him of a woman waiting in hunger and cold for his return, and willing to starve and freeze, rather than own herself forsaken,—waiting till she was hunted from her door by the creditors whom he had defrauded, and forced to confess her disgrace and her despair, in order to save herself from the unknown terrors of the law, invoked upon her innocent head by his villany. This is the history of the first two weeks of those two years, during which, as his perjured lips have sworn, he was using every effort to secure her return to him. I will not enlarge now upon this history, nor upon that of the days and weeks and months that followed, wringing the heart and all but crazing the brain of the wife who would not, in the darkest hours of her desolation, believe herself wilfully abandoned. But we have the record, unbroken and irrefragable, which shall not only right his victim, but shall bring yonder perjurer to justice."

The words had an iron weight; they fell like blows. Bartley did not stir; but Marcia moved uneasily in her chair, and a low pitiful murmur broke from behind her veil. Her father stopped again, panting, and his dry lips closed and parted several times before he could find his voice again. But at that sound of grief he partially recovered himself, and went on brokenly.

"I now ask this Court, for due cause, to set aside the default upon which judgment has been rendered against the defendant, and I shall then ask leave to file her cross-petition for divorce."

Marcia started half-way from her chair, and then fell back again; she looked round at Halleck as if for help, and hid her face in her hands. Her father cast a glance at her as if for her approval of this development of his plan.

"Then, may it please the Court, upon the rendition of judgment in our favor upon that petition—a result of which I have no more doubt than of my own existence—I shall demand under your law the indictment of yonder perjurer for his crime, and I shall await in security the sentence which shall consign him to a felon's cell in a felon's garb—"

Marcia flung herself upon her father's arm, outstretched toward Bartley. "No! No! No!" she cried, with deep, shuddering breaths, in a voice thick with horror. "Never! Let him go! I will not have it! I didn't understand! I never meant to harm him! Let him go! It is my cause, and I say—"

The old man's arm dropped; he fixed a ghastly, bewildered look upon his daughter, and fell forward across the table at which he stood. The judge started from his chair; the people leaped over the benches, and crushed about the Squire, who fetched his breath in convulsive gasps. "Keep back!" "Give him air!" "Open the window!" "Get a doctor!" cried those next him.

Even Bartley's counsel had joined the crowd about the Squire, from the midst of which broke the long, frightened wail of a child. This was Bartley's opportunity. When his counsel turned to look for him, and advise his withdrawal from a place where he could do no good, and where possibly he might come to harm, he found that his advice had been anticipated: Bartley's chair was vacant.

William Dean Howells