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Chapter 41

XLI.

That night when Halleck had left the old man to the care of Marcia and Olive, for the time, a note was brought to him from Bartley's lawyer, begging the favor of a few moments' interview on very important business. It might be some offer of reparation or advance in Marcia's interest, and Halleck went with the bearer of the note. The lawyer met him hospitably at the door of his office. "How do you do, sir?" he said, shaking hands. Then he indicated a bulk withdrawn into a corner of the dimly-lighted room; the blinds were drawn, and he locked the door after Halleck's entrance. "Mr. Hubbard, whom I think you know," he added. "I'll just step into the next room, gentlemen, and will be subject to your call at any moment."

The bulk lifted itself and moved some paces toward Halleck; Bartley even raised his hand, with the vague expectation of taking Halleck's, but seeing no responsive gesture on his part, he waved a salutation and dropped it again to his side.

"How d' ye do, Halleck? Rather a secret, black, and midnight interview," he said jocosely. "But I couldn't very well manage it otherwise. I'm not just in the position to offer you the freedom of the city."

"What do you want, Hubbard?" asked Halleck, bluntly.

"How is the old Squire?"

"The doctor thinks he may rally from the shock."

"Paralysis?"

"Yes."

"I have spent the day in the 'tall timber,' as our friends out here say, communing with nature; and I've only just come into town since dark, so I hadn't any particulars." He paused, as if expecting that Halleck might give them, but upon his remaining silent, he resumed. "Of course, as the case now stands, I know very well that the law can't touch me. But I didn't know what the popular feeling might be. The Squire laid it on pretty hot, and he might have made it livelier for me than he intended: he isn't aware of the inflammable nature of the material out here." He gave a nervous chuckle. "I wanted to see you, Halleck, to tell you that I haven't forgotten that money I owe you, and that I mean to pay it all up, some time, yet. If it hadn't been for some expenses I've had lately,—doctor's bills, and so forth,—I haven't been very well, myself,"—he made a sort of involuntary appeal for Halleck's sympathy,—"and I've had to pay out a good deal of money,—I should be able to pay most of it now. As it is, I can only give you five hundred of it." He tugged his porte-monnaie with difficulty up the slope of his pantaloons. "That will leave me just three hundred to begin the world with; for of course I've got to clear out of here. And I'd got very comfortably settled after two years of pretty hard work at the printing business, and hard reading at the law. Well, it's all right. And I want to pay you this money, now, and I'll pay you the rest whenever I can. And I want you to tell Marcia that I did it. I always meant to do it."

"Hubbard," interrupted Halleck, "you don't owe me any money. Your father-in-law paid that debt two years ago. But you owe some one else a debt that no one can pay for you. We needn't waste words: what are you going to do to repair the wrong you have done the woman and the child—" He stopped; the effort had perhaps been too much.

Bartley saw his emotion, and in his benighted way he honored it. "Halleck, you are a good fellow. You are such a good fellow that you can't understand this thing. But it's played out. I felt badly about it myself, at one time; and if I hadn't been robbed of that money you lent me on my way here, I'd have gone back inside of forty-eight hours. I was sorry for Marcia; it almost broke my heart to think of the little one; but I knew they were in the hands of friends; and the more time I had to think it over, the more I was reconciled to what I had done. That was the only way out, for either of us. We had tried it for three years, and we couldn't make it go; we never could have made it go; we were incompatible. Don't you suppose I knew Marcia's good qualities? No one knows them better, or appreciates them more. You might think that I applied for this divorce because I had some one else in view. Not any more in mine at present! But I thought we ought to be free, both of us; and if our marriage had become a chain, that we ought to break it." Bartley paused, apparently to give these facts and reasons time to sink into Halleck's mind. "But there's one thing I should like to have you tell her, Halleck: she was wrong about that girl; I never had anything to do with her. Marcia will understand." Halleck made no reply, and Bartley resumed, in a burst of generosity, which marked his fall into the abyss as nothing else could have done. "Look here, Halleck! I can't marry again for two years. But as I understand the law, Marcia isn't bound in any way. I know that she always had a very high opinion of you, and that she thinks you are the best man in the world: why don't you fix it up with Marcia?"

Bartley was in effect driven into exile by the accidents of his suit for divorce which have been described. He was not in bodily danger after the first excitement passed off, if he was ever in bodily danger at all; but he could not reasonably hope to establish himself in a community which had witnessed such disagreeable facts concerning him; before which indeed he stood attainted of perjury, and only saved from the penalty of his crime by the refusal of his wife to press her case.

As soon as her father was strong enough to be removed, Marcia returned to the East with him, in the care of the friends who continued with them. They did not go back to Boston, but went directly to Equity, where in the first flush of the young and jubilant summer they opened the dim old house at the end of the village street, and resumed their broken lives. Her father, with one side palsy-stricken, wavered out every morning to his office, and sat there all day, the tremulous shadow of his former will. Sometimes his old friends came in to see him; but no one expected now to hear the Squire "get going." He no longer got going on any topic; he had become as a little child,—as the little child that played about him there in the still, warm summer days and built houses with his law-books on the floor. He laughed feebly at her pranks, and submitted to her rule with pathetic meekness in everything where Marcia had not charged them both to the contrary. He was very obedient to Marcia, who looked vigilantly after his welfare, and knew all his goings and comings, as she knew those of his little comrade. Two or three times a day she ran out to see that they were safe; but for the rest she kept herself closely housed, and saw no one whom she was not forced to see; only the meat-man and the fish-man could speak authoritatively concerning her appearance and behavior before folks. They reported the latter as dry, cold, and uncommunicative. Doubtless the bitter experiences of her life had wrought their due effect in that passionate heart; but probably it was as much a morbid sensitiveness as a hardened indifference that turned her from her kind. The village inquisitiveness that invades, also suffers much eccentricity; and after it had been well ascertained that Marcia was as queer as her mother, she was allowed to lead her mother's unmolested life in the old house, which had always turned so cold a shoulder to the world. Toward the end of the summer the lame young man and his sister, who had been several times in Equity before, paid her a visit; but stayed only a day or two, as was accurately known by persons who had noted the opening and closing of the spare-chamber blinds. In the winter he came again, but this time he came alone, and stayed at the hotel. He remained over a Sunday, and sat in the pulpit of the Orthodox church, where the minister extended to him the right hand of fellowship, and invited him to make the opening prayer. It was considered a good prayer, generally speaking, but it was criticised as not containing anything attractive to young people. He was understood to be on his way to take charge of a backwoods church down in Aroostook County, where probably his prayers would be more acceptable to the popular taste.

That winter Squire Gaylord had another stroke of paralysis, and late in the following spring he succumbed to a third. The old minister who had once been Mrs. Gaylord's pastor was now dead; and the Squire was buried by the lame man, who came up to Equity for that purpose, at the wish, often expressed, of the deceased. This at least was the common report, and it is certain that Halleck officiated.

In entering the ministry he had returned to the faith which had been taught him almost before he could speak. He did not defend or justify this course on the part of a man who had once thrown off all allegiance to creeds; he said simply that for him there was no other course. He freely granted that he had not reasoned back to his old faith; he had fled to it as to a city of refuge. His unbelief had been helped, and he no longer suffered himself to doubt; he did not ask if the truth was here or there, any more; he only knew that he could not find it for himself, and he rested in his inherited belief. He accepted everything; if he took one jot or tittle away from the Book, the curse of doubt was on him. He had known the terrors of the law, and he preached them to his people; he had known the Divine mercy, and he also preached that.

The Squire's death occurred a few months before the news came of another event to which the press of the State referred with due recognition, but without great fulness of detail. This was the fatal case of shooting—penalty or consequence, as we choose to consider it, of all that had gone before—which occurred at Whited Sepulchre, Arizona, where Bartley Hubbard pitched his tent, and set up a printing-press, after leaving Tecumseh. He began with the issue of a Sunday paper, and made it so spicy and so indispensable to all the residents of Whited Sepulchre who enjoyed the study of their fellow-citizens' affairs, that he was looking hopefully forward to the establishment of a daily edition, when he unfortunately chanced to comment upon the domestic relations of "one of Whited Sepulchre's leading citizens." The leading citizen promptly took the war-path, as an esteemed contemporary expressed it in reporting the difficulty with the cynical lightness and the profusion of felicitous head-lines with which our journalism often alleviates the history of tragic occurrences: the parenthetical touch in the closing statement, that "Mr. Hubbard leaves a (divorced) wife and child somewhere at the East," was quite in Bartley's own manner.

Marcia had been widowed so long before that this event could make no outward change in her. What inner change, if any, it wrought, is one of those facts which fiction must seek in vain to disclose. But if love such as hers had been did not deny his end the pang of a fresh grief, we may be sure that her sorrow was not unmixed with self-accusal as unavailing as it was passionate, and perhaps as unjust.

One evening, a year later, the Athertons sat talking over a letter from Halleck, which Atherton had brought from Boston with him: it was summer, and they were at their place on the Beverley shore. It was a long letter, and Atherton had read parts of it several times already, on his way down in the cars, and had since read it all to his wife. "It's a very morbid letter," he said, with a perplexed air, when he had finished.

"Yes," she assented. "But it's a very good letter. Poor Ben!"

Her husband took it up again, and read here and there a passage from it.

"But I am turning to you now for help in a matter on which my own conscience throws such a fitful and uncertain light that I cannot trust it. I know that you are a good man, Atherton, and I humbly beseech you to let me have your judgment without mercy: though it slay me, I will abide by it…. Since her father's death, she lives there quite alone with her child. I have seen her only once, but we write to each other, and there are times when it seems to me at last that I have the right to ask her to be my wife. The words give me a shock as I write them; and the things which I used to think reasons for my right rise up in witness against me. Above all, I remember with horror that he approved it, that he advised it!…. It is true that I have never, by word or deed, suffered her to know what was in my heart; but has there ever been a moment when I could do so? It is true that I have waited for his death; but if I have been willing he should die, am I not a potential murderer?"

"Oh, what ridiculous nonsense!" Clara indignantly protested.

Atherton read on: "These are the questions which I ask myself in my despair. She is free, now; but am I free? Am I not rather bound by the past to perpetual silence? There are times when I rebel against these tortures; when I feel a sanction for my love of her, an assurance from somewhere that it is right and good to love her; but then I sink again, for if I ask whence this assurance comes—I beseech you to tell me what you think. Has my offence been so great that nothing can atone for it? Must I sacrifice to this fear all my hopes of what I could be to her, and for her?"

Atherton folded up the letter, and put it back into its envelope, with a frown of exasperation. "I can't see what should have infatuated Halleck with that woman. I don't believe now that he loves her; I believe he only pities her. She is altogether inferior to him: passionate, narrow-minded, jealous,—she would make him miserable. He'd much better stay as he is. If it were not pathetic to have him deifying her in this way, it would be laughable."

"She had a jealous temperament," said Clara, looking down. "But all the Hallecks are fond of her. They think there is a great deal of good in her. don't suppose Ben himself thinks she is perfect But—"

"I dare say," interrupted her husband, "that he thinks he's entirely sincere in asking my advice. But you can see how he wishes to be advised."

"Of course. He wishes to marry her. It isn't so much a question of what a man ought to have, as what he wants to have, in marrying, is it? Even the best of men. If she is exacting and quick-tempered, he is good enough to get on with her. If she had a husband that she could thoroughly trust, she would be easy enough to get on with. There is no woman good enough to get on with a bad man. It's terrible to think of that poor creature living there by herself, with no one to look after her and her little girl; and if Ben—"

"What do you mean, Clara? Don't you see that his being in love with her when she was another man's wife is what he feels it to be,—an indelible stain?"

"She never knew it; and no one ever knew it but you. You said it was our deeds that judged us. Didn't Ben go away when he realized his feeling for her?"

"He came back."

"But he did everything he could to find that poor wretch, and he tried to prevent the divorce. Ben is morbid about it; but there is no use in our being so."

"There was a time when he would have been glad to profit by a divorce."

"But he never did. You said the will didn't count. And now she is a widow, and any man may ask her to marry him."

"Any man but the one who loved her during her husband's life. That is, if he is such a man as Halleck. Of course it isn't a question of gross black and white, mere right and wrong; there are degrees, there are shades. There might be redemption for another sort of man in such a marriage; but for Halleck there could only be loss,—deterioration,—lapse from the ideal. I should think that he might suffer something of this even in her eyes—"

"Oh, how hard you are! I wish Ben hadn't asked your advice. Why, you are worse than, he is! You're not going to write that to him?"

Atherton flung the letter upon the table, and drew a troubled sigh. "Ah, I don't know! I don't know!"

William Dean Howells