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Chapter 7

VII.

Bartley hung over the boy with such a terror in his soul as he had never had before. He believed that he had killed him, and in this conviction came with the simultaneity of events in dreams the sense of all his blame, of which the blow given for a blow seemed the least part. He was not so wrong in that as he was wrong in what led to it. He did not abhor in himself so much the wretch who had struck his brother down as the light and empty fool who had trifled with that silly hoyden. The follies that seemed so amusing and resultless in their time had ripened to this bitter effect, and he knew that he, and not she, was mainly culpable. Her self-betrayal, however it came about, was proof that they were more serious with her than with him, and he could not plead to himself even the poor excuse that his fancy had been caught. Amidst the anguish of his self-condemnation the need to conceal what he had done occurred to him. He had been holding Bird's head in his arms, and imploring him, "Henry! Henry! wake up!" in a low, husky voice; but now he turned to the door and locked it, and the lie by which he should escape sprang to his tongue. "He died in a fit." He almost believed it as it murmured itself from his lips. There was no mark, no bruise, nothing to show that he had touched the boy. Suddenly he felt the lie choke him. He pulled down the window to let in the fresh air, and this pure breath of heaven blew into his darkened spirit and lifted there a little the vapors which were thickening in it. The horror of having to tell that lie, even if he should escape by it, all his life long, till he was a gray old man, and to keep the truth forever from his lips, presented itself to him as intolerable slavery. "Oh, my God!" he spoke aloud, "how can I bear that?" And it was in self-pity that he revolted from it. Few men love the truth for its own sake, and Bartley was not one of these; but he practised it because his experience had been that lies were difficult to manage, and that they were a burden on the mind. He was not candid; he did not shun concealments and evasions; but positive lies he had kept from, and now he could not trust one to save his life. He unlocked the door and ran out to find help; he must do that at last; he must do it at any risk; no matter what he said afterward. When our deeds and motives come to be balanced at the last day, let us hope that mercy, and not justice, may prevail.

It must have been mercy that sent the doctor at that moment to the apothecary's, on the other side of the street, and enabled Bartley to get him up into his office, without publicity or explanation other than that Henry Bird seemed to be in a fit. The doctor lifted the boy's head, and explored his bosom with his hand.

"Is he—is he dead?" gasped Bartley, and the words came so mechanically from his tongue that he began to believe he had not spoken them, when the doctor answered.

"No! How did this happen? Tell me exactly."

"We had a quarrel. He struck me. I knocked him down." Bartley delivered up the truth, as a prisoner of war—or a captive brigand, perhaps—parts with his weapons one by one.

"Very well," said the doctor. "Get some water."

Bartley poured some out of the pitcher on his table, and the doctor, wetting his handkerchief, drew it again and again over Bird's forehead.

"I never meant to hurt him," said Bartley. "I didn't even intend to strike him when he hit me."

"Intentions have very little to do with physical effects," replied the doctor sharply. "Henry!"

The boy opened his eyes, and, muttering feebly, "My head!" closed them again.

"There's a concussion here," said the doctor. "We had better get him home.
Drive my sleigh over, will you, from Smith's."

Bartley went out into the glare of the sun, which beat upon him like the eye of the world. But the street was really empty, as it often was in the middle of the forenoon at Equity. The apothecary, who saw him untying the doctor's horse, came to his door, and said jocosely, "Hello, Doc! who's sick?"

"I am," said Bartley, solemnly, and the apothecary laughed at his readiness. Bartley drove round to the back of the printing-office, where the farmers delivered his wood. "I thought we could get him out better that way," he explained, and the doctor, who had to befriend a great many concealments in his practice, silently spared Bartley's disingenuousness.

The rush of the cold air, as they drove rapidly down the street, with that limp shape between them, revived the boy, and he opened his eyes, and made an effort to hold himself erect, but he could not; and when they got him into the warm room at home, he fainted again. His mother had met them at the door of her poor little house, without any demonstration of grief or terror; she was far too well acquainted in her widowhood—bereft of all her children but this son—with sickness and death, to show even surprise, if she felt it. When Bartley broke out into his lamentable confession, "Oh, Mrs. Bird! this is my work!" she only wrung her hands and answered, "Your work! Oh, Mr. Hubbard, he thought the world of you!" and did not ask him how or why he had done it. After they had got Henry on the bed, Bartley was no longer of use there; but they let him remain in the corner into which he had shrunk, and from which he watched all that went on, with a dry mouth and faltering breath. It began to appear to him that he was very young to be involved in a misfortune like this; he did not understand why it should have happened to him; but he promised himself that, if Henry lived, he would try to be a better man in every way.

After he had lost all hope, the time seemed so long, the boy on the bed opened his eyes once more, and looked round, while Bartley still sat with his face in his hands. "Where—where is Mr. Hubbard?" he faintly asked, with a bewildered look at his mother and the doctor.

Bartley heard the weak voice, and staggered forward, and fell on his knees beside the bed. "Here, here! Here I am, Henry! Oh, Henry, I didn't intend—" He stopped at the word, and hid his face in the coverlet.

The boy lay as if trying to make out what had happened, and the doctor told him that he had fainted. After a time, he put out his hand and laid it on Bartley's head. "Yes; but I don't understand what makes him cry."

They looked at Bartley, who had lifted his head, and he went over the whole affair, except so far as it related to Hannah Morrison; he did not spare himself; he had often found that strenuous self-condemnation moved others to compassion; and besides, it was his nature to seek the relief of full confession. But Henry heard him through with a blank countenance. "Don't you remember?" Bartley implored at last.

"No, I don't remember. I only remember that there seemed to be something the matter with my head this morning."

"That was the trouble with me, too," said Bartley. "I must have been crazy—I must have been insane—when I struck you. I can't account for it."

"I don't remember it," answered the boy.

"That's all right," said the doctor. "Don't try. I guess you better let him alone, now," he added to Bartley, with such a significant look that the young man retired from the bedside, and stood awkwardly apart. "He'll get along. You needn't be anxious about leaving him. He'll be better alone."

There was no mistaking this hint. "Well, well!" said Bartley, humbly, "I'll go. But I'd rather stay and watch with him,—I sha'n't eat or sleep till he's on foot again. And I can't leave till you tell me that you forgive me, Mrs. Bird. I never dreamed—I didn't intend—" He could not go on.

"I don't suppose you meant to hurt Henry," said the mother. "You always pretended to be so fond of him, and he thought the world of you. But I don't see how you could do it. I presume it was all right."

"No, it was all wrong,—or so nearly all wrong that I must ask your forgiveness on that ground. I loved him,—I thought the world of him, too. I'd ten thousand times rather have hurt myself," pleaded Bartley. "Don't let me go till you say that you forgive me."

"I'll see how Henry gets along," said Mrs. Bird. "I don't know as I could rightly say I forgive you just yet." Doubtless she was dealing conscientiously with herself and with him. "I like to be sure of a thing when I say it," she added.

The doctor followed him into the hall, and Bartley could not help turning to him for consolation. "I think Mrs. Bird is very unjust, Doctor. I've done everything I could, and said everything to explain the matter; and I've blamed myself where I can't feel that I was to blame; and yet you see how she holds out against me."

"I dare say," answered the doctor dryly, "she'll feel differently, as she says, if the boy gets along."

Bartley dropped his hat to the floor. "Get along! Why—why you think he'll get well now, don't you, Doctor?"

"Oh, yes; I was merely using her words. He'll get well."

"And—and it wont affect his mind, will it? I thought it was very strange, his not remembering anything about it—"

"That's a very common phenomenon," said the doctor. "The patient usually forgets everything that occurred for some little time before the accident, in cases of concussion of the brain." Bartley shuddered at the phrase, but he could not ask anything further. "What I wanted to say to you," continued the doctor, "was that this may be a long thing, and there may have to be an inquiry into it. You're lawyer enough to understand what that means. I should have to testify to what I know, and I only know what you told me."

"Why, you don't doubt—"

"No, sir; I've no reason to suppose you haven't told me the truth, as far as it goes. If you have thought it advisable to keep anything back from me, you may wish to tell the whole story to an attorney."

"I haven't kept anything back, Doctor Wills," said Bartley. "I've told you everything—everything that concerned the quarrel. That drunken old scoundrel of a Morrison got us into it. He accused me of making love to his daughter; and Henry was jealous—I never knew he cared anything for her. I hated to tell you this before his mother. But this is the whole truth, so help me God."

"I supposed it was something of the kind," replied the doctor. "I'm sorry for you. You can't keep it from having an ugly look if it gets out; and it may have to be made public. I advise you to go and see Squire Gaylord; he's always stood your friend."

"I—I was just going there," said Bartley; and this was true.

Through all, he had felt the need of some sort of retrieval,—of re-establishing himself in his own esteem by some signal stroke; and he could think of but one thing. It was not his fault if he believed that this must combine self-sacrifice with safety, and the greatest degree of humiliation with the largest sum of consolation. He was none the less resolved not to spare himself at all in offering to release Marcia from her engagement. The fact that he must now also see her father upon the legal aspect of his case certainly complicated the affair, and detracted from its heroic quality. He could not tell which to see first, for he naturally wished his action to look as well as possible; and if he went first to Marcia, and she condemned him, he did not know in what figure he should approach her father. If, on the other hand, he went first to Squire Gaylord, the old lawyer might insist that the engagement was already at an end by Bartley's violent act, and might well refuse to let a man in his position even see his daughter. He lagged heavy-heartedly up the middle of the street, and left the question to solve itself at the last moment. But when he reached Squire Gaylord's gate, it seemed to him that it would be easier to face the father first; and this would be the right way too.

He turned aside to the little office, and opened the door without knocking, and as he stood with the knob in his hand, trying to habituate his eyes, full of the snow-glare, to the dimmer light within, he heard a rapturous cry of "Why Bartley!" and he felt Marcia's arms flung around his neck. His burdened heart yearned upon her with a tenderness he had not known before; he realized the preciousness of an embrace that might be the last; but he dared not put down his lips to hers. She pushed back her head in a little wonder, and saw the haggardness of his face, while he discovered her father looking at them. How strong and pure the fire in her must be when her father's presence could not abash her from this betrayal of her love! Bartley sickened, and he felt her arms slip from his neck. "Why—why—what is the matter?"

In spite of some vaguely magnanimous intention to begin at the beginning, and tell the whole affair just as it happened, Bartley found himself wishing to put the best face on it at first, and trust to chances to make it all appear well. He did not speak at once, and Marcia pressed him into a chair, and then, like an eager child, who will not let its friend escape till it has been told what it wishes to know, she set herself on his knee, and put her hand on his shoulder. He looked at her father, not at her, while he spoke hoarsely: "I have had trouble with Henry Bird, Squire Gaylord, and I've come to tell you about it."

The old squire did not speak, but Marcia repeated in amazement, "With Henry
Bird?"

"He struck me—"

"Henry Bird struck you!" cried the girl. "I should like to know why Henry Bird struck you, when you've made so much of him, and he's always pretended to be so grateful—"

Bartley still looked at her father. "And I struck him back."

"You did perfectly right, Bartley," exclaimed Marcia, "and I should have despised you if you had let any one run over you. Struck you! I declare—"

He did not heed her, but continued to look at her father. "I didn't intend to hurt him,—I hit him with my open hand,—but he fell and struck his head on the floor. I'm afraid it hurt him pretty badly." He felt the pang that thrilled through the girl at his words, and her hand trembled on his shoulder; but she did not take it away.

The old man came forward from the pile of books which he and Marcia had been dusting, and sat down in a chair on the other side of the stove. He pushed back his hat from his forehead, and asked drily, "What commenced it?"

Bartley hesitated. It was this part of the affair which he would rather have imparted to Marcia after seeing it with her father's eyes, or possibly, if her father viewed it favorably, have had him tell her. The old man noticed his reluctance. "Hadn't you better go into the house, Marsh?"

She merely gave him a look of utter astonishment for answer, and did not move. He laughed noiselessly, and said to Bartley, "Go on."

"It was that drunken old scoundrel of a Morrison who began it!" cried Bartley, in angry desperation. Marcia dropped her hand from his shoulder, while her father worked his jaws upon the bit of stick he had picked up from the pile of wood, and put between his teeth. "You know that whenever he gets on a spree he comes to the office and wants Hannah's wages raised."

Marcia sprang to her feet. "Oh, I knew it! I knew it! I told you she would get you into trouble! I told you so!" She stood clinching her hands, and her father bent his keen scrutiny first upon her, and then upon the frowning face with which Bartley regarded her.

"Did he come to have her wages raised to-day?"

"No."

"What did he come for?" He involuntarily assumed the attitude of a lawyer crossquestioning a slippery witness.

"He came for—He came—He accused me of—He said I had—made love to his confounded girl."

Marcia gasped.

"What made him think you had?"

"It wasn't necessary for him to have any reason. He was drunk. I had been kind to the girl, and favored her all I could, because she seemed to be anxious to do her work well; and I praised her for trying."

"Um-umph," commented the Squire. "And that made Henry Bird jealous?"

"It seems that he was fond of her. I never dreamed of such a thing, and when I put old Morrison out of the office, and came back, he called me a liar, and struck me in the face." He did not lift his eyes to the level of Marcia's, who in her gray dress stood there like a gray shadow, and did not stir or speak.

"And you never had made up to the girl at all?"

"No."

"Kissed her, I suppose, now and then?" suggested the Squire.

Bartley did not reply.

"Flattered her up, and told how much you thought of her, occasionally?"

"I don't see what that has to do with it," said Bartley with a sulky defiance.

"No, I suppose it's what you'd do with most any pretty girl," returned the Squire. He was silent awhile. "And so you knocked Henry down. What happened then?"

"I tried to bring him to, and then I went for the doctor. He revived, and we got him home to his mother's. The doctor says he will get well; but he advised me to come and see you."

"Any witnesses of the assault?"

"No; we were alone in my own room."

"Told any one else about it?"

"I told the doctor and Mrs. Bird. Henry couldn't remember it at all."

"Couldn't remember about Morrison, or what made him mad at you?"

"Nothing."

"And that's all about it?"

"Yes."

The two men had talked across the stove at each other, practically ignoring the girl, who stood apart from them, gray in the face as her dress, and suppressing a passion which had turned her as rigid as stone.

"Now, Marcia," said her father, kindly, "better go into the house. That's all there is of it."

"No, that isn't all," she answered. "Give me my ring, Bartley. Here's yours." She slipped it off her finger, and put it into his mechanically extended hand.

"Marcia!" he implored, confronting her.

"Give me my ring, please."

He obeyed, and put it into her hand. She slipped it back on the finger from which she had so fondly suffered him to take it yesterday, and replace it with his own.

"I'll go into the house now, father. Good by, Bartley." Her eyes were perfectly clear and dry, and her voice controlled; and as he stood passive before her, she took him round the neck, and pressed against his face, once, and twice, and thrice, her own gray face, in which all love, and unrelenting, and despair, were painted. Once and again she held him, and looked him in the eyes, as if to be sure it was he. Then, with a last pressure of her face to his, she released him, and passed out of the door.

"She's been talking about you, here, all the morning," said the Squire, with a sort of quiet absence, as if nothing in particular had happened, and he were commenting on a little fact that might possibly interest Bartley. He ruminated upon the fragment of wood in his mouth awhile before he added: "I guess she won't want to talk about you any more. I drew you out a little on that Hannah Morrison business, because I wanted her to understand just what kind of fellow you were. You see it isn't the trouble you've got into with Henry Bird that's killed her; it's the cause of the trouble. I guess if it had been anything else, she'd have stood by you. But you see that's the one thing she couldn't bear, and I'm glad it's happened now instead of afterwards: I guess you're one of that kind, Mr. Hubbard."

"Squire Gaylord!" cried Bartley, "upon my sacred word of honor, there isn't any more of this thing than I've told you. And I think it's pretty hard to be thrown over for—for—"

"Fooling with a pretty girl, when you get a chance, and the girl seems to like it? Yes, it is rather hard. And I suppose you haven't even seen her since you were engaged to Marcia?"

"Of course not! That is—"

"It's a kind of retroactive legislation on Marcia's part," said the Squire, rubbing his chin, "and that's against one of the first principles of law. But women don't seem to be able to grasp that idea. They're queer about some things. They appear to think they marry a man's whole life,—his past as well as his future,—and that makes 'em particular. And they distinguish between different kinds of men. You'll find 'em pinning their faith to a fellow who's been through pretty much everything, and swearing by him from the word go; and another chap, who's never done anything very bad, they won't trust half a minute out of their sight. Well, I guess Marcia is of rather a jealous disposition," he concluded, as if Bartley had urged this point.

"She's very unjust to me," Bartley began.

"Oh, yes,—she's unjust," said her father. "I don't deny that. But it wouldn't be any use talking to her. She'd probably turn round with some excuse about what she had suffered, and that would be the end of it. She would say that she couldn't go through it again. Well, it ought to be a comfort to you to think you don't care a great deal about it."

"But I do care!" exclaimed Bartley. "I care all the world for it. I—"

"Since when?" interrupted the Squire. "Do you mean to say that you didn't know till you asked her yesterday that Marcia was in love with you?"

Bartley was silent.

"I guess you knew it as much as a year ago, didn't you? Everybody else did. But you'd just as soon it had been Hannah Morrison, or any other pretty girl. You didn't care! But Marcia did, you see. She wasn't one of the kind that let any good-looking fellow make love to them. It was because it was you; and you knew it. We're plain men, Mr. Hubbard; and I guess you'll get over this, in time. I shouldn't wonder if you began to mend, right away."

Bartley found himself helpless in the face of this passionless sarcasm. He could have met stormy indignation or any sort of invective in kind; but the contemptuous irony with which his pretensions were treated, the cold scrutiny with which his motives were searched, was something he could not meet. He tried to pull himself together for some sort of protest, but he ended by hanging his head in silence. He always believed that Squire Gaylord had liked him, and here he was treating him like his bitterest enemy, and seeming to enjoy his misery. He could not understand it; he thought it extremely unjust, and past all the measure of his offence. This was true, perhaps: but it is doubtful if Bartley would have accepted any suffering, no matter how nicely proportioned, in punishment of his wrong-doing. He sat hanging his head, and taking his pain in rebellious silence, with a gathering hate in his heart for the old man.

"M-well!" said the Squire, at last, rising from his chair, "I guess I must be going."

Bartley sprang to his feet aghast. "You're not going to leave me in the lurch, are you? You're not—"

"Oh, I shall take care of you, young man,—don't be afraid. I've stood your friend too long, and your name's been mixed up too much with my girl's, for me to let you come to shame openly, if I can help it. I'm going to see Dr. Wills about you, and I'm going to see Mrs. Bird, and try to patch it up somehow."

"And—and—where shall I go?" gasped Bartley.

"You might go to the Devil, for all I cared for you," said the old man, with the contempt which he no longer cared to make ironical. "But I guess you better go back to your office, and go to work as if nothing had happened—till something does happen. I shall close the paper out as soon as I can. I was thinking of doing that just before you came in. I was thinking of taking you into the law business with me. Marcia and I were talking about it here. But I guess you wouldn't like the idea now."

He seemed to get a bitter satisfaction out of these mockeries, from which, indeed, he must have suffered quite as much as Bartley. But he ended, sadly and almost compassionately, with, "Come, come! You must start some time." And Bartley dragged his leaden weight out of the door. The Squire closed it after him; but he did not accompany him down the street. It was plain that he did not wish to be any longer alone with Bartley, and the young man suspected, with a sting of shame, that he scorned to be seen with him.

William Dean Howells