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A Modern Instance by William Dean Howells

Part 9 out of 9

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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.

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!"

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