A Circle In The Water
The sunset struck its hard red light through the fringe of leafless trees to the westward, and gave their outlines that black definition which a French school of landscape saw a few years ago, and now seems to see no longer. In the whole scene there was the pathetic repose which we feel in some dying day of the dying year, and a sort of impersonal melancholy weighed me down as I dragged myself through the woods toward that dreary November sunset.
Presently I came in sight of the place I was seeking, and partly because of the insensate pleasure of having found it, and partly because of the cheerful opening in the boscage made by the pool, which cleared its space to the sky, my heart lifted. I perceived that it was not so late as I had thought, and that there was much more of the day left than I had supposed from the crimson glare in the west. I threw myself down on one of the grassy gradines of the amphitheatre, and comforted myself with the antiquity of the work, which was so great as to involve its origin in a somewhat impassioned question among the local authorities. Whether it was a Norse work, a temple for the celebration of the earliest Christian, or the latest heathen, rites among the first discoverers of New England, or whether it was a cockpit where the English officers who were billeted in the old tavern near by fought their mains at the time of our Revolution, it had the charm of a ruin, and appealed to the fancy with whatever potency belongs to the mouldering monuments of the past. The hands that shaped it were all dust, and there was no record of the minds that willed it to prove that it was a hundred, or that it was a thousand, years old. There were young oaks and pines growing up to the border of the amphitheatre on all sides; blackberry vines and sumach bushes overran the gradines almost to the margin of the pool which filled the centre; at the edge of the water some clumps of willow and white birch leaned outward as if to mirror their tracery in its steely surface. But of the life that the thing inarticulately recorded, there was not the slightest impulse left.
I began to think how everything ends at last. Love ends, sorrow ends, and to our mortal sense everything that is mortal ends, whether that which is spiritual has a perpetual effect beyond these eyes or not. The very name of things passes with the things themselves, and
"Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading, it disperse to naught."
But if fame ended, did not infamy end, too? If glory, why not shame? What was it, I mused, that made an evil deed so much more memorable than a good one? Why should a crime have so much longer lodgment in our minds, and be of consequences so much more lasting than the sort of action which is the opposite of a crime, but has no precise name with us? Was it because the want of positive quality which left it nameless, characterized its effects with a kind of essential debility? Was evil then a greater force than good in the moral world? I tried to recall personalities, virtuous and vicious, and I found a fatal want of distinctness in the return of those I classed as virtuous, and a lurid vividness in those I classed as vicious. Images, knowledges, concepts, zigzagged through my brain, as they do when we are thinking, or believe we are thinking; perhaps there is no such thing as we call thinking, except when we are talking. I did not hold myself responsible in this will-less revery for the question which asked itself, Whether, then, evil and not good was the lasting principle, and whether that which should remain recognizable to all eternity was not the good effect but the evil effect?
Something broke the perfect stillness of the pool near the opposite shore. A fish had leaped at some unseasonable insect on the surface, or one of the overhanging trees had dropped a dead twig upon it, and in the lazy doubt which it might be, I lay and watched the ever-widening circle fade out into fainter and fainter ripples toward the shore, till it weakened to nothing in the eye, and, so far as the senses were concerned, actually ceased to be. The want of visible agency in it made me feel it all the more a providential illustration; and because the thing itself was so pretty, and because it was so apt as a case in point, I pleased myself a great deal with it. Suddenly it repeated itself; but this time I grew a little impatient of it, before the circle died out in the wider circle of the pool. I said whimsically to myself that this was rubbing it in; that I was convinced already, and needed no further proof; and at the same moment the thing happened a third time. Then I saw that there was a man standing at the top of the amphitheatre just across from me, who was throwing stones into the water. He cast a fourth pebble into the centre of the pool, and then a fifth and a sixth; I began to wonder what he was throwing at; I thought it too childish for him to be amusing himself with the circle that dispersed itself to naught, after it had done so several times already. I was sure that he saw something in the pool, and was trying to hit it, or frighten it. His figure showed black against the sunset light, and I could not make it out very well, but it held itself something like that of a workman, and yet with a difference, with an effect as of some sort of discipline; and I thought of an ex-recruit, returning to civil life, after serving his five years in the army; though I do not know why I should have gone so far afield for this notion; I certainly had never seen an ex-recruit, and I did not really know how one would look. I rose up, and we both stood still, as if he were abashed in his sport by my presence. The man made a little cast forward with his hand, and I heard the rattle as of pebbles dropped among the dead leaves.
Then he called over to me, "Is that you, Mr. March?"
"Yes," I called back, "what is wanted?"
"Oh, nothing. I was just looking for you." He did not move, and after a moment I began to walk round the top of the amphitheatre toward him. When I came near him I saw that he had a clean-shaven face, and he wore a soft hat that seemed large for his close-cropped head; he had on a sack coat buttoned to the throat, and of one dark color with his loose trousers. I knew him now, but I did not know what terms to put my recognition in, and I faltered. "What do you want with me?" I asked, as if I did not know him.
"I was at your house," he answered, "and they told me that you had walked out this way." He hesitated a moment, and then he added, rather huskily, "You don't know me!"
"Yes," I said. "It is Tedham," and I held out my hand, with no definite intention, I believe, but merely because I did know him, and this was the usual form of greeting between acquaintances after a long separation, or even a short one, for that matter. But he seemed to find a special significance in my civility, and he took my hand and held it silently, while he was trying to speak. Evidently, he could not, and I said aimlessly, "What were you throwing at?"
"Nothing. I saw you lying down, over there, and I wanted to attract your attention." He let my hand go, and looked at me apologetically.
"Oh! was that all?" I said. "I thought you saw something in the water."
"No," he answered, as if he felt the censure which I had not been able to keep out of my voice.
I do not know why I should have chosen to take this simple fact as proof of an abiding want of straight-forwardness in Tedham's nature. I do not know why I should have expected him to change, or why I should have felt authorized at that moment to renew his punishment for it. I certainly had said and thought very often that he had been punished enough, and more than enough. In fact, his punishment, like all the other punishments that I have witnessed in life, seemed to me wholly out of proportion to the offence; it seemed monstrous, atrocious, and when I got to talking of it I used to become so warm that my wife would warn me people would think I wanted to do something like Tedham myself if I went on in that way about him. Yet here I was, at my very first encounter with the man, after his long expiation had ended, willing to add at least a little self-reproach to his suffering. I suppose, as nearly as I can analyse my mood, I must have been expecting, in spite of all reason and experience, that his anguish would have wrung that foible out of him, and left him strong where it had found him weak. Tragedy befalls the light and foolish as well as the wise and weighty natures, but it does not render them wise and weighty; I had often made this sage reflection, but I failed to apply it to the case before me now.
After waiting a little for the displeasure to clear away from my face, Tedham smiled as if in humorous appreciation, and I perceived, as nothing else could have shown me so well, that he was still the old Tedham. There was an offer of propitiation in this smile, too, and I did not like that, either; but I was touched when I saw a certain hope die out of his eye at the failure of his appeal to me.
"Who told you I was here?" I asked, more kindly. "Did you see Mrs. March?"
"No, I think it must have been your children. I found them in front of your house, and I asked them for you, without going to the door."
"Oh," I said, and I hid the disappointment I felt that he had not seen my wife; for I should have liked such a leading as her behavior toward him would have given me for my own. I was sure she would have known him at once, and would not have told him where to find me, if she had not wished me to be friendly with him.
"I am glad to see you," I said, in the absence of this leading; and then I did not know what else to say. Tedham seemed to me to be looking very well, but I could not notify this fact to him, in the circumstances; he even looked very handsome; he had aged becomingly, and a clean-shaven face suited him as well as the full beard he used to wear; but I could speak of these things as little as of his apparent health. I did not feel that I ought even to ask him what I could do for him. I did not want to have anything to do with him, and, besides, I have always regarded this formula as tantamount to saying that you cannot, or will not, do anything for the man you employ it upon.
The silence which ensued was awkward, but it was better than anything I could think of to say, and Tedham himself seemed to feel it so. He said, presently, "Thank you. I was sure you would not take my coming to you the wrong way. In fact I had no one else to come to--after I----" Tedham stopped, and then, "I don't know," he went on, "whether you've kept run of me; I don't suppose you have; I got out to-day at noon."
I could not say anything to that, either; there were very few openings for me, it appeared, in the conversation, which remained one-sided as before.
"I went to the cemetery," he continued. "I wanted to realize that those who had died were dead, it was all one thing as long as I was in there; everybody was dead; and then I came on to your house."
The house he meant was a place I had taken for the summer a little out of town, so that I could run in to business every day, and yet have my mornings and evenings in the country; the fall had been so mild that we were still eking out the summer there.
"How did you know where I was staying?" I asked, with a willingness to make any occasion serve for saying something.
Tedham hesitated. "Well, I stopped at the office in Boston on my way out, and inquired. I was sure nobody would know me there." He said this apologetically, as if he had been taking a liberty, and explained: "I wanted to see you very much, and I was afraid that if I let the day go by I should miss you somehow."
"Oh, all right," I said.
We had remained standing at the point where I had gone round to meet him, and it seemed, in the awkward silence that now followed, as if I were rooted there. I would very willingly have said something leading, for my own sake, if not for his, but I had nothing in mind but that I had better keep there, and so I waited for him to speak. I believed he was beating about the bush in his own thoughts, to find some indirect or sinuous way of getting at what he wanted to know, and that it was only because he failed that he asked bluntly, "March, do you know where my daughter is?"
"No, Tedham, I don't," I said, and I was glad that I could say it both with honesty and with compassion. I was truly sorry for the man; in a way, I did pity him; at the same time I did not wish to be mixed up in his affairs; in washing my hands of them, I preferred that there should be no stain of falsehood left on them.
"Where is my sister-in-law?" he asked next, and now at least I could not censure him for indirection.
"I haven't met her for several years," I answered. "I couldn't say from my own knowledge where she was."
"But you haven't heard of her leaving Somerville?"
"No, I haven't."
"Do you ever meet her husband?"
"Yes, sometimes, on the street; but I think not lately; we don't often meet."
"The last time you saw _her_, did she speak of me?"
"I don't know--I believe--yes. It was a good many years ago."
"Was she changed toward me at all?"
This was a hard question to answer, but I thought I had better answer it with the exact truth. "No, she seemed to feel just the same as ever about it."
I do not believe Tedham cared for this, after all, though he made a show of having to collect himself before he went on. "Then you think my daughter is with her?"
"I didn't say that. I don't know anything about it."
"March," he urged, "don't _you_ think I have a right to see my daughter?"
"That's something I can't enter into, Tedham."
"Good God!" said the man. "If you were in my place, wouldn't you want to see her? You know how fond I used to be of her; and she is all that I have got left in the world."
I did indeed remember Tedham's affection for his daughter, whom I remembered as in short frocks when I last saw them together. It was before my own door in town. Tedham had driven up in a smart buggy behind a slim sorrel, and I came out, at a sign he made me through the bow-window with his whip, and saw the little maid on the seat there beside him. They were both very well dressed, though still in mourning for the child's mother, and the whole turnout was handsomely set up. Tedham was then about thirty-five, and the child looked about nine. The color of her hair was the color of his fine brown beard, which had as yet no trace of gray in it; but the light in her eyes was another light, and her smile, which was of the same shape as his, was of another quality, as she leaned across him and gave me her pretty little gloved hand with a gay laugh. "I should think you would be afraid of such a fiery sorrel dragon as that," I said, in recognition of the colt's lifting and twitching with impatience as we talked.
"Oh, I'm not afraid with papa!" she said, and she laughed again as he took her hand in one of his and covered it out of sight.
I recalled, now, looking at him there in the twilight of the woods, how happy they had both seemed that sunny afternoon in the city square, as they flashed away from my door and glanced back at me and smiled together. I went into the house and said to my wife with a formulation of the case which pleased me, "If there is anything in the world that Tedham likes better than to ride after a good horse, it is to ride after a good horse with that little girl of his." "Yes," said my wife, "but a good horse means a good deal of money; even when a little girl goes with it." "That is so," I assented, "but Tedham has made a lot lately in real estate, they say, and I don't know what better he could do with his money; or, I don't believe _he_ does." We said no more, but we both felt, with the ardor of young parents, that it was a great virtue, a saving virtue, in Tedham to love his little girl so much; I was afterward not always sure that it was. Still, when Tedham appealed to me now in the name of his love for her, he moved my heart, if not my reason, in his favor; those old superstitions persist.
"Why, of course, you want to see her. But I couldn't tell you where she is."
"You could find out for me."
"I don't see how," I said; but I did see how, and I knew as well as he what his next approach would be. I felt strong against it, however, and I did not perceive the necessity of being short with him in a matter not involving my own security or comfort.
"I could find out where Hasketh is," he said, naming the husband of his sister-in-law; "but it would be of no use for me to go there. They wouldn't see me." He put this like a question, but I chose to let it be its own answer, and he went on. "There is no one that I can ask to act for me in the matter but you, and I ask _you_, March, to go to my sister-in-law for me."
I shook my head. "That I can't do, Tedham."
"Ah!" he urged, "what harm could it do you?"
"Look here, Tedham!" I said. "I don't know why you feel authorized to come to me at all. It is useless your saying that there is no one else. You know very well that the authorities, some of them--the chaplain--would go and see Mrs. Hasketh for you. He could have a great deal more influence with her than any one else could, if he felt like saying a good word for you. As far as I am concerned, you have expiated your offence fully; but I should think you yourself would see that you ought not to come to me with this request; or you ought to come to me last of all men."
"It is just because of that part of my offence which concerned you that I come to you. I knew how generous you were, and after you told me that you had no resentment--I acknowledge that it is indelicate, if you choose to look at it in that light, but a man like me can't afford to let delicacy stand in his way. I don't want to flatter you, or get you to do this thing for me on false pretences. But I thought that if you went to Mrs. Hasketh for me, she would remember that you had overlooked something, and she would be more disposed to--to--be considerate."
"I can't do it, Tedham," I returned. "It would be of no use. Besides, I don't like the errand. I'm not sure that I have any business to interfere. I am not sure that you have any right to disturb the shape that their lives have settled into. I'm sorry for you, I pity you with all my heart. But there are others to be considered as well as you. And--simply, I can't."
"How do you know," he entreated, "that my daughter wouldn't be as glad to see me as I to see her?"
"I don't know it. I don't know anything about it. That's the reason I can't have anything to do with it. I can't justify myself in meddling with what doesn't concern me, and in what I'm not sure but I should do more harm than good. I must say good-night. It's getting late, and they will be anxious about me at home." My heart smote me as I spoke the last word, which seemed a cruel recognition of Tedham's homelessness. But I held out my hand to him for parting, and braced myself against my inward weakness.
He might well have failed to see my hand. At any rate he did not take it. He turned and started to walk out of the woods by my side. We came presently to some open fields. Beyond them was the road, and after we had climbed the first wall, and found ourselves in a somewhat lighter place, he began to speak again.
"I thought," he said, "that if you had forgiven me, I could take it as a sign that I had suffered enough to satisfy everybody."
"We needn't dwell upon my share in the matter, Tedham," I answered, as kindly as I could. "That was entirely my own affair."
"You can't think," he pursued, "how much your letter was to me. It came when I was in perfect despair--in those awful first days when it seemed as if I could _not_ bear it, and yet death itself would be no relief. Oh, they don't _know_ how much we suffer! If they did, they would forgive us anything, everything! Your letter was the first gleam of hope I had. I don't know how you came to write it!"
"Why, of course, Tedham, I felt sorry for you--"
"Oh, did you, did you?" He began to cry, and as we hurried along over the fields, he sobbed with the wrenching, rending sobs of a man. "I _knew_ you did, and I believe it was God himself that put it into your heart to write me that letter and take off that much of the blame from me. I said to myself that if I ever lived through it, I would try to tell you how much you had done for me. I don't blame you for refusing to do what I've asked you now. I can see how you may think it isn't best, and I thank you all the same for that letter. I've got it here." He took a letter out of his breast-pocket, and showed it to me. "It isn't the first time I've cried over it."
I did not say anything, for my heart was in my throat, and we stumbled along in silence till we climbed the last wall, and stood on the sidewalk that skirted the suburban highway. There, under the street-lamp, we stopped a moment, and it was he who now offered me his hand for parting. I took it, and we said, together, "Well, good-by," and moved in different directions. I knew very well that I should turn back, and I had not gone a hundred feet away when I faced about. He was shambling off into the dusk, a most hapless figure. "Tedham!" I called after him.
"Well?" he answered, and he halted instantly; he had evidently known what I would do as well as I had.
We reapproached each other, and when we were again under the lamp I asked, a little awkwardly, "Are you in need of money, Tedham?"
"I've got my ten years' wages with me," he said, with a lightness that must have come from his reviving hope in me. He drew his hand out of his pocket, and showed me the few dollars with which the State inhumanly turns society's outcasts back into the world again.
"Oh, that won't do." I said. "You must let me lend you something."
"Thank you," he said, with perfect simplicity. "But you know I can't tell when I shall be able to pay you."
"Oh, that's all right." I gave him a ten-dollar note which I had loose in my pocket; it was one that my wife had told me to get changed at the grocery near the station, and I had walked off to the old temple, or the old cockpit, and forgotten about it.
Tedham took the note, but he said, holding it in his hand, "I would a million times rather you would let me go home with you and see Mrs. March a moment."
"I can't do that, Tedham," I answered, not unkindly, I hope. "I know what you mean, and I assure you that it wouldn't be the least use. It's because I feel so sure that my wife wouldn't like my going to see Mrs. Hasketh, that I--"
"Yes, I know that," said Tedham. "That is the reason why I should like to see Mrs. March. I believe that if I could see her, I could convince her."
"She wouldn't see you, my dear fellow," said I, strangely finding myself on these caressing terms with him. "She entirely approved of what I did, the letter I wrote you, but I don't believe she will ever feel just as I do about it. Women are different, you know."
"Yes," he said, drawing a long, quivering breath.
We stood there, helpless to part. He did not offer to leave me, and I could not find it in my heart to abandon him. After a most painful time, he drew another long breath, and asked, "Would you be willing to let me take the chances?"
"Why, Tedham," I began, weakly; and upon that he began walking with me again.
I went to my wife's room, after I reached the house, and faced her with considerable trepidation. I had to begin rather far off, but I certainly began in a way to lead up to the fact. "Isabel," I said, "Tedham is out at last." I had it on my tongue to say poor Tedham, but I suppressed the qualification in actual speech as likely to prove unavailing, or worse.
"Is that what kept you!" she demanded, instantly. "Have you seen him?"
"Yes," I admitted. I added, "Though I am afraid I was rather late, anyway."
"I knew it was he, the moment you spoke," she said, rising on the lounge where she had been lying, and sitting up on it; with the book she had been reading shut on her thumb, she faced me across the table where her lamp stood. "I had a presentiment when the children said there was some strange-looking man here, asking for you, and that they had told him where to find you. I couldn't help feeling a little uneasy about it. What did he want with you, Basil?"
"Well, he wanted to know where his daughter was."
"You didn't tell him!"
"I didn't know. Then he wanted me to go to Mrs. Hasketh and find out."
"You didn't say you would?"
"I said most decidedly I wouldn't," I returned, and I recalled my severity to Tedham in refusing his prayer with more satisfaction than it had given me at the time. "I told him that I had no business to interfere, and that I was not sure it would be right even for me to meddle with the course things had taken." I was aware of weakening my case as I went on; I had better left her with a dramatic conception of a downright and relentless refusal.
"I don't see why you felt called upon to make excuses to him, Basil. His impudence in coming to you, of all men, is perfectly intolerable. I suppose it was that sentimental letter you wrote him."
"You didn't think it sentimental at the time, my dear. You approved of it."
"I didn't approve of it, Basil; but if you felt so strongly that you ought to do it, I felt that I ought to let you. I have never interfered with your sense of duty, and I never will. But I am glad that you didn't feel it your duty to that wretch to go and make more trouble on his account. He has made quite enough already; and it wasn't his fault that you were not tried and convicted in his place."
"There wasn't the slightest danger of that--"
"He tried to put the suspicion on you, and to bring the disgrace on your wife and children."
"Well, my dear, we agreed to forget all that long ago. And I don't think--I never thought--that Tedham would have let the suspicion rest on me. He merely wanted to give it that turn, when the investigation began, so as to gain time to get out to Canada."
My wife looked at me with a glance in which I saw tender affection dangerously near contempt. "You are a very forgiving man, Basil," she said, and I looked down sheepishly. "Well, at any rate, you have had the sense not to mix yourself up in his business. Did he pretend that he came straight to you, as soon as he got out? I suppose he wanted you to believe that he appealed to you before he tried anybody else."
"Yes, he stopped at the Reciprocity office to ask for my address, and after he had visited the cemetery he came on out here. And, if you must know, I think Tedham is still the old Tedham. Put him behind a good horse, with a pocketful of some one else's money, in a handsome suit of clothes, and a game-and-fish dinner at Tafft's in immediate prospect, and you couldn't see any difference between the Tedham of to-day and the Tedham of ten years ago, except that the actual Tedham is clean-shaved and wears his hair cut rather close."
"Why do you object to the fact? Did you imagine he had changed inwardly?"
"He must have suffered."
"But does suffering change people? I doubt it. Certain material accessories of Tedham's have changed. But why should that change Tedham? Of course, he has suffered, and he suffers still. He threw out some hints of what he had been through that would have broken my heart if I hadn't hardened it against him. And he loves his daughter still, and he wants to see her, poor wretch."
"I suppose he does!" sighed my wife.
"He would hardly take no for an answer from me, when I said I wouldn't go to the Haskeths for him; and when I fairly shook him off, he wanted me to ask you to go."
"And what did you say?" she asked, not at all with the resentment I had counted upon equally with the possible pathos; you never can tell in the least how any woman will take anything, which is perhaps the reason why men do not trust women more.
"I told him that it would not be the smallest use to ask you; that you had forgiven that old affair as well as I had, but that women were different, and that I knew you wouldn't even see him."
"Well, Basil, I don't know what right you had to put me in that odious light," said my wife.
"Why, good heavens! _Would_ you have seen him?"
"I don't know whether I would or not. That's neither here nor there. I don't think it was very nice of you to shift the whole responsibility on me."
"How did I do that? It seems to me that I kept the whole responsibility myself."
"Yes, altogether too much. What became of him, then?"
"We walked along a little farther, and then--"
"Then, what? Where is the man?"
"He's down in the parlor," I answered hardily, in the voice of some one else.
My wife stood up from the lounge, and I rose, too, for whatever penalty she chose to inflict.
"Well, Basil, that is what I call a very cowardly thing."
"Yes, my dear, it is; I ought to have protected you against his appeal. But you needn't see him. It's practically the same as if he had not come here. I can send him away."
"And you call that practically the same! No, _I_ am the one that will have to do the refusing now, and it is all off your shoulders. And you knew I was not feeling very well, either! Basil, how could you?"
"I don't know. The abject creature drove me out of my senses. I suppose that if I had respected him more, or believed in him more, I should have had more strength to refuse him. But his limpness seemed to impart itself to me, and I--I gave way. But really you needn't see him, Isabel. I can tell him we have talked it over, and I concluded, entirely of myself, that it was best for you not to meet him, and--"
"He would see through that in an instant. And if he is still the false creature you think he is, we owe him the truth, more than any other kind of man. You must understand _that_, Basil!"
"Then you are going to--"
"Don't speak to me, Basil, please," she said, and with an air of high offence she swept out of the room, and out to the landing of the stairs. There she hesitated a moment, and put her hand to her hair, mechanically, to feel if it were in order, and then she went on downstairs without further faltering. It was I who descended slowly, and with many misgivings.
Tedham was sitting in the chair I had shown him when I brought him in, and in the half-light of one gas-burner in the chandelier he looked, with his rough, clean clothes, and his slouch hat lying in his lap, like some sort of decent workingman; his features, refined by the mental suffering he had undergone, and the pallor of a complexion so seldom exposed to the open air, gave him the effect of a workingman just out of the hospital. His eyes were deep in their sockets, and showed fine shadows in the overhead light, and I must say he looked very interesting.
At the threshold my wife paused again; then she went forward, turning the gas up full as she passed under the chandelier, and gave him her hand, where he had risen from his chair.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Tedham," she said; and I should have found my astonishment overpowering, I dare say, if I had not felt that I was so completely in the hands of Providence, when she added, "Won't you come out to dinner with us? We were just going to sit down, when Mr. March came in. I never know when he will be back, when he starts off on these Saturday afternoon tramps of his."
The children seemed considerably mystified at the appearance of our guest, but they had that superior interest in the dinner appropriate to their years, and we got through the ordeal, in which, I believe, I suffered more than any one else, much better than I could have hoped. I could not help noting in Tedham a certain strangeness to the use of a four-pronged fork, at first, but he rapidly overcame this; and if it had not been for a terrible moment when, after one of the courses, he began, mechanically, to scrape his plate with his knife, there would not have been anything very odd in his behavior, or anything to show that it was the first dinner in polite society that he had taken for so many years.
The man's mind had apparently stiffened more than his body. It used to be very agile, if light, but it was not agile now. It worked slowly toward the topics which we found with difficulty, in our necessity of avoiding the only topics of real interest between us, and I could perceive that his original egotism, intensified by the long years in which he had only himself for company, now stood in the way of his entering into the matters brought forward, though he tried to do so. They were mostly in the form of reminiscences of this person and that whom we had known in common, and even in this shape they had to be very carefully handled so as not to develop anything leading. The thing that did most to relieve the embarrassment of the time was the sturdy hunger Tedham showed, and his delight in the cooking; I suppose that I cannot make others feel the pathos I found in this.
After dinner we shut the children into the library, and kept Tedham with us in the parlor.
My wife began at once to say, "Mr. March has told me why you wanted to see me, Mr. Tedham."
"Yes," he said, as if he were afraid to say more lest he should injure his cause.
"I think that it would not be the least use for me to go to Mrs. Hasketh. In the first place I do not know her very well, and I have not seen her for years, I am not certain she would see me."
Tedham turned the hollows of his eyes upon my wife, and asked, huskily, "Won't you try?"
"Yes," she answered, most unexpectedly to me, "I will try to see her. But if I do see her, and she refuses to tell me anything about your daughter, what will you do? Of course, I shall have to tell her I come from you, and for you."
"I thought," Tedham ventured, with a sort of timorous slyness, "that perhaps you might approach it casually, without any reference to me."
"No, I couldn't do that," my wife said.
He went on as if he had not heard her: "If she did not know that the inquiries were made in my behalf, she might be willing to say whether my daughter was with her."
There was in this suggestion a quality of Tedham's old insinuation, but coarser, inferior, as if his insinuation had degenerated into something like mere animal cunning. I felt rather ashamed for him, but to my surprise, my wife seemed only to feel sorry, and did not repel his suggestion in the way I had thought she would.
"No," she said, "that wouldn't do. She has kept account of the time, you may be sure, and she would ask me at once if I was inquiring in your behalf, and I should have to tell her the truth."
"I didn't know," he returned, "but you might evade the point, somehow. So much being at stake," he added, as if explaining.
Still my wife was not severe with him. "I don't understand, quite," she said.
"Being the turning-point in my life, I can't begin to do anything, to be anything, till I have seen my daughter. I don't know where to find myself. If I could see her, and she did not cast me off, then I should know where I was. Or, if she did, I should. You understand that."
"But, of course, there is another point of view."
"I don't care for Mrs. Hasketh. She did what she has done for the child's sake. It was the best thing for the child at the time--the only thing; I know that. But I agreed to it because I had to."
He continued: "I consider that I have expiated the wrong I did. There is no sense in the whole thing, if I haven't. They might as well have let me go in the beginning. Don't you think that ten years out of my life is enough for a thing that I never intended to go as far as it did, and a thing that I was led into, partly, for the sake of others? I have tried to reason it out, and not from my own point of view at all, and that is the way I feel about it. Is it to go on forever, and am I never to be rid of the consequences of a single act? If you and Mr. March could condone--"
"Oh, you mustn't reason from us," my wife broke in. "We are very silly people, and we do not look at a great many things as others do. You have got to reckon with the world at large."
"I _have_ reckoned with the world at large, and I have paid the reckoning. But why shouldn't my daughter look at this thing as you do?"
Instead of answering, my wife asked, "When did you hear from her last?"
Tedham took a few thin, worn letters from his breast-pocket "There is Mr. March's letter," he said, laying one on his knee. He handed my wife another.
She read it, and asked, "May Mr. March see it?"
Tedham nodded, and I took the little paper in turn. The letter was written in a child's stiff, awkward hand. It was hardly more than a piteous cry of despairing love. The address was Mrs. Hasketh's, in Somerville, and the date was about three months after Tedham's punishment began. "Is that the last you have heard from her?" I asked.
Tedham nodded as he took the letter from me.
"But surely you have heard something more about her in all this time?" my wife pursued.
"Once from Mrs. Hasketh, to make me promise that I would leave the child to her altogether, and not write to her, or ask to see her. When I went to the cemetery to-day, I did not know but I should find her grave, too."
"Well, it is cruel!" cried my wife. "I will go and see Mrs. Hasketh, but--you ought to feel yourself that it's hopeless."
"Yes," he admitted. "There isn't much chance unless she should happen to think the same way you do: that I had suffered enough, and that it was time to stop punishing me."
My wife looked compassionately at him, and she began with a sympathy that I have not always known her to show more deserving people, "If it were a question of that alone it would be very easy. But suppose your daughter were so situated that it would be--disadvantageous to her to have it known that you were her father?"
"You mean that I have no right to mend my broken-up life--what there is left of it--by spoiling hers? I have said that to myself. But then, on the other hand, I have had to ask myself whether I had any right to keep her from choosing for herself about it. I sha'n't force myself on her. I expect to leave her free. But if the child cares for me, as she used to, hasn't that love--not mine for her, but hers for me--got some rights too?"
His voice sank almost to a hush, and the last word was scarcely more than a breathing. "All I want is to know where she is, and to let her know that I am in the world, and where she can find me. I think she ought to have a chance to decide."
"I am afraid Mrs. Hasketh may think it would be better, for her sake, _not_ to have the chance," my wife sighed, and she turned her look from Tedham upon me, as if she wished me rather than him to answer.
"The only way to find out is to ask her," I answered, non-committally, and rather more lightly than I felt about it. In fact, the turn the affair had taken interested me greatly. It involved that awful mystery of the ties by which, unless we are born of our fathers and mothers for nothing more than the animals are, we are bound to them in all the things of life, in duty and in love transcending every question of interest and happiness. The parents' duty to the children is obvious and plain, but the child's duty to its parents is something subtler and more spiritual. It is to be more delicately, more religiously, regarded. No one, without impiety, can meddle with it from the outside, or interfere in its fulfilment. This and much more I said to my wife when we came to talk the matter over after Tedham left us. Above all, I urged something that came to me so forcibly at the moment that I said I had always thought it, and perhaps I really believed that I had. "Why should we try to shield people from fate? Isn't that always wrong? One is fated to be born the child of a certain father, and one can no more escape the consequences of his father's misdeeds than the doer himself can. Perhaps the pain and the shame come from the wish and the attempt to do so, more than from the fact itself. The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children. But the children are innocent of evil, and this visitation must be for their good, and will be, if they bear it willingly."
"Well, don't try to be that sort of blessing to _your_ children, Basil," said my wife, personalizing the case, as a woman must.
After that we tried to account to each other for having consented to do what Tedham asked us. Perhaps we accused each other somewhat for doing it.
"I didn't know, my dear, but you were going to ask him to come and stay with us," I said.
"I did want to," she replied. "It seemed so forlorn, letting him go out into the night, and find a place for himself, when we could just as well have let him stay as not. Why shouldn't we have offered him a bed for the night, as we would any other acquaintance?"
"Well, you must allow that the circumstances were peculiar!"
"But if he was sentenced to pay a certain penalty, and has paid it, why, as he said, shouldn't we stop punishing him?"
"I suppose we can't. There seems to be an instinctive demand for eternal perdition, for hell, in the human heart," I suggested.
"Well, then, I believe that your instinct, Basil--"
"Oh, _I_ don't claim it, exclusively!"
"Is a survival of savagery, and the sooner we get rid of it the better. How queer he seems. It is the old Tedham, but all faded in--or out."
"Yes, he affected me like an etching of himself from a wornout plate. Still, I'm afraid there's likeness enough left to make trouble, yet. I hope you realize what you have gone in for, Isabel?"
She answered from the effort that I could see she was making, to brace herself already for the work before us:
"Well, we must do this because we can't help doing it, and because, whatever happens, we had no right to refuse. You must come with me, Basil!"
"I? To Mrs. Hasketh's?"
"Certainly. I will do the talking, but I shall depend upon your moral support. We will go over to Somerville to-morrow afternoon. We had better not lose any time."
"To-morrow is Sunday."
"So much the better. They will be sure to be at home, if they're there at all, yet."
She said they, but I knew that she did not expect poor old Hasketh really to count in the matter, any more than she expected me to do so.
The Haskeths lived in a house that withdrew itself behind tall garden trees in a large lot sloping down the hillside, in one of the quieter old streets of their suburb. The trees were belted in by a board fence, painted a wornout white, as far as it was solid, which was to the height of one's shoulder; there it opened into a panel work of sticks crossed X-wise, which wore a coat of aged green; the strip above them was set with a bristling row of rusty nails, which were supposed to keep out people who could perfectly well have gone in at the gate as we did. There was a brick walk from the gate to the door, which was not so far back as I remembered it (perhaps because the leaves were now off the trees), and there was a border of box on either side of the walk. Altogether there was an old-fashioned keeping in the place which I should have rather enjoyed if I had been coming on any other errand; but now it imparted to me a notion of people set in their ways, of something severe, something hopelessly forbidding.
I do not think there had ever been much intimacy between the Tedhams and the Haskeths, before Tedham's calamity came upon him. But Mrs. Hasketh did not refuse her share of it. She came forward, and probably made her husband come forward, in Tedham's behalf, and do what hopelessly could be done to defend him where there was really no defence, and the only thing to be attempted was to show circumstances that might perhaps tend to the mitigation of his sentence. I do not think they did. Tedham had confessed himself and had been proven such a thorough rogue, and the company had lately suffered so much through operations like his, that, even if it could have had mercy, as an individual may, mercy was felt to be bad morals, and the case was unrelentingly pushed. His sentence was of those sentences which an eminent jurist once characterized as rather dramatic; it was pronounced not so much in relation to his particular offence, as with the purpose of striking terror into all offenders like him, who were becoming altogether too common. He was made to suffer for many other peculators, who had been, or were about to be, and was given the full penalty. I was in court when it was pronounced with great solemnity by the judge, who read him a lecture in doing so; I could have read the judge another, for I could not help feeling that it was, more than all the sentences I had ever heard pronounced, wholly out of keeping with the offence. I met Hasketh coming out of the court-room, and I said that I thought it was terribly severe. He agreed with me, and as I knew that he and Tedham had never liked each other, I inferred a kindliness in him which made me his friend, in the way one is the friend of a man one never meets. He was a man of few words, and he now simply said, "It was unjust," and we parted.
For several months after Tedham's conviction, I did not think we ought to intrude upon the Haskeths; but then my wife and I both felt that we ought, in decency, to make some effort to see them. They seemed pleased, but they made us no formal invitation to come again, and we never did. That day, however, I caught a glimpse of Tedham's little girl, as she flitted through the hall, after we were seated in the parlor; she was in black, a forlorn little shadow in the shadow; and I recalled now, as we stood once more on the threshold of the rather dreary house, a certain gentleness of bearing in the child, which I found infinitely pathetic, at that early moment of her desolation. She had something of poor Tedham's own style and grace, too, which had served him so ill, and this heightened the pathos for me. In that figure I had thought of his daughter ever since, as often as I had thought of her at all; which was not very often, to tell the truth, after the first painful impression of Tedham's affair began to die away in me, or to be effaced by the accumulating cares and concerns of my own life. But now that we had returned into the presence of that bitter sorrow, as it were, the little thing reappeared vividly to me in just the way I had seen her so long ago. My sense of her forlornness, of her most hapless orphanhood, was intensified by the implacable hate with which Mrs. Hasketh had then spoken of her father, in telling us that the child was henceforth to bear her husband's name, and had resentfully scorned the merit Tedham tried to make of giving her up to them. "And if I can help it," she had ended, with a fierceness I had never forgotten, "she shall not hear him mentioned again, or see him as long as I live."
My wife and I now involuntarily dropped our voices, or rather they sank into our throats, as we sat waiting in the dim parlor, after the maid took our cards to Mr. and Mrs. Hasketh. We tried to make talk, but we could not, and we were funereally quiet, when Hasketh came pottering and peering in, and shook hands with both of us. He threw open half a blind at one of the windows, and employed himself in trying to put up the shade, to gain time, as I thought, before he should be obliged to tell us that his wife could not see us. Then he came to me, and asked, "Won't you let me take your hat?" as such people do, in expression of a vague hospitality; and I let him take it, and put it mouth down on the marble centre-table, beside the large, gilt-edged, black-bound family Bible. He drew a chair near me, in a row with my wife and myself, and said, "It is quite a number of years since we met, Mrs. March," and he looked across me at her.
"Yes, I am almost afraid to think how many," she answered.
"Yes, our children are both very well, Mr. Hasketh. You seem to be looking very well, too."
"Thank you, I have nothing to complain of. I am not so young as I was. But that is about all."
"I hope Mrs. Hasketh is well?"
"Yes, thank you, she is quite well, for her. She is never very strong. She will be down in a moment."
"Oh, I shall be so glad to see her."
The conversation, which might be said to have flagged from the beginning, stopped altogether at this point, and though I was prompted by several looks from my wife to urge it forward, I could think of nothing to do so with, and we sat without speaking till we heard the stir of skirts on the stairs in the hall outside, and then my wife said, "Ah, that is Mrs. Hasketh."
I should have known it was Mrs. Hasketh without this sort of anticipation, I think, even if I had never seen her before, she was so like my expectation of what that sort of woman would be in the lapse of time, with her experience of life. The severity that I had seen come and go in her countenance in former days was now so seated that she had no other expression, and I may say without caricature that she gave us a frown of welcome. That is, she made us feel, in spite of a darkened countenance, that she was really willing to see us in her house, and that she took our coming as a sign of amity. I suppose that the induration of her spirit was the condition of her being able to bear at all what had been laid on her to bear, and her burden had certainly not been light.
At her appearance her husband, without really stirring at all, had the effect of withdrawing into the background, where, indeed, I tacitly joined him; and the two ladies remained in charge of the drama, while he and I conversed, as it were, in dumb show. Apart from my sympathy with her in the matter, I was very curious to see how my wife would play her part, which seemed to me far the more difficult of the two, since she must make all the positive movements.
After some civilities so obviously perfunctory that I admired the force of mind in the women who uttered them, my wife said, "Mrs. Hasketh, we have come on an errand that I know will cause you pain, and I needn't say that we haven't come willingly."
"Is it about Mr. Tedham?" asked Mrs. Hasketh, and I remembered now that she had always used as much ceremony in speaking of him; it seemed rather droll now, but still it would not have been in character with her to call him simply Tedham, as we did, in speaking of him.
"Yes," said my wife. "I don't know whether you had kept exact account of the time. It was a surprise to us, for we hadn't. He is out, you know."
"Yes--at noon, yesterday. I wasn't likely to forget the day, or the hour, or the minute." Mrs. Hasketh said this without relaxing the severity of her face at all, and I confess my heart went down.
But my wife seemed not to have lost such courage as she had come with, at least. "He has been to see us--"
"I presumed so," said Mrs. Hasketh, and as she said nothing more, Mrs. March took the word again.
"I shall have to tell you why he came--why _we_ came. It was something that we did not wish to enter into, and at first my husband refused outright. But when I saw him, and thought it over, I did not see how we could refuse. After all, it is something you must have expected, and that you must have been expecting at once, if you say--"
"I presume," Mrs. Hasketh said, "that he wished you to ask after his daughter. I can understand why he did not come to us." She let one of those dreadful silences follow, and again my wife was forced to speak.
"It is something that we didn't mean to press at all, Mrs. Hasketh, and I won't say anything more. Only, if you care to send any word to him he will be at our house this evening again, and I will give him your message." She rose, not in resentment, as I could see (and I knew that she had not come upon this errand without making herself Tedham's partisan in some measure) but with sincere good feeling and appreciation of Mrs. Hasketh's position. I rose with her, and Hasketh rose too.
"Oh, don't go!" Mrs. Hasketh broke out, as if surprised. "You couldn't help coming, and I don't blame you at all. I don't blame Mr. Tedham even. I didn't suppose I should ever forgive him. But there! that's all long ago, and the years do change us. They change us all, Mrs. March, and I don't feel as if I had the right to judge anybody the way I used to judge _him_. Sometimes it surprises me. I did hate him, and I don't presume I've got very much love for him now, but I don't want to punish him any more. That's gone out of me. I don't know how it came to go, but it went. I wish he hadn't ever got anything more to do with us, but I'm afraid we haven't had all our punishment yet, whatever _he_ has. It seems to me as if the sight of Mr. Tedham would make me sick."
I found such an insufficiency in this statement of feeling that I wanted to laugh, but I perceived that it did not appeal to my wife's sense of humor. She said, "I can understand how you feel about it, Mrs. Hasketh."
Mrs. Hasketh seemed grateful for the sympathy. "I presume," she went on, and I noted how often she used the quaint old-fashioned Yankee word, "that you feel as if you had almost as much right to hate him as I had, and that if you could overlook what he tried to do to you, I might overlook what he did do to his own family. But as I see it, the case is different. He failed when he tried to put the blame on Mr. March, and he succeeded only too well in putting the shame on his own family. You could forgive it, and it would be all the more to your credit because you forgave it, but his family might have forgiven it ten times over, and still they would be in disgrace through him. That is the way I looked at it."
"And I assure you, Mrs. Hasketh, that is the way I looked at it, too," said my wife.
"So, when it seems hard that I should have taken his child from him," the woman continued, as if still arguing her case, and she probably was arguing it with herself, "and did what I could to make her forget him, I think it had better be considered whose sake I was doing it for, and whether I had any right to do different. I did not think I had at the time, or when I had to begin to act. I knew how I felt toward Mr. Tedham; I never liked him; I never wanted my sister to marry him; and when his trouble came, I told Mr. Hasketh that it was no more than I had expected all along. He was that kind of a man, and he was sure to show it, one way or other, sooner or later; and I was not disappointed when he did what he did. I had to guard against my own feeling, and to put myself out of the question, and that was what I tried to do when I got him to give up the child to us and let her take our name. It was the same as a legal adoption, and he freely consented to it, or as freely as he could, considering where he was. But he knew it was for her good as well as we did. There was nobody for her to look to but us, and he knew that; his own family had no means, and, in fact, he _had_ no family but his father and mother, and when they died, that same first year, there was no one left to suffer from him but his child. The question was how much she ought to be allowed to suffer, and whether she should be allowed to suffer at all, if it could be helped. If it was to be prevented, it was to be by deadening her to him, by killing out her affection for him, and much as I hated Mr. Tedham, I could not bring myself to do that, though I used to think I would do it. He was very fond of her, I don't deny that; I don't think it was any merit in him to love such a child, but it was the best thing about him, and I was willing it should count. But then there was another thing that I couldn't bring myself to, and that was to tell the child, up and down, all about it; and I presume that there I was weak. Well, you may say I _was_ weak! But I couldn't, I simply couldn't. She was only between seven and eight when it happened--"
"I thought she was older," I ventured to put in, remembering my impressions as to her age the last time I saw her with her father.
"No," said Mrs. Hasketh, "she always appeared rather old for her age, and that made me all the more anxious to know just how much of the trouble she had taken in. I suppose it was all a kind of awful mystery to her, as most of our trials are to children; but when her father was taken from her, she seemed to think it was something she mustn't ask about; there are a good many things in the world that children feel that way about--how they come into it, for one thing, and how they go out of it; and by and by she didn't speak of it. She had some of his lightness, and I presume that helped her through; I was afraid it did sometimes. Then, at other times, I thought she had got the notion he was in for life, and that was the reason she didn't speak of him; she had given him up. Then I used to wonder whether it wasn't my duty to take her to see him--where he was. But when I came to find out that you had to see them through the bars, and with the kind of clothes they wear, I felt that I might as well kill the child at once; it was for her sake I didn't take her. You may be sure I wasn't anxious for the responsibility of _not_ doing it either, the way I knew I felt toward Mr. Tedham."
I did not like her protesting so much as this; but I saw that it was a condition of her being able to deal with herself in the matter, and I had no doubt she was telling the truth.
"You never can know just how much of a thing children have taken in, or how much they have understood," she continued, repeating herself, as she did throughout, "and I had to keep this in mind when I had my talks with Fay about her father. She wanted to write to him at first, and of course I let her--"
My wife and I could not forbear exchanging a glance of intelligence, which Mrs. Hasketh intercepted.
"I presume he told you?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, "he showed us the letter."
"Well, it was something that had to be done. As long as she questioned me about him, I put her off the best way I could, and after a while she seemed to give up questioning me of her own accord. Perhaps she really began to understand it, or some of the cruel little things she played with said something. I was always afraid of the other children throwing it up to her, and that was one reason we went away for three or four years and let our place here."
"I didn't know you were gone," I said toward Hasketh, who cleared his throat to explain:
"I had some interests at that time in Canada. We were at Quebec."
"It shows what a rush our life is," I philosophized, with the implication that Hasketh and I had been old friends, and I ought to have noticed that I had not met him during the time of his absence. The fact was we had never come so near intimacy as when we exchanged confidences concerning the severity of Tedham's sentence in coming out of the court-room together.
"_I_ hadn't any interest in Canada, except to get the child away," said Mrs. Hasketh. "Sometimes it seemed strange _we_ should be in Canada, and not Mr. Tedham! She got acquainted with some little girls who were going to a convent school there as externes--outside pupils, you know," Mrs. Hasketh explained to my wife. "She got very fond of one of them--she is a child of very warm affections. I never denied that Mr. Tedham had warm _affections_--and when her little girl friend went into the convent to go on with her education there, Fay wanted to go too, and--we let her. That was when she was twelve, and Mr. Hasketh felt that he ought to come back and look after his business here; and we left her in the convent. Just as soon as she was out of the way, and out of the question, it seemed as if I got to feeling differently toward Mr. Tedham. I don't mean to say I ever got to like him, or that I do to this day; but I saw that he had some rights, too, and for years and years I wanted to take the child and tell her when he was coming out. I used to ask myself what right I even had to keep the child from the suffering. The suffering was hers by rights, and she ought to go through it. I got almost crazy thinking it over. I got to thinking that her share of her father's shame might be the very thing, of all things, that was to discipline her and make her a good and useful woman; and that's much more than being a happy one, Mrs. March; we can't any of us be truly happy, no matter what's done for us. I tried to make believe that I was sparing her alone, but I knew I was sparing myself, too, and that made it harder to decide." She suddenly addressed herself to us both: "What would _you_ have done?"
My wife and I looked at each other in a dismay in which a glance from old Hasketh assured us that we had his sympathy. It would have been far simpler if Mrs. Hasketh had been up and down with us as Tedham's emissaries, and refused to tell us anything of his daughter, and left us to report to him that he must find her for himself if he found her at all. This was what we had both expected, and we had come prepared to take back that answer to Tedham, and discharge our whole duty towards him in its delivery. This change in the woman who had hated him so fiercely, but whose passion had worn itself down to the underlying conscience with the lapse of time, certainly complicated the case. I was silent; my wife said: "I don't know _what_ I should have done, Mrs. Hasketh;" and Mrs. Hasketh resumed:
"If I did wrong in trying to separate her life from her father's, I was punished for it, because when I wanted to undo my work, I didn't know how to begin; I presume that's the worst of a wrong thing. Well, I never did begin; but now I've got to. The time's come, and I presume it's as easy now as it ever could be; easier. He's out and it's over, as far as the law is concerned; and if she chooses she can see him. I'll prepare her for it as well as I can, and he can come if she wishes it."
"Do you mean that he can see her _here_?" my wife asked.
"Yes," said Mrs. Hasketh, with a sort of strong submission.
"At once? To-day?"
"No," Mrs. Hasketh faltered. "I didn't want him to see her just the first day, or before I saw him; and I thought he might try to. She's visiting at some friends in Providence; but she'll be back to-morrow. He can come to-morrow night, if she says so. He can come and find out. But if he was anything of a man he wouldn't want to."
"I'm afraid," I ventured, "he isn't anything of _that_ kind of man."
"Now, how unhandsome life is!" I broke out, at one point on our way home, after we had turned the affair over in every light, and then dropped it, and then taken it up again. "It's so graceless, so tasteless! Why didn't Tedham die before the expiration of his term and solve all this knotty problem with dignity? Why should he have lived on in this shabby way and come out and wished to see his daughter? If there had been anything dramatic, anything artistic in the man's nature, he would have renounced the claim his mere paternity gives him on her love, and left word with me that he had gone away and would never be heard of any more. That was the least he could have done. If he had wanted to do the thing heroically--and I wouldn't have denied him that satisfaction--he would have walked into that pool in the old cockpit and lain down among the autumn leaves on its surface, and made an end of the whole trouble with his own burdensome and worthless existence. That would truly have put an end to the evil he began."
"I wouldn't be--impious, Basil," said my wife, with a moment's hesitation for the word. Then she sighed and added, "Yes, it seems as if that would be the only thing that could end it. There doesn't really seem to be any provision in life for ending such things. He will have to go on and make more and more trouble. Poor man! I feel almost as sorry for him as I do for her. I guess he hasn't expiated his sin yet, as fully as he thinks he has."
"And then," I went on, with a strange pleasure I always get out of the poignancy of a despair not my own, "suppose that this isn't all. Suppose that the girl has met some one who has become interested in her, and whom she will have to tell of this stain upon her name?"
"Basil!" cried my wife, "that is cruel of you! You _knew_ I was keeping away from that point, and it seems as if you tried to make it as afflicting as you could--the whole affair."
"Well, I don't believe it's as bad as that. Probably she hasn't met any one in that way; at any rate, it's pure conjecture on my part, and my conjecture doesn't make it so."
"It doesn't unmake it, either, for you to say that now," my wife lamented.
"Well, well! Don't let's think about it, then. The case is bad enough as it stands, Heaven knows, and we've got to grapple with it as soon as we get home. We shall find Tedham waiting for us, I dare say, unless something has happened to him. I wonder if anything can have been good enough to happen to Tedham, overnight."
I got a little miserable fun out of this, but my wife would not laugh; she would not be placated in any way; she held me in a sort responsible for the dilemma I had conjectured, and inculpated me in some measure for that which had really presented itself.
When we reached home she went directly to her room and had a cup of tea sent to her there, and the children and I had rather a solemn time at the table together. A Sunday tea-table is solemn enough at the best, with its ghastly substitution of cold dishes or thin sliced things for the warm abundance of the week-day dinner; with the gloom of Mrs. March's absence added, this was a very funereal feast indeed.
We went on quite silently for a while, for the children saw I was preoccupied; but at last I asked, "Has anybody called this afternoon?"
"I don't know exactly whether it was a call or not," said my daughter, with a nice feeling for the social proprieties which would have amused me at another time. "But that strange person who was here last night, was here again."
"He said he would come in the evening. I forgot to tell you. Papa, what kind of person is he?"
"I don't know. What makes you ask?"
"Why, we think he wasn't always a workingman. Tom says he looks as if he had been in some kind of business, and then failed."
"What makes you think that, Tom?" I asked the boy.
"Oh, I don't know. He speaks so well."
"He always spoke well, poor fellow," I said with a vague amusement. "And you're quite right, Tom. He was in business once and he failed--badly."
I went up to my wife's room and told her what the children had said of Tedham's call, and that he was coming back again.
"Well, then, I think I shall let you see him alone, Basil. I'm completely worn out, and besides there's no reason why I should see him. I hope you'll get through with him quickly. There isn't really anything for you to say, except that we have seen the Haskeths, and that if he is still bent upon it he can find his daughter there to-morrow evening. I want you to promise me that you will confine yourself to that, Basil, and not say a single word more. There is no sense in our involving ourselves in the affair. We have done all we could, and more than he had any right to ask of us, and now I am determined that he shall not get anything more out of you. Will you promise?"
"You may be sure, my dear, that I don't wish to get any more involved in this coil of sin and misery than you do," I began.
"That isn't promising," she interrupted. "I want you to promise you'll say just that and no more."
"Oh, I'll promise fast enough, if that's all you want," I said.
"I don't trust you a bit, Basil," she lamented. "Now, I will explain to you all about it. I've thought the whole thing over."
She did explain, at much greater length than she needed, and she was still giving me some very solemn charges when the bell rang, and I knew that Tedham had come. "Now, remember what I've told you," she called after me, as I went to the door, "and be sure to tell me, when you come back, just how he takes it and every word he says. Oh, dear, I know you'll make the most dreadful mess of it!"
By this time I expected to do no less, but I was so curious to see Tedham again that I should have been willing to do much worse, rather than forego my meeting with him. I hope that there was some better feeling than curiosity in my heart, but I will, for the present, call it curiosity.
I met him in the hall at the foot of the stairs, and put a witless cheeriness into the voice I bade him good-evening with, while I gave him my hand and led the way into the parlor.
The twenty-four hours that had elapsed since I saw him there before had estranged him in a way that I find it rather hard to describe. He had shrunk from the approach to equality in which we had parted, and there was a sort of consciousness of disgrace in his look, such as might have shown itself if he had passed the time in a low debauch. But undoubtedly he had done nothing of the kind, and this effect in him was from a purely moral cause. He sat down on the edge of a chair, instead of leaning back, as he had done the night before.
"Well, Tedham," I began, "we have seen your sister-in-law, and I may as well tell you at once that, so far as she is concerned, there will be nothing in the way of your meeting your daughter. The Haskeths are living at their old place in Somerville, and your daughter will be with them there to-morrow night--just at this moment she is away--and you can find her there, then, if you wish."
Tedham kept those deep eye-hollows of his bent upon me, and listened with a passivity which did not end when I ceased to speak. I had said all that my wife had permitted me to say in her charge to me, and the incident ought to have been closed, as far as we were concerned. But Tedham's not speaking threw me off my guard. I could not let the matter end so bluntly, and I added, in the same spirit one makes a scrawl at the bottom of a page, "Of course, it's for you to decide whether you will or not."
"What do you mean?" asked Tedham, feebly, but as if he were physically laying hold of me for help.
"Why, I mean--I mean--my dear fellow, you know what I mean! Whether you had better do it." This was the very thing I had not intended to do, for I saw how wise my wife's plan was, and how we really had nothing more to do with the matter, after having satisfied the utmost demands of humanity.
"You think I had better not," said Tedham.
"No," I said, but I felt that I was saying it too late, "I don't think anything about it."
"I have been thinking about it, too," said Tedham, as if I had confessed and not denied having an opinion in the matter. "I have been thinking about it ever since I saw you last night, and I don't believe I have slept, for thinking of it. I know how you and Mrs. March feel about it, and I have tried to see it from your point of view, and now I believe I do. I am not going to see my daughter; I am going away."
He stood up, in token of his purpose, and at the same moment my wife entered the room. She must have been hurrying to do so from the moment I left her, for she had on a fresh dress, and her hair had the effect of being suddenly, if very effectively, massed for the interview from the dispersion in which I had lately seen it. She swept me with a glance of reproach, as she went up to Tedham, in the pretence that he had risen to meet her, and gave him her hand. I knew that she divined all that had passed between us, but she said:
"Mr. March has told you that we have seen Mrs. Hasketh, and that you can find your daughter at her house to-morrow evening?"
"Yes, and I have just been telling him that I am not going to see her."
"That is very foolish--very wrong!" my wife began.
"I know you must say so," Tedham replied, with more dignity and force than I could have expected, "and I know how kind you and Mr. March have been. But you must see that I am right--that she is the only one to be considered at all."
"Right! How are you right? Have _you_ been suggesting that, my dear?" demanded my wife, with a gentle despair of me in her voice.
It almost seemed to me that I had, but Tedham came to my rescue most unexpectedly.
"No, Mrs. March, he hasn't said anything of the kind to me; or, if he has, I haven't heard it. But you intimated, yourself, last night, that she might be so situated--"
"I was a wicked simpleton," cried my wife, and I forebore to triumph, even by a glance at her; "to put my doubts between you and your daughter in any way. It was romantic, and--and--disgusting. It's not only your right to see her, it's your _duty_. At least it's your duty to let her decide whether she will let you see her. What nonsense! Of course she will! She must bear her part in it. She ought not to escape it, even if she could. Now you must just drop all idea of going away, and you must stay, and you must go to see your daughter. There is no other way to do."
Tedham shook his head stubbornly. "She has borne her share, already, and I won't inflict my penalty on her innocence--"
"Innocence? It's _because_ she is innocent that it must be inflicted upon her! That is what innocence is in the world for!"
Tedham looked back at her in a dull bewilderment. "I can't get back to that. It seemed so once; but now it looks selfish, and I'm afraid of it. I am not the one to take that ground. It might do for you--"
"Well, then, let it do for me!" I confess that I was astonished at this turn, or should have been, if I could be astonished at any turn a woman takes. "I will see her for you, if you wish, and I will tell her just how it is with you, and then she can decide for herself. You have certainly no right to decide for her, whether she will see you or not, have you?"
"No," Tedham admitted.
"Well, then, sit down and listen."
He sat down, and my wife reasoned it all out with him. She convinced me, perfectly, so that what Tedham proposed to do seemed not only sentimental and foolish, but unnatural and impious. I confess that I admired her casuistry, and gave it my full support. She was a woman who, in the small affairs of the tastes and the nerves and the prejudices could be as illogical as the best of her sex, but with a question large enough to engage the hereditary powers of her New England nature she showed herself a dialectician worthy of her Puritan ancestry.
Tedham rose when she had made an end; and when we both expected him to agree with her and obey her, he said, "Very likely you are right. I once saw it all that way myself, but I don't see it so now, and I can't do it. Perhaps we shouldn't care for each other; at any rate, it's too much to risk, and I can't do it. Good-by." He began sidling toward the door.
I would have detained him, but my wife made me a sign not to interfere. "But surely, Mr. Tedham," she pleaded, "you are going to leave some word for her--or for Mrs. Hasketh to give her?"
"No," he answered, "I don't think I will. If I don't appear, then she won't see me, and that will be all there is of it."
"Yes, but Mrs. Hasketh will probably tell her that you have asked about her, and will prepare her for your coming, and then if you don't come--"
"What time is it, March?" Tedham asked.
I took out my watch. "It's nine o'clock." I was surprised to find it no later.
"I can get over to Somerville before ten, can't I? I'll go and tell Mrs. Hasketh I am not coming."
We could not prevent his getting away, by force, and we had used all the arguments we could have hoped to detain him with. As he opened the door to go out into the night, "But, Tedham!" I called to him, "if anything happens, where are we to find you, hear of you?"
He hesitated. "I will let you know. Well, good-night."
"I suppose this isn't the end, Isabel," I said, after we had turned from looking blankly at the closed door, and listening to Tedham's steps, fainter and fainter on the board-walk to the gate.
"There never is an end to a thing like this!" she returned, with a passionate sigh of pity. "Oh, what a terrible thing an evil deed is! It _can't_ end. It has to go on and on forever. Poor wretch! He thought he had got to the end of his misdeed, when he had suffered the punishment for it, but it was only just beginning then! Now, you see, it has a perfectly new lease of life. It's as if it had just happened, as far as the worst consequences are concerned."
"Yes," I assented. "By the way, that was a great idea of yours about the office of innocence in the world, Isabel!"
"Why, Basil!" she cried, "you don't suppose I believed in such a monstrous thing as that, do you?"
"You made me believe in it."
"Well, then, I can tell you that I merely said it so as to convince him that he ought to let his daughter decide whether she would see him or not, and it had nothing whatever to do with the matter. Do you think you could find me anything to eat, dear? I'm perfectly famishing, and it doesn't seem as if I could stir a step till I've had a bite of something."
She sank down on the sofa in the hall in proof of her statement, and I went out into the culinary regions (deserted of their dwellers after our early tea) and made her up a sandwich along with the one I had the Sunday-night habit of myself. I found some half-bottles of ale on the ice, and I brought one of them, too. Before we had emptied it we resigned ourselves to what we could not help in Tedham's case; perhaps we even saw it in a more hopeful light.
The next day was one of those lax Mondays which come before the Tuesdays and Wednesdays when business has girded itself up for the week, and I got home from the office rather earlier than usual. My wife met me with, "Why, what has happened?"
"Nothing," I said; "I had a sort of presentiment that something had happened here."
"Well, nothing at all has happened, and you have had your presentiment for your pains, if that's what you hurried home for."
I justified myself as well as I could, and I added, "That wretched Tedham has been in my mind all day. I think he has made a ridiculous mistake. As if he could stop the harm by taking himself off! The harm goes on independently of him; it is hardly his harm any more."
"That is the way it has seemed to me, too, all day," said my wife. "You don't suppose he has been out of my mind either? I wish we had never had anything to do with him."
A husband likes to abuse his victory, when he has his wife quite at his mercy, but the case was so entirely in my favor that for once I forbore. I could see that she was suffering for having put into Tedham's head the notion which had resulted in this error, and I considered that she was probably suffering enough. Besides, I was afraid that if I said anything it would bring out the fact that I had myself intimated the question again which his course had answered so mistakenly. I could well imagine that she was grateful for my forbearance, and I left her to this admirable state of mind while I went off to put myself a little in shape after my day's work and my journey out of town. I kept thinking how perfectly right in the affair Tedham's simple, selfish instinct had been, and how our several consciences had darkened counsel; that quaint Tuscan proverb came into ray mind: _Lascia fare Iddio, ch' e un buon vecchio_. We had not been willing to let God alone, or to trust his leading; we had thought to improve on his management of the case, and to invent a principle for poor Tedham that should be better for him to act upon than the love of his child, which God had put into the man's heart, and which was probably the best thing that had ever been there. Well, we had got our come-uppings, as the country people say, and however we might reason it away we had made ourselves responsible for the event.
There came a ring at the door that made my own heart jump into my mouth. I knew it was Tedham come back again, and I was still in the throes of buttoning on my collar when my wife burst into my room. I smiled round at her as gayly as I could with the collar-buttoning grimace on my face. "All right, I'll be down in a minute. You just go and talk to him till--"
"_Him_?" she gasped back; and I have never been quite sure of her syntax to this day. "_Them!_ It's Mr. and Mrs. Hasketh, and some young lady! I saw them through the window coming up the walk."
"Good Lord! You don't suppose it's Tedham's daughter?"
"How do I know? Oh, how _could_ you be dressing at a time like this!"
It did seem to me rather heinous, and I did not try to defend myself, even when she added, from her access of nervousness, in something like a whimper, "It seems to me you're _always_ dressing, Basil!"
"I'll be right with you, my dear," I answered, penitently; and, in fact, by the time the maid brought up the Haskeths' cards I was ready to go down. We certainly needed each other's support, and I do not know but we descended the stairs hand in hand, and entered the parlor leaning upon each other's shoulders. The Haskeths, who were much more deeply concerned, were not apparently so much moved. We shook hands with them, and then Mrs. Hasketh said to us in succession, "My niece, Mrs. March; Mr. March, my niece."
The young girl had risen, and stood veiled before us, and a sort of heart-breaking appeal expressed itself in the gentle droop of her figure, which did the whole office of her hidden face. The Haskeths were dressed, as became their years, in a composite fashion of no particular period; but I noticed at once, with the fondness I have for what is pretty in the modes, that Miss Tedham wore one of the latest costumes, and that she was not only a young girl, but a young lady, with all that belongs to the outward seeming of one of the gentlest of the kind. It struck me as the more monstrous, therefore, that she should be involved in the coil of her father's inexpiable offence, which entangled her whether he stayed or whether he went. It was well enough that the Haskeths should still be made miserable through him; it belonged to their years and experience; they would soon end, at any rate, and it did not matter whether their remnant of life was dark or bright. But this child had a right to a long stretch of unbroken sunshine. As I stood and looked at her I felt the heart-burning, the indefinable indignation that we feel in the presence of death when it is the young and fair who have died. Here is a miscalculation, a mistake. It ought not to have been.
I thought that my wife, in the effusion of sympathy, would have perhaps taken the girl in her arms; but probably she knew that the dropped veil was a sign that there was to be no embracing. She put out her hand, and the girl took it with her gloved hand; but though the outward forms of their greeting were so cold, I fancied an instant understanding and kindness between them.
"My niece," Mrs. Hasketh explained, when we were all seated, "came home this afternoon, instead of this morning, when we expected her."
My wife said, "Oh, yes," and after a moment, a very painful moment, in which I think we all tried to imagine something that would delay the real business, Mrs. Hasketh began again.
"Mrs. March," she said, in a low voice, and with a curious, apologetic kind of embarrassment, "we have come--Fay wanted we should come and ask if you knew about her father--"
"Why, didn't he come to you last night?" my wife began.
"Yes, he did," said Mrs. Hasketh, in a crest-fallen sort, "But we thought--we thought--you might know where he was. And Fay--Did he tell you what he was going to do?"
"Yes," my wife gasped back.
The young girl put aside her veil in turning to my wife, and showed a face which had all the ill-starred beauty of poor Tedham, with something more in it that she never got from that handsome reprobate--conscience, soul--whatever we choose to call a certain effluence of heaven which blesses us with rest and faith whenever we behold it in any human countenance. She was very young-looking, and her voice had a wistful innocence.
"Do you think my father will be here again to-night? Oh, I must see him!"
I perceived that my wife could not speak, and I said, to gain time, "Why, I've been expecting him to come in at any moment;" and this was true enough.
"I guess he's not very far off," said old Hasketh. "I don't believe but what he'll turn up." Within the comfort these words were outwardly intended to convey to the anxious child, I felt an inner contempt of Tedham, a tacit doubt of the man's nature, which was more to me than the explicit faith in his return. For some reason Hasketh had not trusted Tedham's decision, and he might very well have done this without impugning anything but the weakness of his will.
My wife now joined our side, apparently because it was the only theory of the case that could be openly urged. "Oh, yes, I am sure. In fact he promised my husband to let him know later where he was. Didn't you understand him so, my dear?"
I had not understood him precisely to this effect, but I answered, "Yes, certainly," and we began to reassure one another more and more. We talked on and on to one another, but all the time we talked at the young girl, or for her encouragement; but I suppose the rest felt as I did, that we were talking provisionally, or without any stable ground of conviction. For my part, though I indulged that contempt of Tedham, I still had a lurking fear that the wretch had finally and forever disappeared, and I had a vision, very disagreeable and definite, of Tedham lying face downward in the pool of the old cockpit and shone on by the stars in the hushed circle of the woods. Simultaneously I heard his daughter saying, "I can't understand why he shouldn't have come to us, or should have put it off. He couldn't think I didn't wish to see him." And now I looked at my wife aghast, for I perceived that the Haskeths must have lacked the courage to tell her that her father had decided himself not to see her again, and that they had brought her to us that we might stay her with some hopes, false or true, of meeting him soon. "I don't know what they mean," she went on, appealing from them to us, "by saying that it might be better if I never saw him again!"
"I don't say that any more, child," said Mrs. Hasketh, with affecting humility. "I'm sure there isn't any one in the whole world that I would bless the sight of half as much."
"I could have come before, if I'd known where he was; or, if I had only known, I might have been here Saturday!" She broke into a piteous lamentation, with tears and sobs that wrung my heart and made me feel like one of a conspiracy of monsters. "But he couldn't--he couldn't--have thought I didn't _want_ to see him!"
It was a very trying moment for us all, and I think that if we had, any of us, had our choice, we should have preferred to be in her place rather than our own. We miserably did what we could to comfort her, and we at last silenced her with I do not know what pretences. The affair was quite too much for me, and I made a feint of having heard the children calling me, and I went out into the hall. I felt that there was a sort of indecency in my witnessing that poor young thing's emotion; women might see it, but a man ought not. Perhaps old Hasketh felt the same; he followed me out, and when we were beyond hearing, even if he had spoken aloud, he dropped his voice to a thick murmur and said, "This has all been a mistake. We have had to get out of it with the girl the best we could; and we don't dare to let her know that Tedham isn't coming back any more. You noticed from what she said that my wife tried to make believe it might be well if he didn't; but she had to drop _that_; it set the girl wild. She hasn't got anything but the one idea: that she and her father belong to each other, and that they must be together for the rest of their lives. A curious thing about it is," and Hasketh sank his voice still lower to say this, "that she thinks that if he's taken the punishment that was put upon him he has atoned for what he did; and if any one tries to make him suffer more he does worse than Tedham did, and he's flying in the face of Providence. Perhaps it's so. I'm afraid," Hasketh continued, with the satisfaction men take in blaming their wives under the cover of sympathy, "that Mrs. Hasketh is going to feel it more and more, as time goes on, unless Tedham turns up. I was never in favor of trying to have the child forget him, or be separated from him in any way. That kind of thing can't be made to work, and I don't suppose, when you come to boil it down, that it's essentially right. This universe, I take it, isn't an accident in any particular, and if she's his daughter it's because she was meant to be, and to bear and share with him. You see it was a great mistake not to prepare the child for it sooner, and tell her just when Tedham would be out, so that if she wanted to see him she could. She thinks she ought to have been there at the prison waiting to speak to him the first one. I thought it was a mistake to have her away, and I guess that's the way Mrs. Hasketh looks at it herself, now."
A stir of garments made itself heard from the parlor at last, and we knew the ladies had risen. In a loud voice Hasketh began to say that they had a carriage down at the gate, and I said they had better let me show them the way down; and as my wife followed the others into the hall, I pulled open the outer door for them. On the threshold stood a man about to ring, who let his hand drop from the bell-pull. "Why, Tedham!" I shouted, joyfully.
The light from the hall-lamp struck full on his face; we all involuntarily shrank back, except the girl, who looked, not at the man before her, but first at her aunt and then at her uncle, timorously, and murmured some inaudible question. They did not answer, and now Tedham and his daughter looked at each other, with what feeling no one can ever fully say.
It always seemed to me as if we had witnessed something like the return of one from the dead, in this meeting. We were talking it over one evening some weeks later, and "It would be all very well," I philosophized, "if the dead came back at once, but if one came back after ten years, it would be difficult."
"It was worse than coming back from the dead," said my wife. "But I hope that is the end of it so far as we are concerned. I am sure I am glad to be out of it, and I don't wish to see any of them ever again."
"Why, I don't know about that," I returned, and I began to laugh. "You know Hubbell, our inspector of agencies?"
"What has he got to do with it?"
"Hubbell has had a romantic moment. He thinks that in view of the restitution Tedham made as far as he could, and his excellent record--elsewhere--it would be a fine thing for the Reciprocity to employ him again in our office, and he wanted to suggest it to the actuary."
"Basil! You didn't allow him to do such a cruel thing as that?"
"No, my dear, I am happy to say that I sat upon that dramatic climax."
This measurably consoled my wife, but she did not cease to denounce the idea for some moments. When she ended, I asked her if she would allow the company to employ Tedham in a subordinate place in another city, and when she signified that this might be suffered, I said that this was what would probably be done. Then I added, seriously, that I thoroughly liked the notion of it, and that I took it for a testimony that poor old Tedham was right, and that he had at last fully expiated his offence against society.
His daughter continued to live with her aunt and uncle, but Tedham used to spend his holidays with them, and, however incongruously, they got on together very well, I believe. The girl kept the name of Hasketh, and I do not suppose that many people knew her relation to Tedham. It appeared that our little romantic supposition of a love affair, which the reunion of father and child must shatter, was for the present quite gratuitous. But if it should ever come to that, my wife and I had made up our minds to let God manage. We said that we had already had one narrow escape in proposing to better the divine way of doing, and we should not interfere again. Still I cannot truly say that we gave Providence our entire confidence as long as there remained the chance of further evil through the sort of romance we had dreaded for the girl. Till she was married there was an incompleteness, a potentiality of trouble, in the incident apparently closed that haunted us with a distrustful anxiety. We had to wait several years for the end, but it came eventually, and she was married to a young Englishman whom she had met in Canada, and whom she told all about her unhappy family history before she permitted herself to accept him.
During the one brief interview I had with him, for the purpose of further blackening her father's character (for so I understood her insistence that I should see the young man), he seemed not only wholly unmoved by the facts, but was apparently sorry that poor Tedham had not done much worse things, and many more of them, that he might forgive him for her sake.
They went to live abroad after they were married; and by and by Tedham joined them. So far now as human vision can perceive, the trouble he made, the evil he did, is really at an end. Love, which can alone arrest the consequences of wrong, had ended it, and in certain luminous moments it seemed to us that we had glimpsed, in our witness of this experience, an infinite compassion encompassing our whole being like a sea, where every trouble of our sins and sorrows must cease at last like a circle in the water.