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   Chapter 6 No.6

A Modern Instance By William Dean Howells Characters: 19566

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The spectacle of a love affair in which the woman gives more of her heart than the man gives of his is so pitiable that we are apt to attribute a kind of merit to her, as if it were a voluntary self-sacrifice for her to love more than her share. Not only other men, but other women, look on with this canonizing compassion; for women have a lively power of imagining themselves in the place of any sister who suffers in matters of sentiment, and are eager to espouse the common cause in commiserating her. Each of them pictures herself similarly wronged or slighted by the man she likes best, and feels how cruel it would be if he were to care less for her than she for him; and for the time being, in order to realize the situation, she loads him with all the sins of omission proper to the culprit in the alien case. But possibly there is a compensation in merely loving, even where the love given is out of all proportion to the love received.

If Bartley Hubbard's sensations and impressions of the day had been at all reasoned, that night as he lay thinking it over, he could unquestionably have seen many advantages for Marcia in the affair,-perhaps more than for himself. But to do him justice he did not formulate these now, or in any wise explicitly recognize the favors he was bestowing. At twenty-six one does not naturally compute them in musing upon the girl to whom one is just betrothed; and Bartley's mind was a confusion of pleasure. He liked so well to think how fond of him Marcia was, that it did not occur to him then to question whether he were as fond of her. It is possible that as he drowsed, at last, there floated airily through the consciousness which was melting and dispersing itself before the approach of sleep, an intimation from somewhere to some one that perhaps the affair need not be considered too seriously. But in that mysterious limbo one cannot be sure of what is thought and what is dreamed; and Bartley always acquitted himself, and probably with justice, of any want of seriousness.

What he did make sure of when he woke was that he was still out of sorts, and that he had again that dull headache; and his instant longing for sympathy did more than anything else to convince him that he really loved Marcia, and had never, in his obscurest or remotest feeling, swerved in his fealty to her. In the atmosphere of her devotion yesterday, he had so wholly forgotten his sufferings that he had imagined himself well; but now he found that he was not well, and he began to believe that he was going to have what the country people call a fit of sickness. He felt that he ought to be taken care, of, that he was unfit to work; and in his vexation at not being able to go to Marcia for comfort-it really amounted to nothing less-he entered upon the day's affairs with fretful impatience.

The Free Press was published on Tuesdays, and Monday was always a busy time of preparation. The hands were apt also to feel the demoralization that follows a holiday, even when it has been a holy day. The girls who set the type of the Free Press had by no means foregone the rights and privileges of their sex in espousing their art, and they had their beaux on Sunday night like other young ladies. It resulted that on Monday morning they were nervous and impatient, alternating between fits of giggling delight in the interchange of fond reminiscences, and the crossness which is pretty sure to disfigure human behavior from want of sleep. But ordinarily Bartley got on very well with them. In spite of the assumption of equality between all classes in Equity, they stood in secret awe of his personal splendor, and the tradition of his achievements at college and in the great world; and a flattering joke or a sharp sarcasm from him went a great way with them. Besides, he had an efficient lieutenant in Henry Bird, the young printer who had picked up his trade in the office, and who acted as Bartley's foreman, so far as the establishment had an organization. Bird had industry and discipline which were contagious, and that love of his work which is said to be growing rare among artisans in the modern subdivision of trades. This boy-for he was only nineteen-worked at his craft early and late out of pleasure in it. He seemed one of those simple, subordinate natures which are happy in looking up to whatever assumes to be above them. He exulted to serve in a world where most people prefer to be served, and it is uncertain whether he liked his work better for its own sake, or Bartley's, for whom he did it. He was slight and rather delicate in health, and it came natural for Bartley to patronize him. He took him on the long walks of which he was fond, and made him in some sort his humble confidant, talking to him of himself and his plans with large and braggart vagueness. He depended upon Bird in a great many things, and Bird never failed him; for he had a basis of constancy that was immovable. "No," said a philosopher from a neighboring logging-camp, who used to hang about the printing-office a long time after he had got his paper, "there aint a great deal of natural git up and howl about Henry; but he stays put." In the confidences which Bartley used to make Bird, he promised that, when he left the newspaper for the law, he would see that no one else succeeded him. The young fellow did not need this promise to make him Bartley's fast friend, but it colored his affection with ambitious enthusiasm; to edit and publish a newspaper,-his dreams did not go beyond that: to devote it to Bartley's interest in the political life on which Bartley often hinted he might enter,-that would be the sweetest privilege of realized success. Bird already wrote paragraphs for the Free Press, and Bartley let him make up a column of news from the city exchanges, which was partly written and partly selected.

Bartley came to the office rather late on Monday morning, bringing with him the papers from Saturday night's mail, which had lain unopened over Sunday, and went directly into his own room, without looking into the printing-office. He felt feverish and irritable, and he resolved to fill up with selections and let his editorial paragraphing go, or get Bird to do it. He was tired of the work, and sick of Equity; Marcia's face seemed to look sadly in upon his angry discontent, and he no longer wished to go to her for sympathy. His door opened, and, without glancing from the newspaper which he held up before him, he asked, "What is it, Bird? Do you want copy?"

"Well, no, Mr. Hubbard," answered Bird, "we have copy enough for the force we've got this morning."

"Why, what's up?" demanded Bartley, dropping his paper.

"Lizzie Sawyer has sent word that she is sick, and we haven't heard or seen anything of Hannah Morrison."

"Confound the girls!" said Bartley, "there's always something the matter with them." He rubbed his hand over his forehead, as if to rub out the dull pain there. "Well," he said, "I must go to work myself, then." He rose, and took hold of the lapels of his coat, to pull it off; but something in Bird's look arrested him. "What is it?" he asked.

"Old Morrison was here, just before you came in, and said he wanted to see you. I think he was drunk," said Bird, anxiously. "He said he was coming back again."

"All right; let him come," replied Bartley. "This is a free country,-especially in Equity. I suppose he wants Hannah's wages raised, as usual. How much are we behind on the paper, Henry?"

"We're not a great deal behind, Mr. Hubbard, if we were not so weak-handed."

"Perhaps we can get Hannah back, during the forenoon. At any rate, we can ask her honored parent when he comes."

Where Morrison got his liquor was a question that agitated Equity from time to time, and baffled the officer of the law empowered to see that no strong drink came into the town. Under conditions which made it impossible even in the logging-camps, and rendered the sale of spirits too precarious for the apothecary, who might be supposed to deal in them medicinally, Morrison never failed of his spree when the mysterious mechanism of his appetite enforced it. Probably it was some form of bedevilled cider that supplied the material of his debauch; but even cider was not easily to be had.

Morrison's spree was a movable feast, and recurred at irregular intervals of two, or three, or even six weeks; but it recurred often enough to keep him poor, and his family in a social outlawry against which the kindly instincts of their neighbors struggled in vain. Mrs. Morrison was that pariah who, in a village like Equity, cuts herself off from hope by taking in washing; and it was a decided rise in the world for Hannah, a wild girl at school, to get a place in the printing-office. Her father had applied for it humbly enough at the tremulous and penitent close of one of his long sprees, and was grateful to Bartley for taking the special interest in her which she reported at home.

But the independence of a drunken shoemaker is proverbial, and Morrison's meek spirit soared into lordly arrogance with his earliest cups. The first warning which the community had of his change of attitude was the conspicuous and even defiant closure of his shop, and the scornful rejection of custom, however urgent or necessitous. All Equity might go in broken shoes, for any patching or half-soling the people got from him. He went about collecting his small dues, and paying up his debts as long as the money lasted, in token of his resolution not to take any favors from any man thereafter. Then he retired to his house on one of the by streets, and by degrees drank himself past active offence. It was of course in his defiant humor that he came to visit Bartley, who had learned to expect

him whenever Hannah failed to appear promptly at her work. The affair was always easily arranged. Bartley instantly assented, with whatever irony he liked, to Morrison's demands; he refused with overwhelming politeness even to permit him to give himself the trouble to support them by argument; he complimented Hannah inordinately as one of the most gifted and accomplished ladies of his acquaintance, and inquired affectionately after the health of each member of the Morrison family. When Morrison rose to go he always said, in shaking hands, "Well, sir, if there was more like you in Equity a poor man could get along. You're a gentleman, sir." After getting some paces away from the street door, he stumbled back up the stairs to repeat, "You're a gentleman!" Hannah came during the day, and the wages remained the same: neither of the contracting parties regarded the increase so elaborately agreed upon, and Morrison, on becoming sober, gratefully ignored the whole transaction, though, by a curious juggle of his brain, he recurred to it in his next spree, and advanced in his new demand from the last rise: his daughter was now nominally in receipt of an income of forty dollars a week, but actually accepted four.

Bartley, on his part, enjoyed the business as an agreeable excitement and a welcome relief from the monotony of his official life. He never hurried Morrison's visits, but amused himself by treating him with the most flattering distinction, and baffling his arrogance by immediate concession. But this morning, when Morrison came back with a front of uncommon fierceness, he merely looked up from his newspapers, to which he had recurred, and said coolly. "Oh, Mr. Morrison! Good morning. I suppose it's that little advance that you wish to see me about. Take a chair. What is the increase you ask this time? Of course I agree to anything."

He leaned forward, pencil in hand, to make a note of the figure Morrison should name, when the drunkard approached and struck the table in front of him with his fist, and blazed upon Bartley's face, suddenly uplifted, with his blue crazy eyes:

"No, sir! I won't take a seat, and I don't come on no such business! No, sir!" He struck the table again, and the violence of his blow upset the inkstand.

Bartley saved himself by suddenly springing away. "Hollo here!" he shouted. "What do you mean by this infernal nonsense?"

"What do you mean," retorted the drunkard, "by makin' up to my girl?"

"You're a fool," cried Bartley, "and drunk!"

"I'll show you whether I'm a fool, and I'll show you whether I'm drunk," said Morrison. He opened the door and beckoned to Bird, with an air of mysterious authority. "Young man! Come here!"

Bird was used to the indulgence with which Bartley treated Morrison's tipsy freaks, and supposed that he had been called by his consent to witness another agreement to a rise in Hannah's wages. He came quickly, to help get Morrison out of the way the sooner, and he was astonished to be met by Bartley with "I don't want you, Bird."

"All right," answered the boy, and he turned to go out of the door.

But Morrison had planted himself against it, and waved Bird austerely back. "I want you," he said, with drunken impressiveness, "for a witness-wick-witness-while I ask Mr. Hubbard what he means by-"

"Hold your tongue!" cried Bartley. "Get out of this!" He advanced a pace or two toward Morrison who stood his ground without swerving.

"Now you-you keep quiet, Mr. Hubbard," said Morrison, with a swift drunken change of mood, by which he passed from arrogant denunciation to a smooth, patronizing mastery of the situation. "I wish this thing all settled amic-ic-amelcabilly."

Bartley broke into a helpless laugh at Morrison's final failure on a word difficult to sober tongues, and the latter went on: "No 'casion for bad feeling on either side. All I want know is what you mean."

"Well, go on!" cried Bartley, good-naturedly, and he sat down in his chair, which he tilted back, and, clasping his hands behind his head, looked up into Morrison's face. "What do I mean by what?"

Probably Morrison had not expected to be categorical, or to bring anything like a bill of particulars against Bartley, and this demand gave him pause. "What you mean," he said, at last, "by always praising her up so?"

"What I said. She's a very good girl, and a very bright one. You don't deny that?"

"No-no matter what I deny. What-what you lend her all them books for?"

"To improve her mind. You don't object to that? I thought you once thanked me for taking an interest in her."

"Don't you mind what I object to, and what I thank you for," said Morrison, with dignity. "I know what I'm about."

"I begin to doubt. But get on. I'm in a great hurry this morning," said Bartley.

Morrison seemed to be making a mental examination of his stock of charges, while the strain of keeping his upright position began to tell upon him, and he swayed to and fro against the door. "What's that word you sent her by my boy, Sat'day night?"

"That she was a smart girl, and would be sure to get on if she was good-or words to that effect. I trust there was no offence in that, Mr. Morrison?"

Morrison surrendered, himself to another season of cogitation, in which he probably found his vagueness growing upon him. He ended by fumbling in all his pockets, and bringing up from the last a crumpled scrap of paper. "What you-what you say that?"

Bartley took the extended scrap with an easy air. "Miss Morrison's handwriting, I think." He held it up before him and read aloud, "'I love my love with an H because he is Handsome.' This appears to be a confidence of Miss Morrison to her Muse. Whom do you think she refers to, Mr. Morrison?"

"What's-what's the first letter your name?" demanded Morrison, with an effort to collect his dispersing severity.

"B," promptly replied Bartley. "Perhaps this concerns you, Henry. Your name begins with an H." He passed the paper up over his head to Bird, who took it silently. "You see," he continued, addressing Bird, but looking at Morrison as he spoke, "Mr. Morrison wishes to convict me of an attempt upon Miss Hannah's affections. Have you anything else to urge, Mr. Morrison?"

Morrison slid at last from his difficult position into a convenient chair, and struggled to keep himself from doubling forward. "I want know what you mean," he said, with dogged iteration.

"I'll show you what I mean," said Bartley with an ugly quiet, while his mustache began to twitch. He sprang to his feet and seized Morrison by the collar, pulling him up out of the chair till he held him clear of the floor, and opened the door with his other hand. "Don't show your face here again,-you or your girl either!" Still holding the man by the collar, he pushed him before him through the office, and gave him a final thust out of the outer door.

Bartley returned to his room in a white heat: "Miserable tipsy rascal!" he panted; "I wonder who has set him on to this thing."

Bird stood pale and silent, still, nolding the crumpled scrap of paper in his hand.

"I shouldn't be surprised if that impudent little witch herself had put him up to it. She's capable of it," said Bartley, fumbling aimlessly about on his table, in his wrath, without looking at Bird.

"It's a lie!" said Bird.

Bartley started as if the other had struck him, and as he glared at Bird the anger went out of his face for pure amazement. "Are you out of your mind, Henry?" he asked calmly. "Perhaps you're drunk too, this morning. The Devil seems to have got into pretty much everybody."

"It's a lie!" repeated the boy, while the tears sprang to his eyes. "She's as good a girl as Marcia Gaylord is, any day!"

"Better go away, Henry," said Bartley, with a deadly sort of gentleness.

"I'm going away," answered the boy, his face twisted with weeping. "I've done my last day's work for you." He pulled down his shirt-sleeves, and buttoned them at the wrists, while the tears ran out over his face,-helpless tears, the sign of his womanish tenderness, his womanish weakness.

Bartley continued to glare at him. "Why, I do believe you're in love with her yourself, you little fool!"

"Oh, I've been a fool!" cried Bird. "A fool to think as much of you as I always have,-a fool to believe that you were a gentleman, and wouldn't take a mean advantage. I was a fool to suppose you wanted to do her any good, when you came praising and flattering her, and turning her head!"

"Well, then," said Bartley with harsh insolence, "don't be a fool any longer. If you're in love with her, you haven't any quarrel with me, my boy. She flies at higher game than humble newspaper editors. The head of Willett's lumbering gang is your man; and so you may go and tell that old sot, her father. Why, Henry! You don't mean to say you care anything for that girl?"

"And do you mean to say you haven't done everything you could to turn her head since she's been in this office? She used to like me well enough at school." All men are blind and jealous children alike, when it comes to question of a woman between them, and this poor boy's passion was turning him into a tiger. "Don't come to me with your lies, any more!" Here his rage culminated, and with a blind cry of "Ay!" he struck the paper which he had kept in his hand into Bartley's face.

The demons, whatever they were, of anger, remorse, pride, shame, were at work in Bartley's heart too, and he returned the blow as instantly as if Bird's touch had set the mechanism of his arm in motion. In contempt of the other's weakness he struck with the flat of his hand; but the blow was enough. Bird fell headlong, and the concussion of his head upon the floor did the rest. He lay senseless.

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