My Friend Bingham
CONSCIOUS as I am of a deep aversion to stories of a painful nature, I have often asked myself whether, in the events here set forth, the element of pain is stronger than that of joy. An affirmative answer to this question would have stood as a veto upon the publication of my story, for it is my opinion that the literature of horrors needs no extension. Such an answer, however, I am unwilling to pronounce ; while, on the other hand, I hesitate to assume the responsibility of a decided negative. I have therefore determined to leave the solution to the reader. I may add, that I am very sensible of the superficial manner in which I have handled my facts, I bore no other part in the accomplishment of these facts than that of a cordial observer ; and it was impossible that, even with the best will in the world, I should fathom the emotions of the actors. Yet, as the very faintest reflection of human passions, under the pressure of fate, possesses an immortal interest, I am content to appeal to the reader’s sympathy, and to assure him of my own fidelity.
Towards the close of summer, in my twenty-eighth year, I went down to the seaside to rest from a long term of work, and to enjoy, after several years of separation, a tête-à-tête with an intimate friend. My friend had just arrived from Europe, and we had agreed to spend my vacation together by the side of the sounding sea, and within easy reach of the city. On taking possession of our lodgings, we found that we should have no fellow-idlers, and we hailed joyously the prospect of the great marine solitudes which each of us declared that he found so abundantly peopled by the other. I hasten to impart to the reader the following facts in regard to the man whom I found so good a companion.
George Bingham had been born and bred among people for whom, as he grew to manhood, he learned to entertain a most generous contempt, — people in whom the hereditary possession of a large property —for he assured me that the facts stood in the relation of cause and effect — had extinguished all intelligent purpose and principle. I trust that I do not speak rhetorically when I describe in these terms the combined ignorance and vanity of my friend’s progenitors. It was their fortune to make a splendid figure while they lived, and I feel little compunction in hinting at their poverty in certain human essentials. Bingham was no declaimer, and indeed no great talker; and it was only now and then, in an allusion to the past as the field of a wasted youth, that he expressed his profound resentment. I read this for the most part in the severe humility with which he regarded the future, and under cover of which he seemed to salute it as void at least (whatever other ills it might contain) of those domestic embarrassments which had been the bane of his first manhood. I have no doubt that much may be said, within limits, for the graces of that society against which my friend embodied so violent a reaction, and especially for its good-humor, — that home-keeping benevolence which accompanies a sense of material repletion. It is equally probable that to persons of a simple constitution these graces may wear a look of delightful and enduring mystery ; but poor Bingham was no simpleton. He was a man of opinions numerous, delicate, and profound. When, with the lapse of his youth, he awoke to a presentiment of these opinions, and cast his first interrogative glance upon the world, he found that in his own little section of it he and his opinions were a piece of melancholy impertinence. Left, at twenty-three years of age, by his father’s death, in possession of a handsome property, and absolute master of his actions, he had thrown himself blindly into the world. But, as he afterwards assured me, so superficial was his knowledge of the real world, — the world of labor and inquiry, — that he had found himself quite incapable of intelligent action. In this manner he had wasted a great deal of time. He had travelled much, however; and, being a keen observer of men and women, he had acquired a certain practical knowledge of human nature. Nevertheless, it was not till he was nearly thirty years old that he had begun to live for himself. “ By myself,” he explained, “ I mean something else than this monstrous hereditary faculty for doing nothing and thinking of nothing.” And he led me to believe, or I should rather say he allowed me to believe, that at this moment he had made a serious attempt to study. But upon this point he was not very explicit; for if he blushed for the manner in which he had slighted his opportunities, he blushed equally for the manner in which he had used them. It is my belief that he had but a limited capacity for study, and I am certain that to the end of his days there subsisted in his mind a very friendly relation between fancies and facts.
Bingham was par excellence a moralist, a man of sentiment. I know — he knew himself—that, in this busy Western world, this character represents no recognized avocation; but in the absence of such avocation, its exercise was nevertheless very dear to him. I protest that it was very dear to me, and that, at the end of a long morning devoted to my office-desk, I have often felt as if I had contributed less to the common cause than I have felt after moralizing — or, if you please, sentimentalizing — half an hour with my friend. He was an idler, assuredly; but his candor, his sagacity, his good taste, and, above all, a certain diffident enthusiasm which followed its objects with the exquisite trepidation of an unconfessed and despairing lover, — these things, and a hundred more, redeemed him from vulgarity. For three years before we came together, as I have intimated, my impressions of my friend had rested on his letters ; and yet, from the first hour which we spent together, I felt that they had done him no wrong. We were genuine friends. I don’t know that I can offer better proof of this than by saying that, as our old personal relations resumed their force, and the timeshrunken outlines of character filled themselves out, I greeted the reappearance of each familiar foible on Bingham’s part quite as warmly as I did that of the less punctual virtue. Compared, indeed, with the comrade of earlier years, my actual companion was a well-seasoned man of the world ; but with all his acquired humility and his disciplined bonhomie, he had failed to divest himself of a certain fastidiousness of mind, a certain formalism of manner, which are the token and the prerogative of one who has not been obliged to address himself to practical questions. The charm bestowed by these facts upon Bingham’s conversation—a charm often vainly invoked in their absence — is explained by his honest indifference to their action, and his indisposition to turn them to account in the interest of the picturesque, — an advantage but too easy of conquest for a young man, rich, accomplished, and endowed with good looks and a good name. I may say, perhaps, that to a critical mind my friend’s prime distinction would have been his very positive refusal to drape himself, after the current taste, with those brilliant stuffs which fortune had strewn at his feet.
Of course, a great deal of our talk bore upon Bingham’s recent travels, adventures, and sensations. One of these last he handled very frankly, and treated me to a bit of genuine romance. He had been in love, and had been cruelly jilted, but had now grown able to view the matter with much of the impartial spirit of those French critics whose works were his favorite reading. His account of the young lady’s character and motives would indeed have done credit to many a clever feuilleton. I was the less surprised, however, at his severely dispassionate tone, when, in retracing the process of his opinions, I discerned the traces — the ravages, I may almost say — of a solemn act of renunciation. Bingham had forsworn marriage. I made haste to assure him that I considered him quite too young for so austere a resolve.
“ I can’t help it,” said he ; “ I feel a foreboding that I shall live and die alone.”
“ A foreboding ?” said I. “ What’s a foreboding worth ?”
“ Well, then, rationally considered, my marriage is improbable.”
“ But it’s not to be rationally considered,” I objected. “ It belongs to the province of sentiment.”
“ But you deny me sentiment. I fall back upon my foreboding.”
“ That’s not sentiment, — it’s superstition,” I answered. “ Your marrying will depend upon your falling in love ; and your falling in love will certainly not depend upon yourself.”
“ Upon whom, then ? ”
“ Upon some unknown fair one,— Miss A, B, or C.”
“ Well,” said Bingham, submissively, “ I wish she would make haste and reveal herself.”
These remarks had been exchanged in the hollow of a cliff which sloped seaward, and where we had lazily stretched ourselves at length on the grass. The grass had grown very long and brown; and as we lay with our heads quite on a level with it, the view of the immediate beach and the gentle breakers was so completely obstructed by the rank, coarse herbage, that our prospect was reduced to a long, narrow band of deep blue ocean traversing its black fibres, and to the great vault of the sky. We had strolled out a couple of hours before, bearing each a borrowed shot-gun and accompanied by a friendly water-dog, somewhat languidly disposed towards the slaughter of wild ducks. We were neither of us genuine sportsmen, and it is certain that, on the whole, we meant very kindly to the ducks. It was at all events fated that on that day they should suffer but lightly at our hands. For the half-hour previous to the exchange of the remarks just cited, we had quite forgotten our real business ; and, with our pieces lost in the grass beside us, and our dog, weary of inaction, wandering far beyond call, we looked like any straw-picking truants. At last Bingham rose to his feet, with the asseveration that it would never do for us to return empty-handed. “ But, behold,” he exclaimed, as he looked down across the breadth of the beach, “there is our friend of the cottage, with the sick little boy.”
I brought myself into a sitting posture, and glanced over the cliff. Down near the edge of the water sat a young woman, tossing stones into it for the amusement of a child, who stood lustily crowing and clapping his hands. Her title to be called our friend lay in the fact, that on our way to the beach we had observed her issuing from a cottage hard by the holel, leading by the hand a pale-faced little boy, muffled like an invalid. The hotel, as I have said, was all but deserted, and this young woman had been the first person to engage our idle observation. We had seen that, although plainly dressed, she was young, pretty, and modest ; and, in the absence of heavier cares, these facts had sufficed to make her interesting. The question had arisen between us, whether she was a native of the shore, or a visitor like ourselves. Bingham inclined to the former view of the case, and I to the latter. There was, indeed, a certain lowliness in her aspect ; but I had contended that it was by no means a rustic lowliness. Her dress was simple, but it was well made and well worn ; and I noticed that, as she strolled along, leading her little boy, she cast upon sky and sea the lingering glance of one to whom, in their integrity, these were unfamiliar objects. She was the wife of some small tradesman, I argued, who had brought her child to the seaside by the physician’s decree. But Bingham declared that it was utterly illogical to suppose her to be a mother of five years’ motherhood ; and that, for his part, he saw nothing in her appearance inconsistent with rural influences. The child was her nephew, the son of a married sister, and she a sentimental maiden aunt. Obviously the volume she had in her hand was Tennyson. In the absence on both sides of authentic data, of course the debate was not prolonged; and the subject of it had passed from our memories some time before we again met her on the beach. She soon became aware of our presence, however ; and, with a natural sense of intrusion, we immediately resumed our walk. The last that I saw of her, as we rounded a turn in the cliff which concealed the backward prospect, was a sudden grasp of the child’s arm, as if to withdraw him from the reach of a hastily advancing wave.
Half an hour’s further walk led us to a point which we were not tempted to exceed. We shot between us some half a dozen birds ; but as our dog, whose talents had been sadly misrepresented, proved very shy of the deep water, and succeeded in bringing no more than a couple of our victims to shore, we resolved to abstain from further destruction, and to return home quietly along the beach, upon which we had now descended.
“ If we meet our young lady,”said Bingham, “ we can gallantly offer her our booty.”
Some five minutes after he had uttered these words, a couple of great sea-gulls came flying landward over our heads, and, after a long gyration in mid-air, boldly settled themselves on the slope of the cliff at some three hundred yards in front of us, a point at which it projected almost into the waves. After a momentary halt, one of them rose again on his long pinions and soared away seaward ; the other remained. He sat perched on a jutting boulder some fifteen feet high, sunning his fishy breast.
“ I wonder if I could put a shot into him,” said Bingham.
“ Try,” I answered ; and, as he rapidly charged and levelled his piece, I remember idly repeating, while I looked at the great bird,
From the fiends that plague thee thus !
I shot the albatross.’”
“ He’s going to rise,” I added.
But Bingham had fired. The creature rose, indeed, half sluggishly, and yet with too hideous celerity. His movement drew from us a cry which was almost simultaneous with the report of Bingham’s gun. I cannot express our relation to what followed it better than by saying that it exposed to our sight, beyond the space suddenly left vacant, the happy figure of the child from whom we had parted but an hour before. He stood with his little hands extended, and his face raised toward the retreating bird. Of the sickening sensation which assailed our common vision as we saw him throw back his hands to his head, and reel downwards out of sight, I can give no verbal account, nor of the rapidity with which we crossed the smooth interval of sand, and rounded the bluff.
The child’s companion had scrambled up the rocky bank towards the low ledge from which he had fallen, and to which access was of course all too easy. She had sunk down upon the stones, and was wildly clasping the boy’s body. I turned from this spectacle to my friend, as to an image of equal woe. Bingham, pale as death, bounded over the stones, and fell on his knees. The woman let him take the child out of her arms, and bent over, with her forehead on a rock, moaning. I have never seen helplessness so vividly embodied as in this momentary group.
“ Did it strike his head ? ” cried Bingham. “ What the devil was he doing up there ? ”
“ I told him he’d get hurt,” said the young woman, with harrowing simplicity. “ To shoot straight at him ! — He’s killed ! ”
“ Great heavens ! Do you mean to say that I saw him ? ” roared Bingham. “ How did I know he was there ? Did you see us ? ”
The young woman shook her head. “ Of course I did n’t see you. I saw you with your guns before. Oh, he’s killed ! ”
“ He’s not killed. It was mere duck shot. Don’t talk such stuff. — My own poor little man ! ” cried George. “ Charles, where were our eyes ? ”
“ He wanted to catch the bird,” moaned our companion. “ Baby, my boy ! open your eyes. Speak to your mother. For God’s sake, get some help ! ”
She had put out her hands to take the child from Bingham, who had half angrily lifted him out of her reach. The senseless movement with which, as she disengaged him from Bingham’s grasp, he sank into her arms, was clearly the senselessness of death. She burst into sobs. I went and examined the child.
“ He may not be killed,” I said, turning to Bingham ; “ keep your senses. It’s not your fault. We couldn't see each other.”
Bingham rose stupidly to his feet.
“ She must be got home,” I said.
“ We must get a carriage. Will you go or stay ? ”
I saw that he had seen the truth. He looked about him with an expression of miserable impotence. “ Poor little devil ! ” he said, hoarsely.
“ Will you go for a carriage ? ” I repeated, taking his hand, “or will you stay ? ”
Our companion’s sobs redoubled their violence.
“ I ’ll stay,” said he. “ Bring some woman.”
I started at a hard run. I left the beach behind me, passed the white cottage at whose garden gate two women were gossiping, and reached the hotel stable, where I had the good fortune to find a vehicle at my disposal. I drove straight back to the white cottage. One of the women had disappeared, and the other was lingering among her flowers, — a middle-aged, keen-eyed person. As I descended and hastily addressed her, I read in her rapid glance an anticipation of evil tidings.
“ The young woman who stays with you — ” I began.
“ Yes,” she said, “ my second-cousin. Well ?”
“ She’s in trouble. She wants you to come to her. Her little boy has hurt himself.” I had time to see that I need fear no hysterics.
“ Where did you leave her ?” asked my companion.
“ On the beach.”
“ What’s the matter with the child ?”
“ He fell from a rock. There’s no time to be lost.” There was a certain antique rigidity about the woman which was at once irritating and reassuring. I was impelled both to quicken her apprehensions and to confide in her selfcontrol. “ For all I know, ma’am,” said I, “ the child is killed.”
She gave me an angry stare. “ For all you know! ” she exclaimed. “ Where were your wits ? Were you afraid to look at him ? ”
“ Yes, half afraid.”
She glanced over the paling at my vehicle. “ Am I to get into that ? ” she asked.
“ It you will be so good.”
She turned short about, and re-entered the house, where, as I stood out among the dahlias and the pinks, I heard a rapid opening and shutting of drawers. She shortly reappeared, equipped for driving; and, having locked the house door, and pocketed the key, came and faced me, where I stood ready to help her into the wagon.
“We’ll stop for the doctor,” she began.
“ The doctor,” said I, “is of no use.”
A few moments of hard driving brought us to my starting-point. The tide had fallen perceptibly in my absence ; and I remember receiving a strange impression of the irretrievable nature of the recent event from the sight of poor Bingham, standing down at the low-water-mark, and looking seaward with his hands in his pockets. The mother of his little victim still sat on the heap of stones where she had fallen, pressing her child to her breast. I helped my companion to descend, which she did with great deliberation. It is my belief that, as we drove along the beach, she derived from the expression of Bingham’s figure, and from the patient aversion of his face, a suspicion of his relation to the opposite group. It was not till the elder woman had come within, a few steps of her, that the younger became aware of her approach. I merely had time to catch the agonized appeal of her upward glance, and the broad compassion of the other’s stooping movement, before I turned my back upon their encounter, and walked down towards my friend. The monotonous murmur of the waves had covered the sound of our wagonwheels, and Bingham stood all unconscious of the coming of relief, — distilling I know not what divine relief from the simple beauty of sea and sky. I had laid my hand on his shoulder before he turned about. He looked towards the base of the cliff. I knew that a great effusion of feeling would occur in its natural order ; but how should I help him across the interval ?
“ That’s her cousin,” I said at random. “ She seems a very capable woman.”
“The child is quite dead,” said Bingham, for all answer. I was struck by the plainness of his statement. In the comparative freedom of my own thoughts I had failed to make allowance for the embarrassed movement of my friend’s. It was not, therefore, until afterwards that I acknowledged he had thought to better purpose than I; inasmuch as the very simplicity of his tone implied apositive acceptance (for the moment) of the dreadful fact which he uttered.
“ The sooner they get home, the better,” I said. It was evident that the elder of our companions had already embraced this conviction. She had lifted the child and placed him in the carriage, and she was now turning towards his mother and inviting her to ascend. Even at the distance at which I stood, the mingled firmness and tenderness of her gestures were clearly apparent. They seemed, moreover, to express a certain indifference to our movements, an independence of our further interference, which — fanciful as the assertion may look — was not untinged with irony. It was plain that, by whatever rapid process she had obtained it, she was already in possession of our story. “Thank God for strongminded women ! ” I exclaimed ; —and yet I could not repress a feeling that it behooved me, on behalf of my friend, to treat as an equal with the vulgar movement of antipathy which he was destined to encounter, and of which, in the irresistible sequence of events, the attitude of this good woman was an index.
We walked towards the carriage together. “ I shall not come home directly,” said Bingham ; “ but don’t be alarmed about me.”
I looked at my watch. “ I give you two hours,” I said, with all the authority of my affection.
The new-comer had placed herself on the back seat of the vehicle beside the sufferer, who on entering had again, possessed herself of her child. As I went about to mount in front, Bingham came and stood by the wheel. I read his purpose in his face, — the desire to obtain from the woman he had wronged some recognition of his human character, some confession that she dimly distinguished him from a wild beast or a thunderbolt. One of her hands lay exposed, pressing together on her knee the lifeless little hands of her boy. Bingham removed his hat, and placed his right hand on that of the young woman. I saw that she started at his touch, and that he vehemently tightened his grasp.
“ It’s too soon to talk of forgiveness,” said he, “ for it ’s too soon for me to think intelligently of the wrong I have done you. God has brought us together in a very strange fashion.”
The young woman raised her bowed head, and gave my friend, if not just the look he coveted, at least the most liberal glance at her command, — a look which, I fancy, helped him to face the immediate future. But these are matters too delicate to be put into words.
I spent the hours that elapsed before Bingham’s return to the inn in gathering information about the occupants of the cottage. Impelled by that lively intuition of calamity which is natural to women, the housekeeper of the hotel, a person of evident kindliness and discretion, lost no time in winning my confidence. I was not unwilling that the tragic incident which had thus arrested our idleness should derive its earliest publicity from my own lips ; and I was forcibly struck with the exquisite impartiality with which this homely creature bestowed her pity. Miss Horner, I learned, the mistress of the cottage, was the last representative of a most respectable family, native to the neighboring town. It had been for some years her practice to let lodgings during the summer. At the close of the present season she had invited her kinswoman, Mrs. Hicks, to spend the autumn with her. That this lady was the widow of a Baptist minister; that her husband had died some three years before ; that she was very poor; that her child had been sickly, and that the care of his health had so impeded her exertions for a livelihood, that she had been intending to leave him with Miss Horner for the winter, and obtain a “situation ” in town ; — these facts were the salient points of the housekeeper’s somewhat prolix recital.
The early autumn dusk had fallen when Bingham returned. He looked very tired. He had been walking for several hours, and, as I fancied, had grown in some degree familiar with his new responsibilities. He was very hungry, and made a vigorous attack upon his supper. I had been indisposed to eat, but the sight of his healthy appetite restored my own. I had grown weary of my thoughts, and I found something salutary in the apparent simplicity and rectitude of Bingham’s state of mind.
“ I find myself taking it very quietly,” he said, in the course of his repast. “ There is something so absolute in the nature of the calamity, that one is compelled to accept it. I don't see how I could endure to have mutilated the poor little mortal. To kill a human being is, after all, the least injury you can do him.” He spoke these words deliberately, with his eyes on mine, and with an expression of perfect candor. But as he paused, and in spite of my perfect assent to their meaning, I could not help mentally reverting to the really tragic phase of the affair ; and I suppose my features revealed to Bingham’s scrutiny the process of my thoughts. His pale face flushed a burning crimson, his lips trembled. “ Yes, my boy ! ” he cried; “ that’s where it’s damnable.” He buried his head in his hands, and burst into tears.
We had a long talk. At the end of it, we lit our cigars, and came out upon the deserted piazza. There was a lovely starlight, and, after a few turns in silence, Bingham left my side and strolled off towards a bend in the road, in the direction of the sea. I saw him stand motionless for a long time, and then I heard him call me. When I reached his side, I saw that he had been watching a light in the window of the white cottage. We heard the village bell in the distance striking nine.
“ Charles,” said Bingham, “ suppose you go down there and make some offer of your services. God knows whom the poor creatures have to look to. She has had a couple of men thrust into her life. She must take the good with the bad.”
I lingered a moment. “It’s a difficult task,” I said. “ What shall I say ?”
Bingham silently puffed his cigar. He stood with his arms folded, and his head thrown back, slowly measuring the starry sky. “ I wish she could come out here and look at that sky,” he said at last. “ It’s a sight for bereaved mothers. Somehow, my dear boy,” he pursued, “ I never felt less depressed in my life. It’s none of my doing.”
“ It would hardly do for me to tell her that,” said I.
“ I don’t know,” said Bingham. “ This is n’t an occasion for the exchange of compliments. I ’ll tell you what you may tell her. I suppose they will have some funeral services within a day or two. Tell her that I should like very much to be present.”
I set off for the cottage. Its mistress in person introduced me into the little parlor.
“ Well, sir ?” she said, in hard, dry accents.
“ I've come,” I answered, “ to ask whether I can be of any assistance to Mrs. Hicks.”
Miss Horner shock her head in a manner which deprived her negation of half its dignity. “ What assistance is possible ? ” she asked.
“ A man,” said I, “ may relieve a woman of certain cares — ”
“ O, men are a blessed set! You had better leave Mrs. Hicks to me.”
“ But will you at least tell me how she is, — if she has in any degree recovered herself? ”
At this moment the door of the adjoining room was opened, and Mrs. Hicks stood on the threshold, bearing a lamp, — a graceful and pathetic figure. I now had occasion to observe that she was a woman of decided beauty. Her fair hair was drawn back into a single knot behind her head, and the lamplight deepened the pallor of her face and the darkness of her eyes. She wore a calico dressing-gown and a shawl.
“ What do you wish ? ” she asked, in a voice clarified, if I may so express it, by long weeping.
“ He wants to know whether he can be of any assistance,” said the elder lady.
Mrs. Hicks glanced over her shoulder into the room she had left. “ Would you like to look at the child ? ” she asked, in a whisper.
“ Lucy ! ” cried Miss Horner.
I walked straight over to Mrs. Hicks, who turned and led the way to a little bed. My conductress raised her lamp aloft, and let the light fall gently on the little white-draped figure. Even the bandage about the child’s head had not dispelled his short-lived prettiness. Heaven knows that to remain silent was easy enough ; but Heaven knows, too, that to break the silence — and to break it as I broke it — was equally easy. “ He must have been a very pretty child,” I said.
“ Yes, he was very pretty. He had black eyes. I don’t know whether you noticed.”
“ No, I did n’t notice,” said I. “ When is he to be buried ? ”
“ The day after to-morrow. I am told that I shall be able to avoid an inquest.”
“ Mr. Bingham has attended to that,” I said. And then I paused, revolving his petition.
But Mrs. Hicks anticipated it. “ If you would like to be present at the funeral,” she said, “ you are welcome to come. — And so is your friend.”
“ Mr. Bingham bade me ask leave. There is a great deal that I should like to say to you for him,” I added, “but I won’t spoil it by trying. It’s his own business.”
The young woman looked at me with her deep, dark eyes. “ I pity him from my heart,” she said, pressing her hands to her breast. “ I had rather have my sorrow than his.”
“ They are pretty much one sorrow,” I answered. “ I don’t see that you can divide it. You are two to bear it. Bingham is a wise, good fellow,” I went on. “ I have shared a great many joys with him. In Heaven’s name,” I cried, “ don’t bear hard on him ! ”
“ How can I bear hard ? ” she asked, opening her arms and letting them drop. The movement was so deeply expressive of weakness and loneliness, that, feeling all power to reply stifled in a rush of compassion, I silently made my exit.
On the following day, Bingham and I went up to town, and on the third day returned in time for the funeral. Besides the two ladies, there was no one present but ourselves and the village minister, who of course spoke as briefly as decency allowed. He had accompanied the ladies in a carriage to the graveyard, while Bingham and I had come on foot. As we turned away from the grave, I saw my friend approach Mrs. Hicks. They stood talking beside the freshly-turned earth, while the minister and I attended Miss Horner to the carriage. After she had seated herself, I lingered at the door, exchanging sober commonplaces with the reverend gentleman. At last Mrs. Hicks followed us, leaning on Bingham’s arm.
“ Margaret,” she said, “ Mr. Bingham and I are going to stay here awhile. Mr. Bingham will walk home with me. I ’m very much obliged to you, Mr. Bland,” she added, turning to the minister and extending her hand.
I bestowed upon my friend a glance which I felt to be half interrogative and half sympathetic. He gave me his hand, and answered the benediction by its pressure, while he answered the inquiry by his words. “ If you are still disposed to go back to town this afternoon,” he said, “ you had better not wait for me. I may not have time to catch the boat.”
I of course made no scruple of returning immediately to the city. Some ten days elapsed before I again saw Bingham ; but I found my attention so deeply engrossed with work, that I scarcely measured the interval. At last, one morning, he came into my office.
“ I take for granted,” I said, “that you have not been all this time at B——
“No; 1 ’ve been on my travels. I came to town the day after you came. I found at my rooms a letter from a lawyer in Baltimore, proposing the sale of some of my property there, and I seized upon it as an excuse for making a journey to that city. I felt the need of movement, of action of some kind. But when I reached Baltimore, I did n’t even go to see my correspondent. I pushed on to Washington, walked about for tliirty-six hours, and came home.”
He had placed his arm on my desk, and stood supporting his head on his hand, with a look of great physical exhaustion.
“ You look very tired,” said I.
“ I have n’t slept,” said he. “ I had such a talk with that woman ! ”
“ I ’m sorry that you should have felt the worse for it.”
“ I feel both the worse and the better. She talked about the child.”
“ It’s well for her,” said I, “ that she was able to do it.”
“ She was n’t able, strictly speaking. She began calmly enough, but she very soon broke down.”
“ Did you see her again ? ”
“ I called upon her the next day, to tell her that I was going to town, and to ask if I could be useful to her. But she seems to stand in perfect isolation. She assured me that she was in want of nothing.”
“ What sort of a woman does she seem to be, taking her in herself?”
“ Bless your soul! I can’t take her in herself'” cried Bingham, with some vehemence. “ And yet, stay,” he added ; “ she’s a very pleasing woman.”
“ She’s very pretty.”
“ Yes ; she’s very pretty. In years, she ’s little more than a young girl. In her ideas, she ’s one of ‘the people.”’
“It seems to me,” said I, “ that the frankness of her conduct toward you is very much to her credit.
“ It does n’t offend you, then ? ”
“Offend me ? It gratifies me beyond measure.”
“ I think that, if you had seen her as I have seen her, it would interest you deeply. I 'm at a loss to determine whether it’s the result of great simplicity or great sagacity. Of course, it ’s absurd to suppose that, ten days ago, it could have been the result of anything but a beautiful impulse. I think that to-morrow I shall again go down to B——.”
I allowed Bingham time to have made his visit and to have brought me an account of his further impressions ; but as three days went by without his reappearance, I called at Ids lodgings. He was still out of town, The fifth day, however, brought him again to my office.
“ I ’ve been at B—constantly,” he said, “ and I ’ve had several interviews with our friend.”
“ Well; how fares it ? ”
“ It fares well. I ’m forcibly struck with her good sense. In matters of mind — in matters of soul, I may say — she has the touch of an angel, or rather the touch of a woman. That’s quite sufficient.”
“ Does she keep her composure ?”
“ Perfectly. You can imagine nothing simpler and less sentimental than her manner. She makes me forget myself most divinely. The child’s death colors our talk ; but it does n’t confine or obstruct it. You see she has her religion : she can afford to be natural.”
Weary as my friend looked, and shaken by his sudden subjection to care, it yet seemed to me, as he pronounced these words, that his eye had borrowed a purer light and his voice a fresher tone. In short, where I discerned it, how I detected it, I know not ; but I felt that he carried a secret. He sat poking with his walking-stick at a nail in the carpet, with his eyes dropped. I saw about his mouth the faint promise of a distant smile, — a smile which six months would bring to maturity.
“ George,” said I, “ I have a fancy.”
He looked up. “ What is it ? ”
“ You’ve lost your heart.”
He stared a moment, with a sudden frown. “ To whom ? ” he asked.
“ To Mrs. Hicks.”
With a frown, I say, but a frown that was as a smile to the effect of my rejoinder. He rose to his feet; all his color deserted his face and rushed to his eyes.
“ I beg your pardon if I ’m wrong,” I said.
Bingham had turned again from pale to crimson. “ Don't beg my pardon,” he cried. “ You may say what you please. Beg hers !” he added, bitterly.
I resented the charge of injustice. “ I’ve done her no wrong ! ” I answered. “ I have n’t said,” I went on with a certain gleeful sense that I was dealing with massive truths,—“I have n’t said that she had lost her heart to you ! ”
“ Good God, Charles ! ” cried Bingham, “ what a horrid imagination you have ! ”
“ I am not responsible for my imagination.”
“ Upon my soul, I hope I’m not! ” cried Bingham, passionately. “ I have enough without that.”
“ George,” I said, after a moment’s reflection, “ if I thought I had insulted you, I would make amends. But I have said nothing to be ashamed of. I believe that I have hit the truth. Your emotion proves it. I spoke hastily; but you must admit that, having caught a glimpse of the truth, I could n’t stand indifferent to it.”
“ The truth ! the truth ! What truth ? ”
“ Are n’t you in love with Mrs. Hicks ? Admit it like a man.”
“ Like a man ! Like a brute. Have n’t I done the woman wrong enough ? ”
“ Quite enough, I hope.”
“ Have n’t I turned her simple joys to bitterness ? ”
“ I grant it.”
“ And now you want me to insult her by telling her that I love her ? ”
“ I want you to tell her nothing. What you tell her is your own affair. Remember that, George. It’s as little mine as it is the rest of the world’s.”
Bingham stood listening, with a contracted brow and his hand grasping his stick. He walked to the dusty officewindow and halted a moment, watching the great human throng in the street. Then he turned and came towards me. Suddenly he stopped short. “ God forgive me ! ” he cried; “ I believe I do love her.”
The fountains of my soul were stirred. “ Combining my own hasty impressions of Mrs. Hicks with yours, George,” I said, “ the consummation seems to me exquisitely natural.”
It was in these simple words that we celebrated the sacred fact. It seemed as if, by tacit agreement, the evolution of this fact was result enough for a single interview.
A few days after this interview, in the evening, I called at Bingham’s lodgings. His servant informed me that my friend was out of town, although he was unable to indicate his whereabouts. But as I turned away from the door a hack drew up, and the object of my quest descended, equipped with a travelling-bag. I went down and greeted him under the gas-lamp.
“ Shall I go in with you ? ” I asked ; “ or shall I go my way ?”
“ You had better come in,” said Bingham. “ I have something to say. — I have been down to B——,” he resumed, when the servant had left us alone in his sitting-room. His tone bore the least possible tinge of a confession ; but of course it was not as a confessor that I listened.
“ Well,” said I, “ how is our friend ? ”
“ Our friend—” answered Bingham. “ Will you have a cigar ? ”
“ No, I thank you.”
“ Our friend — Ah, Charles, it’s a long story.”
“ I sha’ n’t mind that, if it’s an interesting one.”
“ To a certain extent it ’s a painful one. It’s painful to come into collision with incurable vulgarity of feeling.”
I was puzzled. “ Has that been your fortune ? ” I asked.
“ It has been my fortune to bring Mrs. Hicks into a great deal of trouble. The case, in three words, is this. Miss Horner has seen fit to resent, in no moderate terms, what she calls the ‘ extraordinary intimacy ’ existing between Mrs. Hicks and myself. Mrs. Hicks, as was perfectly natural, has resented her cousin’s pretension to regulate her conduct. Her expression of this feeling has led to her expulsion from Miss Horner’s house.”
“ Has she any other friend to turn to ? ”
“ No one, except some relatives of her husband, who are very poor people, and of whom she wishes to ask no favors.”
“ Where has she placed herself?”
“ She is in town. We came up together this afternoon. I went with her to some lodgings which she had formerly occupied, and which were fortunately vacant.”
“ I suppose it’s not to be regretted that she has left B——. She breaks with sad associations.”
“ Yes ; but she renews them too, on coming to town.”
“ How so ? ”
“Why, damn it,” said Bingham, with a tremor in his voice, “ the woman is utterly poor.”
“ Has she no resources whatever ? ”
“ A hundred dollars a year, I believe, — worse than nothing.”
“ Has she any marketable talents or accomplishments ? ”
“ I believe she is up to some pitiful needle-work or other. Such a woman ! O horrible world ! ”
“ Does she say so ? ” I asked.
“ She ? No indeed. She thinks it’s all for the best. I suppose it is. But it seems but a bad best.”
“ I wonder,” said I, after a pause, “ whether I might see Mrs. Hicks. Do you think she would receive me ?”
Bingham looked at me an instant keenly. “ I suppose so,” said he. “ You can try.”
“ I shall go, not out of curiosity,” I resumed, “ but out of —”
“ Out of what ? ”
“ Well, in fine, I should like to see her again.”
Bingham gave me Mrs. Hicks’s address, and in the course of a few evenings I called upon her. I had abstained from bestowing a fine name upon the impulse which dictated this act ; but I am nevertheless free to declare that kindliness and courtesy had a large part in it. Mrs. Hicks had taken up her residence in a plain, small house, in a decent by-street, where, upon presenting myself, I was ushered into a homely sitting-room (apparently her own), and left to await her coming. Her greeting was simple and cordial, and not untinged with a certain implication of gratitude. She had taken for granted, on my part, all possible sympathy and good-will ; but as she had regarded me besides as a man of many cares, she had thought it improbable that we should meet again. It was no long time before I became conscious of that generous charm which Bingham had rigorously denominated her good-sense. Good-sense assuredly was there, but good-sense mated and prolific. Never had I seen, it seemed to me, as the moments elapsed, so exquisitely modest a use of such charming faculties,— an intelligence so sensible of its obligations and so indifferent to its privileges. It was obvious that she had been a woman of plain associations : her allusions were to homely facts, and her manner direct and unstudied; and yet, in spite of these limitations, it was equally obvious that she was a person to be neither patronized, dazzled, nor deluded. O the satisfaction which, in the course of that quiet dialogue, I took in this sweet infallibility! How it effaced her loneliness and poverty, and added dignity to her youth and beauty ! It made her, potentially at least, a woman of the world. It was an anticipation of the self-possession, the wisdom, and perhaps even in some degree of the wit, which comes through the experience of society, — the result, on Mrs. Hicks’s part, of I know not what hours of suffering, despondency, and self-dependence. With whatever intentions, therefore, I might have come before her, I should have found it impossible to address her as any other than an equal, and to regard her affliction as anything less than an absolute mystery. In fact, we hardly touched upon it ; and it was only covertly that we alluded to Bingham’s melancholy position. I will not deny that in a certain sense I regretted Mrs. Hicks’s reserve. It is true that I had a very informal claim upon her confidence ; but I had gone to her with a half-defined hope that this claim would be liberally interpreted. It was not even recognized; my vague intentions of counsel and assistance had lain undivined; and I departed with the impression that my social horizon had been considerably enlarged, but that my charity had by no means secured a pensioner.
Mrs. Hicks had given me permission to repeat my visit, and after the lapse of a fortnight I determined to do so. I had seen Bingham several times in the interval. He was of course much interested in my impressions of our friend ; and I fancied that my admiration gave him even more pleasure than he allowed himself to express. On entering Mrs. Hicks’s parlor a second time, I found him in person standing before the fireplace, and talking apparently with some vehemence to Mrs. Hicks, who sat listening on the sofa. Bingham turned impatiently to the door as I crossed the threshold, and Mrs. Hicks rose to welcome me with all due composure. I was nevertheless sensible that my entrance was illtimed ; yet a retreat was impossible. Bingham kept his place on the hearthrug, and mechanically gave me his hand, — standing irresolute, as I thought, between annoyance and elation. The fact that I had interrupted a somewhat passionate interview was somehow so obvious, that, at the prompting of a very delicate feeling, Mrs. Hicks hastened to anticipate my apologies.
“ Mr. Bingham was giving me a lecture,” she said ; and there was perhaps in her accent a faint suspicion of bitterness. “ He will doubtless be glad of another auditor.”
“ No,” said Bingham, “ Charles is a better talker than listener. You shall have two lectures instead of one.” He uttered this sally without even an attempt to smile.
“ What is your subject ? ” said I. “ Until I know that, I shall promise neither to talk nor to listen.”
Bingham laid his hand on my arm. “ He represents the world,” he said, addressing our hostess. “ You ’re afraid of the world. There, make your appeal.”
Mrs. Hicks stood silent a moment, with a contracted brow and a look of pain on her face. Then she turned to me with a half-smile. “ I don’t believe you represent the world,” she said ; “ you are too good.”
“ She flatters you,” said Bingham. “ You wish to corrupt him, Mrs. Hicks.”
Mrs. Hicks glanced for an instant from my friend to myself. There burned in her eyes a far-searching light, which consecrated the faint irony of the smile which played about her lips. “ O you men ! ” she said, — “ you are so wise, so deep!” It was on Bingham that her eyes rested last; but after a pause, extending her hand, she transferred them to me. “ Mr. Bingham,” she pursued, “ seems to wish you to be admitted to our counsels. There is every reason why his friends should be my friends. You will be interested to know that he has asked me to be his wife.”
“ Have you given him an answer ? ” I asked.
“ He was pressing me for an answer when you came in. He conceives me to have a great fear of the judgments of men, and he was saying very hard things about them. But they have very little, after all, to do with the matter. The world may heed it, that Mr. Bingham should marry Mrs. Hicks, but it will care very little whether or no Mrs. Hicks marries Mr. Bingham. You are the world, for me,” she cried with beautiful inconsequence, turning to her suitor; “ I know no other.” She put out her hands, and he took them.
I am at a loss to express the condensed force of these rapid words, — the amount of passion, of reflection, of experience, which they seemed to embody. They were the simple utterance of a solemn and intelligent choice ; and, as such, the whole phalanx of the Best Society assembled in judgment could not have done less than salute them. What honest George Bingham said, what I said, is of little account. The proper conclusion of my story lies in the highly dramatic fact that out of the depths of her bereavement — out of her loneliness and her pity — this richly gifted woman had emerged, responsive to the passion of him who had wronged her all but as deeply as he loved her. The reader will decide, I think, that this catastrophe offers as little occasion for smiles as for tears. My narrative is a piece of genuine prose.
It was not until six months had elapsed that Bingham’s marriage took place. It has been a truly happy one. Mrs. Bingham is now, in the fulness of her bloom, with a single exception, the most charming woman I know. I have often assured her — once too often, possibly — that, thanks to that invaluable good-sense of hers, she is also the happiest. She has made a devoted wife ; but— and in occasional moments of insight it has seemed to me that this portion of her fate is a delicate tribute to a fantastic principle of equity — she has never again become a mother. In saying that she has made a devoted wife, it may seem that I have written Bingham’s own later history. Yet as the friend of his younger days, the comrade of his belle jeunesse, the partaker of his dreams, I would fain give him a sentence apart. What shall it be ? He is a truly incorruptible soul; he is a confirmed philosopher ; he has grown quite stout.