Read CHAPTER IV of The Argonauts of North Liberty , free online book, by Bret Harte, on ReadCentral.com.

When Edward Blandford found himself alone after his wife had undertaken to fulfil his abandoned filial duty at her parents’ house, he felt a slight twinge of self-reproach.  He could not deny that this was not the first time he had evaded the sterile Sabbath evenings at his mother-in-law’s, or that even at other times he was not in accord with the cold and colorless sanctity of the family.  Yet he remembered that when he picked out from the budding womanhood of North Liberty this pure, scentless blossom, he had endured the privations of its surroundings with a sense of security in inhaling the atmosphere in which it grew, and knowing the integrity of its descent.  There was a certain pleasure also in invading this seclusion with human passion; the first pressure of her hand when they were kneeling together at family prayers had the zest without the sin of a forbidden pleasure; the first kiss he had given her with their heads over the family Bible had fairly intoxicated him in the thin, rarefied air of their surroundings.  In transplanting this blossom to his own home with the fond belief that it would eventually borrow the hues and color of his own passion, he had no further interest in the house he had left behind.  When he found, however, that the ancestral influence was stronger than he expected, that the young wife, instead of assimilating to his conditions, had imported into their little household the rigors of her youthful home, he had been chilled and disappointed.  But he could not help also remembering that his own boyhood had been spent in an atmosphere like her own in everything but its sincerity and deep conviction.  His father had recognized the business value of placating the narrow tyranny of the respectable well-to-do religious community, and had become a conscious hypocrite and a popular citizen.  He had himself been under that influence, and it was partly a conviction of this that had drawn him towards her as something genuine and real.  It occurred to him now for the first time, as he looked around upon that compromise of their two lives in this chilly artificial home, that it was only natural that she would prefer the more truthful austerities of her mother’s house.  Had she detected the sham, and did she despise him for it?

These were questions which seemed to bring another self-accusing doubt in his own mind, although, without his being conscious of it, they had been really the outcome of that doubt.  He could not help dwelling on the singular human interest she had taken in Demorest’s love affair, and the utterly unexpected emotion she had shown.  He had never seen her as charmingly illogical, capricious, and bewitchingly feminine.  Had he not made a radical mistake in not giving her a frequent provocation for this innocent emotion ­in fact, in not taking her out into a world of broader sympathies and experiences?  What a household they might have had ­if necessary in some other town ­away from those cramped prejudices and limitations!  What friends she might have been with Dick and his other worldly acquaintances; what social pleasures ­guiltless amusements for her pure mind ­in theatres, parties, and concerts!  Would she have objected to them? ­had he ever seriously proposed them to her?  No! if she had objected there would have been time enough to have made this present compromise; she would have at least respected and understood his sacrifice ­and his friends.

Even the artificial externals of his household had never before so visibly impressed him.  Now that she was no longer in the room it did not even bear a trace of her habitation, it certainly bore no suggestion of his own.  Why had he bought that hideous horsehair furniture?  To remind her of the old provincial heirlooms of her father’s sitting-room.  Did it remind her of it?  The stiff and stony emptiness of this room had been fashioned upon the decorous respectability of his own father’s parlor ­in which his father, who usually spent his slippered leisure in the family sitting-room, never entered except on visits from the minister.  It had chilled his own youthful soul ­why had he perpetuated it here?

He could only answer these questions by moodily wandering about the house, and regretting he had not gone with her.  After a vain attempt to establish social and domestic relations with the hot-air drum by putting his feet upon it ­after an equally futile attempt to extract interest from the book of sermons by opening its pages at random ­he glanced at the clock and suddenly resolved to go and fetch her.  It would remind him of the old times when he used to accompany her from church, and, after her parents had retired, spend a blissful half-hour alone with her.  With what a mingling of fear and childish curiosity she used to accept his equally timid caresses!  Yes, he would go and fetch her; and he would recall it to her in a whisper while they were there.

Filled with this idea, when he changed his clothes again he put on a certain heavy beaver overcoat, on whose shaggy sleeve her little, hand had so often rested when he escorted her from meeting; and he even selected the gray muffler she had knit for him in the old ante-nuptial days.  It was lying in the half-opened drawer from where she had not long before taken her disguising veil.

It was still blowing in sudden, capricious gusts; and when he opened the front door the wind charged fiercely upon him, as if to drive him back.  When he had finally forced his way into the street, a return current closed the door as suddenly and sharply behind him as if it had ejected him from his home for ever.

He reached the fourth house quickly, and as quickly ran up the steps; his hand was upon the bell when his eye suddenly caught sight of his wife’s pass-key still in the lock.  She had evidently forgotten it.  Here was a chance to mischievously banter that habitually careful little woman!  He slipped it into his pocket and quietly entered the dark but perfectly familiar hall.  He reached the staircase without a stumble and began to ascend softly.  Halfway up he heard the sound of his wife’s hurried voice and another that startled him.  He ascended hastily two steps, which brought him to the level of the half-opened transom of the kitchen.  A candle was burning on the kitchen table; he could see everything that passed in the room; he could hear distinctly every word that was uttered.

He did not utter a cry or sound; he did not even tremble.  He remained so rigid and motionless, clutching the banisters with his stiffened fingers, that when he did attempt to move, all life, as well as all that had made life possible to him, seemed to have died from him for ever.  There was no nervous illusion, no dimming of his senses; he saw everything with a hideous clarity of perception.  By some diabolical instantaneous photography of the brain, little actions, peculiarities, touches of gesture, expression and attitude never before noted by him in his wife, were clearly fixed and bitten in his consciousness.  He saw the color of his friend’s overcoat, the reddish tinge of his wife’s brown hair, till then unnoticed; in that supreme moment he was aware of a sudden likeness to her mother; but more terrible than all, there seemed to be a nameless sympathetic resemblance that the guilty pair had to each other in gesture and movement as of some unhallowed relationship beyond his ken.  He knew not how long he stood there without breath, without reflection, without one connected thought.  He saw her suddenly put her hand on the handle of the door.  He knew that in another moment they would pass almost before him.  He made a convulsive effort to move, with an inward cry to God for support, and succeeded in staggering with outstretched palms against the wall, down the staircase, and blindly forward through the hall to the front door.  As yet he had been able to formulate only one idea ­to escape before them, for it seemed to him that their contact meant the ruin of them both, of that house, of all that was near to him ­a catastrophe that struck blindly at his whole visible world.  He had reached the door and opened it at the moment that the handle of the kitchen-door was turned.  He mechanically fell back behind the open door that hid him, while it let the cruel light glimmer for a moment on their clasped figures.  The door slipped from his nerveless fingers and swung to with a dull sound.  Crouching still in the corner, he heard the quick rush of hurrying feet in the darkness, saw the door open and Demorest glide out ­saw her glance hurriedly after him, close the door, and involve herself and him in the blackness of the hall.  Her dress almost touched him in his corner; he could feel the near scent of her clothes, and the air stirred by her figure retreating towards the stairs; could hear the unlocking of a door above and the voice of her mother from the landing, his wife’s reply, the slow fading of her footsteps on the stairs and overhead, the closing of a door, and all was quiet again.  Still stooping, he groped for the handle of the door, opened it, and the next moment reeled like a drunken man down the steps into the street.

It was well for him that a fierce onset of wind and sleet at that instant caught him savagely ­stirred his stagnated blood into action, and beat thought once more into his brain.  He had mechanically turned towards his own home; his first effort of recovering will hurried him furiously past it and into a side street.  He walked rapidly, but undeviatingly on to escape observation and secure some solitude for his returning thoughts.  Almost before he knew it he was in the open fields.

The idea of vengeance had never crossed his mind.  He was neither a physical nor a moral coward, but he had never felt the merely animal fury of disputed animal possession which the world has chosen to recognize as a proof of outraged sentiment, nor had North Liberty accepted the ethics that an exchange of shots equalized a transferred affection.  His love had been too pure and too real to be moved like the beasts of the field, to seek in one brutal passion compensation for another.  Killing ­what was there to kill?  All that he had to live for had been already slain.  With the love that was in him ­in them ­already dead at his feet, what was it to him whether these two hollow lives moved on and passed him, or mingled their emptiness elsewhere?  Only let them henceforth keep out of his way!

For in his first feverish flow of thought ­the reaction to his benumbed will within and the beating sleet without ­he believed Demorest as treacherous as his wife.  He recalled his sudden and unexpected intrusion into the buggy only a few hours before, his mysterious confidences, his assurance of Joan’s favorable reception of his secret, and her consent to the Californian trip.  What had all this meant if not that Demorest was using him, the husband, to assist his intrigue, and carry the news of his presence in the town to her?  And this boldness, this assurance, this audacity of conception was like Demorest!  While only certain passages of the guilty meeting he had just seen and overheard were distinctly impressed on his mind, he remembered now, with hideous and terrible clearness, all that had gone before.  It was part of the disturbed and unequal exaltation of his faculties that he dwelt more upon this and his wife’s previous deceit and manifest hypocrisy, than upon the actual evidence he had witnessed of her unfaithfulness.  The corroboration of the fact was stronger to him than the fact itself.  He understood the coldness, the uncongeniality now ­the simulated increase of her aversion to Demorest ­her journeys to Boston and Hartford to see her relatives, her acquiescence to his frequent absences; not an incident, not a characteristic of her married life was inconsistent with her guilt and her deceit.  He went even back to her maidenhood:  how did he know this was not the legitimate sequence of other secret schoolgirl escapades.  The bitter worldly light that had been forced upon his simple ingenuous nature had dazzled and blinded him.  He passed from fatuous credulity to equally fatuous distrust.

He stopped suddenly with the roaring of water before him.  In the furious following of his rapid thought through storm and darkness he had come, he knew not how, upon the bank of the swollen river, whose endangered bridge Demorest had turned from that evening.  A few steps more and he would have fallen into it.  He drew nearer and looked at it with vague curiosity.  Had he come there with any definite intention?  The thought sobered without frightening him.  There was always that culmination possible, and to be considered coolly.

He turned and began to retrace his steps.  On his way thither he had been fighting the elements step by step; now they seemed to him to have taken possession of him and were hurrying him quickly away.  But where? and to what?  He was always thinking of the past.  He had wandered he knew not how long, always thinking of that.  It was the future he had to consider.  What was to be done?

He had heard of such cases before; he had read of them in newspapers and talked of them with cold curiosity.  But they were of worldly, sinful people, of dissolute men whose characters he could not conceive ­of silly, vain, frivolous, and abandoned women whom he had never even met.  But Joan ­O God!  It was the first time since his mute prayer on the staircase that the Divine name had been wrested from his lips.  It came with his wife’s ­and his first tears!  But the wind swept the one away and dried the others upon his hot cheeks.

It had ceased to rain, and the wind, which was still high, had shifted more to the north and was bitterly cold.  He could feel the roadway stiffening under his feet.  When he reached the pavement of the outskirts once more he was obliged to take the middle of the street, to avoid the treacherous films of ice that were beginning to glaze the sidewalks.  Yet this very inclemency, added to the usual Sabbath seclusion, had left the streets deserted.  He was obliged to proceed more slowly, but he met no one and could pursue his bewildering thoughts unchecked.  As he passed between the lines of cold, colorless houses, from which all light and life had vanished, it seemed to him that their occupants were dead as his love, or had fled their ruined houses as he had.  Why should he remain?  Yet what was his duty now as a man ­as a Christian?  His eye fell on the hideous façade of the church he was passing ­her church!  He gave a bitter laugh and stumbled on again.

With one of the gusts he fancied he heard a familiar sound ­the rattling of buggy wheels over the stiffening road.  Or was it merely the fanciful echo of an idea that only at that moment sprung up in his mind?  If it was real it came from the street parallel with the one he was in.  Who could be driving out at this time?  What other buggy than his own could be found to desecrate this Christian Sabbath?  An irresistible thought impelled him at the risk of recognition to quicken his pace and turn the corner as Richard Demorest drove up to the Independence Hotel, sprang from his buggy, throwing the reins over the dashboard, and disappeared into the hotel!

Blandford stood still, but for an instant only.  He had been wandering for an hour aimlessly, hopelessly, without consecutive idea, coherent thought or plan of action; without the faintest inspiration or suggestion of escape from his bewildering torment, without ­he had begun to fear ­even the power to conceive or the will to execute; when a wild idea flashed upon him with the rattle of his buggy wheels.  And even as Demorest disappeared into the hotel, he had conceived his plan and executed it.  He crossed the street swiftly, leaped into his buggy, lifted the reins and brought down the whip simultaneously, and the next instant was dashing down the street in the direction of the Warensboro turnpike.  So sudden was the action that by the time the astonished hall porter had rushed into the street, horse and buggy had already vanished in the darkness.

Presently it began to snow.  So lightly at first that it seemed a mere passing whisper to the ear, the brush of some viewless insect upon the cheek, or the soft tap of unseen fingers on the shoulders.  But by the time the porter returned from his hopeless and invisible chase of the “runaway,” he came in out of a swarming cloud of whirling flakes, blinded and whitened.  There was a hurried consultation with the landlord, the exhibition of much imperious energy and some bank-notes from Demorest, and with a glance at the clock that marked the expiring limit of the Puritan Sabbath, the landlord at last consented.  By the time the falling snow had muffled the street from the indiscreet clamor of Sabbath-breaking hoofs, the landlord’s noiseless sledge was at the door and Demorest had departed.

The snow fell all that night; with fierce gusts of wind that moaned in the chimneys of North Liberty and sorely troubled the Sabbath sleep of its decorous citizens; with deep, passionless silences, none the less fateful, that softly precipitated a spotless mantle of merciful obliteration equally over their precise or their straying footprints, that would have done them good to heed and to remember; and when morning broke upon a world of week-day labor, it was covered as far as their eyes could reach as with a clear and unwritten tablet, on which they might record their lives anew.  Near the wreck of the broken bridge on the Warensboro turnpike an overturned buggy lay imbedded in the drift and debris of the river hurrying silently towards the sea, and a horse with fragments of broken and icy harness still clinging to him was found standing before the stable-door of Edward Blandford.  But to any further knowledge of the fate of its owner, North Liberty awoke never again.