"Oh, well, yes. You artists can do anything, and it's all right. You must come over immediately afterwards and tell me all about it, won't you?"
At this Mrs. Congdon laughed, but, being of generous mind, consented.
Crego was right. Bertha had not yet begun to take on trouble about her social position. She had carried to her big house in the Springs all the ideas and usages of Sibley Junctionóthat was all. She acknowledged her obligations as a householder, carrying forward the New England democratic traditions. To be next door made any one a neighbor, with the right to run in to inspect your house and furniture and to give advice. The fact that near-at-hand residents did not avail themselves of this privilege troubled her very little at first, so busy was she with her own affairs; but it was inevitable that the talk of her mother's church associates should sooner or later open her eyes to the truth that the distinctions which she had read about as existing in New York and Chicago were present in her own little city. "Mrs. Crego and her set are too stuck up to associate with common folks," was the form in which the revelation came to her.
From one loose-tongued sister she learned, also, that she and the Captain were subjects of earnest prayer in the sewing-circle, and that her husband's Catholicism was a source of deep anxiety, not to say proselyting hostility, on the part of the pastor and his wife, while from another of these officious souls she learned that the Springs, beautiful as it was, so sunlit, so pure of air, was a centre of marital infelicity, wherein the devil reigned supreme.
Her mother's pastor called, and was very outspoken as to Mart and Charlesóboth of whom needed the Lord's grace badly. He expressed great concern for Bertha's spiritual welfare, and openly prayed for her husband, whose nominal submission to the Catholic Church seemed not merely blindness to his own sin, but a danger to the young wife.
Haney, however, though wounded and suffering, was still a lion in resolution, and his glance checked the exhortation which the minister one day nerved himself to utter. "I do not interfere with any man's faith," said he, "and I do not intend to be put to school by you nor any other livin'. I was raised a Catholic, and for the sake of me mother I call meself wan to this day, and as I am so I shall die." And the finality of his voice won him freedom from further molestation.
Bertha's concern for her creed was hardly more poignant than Haney's, and they never argued; but she did begin to give puzzled thought to the social complications which opened out day by day before her. Charles, embittered by his failures, enlightened her still more profoundly. He had a certain shrewdness of comment at times which bit. "Wouldn't it jar you," said he one day, "to see this little town sporting a 'Smart Set' and quoting Town Topics like a Bible? Why, some of these dinky little two-spot four-flushers draw the line on me because I'm an actor! What d'ye think o' that? I don't mind your Methodist sistern walking wide of me, but it's another punch when these dubs who are smoking my cigars at the club fail to invite me to their houses."
Bertha looked at him reflectively throughout this speech, putting a different interpretation on the neglect he complained of. She had gone beyond disliking him, she despised him (for he was growing bolder each day in his addresses), and took every precaution that he should not be alone with her; and she rose one morning with the determination to tell Mart that she would not endure his brother's presence another day. But his pleasure in Charles' company was too genuine to be disturbed, and so she endured.
The actor's talk was largely concerned with the scandal-mongery of the town, and very soon the young wife knew that Mrs. May, whose husband was "in the last stages," was in love with young Mr. June, and that Mr. Frost, whose wife was "weakly," was going about shamelessly with Miss Bloom, and all this comment came to her ears freighted with its worst significance. Vile suggestion dripped from Charles Haney's reckless tongue.
This was deep-laid policy with him. His purpose was to undermine her loyalty as a wife. His approaches had no charm, no finesse. Presuming on his relationship, he caught at her hand as she passed, or took a seat beside her if he found her alone on a sofa. At such moments she was furious with him, and once she struck his hand away with such violence that she suffered acute pain for several hours afterwards.
His attentionsówhich were almost assaultsócame at last to destroy a large part of her joy in her new home. Her drives, when he sat beside her, were a torture, and yet she could not bring herself to accuse him before the crippled man, who really suffered from loneliness whenever she was out of the house or busy in her household work. He had never been given to reading, and was therefore pathetically dependent upon conversation for news and amusement. He was much at home, too, for his maiming was still so fresh upon him that he shrank from exhibiting himself on the street or at the clubs (there are no saloons in the Springs). Crego, whom he liked exceedingly, was very busy, and Williams was away at the mines for the most part, and so, in spite of Bertha's care, he often sat alone on the porch, a pitiful shadow of the man who paid court to the clerk of the Golden Eagle.
Sometimes he followed the women around the house like a dog, watching them at their dusting and polishing. "You'll strain yourself, Captain," Bertha warn-ingly cried out whenever he laid hold of a chair or brush. And so each time he went back to his library to smoke, and wait until his wife's duties were ended. At such hours his brother was a comfort. He was not a fastidious man, even with the refinement which had come from his sickness and his marriage, and the actor (so long as he cast no imputations on any friend) could talk as freely as he pleased.