For twenty-three years John Mullenix lived in the small country town where he was born and bred. At 21 he married Mary Diggs, a pretty village girl with whom he had eaten candy, swapped gum, attended school and kept company, for fifteen years or more. Their union was a happy one, and his wife bore him two children, whose merry romping and careless laughter helped to relieve the monotony of the rather quiet life of a country community. In his position as book-keeper for the village tan-yard, John earned enough to supply the simple needs of his family and to lay by a few dollars for the future.
Thus their lives flowed smoothly on until John's uncle came from New York to spend a week or two at Clifton during the hot season. Uncle Ralph was chief book-keeper for a large mercantile establishment. He was more talkative than wise, and his glowing pictures of city life were eagerly listened to by John, whose experience of cities was limited to one or two short visits. Uncle Ralph admired John's fine hand-writing, and went back to the city with the promise to look for an opening where his nephew's talents would be properly appreciated and adequately rewarded.
The result of his efforts was that in about three months John moved away from Clifton, and went to work as assistant book-keeper in a large New York hardware store, at a salary somewhat in advance of that he had formerly earned.
But he found that city life was not without its drawbacks. It is true there were theaters and concerts, museums and libraries. But when the very high rent of the very narrow rooms in a very remote part of the city was paid, and the wants of the family of four were supplied, there was very little money left for tickets to theater or concert, or even for car fares to park or libraries.
Then again, John's personal expenses increased faster than his income. His fellow clerks were mostly young men and unmarried. They wore good clothes, drank, smoked and talked about the good times they had evenings. John was no stoic and wished to be popular. He soon began to drink beer, though he did not like it; to smoke, though it made him sick. He secured an introduction to an accommodating Hebrew tailor who supplied impecunious clerks with fine clothes on long time. Thus John endeavored to conform as far as possible to the habits of his associates.
But two and two cannot by any known rule of addition be made to foot up more than four, and what John spent on himself necessarily reduced the fund that supplied the needs of his family. His children seemed to him to wear out clothes and shoes very fast. The grocer and butcher seemed to appropriate an exhorbitant proportion of his salary. His wife's constant demands for money made her at times almost repulsive to him, and he often dreaded to hear her speak, for he could almost divine what the subject of her conversation would be. Poverty and family cares were beginning to tell a little on Mary's never robust physique; and John sometimes found himself almost unconsciously comparing her with the glorious creatures he met in the stores and on the streets, and especially with the buxom sister of a fellow-clerk, who he was sure would have smiled on him had he not been married already. This girl had money—$10,000 dollars in her own right—and his wife had nothing, and—well, it wasn't worth while to think about it.
One morning at breakfast Mary rather timidly broached a subject which had long been weighing on her mind; she wanted a new bonnet.
"Why, Mary, it is just impossible. It was only last month that you got a new dress."
"Only a calico dress," she said.
"And last week it was two dollars for Minnie's shoes and a new hat for Johnnie."
"You know, John," said Mary, "that I have not had a new bonnet since we came to New York; that I haven't been to church for six months because I had nothing to wear:; that—"
"But, great heavens, Mary, I can't afford to dress you like a millinery dummy. My light overcoat isn't paid for yet; I need a new hat; I can't wear this suit more than a month longer; and the bloody butcher swears he won't trust us any further unless we pay something on his bill." And as Mary burst into tears, he seized his hat and bolted for the door.
As John sat at his desk a flood of conflicting emotions struggled through his mind. Why had he married so young? Why should he be handicapped in the race of life by a family, when so many opportunities were open to young men not thus encumbered? He might find his true sphere in life if it were not for the heavy responsibilities which rested upon him. The column of figures in the statement before him all ran together, and as he bowed his head on his folded arms, he said, half aloud:
"I wish I had never married."
A few minutes later the telephone rang. John answered the call, which was for himself. A neighbor's voice informed him that Mrs. Mullenix had suddenly taken very ill, and that he had better come home immediately. He hastily excused himself to the chief clerk and hurried home, only to find that his wife had breathed her last. She had succumbed to an attack of heart disease, to which her family was subject, and which the worry of her unhappy year in the city had developed at an age when this dread malady rarely proves fatal.
The last sad offices were scarcely paid to the dead before one of the children, who had necessarily been much neglected for the time being contracted diphtheria, and lived only long enough to communicate it to her little brother, with whom it also proved fatal—and John Mullenix was free.
And now, according to the logic of his previous reasoning, John should have been happy. But, strangely enough, he was not. For six months he was forced to the strictest economy to pay the bills incurred by the burial of his wife and children. The golden opportunities which sprang up so abundantly in his imagination did not materialize as they should have done; and at the end of six months John was still in the same position at the same salary.
The young lady whom he had fancied did not fall victim to his charms so easily as he had imagined she would; but after a rather arduous courtship of six months or more, John was glad to exchange the dreary bedroom of his boarding house for the neat flat for which his wife paid the rent.
With $10,000 dollars practically at his command, John seemed to revel in unlimited wealth, and denied himself no pleasure. He wore fine clothes, discarded vulgar beer for champagne, wore a diamond scarfpin; and like the butterfly fluttered his brief hour away in the sun of prosperity. His wife was equally careless and fond of pleasure.
When they had been married a year a child was born to them. It was a pretty blue-eyed creature; but as time passed it did not show those signs of intelligence which babies are wont to display as they advance in years—or months, rather; and the parents could at length no longer doubt that their child was congenial deaf-mute.
Another year passed, and not so happily as the first. The wife's little capital had melted away, and the golden opportunities had not yet opened up. A speculative investment resulted unfortunately, and John and his wife found themselves penniless. To add to their misfortunes, John's wife gave birth to another child. The wizened face and distorted limbs of the little creature revealed a story of hopeless deformity.
The last state of this man was worse than the first. With a wisdom hardly to have been expected of him, he had retained his position in the mercantile house. But his wife was accustomed to plenty, and his limited earnings were by no means sufficient to gratify her desires. Of a fickle and shallow temperament, she could not readily adapt herself to a life of narrow means; and the sense of wrong under which she labored at the waste of her fortune added to her discontent and her husband's unhappiness. She was a beautiful woman, and other men than John had perceived this; and one day on his return home from the office, John found the deformed child screaming on a lounge, and the other playing on the floor, and a note lying on the table. Hastily tearing it open he read:
MY DEAR JOHN—I am afraid you are not the man to make me happy. I sail for Europe at noon with a friend who can supply my wants. I leave you the dear children. Ta-ta. Yours,
A cold, dumb despair settled down upon John's heart. He had loved his beautiful wife. He looked at the expressionless face of the deaf mute, and glared at the screaming hunchback on the lounge. As he turned away, the reproachful face of the dead Mary seemed to rise up before him, and as the discordant scream of the deformed child rang in his ears, he seemed to hear the voices of the dead children calling—calling him. On the floor were scattered pieces of his wife's clothing. The disordered furniture showed the signs of hasty packing. On the floor lay a torn slipper—a tiny, graceful shoe. He picked it up and kissed it. He stood for a moment irresolute: then taking a revolver from a drawer in his dressing case, mechanically he raised it to his head. His finger pressed the trigger—when a hand was laid on his arm and a voice at his ear exclaimed:
"Well now, Mr. Mullenix, are you going to sleep here all day? Mr. Keller has called for that statement two or three times already."
John finished the statement. When office hours were over he did not wait for the boys, but went directly home. At supper he remarked to Mary that he had arranged matters so that he could give her the money for the new bonnet. A grateful smile and a warm kiss were his reward.