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- Mr. Bingle - 4/49 -
sanctity of the home. (It was not to be denied that he had strayed into crooked paths and devious ways--and, to do him justice, he did not attempt to deny it: he ventured only to EXPLAIN it.) According to his version of the affair, the trouble began long before he took to wine and women. It began with his wife's propensity for nagging. Being a high-spirited, intelligent person with a mind of his own, Mr. Hooper didn't like being nagged, and as he rather harshly attempted to put a stop to it just as soon as it dawned upon him that he was being hen- pecked, his wife, not to be outdone, went at it harder than ever. And that is how it all began, and that is why I say that he was not wholly to blame. She was very pretty and very peevish, and they lived a cat and dog life for ten years after the birth of the last child.
Mr. Hooper took to drink and then took to staying away from home for days at a time. It was at this stage of the affair that the children began to see him through their mother's eyes. Certain disclosures were inevitable. In a word, Mrs. Hooper hired detectives, and finding herself in a splendid position to secure all she wanted in the way of alimony, heralded Mr. Hooper's shortcomings to the world. The only good that ever came out of the unfortunate transaction, so far as Mr. Hooper was concerned, was to be found in the blessed realisation that she had actually deprived herself of the right to nag him, and that was something he knew would prove to be a constant source of irritation to her.
But when his children turned against him, he faltered. He had not counted on that. They not only went off to live with their mother, but they virtually wiped him out of their lives, quite as if he had passed away and no longer existed in the flesh. The three of them stood by the mother--as they should have done, we submit, considering Mr. Hooper's habits--and shuddered quite as profoundly as she when the name of the erring parent was mentioned in their presence. Mr. Hooper couldn't for the life of him understand this treachery on the part of his pampered offspring, on whom he had lavished everything and to whom he had denied nothing in the way of luxury. It was hard for him to realise that he was as much of a scamp and scapegrace in their young eyes as he was in the eyes of his wife--and the whole of his wife's family, even to the remotest of cousins.
In the bright days of their early married life, before he knew the difference between what he looked upon as affectionate teasing and what he afterwards came to know as persistent nagging, he deeded over to her the house and lot in Madison Avenue. He did that willingly, cheerfully. Two days after the divorce was granted, he paid over to her one hundred thousand dollars alimony. He did that unwillingly, gloomily. And the very next week the stock market went the wrong way for him, and he was cleaned out. He hadn't a dollar left of the comfortable little fortune that had been his. He remained drunk for nearly two months, and when he sobered up in a sanitarium--and took the pledge for the first and last time--he came out of the haze and found that he hadn't a friend left in New York. Every man's head was turned away from him, every man's hand was against him.
He sent for his son to come to the cheap hotel in which he was living. The son sent back word that he never wanted to see his face again. Whereupon Joseph Hooper for the first time declared that the sons and daughters of men are curses, and slunk out of New York to say it aloud in the broad, free stretches of the world across which he drifted without aim or purpose for years and years and always farther away from the home he had lost.
He always said to himself--but never so much as a word of it to any one else--that if his wife hadn't driven him to distraction with her nagging he would have avoided the happy though disastrous pitfalls into which he stumbled in his desperate efforts to find appreciation. He would have remained an honourable, faithful spouse to her, and an abstainer--as such things go. He would have shared with her the love and respect of their three children, and he would have staved off bankruptcy with the very hundred thousand dollars that she exacted as spite money. But she was a nagger, and he was no Job. There was a modicum of joy in the heart of him, however: having been cleaned out to the last penny, he was in no position to come up monthly with the thousand dollars charged against him by the court for the support and maintenance of two of his children until they reached their majority. He took a savage delight in contemplating the rage of his late wife when she realised that the children would have to be provided for out of the income from the one hundred thousand she had received in a lump sum, and he even thanked God that she was without means beyond this hateful amount. It tickled him to think of her anguish in not being able to spend the income from her alimony on furs and feathers with which to bedeck herself. Instead of spending the five thousand on herself she would be obliged to put it on the backs and into the stomachs of her three brats! He chuckled vastly over this bit of good fortune! It was really a splendid joke on her, this smash of his. No doubt the children also hated him the more because of his failure to remain on his feet down in Wall Street, but he consoled himself with the thought that they would sometimes long for the old days when father did the providing, and wish that things hadn't turned out so badly.
In his hour of disgrace--and we may add degeneration--he possessed but one blood relation who stood by him and pitied him in spite of his faults. That was his nephew, Tom Bingle, the son of his only sister, many years dead. But even so, he did not deceive himself in respect to the young man's attitude toward him. He realised that Tom was kind to him simply because it was his nature to be kind to every one, no matter how unworthy. It wasn't in Tom Bingle to be mean, not even to his worst enemy. Notwithstanding the fact that the young man had just taken unto himself a wife, and was as poor as a church-mouse, the door and the cupboard in his modest little flat were opened cheerfully to the delinquent Uncle Joe, and be it said to the latter's discredit and shame--he proceeded to impose upon the generosity of his nephew in a manner that should have earned him a booting into the street. But young Tom was patient, he was mild, he even seemed to enjoy being put upon by the wretched bankrupt. The thing that touched his heart most of all and caused him to overlook a great many shortcomings, was the cruel, unfilial slap in the face that had been administered by the three children of the man, and the crushing, bewildering effect it had upon him.
It was Tom who virtually picked the once fastidious Joseph Hooper out of the gutter, weeks after the smash, and took him under his puny wing, so to speak, during a somewhat protracted period of regeneration. The broken, shattered man became, for the time being, the Bingle burden, and he was not by any means a light or pleasant one. For months old Joseph ate of his nephew's food, drained his purse, abused his generosity, ignored his comforts and almost succeeded in driving the young but devoted wife back to the home from which Tom had married her.
It was at this juncture that the mild-mannered bookkeeper arose to the dignity of a fine rage, and co-incidentally Joseph Hooper for the first time realised what an overbearing, disagreeable visitor he had been and departed, but without the slightest ill-feeling toward his benefactors. Indeed, he was deeply repentant, deeply apologetic. He ruefully announced that it would never be in his power to repay them for all they had done for him, but, resorting to a sudden whim, declared that he would make them his heirs if they didn't mind being used as a means to convey his final word of defiance to the children who had cast him off. Not that he would ever have a dollar to leave to them, but for the satisfaction it would give him to cut the traitors off with the proverbial shilling. Beset with the notion that this was an ideal way to show his contempt for his offspring, he went to the safety deposit vault and took there from the worthless document known as his last will and testament and in the presence of witnesses destroyed the thing, thereby disinheriting the erstwhile wife and her children as effectually as if he had really possessed the estate set forth in the instrument.
"I'll make a will in your favour, Tom," he said at the time, with a mocking grin, "and in it I will include this miserable carcass of mine, so that you may at least have something to sell to the doctors. And who knows? I may scrape together a few hundred dollars before I die, provided I don't die too soon."
"We will give you a decent burial, Uncle Joe," said Thomas Bingle, revolting against the specific. "Do you suppose I would sell my uncle to a--"
"Haven't you a ray of humour in that head of yours?" demanded his uncle. "Can't you SEE a joke?"
"Well, if you were joking," said Bingle, relieved, "all well and good, but it didn't sound that way."
"You are a simple soul," was all that Joseph said, and then borrowed fifty dollars from his nephew for a fresh start in the world, as he expressed it. With this slender fortune in his purse he set out into a world that knew him not, nor was it known to him.
He came back fifteen years afterward, poorer than when he went away, broken in health, old to the point of decrepitude, bedraggled, unkempt and prideless. And once more Thomas Bingle took him in and provided the prospective death-bed for him. They made the old derelict as comfortable as it was in their power to do, and sacrificed not a little in order that he might have some of the comforts of life.
He was a very humble, meek old man, and they pitied him. Screwing up his courage, Mr. Bingle went one day to the home of the son of Joseph Hooper and boldly suggested that, inasmuch as the mother was no longer living, it would not be amiss for him and his sisters to take the father who created them back into the family circle once more, and to ease his declining years. Mr. Bingle was ordered out of the rich man's office. Then he approached the two daughters, both of whom had married well, and met with an even more painful reception. They not only refused to recognise their father but declined to recognise their father's nephew.
A few days afterward, a lawyer came to the bank to see Mr. Bingle. He informed the bookkeeper that the Hooper family had been thinking matters over and were prepared to pay him the sum of seventy-five dollars a month for the care of Joseph Hooper, or, in other words, they would contribute twenty-five dollars apiece toward sustaining the life of one who was already dead to them. Moreover, they stood ready to pay the expenses of his funeral when actual dissolution occurred, but farther than that they could not be expected to go.
Mr. Bingle flared up--a most unusual thing for him to do. "You tell them that I will take care of Uncle Joe as long as he lives without a nickel from them and that I'll bury him when he dies."
"Out of your own pocket?" exclaimed the lawyer, who knew something of bookkeepers' salaries.
"Most certainly not out of anybody else's," said Mr. Bingle, with dignity. "And you can also tell them that they are a pack of blamed good-for-nothings," he added, with absolutely no dignity.
"My dear sir."
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